The title resonates with two cultural warnings against idols. First, there is the Biblical command against worshiping false idols. White calls for a “return” to a relationship with nature that is spiritual rather the scientific.
In accepting science as our primary weapon against environmental destruction, we have also had to accept science’s contempt for religion and the spiritual…Environmentalism should stop depending on its alliance with science for its sense of itself. It should look to create a common language of care.
The title is also an intentional reference to Francis Bacon, who wrote in the 1600’s in support of organizing modern science to improve human life. Bacon was concerned to recognize that some kinds of bias would systematically undermine or twist inquiry, and one of these biases was the “idol of the tribe.” These are beliefs that are shared and taken for granted, such that evidence which contradicts them is ignored or explained away.
White believes that the current “idols of the tribe” that mislead environmentalists are the belief that our environmental problems are uniquely caused by outsized corporate power and the belief that science will be what solves them. These two false beliefs, he argues, support each other.
Our dependence on the scientific language of ‘environment,’ ‘ecology,’ ‘diversity,’ ‘habitat,’ and ‘ecosystem’ is a way of acknowledging the superiority of the kind of rationality that serves corporate capitalism.
White is here rejecting two principles of mainstream environmentalism:
1. That science, even “value-free science,” is a force (and one of the strongest forces) for protecting and improving the environment;
2. That even if corporate greed is a cause of environmental problems, capitalism and the current economic system can be used to slow and even reverse environmental damage through trade agreements, green products, LEED certification, conservation easements, etc.
It would be natural to ask White what he thinks we should do, if we are to give up scientific and economic tools for environmental reform. What is left?
He eloquently counters this move,
I am tempted to quote Voltaire’s response to the complaint that he had nothing to put in the place of the Christianity he criticized. “What!” he said. “A ferocious beast has sucked the blood of my family; I tell you to get rid of that beast, and you ask me, what shall we put in its place!”
White nonetheless does suggest something to take the place of science and capitalism, and that is “spirit.” I can only think that he is suggesting that we (all of us) abandon our jobs, our homes in the city, our social networks, and move to a place where we can be reverent of nature. But where would that be? And given the size of the population, what should we do with all the others, those who would not be able to survive without the efficiencies of urban environments?
Lurking behind the recommendation that we abandon our modern society in toto is a disrespect for the value of humanity, for the value of individual human lives. This is not a different way of being an environmentalist, it is a way of giving up doing or being anything. It is an open invitation to relativism—White recedes into a corner with his Spirit while everyone else holds on to their own gods and idols.
White is also sorely out of touch with who scientists are—with who they are as people. He contrasts science (the “rational”) with “care.” But I know of no one who is more caring of living things than the scientists who study them, even including the pill bugs! Who inspires more care of nature, churches or science? The answer is not obviously with the churches.
One of the “good children of the Enlightenment” and not easily disillusioned, I still look first to ignorance (and second to greed) to explain our shortcomings.