Of Deep Ecologists and Deep Marketeers


Green Delusions: An Environmentalist Critique of Radical Environmentalism, by Martin W. Lewis, Durham: Duke University Press, 288 pages, $24.95

Radical environmentalism is fast becoming America's new red menace. Though green and bent on liberating nature rather than workers, its minuscule legions are eliciting strident attacks from both left and right. Liberals berate eco-radicals out of distaste for their innate anarchism and out of fear that their extremism may ignite populist reaction and subvert liberal agendas. Conservatives loathe them because eco-radicals are anti almost everything—including, most importantly, Christianity, corporations, and capitalism.

Bashing radical environmentalism is not a major interest of mine, though I must confess pleasure in taking an occasional swipe. For the most part, I have stayed on the sidelines, watching the spectacle of the ideologically diverse ganging up on the ideologically eccentric. That is, until recently.

Two events have forced me from the sidelines. The first event was a review by the American Library Association that described a recent book of mine as having been written from the perspective of a deep ecologist. (Deep ecology stands apart from the "shallow" ecology of mainline environmentalism by virtue of its biocentric view of society and nature.) A devotee of technology, a defender of the free market, and a libertarian in a long line of libertarians, I stood accused of being one of them—a high sorcerer of ecological voodoo whose agenda includes the depopulation of the earth and the end of civilization. I was dumbfounded until the second event came about: I read Martin Lewis's Green Delusions.

Until Green Delusions, Alston Chase's Playing God in Yellowstone stood out as the mainstream assault on radical environmentalism. In that book, Chase chastised the "California cosmologists"—a coven of deep ecological philosophers and primitivists—for turning America's first national park into a wasteland of deep-ecological ideas. Lewis, a former radical green, now continues with vengeance what Chase began. In the tradition of former fellow-travelers (witness Whittaker Chambers), he mounts a frontal attack on errant greens with an impressive body of facts and a steady stream of polemics. "If at times my aspersions are caustic," Lewis writes, "it is because I have had to battle against these seductive ideas myself."

Lewis's battle is meritorious in many ways. His command of history and geography allows him to expose the more simplistic assumptions of eco-radicals. He counters the green love affair with primitive cultures—the presumption that primal people lived in harmony with their environments—by detailing the sad environmental record of ancient people. From pleistocene hunter-gatherers driving mammoths, saber-toothed tigers, and giant beavers to extinction, to massive destruction of wildlife on the North China Plain and in the Yangtze Valley, Lewis makes a crucial point: Western civilization is neither unique in its disruption of nature nor singularly culpable for environmental destruction.

Lewis takes his argument even further, however, by suggesting that the ideas of radical environmentalism—ideas like the dismantling of civilization, the end of markets and trade, the abandonment of technology, and the glorification of agrarian life—are more threatening to global environments than the worst evils of biotechnology and the most sinful pollutants of capitalism. In a world of 4 billion people, such prescriptions would indeed be environmentally threatening. They are also ludicrous. As Lewis notes, it is prosperity that nurtures a society's environmental sensibility; it is poverty that dulls it.

On the face of it, Martin Lewis has done reasonable people a favor by unmasking the red/green menace. Yet beneath Green Delusions' surface of good sense, good arguments, and wealth of facts, there is an offensive quality to the author's argument—a disposition toward statist environmental prescriptions that belies his shocked sensibility at the propensity of eco-radicals for illiberal solutions. Radical environmentalism, for all the biases it holds against modernity and technology and for all the inconsistencies that can be found in its thought, is most feared by the author for its libertarian leanings—tendencies which the "liberal moderate" Lewis decries as reactionary laissez-faire and extreme, right-wing conservatism.

It is this second level of Lewis's book that intrigues and troubles me, and that points to the affinity between libertarian and radical environmentalism. Basic to eco-radical thought is opposition to centralized power—a view that is, Lewis derisively notes, "virtually identical to that held by the members of the marginal right-wing camp of so-called free market environmentalism."

"Radical environmentalists' extraordinary faith in decentralized political power," Lewis adds, "runs counter to…traditional liberalism." One can only speculate about whose brand of liberalism he is referring to. Certainly not that of Thomas Jefferson!

Indeed, Lewis's brand of liberalism is "first to embrace, and then seek to reform, capitalism." And his program of reform is avowedly anti–laissez-faire. He calls it "Promethean environmentalism" or, more generally, "guided capitalism"—"a corporate and market system in which the state mandates public goods, in which taxes are set both to level social disparities and to penalize environmental damage, and in which fiscal policies are manipulated to encourage long-term investments in both human and industrial capital."

Lewis's vision is the perfection of the corporate liberal state, "a partnership model, one that regards workers, managers, and investors as striving in team-like fashion…[to form a] collective entrepreneurship." Do guided capitalism and collective entrepreneurship sound familiar? They should. For those with long memories, they were the economic flagship of Italian fascism. For those with shorter memories, they are the economic cornerstone of Bill Clinton's new liberalism.

Lewis's embrace of guided capitalism obscures the original message of Green Delusions and turns it into an intolerant, across-the-board assault on intellectual diversity. "Eco-radicals [who] view diversity of opinion as…vital" are scorned as reactionaries and quasi-libertarians, and libertarians are rejected as right-wing fanatics outside the American political tradition. Even Aldo Leopold, father of the modern environmental movement, is dismissed as a kook who delighted in shooting ducks. Indeed, Lewis's mania for pushing the Promethean solution of guided capitalism makes one wonder whether his environmental protestations are simply vehicles for a more sinister agenda.

Nonetheless, Green Delusions offers a lesson that should be heeded. Markets and market mechanisms have become the fad of the 1990s. Everyone, from former communist leaders to American presidents to Martin Lewis, has become enamored with the market concept. But the market they extol is not the free market, the deeper market of classical liberalism and libertarianism. Rather, it is the shallow market of Promethean capitalism, the manipulated market that radical environmentalists and free-market environmentalists shun (to Lewis's chagrin) because market mechanisms legitimize pollution, "as if fouling the environment were some kind of right."

Clearly, Lewis has no use for the Hayekian leanings of deep ecologists and deep marketeers. The view that "there is a kind of order that arises spontaneously and systematically when many self-concerned units jostle and seek their own programs" is not one shared by the author. It is, of course, shared by libertarians and classical liberals. Interestingly, the above quote was written by Holmes Rolston, a prominent deep ecologist and eco-ethicist.

After reading Lewis, I am not ashamed to be called a deep ecologist. Deep marketeers, who respect nature no less than eco-radicals, could find much worse company. And if being called a deep ecologist means agreeing with Lewis's chief deep-ecological nemesis, Christopher Manes (author of Green Rage) on the most important points, then so be it. I join Manes in his celebration of Jeffersonian democracy "as radical, grassroots democracy, based on the ward level and ever prepared to overturn any accumulation of power by those in leadership roles." And I concur with Manes that the menace to American society and American wildlands lies not on the periphery among fringe environmentalists but rather in the heartland of American politics. Corporate liberalism is alive and well.

Karl Hess Jr. is a senior associate with the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment, a senior fellow in environmental studies at the Cato Institute, and author of Visions Upon the Land: Man and Nature on the Western Range (Island Press).