-Title of a novel by Edward Abbey about the collapse of civilization in the American Southwest
The chief victim to date in the so called Culture War is neither George Bush nor the Republican Party but “the Environment,” or what Christians used to call Creation. In the more than two decades since environmentalism emerged as an international cause célèbre, opponents as well as proponents have invested so much of their energies, beliefs, and themselves in the issue that it has become second only to the abortion question in its ability to elicit visceral and even violent response. The truth is that anti-abortionism and environmentalism are philosophically and fundamentally related interests, and only pride and a mutual conviction that they are arguing from first principles alien to and incomprehensible by the other side present the two groups from understanding that they actually hold, as it were, two ends of the same stick—that the case for protecting human life in the womb is related to, though not synonymous with, the argument for preserving the natural world from man’s depredation. Theoretically at least, the possibility exists for pro-life Christians, who tend to be indifferent to ecological concerns, to acknowledge the moral justification of demands by environmentalists for the respect and care men owe to nature, and also for environmentalists, most of whom frankly encourage abortion, to concede that the human fetus has a just claim to be treated as equal in value to a baby seal.
“Theoretically,” however, is one of the most problematical words in the English language. The enmity between environmentalists and anti-environmentalists from the very beginning has displayed that personal animosity observable in all standoffs arising from ontological disagreements, which are always perceived as confrontations between the children of light and the children of darkness. Which side bears the greater blame is probably not significant, as well as being hard to ascertain, but certainly the biggest problem with environmentalism is environmentalists, as the worst thing about capitalism has always been capitalists. What is important is that one set of -ists has grown to hate the other set even more than it detests its -ism, and vice versa, making open and sympathetic discourse nearly impossible. Yet if the threat to the biological planet is to be honestly assessed and effectively addressed, this situation needs to be rectified, and sooner rather than later.
At issue is the question of whether the natural world is good or not, the stuff of divinity or else mere stuff, to be worshiped or exploited by the race of men. This radical dichotomy, clearly recognizable in contemporary argument, amounts to actual tradition in the West, beginning at least with Plato, who taught that the ideal forms beyond the natural world arc alone of value. Plato was followed by Aristotle, who believed in the reality of true forms in nature but disbelieved in the soul as immortal spirit. The Stoics recognized nature as divine, while the Epicureans dismissed speculation regarding forms, purposes, or final ends in nature. During the Middle Ages, thinking about nature was kept separate from acting upon it; when the division between thought and action was healed, the modern age began. But the new age drove a wedge of its own devising when Descartes concluded mind and matter to be unrelated phenomena, thereby encouraging the notion of the created world as a machine lacking divine presence and accessible by man through scientific study for exploitation to solely human ends. Recently, aggravated Westerners with more susceptibility than sense have embraced the Eastern religions that teach the divinity of nature caught up in pantheistic wholeness, while better educated ones (including Christians) continue to rake old chestnuts over the fire while prattling about being fruitful and multiplying and subduing the earth. (St. Augustine—who arguably did take a disparaging view of nature, perhaps owing to his preconversion relationships with its female element—understood fruitfulness and multiplication as references not to human sexuality but rather to manifestations of the Holy Spirit.)
In 1967, an article by Lynn White, Jr., in Science popularized the claim that environmentalists have since made their principle indictment against Western civilization: Christianity, as the world’s most anthropocentric religion, is foremostly responsible for the ethos that has legitimized the degradation of nature over the past several centuries. White’s assertion was so superficially plausible that it went unchallenged for nearly a decade, even by Christians who thought they knew when to keep their mouths shut. (Didn’t they hear every Sunday about man being made in the image of God to subdue the earth and establish dominion over all its creatures?) By the late 70’s, however, they were beginning to recollect their faith as well as themselves, and in 1980 the Fellows of the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship at Calvin College published Earthkeeping, a confidently eloquent and learned volume asserting not just the compatibility between Christianity and environmentalism but the explicit centrality of nature to the Good News of redemption. More completely than any other religion, the authors implied, Christianity reconciles the apparent dualism of mind and matter, man and nature, body and spirit, that has confounded human understanding from the dawn of civilization. So far from being anti-naturalist, Christianity property understood is nature’s best hope, proclaiming Christ’s redemption of man with nature by the Crucifixion and the coming of the Kingdom of God. “[F]or the whole creation is waiting with eagerness for the children of Cod to be revealed. It was not for its own purposes that creation had frustration imposed on it, but for the purposes of him who imposed it—with the intention that the whole creation itself might be freed from its slavery to corruption and brought into the same glorious freedom as the children of God. We arc well aware that the whole creation, until this time, has been groaning in labour pains” (Romans, 8:19-22, New Jerusalem Bible).
Earthkeeping in the ’90s: Stewardship of Creation is an updated version of the original edition, including recent evidence of the present ecological crisis and new interpretations of the gospel of creation by Christian writers. Like Ian Bradley, the British author of God Is Green, the contributors admit that Christianity in the West has indeed emphasized man’s intrinsic value over that of the natural world, an imbalance they trace to the influence of Greek thought on the development of Christian theology. (By contrast, the Eastern Church has traditionally recognized the participation of nature in the Redemption, as did Celtic Christianity, which developed not from Rome but from the Eastern branch of the Church.) Both Earthkeeping and God Is Green provide compelling textual readings establishing beyond cavil that the Old and the New Testaments imply and express an understanding of nature as a glorious work of God whose value is independent of its utility to man. A brilliant insight of the Calvin College team is expressed by their assertion that man in the image of God signifies a function, not an attribute:
a consideration of what humans are shows that . . . they are most closely linked with the rest of creation, and . . . they are most clearly placed above creation, all of Eden being made for them. Certainly, then, one way to harmonize this apparent paradox is to recognize that it is only by virtue of human separation from nature that they can serve, and that it is the ability to be consciously a part of nature which enables them to be its legitimate master. The great surprise (especially if we tend to think that the “image of God” in us is some sort of privileged trait) is that in all that we do we are to be servants: dominion is to be understood as stewardship—that is how we image God. The whole of biblical history, and even of church history, can be helpfully understood as a long lesson in how humans are to use their ability to manipulate, dominate, and rule. We are accustomed to considering that story mainly in connection with our relationship to God and to other people, but a third dimension of that relationship concerns our attitude toward “nature”—non-human creation.
This final point was made half a century ago by Aldo Leopold, the father of modern environmentalism, in almost exactly similar terms: he thought the discovery of the “third dimension” to be part of “evolution.”
The case, once trouble has been taken to make it, is effectively unanswerable; “theoretically,” the way becomes clear for a rapprochement between antagonists in the Culture War. Unfortunately, in real life such things often fail to occur, as the authors of the Good Book well knew.
If “conservatives” have much invested, intellectually speaking, in anti-environmentalism, they have even more at stake in it materially. And, human nature being what it is, they are not easily persuaded to part with their investment. Anti-environmentalists (I mean the Christian, not the agnostic, ones) are people who know they have hold of a truth without wanting to push it any further than they have been made to do in the past: they are like Christ’s disciples, sincerely wishing to learn the law of God with respect to divorce—but not so far as the teaching that to marry a divorced woman is to commit adultery. Environmentalists, on the other hand, are searching for a truth that they finally do not want to find and that they are therefore adept at not recognizing: once you acknowledge that Christianity is a better guide to man in his relationship with nature than Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, or Marxism, you are faced with the logical imperative of examining its claims as a guide to human social and sexual relationships as well. Also, environmentalism is increasingly a misanthropic movement whose aim is as much (or more) the destruction of civilization as it is the preservation of the wild—a return to prehistory that amounts to damnation, thinly disguised as salvation, of the human species for its arrogance and bigotry. Though strictly possible “in theory,” mass conversion to Christianity through ecological enlightenment is probably not in the cards.
Nor, for related reasons, is conversion to capitalism. Martin Lewis’s Green Delusions is a frank assessment of the fallacies of radical environmentalism. Earthkeeping notes how our appreciation of the natural world has paradoxically increased together with our ability to destroy it; Lewis argues that, having come this far in both environmental destruction and technological development, only further scientific discovery and technical advancement can rescue nature (and ourselves) from destruction. He also insists that capitalism alone among competing systems is both efficient and productive enough to deliver that advancement, while socialism’s environmental record is even more dismal than its economic one. (There is no talk of stewardship, incidentally, in atheistic societies.) “Back to the Pleistocene!” is neither a feasible nor a desirable alternative: “seeking to dismantle modern civilization . . . has the potential to destroy the very foundations on which a new and ecologically sane order must be built.” As a sensible counter to the fantasies of radical environmentalism, Lewis proposes “What I call a Promethean environmentalism, one that embraces the wildly creative, if at times wildly destructive, course of human ascent. Our future lies not in abandoning technology, but in harmonizing it to a new environmental vision.” This vision would rest on
the belief that only by disengaging our economy from the natural world can we allow adequate space for nature itself. The Promethean perspective adopted here advocates a form of environmental protection that green extremists would consider utterly heretical. Where they seek to reconstruct humanity with nature, I counter that human society should strive to separate itself as much as possible from the natural world, a notion that has aptly been labeled “decoupling” by the geographer Simmons. To advocate decoupling is to reject both the instrumentalist claim—that nature should be used merely for human ends—and the green counterargument—that humanity is, or should be, just another species in nature. . . . In a Promethean environmental future, humans would accentuate the gulf that sets us apart from the rest of the natural world— precisely in order to preserve and enjoy nature at a somewhat distant remove. Our alternative is to continue to struggle within nature, and in so doing to distort its forms by our inescapable unnatural presence. . . . Technologies, not natural resources, provide the essential motor of economic progress.
The obvious weakness of this argument has to do with the blurry formulation, “at a somewhat distant remove.” What is Mr. Lewis trying to get at here? Does he imagine humanity eventually existing in something like the biospheres designed for human habitation on the moon or on Mars? Does he envision hundreds of millions of people gathered out of the suburbs and countryside into self-contained megalopoli hermetically sealed away from the seashores, valleys, mountains, and plains to which they would be allowed regulated access (perhaps by lottery ticket), monitored carefully by futuristic rangers to prevent them from stepping on the grass or wading in the shallow waters of a creek? If so, he needs to take into account that while man’s Pleistocene instincts are probably lost to him forever, his need for contact with nature seems undiminished, in some ways stronger than several centuries ago—a direct result perhaps of his increasing physical estrangement from it. Will men and women of the future really be content to “separate themselves as much as possible from the natural world”? Surely all signs point to the opposite conclusion, which is the main reason why the environmentalist movement exists in the first place. Lewis’s proposition is as likely to be perceived as “heretical” by Wendell Berry, the poet-farmer, as it would have been by Edward Abbey, the desert rat and inventor of monkeywrenching.
But maybe it is later than we think—perhaps there is simply no choice, or anyway few alternatives. This apparently is the conclusion of Clive Pouting in A Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations, which ends with the statement, “Past human actions have left contemporary societies with an almost insuperably difficult set of problems to solve.” This is the sort of talk that heats Ben Wattenberg’s and Julian Simon’s concrete-encased brains to meltdown temperatures and goads solid conservatives like the editors of National Review to dismissive sarcasm: hysterical doomsaying is exactly what they expect from people silly enough to take seriously theories concerning the greenhouse effect and the destruction of the ozone layer. But . . . could these theories have a basis in fact?
While ecological catastrophe may or may not impend, surely the inability (or the refusal) to entertain its possibility is still another example of that abstraction of mind, the determined separation of mind and matter, quantity and value, number and experience, that has been the determining element in Western history since the close of the Middle Ages; if the environmentalists’ warnings turn out to have been well-founded, historians (if there are any) of the future will probably identify it as the fatal element. On the other hand, a certain degree of fatalism—what Christendom called trust in Providence—is probably essential to a realistic attitude. The Queen Mary required ten miles to achieve full stop after the hard-astern command was given, the equivalent to stopping on a dime by comparison with modern civilization and the distance—or time—necessary to slacken its momentum or change its course appreciably. Historically speaking, few “problems” have ever been “solved”; instead they have been outgrown, and there is little reason to believe that environmental ones will end differently, whether through Promethean genius, pandemic warfare, or mass starvation.
One aspect, though, of possible environmental crisis needs to be considered by anti-environmentalists whose traditionalist habits of mind extend to a continued commitment to quaint notions like nationalism, limited government, and personal freedom: environmentalism is the most powerful rationale yet invented for globalism, the erosion of national sovereignty, statism, and the wholesale curtailment of individual liberties. If humanity really is in for a counterassault by Magna Mater, Gaia, or simply by the thwarted natural forces we have hitherto succeeded in manipulating to our benefit, we need to be thinking about the social and political as well as the scientific implications as far in advance as possible. Short-term goals like electing a Republican President, saving Ford and General Motors, and appeasing Wall Street and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are all expendable.
[Earthkeeping in the ’90s: Stewardship of Creation, edited by Loren Wilkinson (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans) 391 pp., $19.99]
[God Is Green, by Ian Bradley (New York: Doubleday) 118 pp., $8.00]
[Green Delusions: An Environmentalist Critique of Radical Environmentalism, by Martin W. Lewis (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press) 288 pp., $24.95]
[A Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations, by Clive Panting (New York: St. Martin’s Press) 432 pp., $24.95]