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.