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.
Perhaps the oddest part of Nature's Web is Marshall's insistence that he is a "libertarian"—a word that he uses repeatedly about his own environmental program and his favorite philosophers (including the Taoists, the Iroquois, and Immanuel Kant). He reviles radical Earth First!-types because they're perilously close to "eco-fascism," and "ecotopia cannot be created by coercive means." His approach, which he terms "libertarian ecology," recognizes "the claims of the individual as well as those of the social and biotic community."
"Libertarian ecology," explains Marshall, will save the earth and avoid oppressive government. After all, "ecologically conscious people will not follow private interest but experience ever-widening identification….They will throw off the spirit of gravity, unify mind and body, reason and imagination, and dance to the music of the spheres." Marshall's libertarianism is inspired by the notion that if rights are good, more rights are better. However, the definition of rights is a sticky business in Nature's Web. Traditionally, rights applied only to human beings because they alone can act volitionally, they alone can make purposeful decisions.
By finessing the point, Marshall doesn't have to draw distinctions between stones and humans, even ones as basic as "stones don't care" or "stones don't understand." Instead, stones have inherent value because they're "part of a system which makes up a living whole." Marshall stops short of positing "stones' rights," but even suggesting their moral worth is dubious.
After all, if every object on the planet has inherent value or moral worth, then any human action can, in theory, be banned. Everything we do affects something, and probably kills at least one thing—which means that either everything should be illegal, or someone's got to decide which human actions are stone-friendly and which ones aren't. Neither of those alternatives seems particularly "libertarian."
Wallace Kaufman turns his back precisely on this sort of muddled thinking in No Turning Back: Dismantling the Fantasies of Environmental Thinking. "Nature does not care," asserts Kaufman, "Only we do. And because we care, we have made the world an ever more livable place for ourselves by using science and technology and by exercising our power of dominion, wherever it comes from. The exercise of this power is a natural act….We are doing what every animal in creation has tried to do, only we are doing it more successfully because we have imagination and technology."
Kaufman is good at myth control. Among the myths he takes on: 1) recycling is always good, 2) forests are disappearing and development is the bad guy, 3) global warming threatens life on earth, 4) greed causes environmental problems, 5) nature is always right, 6) "sustainable development" is a good thing, and 7) primitive people were smarter managers of nature than we are.
And he reminds us of certain key truths, such as: 1) nature has no will but ours, and 2) natural resources are almost all a state of mind. Most important, as his book's title indicates, there is no turning back. To go back to the Pleistocene and avoid untold human suffering is the wildest of pipe dreams.
Kaufman is also good at debunking environmental self-righteousness. Thoreau, for instance, went hiking at Walden Pond wearing rubber boots and drinking Indian tea. "The Romantics contentedly enjoyed the blessings of the very things they condemned," says Kaufman. "Such logical contradictions did not bother them greatly. After all, logic was the enemy of real understanding."
This smacks of ad hominem attack, though it has a purpose—to point out that most environmental philosophers can't possibly have meant what they were saying. Sadly, Kaufman's attacks don't stop there. Rousseau is "the French philosopher-poet who was wandering around Europe leaving his children on the steps of foundling asylums as he practiced being a 'natural man.'" "Kevin Costner, who has played a number of anticapitalist roles including Robin Hood, might be dismayed to know that the legend of Robin Hood celebrates the struggle of citizens to win property rights from their government." These characterizations are gratuitous and don't advance Kaufman's argument. Neither do sweeping accusations that the green movement is dictatorial and undemocratic, or that "environmentalists know little of history in general and even less of economic history."
Unfortunately, when he gets beyond attack mode and moves into public-policy overdrive, Kaufman's own consistency becomes an issue. For instance, Kaufman charges that the Endangered Species Act saves no species, that it is an attack on development, that it serves the interests of an elite keen on preserving wilderness at someone else's expense, and that the economic and scientific advantages of biodiversity are marginal. Still, he wants to save ecosystems anyway because "when we lose a species, we often lose part of our own story, our own biological genealogy and family album."
Kaufman is vague because he wants to bash mainstream environmentalism while accepting its premises. He is a kiwi fruit environmentalist—rough on the outside, green on the inside. Thoreau believed that in "Wildness" is the preservation of the world; Kaufman believes that "in civilization is the salvation of wilderness and of nature in general." Kaufman calls these points of view "opposite," but they're not. Both he and Thoreau like wild things. His beef with the environmentalists is over means, not ends. That frees Kaufman to wax eloquent over the power of the market. In the end, though, he wants to do the same sort of environmental management, just with market-based regulations.
Kaufman tells us that "with a population of six billion and growing, we must manage nature for its sake and ours," but what he means is that technology is good because it can bring back extinct species and restore wetlands and old-growth forests. No word on why all that is "for our sake," or why we would want to recover ecosystems, especially if human impact on the environment is just part of nature.
While No Turning Back fails finally to "dismantle" environmental thinking, Charles Rubin's The Green Crusade: Rethinking the Roots of Environmentalism gets the job done. Rather than look hundreds of years back for the roots of our understanding of the environment, Rubin concentrates on six recent gurus of the environmental movement: Rachel Carson and Barry Commoner on chemicals, Paul Ehrlich and Garrett Hardin on population, and the Club of Rome and E.F. Schumacher on economic growth.
These are inspired choices. Carson, Ehrlich, and the Club of Rome are the great green popularizers, dealers in hope and fear who were able to make people think that there was a real and urgent problem, but who were also largely unaware of what the world they were advocating would look like. Commoner, Hardin, and Schumacher filled the void by laying out the relevant moral, political, and economic principles. Rubin convincingly points out the utopian fantasies underlying their visions and explores how the belief that society can be organized according to one principle makes their thought totalitarian.
Hence, Rachel Carson blamed environmental degradation on big business profits and called for a reevaluation of our relationship with nature but made no sustained criticism of either the economic system or of modern industry. Barry Commoner later revealed that guiding policy by ecological principles would require planning, in particular rule by environmental experts. To avoid the problems of totalitarianism, Commoner advocated global democratization as well. Historical evidence to the contrary, Commoner apparently believed that democracy and planning were likely to be consistent, and that planning was likely to avoid being centralized and repressive.
Paul Ehrlich charged that population growth would lead to famines, plagues, and wars, and advocated "voluntary" birth control programs to be overseen by a Department of Population and Environment, "a powerful government agency" which would, among other things, prohibit TV shows featuring large families. His admiration for Chinese population policies, though, left him open to the charge of being unclear on the concept of ethics. Garrett Hardin developed a more precise
picture of what a low-population world would look like—"a world of more or less separate, more or less antagonistic units called (most generally) tribes," coupled with eugenic policies enforced by some administrative body. Hardin acknowledged the danger of tyranny and exhorted us to be inventive and figure out "who will guard the guardians," but finally dealt with the problem by ignoring it.
The Club of Rome, authors of The Limits to Growth, "the most influential book ever written by a computer," recommended running society according to a "master plan" or "blueprint" that would ensure "organic growth." This would be clearly totalitarian, if we were given any clue on what the plan was or how to implement it.
E.F. Schumacher was clearer about the kind of world we should aim for—"small is beautiful," so we should follow "traditional wisdom" and adopt "intermediate" or "appropriate technology," in which every part would serve a well-defined function. Schumacher was wary of centralized power, though he did admire Mao Tse-Tung. But wouldn't Schumacher's admiration for "traditional wisdom" merely replace the technocratic society with a world of unthinking deference to sages? And if traditional wisdom dictates not only social goals ("small") but also the means to achieve these goals ("intermediate technology"), is this not a recipe for totalitarianism? Schumacher did not say.
Rubin then turns to "deep ecologists" such as Arne Naess and Paul Shepard, self-professed unmakers of civilization who openly scoff at their environmentalist forefathers for being too soft on the modern world. Deep ecology is chiefly against anthropocentrism and in favor of "biocentrism," "ecocentrism," or "biospherical egalitarianism," and therefore thinks little of individual lives, whether human or non-human. It advocates "bioregional organization" (i.e., running human life in accordance with "natural constraints"), a sense of rootedness, and a ritualization of life which includes the recovery or recreation of primal rituals. The overt totalitarianism here barely needs pointing out; what does need pointing out is how undeep it is.
Deep ecologists want to return to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, but also would like to keep artificial food production and "academic, artistic, skilled or professional" occupations. They want a world of small, isolated communities, explaining that such a world would be less warlike (though this is unlikely without a global policing authority or a universal moral principle—attributes of the despised modern world). They reject rationality and look forward to a new being that might overcome the limitations of logos. As Rubin puts it, "if there were a deep ecology that persisted in asking why and how, it would show the shallowness of those who have appropriated that name."
Finally, Rubin analyzes the major critics of the environmental movement. He is only mildly approving of such writers as Ronald Bailey (Ecoscam) and Michael Fumento (Science Under Siege), who are in the business of systematically debunking the green scares of the week. Rubin charges that they criticize environmentalism without coherently saying what they're for, and that they defend capitalism on economic grounds without understanding the connection between capitalism and liberty. Rubin also discusses Aaron Wildavsky and Mary Douglas who, in Risk and Culture, argue that environmentalists choose risks of concern based on cultural prejudices. He is critical of them too, because they don't say why the environmental cultural prejudice is worse than any other one.
I think Rubin is being harsh on the Baileys, Fumentos, Wildavskys, and Douglases of the world; deflating apocalyptic claims and pointing out cultural bias are valuable things. And anyone who claims that Bailey and Fumento don't understand the importance of liberty must not have read them very closely.
But Rubin's final advice is worth remembering. Environmental popularizers should respect the scientific method in their writings. We should stop talking about the "environment," a word which means everything and nothing, and start talking about individual problems. And we should avoid grandiose, global schemes in favor of smaller-scale, localized solutions.
The strength of The Green Crusade is its studious avoidance of generalizations about the environmental movement. The best argument against people like Peter Marshall is perhaps his own book. But fully understanding why he's wrong requires more than perusing a screed like No Turning Back. The Green Crusade makes it clear that, when talking about utopian movements that hold up one principle—for instance, environmental quality—as the paramount virtue, we shouldn't be asking, "Why are such movements totalitarian?" Instead, we should be asking, "How could they not be?"
Alexander Volokh is an assistant policy analyst at the Reason Foundation.