It has become conventional to say that the conservation tradition associated with the Sierra Club and Wilderness Society has nothing to offer in confronting climate change and today’s other environmental problems. This assertion depends on a few other claims. One is that “environmentalism” is unsuited to the nature and scale of today’s problems, especially climate change, because environmental values are negative and defensive on the one hand, and, on the other, reliant on a naïve and untenable contrast between humanity and nature. The second challenged claim is that, whatever its more specific defects, such language is vague, motivationally weak, and thus a presumptively poor resource for addressing the next generation of environmental challenges.
But this is almost entirely wrong. The American environmental tradition has always been centered on human values and engaged in the ever-shifting politics of democratic life. It has been, in fact, a politics of consciousness, aimed at enabling people to encounter the natural world in ways that both perceive its objective features more exactly and induce experiences such as sublimity and harmony. Aldo Leopold’s account of the purpose of public-lands management as achieving new levels of “receptivity” and “lovel[iness]” in the human mind captures exactly the human-centered and culturally innovative character of this program.
In earlier posts I began sketching the Romantic and Progressive traditions in American environmental politics. This is a reflection on how the resources of each might bear on our current problems.
What might be productive in the Romantic tradition would require making two elements of that tradition more explicit, basic, and thoroughgoing—in a word, radicalizing them. The first radicalizing development is to make explicit a basic but elusive idea. What is finally valuable in nature, according to this tradition, is not specific individuals, species, or places, nor even an ideal, undisturbed condition, but qualities of natural systems. Leopold, again, captured this idea when he made “integrity, stability, and beauty” the struts of the “land ethic” that emerged from decades of work in wilderness advocacy and other conservation politics. Even though this phrase is now sixty years old, it repays careful attention. These are not qualities of unchanged, “wild” nature, but goals for active management, both of wilderness and of densely inhabited places, such as farming regions. Moreover, these qualities blend objective characteristics of natural systems with attitudes and experiences of the human beholder. Integrity here means, roughly, resilience, and describes a system that can persist through both endogenous and exogenous changes. Beauty, by contrast, is a quality made actual only in a person’s culturally mediated encounter with a part of nature. So understood, these qualities are not at all obsolete as guides in engaging climate change. Instead, they address questions of just the kind that managing a global atmospheric system (within the considerable limitations of human competence to do so) must raise: questions of what qualities are valuable in our eyes in such a system, and what is necessary to maintain those qualities.
The second radicalizing development follows closely on the first. It is a sharp counterpoint to simplifying and nostalgic tendencies. It requires an embrace of the fact that environmental politics is centrally about a choice of futures. Such politics poses values to guide those choices, and so points, not backward to a lost idyll, but forward to human decision. It differs from more familiar techniques for steering toward the future, notably cost-benefit analysis, in that it engages not just the choice of means, but centrally the choice of ends, of what we value and why. Democratic politics has repeatedly changed both the set of viable alternatives and the metrics by which they are evaluated.
Carrying forward the Romantic tradition into climate politics might also require deepened engagement with another basic theme: identification of the qualities of mind and experience in which encounters with the natural world enrich human consciousness. Two issues have often made this question elusive. One is the tendency to confuse the touchstones of aesthetic experience with the values they embody and evoke, so that conservation has seemed to be simply about Yosemite Valley or the blue whale, rather than an attitude toward the natural world that is associated, but not identical, with conservation of such places and species. The other difficulty is that the natural world’s meaning for the human mind has figured in quite diverse ways across the history of environmental values. For the Transcendentalists and certain early Sierra Club figures, including Muir, nature’s patterns revealed those of the mind, which participated in the same ordering principles. From the Wilderness Society forward, encounters with the natural world have mainly been seen as unique opportunities for insight, but not access points to metaphysical principle. The Romantic tradition itself, then, contains temptations both to lose sight of the issue of consciousness altogether and to dismiss it as intractably vague.
The version of this tradition with the most to offer in climate change takes the direction of the Wilderness Society, leaving metaphysics aside in favor of the quality of mind that appreciates natural systems. This approach concentrates on two rather opposite facts. One is that the natural world is deeply intelligible, composed of principles and relationships that, once grasped, enrich perception by making it patterned and significant. The other is that the world outstrips human understanding, both at its largest and smallest scales and the furthest reaches of complexity, so that intelligibility is always bounded by mystery. Taken together, the experience is simultaneously of beauty—an orderly world which we can understand and in which we belong—and of sublimity—a world beyond us, in which we are always in some degree alien and potentially overwhelmed.
Recall the version of this idea that emerged from the work of Aldo Leopold and the Wilderness Society: that nature is at once deeply intelligible and basically mysterious, and appreciating this enriches the mind. This account may seem abstract, but just such ideas, worked into habits of perception, have provided key motives for the major conservation episodes of the last two centuries. Moreover, it may be that climate change brings home precisely this set of qualities in the natural world: that the earth is familiar and alien, subject to our mastery but also, past a certain threshold, able to overwhelm us. This description captures changes in which the same technology that for now makes the planet so serving of human ends threatens soon to make it terribly inhospitable to human life. It almost surely expresses something about atmospheric processes whose basic logic a child can understand, but whose systemic implications are beyond confident prediction by a civilization’s worth of computer-enhanced climate science. And, maybe most important, it resonates with the image of a planet astonishingly rich in life yet shielded from deadly radiative heat and endless cold by a thin layer of air that is now ineluctably something humans have made.
This attitude might provide the motive for political demands to create a carbon-neutral economy, as earlier changes in views of human beings, economics, and politics spurred demands to replace slavery with free labor, and the rise of Sierra Club culture drove a new agenda for conservation. It might cast compliance with the strictures of such an economy as a feature of a good life, not just a nest of inconveniences. It might, for instance, tilt political judgments between very different alternatives, such as relatively costly carbon-neutral policies and relatively inexpensive “geo-engineering” proposals to do such things as launch orbiting mirrors to reduce the earth’s solar exposure or seed the atmosphere with sulfur particles to the same effect. It is one thing to compare the relative expenditures for these competing approaches. It is quite another to experience a basic discomfort in imagining a carbon-choked atmosphere kept cool only by mechanically fending off solar radiation, knowing that, if the satellites failed, the planet would almost immediately enter a period of drastic and unpredictable climatic instability. That prospect, of course, represents a bundle of probability-discounted costs; but one might also experience discomfort because she believed such an engineered atmosphere lacked beauty, integrity, and stability, or whatever parallel terms emerged as public language for a healthy and desirable atmosphere. This perception of the costs of a geo-engineering solution to climate change would extend to the global atmosphere a way of valuing nature that has importantly motivated earlier conservation and environment regimes: a marriage of ethical, prudential, and aesthetic regard for complex and resilient natural system.
The second great theme of American conservation politics, interwoven with Romanticism, is the Progressive ideal of expert management in the public interest. These two themes have sometimes seemed at odds, and they draw on undeniably contrasting aspects of the modern temper: the self-transcending and rapturous on the one hand, and the calculating and instrumentally rational, on the other. The contrast is easy to overdraw, though. Romantic developments have frequently provided the goals that Progressive management has served, while managerial expertise has not been narrowly instrumental, but has engaged such purpose-guiding questions as the character and scope of national community.
Progressivism is, among other things, an approach to economic regulation based on the claim that economic life is, at its core, a matter of qualitative values. At least since Pinchot and Roosevelt put “conservation” at the center of a national program of economic management, environmental values have figured not just in the functionality of the economy, but also in its legitimacy. These values have included the intergenerational solidarity that Pinchot demanded and an idea of using resources in a way that enables natural systems to reproduce themselves indefinitely. By analogy, in a liberal market regime, the numerus clausus principle of property law and the Thirteenth Amendment (to take two examples with somewhat different emotional resonance) are not restrictions on markets, but building blocks keyed to the purposes those markets serve. Regulations aimed at atmospheric health might play the same role, serving not as exogenous constraints, but as endogenous constituents of markets.
To develop this distinction conceptually: markets are defined by both constitutive regulation, which makes them what they are, and exogenous regulation, which adjusts them, as it were, from outside. The contrast, however, is not natural or otherwise fixed. Constitutive regulation describes those features that we regard as intrinsic to a certain form of economy, as if they were “just there,” such as the prohibition on involuntary servitude and the fixed number of estates in real property. Political developments can change the domain of constitutive regulation by putting new principles, such as atmospheric health, at the center of legitimate markets. The Progressive tradition in environmental values has done just this with conservation principles in the past, and the idea of an economy constituted and assessed by a standard of atmospheric health would extend that tradition.
Note that there is a basic complementarity between the Romantic and Progressive developments sketched here. The two traditions might coincide in the same set of values: systemic qualities such as beauty, health, and integrity. As argued earlier, these are the kinds of values that the Romantic tradition might lead Americans to embrace in climate politics. They are also the qualities that Progressive developments might place at the center of a new generation of constitutive economic regulation.