The idols of environmentalism

August 16, 2007 at 3:00 am 1 comment

Lalida photo ThailandI have a sense I’ve just read a seriously important essay – two-part essay actually. I haven’t quite got my head around it yet but for me it articulates some very important notions that I need to reflect on. The author is Curtis White (Prof of English at Illinois State University) and his two-part series appears in Orion Magazine (March/April and May/June 2007 issues). The titles of his two essays are The Idols of Environmentalism and The Ecology of Work.

I’ll do my best to summarise the two essays. I think there are many layers to his writing and insights and I’m just hovering on the surface at the moment. But here goes. Curtis says that environmentalism is failing. Yes, environmentalists are in a battle with “powerful corporate evildoers” but both the environmentalists and the corporations are all locked into the one system – capitalism. All of us (including those desperately trying to save the environment) are mere functionaries of a world designed for the “visible God” of money, profit, wealth generation, power. The vast economic order of capitalism has reduced humans to doing two things: working and consuming. We depend on the market system for our national wealth, our family security and comfort, our jobs, even our sense of identity.

The capitalist meta-narrative “creates a hole in our sense of ourselves…and it leaves us with few alternatives but to try to fill that hole with money and the things money buys. We are not free to dismiss money because we fear that we’d disappear, we’d be nothing at all without it“. And so we are weak and fearful. And whilst we talk about the destruction to the environment, we cannot imagine stepping outside a system on which we so crucially depend. As White says: “Only a weak and fearful society could invest so much desperate energy in protecting activities that are the equivalent of suicide“.

By this, he means that carbon credits for example (as a way of combating global warming) or the Kyoto protocol are simply capitalist schemes that perpetuate the problem. We believe that we can confront a problem that is external to ourselves, when what White believes is that we have lost a sense of awe, that we are spiritually impoverished, and we have lost rich traditions. Now at first I thought this might be fluffy bunny stuff – a call to return to the pre-technology/industrial era in which we all made our own clothes, grew vegetables, danced around fires, lit candles to show us the way, sang around the piano – that sort of stuff. But no, what White is saying I think is more complex than this – he’s saying that we must go beyond environmentalism. We have become so integrated into an order of work that makes us “inhuman” and intolerant (and apathetic) about the destruction going on around us (whether this is of the Earth or violence within society). He is saying that science and the language of science has become our religion over the last 200 or so years and that we must “...return to our oldest spiritual convictions: a reverence for creation and a shared commitment to the idea that religion is finally about understanding how to live in faithful relation to what has been given to us in creation“.

Okay let’s pause here: this is not some religious nut rallying against science as the Devil. White says that there are three important questions we must ask ourselves as these will ultimately decide our human existence and will establish the organising principle in a world beyond environmentalism:

  • What does it mean to be a human being?
  • What is my relation to other human beings?
  • What is my relation to Being as such, the ongoing miracle that there is something rather than nothing?

If our answer to the first question is that we’re all here to have a jolly good party and pursue wealth and happiness; and if the answer to the second question is we merely have an economic relationship; and if our relation to the world is only to “resources” that we can exploit for profit – well, then we’re all stuffed but should be able to live comfortably in this capitalist world because we expect nothing more or better.

But if we answer that there should be a greater sense of self-worth in being a human; that there should be more justice in our relationships with others; and more reverence for simply being alive in a world surrounded by the beauty of Nature – then we must either “live in bad faith” with capitalism or begin to describe a future that is radically different from our current existence and one that returns us to our nobility.

What really stopped me in my tracks with his essays was his description of two things: we are living in the early stages of an era of consequences. Entrepreneurial freedom leaves behind a culture that accumulates – wealth, success, power. It makes cheap things that don’t last or destructive things that snuff us out. But the consequences of capitalism’s activities are climate change, species extinction, human population collapse. The second thing that I thought interesting was his description of green capitalism – the imperatives of environmentalism are not part of capitalism’s reasoning. “Capitalism can think profit, but it can’t think nature“. Green capitalism – “buy organic”, “go green” – is the marketing arm of capitalism. It’s entrepreneurialism without conscience. White says that capitalism is not sustainable and that it’s a system intent on its own death. But he’s not some left-over Communist calling for a return to the good old days of the Cold War. He is, however, someone who is willing to question capitalism, which is demonstrating intellectual conscience.

Our desire to protect capitalism means that environmentalism has also abandoned humans – to the market economy – and our reliance on scientific language, he believes, is a way of acknowledging the superiority of the capitalist/scientific meta-narrative eg using words like ecology, ecosystem, habitat. One of White’s key insights is this:

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 look to create a common language of care (a reverence for and commitment to the astonishing fact of Being) through which it could begin to create alternative principles by which we might live“.

But are we able to willingly give up a system within which we’ve become comfortable (from an economic perspective not a spiritual perspective)? White believes “We are not ready. Not yet, at least“. Really, you have to read these essays. They will make you stop and think.


Entry filed under: Corporate Social Responsibility, Environment, Society, Useful resources.

Navigating the web Better humans?

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Matt Moore  |  August 19, 2007 at 4:04 am

    Hmmm – we don’t live in a purely capitalist world (despite what capitalism’s advocates & opponents tell us). Nor has the last 200 years been a waste of time. However we do live a world where linking our personal material needs with our non-material ones and the general needs of those (human & non-human) around us is problematic.

    Frankly most of us are not in a position to grapple with White’s questions – noble as they may be. They are simply too big and too scary. So we have to start somewhere. The challenge for environmentalists is not to castigate the masses for the shallowness of their green values but to take them beyond them. Being a prophet of doom is very easy. Being a leader (and that is what the environmental movement must be) is much, much harder.

    We have to do something very difficult. We have to give people hope.


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