Caring as the Most Basic of All
The one word is care. If we care about each other and the environment, we will act responsibly. If we do not care, we will not only lose all in the future, we will have no life worth living, now or ever. This book will look at how other cultures constructed care for the environment, human and natural.
Caring must be about other humans as well as “nature.” Indeed, separating the two is a problem for modern society; other societies have often avoided it, not making a hard distinction. We cannot afford to remain indifferent to the plight of the billions of people now suffering from environmental decline and disaster. We also can no longer afford to divide into warring nations, warring environmental ideologies, warring economic theories, and above all warring religions. We have to unite against the greatest threat to life in the history of the planet: our own devastating tide of pollution and misuse. As the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico say, “we are all kernels on the same corncob” (Cajete 1994:165).
Caring includes love for the natural environment, or at least some sort of attachment to some of it; genuine concern for other people; and awareness that we are all in this together, and will live or die together. We—both humans and nonhumans—are all in this together.
Care, to mean anything, also has to have a strong component of self-efficacy (Bandura 1982, 1986). If we do not think we can do anything, we will not do anything. We simply have to have some confidence that we can actually care for the world, and some awareness of how to do it.
So the problem is threefold: Loving and caring about our environments; prioritizing care for them; and solidarity in defending and saving them.
Learning to live sustainably and within limits involves loving nature (Milton 2002), or at least not hating it. It means avoiding the false choice of “people vs nature,” “jobs vs owls” (Goodstein 1999). That false choice has given us both “progress” that is mere wanton destruction and “preservation” that is mere displacement of local people from their lands (Brockington et al. 2008; West et al. 2006).
Care means respect. If one thinks the subject of one’s care is unworthy of respect as a valued being, one will not care much for it or about it.
The world environmental problems have been largely solved, as far as technology and economics goes. We know what to do, or at least enough to make a good start now and develop more knowledge as we go on. Simply planting trees and preserving areas of biodiversity would solve many of the problems; nothing could be conceptually easier, yet we are not doing it on anything remotely close to an adequate level.
All problems come down to one common ground: resource exhaustion. The resource may be water, genetic diversity, human potential, fossil fuels, or open space. The problem is the same: we are using too much of it.
Worldwide, the most intractable environmental problem now is accommodating a fast-growing population already well above seven billion. There are not enough resources on the planet to give that many people a middle-class western-style livelihood. By midcentury there will be 9 to 10 billion people, and, contrary to hopeful claims, there is every indication that population increase will not stop there, unless major action is taken. At some point, such a runaway growth must end in a crash, if studies of natural animal populations apply to humans—which they almost certainly do. The classic Malthusian mechanisms bring excess numbers down.
To survive, we have to stop population growth and stop resource overuse. Fortunately, the solution for high birth rates is both clear and simple, and does not involve the draconian policies invoked in the past by India and China. Everywhere that modern medicine and education for girls have been introduced, birth rates drop like a plummet, usually approaching zero population growth in a generation or two. I actually watched this happen in Hong Kong and again in Mexico during the years I spent doing field work there. Completed family sizes fell steadily and rapidly.
The medicine component must include a full range of birth control technologies, but not only that; keeping children alive by providing shots and other public health needs is just as important. Parents know they can raise all their children; they do not have to have three children to be sure of raising one.
As to resource overuse, its simplest cause is waste due to short-term, narrow planning as opposed to long-term, wide planning (Anderson 1996, 2010). We fail to consider downstream users. We fail to consider our own futures. We fail to consider other lives than human ones. This occurs in several contexts: the desperation of the poor, the thoughtlessness of the rich.
There are several different problems here. Fishers and loggers may directly overharvest resources, leading to collapse of that specific resource base. Pollution is different: it involves production of one good while damaging others. Still different is destruction that costs everyone, and has no motive other than status and conformity (as in McMansions and lawns). Still more deplorable are outright arson and vandalism. All these require slightly different cures.
Resource misuse is made worse by poor education. At present, education worldwide is not only failing at this task, it is getting rapidly worse in many areas. The education system has to change to make people active workers for improvement, instead of passive receptacles for factoids to spit out on standardized tests. High administrators, testing corporations, and government servants who oversee education conspire to reduce it to this sort of mindless cramming. It is incompatible with learning one’s environment, and incompatible with caring about anything. Children are now cut off from nature (Louv 2005, 2011). Many urban children grow up without ever seeing the starry sky or a butterfly. Attention to other cultures’ spiritual and aesthetic aspects, so common in the 1950s and 1960s, has suffered an eclipse. Environmentalists talk less and less of loving nature, more and more of doom through pollution and oil depletion. Too many of the proposed solutions are technocratic fixes. We are not going to save the world by grim sewage-treatment. Would you educate your children by scaring them to death and then promising hi-tech? If that doesn’t work with them, why should it with anyone?
Today, religion and culture are much less involved in such matters. Religion often sets itself against learning and education. Nationalist and political ideologies also disregard the environment and are often anti-intellectual across the board; recall the violent attacks on education, learning, and book knowledge by the Nazis, the Maoists, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, and countless other such groups. The contrast between the extreme stress on environmental learning in the religions of traditional small-scale societies could not be greater.
Many have blamed “capitalism,” usually without defining it. We have underestimated the importance of economic lock-ins, both economic and psychological. The throughput economy and the world’s commitment to fossil fuels, monocrop agriculture, and other evils has survived major changes. Culturally, this lock-in involves lack of motivators for caring about nature and people-in-nature. We have alternatives: ideals of fairness, justice, egalitarianism, community, solidarity, charity, caring, mercy, peace, family farms, beautiful landscapes, efficiency and “waste not, want not.”
Even the purest capitalist boss in the worst days of Victorian England or 1930s Shanghai had a set of cultural beliefs, often far more ancient than capitalism. The basic concept “men vs. nature” goes back thousands of years earlier. The capitalist bosses also had a set of knowledge and practices derived from their work (“you just can’t make quality furniture with unseasoned pine wood”). The boss was thus not thinking “capitalism”; he was thinking within a far more comprehensive, specific, and contingent framework.
The throughput-maximizing world, and its corporate rulers, has dangerous political consequences (Anderson 2010; Bunker and Ciccantell 2000; Eichenwald 2000; Humphreys et al 2007; Juhasz 2008). Yet we are now so committed to it that any change is immediately attacked as costing too much, hurting the workers who depend on the system, and so on. To some extent this is true; yet not fixing the system will devastate all of us, sooner rather than later.
Even conservation becomes a tragedy, when local people are displaced. Externalizing the costs of conserving onto the very people who preserved the resource till now is immoral as well as inefficient (Anderson 2005; Brockington et al. 2008; Haenn 2005; West et al. 2006).
However, this does not really tell us when people will value nature over artificiality: natural plants over lawns, for instance. It also does not tell us when they will value the welfare of the community over the welfare of their families, or the welfare of their families over the welfare of themselves as individuals. Economics cannot deal thoroughly with these questions, because they are questions about the ultimate goals of actions, and economics is classically concerned with alternative ways to reach goals, not with predicting the goals themselves.
Recent attempts to save the biota by appealing to economics, politics, and legal remedies have not succeeded. Worldwide, people have learned to emulate the western value on artificial things and environments. People want machines, lawns, beef, and paved streets. They no longer want traditional foods, fabrics or formulas.
Social science can go somewhat farther. We know that the current situation, with extremely rich and powerful elites dominating a vast working mass, has happened many times before, and we know what happens: to the extent that the mass becomes hopelss and dispirited, individuals become alienated from the community. Either they become passive, or they become narrowly “individualist.” When people feel hopeful and want to improve their lives, they are far more prone to think widely and expansively, and work for the community (see Bandura 1982).
Most actual working conservation and environmentalism is concerned with more simple, direct matters. Largely, these are means, not ends. We use cars to get somewhere, computers to write and cipher. We fish and farm for food to survive. All means, to whatever ends, have costs, normally including environmental costs. Willingness to clean up the means and produce fewer environmental costs is thus a major problem. No one wants to pay for cleanup; all want to enjoy the benefits of it. Large firms can pass on the costs of pollution and overuse to the weaker members of society. Here again unity and community is necessary. Only by uniting can these weaker members exert power over the large operators and force them to internalize the costs of production.
Solutions for the environment have to minimize throughput by using less and being more efficient, and maximize diversity by saving species, cultures, languages, cultures, tasks, lifestyles.
We have made a start, worldwide, on recycling, efficient production, clean energy, good farming, reforestation and tree farming or selective cutting, sustainable fishing and hunting, etc.
We need to put this to work, but prioritize matters accordingly:
–Public health with full range of contraceptive services.
–Bans on further biodiversity reduction, especially deforestation, extinction of species, overhunting, extension of monocrop agriculture.
–Education, especially environmental education involving actual hands-on use, certainly including education of girls. This includes informal education and the media.
–Reforestation, sustainable management, simplification, a shift to a less consumptive economy, efficiency, pollution control, etc.—i.e. a shift from short-term, narrow gains to long-term, wide-flung benefits and from throughput to efficiency.
–Institutional means—accounting, laws—must make the above economically profitable: No subsidies; severance fees; transform fees; high garbage charges. An entire economic structure using rules to drive efficiency, sustainability, and simplicity instead of waste, drawdown, and techno-worship.
–Environmental organizations and laws, conservation and management measures, pragmatic helping.
–Concern for the poor—the neglected majority of humanity In short, environmental justice.
–Scientific research on all these questions, and the propagation of such knowledge by all means possible.
–Environmental health is necessary to individual health, but also to the health of society; it is to society what bodily health is to the individual.
–Not only nature but—if anything still more—decent houses fitted into their sites, native landscaping, foods, arts, health, intensive diversified small farming, etc. Lots of solutions to push directly.
–Diversity maintenance: biodiversity, cultural diversity, social diversity, human diversity and individualism. Diversity is not a perfect measure of ecological health, but is a sine qua non. It means a lot more than species counts. This is key, and involves a massive revaluing of diversity, including cultural differences.
All this requires what I call “process goals”: Goals that can never be achieved, but that we need to strive for anyway. World peace, total health, and a fully saved environment are examples.
Levels of Concern
All the above breaks out into three levels of concern:
–Immediate conservation issues: saving forests and sea turtles, stopping cancer-causing pollution, stopping the waste of fresh water. This is largely economic, though often simply aesthetic. But it requires a strong community morality. Traditional societies did a lot of this, from saving seeds and breeding livestock to terracing and paddy-building, careful water management, and sacred groves. Usually, immediate economic needs were served as well as long-term protection. Even the most sacred groves were used. Only a few remote sacred mountains and similar places were genuinely shunned.
–General concern for the environment. This is less coupled to economics. There are always economic interests who attack environmentalism, conservation, and sustainable management as “trees versus jobs.” Traditionally, environmental concern of this sort was, in many or most societies, managed at the level usually called “religion” by outsiders. The local people may have considered it more a matter of reverence, moral concern, and spiritual bonding rather than “religion” in the strict church-on-Sunday sense.
–The still wider question of political solidarity and caring. This does not necessary involve “the environment” at all. If a polity is unified, people will naturally manage for future generations. If it is torn by disunity to the point of real civil conflict, there is little or no hope. Most of the world today is somewhere between those extremes, and solidarity needs to be foregrounded. Traditionally, solidarity was, again, a religious and ethical matter. It was decoupled from religion as nationalism rose in the 17th and 18th centuries. It has taken on a strange life in the 20th and 21st, with cross-cutting loyalties to religion, nation, political party, political ideology, occupational ties, and even Facebook and other electronic communities. Reviving a community solidarity that will bond people together to preserve their immediate environment is proving fiendishly difficult. People are often more prone to work to save “the rainforest” (conceived as an utterly remote place) than their neighborhood trees. I suppose people who actually live in the rainforest may be trying to save the Arctic.
In considering other cultures and their environmental management, we will need to look at these levels analytically.
Pragmatics of Conservation
Modern American experience shows that one needs only a few activists who love the environment and scientists who know the risks to it, if there are enough responsible users of the resource to generate some long-term considerations, and also enough socially responsible people to see that general or broad welfare depends on it. This combination gave us the national forests in the 19th century, the wildlife protection laws in the early 20th, and the clean air, wilderness, and other acts of the 1970s. All these happened in spite of the powerful dominance of throughput and resource-consumptive interests in American political economy. Usually, it succeeds only when people across the political spectrum can see the broad social needs; the current world situation in which conservatives are almost entirely anti-environment is extremely dangerous. It was not so in earlier times. Much, if not most, of the major environmental legislation in American history was enacted during the presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt and Richard Nixon.
This suggests that not everyone need have the powerful combination of love and ideology that animated John Muir and Rachel Carson. In fact, the more the economy depends on holistic management of a resource, the less this strong self-conscious ideological position is needed.
Resource preservation typically occurs when:
1. The necessity for it can be so obvious and immediate that no one can miss it, and any community of users will develop enough working morality to keep each other honest. This is the case with Maine lobsters (Acheson 2006; McCay and Acheson 1987), Los Angeles Basin water (Ostrom 1990), and Southeast Asian rice paddies.
2. The necessity for it can be obvious in the long run, to the point where a functioning community will get together and save it even though it is not immediately endangered. This is the case with the national forests, much water conservation, and so on, but it is quite rare outside of democratic government action in modern societies, or religious protection through taboos and sanctification in more traditional ones. Religion, social morality, or personal concern are necessary for this case. Economic self-interest is never enough. The pressures to exploit and run are too great.
When only rational material interest is involved, almost nobody ever manages or saves unless it is clearly an essential resource whose loss for even one day would be devastating. Water is the most conspicuous and universal example, yet even water is chronically wasted. Locally, topsoil, forests, fish, and agricultural resources are managed this way, but it takes effort and strict enforcement.
3. The resource can be saved for (ostensibly) other reasons. This is where religion, recreation, and aesthetics are most vital. Much that seems just religious is really exemplary of the previous two cases—fengshui groves, for instance. But much is saved for aesthetics and then turns out valuable for other reasons, or is obviously valuable for many reasons but aesthetics is the decisive key. National Parks, biodiversity, traditional cultural forms, and the like depend on this. It is necessary in proportion to how wasteful and anti-nature the wider society is.
When only aesthetic or religious care is involved, people save, but often less than adequately. Lock-down preservation is less a serious method of saving than a failure of management or a lazy solution to management problems. Purely emotional saving also gives us problems with saving only the “charismatic megafauna” (or minifauna, as the case may be), or saving only “pretty” places even when these are of far less ecological concern than the “less pretty” ones. We have saved most of America’s desert mountains but rather little of the wetlands. Yet wetlands are far more valuable for conserving water, biodiversity, soils, and other benefits.
New Environmental Ethics
Ethics must begin with the general rule: In the end, all action and morality has to be evaluated in terms of help versus harm. For obvious reasons, long-term and wide interests have to transcend short-term narrow ones, but even that has to be evaluated (often case by case) in terms of overall help and harm. That is the only ultimate measure—the real Categorical Imperative. (Kant’s idea, “act as though your every action could be a universal law,” ignores diversity; even identical twins require different things.)
Essential for bioethics is compassion for all beings; creation care.
Among the corollaries are:
–Learning, knowledge, and self-improvement as basic moral charges.
–Responsibility, including simplifying, recycling, proacting to protect, etc.
–Tolerance and valuing diversity.
–A strong pragmatic sense of the need to balance human needs and conservation.
Civil and human rights are essential for all public goods (Anderson 2010). However, they are not adequate for environmental protection, as the situation in the United States shows. Eonomics exists within a moral shell. Morals drive laws, laws create market structures.
Government, ideally, balances the private sector, with neither getting too big. Both giant firms and the US Army Corps of Engineers have gotten above the law and above environmental common sense. Both unregulated markets and uncontrolled big government have ruined whole countries. Grassroots democracy, with environmental and social justice, appears better. North and northwest Europe has done well with this general mix, but one might argue they had a pre-existing culture of environmental stewardship. However, countries like Korea and Japan have also done fairly well with a mix. Above all, however, accountability, recourse, transparency, and actually listening to scientific experts are the really desirable goals for a polity.
Any new ideology must be concerned with all beings. It must foreground direct, proactive compassion and caring. What really matters is actively working for the common good, which in general means tolerance and mutual aid, but must mean a condign lack of tolerance and acceptance for hatemongers and anti-environmental activity of all kinds. Ideally, this would resemble some traditional religions (Chinese Daoism, for instance) in being based on clear sight of the world and love for nonhuman beings. Compassion for all beings, and idealization of simplicity, are two particularly common values in traditional religions, and we desperately need them now.
The ideal political system would be one where groups were interlocked and mutually interdependent. They would be like fibres in a complex textile, except that one must imagine a fabric of ever-changing, ever-morphing fibres. The fibres keep pulling away, or changing shape and length to fit the pattern. A polity is a fabric made up of living threads, constantly weaving themselves into new tangles.
Group hatred is the worst in terms of world effects, having led to genocides that killed hundreds of millions of people in the last couple of centuries, but ordinary bloody-mindedness is fatal too.
Success at driving solidarity against selfishness and against rejection games has come from not only from religion, but also from communities in general, as well as political parties science, the military, voluntary organizations, Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs, labor unions, and other organizations. It can come from “imagined communities” (Benedict Anderson’s famous term for nations and other created large-scale forms; B. Anderson 1991). All communities are imagined, but, also, all effective ones have some reality to them. Of these, science, voluntary organizations, and 12-step programs have been eminently successful bridge-builders; religion, nationalism, and the military are great at bonding but generally negative at bridge-building. Degree of emotional appeal, degree of emotional involvement, voluntariness, education level, and the degree to which people believe the order is “natural.”
The world needs a blanket organization or linkage that would integrate all possible conservation and environmental groups. We have to cooperate now, and help the “bottom billion” (Collier 2007), as well and the nonhuman lives on the planet, before the rest of us need help. If we wait, it will be too late; resource exhaustion and global warming will be beyond fixing.
Communities of Conservation
A “community,” here, is a group of any kind that realizes we’re all in this together. People need to take care of their own families and immediate circle to maintain community. This requires some sort of emotional interaction: arts, ritual, worldview, political action, or religion. The most important lesson of anthropology may be that these cultural elaborations of discursive practice are absolutely necessary in creating and maintaining communities, and above all in creating and maintaining moral and responsible behavior as defined and constructed by those communities. Without emotionally and aesthetically compelling forms, there is weak community and no environment care. Traditional societies have an advantage in being able to combine community maintenance, morality, and ecology into one thing—traditional environmental ideology, usually a part of religion—and make it so persuasive that no one can evade it. As we see from the results of modernization, the more care, the more one can resist the dreadful carrot-and-stick approach of contemporary economic development (Dichter 2003; Ellerman 2005; Li 2007; Stiglitz 2003): “We promise you wealth (some day!) if you give us your resource base for destruction, and if you don’t we’ll take over your land and destroy your resource base anyway.”
Community can lead to rather rapid changes, in either direction. A society can shift from a sensible, future-oriented elite to a presentist, irresponsible one. Japan turned from highly conservationist under the Tokugawa (Totman 1989) to rather destructive under the Liberal Democratic Party (Kirby 2011). The United States was the world leader in conservation during its most “rugged individualist” periods, 1890-1910 and 1960-1980. During more conformist periods, it lost that edge. Evidently, what is needed is responsibility for the common good, which takes both individualism and collectivism.
People in Nature
The best way to do this is through the Native American view that plants and animals are actually persons who are part of one’s society. Next is the land or landscape sense: we are in an environment we create, shape, and manage—a garden or mixed farm writ large. Both of these demand emotional involvement, and make almost inevitable the cultural construction thereof in ceremonies and arts. These are the cultures that produce the stunning environmental art we know from Northwest Coast animal sculptures, Australian Aboriginal paintings of “country,” Chinese landscapes, and Balinese temple rituals.
Worst is the idea of nature and separate from and conflicting with human interests. This reaches an extreme in the common Western Hemisphere view that nature must be destroyed and replaced by totally artificial landscapes, agriculture being confined to monocrops in neat rows. We live in a world where the natural is often considered uncouth, disgusting, or at best “underdeveloped.” At best, it means that anything done to save nature must inevitably be seen to conflict with human interests. This is the anti-environmentalists’ stock theme, but unfortunately it is basic to a dangerous and unfortunate side of western environmentalism, too: the side that advocates “deep ecology,” clearing the Great Plains to turn them back to the animals, or nature reserves that displace indigenous people.
This view of nature accompanies a view of humans as “individuals vs. mass” or, with America’s “tea party” movement, “individuals vs. government.” This can lead to the extreme, antisocial individuality of the Republican far right. Others opt for the mass to the point that the individual is seen as necessarily subjected to harsh top-down codes and mass conformity (as in the work of Alasdair MacIntyre [1984, 1988], or the radical religious right). Even far more temperate individualist philosophers like John Rawls (1971) and Tom Scanlon (1998) explicitly excluded the environment in their considerations (see my posting “Ethics” at www.krazykioti.com). All these views oppose the individuals-in-society and society-in-nature view of many traditional societies.
A state of despair has entered many people in the last generation. Especially important in creating this mood of hopeless passivity has been the rapid decline of individual control over one’s world, as giant corporations and government bureaucracies take over more and more of life. Our social reality is one of Big Oil, Big Agribusiness, the World Trade Organization, and the rest of the litany, not excluding Big Science and corrupt university administrations. We are weak in the face of them, and so we lose heart. Consider the despair shown by the contemporary right-wing belief, from the WTO down to the Tea Party, that total corporate domination is the best we can hope for—that all government and free agency is necessarily worse.
It has destroyed any sense of closeness to or dependence on the nonhuman world. It has been cultivated by powerful extractive interests: big oil, big agribusiness, big chemical, and so on.
These would have been unable to do the damage they have done without the failure of community. If people were still solidary with each other, let alone the nonhuman persons of the world, they would have been able to withstand the pressures of the giant corporate extractive interests. Everywhere people have been able to assert community solidarity (specifically across class and ethnic boundaries), they have been able to get at least some traction against corporate destructiveness. The extreme case was in the Solomon Islands, where a copper mine ruined the land and livelihood of a local group. The group fought back: bows and arrows against the full corporate might of one of the world’s most powerful corporations. The mine shut down.
A world of Kantian subjects, debating and negotiating their community’s rules, is impossible under extreme views. Yet conservation and sound environmental management depend on precisely such dialogues. Managing resources depends on revaluing humans.
Thinking Too Narrowly
There are four major reasons why people think in too narrow terms (Anderson 1996, 2010). First, we discount the future far too heavily. Second, we also discount humans and other beings if they are not part of our immediate face-to-face world. To some extent, this is necessary; I simply can’t be as involved with a farmer in India as as am with my children. We take it too far in modern America, however; we hardly know our neighbors. Third, people bicker over trivia instead of uniting to save the world. Fourth is simple laziness. The human animal shares with dogs and cats a healthy value on resting up for whatever the future may bring.
Humans under stress or attack move toward more short-term considerations. When one is under threat one has to deal with that threat immediately (Anderson 2010; Bandura 1982). Everything else has to wait. Therefore, long-term, wide-flung planning must always swim upstream (Anderson 1996). It depends on solidarity—the wide-flung connections and responsibilities—and solidarity itself must always swim upstream.
All bad habits of thought have been enormously increased by the new economic order: salaried managers rather than bosses, service workers rather than manufacturing and farming proletariat, and government-corporate fusion rather than separation. The world is now run by individuals who migrate back and forth from government to industry, working for salaries and bonuses rather than because their careers are on the line. They are typical bureaucrats: unaccountable, nonresponsible, and unconcerned about the future of the enterprise. They have secular ideologies and are not emotionally involved in their work, which in any case changes every few years. The old capitalist boss at least had his job and his pride on the line. He could be responsible and even conservationist if it suited him. The modern bureaucratic CEO cannot be even if he wants to be; the directors and shareholders will not let him.
Lester Brown (2009) speculates on a world war or similar violence as the hungry “take to the streets,” but the hungry are too weak to do much. It is those still declining, not those on the bottom, who resort to violence. We have to start a hopeful program (such as Brown’s “Plan B,” now up to a 4rd version; Brown 2008, 2009) and push for it, now, before real shortage comes.
The sort of “liberalism” represented by the “critique of environmentalism” (which sees environmentalism as mere elite snobbery) is obviously opposed to every point in every environmental or conservation program, and must be forthrightly attacked. This critique is a part of the old Marxist attack on anything that delays industrial progress; it was the attitude that made the Communist-led societies the worst polluters of all. The same is true of the sort of “conservatism” that opposes all environmental regulation. It is a complete betrayal of all classic conservative principles, from thrift to family values.
I have seen the same thing with loggers, who were all too willing to serve as the storm troops for their cynical bosses when environmentalists protested the rape of the old-growth forests (Helvarg 1997). The loggers, of course, lost their jobs when they “won.” I have seen the same with farmers dealing with soil erosion and stockherders dealing with overgrazing.
Perhaps the greatest need today is investigative reporting on abuses of power—environmental destruction and its dirty politics. We are now aware of the emotional nature of politics (Marcus 2002; Westen 2007). This not only helps us with modern politics; it also shows us why religion was the driver for resource management in earlier times.
I have seen the same thing with loggers, who were all too willing to serve as the storm troops for their cynical bosses when environmentalists protested the rape of the old-growth forests (Helvarg 1997). The loggers, of course, lost their jobs when they “won.” I have seen the same with farmers dealing with soil erosion and stockherders dealing with overgrazing.
Once I thought it was high ideals and commitments that drove history. Then I thought it was rational choice, or at least that rational-choice models were good enough to score. Now I find that Ibn Khaldun (1958), Albert Bandura (1982), Aaron Beck (1999), Roy Baumeister (1997), and similar thinkers have the predictive power—basically, models based on individuals looking at reality and reacting with varying degrees of raw emotion rather than overall utility maximization. People act within a general framework where perceptions of self-efficacy drive either sober coping or high-emotion maladaptive reacting, and where evil is all too common as a response.
Effective opposition to conservation comes when vested interests draw on short-term narrow planning. Often they wind up appealing to hate. The hate has usually been right-wing (but often left-wing too), but the short-sightedness has often been liberal or populist, and often in the very best causes—cheap hydroelectric power, public health, affordable housing. Conservation was a broadly based middle-of-the-road to conservative cause for most of its history. Its identification with the left wing dates to the takeover of right-wing politics by the giant corporations in the 1950s and of left-wing politics by the urban educated voters in the 1960s.
People are social, but not social enough. Social disunion often leads to social rejection, and social rejection often leads to social hatred. The “culture wars” and “debt increase wars” that got out of control in the early 21st century in the United States ran beyond anything that could benefit special interests; hatreds on all sides of the political landscape took on a life of their own. These spilled over into environmental management via an attack on environmentalism that quickly escalated beyond anything that even the oil companies could have reasonably wanted. Politicians seriously proposed ending all environmental regulation, and even the government’s public health activities.
Anti-environmental forces keep up the divisive rhetoric; the most obvious recent case has been in the wholly spurious science of global warming denial, and the way it has been hyped not only by those who profit (the energy companies and heavy polluters) but also by conservatives and Marxists worldwide (see Hoggan 2009; Mooney 2005; Oreskes and Conway 2010; Powell 2011).
America was settled as a nation of small farms. Government policy, however, has favored large plantation-style operators almost from the beginning (Bovard 1991). This has been due especially to the political power of southerners, often plantation owners, during several key periods of history. Plantation policies displaced the Anglo-Celtic tradition of mixed farming on small independent family farms. The death of the family farm in the United States came in several waves: the 1920s, the 1950s, the 1980s, and the 2000s (see e.g. Bovard 1991 for at least the earlier parts of this). These tracked periods of Republican ascendency, but, especially in the 1920s and 1950s, the worst offenders were southern Democrats. (Through the 1950s and 1960s, agricultural policy in the United States was dominated by Senator James Eastland, D-MS, who long headed the relevant Senate committee; his Sunflower Plantation was one of the largest farms in the world, and had some of the worst labor practices.)
I use the word “unnaturalism” to refer to the belief that something artificial, no matter how expensive and damaging, is better than anything natural.
Most damage that humans do to the environment is done for reasons that are at least understandable, and usually perfectly good: making a living, making useful goods, getting more security and safety and comfort. There remains a fair amount, however, that is done solely because the natural is seen as inherently bad and wrong.
The most ancient, widespread, and universal bit of unnaturalism is modifying one’s own body. Perhaps the second most universal human trait (after language) is painting and decorating oneself to become “more beautiful.” Often, this merely highlights natural features. However, in the modern world, it has led to the “extreme makeover.” Everything natural about the body must be “corrected.”
With civilization came huge showy buildings, often not for the living but for the honored dead. Kings learned to show their power by maintaining a lavishly expensive lifestyle, even in the afterlife. Robes and jeweled crowns may not be comfortable wear, but they show wealth. Transportation by litter was no faster than by foot, and not much more comfortable either, but it looked impressive. Public spaces showed how well the elite could build, create, and manage. Interestingly, this all appeared independently in the New World civilizations as well as in all the Old World ones. It is endemic to the urban world. Farmers and others who worked with nature were considered to be uncouth and backward—an attitude surviving today in most of the world. Even for the masses, the city seems preferable to nature.
Unnaturalism took a far more extreme and ugly turn in the Near East, in the centuries just before Christ. Grave sages concluded that the flesh, and indeed the entire material world, is downright evil. Of this more later.
A major rise of unnaturalism came with status consumption in the era of exploding world trade, from about 1500. This phase involved a renewal of extreme sexual repression among the Puritans, Jansenists, and other religious movements of the time. It also produced lawns, and clipped and pruned gardens. It produced huge mostly-empty houses with airless rooms and constant remodeling, and other unpleasant and expensive environmental manipulations. This is carried to obsessive levels in America today, where many suburbanites spend virtually their entire free time and disposable income maintaining the lawn and “working on the house.” This Puritanical activity is unique in human history in the degree to which it combines waste of money, unnecessary environmental damage, and sheer unpleasantness to the doer.
Finally, modern science—at root an accommodation and understanding of nature—has been overextended and misused to sell extremely damaging things solely because they are unnatural: unnecessary Caesarian sections, bottle feeding of infants, cosmetic plastic surgery, the whole lunacy of “virtual reality,” and finally the hermetically sealed modern environment. Many mothers today fear to let their children go outside at all—there might be snakes and spiders (Louv 2005, 2011—and my own bemused observations in American suburbia).
The rise of Caesarian sections is an extreme case. Caesarians can be life-saving, but 2/3 of Caesarians in the United States are unnecessary. Brazil has even higher rates. Caesarians not only cost much more than normal births but carry forty times the risk of maternal death. Clearly, rational self-interest is not driving this epidemic, except for the “rational self-interest” of certain greedy doctors (Wagner 2006).
Other cultures never moved so far beyond ordinary status consumption. China developed or copied monumental architecture, industrial-style farming, and other unnaturalist ways of doing business. Deforestation, wetland drainage, and similar practices were common. However, China never abandoned the ideal of “harmony” with the world or the love of natural landscapes and natural beauty. Traditional China had ambiguous attitudes toward the untended wild, but was strongly positive toward the spontaneous and natural. And at least they enjoyed wine, sex and song rather than “working on the house!” The coming of Maoist Commuism, with its “struggle against nature” and the panoply of western unnaturalist ideas, was a shock to China and the Chinese, and had devastatingly bad effects. The idea that “progress” meant destroying nature at all costs was soon firmly established, however. This, among other things, involved selling a quite new concept of “nature” to the Chinese world. The idea of “nature” as a separate thing, innately bad, was completely alien to the Chinese. It resonates much better with a Christian west, raised to see the body as evil, human nature as inclined to sin, and the individual as born in Original Sin.
Other ancient civilizations, including those of the New World and southeast Asia, were even less fond of unnatural and unnecessary modifications of the world—though even they had their body-painting and monumental architecture.
From these and many other examples, we can loosely classify some unnaturalism as simply human. Some is a product of civilization. Later came problems of the western world specifically, from anti-materialism to the Industrial Revolution’s fetish of technology. In general, unnaturalism seems usually about status: nothing shows one’s status better than one’s ability to waste a great deal of money on doing something flagrantly counter to common sense. This is a “natural” urge, but increasingly expressed through unnatural means. In body decoration and status consumption, expensive and unnecessary showing-off to make one’s point is known as “costly signaling” in behavior studies, “conspicuous consumption” in the social sciences (Veblen 1912).
Mercifully, at most points there has been an opposite, if not always equal, reaction. Nature flourishes, and people are more self-conscious about valuing it when there is an unnaturalist alternative staring them in the face.
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