Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Against the Environment

Everywhere it seems people are embracing the idea of protecting the environment. CNBC carries a regular feature called "The Color of Money." A big special section of today's New York Times, entitled "The Business of Green" is devoted to environmental issues. Home Depot is attempting to show its friendliness to the environment by featuring compact fluorescent lightbulbs in its displays. Nearly every ad by a major oil corporation now highlights its commitment to the environment.

Unconsciously we adopt and embrace the word "environment" without reflection on its meaning. This is unfortunate, as the very unconscious way in which we use the word obscures how deeply embedded is our antipathy toward nature.

An "environment" is something that surrounds us: it environs us, provides us space we occupy and in which we move. I discovered during my recent trip to Italy that the preferred Italian term is "ambiente" - a word that similarly expresses an externalization of the object that surrounds us. On the one hand it turns the "environment" into a separate entity; on the other hand, it makes humans distinct from the world they occupy. It forces us to take sides: are you for humans (even environmentally friendly) - the position of our contemporary conservatives - or are you for the environment (inclining toward hostility toward humans) - the position of our contemporary liberals? Only by creating two separate entities - humans and environment - can you then be asked to choose sides.

This conception of an environment fundamentally replicates the anti-natural bias of liberalism - its fundamental commitment to exerting control over nature, of using it to the ends of human comfort and to contribute to what Locke called the great human goal of "indolency of the body"; or, on the other hand, it reflects the anti-human bias of contemporary Rousseauians or romantics who see humans as a contagion in the separate and otherwise pristine sphere of the environment. In either case, continual reference - even embrace - of the idea that we are seeking to protect the "environment" merely continues to reflect a host of contemporary assumptions about the fundamental separateness of humans from the natural world.

It's worth reflecting on why we have so readily embraced the term "environment" but utterly eschew the word "nature." Nature, of course, is the "normative" term of Aristotelianism: it is a standard and represents a limitation. Humans are creatures of and in nature. We are subject to its laws and to its strictures. Nature is not separate from us; we are natural creatures (special ones - political animals - but animals nonetheless). To employ the word "nature" would mean a fundamental reconceptualization of the relationship of humans to the world with which we live. Rather than either extending human mastery over our "environment" or attempting to stamp out the contagion of humanity, to re-claim the language of nature would require us to change our fundamental conception of a proper way of living well. Living as conscious natural creatures in nature requires the careful negotiation between use and respect, alteration and recognition of limits to manipulation, and thus calls for the virtues of prudence and self-governance. Neither of these virtues are particularly valued in the "environmental" movement, whether that advanced by corporate America in the effort to continue our growth economy of itinerant vandals or the violent anti-humanism of radical environmentalists. Until we reacquaint ourselves with the language, and more importantly, the reality of nature, we will continue in our current condition of human-environmental dualism.

3 comments:

m_david said...

Great post. Regarding this gem...

Living as conscious natural creatures in nature requires the careful negotiation between use and respect, alteration and recognition of limits to manipulation, and thus calls for the virtues of prudence and self-governance.

...I think of the old-time farmer as the best example of this negotiation (and they have a good record of self-governance). And I believe the primary reason for this is the cyclical nature of the harvest and need for cyclical labor, so he must always prepare for the next season, take care of the land and relationships, and work with but never against nature.

But the "environment" obsession of today is more like an act of lust - the natural world is viewed from afar or walked through, yet cannot be lived in or worked with without ruining it. It's almost like indoor plumbing made us reject our proper place in nature, and we have forgotten how to not ruin what we touch. Rugged individualism doesn't help here.

Black Sea said...

"Until we reacquaint ourselves with the language, and more importantly, the reality of nature, we will continue in our current condition of human-environmental dualism."

Well, this really is the crux of the thing, isn't it? "Environment" is the prefered term because it is the more abstract, and thus the more malliable term. Environment is, ultimately, whatever surrounds us, and what surrounds us most of the time is an environment - or so we imagine, even a natural environment -of our own fantasies and our own making.

Nature not only implies, but enforces, quite a catalogue of limitations - some of them dreadfully severe - and this is congenial, or even tolerable, to only a very small few of us.

Environment offers the promise or the illusion that we can make of it what we will, whereas nature will make of us what it will. Quite a distinction.

I understand that when Prius drivers use the word "environment" they believe they mean "natural environment," but I suspect that, regardless of what they intend to mean, "environment" conjures up for them images of a green leafy park, snow capped peaks and a clear, icy stream, not a place where ignorance and folly soon call down their own harsh retribution.

Years ago, I was leafing through a book of interviews conducted by Bill Moyers. One of those interviewed was a Native American from the Northeat, maybe Mohawk, I don't remember. Anyway, he'd once lived in New York city, and at that time he lived on the reservation in upstate New York. He made the quite useful, but probably not very welcome, point that nature is utterly void of mercy. Abundant, yes. Beautiful, yes. Mysterious, yes. Merciful, no.

Not the sort of lesson easily gleaned from a bumper sticker.

John Savage said...

Prof. Deneen, there's some good stuff on this topic in the November issue of Chronicles, especially an article called "The High Environmental Cost of Too Much Freedom" by Tobias Lanz. I recommend it to you if you haven't seen it.