Monday, June 17, 2013

"Against Environmental Panic"

That is the title of an intriguing article by Pascal Bruckner that just appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education.  I have some doubts about my ability to summarize it - I'm reminded of something someone once said about Chesterton, "language as thick as clotted cream" - but I'll have a go and then try to share some thoughts of my own.

Bruckner seems to me to have two basic points to make:

(a) There is a religious resonance to much contemporary environmental talk, especially regarding those aspects of religion that have to do with sin and guilt:
Consider the meaning in contemporary jargon of the famous carbon footprint that we all leave behind us. What is it, after all, if not the gaseous equivalent of Original Sin?
 (b) There is also a catastrophist or apocalyptic resonance to our environmental talk, and this is "at once a recognition of real problems and a symptom of the aging of the West, a reflection of its psychic fatigue".  Whence does this come?  Bruckner skewers those who theorize disaster but who, like Saki's Sophie Chattel-Monkheim (The Byzantine Omelette) are conscious of "a comfortable feeling that the system...would probably last her time":
defeatism is... the second home of privileged peoples, the contented sigh of big cats purring in comfort. A tragedy that strikes far away transforms the platitude of our everyday lives into a high-risk adventure.
Bruckner does not like either of these, and his dislike leads him to conflate them, which results in some silly remarks:
Cataclysm is part of the basic tool-kit of Green critical analysis, and prophets of decay and decomposition abound.
A moment's reflection shows that one can believe (or warn) that some (or even many) things are going to get worse (which presumably is what being "a prophet of decay" means) without for a moment believing that  humanity is about to become extinct (which, it is clear from elsewhere in the article, is the kind of "cataclysm" that Bruckner is referring to).  As far as I can see, the most likely future for humanity on the earth is neither the "utopia" of endless progress nor extinction, but some kind of in-between.  Bruckner is perfectly right, though, that the temptation to frame things in terms of a Manichean alternative between good and evil is one that has beset many environmentalists; there is a lot of good writing about this over at The Archdruid Report (most recently here).

So what is Bruckner's response?  He sees that the Christian message that "a person's life does not consist in the abundance of their possessions" has something to say here, but he deconstructs it both  in its ancient and its modern application:
This way of thinking...constitutes above all a machine for legitimating a state of affairs. ...This kind of reasoning was very fertile in the works of the church fathers and of Leibniz, and also in those of the theorists of the "invisible hand," from Mandeville to Hayek, without forgetting totalitarian regimes that made it a fearsome weapon for subjecting people.
Why wait? Why hold back? The suggestion by a member of the European Parliament that we should use less electricity rouses his rhetoric to a higher pitch:
The project here is authoritarian. On reading its recommendations, we can almost hear the heavy door of a dungeon closing behind us.
But, one might ask,  don't we owe it to our children and grandchildren to exercise some restraint in order to improve their lives, if we can in fact do that? Not according to Bruckner, who calls future generations "conceptual ectoplasm" and comments:
In this rhetorical intoxication, the future becomes again, as it had once been in Christianity and communism, a tool of blackmail.
It's a shame that his valid warnings to the environmental movement, about the dangers of rhetorical excess and dualistic thinking, suffer from the same defects that he identified in his opponents.  In his dismissal of the "conceptual ectoplasm" one can hear echoes of the smart guy who, desiring to justify himself, thought to ask Jesus "And who is my neighbor". 

If he wanted clear boundaries, that didn't turn out so well.

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