The Magazine

Mere Ecologism

Is modern environmentalism science or faith?

Aug 5, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 44 • By STEVEN F. HAYWARD
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Bruckner sees the religious fervor for the eco-apocalypse and human guilt as an “infantile disease” discrediting sensible environmental thought. He notes the incommensurability of the diagnosis and the usual prescriptions (recycling, low-watt lights, “sustainability,” etc.), which might be considered the eco-theological equivalent of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “cheap grace,” and which Bruckner calls “post-technological animism.”

“Let’s be clear,” he writes. “A cosmic calamity is not going to be averted by eating vegetables and sorting our rubbish.” The very triviality of the paltry practical exhortations undoubtedly deepens the furious gloom and misanthropy of environmentalists—making them all the more dangerous to their fellow humans. And Bruckner understands that, as with Marxism and other redemptive schemes of the radical left, today’s environmentalism unbound would necessarily involve the “lethal impulses” of retributive tyranny. “[W]e can almost hear the heavy door of a dungeon closing behind us,” says Bruckner of the environmentalists he vividly describes as “our Robespierres of the candle.” 

Bruckner captures perfectly a historical parallel that few people have recognized. Environmentalism, he argues, may be nearly impossible to reform for the same reason that liberal critics of Stalin and the Soviet Union made little headway with Marxists in the 1930s: Any deviation from the party line consigned you to the ash heap of rightist reactionaries, even if you were just as committed to egalitarian ends. Today, to deviate from the environmental party line is to be equated with Holocaust denial and other, lesser forms of moral turpitude. “There is something nauseating about these [eco] statements,” Bruckner writes, “that recall the worst newspaper adverts or the Stalinist slogans mocked by George Orwell.”

The Popular Front mentality of environmentalism helps explain its resilience in the face of the serial failures of its apocalyptic narratives, from the population bomb predicted 40 years ago to global warming today. Although Bruckner doesn’t hold out much hope for a reformation, he thinks ecologism can be compared to the workers’ movement at the end of the 19th century, with competing libertarian, democratic, and totalitarian tendencies: “[I]f the extremists drown out the moderates, the new sobriety will have the bitter taste of concentration camps and prisons.”  

Can we learn from our mistakes? Bruckner doesn’t offer much in the way of hope, and the implausibility of any Kronstadt-like moments for environmentalism makes its collapse or erosion as a popular doctrine unlikely to occur for a very long time. While Bruckner doesn’t call for a supple and vigorous anti-environmental movement analogous to liberal anti-Communism, this is the clear implication of his analysis. The best he can offer is: “The friends of the Earth have for too long been the enemies of humanity; it is time for an ecology of admiration to replace an ecology of accusation.”  

Steven F. Hayward is the Thomas Smith fellow at the Ashbrook Center and the author, most recently, of the Almanac of Environmental Trends