Environmentalism and Conservatism – who owns ‘Green Politics’? Part 3

In yesterday’s post, I talked about how one might come to endorse an ‘environmentalist worldview’, that replaced conflict between ‘humanity’ and ‘nature’, and subjugation of the latter by the former, with harmonious co-existence, from a left-wing perspective as part of a general rejection of what I called ‘the psychopolitics of domination’. I also talked, of course, about left-wing anti-environmentalism.

Now, there are many obvious ways of being a right-wing anti-environmentalist. You might be a free-marketeer, or an actual businessperson, who was unhappy with the collective action needed to deal with environmental problems (equally of course you might be one of the companies that stands to profit from dealing with them). Or you might want to embrace the emotional set-up of man-against-nature triumphalism, to justify assaults on whatever and whoever is perceived as ‘backward’ and ‘wild’.

But what’s interesting is that there’s an obvious niche forright-wing, specifically conservative, environmentalism. We saw this, for instance, in that speech a while back in which the Pope said that just as climate change was destroying non-human nature, so the gays and feminists were destroying human nature. So what’s going on here, and how does this brand of ‘right-environmentalism’ compare with the ‘left-environmentalism’ discussed earlier?

To illuminate this I think we will have to unpack the concept of ‘nature’ a little bit more. In particular, we should distinguish a very broad abstract component, and a more concrete component, the linkage of which is somewhat arbitrary.

The very broad component is that ‘nature’, or ‘the world’, is whatever is contrasted with the individual, whatever they oppose in action. All actions involve the agent distinguishing themselves in some sense from what they act on/in, and since they the agent are quite small, the whole content of ‘what they act on/in is very large. In this sense most things can be called ‘nature’ – plants must contend with ‘nature’ in the form of soil, air, and sunlight; humans encounter ‘nature’ in themselves when they try to change or control themselves, in others when they run up against the boundaries that society has set for them, etc.

The more concrete component is then the green stuff, the plants and non-human animals and their ecosystems on the planet earth – roughly speaking, ‘the biosphere minus humans’. Now, how this concept of ‘nature’ works is that it presents that concrete collection of things, the biosphere minus humans, as being identical with the very abstract idea of ‘whatever is confronted in action’. Equivalently, it presents the very idea of successfully changing reality as involving humans-in-general against not-human-life-in-general.

To see how arbitrary this is, we might note that for from an objective point of view, a tiger or bear or deer is closer to a human than either is to a tree. In particular, they are conscious beings who act, who confront an environment and must try to navigate it. From their own ‘point of view’, they’ve got nothing to do with ‘nature’.

(Note that none of this is simple. For a start, monothesistic religions tend to have this idea called ‘God’, which is counterposed to ‘nature’, but which together with ‘nature’ represents ‘the world and reality’ in the abstract sense. Lots of complications I won’t go into.)

Moreover, this human/non-human binary is also inscribed on even more specific levels, such as on gender, with ‘woman’ being symbolised as womb, as ‘mother earth’, as fertility, as the emotions, as sex, in general as ‘nature’, against ‘man’, the rational, the active, the cultured, the understanding and technological. What I’m saying is that forests-birds-rabbits-etc. are in a similar position to women, in being given a grand symbolic meaning that’s not particularly related to their reality.

Having said this about ‘nature’, we can return to ‘environmentalism’. If environmentalism is pro-‘nature’ in the more concrete sense (forests-birds-rabbits), this can be in two ways. It might maintain the link embodied in the word ‘nature’ and support both concrete and abstract ‘nature’, or it might try to break that link and relocate forests-birds-rabbits out of that grand abstract ‘nature’.

The latter would be what I’ve called ‘left-environmentalism’. The point here is not that we should respect the monkeys and the snakes because they’re so different, so much greater and more ‘natural’ than us, but precisely the opposite: we should respect them because they’re like us, they’re other puny little evolved consciousness struggling to get by day-by-day in an inhospitable world, and we shouldn’t make that world any more inhospitable than it needs to be.

The alternative, ‘right-environmentalism’, says, on the contrary, that we are such silly, foolish beings that we should just be indscriminately submissive to the universe in all its manifestations, which happens to include monkeys and snakes, but also include every other fact that there is. We shouldn’t denounce the creator for making a world that is in so many ways so evil and miserable; we shouldn’t denounce our ancestors for making a society that’s so unfair and screws so many people over. We should trust their wisdom, or at least the wisdom represented by their centuries of experiments.

I think much of the time these two perspectives are allowed to merge into one another and are not clearly distinguished. But I also think they’re quite different in important ways.

Comparing the implications, especially in terms of relative wisdom, of these two approaches, may be easier to do for human society, if we start with the non-human biosphere. Certainly, neither approach will deny that over millions of years, ecosystems have processed a huge amount of information, and balanced a huge number of factors, with the result that any human attempt to adjust or interfere with it is liable to have serious unintended consequences.

But a religiously-inclined ‘right-environmentalist’ approach will go beyond this to affirm that ecosystems embody a wisdom that human understanding will never be able to approach (whether or not they explain this by identifying that wisdom as the wisdom of a divine design) and so we should absolutely give up on any idea of changing or ‘improving’ nature. We should confine ourselves to trying to ‘conserve’ the biosphere as it is.

In contrast, a secular, Darwinian, ‘left-environmentalist’ approach will agree that there’s a lot of ‘wisdom’ embodied in ecosystems, but will point out that because the process that produced them is such a screwy one, devoid of morals or foresight, there’s also a lot of folly, and it’s not impossible that in some cases human understanding could improve on it.

So rather than giving up on trying, we should rather redouble our efforts to study and understand nature and our interactions with it, so as to intend all of the unintended consequences of our actions. We should certainly be humble and self-critical, as we generally weren’t in the past, but if we find a way to abolish disease, and compensate with birth control, or something, it’s not like any of the antelopes or parrots will thank us for refusing to use it in deference to ‘nature’.

To extend the analogy to human society, where a conservative might admonish revolutionaries for their desire to redraft society, to replace ‘organic growth’ with ‘rational’ ideas. And if the point is merely that society is complex, unintended consequences are a big risk, and things which appear pointless sometimes have important functions, then this can’t be denied. But at the same time, in those centuries of experimentation, who was carrying out the experiments? Who was deciding whether the results warranted change or not? By what mechanism has this evolution happened? It’s happened through the mechanisms of hierarchical control and systemic oppression, a process no less fallible and flawed than natural selection. What survives is not what’s best, but what best serves to prolong and advance a certain sort of society and certain sorts of structures in it.

So a revolutionary need not deny that society is complex and needs to be understood – indeed, historically they tend to put a lot of effort into understanding it. But that complex and confusing society is still a flawed one, and though care and caution are important, there’s no reason in principle why a systematic transformation, carried out in the right way, need end in disaster.

Hence one can love conservation while hating conservatism. *Waves red-green flag*

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