Since I am cut off from the news, I thought I’d discuss some philosophical issues.
Environmentalism is shot through with the same dualisms that have confused Western philosophy from the beginning, and the practical effect (philosophy does too have practical effects!) is to confuse environmental discourse and strategy.
It’s probably too much to get into in a single blog post, but let’s just think for a moment: What do we mean when we refer to “nature”?
Of course there’s the colloquial meaning, i.e., trees and streams and stuff. But follow it up a little. What is nature? Or, phrasing it another way, what isn’t nature? What separates nature from not-nature?
One common line of thinking contrasts the natural to the supernatural. Nature is the material world, and then there’s the immaterial world inhabited by God, souls, angels, ghosts, and what have you.
A related and sometimes overlapping school of thought contrasts nature with humanity.
The contrast might be positive: Nature is violent, insensate, and irrational (red in tooth and claw), while human beings are unique in virtue of possessing rationality. This has been the default approach for most of Western history.
Or it might be negative: Nature as a kind of harmonious, balanced, holistic system (“Gaia”), while human beings are a cancer on the planet, either unaware or dismissive of any “natural” limits. This is a more recent way of thinking, bound up with the social upheavals of the 60s and 70s, frequently found among those who profess “deep ecology.”
Now, if you believe in the supernatural — i.e., God — then there’s no need to trouble your mind. Usually the picture is pretty clear: God “gave” nature to us, his most special creatures, to take care of (dominate or tend lovingly, depending on your predilections). Or, if you’re of a certain persuasion, nature is basically disposable, since the Rapture’s on the way.
The Enlightenment project has been to either bracket the supernatural or dismiss it entirely. For secularists, then, it’s a little more complicated: How do we conceive of nature and humanity, environmentalism itself, without the supernatural?Efforts along these lines, IMO, have been beset with fuzziness and confusion. A common anti-environmentalist charge is that greens in essence replace God with Nature, worship some sort of dimly understood state of nature against which humanity stands in transgression. This kind of Romanticism often comes bundles with eschatology, the notion that humanity is doomed, destined to be punished for its sins by an Earth pushed to the brink.
In my view, once you get rid of the supernatural, you collapse any deep ontological or metaphysical distinction between humanity and nature. The term “nature” becomes meaningless: “Nature” is just “everything.” Human beings are not exalted above other creatures, but by the same token, neither are they fallen from grace or in some special way in violation of natural principles. There are no natural principles. There’s just stuff, evolving and rearranging. Nature does not intend anything for human beings, does not intend for them to act in one way or another, because nature has no intentions.
Any intentions, any values, are not handed to us from on high, not from God, not from Nature — they are ours, created by us, enacted by us. We can choose to value the ecosystems we inhabit or not; nature — i.e., everything, the universe — has no preference one way or another.
In this view environmentalism is not some sort of spiritual pursuit, not a matter of deep enlightenment. It’s a matter of pragmatism, a matter of technique. We are environmentalists because we recognize that we are bound in a relationship of interdependence with the ecosystems we inhabit, and to defile them is to harm ourselves. And that’s dumb.
This isn’t a very romantic way of looking at it, I know, and it’s likely to appeal to virtually no one. But nonetheless, that’s where I’ve come down.