In yesterday’s post I asked how ‘environmentalism’ fitted into other schemes of political ideas. I distinguished three sorts of ‘environmentalism’, and promised to talk about a fourth.
Of those three, the first two (an ‘instrumental’ version that cares about ‘the environment’ only for the sake of the humans who depend on it, and an ‘animal rights’ version that extends this to care about the other sentient creatures who depend on it) were reasonable and sensible, but weren’t really ‘environmentalist’ in any strong sense. The third (valuing life of all kinds per se) was clearly ‘environmentalist’ in nature, but also, in my opinion, wrong and foolish.
The fourth, that I want to focus on today, is less about what doctrines and principles one rationally holds, and more about a different sort of emotional mindset, a different way of approaching matters – things which, I’d argue, play a large and sometimes underestimated role in making apparently ‘rational’ political decisions.
This sort of ‘environmentalism’ is opposed to a mindset that opposes two abstractions, ‘nature’ and ‘humanity’, supposes them to be locked in conflict, identifies with ‘humanity’ and therefore legitimises, encourages, and takes pleasure in all ‘triumphs over nature’ that humanity acheives.
In its place, it would recommend a mindset that holds up a single abstraction, ‘nature’, and treats ‘humanity’ as one component of that, alongside ‘moose’ and ‘fungi’. It then regards conflict within nature as regrettable, and prefers ‘harmonious co-existence’ to ‘triumph’.
Before discussing this sort of environmentalism more fully, I should briefly ask, as I didn’t yesterday, how the 2nd and 3rd sorts (animal rights and ‘plants-and-bacteria rights’) relate to other political ideas. To a certain extent they don’t – they open up a new arena of issues and thus have a certain autonomy from politics traditionally conceived (as could be said of other positions, such as feminism or disability-rights).
Nevertheless, they are in formal terms, I’d argue, very much left-wing positions, because their general form – of saying ‘here is a group who have traditionally been denied dignity and rights, we should advocate on their behalf and support them’ – is typical of the left.
I think that’s definitely true of animal rights, but life-rights is a bit trickier, since I consider this view deeply mistaken. That in itself shouldn’t goven how I classify it, but insofar as it diverges from ‘environmental common sense’ and actively advances its distinctive claims (that suffering and death are a small price to pay for the increased health of the biosphere as a whole), it’s liable to shade into social darwinism and potentially to actions amounting to genocide. This is analogous to ‘foetus-rights’: though taking on the formal themes of the left (‘standing up for the oppressed’) it functions in practice as a tool to further oppression (against women, or against ‘the excess population’).
Anyway, jumping back to the ‘environmentalist mindset’ of identification with, not triumph over, nature (and apologising for the choppy arrangement of content here). Why might one advocate this sort of mindset? I can see at least three reasons:
1) Firstly, you might just think it will work. Observing that, for purely pragmatic reasons, radical environmental policies are needed, and fearing that this observation on its own will not sufficiently motivate them, an alternative mindset is advocated, a change in ‘culture’ that seeks to make ‘sustainability’ not just a guiding idea but almost a guiding instinct, a natural outgrowth of how people conceive themselves and the world.
2) Secondly, you might be inclined to it on its own merits, and think it the most sensible way to see the world – both emotionally, if you happen to find forests and beaches and birds fascinating and joyful, and intellectually if you notice that the nature/humanity opposition is philosophically very dubious, and essentially involves trying to impose an abstract dichotomy onto a continuous and gradual reality.
3) Thirdly, you might see the humanity/nature opposition as part and parcel of the general psychopolitics of domination, showing the same sort of patterns: the more-or-less arbitrary drawing of lines, the presentation of conflict as natural, the drawing of satisfaction and comfort from subjugating the other side, and the presentation of that side as one out of either A, mindless, meaningless and mechanical (slaves, food animals: ‘natural resources’), B, desiring and needing to be subjugated, despite their resistance (women, children, ‘exotic peoples’: ‘bountiful nature, needing to be tamed’) or C, a figure of unmitigated savagery, onto which all of the dominant side’s aggression is projected, for daring to resist its subjugation (the dangerous working class ‘mob’, foreign barbarians, wild ‘beasts’: nature ‘red in tooth and claw’).
It’s this third that interests me most. The question of what the object of this domination is need not be central, because that object is so abstract that it can apply to whoever it needs to – animals, of course, are often constructed as ‘nature’ in order to be abused, as are whatever group of humans is considered ‘less advanced’. And environmental devastation obviously affects a lot of people, who though they themselves don’t get constructed as ‘nature’, may find that this construction is used to dismiss their concerns or arguments as ‘irrational’, ‘anti-progress’, ‘anti-science’, ‘tree-hugging hippitude’, etc.
So then we can ask, what sorts of politics will this environmentalist mindset fit best with?
Now, the first answer, I think, is that if ‘man-dominate-nature’ is rejected as part of a general rejection of ‘man-dominate-‘ sentences, then it will fit most naturally with anarcha-feminism, which is an extreme left-wing position, and similarly with feminists, anti-racists, anarchists, and sundry others with a general antipathy towards hierarchy and domination – which are also much more left-wing than right-wing.
At the same time though, there is a strong strand of anti-environmentalism on much of the left. You can find it in the writings of Marx (alongside other themes, of course), where what enables communism is ultimately ‘humanity’s triumph over nature’, and you can see it most concretely in the spectacularly destructive and polluting policies of the USSR and PRC. We can also see, of course, the profoundly statist nature of those regimes. How might all of this be connected?
I’d suggest that what’s going on is that the ‘communism’ in question is not about opposition to, or breaking with, ‘the psychopolitics of domination’ at all, but about effecting a shift within it, structurally analogous to that involved in what can generally be called ‘populism’.
The idea is that in place of the individualised power-relations of a dynamic and multi-polar oppressive society, which leave plenty of people with very little power-over and some with lots, those without should be ‘brought in’, and the individual power-over that’s distributed around should be amalgamated into a shared, unitary ‘power’ that promotes social cohesion but is forced to direct that power-over, that hostility and aggression, onto some outside figure.
This is a strong tendency in Machiavelli, for instance: democracy and republicanism serve not to do away with power and hierarchy but to increase the ‘vigour’ of the republic so that it can dominate its enemies in war. The same tendency can be found in various degrees in most forms of nationalism, militarism, fascism, etc. – everybody is encouraged to ‘pull together’ and paid off with the promise of dominating the outside scapegoats, which are usually some group that’s already marginalised (immigrants, jews, etc) but not always (bankers, etc).
And so in the case of an ideology promising the greatest possible equality and democracy, there must be found a target that is most ‘outside’, and nature itself provides that very well. All the peasants of China are given a little bit of ego-gratification by being told ‘we together will rise up and plough forward, taming nature and impressing the rest of the world’. The fact that industrialisation brings power at the cost of environmental damage, then, need not be seen as a benefit and a cost, but potentially almost as ‘two benefits’, with the fact that nature must be defeated and broken intensifying the desire. And since the state represents the collective as a dominator, a centre of power-over, state-worship is a natural aspect of this.
Once again I find myself impelled to cut short the post. Tomorrow I’ll talk more about ways of connecting this environmental mentality with other sorts of politics; for now I’ll simply observe that if we guage the right-left spectrum according to something like ‘attitudes towards oppression’ and to ‘the psychopolitics of domination’, then populist shifts of this sort, empowering some at the expense of others, are neither left-wing nor right-wing in nature but a sort of combination, sometimes left-ish-seeming in style but often ultimately conservative in nature.