Environmentalism: beyond redemption

In: Uncategorized

28 Feb 2009

Steven Hayward, a fellow of the Claremont Institute in California, has written a scathing review essay on American environmentalism drawing out its pessimism, misanthrope and authoritarian character. Admittedly his aim is to identify a progressive trend in contemporary American environmentalism – likely to be a forlorn task – but that does not detract from the usefulness of his piece.

Among his astute points:

•“A trip down the environment and earth sciences aisle of any larger bookstore is usually a tour of titles that cover the narrow range from dismay to despair.”

•“unlike the eschatology of all major religions, the eco-apocalypse is utterly without hope of redemption for man or nature.”

•“The greens turn purple at the suggestion that most environmental conditions in rich nations are actually improving, and they bemoan the lack of “progress” toward the transformation of the human soul that is thought necessary for the planet’s salvation.”

•”One of the most popular books of 2007 among environmentalists was The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, which projects a “thought experiment” about what would occur if human beings were suddenly removed entirely from the planet. Answer: nature would reassert herself, and ultimately remove nearly all traces of human civilization within several millennia—a mere blink of an eye in the planetary timescale. Environmentalists cheered Weisman’s vivid depiction of the resilience of nature, but what thrilled them was the scenario of a humanless earth. Weisman made sure to stroke his audience’s self-loathing with plenty of boilerplate about resource exhaustion and overpopulation. The book rocketed up the best-seller list, the latest in a familiar genre stretching back at least to Fairfield Osborn’s Our Plundered Planet in 1948, arguably the first neo-Malthusian doomsday tract of modern environmentalism. Time magazine named The World Without Us the number one non-fiction book of 2007.”

•“McKibben and many other environmental writers affect an indifference toward, or transcendence of, politics in the ordinary sense, but ultimately cannot conceal their rejection of the liberal tradition. Here we observe the irony of modern environmentalism: the concern for the preservation of unchanged nature has grown in tandem with the steady erosion in our belief in unchanging human nature; the concern for the “rights of nature” has come to embrace a rejection of natural rights for humans. McKibben is one of many current voices (Gore is another) who like to express their environmentalism by decrying “individualism” (McKibben calls it “hyperindividualism”).”

•“Al Gore employed the same “communitarian” trope in his first and most famous environmental book, Earth in the Balance (1992), where, in the course of arguing that the environment should be the “central organizing principle” of civilization, he suggested that the problem with individual liberty is that we have too much of it. This preference for soft despotism has become more concrete with the increasing panic over global warming in the past few years. Several environmental authors now argue openly that democracy itself is the obstacle and needs to be abandoned.”

Those who Hayward sees as representing a positive backlash against mainstream environmentalism include Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, the authors of Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility (Houghton Mifflin 2007).

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