This article appeared in issue #113, now available in our Blueprint for a New World Series Box Set.
In 2012, David Suzuki came forward to say, “Environmentalism has failed.”
Greenies and lefties from all over shuddered at his words, miring themselves deeper in the very illusion that is at the heart of environmentalism’s inevitable defeat. Yes, environmentalism has failed. But the truth is, it was doomed from the start.
Ever since Rachel Carson wrote her tear-jerker Silent Spring in 1962, environmentalism has been for the kind of people who like to play nice: romantics and hippies on the one hand, green capitalists and NGO-negotiator-types on the other. Instead of “the classic that launched the environmental movement,” Silent Spring should be dubbed “the classic that launched the Western environmental NGO structure that has set us on the wrong track for 50 years.”
Environmentalism didn’t really begin in the 60s with Rachel Carson’s plaintive Silent Spring. It began in the 18th century, when the rise of industry and free markets urged Adam Smith to pen Wealth of Nations, a few years after a young Rousseau entered an essay competition which posed the question: “What is the origin of inequality among people?” Rousseau’s response was his famous romantic denouncement of society as the real enemy of human freedom. What appears as the “perfection of human reason” throughout history is actually, to Rousseau, the “deterioration of the species.”
Rousseau’s romantic lament is only possible within the context of Modernity itself—defined by Heidegger as the historical age where “world” became Object and man became Subject. The notion of “the environment” arose at the very moment that human civilization became separate from it. Environmentalism, as a phenomenon of and reaction to Modernity has participated in and reified the modernist concept of the world as Object to our human subjectivity. Maybe by now you’re thinking, “what’s the point, this just sounds like philosophy,” … but it is this philosophy that has perverted our minds and souls and led to extinctions and millions of deaths—human and not. Environmentalism so far is but a symptom of Modernity rather than a meaningful solution to the mega-crisis Modernity has created. Once we entered into that paradigm of “Nature” as “Other”… the planet became understood only as an object to be idealized (romanticism) or as a resource to be exploited (capitalism).
Well-meaning environmentalists—who aspire to “save the planet” through pedantic awareness campaigns—often fail to recognize that their most earnest efforts are complicit in an alienated relation to (a modern, Western concept of) Nature—where this very concept of Nature is at the root of the mess we’re in. As Timothy Morton says in Ecology without Nature: “Putting something called Nature on a pedestal and admiring it from afar does for ‘the environment’ what patriarchy does for the figure of Woman.”
We have to do away with the word “environment” itself, along with all the campaigny phrases—“reduce your footprint,” “care for the planet,” “live sustainably” and “go eco-friendly”—they’re all just a cheap ticket to a clear conscience. This language has convinced a whole generation that you can “buy into” saving the world, as if you can consume your way to sustainability.
And for those who do see through the green capitalist lie … many of them just get lost in another very seductive illusion. Many good-intentioned environmentalists are preoccupied with the idea that we can return to a perfect, primitive past. This “once upon a time” fantasy is merely, as Žižek says, a secular version of the Fall—full of the same guilt, punishment and useless misanthropy. The myth of a lost Eden is like a mental virus which has infected the environmental movement—from Rousseau and Thoreau to Rachel Carson and John Muir; from Arne Næss and Aldo Leopold to David Abrams and Derrick Jensen—and rendered it impotent.
The truth is that there is nothing to return to. The only possibility is the possibility that we haven’t yet had an environmental movement. Perhaps the whole notion of environmentalism is, as Nietzsche said of his Übermensch, “untimely.” Maybe we are all too embedded in the current paradigm to be able to understand what an ecological society would be ... and what we would need to do to get there.
All truly paradigm-busting ideas go through three phases, as Schopenhauer once famously suggested. First, there is denial and ridicule. Next, there is outrage. And at last, it is said to have been obvious all along. After Einstein published his theory of relativity, a hundred physicists wrote a paper condemning it. Einstein’s response was marvellous, he said: if the theory is wrong, why shouldn’t one author suffice? As for environmentalism, it seems that we are currently passing from the first to second stage. And, looking back at all previous paradigm shifts— from Copernicus to Darwin, from Einstein to Heisenberg — we have reason to be hopeful ... that we will make it to the third.