During his time in the White House, Barack Obama, along with Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry, and other administration officials, asserted that man-made climate change was the greatest threat to humanity’s future—not just one threat among others, or a pretty big one, but the greatest. As recent Pew research makes clear, far more Americans on the political left think that climate change is a big deal than do those on the right, and since the Left is typically more secular and the Right more religious, we see a spiritual paradox: on the environment, those on the left are the true (if pagan) believers, while those on the right are the dogmatic “atheists” (the whole climate thing is just an exaggerated crisis cooked up by liberal elites and the fake media).
Conservative skepticism notwithstanding, though, climate-change ideologues have more or less shaped public debate on the issue—successfully branding their opposition as “climate deniers.” And by now, nearly 50 years after the first Earth Day, a broad-ranging and increasingly draconian ecological consciousness has become pervasive in American life, extending far beyond climate issues. Go to the supermarket, for example, or look inside your pantry. You’ll find that hundreds of items in bags and cans have certifications of “Non-GMO.” That means that they contain no genetically modified organisms. In recent years, more than 27,000 products have been so certified (by the Non-GMO Project), with the purpose of putting our minds at ease that what we’re about to eat is not genetically modified and will not sicken or kill us or make us sprout a third arm. Non-GMO fanatics and millions of consumers call these forbidden fruits “Frankenfood.” Never mind that nobody has been proved to have been harmed or killed by GMOs. (That can’t be said for organic spinach or bean sprouts.) And never mind that for 25 years, almost all corn, cotton, and soybeans grown in the United States have been genetically modified, with nobody sickened or dead or sporting an extra limb. So why the intransigence of the activists and the gullibility of so many consumers?
The issue here is not the inevitable one of managing risk and rewards in modern life. It’s perfectly reasonable to wonder whether plants genetically modified to withstand the herbicide Roundup, say, might cause more of the poison to be used and thus entail some cost or harm. The giveaway term is the reference to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The real issue, that is, is not primarily technical or scientific; it’s moral and spiritual. With genetic engineering, in this view, we’re trying to play God and invariably upsetting the natural order of things. Put differently, and in the terms of the radical ecologist David Graber, we’re the fallen human parasite going after holy Mother Nature.
Consider an extraordinary 2017 news release from the Marin County, California, Department of Health and Human Services. The document reported that the kindergarten vaccination rate in the county had reached its highest rate, 93.2 percent, since 2000—a “dramatic change” from the 2011–12 school year, when the rate was a dangerous 77.9 percent. To nobody’s surprise, California experienced an outbreak of measles at that time, and Marin County was logically suspected as its source. The county turnaround was in part explained, said the news release, by the passage of California State Senate Bill 277, eliminating personal and religious exemptions from vaccination requirements, which had endangered the lives of medically fragile children. Marin County is home to a population of rich, well-educated, and politically liberal citizens, who succumbed to the anti-vax movement in droves. What drives anti-vaxxers, besides their unfounded warnings about autism, is the same principle that motivates the non-GMO crowd: we need to keep our technological hands off the supposedly divine order of nature, even if elements of that divine order, like viruses, are killing us.
I found this out firsthand years ago, when I had a conversation with the late Arne Naess, the Norwegian father of what is known as “deep ecology” and guru of the European Green movement. How seriously did Naess regard the divinity of Mother Nature? He told me that the eradication of smallpox was a technological crime against nature. The smallpox virus, he said—which had maimed, tortured, and killed millions of human beings—somehow “deserved” human protection.
Most people would regard protecting the smallpox virus as a crackpot idea, but the broader notions of deep ecology have made major headway in mainstream thought, especially through the advocacy of influential Greens such as Bill McKibben and David Graber, who have sounded the alarm for years on global warming, the depredations of fossil fuels, and the evils of human technology. Since the early 1970s, deep ecology has been the beating heart of radical environmentalism. Most people today have never heard of Naess and know nothing about deep ecology, but without knowing it, they have increasingly accepted many of its precepts. With climate change (whether you believe in it or not) destined to be a major policy issue for years to come, along with related issues concerning human interaction with the natural world, it’s worth understanding what the vision of deep ecology entails—and what its practical consequences would be.
Deep ecology is really radical: its two fundamental principles—“self-realization” and “biocentric equality”—amount to a complete rejection of Western modernity. According to deep ecologists Bill Devall and George Sessions, authors of the 1985 book Deep Ecology, self-realization is “in keeping with the spiritual traditions of many of the world’s religions,” but the self of which they speak is quite different from the modern Western version—one based in a notion of individual liberty and self-fulfillment. The ecological self encompasses humanity as a whole and, even more, includes the entire nonhuman world. No one is saved, they say, until all are saved; and the “one” includes me, all human beings, whales, grizzly bears, mountains and rivers, and “the tiniest microbes in the soil.” That’s a big self.
The principle of biocentric equality tells us, in turn, that this “larger self-realization” views all the organisms and entities in the ecosphere as “parts of an interrelated whole and equal in intrinsic worth,” with “each possessing an equal right to live and blossom and to reach their own individual forms of unfolding and self-realization.” Predation is a biological fact of life, Devall and Sessions acknowledge, but that doesn’t change the fact that humans are just “plain citizens” of the hierarchy-free biotic community. We’d better watch where we walk, in other words, lest we, say, crush some ants; and yes, we should think even of the interests of the smallpox virus.
It would be easy to dismiss ecology this “deep” as harmless, West Coast tree-hugging. But deep-ecology fellow traveler John Holdren served as director of the White House Office of Science and Technology in the Obama administration—a post from which he issued, in a 2010 interview with CNS News, a call to use the “free market economy” in a “massive campaign” to “de-develop the United States.” Holdren was referring to work done a generation earlier, in 1977, with Paul and Anne Ehrlich, Ecoscience: Population, Resources, Environment, a massive tome touting the deep-ecological tenet that vastly too many human beings exist, generating such relentless pressure on Earth’s “carrying capacity” that catastrophic shortages of food and energy were inevitable. So great was the impending disaster, warned the authors, that preventing it would require worldwide population control, de-development of wealthy countries, and some kind of planetary governing institution. Three years later, Holdren advised Paul Ehrlich in his famous bet with Julian L. Simon about the future price of a basket of raw materials—Ehrlich predicting that it would be wildly more expensive, Simon that it would be far cheaper. Simon won the bet, of course, and Ehrlich and Holdren were proved spectacularly wrong about environmental doom. Yet both Ehrlich and Holdren moved on to climate change with no less certainty and moralizing zeal. However radical and obscure it might be, what happens in the seminar room can wind up in corporate boardrooms, and in the White House, too.
To go back into the intellectual origins of deep ecology, start with the deep-ecology “self”—or rather, with what it’s not: “the ‘modern Western self,’ which is an isolated and selfish ego pursuing pleasure or some kind of individual salvation in this life or the next,” in the words of Devall and Sessions. If we add to this, as the deep ecologists surely do, that the business of that Western self is to dominate nature, we have Western man defined in the way the intellectual founders of the modern age, for the most part, understood him.
Shortly before he died in 1626, Sir Francis Bacon penned New Atlantis, a fable about an island society called Bensalem, governed by and dedicated to the scientific project of the conquest of nature. Bacon chose the title in reference to the mythical and advanced society of that name in Plato’s dialogues Timaeus and Critias. The difference between Plato’s and Bacon’s versions of a technically advanced society is that Plato’s met either with divine punishment for its hubris or with some natural disaster, while Bacon’s Bensalem is immune from both.
Bacon did not publish New Atlantis during his lifetime, at least partly because it had some disturbing things to say about religion in general and Christianity in particular. Not the least was that, while Christianity came to the island by a miracle of divine revelation, the scientists know how to make natural phenomena appear miraculous. At any rate, to the first and subsequent editions of the work was appended a list that Bacon had drawn up of future scientific wonders: the prolongation of life; the restitution of youth in some degree; the retardation of age; the curing of diseases counted incurable; the mitigation of pain; the increasing of strength and activity; the altering of statures; the increasing and exalting of the intellectual parts; the transformation of bodies into other bodies; the making of new species; the transplanting of one species into another; the forging of instruments of destruction; the exhilaration of the spirits, and putting them in good disposition; the deceptions of the senses; the greater pleasure of the senses; and the invention of artificial materials and cements (Krazy Glue!).
There can be no doubt about it: Bacon predicted that when human reason penetrates the processes of natural matter, we can do with that matter anything we choose. It’s clear from Bacon’s list (and with this, the American Baconian Benjamin Franklin agreed wholeheartedly) that, for him, old age and death were curable diseases and not the wages of sin. According to Bacon, nature is the enemy that maims and kills us—but our brains are capable of subduing that enemy and bending it to our will.
Bacon’s sometime secretary was Thomas Hobbes. In 1651, he published Leviathan, one of the major sources of modern political thought. Leviathan shocked many at the time, who thought it atheism at best and blasphemy at worst. The two passions that move human behavior, Hobbes contended, are the fear of violent death and the desire for “commodious living.” Prior to the establishment of government—sovereign political power—human beings live in a state of nature, with each equally in possession of an absolute right to all things necessary for self-preservation (including the lives and bodies of others). That produces a state of war, in which life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” The only solution is for everyone to lay down their absolute right to all things, with one entity—the political sovereign—retaining that right and thus representing the basic interest of all subjects of the sovereign.
Hobbes is important because he introduced the modern principle of liberal politics (even though, as a matter of convenience, he thought monarchy the most useful and stable form of government): the political sovereign is neither divine nor the embodiment of a partisan notion of “justice,” nor subject to a partisan notion of “justice.” Government is simply the only tool we have to make it possible to live our private lives as we see fit and become as well-off as we can. The minute it no longer protects us, we’re free to take off—which is why, Hobbes points out, criminals get taken to the gallows in shackles.
Bacon plus Hobbes gives us the “modern Western self.” The purpose of life, in this view, is material acquisition, secured by the modern state, and the means of that acquisition is the technological conquest of nature. No wonder, then, that from the get-go, Western modernity has been plagued by self-doubt. The rebel scion of the French Enlightenment, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, argued in his Discourse on the Sciences and Arts and elsewhere that material and technological progress makes us unhappy and sick at heart, even as its medicine promises to cure that heart’s diseases. Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein is a powerful critique of the technological and revolutionary spirit of modernity. The American Transcendentalists revered nature and yearned for various forms of spirituality, including, for Henry David Thoreau, that of the Hindu Bhagavad Gita. The American Civil War was the first modern “total war” and the later First World War, with its mechanized mass slaughter, dealt a shock to the modern faith in progress.
And after that war, perhaps the most powerful philosophical mind of the twentieth century—albeit a mind in sympathy with National Socialism—Martin Heidegger, produced his profound critique of the whole of Western rationalism, from the Greeks through modern times. According to Heidegger, Western thought was from the beginning on the wrong track in that it covered up the fundamental, uncanny, and disquieting open-endedness of human experience. As Western rationalism culminates in modern technology, everything that is, says Heidegger, becomes mere stuff to be used, and that includes ourselves (think of “human resources”). Modern physics sees the world as a vast storehouse of power, to be used for the useful ordering of things for the sake of even more useful ordering—mastery of nature for the sake of mastering it. Under the sway of modern technology, said Heidegger, all mystery and human rootedness, seriousness, and reverence disappear.
For Heidegger, technology is the way the things of the world are revealed in our everyday activities. We don’t do this revealing ourselves; we’re the beings through whom it occurs, by way of historical fate. As such, nothing can be done about it. Anything we would try to do would turn out to be itself technological. Concerned “environmentalism” is still just technological, since it presumes a world to be consumed and used by us, albeit with frugality in mind. In Heidegger’s view, our task is to wait for whatever new form of the revealing of things will take the place of technology. That new form will have something to do with reverence and the divine, he believed, though not as we know them from the Bible. As Heidegger said of technology: “Only a god can save us.”
Heidegger uttered this comment in an interview for the German magazine Der Speigel in 1966, though it wasn’t published until after his death in 1976. His remark, however ambiguous, proved prescient. A year later, Lynn Townsend White, Jr., a historian of medieval technology, published a short but extraordinary paper, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” in which he argued that all modern science and technology, no matter where practiced or by whom, was “Western in style and method.” Why so? Because what people do to nature is conditioned largely by religious belief and because “the victory of Christianity over paganism was the greatest psychic revolution in the history of our culture.” Our belief in progress was “unknown to Greco-Roman antiquity or to the orient”; the ancient philosophers believed that time was cyclical and that Earth and the cosmos were eternal. And pagans in general believed that everything in nature—streams and mountains and trees—had its own guardian spirit that needed to be placated before one did anything to or with natural objects.
In the Bible, by contrast, Earth was created by God, time is linear, and all of God’s creation was made to serve human purposes. God created humans, too, of course, but we’re the only part of divine creation made in God’s image, and so are not a coequal with the rest of nature. The Bible tells us that it is God’s will that we exploit nature for our ends, “in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects,” says White. In its Western form, especially, he adds, “Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen.” Some subtle theological differences between the Latin and Greek churches led the East to lag far behind the West, so that after the invention of Greek fire (one might call it Byzantine napalm) in the late seventh century, technological innovation vanished from the East. It was in the Latin Western Christian world that technology flourished and “natural theology” sought to understand God’s will by studying how His creation works.
White thus traces our science and technology and the ecological crisis all the way back to chapter 1 of the Book of Genesis, and not just to Bacon’s seventeenth-century argument for the scientific conquest of nature. A pivotal moment occurred in Christian Europe, when the eco-friendly scratch plow used worldwide in agriculture was replaced by the knife and mold plow that “attacked the land” with massive force and violence. White was both a Green and a self-professed “churchman.” He speaks, then, of the “guilt” that Christianity bears for our ecological predicament: for the fact that in our present frame of mind, “when you’ve seen one redwood tree you’ve seen them all.” His conclusion recalls Heidegger’s: “More science and more technology are not going to get us out of the present ecological crisis until we find a new religion, or rethink our old one.” The churchman in him advises us to follow Saint Francis of Assisi, a man he says was so radical that the miracle of his life was that he was not burned at the stake for heresy. Saint Francis wanted to establish the virtue of humility for the human species as a whole and thus to establish “a democracy of all creatures.” Since Saint Francis “tried to substitute the equality of all creatures, including man, for the idea of man’s limitless rule of creation,” he’s a good candidate to be the “patron saint” of ecologists. If White is right, then 900 years ago, Saint Francis was promoting the deep ecologists’ principles of self-realization and biocentric equality.
The faith of deep ecology is better understood, however, as paganism redux in the form of an egalitarian pantheism. As Tocqueville argued in Democracy in America, democrats believe in equality, and as equality is diminished by democracy, even the smallest remaining inequalities become intolerable. And that makes the really big inequality—the one between God and man—impossible to bear. The likely new religion of democracy, said Tocqueville, is pantheism, the idea that everything is God—from the smallest germ and mouse to ourselves. An alternate version of pantheism is the view that everything in the world is God except for humans, the parasite (or devil) that mucks everything up. The deep-ecology movement—and much of the environmentalism that it influences—is not just misanthropic anticapitalism. It is a spiritual response to the perceived sin of human pride: “Who the hell are we humans to tell the wolves and birds what to do, let alone to determine whether they live or die?”
“The problems we face, including climate change, will be solved by pragmatic politics, technology, and free markets.”
Yet at the end of the technological day, the problems we face in the environment, including climate change, will be solved by pragmatic politics, technology, and free markets—that is, by the tools of the “Western modern self.” For all the clamor about President Trump’s pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement—Al Gore, in his apocalyptic recent film, An Inconvenient Sequel, calls the agreement a “new chapter of hope in the world”—nothing in that deal was binding. Countries will do as they wish, and in developing countries, that will mean burning coal, no matter what we say or do. To “save” the planet in a hurry, we’d have to conquer the developing world and forbid it from developing. Citizens have to become well-off before they worry about the environment.
Deep ecology’s notion of a finite carrying capacity for Earth discounts the powerful role—and extensive track record—of human ingenuity in finding natural resources or innovating new technologies to replace or expand their supply. (Not so long ago, for example, it was hard to breathe in Pasadena.) And though President Obama and his EPA had no goodwill for coal and the people who mine it, they played little part in coal’s demise, such as it is. Nor did subsidized wind and solar power, which account for just 3 percent of energy use in the United States. Rather, fracking and its vast oceans of cheap natural gas are to blame—though “blame” isn’t the right word here, despite the sufferings of coal country, because fracking’s natural gas is both clean and cheap—so clean that, according to the Department of Energy, carbon emissions in the U.S. have declined in recent years, while they’ve been on the rise in most of the world, including Europe.
The deepest problem with deep ecology, though, is rooted in its divinization of the planet—a particularly seductive idea in an age of declining religious faith and a crisis of Western self-confidence. Still, for anyone who thinks that the modern Western self, despite its warts, remains the best political game in town and that its mastery of nature, despite practical problems, is both defensible and inescapable, it will be crucial to keep some things in mind. First, dissatisfaction with technological modernity is nothing new, however crazy it may seem in some of its current forms. Second, we’re on the verge of fulfilling Bacon’s prediction that modern science will be able to alter our bodies and our brains. However reasonable people may come to think of science and technology and the environment and its problems, ideological or religious passions (some bizarre) will have to be reckoned with. There will always be those among us who think that only some new god can save us from ourselves.
Top Photo by Alain Pitton/NurPhoto via Getty Images