How Green Is Our Valley?

Nature's Web: Rethinking Our Place on Earth, by Peter Marshall, New York: Paragon House, 513 pages, $29.95

No Turning Back: Dismantling the Fantasies of Environmental Thinking, by Wallace Kaufman, New York: Basic Books, 212 pages, $25.00

The Green Crusade: Rethinking the Roots of Environmentalism, by Charles T. Rubin, New York: The Free Press, 312 pages, $22.95

What does it mean to "save the earth"? In 1915, a Congregational hymn summed it up this way: "The Wilderness is planted, the deserts bloom and sing; on coast and plain the cities their smokey banners fling." Smoke used to be a beautiful thing. This was back when it was unheard of to oppose a policy with the question, "Ah, but how will it affect the trout?"

Nostalgia isn't what it used to be. Today, every major public-policy decision pays at least lip service to trout. The original environmental prophets are mostly forgotten, but their pearls of wisdom have become second nature to us anyway. "Small is beautiful." "Everything is connected to everything else." "Limits to growth." "Balance of nature."

We're all environmentalists now.

But it's not that easy being green. Green is the color of so many contradictory movements that the only thing you can be sure of when you meet an "environmentalist" is that he will show some concern for a murky, nebulous entity called the "environment." Thus, there are hunting-and-fishing environmentalists who want to set aside wilderness areas for recreational purposes (i.e., killing fauna), and there are the animal-rights environmentalists to whom such activity is anathematic.

There are "Earth-friendly," pro-technology environmentalists who envision a world where we'll be industrialized, clean, and rich, and there are technophobic Jeremy Rifkin types who view any and all manipulation of Nature as a classic case of hubris. There are cost-benefit analysis environmentalists who assign prices to environmental resources and treat them like economic commodities, and then there are "crunchy" New Age environmentalists who espouse vegan lifestyles. And beyond all these, there are the radicals who see ecological devastation as a natural outgrowth of Christianity, Western civilization, rationalism, and capitalism, and yearn for a return to the good old days, when life was nasty, brutish, and short.

Peter Marshall, author of Nature's Web: Rethinking Our Place on Earth, belongs to the latter bunch. Jesus, he tells us, was very bad for the environment. He killed swine, cursed trees, and experimented with non-consenting dead fish. St. Benedict stole honey from innocent bees. St. Francis of Assisi considered all creatures his brothers and sisters but ate them anyway. In the 16th century, the anatomist Andreas Vesalius and the philosopher Francis Bacon, who dissected animals, also behaved badly.

Nature's Web is an account of "where our ideas about nature come from, why they are wrong, and how they can change," a reinterpretation of world philosophy which divides philosophers into two groups--individualistic, rationalistic, anthropocentric carnivores, and the good guys.

But even as Marshall tries to maintain such simplistic dichotomies, his book is riven by self-contradictions. On the one hand, he thinks of man as part of nature: "I consider man to be an animal and only differing in degree and not in kind from other animals....Strictly speaking, human rights should be considered a branch of animal rights."

At the same time, he steadfastly refuses to see anything human as part of nature, let alone a beneficial part: "I consider humans to be an integral part of nature, although they are also the beings most capable of interfering with its processes." But the idea that agriculture, or dams, or the economy might also be part of nature because we're just another species is never seriously considered.

Marshall is likewise uncomfortable with the notion that people aren't naturally kind to one another. Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Spinoza are dismissed as "misanthropes" because they entertained the notion that people can be cruel. "Fully developed people living in harmony with nature have no need for moral guidelines or maps to help them through the maze of life's choices," claims Marshall. "Their actions are spontaneously right, in keeping with the flow of things." Like Swift's Houyhnhnms, by nature people are reasonable, benevolent, perfectly sincere, morally restrained, and non-coercive.

And yet, the idea that the individual good and the collective good are in harmony also sits ill with Marshall. For instance, rather than serving as a convincing defense of free markets, Bernard de Mandeville's The Fable of the Bees instead "demonstrates the vileness of the human species by arguing that society like a hive of bees thrives on a system of mutual rapacity and exploitation." Adam Smith's invisible hand becomes "the hidden hand of God" which transforms self-interest into the general good. For Smith, of course, self-interest was identical to the general good--it needed no transformation and God had little to do with it. Not that Marshall doesn't believe in spontaneous order; it just wouldn't include anything like industry or a sophisticated economy.

Marshall accuses those who try to discover the secrets of nature of participating in the "rape of Mother Earth." He doesn't write off science completely, but he might as well. For instance, he speaks fondly of 17th-century scientist John Ray, who "stands in the long line of religious scientists who can see God at the end of their microscopes." But he has harsh words for anyone who tries to generate universal laws based on such observations.

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