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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Most critiques of environmentalism have become as dreary and predictable as environmentalism itself. Environmentalists, their critics (myself included) never tire of telling us, grossly exaggerate problems, promote endless bureaucracy, corrupt the law, and engage in relentless scaremongering—or at least insist on wearing Al Gore masks on Halloween. These criticisms are all true, all well deserved, and all .  .  . tediously familiar.

Mere Ecologism

Peter Halasz

Here, the French author Pascal Bruckner deploys the eccentric and discursive style of French social commentary to break out of this rut in spectacular fashion. Bruckner, one of the left-leaning nouveaux philosophes who broke with Marxism in the 1970s, writes for Le Nouvel Observateur and delights in being a scourge of decadent European liberalism (see his splendid The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism). A major literary figure in France, Bruckner is largely unknown here in America, chiefly because the American left lacks a self-critical impulse.

Bruckner’s approach to environmental criticism departs from most others in not disputing any particular environmental claim, including global warming. He fully accepts the possibility of great human harm to nature, and he accords respect to some of the philosophical critiques—by figures such as Martin Heidegger and Hans Jonas—about the obligations of humans to nature, mostly agreeing that we are falling short of our obligation. But just as Bruckner came to understand that Marxism was a perversion of—or an obstacle to—achieving greater justice for the dispossessed, he regards “ecologism,” as he labels the dominant tendencies of environmental thought, as the virtual successor to Marxism, and believes it to be just as potentially degrading, if not tyrannical. 

He writes: “In the wrong hands, the best of causes can degenerate into an abomination”—which is exactly what Bruckner thinks has happened to environmentalism. 

Ecologism has become a global ideology that covers all of existence, modes of production as much as ways of life. In it are found all the faults of Marxism applied to the environment: the omnipresent scientism, the appalling visions of reality, the admonishment of those who are guilty of not understanding those who wish us well. All the foolishness of Bolshevism, Maoism, and Trotskyism are somehow reformulated exponentially in the name of saving the planet.

He notes that “Marxism designated capitalism as responsible for human misery. .  .  . With ecologism, we move up a notch: the guilty party is humanity itself.” The result is a domain of thought and action today that rewards vehemence over sensibility. This is not a new theme; the “watermelon” label—green on the outside, red on the inside—has been applied to environmentalists for a while. Likewise, Bruckner joins in seeing environmentalism as a secular religion. But Bruckner captures more of the depth and texture of these two aspects of environmentalism than do other critics. 

Along the way, he sheds fresh light on why even reasonable and rational environmental concern enables the nonsensical and extreme versions to flourish and dominate. The rational environmentalist wishes to warn us of the damage industrial civilization brings with it, while the nonsensical environmentalist wishes only to use this fact as a stick to beat human beings and condemn modern industrial civilization.

Bruckner offers a particular twist on the environmentalism-as-religion theme. More than just a form of faith, environmentalism revives a monastic mentality that wraps human guilt together with a call for humility, repentance, and a discipline of abasement. This “gaseous equivalent of Original Sin”—an eco version of the fall of man—explains why environmentalists are congenitally resistant to facts, science, and progress itself. Environmentalism isn’t out primarily to save nature, but to purify humanity: “Adding ‘eco’ .  .  . and ‘bio’ to any word is enough to sanctify it”—although it is no longer acceptable to the high priests to carry your holy eco-water in plastic bottles.

This also explains why environmentalism is so wedded to apocalyptic horizons. I’ve always explained that environmentalists react with fury to facts debunking their end-of-the-world scenarios because the prospect of the eco-apocalypse makes them happy. Bruckner extends the analysis: “The [eco] prophet is not a great soul who admonishes us but a petty fellow who wishes us many misfortunes if we have the gall not to listen to him.  Catastrophe is not something that haunts him but his source of joy.”