Depth of Field: What should be the ethic that grounds environmentalism?
September 10, 2011
“When a forest is no longer sacred, there are no spirits to be placated and no mysterious risks associated with clear-felling it. A disenchanted nature is no longer alive. It commands no respect, reverence or love. It is nothing but a giant machine, to be mastered to serve human purposes.” — Andrew Brennan and Yeuk-Sze Lo, “Environmental Ethics” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
The passage above describes a fairly common vein of thinking in environmental circles. This “disenchantment,” beginning in the Enlightenment with Newtonian physics and philosophies like those of Kant, kicked off modern science as we know it: a universe composed not of spirits and essences, but of interlocking parts that act according to common rules, is one whose behaviour can be predicted — and thus controlled. The worst periods of European colonialism and the excesses of industrialization followed. As a species, we haven’t put our ever-increasing power over nature to the best of uses; hence a number of movements have attempted to repair our relationship with nature in one form or another. One of the most prominent of these in recent times is an ethical theory called deep ecology: proponents argue that the global ecosystem and everything in it are valuable in themselves — not to be protected because of their usefulness to humans, but for their own sake.
The phrase “deep ecology” itself was coined in 1973 by Norwegian philosopher Arne Næss, but the sentiment of deep respect for nature was already a part of the environmental movement, which began in earnest in the ’60s. Earlier books like Rachel Carson’s Silent Springand Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac (“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise”) were part of a shift in environmental thought from the question of what is in the humaninterest to what is in the natural interest. The idea that we are integrated, responsible members of a natural community — not a mere collection of detached individuals — was a perfect fit with the burgeoning counterculture’s rejection of Western individualism and consumerism. The disenchanting legacy of Enlightenment science was, and is still, blamed for everything from nuclear war to runaway overconsumption, and not without reason. The effort at reenchantment, and the ethical claim that nature must be protected for its own sake, certainly capture something morally important to us — but the idea may have its pitfalls too.
In his book The New Ecological Order, Luc Ferry plants himself firmly on the side of the Enlightenment and against deep ecology. For an Enlightenment liberal like Ferry, humans are quintessentially anti-natural; we can learn from and build upon the history of past generations in a way that other animals can’t. Our moral obligations take the form of human rights: they issue from the fact that we are free, rational beings, and from our choosing to enter into a “social contract” with the rest of society. Thus, to Ferry, attempts at extending moral value to non-human entities are fundamentally silly, a confusion of categories. He enjoys pointing out absurdities that result from bringing these concepts outside of the human sphere: thinkers who have proposed replacing the social contract with a “natural contract” (to be signed by animals, plants, ecosystems?), pre-Enlightenment trials in which vermin were taken to court before a judge for their offenses against humans (and sometimes, with the help of legal counsel, absolved!), and modern-day trials in which the rights of rocks or trees have again been asserted by groups like the Sierra Club.
But more than being merely misled, Ferry considers deep ecology potentially dangerous. He points out the surprising fact that the Nazis passed groundbreaking environmental protections. Laws forbidding hunting, animal cruelty, and environmental harm were, in fact, Hitler’s “pet projects,” according to Ferry. How could such apparent touchy-feeliness take root in one of the most legendarily brutal regimes to ever blight the planet? Ferry’s answer is that a general theme of Nazi ideology was a backlash against the Enlightenment: its liberalism, egalitarianism, scientism, and humanism.
The ethical laws of the Enlightenment, like its scientific laws, were universalizing and equalizing. Counter-Enlightenment movements like Nazism have sought to return to particularity — to preserve the unique character of places, races, cultures, and traditions. The modern movement called bioregionalism, for example, stresses the importance of local setting. In the words of Antoine Waechter, a prominent contemporary French politician and environmentalist, “A cultural community can only blossom on a soil where a continuity of generations occurs and here its identity takes the concrete and visible form of a unique landscape.” This sounds eerily similar to the spirit of the Third Reich’s environmental protection laws, in which the preservation of the German landscape is framed as crucial for the preservation of German culture. For a committed liberal individualist like Ferry, we are self-making creatures for whom the freedom to craft our own identities is paramount; so the distinction between the biological determinism of Nazi racism and the sort of cultural determinism suggested by Waechter appears fine indeed…