One of the unmistakable signs that a new civilization is about to leap forth from the crumbling cocoon of an old is the transformation in the meaning of traditional holidays. When a rising Christian elite seized political and cultural power in the late Roman Empire, it lost no time in turning the old Roman Saturnalia of late December into Christmas. The word “Easter” derives from the name of a pre-Christian dawn goddess, and the Christian observance of the Resurrection is closely linked with the rites of earlier religions that marked the vernal equinox and the annual rebirth of natural life. The elite that forms the core of a civilization understands that it’s usually easier to build its power on the wreckage that lies to hand than to start all over from a blank slate.
So it is with the emerging global civilization that now twitches in the neurons of the planet’s transnational elites. Today in the United States, the real year begins not with the midnight debauchery of New Year’s Eve but with the far more pious festivals of Martin Luther King Day and Black History Month, which offer occasions for exposing the evils of the old regime and proclaiming the universalist, cosmopolitan, and egalitarian vision that makes the eyes of the new elite flutter and drip. But these celebrations are not nearly as useful in binding the planet’s human cattle to the chariots of the coming Caesars as this year’s orgy of health, safety, and sunshine known as “Earth Day.”
No doubt for the several hundred thousand greenies who descended on the nation’s metropolitan centers on April 22 to prostrate themselves in homage to the earth, the festival really was a chance to spit in the face of what they think is a capitalist oligarchy that insists on making people work in factories, eat cholesterol, and get suntans. But the truth is that the celebration, so far from being a revolt against the powers that rule the earth, was actually a proclamation from their headquarters.
Regulation of the “environment” involves much more than the solar panels and tree-planting beloved of schoolchildren and grown-ups whose mental age is no higher than that of 12-year-olds. Since the environment includes everywhere and everything, “preserving,” “protecting,” and “taking care” of it is little more than a formula for a new species of totalitarianism far more profound than even la famille Ceausescu could have imagined. As currently understood, it encompasses not only the labor you perform but also what and how much you eat, where and how you travel, what you do with your leisure time, how you maintain your health, how you raise your children, and indeed whether you may have children.
Unknown to most of those who swoon in adoration of the earth are the bottomless opportunities this understanding of the environment offers to those who would like to control all these ordinary activities. Nor do most earth-worshipers seem to suspect the sacrifices their new goddess and her high priests will demand of them. Antitobacco zealots who rejoice in the illegalization of smoking may not be so merry once they realize they are creating precedents for the banning of meat and potatoes. Mawkish maidens who weep over the fate of youngsters molested by their parents and demand federal action to save the children may one day regret that the state will tell them whom they may or may not marry. Citizens who vow to study war no more may recoil when potentates halfway around the globe are drafting the rules that govern their lives. So far, the “right,” immersed in its economic determinism and obsessions, has whimpered only about the jobs that will be lost and the taxes that will have to be paid as a result of environmentalist laws and policies; but it has largely ignored or failed to recognize the far more serious danger that the Cult of the Earth presents—the technocratic manipulation of the daily lives of individuals and societies by the elites that have created and made use of environmentalism.
The environmentalist movement is an odd bag that contains, besides the innocent calves who provided the cannon fodder for Earth Day, at least two main components. On the one hand, there is the part represented by the professional, well-funded, highly-skilled, and well-connected environmentalist lobbies that include the heavily bureaucratized and technocratic funds and foundations, as well as the corporate, governmental, and academic organizations that understand how to use the movement to enhance their own power at the expense of social institutions and habits, local jurisdictions and national sovereignties, and cultural identities and relationships. It is this part of the movement that has effectively created Earth Day and environmentalism as respectable and even fashionable causes, because it realizes they and their symbols are not threats to its power but rather the best thing to happen to it since the Earl of Sandwich invented fast food.
On the other hand, there is another component of environmentalism that is usually manipulated and exploited by the first. This part of the movement rejects the whole idea of a technological society and an elite that bases its power on technology. As some of its champions readily acknowledge, it is not, strictly speaking, a “left” or “progressivist” movement but a reactionary force. It not only rejects technology and its applications to man, machine, and nature, but also seeks to make a quick march out of the Newtonian universe. Darwinian biology, Lockean sensationalist psychology, and a unilinear conception of history.
But it is reactionary mainly because it merely rejects modernism, not because it seriously aims at restoring pre-modernism. While it idealizes premodern (usually primitive and animistic) communities, it seems to be content with fantasizing about pastoral Nirvanas where the meanest machine available is a slingshot. It offers no realistic social models as alternatives to technological modernism, no means of arriving at such alternatives, and no particularly compelling reasons to look for them. Many of its adherents wind up (or start out) sucked into occultism, mysticism, and New Age esoterica.
Its critique of modernism is essentially ethical, but it nevertheless relies on scientific (or pseudoscientific) prophecies of material, natural disasters that will ravage the Earth unless we abandon modern technology and the social structures and world view that support it. When these prophecies turn out to be unreliable (as global warming theories have), the environmentalist challenge to modernism collapses. But by depending on science to support its claims, reactionary environmentalism crawls into bed with the very technological system it claims to repudiate and allows managerial environmentalists to assimilate it and manipulate it for their own purposes.
One reason reactionary environmentalism offers no sustained ethical critique of modernism is that its proponents probably realize it would sound even more bizarre than the doomsaying they usually thunder about. For all the pother about global warming, acid rain, resource depletion, carcinogenic foods, insecticides, and spray deodorants, no one other than the most marginal oddballs and the most ethereal eggheads really wants to live like the Iroquois, the Eskimo, or medieval serfs. No one even wants to live like American farmers of the 19th century. The remarkable absence of people who choose to exist at pre-industrial levels of subsistence is due only in part to the materialism which holds that for some reason such technologies as running water are preferable to hauling buckets from the village well. Societies that do prefer such levels or can’t move beyond them don’t survive in competition with those that don’t or can. Moreover, the civilization of the West is distinguished from other cultural complexes in large part by a quality that Oswald Spengler called its “Faustian” character, its seemingly irrepressible impulse to expand, explore, conquer, and create, and its capacity to institutionalize this impulse in intellectual and aesthetic life, as well as in politics, the economy, and technology.
Contrary to Spengler, the Faustian dynamism of the West is characteristic not only of modernity but also of ancient and medieval Europe. Probably its first manifestation was in the prehistoric outpourings of the Indo-Europeans into continental Europe and their rapid conquest of more primal societies that had the misfortune to get in their way. Millennia later it popped up again in the ethos that impelled Europeans to build roads and aqueducts across deserts, design Gothic cathedrals, invent capitalism and industry, stretch out to China, Africa, and North and South America, hold sway over continents and the oceans that link them, and ultimately intrude into the caverns of the atom and reach upward toward the stars.
Whether they called their holidays Christmas or the Saturnalia, the elites that created European civilization understood that they and the people they ruled were destined for something other than the bucolic toe-picking that reactionary environmentalists seem to think is the chief and proper end of mankind. They understood also that while economic growth and technological innovation are part of the Faustian ethos, they are not the whole of it. They would therefore have regarded the preoccupation with acquisitive and hedonistic individualism and the manic pursuit of growth and gratification championed by contemporary “conservatives” as a deformation of that ethos, no less than the primitivist whinings of the greenies; and they would have recognized in the resurrection and cultivation of Faustian aspirations the only authentic source of an enduring technological civilization of the future.