Environmentalists Are Lousy Metaphysicians

Environmentalists are lousy metaphysicians.

To which claim environmentalism might reply, Whoever said that we ought to be metaphysicians? Here we are, keepers of the china shop of fragile nature and we’ve got lunatics in every corner randomly dropping fine crystal goblets, thoughtlessly, like demented children, and we’re rushing about trying to save one out of five, at the least, and you say we should be thinking about metaphysics?

Yes, I do say that. I do think that you should be, as Freud put it, trying to take a look over the garden wall.

Because, ultimately, environmentalism’s problems are metaphysical (or spiritual if you will) and not legal, political, bureaucratic, scientific, or, least of all, technological. This has always been the case.

After all, the origin of what we now call environmentalism was not in science and technology. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, science and technology were busy helping to create the polluting industries (the “dark satanic mills,” as William Blake wrote) that would soon enough create the need for environmentalism. Rather, the origin of what we now call environmentalism was with philosophers of the late Renaissance like Benedict de Spinoza and the poet/philosophers of German and English Romanticism. Many of these poets were a bit crazed, as poets tend to be, and had a comical tendency to drift off into the neo-Platonic mists. But they were also the first to find the voice of “honest indignation” that, for Blake, was “the voice of God.”

They objected to the rationalist dualism that separated humanity from nature, and they objected to the destruction of both the natural and human worlds that this dualism seemed to allow. Instead, figures like Goethe, Schlegel, Schelling, Novalis, and many others caught up in the philosophical fever of Romanticism argued that nature is inhabited by the divine, that humans are one with it, and that we can have transcendental experiences of the oneness of Being through immersion in the natural world. Theirs was a philosophy of yearning for the Absolute, the experience of a oneness with God. They discovered that the finite, the sensuous world, was related to the infinite. In fact, the chief point of the evolution of nature was the gradual perfection of human consciousness itself. The only thinking worthy of the name was, as Spinoza first saw, thinking that was “adequate to God.”

This was the thought to which our own Ralph Waldo Emerson was introduced during his fateful visit to England and to Thomas Carlyle. This is the metaphysical/spiritual vision that made Thoreau, Whitman, John Muir and even the Sierra Club possible.

Is it too much to say that this tradition is now mostly lost to environmentalism? That it denies the primacy of art and poetry as mediators to nature? That it has made common cause with its own enemy, the world of quantitative reason, of risk assessment, data, the “best science,” and technological fixes? That it has mostly abandoned in embarrassment the spiritual vision of Muir?

What we’ve been left with are numbers. The problem of climate change will be solved if we can reduce the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to 350 ppm. 350 ppm: that’s the holy grail of environmentalism. As a consequence of this approach, environmentalism can tell you that a problem exists (the polar bears are going extinct), but it can’t tell you why you should care.

Environmentalism leads now with science and technologies for creating “sustainability” and for “greening capitalism” because these are solutions that it finds within its reach. They are solutions that the “technostructure” (J. K. Galbraith) of state and corporate bureaucracy understands. But in so doing environmentalism creates, in Simone Weil’s words, a “good without light.” Karl Marx once argued that capitalism understands that it will have enemies.

But if it must have enemies it will create them itself and in its own image. Ken Burns’ recent PBS film, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, has done us the favor of showing how this worked in the development of the national park system. First, the spiritual visionaries (John Muir), then the millionaire heroes come in (Stephen Mather, George Melendez Wright, John D. Rockefeller), and finally the whole thing is turned over to biologists.

Obviously, the natural world has benefited in spectacular ways from this process. But the reigning economic order has gained something too. Instead of having to deal with the unruly, often revolutionary zeal of poets, musicians like Richard Wagner, and uncompromising spiritualists like Muir, it can now deal with something it is very comfortable with: science and quantitative reason. Risk assessment. Data. The reign of Numbers. It has also succeeded in transforming a movement that was originally not only a protest against the denaturalization of the world but the dehumanization of the world. It has remade that movement in its own image. Labor markets, working conditions, and the poor are not part of environmentalism’s problem. And it is certainly not part of an ecologist’s problem. But it should be.

The failure of science is not with science as such, its discoveries, but with its failure to become what Morse Peckham called “romantic science”; that is, a science whose first job is to use its knowledge to undermine ideologies of power, to destroy their “regnant platitudes.” Instead, science, even environmental science, has put itself at the service of these ideologies.

In the end, it is one thing to ask John D. Rockefeller to give millions for the creation of a national park, but quite another to ask him to take responsibility for how he made those millions in the first place: oil, monopolies, the exploitation of workers, and even the massacre of workers (as in the 1913 Ludlow mine massacre, although it was his son that was responsible for that). It is one thing to ask capital to contribute to certain sites that provide “spectacle,” but another to ask it to stop the profitable destruction of the rest of the world through behavior that is little more than systematic violence (factory farming, for instance). Ken Burns’ film is marked by this contradiction: his sponsors are nearly all conduits of corporate philanthropy. He knows where the boundaries of the possible are just as he knows that national parks have boundaries beyond which is the slowly dying world we are becoming ever more familiar with.