Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Ethics of Enchantment, II: The Trouble with Enchantment

The last post has drawn some skeptical reactions (some essentially friendly, others cooler), so here I want to clear some ground by considering the core reasons to deny that enchantment – that deliberately controversial word – might contribute something important to our environmental conversation.

First is disregard for science. Enchantment can mean license to indulge in interpretations of nature that fit one’s moral, political, and even aesthetic likes despite – or more likely because of – contradicting science. The hugely obvious example right now is skepticism about climate change on the American right, which also happens to be a politically congenial example for me: of course I think it’s irrational! But there are plenty of examples among greens and others more like me. Fantastical medical theories and rejection of vaccines don’t have the constituency of climate denial, and their effect on public policy is likely to be less serious, but such attitudes have plenty of potential to make us collectively less able to secure our health and safety. That can mean willing submission to the same kinds of blind and cruel physical necessity that the emancipation from enchantment was aimed at overcoming.

Second, there’s a pair of what I think of as more purely ethical problems. Both come from finding too much comfort in a congenial view of nature. The first is mainly a matter of intellectual honesty, of good faith. If you live within the modern project of trying to come to grips with the world as it is, then an enchanted nature can be an appealing but counterproductive way out. Consider John Muir’s portraiture of the American West, for instance. Muir’s nature is all harmony: as he once put it, “no struggle for existence” intruded into his high Sierra. The place was an aesthetic and spiritual pleasuring-ground, where all species were brethren. It is difficult to take this as a serious attitude toward nature, or toward life, though the all-embracing optimism Muir expounded was supposed to reveal the real character of nature and also much about the human place in the world.

This problem sheds some light on the wistful refrain of the early Sierra Club: that sojourns in the high country had to end in return to the disenchanted lowlands, geographic and spiritual, of everyday life. The Club had little to say about what a Sierra epiphany might mean for the rest of life, social or personal. Maybe this is partly because the terrain the Club’s expeditions ascended into was not just literally rarefied: it was also a landscape of enchantment in the sense that the Club’s way of describing and seeing it glossed over the jagged and bloody parts, and also the flat, disappointing, meaningless ones. (Admittedly, in the Sierra summer, there often seems to be little of the latter: from individual flowers to peaks and valley vistas, the region can seem made to delight at every scale and angle of vision.)

The other ethical problem can be a lot worse, because it breaks faith with other people, not just with one’s self. Often when I mention that I’m interested in the relationships among Romanticism, conceptions of nature, and politics, thoughtful people go straight to the appropriate historical challenge: what about Germany? To put it cursorily, skating over the horror, adoration of the German landscape and joyous expeditions into nature were ubiquitous in the politics of left (at least as far as the social democrats) and right from the later nineteenth century on forward. As Luc Ferry argued in his tendentious but hard-to-ignore New Ecological Order, Nazism, which incorporated and carried on the right-most of these movements, was both “ecological” in some of its substantive concerns (including organic agriculture and, in some infamous characters, vegetarianism and concern for animal rights) and “enchanted” in its romantic praise of “blood and soil.”

The general danger here is that enchanted views of nature almost automatically foster the belief that some people are closer to nature’s purposes, more aligned with its right order, than others. This needn’t lead to exclusionary nationalism, but it has that affinity, since it is a convenient way of explaining one group’s “superior” claim to a land: their organic connection to it, its entwinement with their innate identity. But even without that – and American nature romanticism has had only a weak association with nationalism, tending instead to universal spiritual claims – it certainly asserts that my nature is the right nature, and that, because I understand it, I am its inevitable spokesperson, the best judge of how to use and inhabit it. When there was a brief argument in the 1970s about giving legal standing to natural phenomena, through representatives such as the Sierra Club, the real substance of the cultural conflict was whether such groups, with their highly particular (and, from some perspectives, conceited) takes on nature, should have a special claim to understand and represent it. Of course, this would have meant, in practice, having a special claim to define the public interest in nature, and that, in turn, would have been a pre-emption of ordinary political debate. Elite aesthetes belong to nature, and it to them; developers, mine bosses, and the like, do not, nor it to them. You can very well prefer the agenda of the aesthetes and, nonetheless, believe this is an illegitimate kind of argument.

It’s pretty hard to resist this point, at least on some level. Pre-empting the usual means of making social decisions by asserting that the land is mine on aesthetic or spiritual grounds does seem wrong. Certainly no one likes it when the other side does this – for instance, when Tea Partiers appear to be saying that, because of the kind of relationship humans have with God, we can know that the minerals lodged in American soil are there for our use and benefit. And the reason is that this kind of argument – if argument is even the word: appeal seems better – is so hard to engage responsively. There’s a kind of modesty and reciprocal respect in the disenchanted way of arguing about such decisions: expressing our various “preferences” and coming to more-or-less majoritarian decisions that don’t try to leap out of the field of human interests and values.

I think these three kinds of difficulties, particularly the last, account for a lot of the hostile response that many thoughtful people have to any dalliance with the language of enchantment. To ask what kind of approach we should take to enchanted attitudes, and whether there is a constructive approach, can seem to lead ineluctably to indulging irrationality, including the arrogant and exclusionary irrationality that tries to defect from our settled ways of making collective choices. We don’t even have to invoke actual political violence or bloody-minded (and soil-minded) nationalism to get at what’s wrong with it.

If this is what enchantment means, then the only ethics of enchantment is to get away from enchantment: we should be unreservedly loyal to the emancipating program of disenchantment that I sketched in the last post. At a time when some enchantment-mongers are helping to scuttle climate action, which must rank among the most important political failures of our time, this seems a particularly natural move. As Bill Ragette politely implied in his comment on an earlier post, it looks like science still needs to be a fighting creed.

If there’s more to say, it has to take these problems fully on board and not dodge them. It seems to me that the question is whether there is work of moral imagination, in the register I’ve been calling enchantment, that contributes importantly to our ability to appreciate and engage nature as a moral, political, and cultural problem. And the argument cannot just be that, as a matter of history, we owe some of our legal and political commitments to Romantic and other pro-enchantment developments that we might be skeptical toward if they arose today. That kind of poignant historical irony wouldn’t necessarily show anything about the attitude we should take going forward. Although those examples might be informative, the question is whether the mode of experience or imagination that I’ve been calling enchantment can enter into a productive relationship with such indispensable commitments as rationality and equality among citizens, which both drove disenchantment and continue to ground powerful considerations against enchantment.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Ethics of Enchantment, I: Must We Be Disenchanted?

Do we need to be disenchanted? Is there an honorable place for magic in environmental thought? I obviously use the word magic to unsettle serious people: I don’t mean to ask whether we should protect unicorns under the Endangered Species Act. But I mean to ask a serious question about how much freedom we have to reimagine our relationship to nature, to our landscapes, in the time we inhabit.

I’ve been thinking all day about enchantment. It has been that kind of day, even simply as a matter of the fall light, but I mean the word as the counter to disenchantment. Disenchantment is closely associated with Max Weber’s canonical account of modernity. Weber believed that reason was a force in history – a thin but relentless rationality, which pushed human thought and undertakings toward consistency and systematic expression. This had different effects on different areas of life. As for nature, rationalization brought it thoroughly under the sway of modern science: consistent, systematic accounts of cause-and-effect relationships, with no idea that it all had any “purpose” or “meant” anything. Weber called this approach to nature (and other things) instrumental reason: learning how to master the world to achieve our goals, without gaining any insight on what our goals might be (let alone the idea that the world itself might have goals). He was contemptuous of romantics who imagined that by going into the forests and mountains, they learned something about how they should live or the meaning of their lives. Purposes, values, were human things, and pretending to find them outside our own choices was giving ourselves a comfort no one deserved.

Disenchanted nature was nature without meaning, nature that could teach us nothing except how to manipulate it. Humanity in a disenchanted world should understand this and not indulge fantasies to the contrary. The ethics of disenchantment, then, was an ethics of maturity: humanity freeing itself from self-imposed intellectual infancy. It had charisma in the hands of expositors like Weber: charisma based in the courage to face things as they were, not as one might like them to be.
Modern law, and, by and large, ethics and political theory, are disenchanted in this way – and, in the way I just sketched, the disenchantment is a source of pride: these are (on their own self-conception) disciplines for grown-ups The first modern Anglo-American legal theorist, Jeremy Bentham, spent his inferno of a lifetime stripping English law of moss, Latin epigraphs, and icons. The dominant way of assessing law in American scholarship and regulation, cost-benefit analysis, is a low-built version of Bentham’s utilitarian calculus, intended to replace arbitrary values with the facts of human pleasures and pains (or, in this case, with the wealth to spend on pleasures).

Our other major normative approach, built on various versions of equal human rights, is the other major ethic of disenchantment: people matter equally, because of some basic property we have in common – we can all make choices, we all value things and have life-plans, at the minimum, we all value our own lives immeasurably; and from this, it follows that we should all be equally respected. (In this commitment to equality, the equal-rights approach rejoins Bentham’s utilitarianism, which was very basically about the idea that everyone’s pleasures and pains should count equally, whether they were bishops or peasants.

My puzzlement around this starts with the fact that ideas about nature, and, just as much, the ways people experience nature have persistently resisted disenchantment. For many, they have remained resolutely magical. And these experiences of enchantment have contributed very importantly to the environmental politics, law, and culture that we in fact have. So it isn’t just sentiment that is senchanted around nature: it seems to be the legal and institutional structure, and the set of beliefs and social movements that helped produce it and now maintain it.
What might this tell us about the opening question – whether disenchantment is intellectually mandatory, the only respectable attitude?

I need to start this discussion by doing something that I learned in college never to do, but that seems increasingly unavoidable as I get older: generalize about cultures, at least in a rough-cut way. Studies of pre-modern “magical” culture in Europe and extant “animist” groups elsewhere seem to converge on some ways that people experience nature in those times and places. They make for a pretty good starting sketch of what an enchanted experience of nature looks like.

First is the idea that mind and world are connected, and so are speech and world. Words and thoughts are invisible threads reaching to the secret heart of things. Bad thoughts, blasphemy, disrespect for the spirit of a place, can cause trouble: a plague, failed crops or a bad hunt, a “monstrous” birth. (That word is telling: it meant “misshapen,” but it is also related to the Latin for show, as in demonstrate, and it was thought that a misshapen calf, let alone an infant, displayed God’s reproach.) Mastered, these relationships could be magic in the usual technical sense of the word: manipulating physical phenomena for good or bad ends, outside the schemes of science). This is why Weber though “primitive” religion was a failed form of instrumental reason, basically a skein of charms and propitiations to stave off infertility and starvation.

But – and here is the second thing about an enchanted nature – these accounts often suggest an ethical relationship to natural phenomena. In propitiating a spirit – of, say, a place or a species – you might be hoping for a good hunt the next year, but you would also be trying to show it respect because showing respect is the right way to behave. It’s a lot like life among other people: there’s advantage to staying on their good side, but we also try to do right for them because that is how people decently relate to one another.

The ethical dimension of relating to nature could mean that nature stood in judgment on us, or, more usually, expressed divine judgment over us. (This is the significance of the monstrous birth, remember.) There is a very long and hydra-headed tradition of calling on the spontaneous human fear of thunder as a true perception that the Gods, or God, are angry, and that we had better get on our knees as fast as we can. If you’re ever in the mood for good science fiction but feeling antiquarian, read a Puritan sermon on earthquakes as expressions of divine wrath, and how they remind to be always – always – prepared for smiting. So, contrary to the sense that the word may give, enchantment didn’t mean fitting snugly into a world of friendly dryads and other place-spirits: it mean the awesomeness (in the strict sense of the word) of nature was out to get you. Or at least it could mean that.

Another aspect of the enchanted world was a belief that the patterns we saw in nature – how things resembled one another, for instance – revealed something about the meaning of things. So, for instance, the perception that every realm of animal life seemed to have a ruler – the eagle among birds, the lion among animals – showed that nature was hierarchically arranged, and this, in turn, had political meaning: the king was ruler by the same hierarchical principle that ordered the other species’ affairs. The idea that aesthetics is a quality of the perceiving mind, rather than a correspondence between perception and the meaning of the world, is partly a product of a disenchanted view of nature.


By now it should be somewhat clear why disenchantment was not just a process of growing rationality, but a mission connected with an insurgent idea of human freedom. For people to take command of their own fates, driving back the horizons of vulnerability and need, they had to be able to do certain things. One was to fact nature without fear: to start down the thunderstorm, look without flinching at the “monstrous” birth. Otherwise, they could never expect to be constant in their own purposes, authors, within whatever constraints, of their own lives (as some neo-Stoic humanists imagined it in early-modern Europe), or their own salvation (as many Protestant divines demanded). Nature had to be disenchanted to drive out the demons and divine judgments and free the human mind from fear. The aim to do this was as old as Epicurus and Lucretius, and was revived by humanists like Montaigne. It could be an atheistic program, and Epicureans were often thought to be atheists; but, whether or not it left room for God at the apex of the cosmos, it needed nature itself to be a purely natural, de-moralized phenomenon, for the sake of the vulnerable people who had to live in it.

By the way, I have been reading Puritan governor John Winthrop’s journals, and the everyday vulnerability to nature is astonishing. Calves and pigs are always getting eaten by wolves. People are always dying in the cold, or crushed beneath trees they are cutting for wood in the heart of the Massachusetts winter. People die suddenly of known diseases, or unknown ones. Where the victims are blasphemers, or lewd, or defiant servants, the judgment of God is invoked. Otherwise, Winthrop praises the survivors for their prayer and fortitude.

The Puritan experience speaks to the other emancipation: to make themselves less physically vulnerable to an often violent nature, people had to master it: Weber’s “instrumental rationality” really had to get going. It’s now often pointed out that, early on, magic and science were closely related: if you were a physicist, well, you might well be an alchemist. What was a chemist (other than an herbalist) but an alchemist? But, increasingly, the views of people like Francis Bacon came to the fore, and understanding nature as a neutral set of processes subject to our manipulation became prominent, dominant, the only serious alternative.

This last point is seriously overdrawn, as I am going to argue. In practice, many people continued to have both Christian and, if you will, pagan experiences of an enchanted nature. But the agenda of disenchantment, the emancipation from fear and need, powerfully affected all parts of common life. Most of all, it shaped the highest, or haughtiest, echelons: the elite arbiters of what could count as a serious approach to the world. It was the generalization of that agenda that produced the disenchanted approaches to law, politics, and ethics that I sketched earlier – and on much the same humanistic and progressive motives that I have been sketching.

But. The ways of experience nature that I described as enchanted have proved very persistent. It may be more accurate to say that the ways of experiencing one’s life, in landscapes and among other living things, have proved persistent. And, as I said at the beginning, the seemingly perennial hunger for them, and the ways they have been adapted to a changed – industrial, democratic – world, have done a great deal to form our environmental law and politics. And they have shaped the modes and maps of experience that we carry and live, the meanings nature has for us.

What to make of this? In my next post, I plan to sketch how the appetite for enchantment helped form today’s many relations to nature, and to begin asking whether the only serious attitude is a disenchanted one. And, if not, what are the uses we can make of it? Is there an ethics of enchantment?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

God, Politics, and Climate Change

Some Americans say they don’t believe in climate change because they believe in God – or, more exactly, because of what they believe about God. A few weeks ago, the New York Times quoted some Indiana Tea Party activists who explained that, because the world was created for human use and benefit, using its mineral wealth couldn’t possibly be harmful. Then a Republican would-be Chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee turned out to believe that Noah’s Covenant – God’s promise not to destroy the world again before the end of time – rules out climate change. We don’t know many people believe some version of this story, but it is clearly part of the skein of money and conviction that have helped to make denial of climate change nearly a tenet of the Republican Party.

This looks like a big failure for the strategy of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The IPCC tried mightily to establish an untouchable consensus on the science of climate, which would serve as the basis of a reasoned political debate on the topic. In the US, at least, politics – and religion – turned around and ate the science.

What’s going on here? Some accounts focus on money: lots of it goes into cultivating climate skepticism. Some draw on social psychology. Yale’s Dan Kahan and his collaborators have done some invaluable studies, and inspired others, that show views on climate tracking broader political and cultural identity. People who dislike regulation, mistrust “big government,” and get their sense of worth from traditional hierarchies tend to doubt climate change is real – though they sometimes feel differently when they’re told that it could be fought with macho technologies like nuclear power and geo-engineering. Those who believe in regulation, mistrust markets and individualism, and would like to make social life more egalitarian tend to believe climate change is real and human-caused – though they are more likely to doubt it if they think it requires macho technologies rather than virtuous emissions control. It’s fair to say that none of this bears on the merits of the science. Some of it has to do with what kinds of governance respondents feel comfortable or uncomfortable with: they resist believing in problems that seem to require regulation or other interventions (such as geo-engineering) that they dislike. These, in turn, seem connected with status: a certain version of the problem and its solutions makes me right, people like you, wrong.

I think there’s another way of getting at the issue. The belief that climate change can’t be real because God made the earth for us to use is just one instance of a deep and old American practice of enlisting nature to uphold our cultural and political identities – to prove that the world is made for people like us. Competing ideas about how nature works, why it matters, and what our place is in it have been on the scene for centuries, and they have always shaped our law-making around nature. Greens have been as much a part of this as today’s climate skeptics. In some ways, even technocrats are part of this story, rather than standing outside as some like to imagine they can. Attractive as the IPCC’s science-first strategy was, the right starting place in American politics is not to end-run this messiness, but to find ways to engage it.

The place to begin is with a rough historical map of what I call American environmental imagination. There are, very roughly, four takes on nature that have shaped politics and lawmaking in this country. The Indianan Tea Partiers and their friends in Congress are invoking the oldest of these, an idea that goes back to the European conquest and settlement of the continent. On this take, the world is made for us to use, but we have to complete the design by working to make it productive. Idle land, minerals left in the ground, wilderness areas locked out of mining and timbering for backpackers’ enjoyment, are all affronts. Using nature in this muscular, productive way is connected with the spirit of egalitarian democracy: farmers, loggers, miners, small businessmen, all the toilers, get special credit for honor, integrity, and down-home insight – in contrast to the lawyers and professors who never get calluses on their hands. Very frequently, this take is connected with religious belief in providential design: the world was engineered to answer our labor with fruitfulness. The fact that we get richer as we work is proof that we are working with divine design.

This theory helped to justify taking the continent from Native Americans (who seemed not to be doing much to make it bloom) and was the ideology of westward settlement. It formed the identities of generations of Americans, particularly those who labored to extract natural wealth. For the last century, its public assertions have often been defensive: the spirit of the honest settler has been invoked against the creation of national forests, wilderness areas, and national monuments – anything that moves land from use to preservation. When Utah county officials pilot a flag-draped bulldozer into a national monument or wilderness study area on the Fourth of July, they are calling in progress, labor, and liberty against effete preservation. When an early Tea-Party road show included testimonials on how the Endangered Species Act was parching farmers in the Central Valley (by requiring that water be kept in-stream), the point was the same. When macho Democratic Senate candidate Joe Manchin, in coal-mining West Virginia, wanted to show which side of this cultural divide he was on, he ran an ad showing himself pumping a bullet into the Waxman-Markey climate legislation.

I like to call this strand of environmental imagination providential, because of its emphasis on the world’s being made for use, and the conviction that, if we work it properly, we will be rewarded. If you believe this at the level of identity – it is part of who you are, why it makes sense for you to do the work you do, live where you live, drive what you drive, and trust as you do in the afterlife, then climate change might be a pretty serious affront. After all, it amounts to saying that how we have lived on the continent is self-undermining, even self-immolating. The providential God doesn’t do this kind of grim historical irony.

The IPCC strategy, and much of the elite climate conversation, has belonged to another strand of environmental imagination: that of the engineers and managers. This is at least part of the reason that the two sides are so mutually baffled and contemptuous of each other. Our elite climate conversation is mainly the province of progressive managers, specialists in using government to design better systems to benefit the whole society. In the US, this approach to governance arose in the Progressive Era and triumphed, at least for a while, in the New Deal. Particularly in its Progressive origins, it was essentially connected with fights about nature. The paradigms of progressive reform were new approaches to continental development: soil conservation, national forests, irrigation systems, and wildlife preserves. Progressives justified them by painting the providential model of westward expansion as a disaster – which it often enough was: a tableau of blown-out farms, eroded slopes, silt-choked streams, and exhausted forests stripped for their best wood and then burnt or left in rotting chaos.

On the progressive take, nature didn’t call out for settlement, at least not in the providential style. Instead, it called out for management. Expert administrators and designers could provide that, and so, on this take, they become the heroes of continental development. The individual settler went from being God’s soldier to looking hapless and inadvertently destructive. In some ways, this same fight is playing out again. Scientists and policy engineers say we have to re-engineer our whole economy to avoid undermining the planetary system it depends on. Others hear this as meaning that their efforts to live the American dream, under increasingly straitened circumstances, have made them participants in a huge and unfolding environmental injury. This alleged injury was and remains invisible to them, but the experts claim they can diagnose and cure it.

The third take on nature has been tremendously important for about a century of environmental lawmaking, but so far is less central to climate politics. This is the romantic view of nature. It can be summarized in a place-name: Yosemite Valley. Beginning in the middle and later nineteenth century, growing numbers of Americans found that, in the most spectacular places, facing sheer cliffs and mountain vistas, they felt elevated, clarified, restored. American scenery became a kind of secular religion, the national parks and wilderness areas its temples and churches. Besides contributing a lot to the politics of parks and wilderness, this take has been the touchstone of many of the most committed environmental advocates, particularly in groups like the Sierra Club – founded around the personality of arch-Romantic John Muir, and built on the strength of Ansel Adams’s visual paeans to American sublimity. I’ve wondered elsewhere whether the romantic spirit has something to contribute to the politics of climate change; but, so far, it has been largely absent from the field.

The fourth take is the newest addition to the American environmental imagination. It’s also the broadest and most diffuse. My hunch is that the politics of climate change will define the form that this take develops over the next few decades. This is the ecological take, founded on the discovery that everything is connected, that our actions – particularly in an industrial society – have consequences that are often remote, long-distance, unintended, even unforeseeable. In its first generation, in the 1960s and 1970s, ecology founded the perception that pollution was causing a massive public-health crisis, perhaps threatening life itself. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was just one part of a massive alarm about air and water pollution that helped to power the environmental statutes of the 1970s. The basic solutions – imposing appropriate technology and other controls, industry by industry and medium (meaning, say, air or water) by medium mitigated the problem; but they also turned out to be too simply, too blocky, not nearly “ecological” enough. It came to seem that not just our problems, but our solutions, had to involve complex and elusive systems of interdependence, ways of responding to unforeseen consequences, effects cross-cutting different statutes and jurisdictions, and so forth.

Since then, ecology has increasingly become a master-metaphor for social life itself. At a palpable scale, the enthusiasm for local food whose sources one can see is a way of trying to weave the web of interdependence more closely, to turn those invisible and long-distance harms into a set of visible and approachable mutual benefits. At the largest, most abstract scale, visions of comprehensive carbon-pricing – building a disincentive to emit greenhouse gases into every economic decision, from whether to drive or walk to what car to buy to how much capital is invested in alternative-energy research – are attempts to redesign a vastly complex system so that its many interrelations become mutually supportive rather than undermining.

Climate change is the ultimate story of interdependence and unforeseen consequences. To those who adopted the ecological take on nature in the 1960s and 1970s and thereafter, it seems to follow from the same logic: our traditional efforts at mastering the world for our convenience, and getting ever richer as we do so, need to give way to a more subtle and humble approach – not voluntary global poverty, but a recognition that the world does not exist for our benefit, that it imposes its own limits, and that our mastery of it is fragile and incomplete. This is why the ecologically minded often see geo-engineering schemes as accelerating the same mistakes that brought us here, while technophile progressive engineers embrace them, and traditional providentialists deny the problem in the first place.

All of this requires a lot more than I can say here, but I’ll to offer a few take-away points. First, this cultural story is not an alternative to the focus on money and power, or the social-science story: it’s a complement, that tries to get at the relationship between nature and identity because that relationship is part of the stories the other approaches pursue. It’s why money can mobilize some attitudes much more easily than others, and why some takes on nature reinforce people’s ideological commitments, while others offend them. Second, it’s not a counsel of despair for the ambitions to build climate politics on science and design a smart climate regime. Rather, it’s a counsel of reality: those ambitions have to run through politics, not around it, and expect to be having the messy kinds of conflicts that are springing up around climate. It might be helpful to remember that the policy engineer’s perspective isn’t just the “right” one: it’s also one part of a history of political and cultural conflict. The clash between it and a providential take, or the ecological perception that it’s hubristic, won’t just go away before the force of reason.

The four environmental attitudes I’ve sketched came into being at different times, but they co-exist now, often even within individuals. Speaking for myself, I feel them all. As a farm boy (providential laborer), high-country devotee (Romantic), law professor (progressive technocrat), and student of environmental problems (you’d better have an ecological take, if you care about these), I sometimes resonate spontaneously to each. That’s probably not so very unusual. Moreover, all four are constantly changing, and being fought over. Some evangelicals, and plenty of mainline Christians, continue to argue that “earth care” is the best understanding of the biblical call for “dominion,” meaning something like “skilled and respectful mastery,” and that humility before a complex, often unknowable world is part of the spirit of their tradition.

We’d better look forward to a lot more arguments about the meaning of all these traditions. We can just hope to make them something more than shouting, bafflement, and contempt.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Sacrifice Zones and Mountaintop Removal

The American relationship with nature is fragmented and divided against itself, and this division has shaped the land. Americans invented the ideal of wilderness, land forever protected against roads, buildings, and engines. Our laws consecrate more than a hundred million acres to that ideal, most of it in the West, where you can wander for days without seeing a sign of “development.” Our national parks mark the first time a democracy chose to set aside revered landscapes in the name of all the people – and for their use and pleasure. President Theodore Roosevelt, a macho bully, imperialist, and champion of executive power, created vast acres of wildlife preserves, quite possibly in violation of the Constitution, because he loved birds.

But joy in nature, and reverence toward it, are half the story at most. The United States was founded on the belief that the natural world exists for human use, and the noblest activity is to make nature economically productive – to turn it to human needs and human wealth. This idea has always implied a certain mercilessness toward other views of the non-human world. Early Americans justified taking the continent from the Indians on the theory that tribes that did not settle and clear the land could not own it, because ownership had to be earned by development. The American Revolution, too, was justified partly by the British government’s forbidding the colonials to settle beyond the Allegheny Mountains – denying them, in other words, the human right and duty of development. This view of nature has often been at war with the first: in loggers fighting environmentalists, cattlemen who resisted the parks and wilderness system, and Westerners today who want to kick the federal government out of the national lands in their backyard. Those who work the land for wealth have often felt that preserving it from use is not just inconvenient to them: it is an insult to their way of life.

Then there is a third ideal, which really came into its own in the suburbs and culture of consumption after World War Two. This is the clean landscape: unpolluted, free of rank smells and waste, safe for children to run. The wish for the clean landscape helped to inspire the great anti-pollution laws of the 1970s, including the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, which did indeed make life safer and healthier in much of the country. But this was also a segregating ideal. It drove working nature out of sight and out of mind, excluding farming, making things, and burning things for energy from the places where people lived.

The logic of all this is to create sacrifice zones – the places where we produce food and energy, with little regard for the health or beauty of the land, to maintain our clean and convenient lives. American farmland has become more and more like an industrial waste system over the last fifty years, and its fertilizer, pesticide, manure, and soil erosion account for much of the country’s failure to meet its announced standards for clean air and water.

Since the mid-1990s, central Appalachia has become the country’s purest sacrifice zone. Energy from coal runs laptops, iPhones, and super-green electric cars, plus high-efficiency air-conditioning – all the conveniences of the clean world. At the same time, it comes from a use of the land that treats it as disposable. In the Appalachian coalfields, Americans do not treat the land as a people would who expected to live in a place for generations, or for more than a few years. When dynamite blasts apart a hilltop and draglines heap dirt in the surrounding hollows, the land is being classified as a place that we ruin forever, in return for a few years of convenience.

The movement against mountaintop removal has failed again and again in court, though at the time of writing it may be starting to see some success in politics. Its clearer success, though perhaps a Pyrrhic one, has been to raise Americans’ awareness of the sacrifices their energy economy entails. This comes at the same time that the industrial food system is increasingly visible, so that plastic-wrapped hamburger and pork chops have indelible associations with pools of liquid manure, industrial-scale antibiotics that produce drug-resistant bacteria, and confinement that denies animals the basic pleasures of movement and fresh air, and seems to drive them mad. These changes in awareness are beginning to show those who pay attention that there is no such thing as a clean world. Instead, we face a choice between acknowledging our waste and destruction, and trying to deal with them as responsibly as we can, or ignoring them and deepening the logic of the sacrifice zone.

What does all of this have to do with justice? A standard definition of environmental justice is that less powerful individuals and communities should not bear a disproportionate share of environmental harms, from pollution to the destruction of mining. This is an idea based in a certain version of fairness: treating people alike, although they may be different in wealth, region, race, or other ways. It is very clear that mountaintop removal, waste dumps in Appalachia, and the rest of the region’s environmental experience are instances of environmental injustice in this sense.

It is important, though, to be clear about how little power this idea of justice has in American law or American life more generally. We allocate most of the benefits of social life according to wealth: buying land in a clean and safe neighborhood, paying for a good education (at a private school, or by buying a house in a good school district), being able to purchase good medical care (or, for the moment, any medical care at all). Even outside of economic life, the burden of our criminal justice system falls heavily on the poor and racial minorities, who fill prisons, and whose crimes are punished much more harshly than those of the comfortable and privileged. We don’t exactly let people starve, and in person we Americans are often compassionate and charitable; but our way of sharing out the world speeds many lives on a road to ruin.

We treat landscapes the same way, along with the people who live on them. There is no equality among American landscapes: some are sacred, some protected against harm, and some sacrificed. As a result, there is no equality among Americans to the degree that they care about their landscapes, identify with them, and wish to imagine that their children and grandchildren might live there as they have. If you live in a wooded suburb of Boston and treasure the preserved lands next door, if you live in the dense neighborhoods of Boulder, Colorado, and like to duck into the Rocky Mountain National Park for your summer hikes, your relation to the land is secure, a privilege enshrined in law. But if you love the hills of southern West Virginia or Eastern Kentucky, if they form your idea of beauty and rest, your native or chosen image of home, then your love has prepared your heart for breaking.

Today, climate change seems to ensure that no one can be sure of growing old, or even growing up, in the landscape they were born into. Change, uncertainty, all parts of modern life, are now acute features of the global environment, with results that we have not really begun to understand. This is not just a physical, practical vulnerability. It is also a vulnerability in memory and hope, in ways of seeing the land, anticipating the seasons, knowing what will grow and what lives there with you, knowing whether it will be habitable at all. Wherever they live, Americans might consider that this is a vulnerability our laws have long imposed on those who live in, and love, the country’s sacrifice zones.