The Spirit of Lenin


For the Common Good, by Herman Daly and Jeff Cobb, Boston: Beacon Press, 482 pages, $24.95

The ecology movement has recently attracted millions to its banner, and why not? Who among us does not want clean air and water?

But this book makes clear, as do the books of other leading environmentalist theoreticians, that the vanguard of the movement is less interested in clean air and water than it is in the revolutionary act of overthrowing Western civilization and establishing society on a new basis. The revolutionary intent of For the Common Good is openly professed, but the character of the desired revolution is partially hidden because its authors present their new society as a recovery of something old, as an embodiment of what they call "Christian theism."

The book begins with economics and ends with religion, as perhaps befits a book jointly written by an economist and a theologian. It argues that the discipline of economics, in its attempt to imitate mathematical physics, has abstracted from the larger context within which economic activity takes place and consequently has failed to understand the limitations of its own conclusions. It has forgotten what the great classical economists knew, that economic productivity serves the more comprehensive ends of the human community.

Modern economics, according to the authors, holds that the goal of economics is the satisfaction of the insatiable desires of individual human beings. Insatiable desires sanction unlimited productivity. Unlimited productivity, in turn, is destroying the environment and the land, extinguishing other species, and exhausting resources that cannot be replaced. In the long run this destruction threatens the very existence of human society.

We may applaud this reminder of the limitations of economics, but, we may ask, what are the more complete ends of human community that economics is to serve and that are to define its proper limits? In answering this question, Herman Daly, a World Bank economist, and Jeff Cobb, a Claremont theologian, point in two opposite directions. On the one hand, they call for breaking up the country into small, autarkic human communities in which all people participate in making common decisions and in which both group welfare and individual differences are properly recognized. In such societies human relationships are more important than the possession of commodities.

These new societies will be "communities" and not "political orders" because they will require little or no coercion. Daly and Cobb believe that human beings are not fundamentally individuals whose interests might clash with those of the community. Rather, they are beings whose identities are defined by their relationships, and hence their interests need not conflict with those relationships. The state can wither away. In the meantime the authors favor the state's adopting measures, such as trade barriers, to divorce people from the world economy, that would help to make possible the autarky of the future.

On the other hand, because there is no guarantee that such communities will have ecologically sound opinions, it will be necessary to have a world government to deal with the ecological problems that are now global in scope. But will a global government be governed by environmentally sound ideas? Global government will have to be imbued with the proper ideology, one that is very different from that which dominates governments now.

Daly and Cobb maintain that human communities must be seen as parts of a larger whole, the society of all living things—the "biosphere." The members of the biosphere, whether human or animal, are ends in themselves as well as means to others' ends. The authors deny that animals can be properly understood as simply existing for the sake of man. Although they acknowledge that humans are superior to animals because humans can consciously contribute to the governing of the biosphere, they maintain that man's government must recognize that the purpose of the variety of life is not merely to serve humans but to exist for itself. The ruler rules for the sake of the ruled. Even if the destruction of other species does not harm human welfare, it is still wrong.

This conclusion, in the authors' theology, means that the biosphere—the sum of all living creatures—is God, or at least part of God. As the authors put it, "The diversity of the interconnected parts of the biosphere gives richness to the whole that is the divine life. The extinction of species and simplification of the ecosystems impoverishes God even when it does not threaten the capacity of the biosphere to sustain ongoing human life." This is what the authors call "Christian theism," but which is in truth a variety of pantheism. It is noteworthy that in a long discussion of "Christian theism," there is not one mention of Christ.

The world government will have to be run by people who worship the God of the biosphere. As the authors put it, the movement must be led by "a network of persons whose consciousness has been changed by participation in feminist and environmental movements." And thus we move from the local soviets to the dictatorship of the party secretariat.

That this dictatorship might not be as benign as the authors pretend, or perhaps believe, can be seen in the inherent contradictions of their enterprise. For example, they argue that protecting the environment is going to require strict population control. While they hope for fewer children through persuasion or other noncoercive methods, they "hold in reserve" such methods of control as forced abortions and the imposition of "birth quotas." These draconian methods would almost certainly be needed, because the authors also want a world of small, self-sufficient communities of close human relationships.

One need only look to human experience to see the problem. Historically, such close-knit and self-sufficient communities have always encouraged and relied upon large families, for man and wife is too small a unit to be self-sufficient, and the human relationships that people hold most dear are those of the family. What is a friend or acquaintance in comparison with a brother or sister, mother or father, son or daughter, husband or wife? These relationships are particularly prized if one forgoes the pleasures of wealth, as the authors would have us do. Thus Daly and Cobb would create a situation that would greatly encourage large families.

Sound ecology would require that this tendency be countered with tyrannical force exercised by the benign feminist and environmentalist overlords of the world government. The "reserved" methods of forced abortions and "birth quotas" would have to be called to the battlefield and reinforced by real soldiers. And what happens to human happiness?

The character of the revolutionary spirit that moves this book is thus apparent. Beneath the rustle of green leaves and the babbling of clear streams lurks the face of Lenin. It is as though he were some sort of irrepressible, wandering spirit. As he disappears from the harsh landscape of Soviet Russia and the sad lands of Eastern Europe, he reappears again amid the American innocents who love only flowers and trees.

Ecology is in need of rescue from this spirit. Perhaps the beginning point of a sound ecology is to recognize what Aristotle saw so long ago: People care most for what is their own. We now know that the states ruled by the spirit of Lenin, where people are allowed to own little or nothing, have suffered unbearable pollution. We do not need a new pantheistic theology but to recognize and build upon this simple truth.

Glen E. Thurow is a professor of politics at the University of Dallas.