Feature 01.11.2024 12 minutes

How Nature Became the Environment

Flower brain

Crisis fills the void left by meaning.

Of the social movements that sprung forth from mid-century Boomer counterculture, none has been more astoundingly triumphant than environmentalism. The current standard bearers of the movement are no less radical, imprudent, or unreasonable than their forebears. But their movement is far more powerful as a social and political force than it once was.

Consider this: almost every single industrial effort in the West—from the auto and natural gas industries to agriculture—justifies itself through the language of environmentalism. What item at the grocery store or in your Amazon cart—for that matter, what grocery cart—is not advertised in the green dialect? The entire globe discusses energy policy using environmentalism as the coin of the realm.

Billionaires like Michael Bloomberg shovel hundreds of millions into green NGOs which operate with a level of public credulity and political license undreamt of by their left-wing peers. The greatest investment of public money into American infrastructure since the founding, Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, was tailored to satisfy the movement’s demands.

And unlike other progressive causes, environmentalism has not been subject to a shocking revision in tone or character since its crest in the 1960s. Whereas new generations of journalists and academics have rendered their forebears’ professions nigh-on unrecognizable, Zoomer and Boomer environmentalists remain broadly united in the level and direction of their passionate intensity. Perhaps this is because the environmentalist movement of the ‘60s Left had no need to radicalize: it was already as radicalized as it was possible to be in the logic of its creation, which its modern inheritors are only playing out.

Dominion or What?

Man has always grappled with his place in the natural world. Our dual nature, the mutual facts of our animality and our consciousness, have posed some of the most enduring questions about our situation. Part of environmentalism’s appeal is that it answers, or tries to answer, these questions. But its answers mark a departure from our traditional understandings and thus the founding principles around which our society is oriented.

In the days of the early republic, our reckoning mixed Newtonian physics with Christian conceptions of dominion over the Earth, and a Protestant drive toward improvement. The natural world was Other, but not alien; our mechanical savvy was potent, but not alienating. The machine was but the world mechanism in miniature, the outer gears of which slotted into the great cogwork of Nature.

Then came the railroads, the telegraph, the steamboat, and, finally, electricity. By the turn of the century, the Progressive movement had emerged as an elite response to America’s transition from an extended agrarian republic to an urbanizing, industrial titan. The Progressive environmental ideology—then called “conservationism”—revolved around a chain of related concerns: conserving land and resources, protecting the public good from private predation, and marshaling scientific enterprise for the purposes of societal management.

Christian faith, Darwinian biology, and the gospel of historical, technological progress were thus welded together into the Progressive outlook. Hydropower dams and national parks became the calling cards of the conservationist vanguard. The former symbolized the power of science and management over nature for industrial progress, all while sparing the use of fuel. The latter shared the merit of resource conservation, while staking out domains in which a vitalist culture of wilderness recreation could flush the cheeks of a public in danger of growing soft from progress’s luxuries.

But not everyone thought conservation was sufficient in its engagement with the natural world. And not everyone exalted the prowess of the American engineer, nor counted the fruits of progress among the self-evident and unmitigated goods. A growing band of Americans began to see the toll of industrialization as too much to bear. Was the prosperity worth it? Could it not undermine vital aspects of the American character, which had been formed in the continent’s vast wilderness? These were the questions posed and answered by the ecologist Aldo Leopold in his seminal A Sand County Almanac (1949).

Of course, Leopold wasn’t the first to address such concerns—Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville had taken stiff draughts from Thomas Carlyle’s critique of industrialism, “Signs of the Times,” before penning their masterpieces. Thoreau had clapped shut his ears to blot out the churn and whistle of the locomotive as it roared past Walden Pond. But Leopold far exceeded his forebears in radicalism. While they had offered ambivalence, anxiety, and skepticism, he offered Americans an entirely new vista from which to appreciate their relationship with Nature.

Our Abrahamic relationship to the world was, to Leopold, the greatest obstacle. The idea of a naturally-endowed dominion placed us above the fray of the natural world. He sought to lower mankind to just another element of Earth’s biology. Leopold wanted to change “the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it.” Man was “only a member of a biotic team” and thus had obligations not just to the political community, but to that “natural” community that was equal in weight and consequence. Ecology gave Leopold’s animating sensibility heft, as he seemed to speak in the lingua franca of secular authority: science. We were now beyond the realm of Nature and its God and whatever truths were held to be self-evident therein. New charters needed drawing up.

As the environmental movement has changed and diversified into a labyrinth of NGOs and niche ideologies, Leopold’s vision has remained the default setting. Even socialists, once great worshippers of the machine, operate under Leopold’s assumptions about man’s place in the world. It is no longer “Workers of the world unite!” but “Workers and the world unite!”

This is not to say that Leopold is “patient zero” or to make of him an intellectual scapegoat. I emphasize his view because it has become dominant in the mainstream environmental movement as that movement has risen to prominence. As our country has secularized and the Christian worldview has atrophied in public importance, answers like those of Leopold’s have offered a cut-rate pantheism as a successful replacement. It anchors the perplexed in a discernible schema that orients their thoughts and actions. While environmentalism is not a “religion,” it does scratch similar itches and invites a similar zeal. “Those who abandoned God,” wrote Nietzsche, “cling that much more firmly to the faith in morality.” This degrades, as we will see, into a kind of “bare life”-oriented moralism.

A Waltz: Utopia, Dystopia, Crisis

In 1952, Rachel Carson wrote a letter to a friend regarding Leopold’s book Round River. Carson, whose watershed book Silent Spring (1962) was not yet even on her horizon, wrote back that she found Leopold to be “a completely brutal man.” In her letter, Carson cites several instances in which Leopold writes with delight about skinning game or hunting snow rabbits with a slingshot. These moments horrified her and disqualified Leopold as the naturalist titan she once believed him to be. “A wild animal was to him,” she wrote, “only something to kill and torture.”

Anyone who has spent time with Leopold’s work knows this to be a caricature at best. Carson’s letter reveals instead that she lacked Leopold’s realism. As a hunter, he respected a good trophy and its pursuit—and that this was part of man’s place in the great web of being. So were restraint, conservation, and care. But man was still an animal, after all, and so the hunt remained on. But Carson was a prescriptivist: whatever Nature was for her, it lacked cruelty. And whatever Leopold was, he enjoyed “cruelty” too much. Men should be more like Nature and less like Leopold.

More than just a divide between the intellectual founders of the environmental movement, Carson’s letter serves as a synecdoche for the rapid evolutions in outlook that played out in the movement’s history. These evolutions have furnished today’s movement, with its baseline assumptions about man’s relationship to Nature. Nature, in fact, would disappear as the word “environment” replaced it.

The conception of the environment and man’s place in it doubled down on some of Leopold’s assumptions. Humanity itself became a problem. Everywhere the bringer of disharmony and damage, mankind—the now fully-formed environmental movement argued—was something more like a sophisticated locust. Having overgrown the Earth’s carrying capacity, our species’s appetite threatened to poison the environment upon which we subsisted. Our rapacity could only terminate in a wave of mass death. Couldn’t you see it everywhere? Our crowded cities, our stygian lakes. The River Rouge, upon which Henry Ford had built his assembly lines, flowed just behind my mother’s house in Michigan. Her father worked for GM. In winter, the river never froze. It was too polluted.

The impact of the rhetorical and conceptual shift from Nature to the “environmental” offered the movement novel avenues by which it could appeal to the public. On the one hand, the “environment” was a more diffuse concept, abstracted from the tangibility of Nature. On the other, its diffuseness made the world appear more fragile. Man thus appeared more vulnerable to and helpless within the environment’s totalizing domain. One step further: while Leopold sought for balance between the lethal wildness of the natural world and its pastoral beauty, the environmental movement maintained a utopian dimension, a “counterworld” devoid of trade-offs, pain, or “cruelty” that environmentalists could use like a cudgel with which to bludgeon the actually existing world. Pronouncements of fact could now be deployed, entirely unconsciously, as stalking horses for desire.

A brief example: often the press, which is entirely sympathetic to the movement, will circulate claims about the deaths and illnesses incurred by our use of fossil fuels. Numbers will be run on how much these lethal consequences cost. We’re then told that this industry, one great death machine, must be done away with and therefore can be done away with. Of course, what’s subtracted from this view is the reality that hydrocarbons provide us with essential products for which there is no ready replacement. Without them, billions really would die. Regardless, the desire for a world without fossil fuels means that the world without them would be better and any world with them worse. The fact emerges: fossil fuels are killing us all and are unnecessary.

Despite the environmentalist movement’s shifting agenda, the waltz plays on in its background: the utopia of a painless world is everywhere hazarded by reality, which can only ever be dystopia, which means the crisis is ever present. All hands on deck! Let the donor money flow, the volunteers hit the street, the policymakers, culture warriors, and energy modelers draft new maps that will be passed off as territory. For such enormous and global problems there is no such thing as mission creep and no barrier to entry for participants. Any social movement that grants itself such marching orders is bound to prosper and endure.

Men In Search of Chests

What could infuse life with meaning more than knowing you face the end of the world and that your actions determine mankind’s fate? Yet what could unravel a minimal selfhood, patched together in the shadow of eco-pocalypse, more swiftly than that very doom’s cancellation? Crisis is a force that gives us meaning. With meaning comes ethical obligations. Many Americans find meaning in short supply and ethical guidance scarcer still. “Climate crisis” as a concept freights life with a gravity largely absent from the weightlessness of the “end of history.” Doom is where men go to find their missing chests.

Whatever its triumphalism, Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man (1992) closed with a series of disquieting chapters. Were we not “men without chests” who have surrendered “prideful belief in his or her own superior worth in favor of comfortable self-preservation”? Did we not, after liberal democracy declared victory over its historical competitors, “exchange a walk on part in the war for a lead role in a cage,” as the Pink Floyd song had it? While our lot may have improved, a howling silence remains. Our democratic commitment to tolerance has undermined primary claims of morality, which demand distinctions of good and bad. “It is for this reason,” Fukuyama wrote, “that the last man becomes concerned above all for his own personal health and safety, because it is uncontroversial.” This is why environmentalism can only orient itself around mere survival. There is no ethic beyond that. There can’t be. In the climate crisis, we are in a fight for our own survival. Environmentalism offers no ethos on how to live, but various stratagems for how not to die.

In this way, environmentalism is the great ethic of the Last Man: it maintains post-Enlightenment secular disenchantment with its alleged scientific bona fides; it clings to a utopian horizon oriented around which a political cause can be rallied; but its utopian horizon can best be described as a longing for an anesthetized world of “bare life.” Thus this horizon dovetails with the Last Man’s narrow purview of health and self-preservation. The stakes may seem existential, but the ethical ordering principles, the substance of the meaning it provides, are entirely mundane, negative, restrictive.

This is not to say we live in a Panglossian world where there are no health or environmental impacts from industrial society. But it is to say that environmentalism’s popularity should be seen as a feature, not a bug, in a liberal democracy. It covers the blindspots.

What Now?

The environmental ideology is currently wreaking havoc on America’s industrial commons. This is most apparent in the electricity sector, where the federal government’s electric reliability monitor, The North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC), declared last year that the top two threats to our electricity system’s integrity were our current green energy policy and the transformations in the power system it causes. Last May, every single member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission told the Senate that America is hurtling toward an electric power crisis for which we have no plan, back up or otherwise. Everywhere outside of certain conservative circles, the environmental movement enjoys unique levels of public approval, in spite of the threats that it and its ideology pose. In fact, it enjoys more than acceptance; we have almost entirely internalized its worldview.

Clearly, policy agendas, political battles, etc. will need to be fought to secure our future prosperity. But we are fooling ourselves if we think that is enough. The movement’s existence and hegemony, in fact, prove that that is not enough. What we need is a better vision, a truer vision, of what life is for. And we cannot simply “play the hits” of that Old Time Religion. Moreover, we cannot rely on the same kind of crisis-mongering the environmental movement does. It’s discrediting, and their claim to “survival” serves as the ultimate trump card. We instead face a different challenge—not of crisis, but continuation. What ordering principles are possible at this so-called “end of history,” or perhaps “end of the end of history”? Our great task is to reckon with our historical purgatory: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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