Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Fixing Environmental Problems with Spirit

I’ve been reading an article in Harper’s, reprinted from Orion, by Curtis White. It's titled “The Idols of Environmentalism.”

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.

3 comments:

Khadimir said...

I believe that there has been a misinterpretation of the White article. White is not suggesting a move to "spirit" or the abandonment of our jobs, homes, etc. He is not suggesting quite what has been claimed, for the pathways of his thought do not necessarily lead there. I suspect that the disconnect may be that he is implicitly invoking language in which you may be unfamiliar or uncomfortable, which I note resonnates of Heideggerian language. It is clear in the way that White writes, the references, and the terms he uses, i.e. "care" [Sorge], "quantitative reasoning," "reason," etc. Moreover, his position is common in continental thought across multiple traditions, which is to say that he might be in a community of thought that forgets to sufficiently qualify such discourse for those not of that community. He is not speaking the language that you think he is speaking.


He is rejecting the understanding of our relation to nature in the quantitative terms of science, which is a classic Heideggerian position. Hence, as you indicate, he rejects that 1) science is a force for protecting and improving the environment. He rejects this because scientific thinking about the environment obscures other ways of thinking about the environment that might be more beneficial, etc. Likewise, he rejects that 2) capitalism and the current economic system can sufficiently alleviate the problems. He rejects this via a logic similar to his first rejection; bureaucratic-economic thinking is a species of quantitative thinking. The problem, as the story goes, is that scientific thinking only solves the problems that it can see and understand, yet the current environmental problems are beyond the scope of what scientific thinking can see and understand. This thinking presupposes a relation to nature that enables it to carry out its tasks, but also blinds it. (This trait is common to all thinking, and each way of thinking is distinctly so characterized, though never fully aware of the fact.) Hence, science cannot solve these problems, because it cannot see a larger scope to the problem. White gives many examples of this for both (1) and (2).

White is not suggesting abandonment, though he is perhaps suggesting a complete rethinking of our Enlightenment civilization. Again, old news. Now, the new old news. This does not constitute a disrespect for the value of humanity or of the environment, or how it is an invitation to relativism. Care is not anti-science, though its invocation is a call to do *more* than scientific thinking, though not to abandon it.

In short, White is only suggesting that scientific thinking and bureaucratic-economic thinking are insufficient ways to think us out of our environmental problems. They are insufficient because their adoption reveals certain solutions and conceals other solutions, which are in principle not accessible to that way of thinking. Of course, your point is still made that he offers a pipe dream, a want for total revolution, while the current movement offers results. There is always more to be done, and perhaps we should not so totalize the character of scientific thinking, hmm?

Evelyn Brister said...

Interesting thoughts, Khadimir, and in the end it sounds as though you and I agree that the wish for a total revoluton (political, economic, and personal)--because that revolution is so unlikely to occur--is even less able to remedy local and global environmental degradation that the current environmentalist approach. (I take the "current environmentalist approach" to be not something monolithic, but just a whole lot of people working hard to do good in their roles as parents, educators, policy makers, lawyers, business-owners, consumers, and, yes, scientists).

I have often heard Heidegger's attack on science and technology defended, but I have yet to hear an example or case in which a Heideggerian approach to an environmental problem was the key to solving it. In fact, I have not even heard a thought experiment in which success would have followed if only the anti-science Heideggerians had been given a chance. But I would love to be educated more on this count!

Khadimir said...

Well, to keep it super-short, I don't think the full-court Heideggerian approach would ever work because it presumes, perhaps, a different civilization than our own. It may perhaps be a totalizing conception of science, and I am too American-philosophy friendly to view science in that way.