Crumb Trail
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Friday, August 29, 2003

In Leftist Criticism of "Nature" Environmental Protection in a Postmodern Age Paul Wapner runs a few laps around the various modern, post-modern and post-post-modern views of environmentalism. It's not simply an exercise, he actually goes somewhere and by taking the scenic route and pausing to observe and evaluate selected monuments and trail markers he illuminates a murky subject.

His purpose is to rescue environmentalism from the post-modern critique which is so influential for leftists. His method is to build a well reasoned account of the observations and ideas that make the PM critique valid and then offer a way past that critique that doesn't simply dismiss it as sophistry.

First he establishes why the PM critique is important to leftists.

Postmodernism is a natural ally of the left in that it deconstructs existing conditions and shows that, although they may appear natural or necessary, they are really contingent; they can be changed. This is a doctrine that has helped people look critically at their society and consider the possibility of other arrangements.

Then he states the critique.

Leftist critiques of environmentalism start from this same premise. They point out that our notions of nature-the nonhuman world that environmentalists care so much about-are themselves social constructions and thus subject to various interpretations, none of which can provide absolute guidance for environmental policy. We never experience nature directly but always through the lenses of our own values and assumptions. "Nature" is thus not simply a physical entity that is "out there" or given; it is an idea that takes on different meanings in different cultural contexts, a social construction that directs us to see mountains, rivers, trees, and deserts in particular ways. Raymond Williams expressed this understanding when he wrote, "The idea of nature contains, though often unnoticed, an extraordinary amount of human history." To postmodernists, "nature" is not something the mind discovers but something that it makes.


What one person values as an endangered species is potential income, a threat, or dinner to someone else. Leftist criticism has been important in reminding us that "nature" is not a single realm with a universalized meaning, but a canvas on which we project our sensibilities, our culture, and our ideas about what is socially necessary.

The traditional environmentalist position is modernist and unable to refute the leftist critique other than to dismiss it and reassert the modernist view.

Yes, they say, there is a social dimension to how we think about nature, but nature is fundamentally a physical entity, and our understanding of it can be based on clear-eyed observation, direct experience, and scientific description. The whole notion that nature is constructed is simply intellectual sophistry practiced by those who either spend too much time indoors or who work at such high levels of abstraction that they never engage the phenomenal world.

But there is some importance to developing a response to the leftist critique since anti-environmentalists make good use of it.

When anti-environmentalists claim that, because there is no authentic entity called "nature," we can choose to use trees, animals, canyons, and rivers as we see fit, staunch environmental modernists have little to say. They can disagree about first principles, complain about ontological and epistemological premises, but beyond this they have little to say. Simply rejecting eco-criticism and reasserting a modernist narrative doesn't reckon with the intellectual weight of contemporary attacks on "nature."
One attempt at response circles back to an older concept of stewardship that Berry might find compelling.
A second, more engaging, response goes in the other direction. It comes from people who agree with the critique of "nature" and, by way of response, advocate a post-nature environmentalism. Because everything we call "nature" is relative to our ideas, they argue, we should accept (indeed, embrace) our role as creators of "nature" and assume full responsibility for governing the so-called natural world. ... Noting the ungrounded character of the idea of nature, Walter Truett Anderson suggests that we see ourselves for what we, in fact, are: eco-artists-designers and builders of the nonhuman world. This second response calls for dispensing with the category of nature altogether and fashioning an environmentalism along other lines of interest and concern.

Wapner sees a flaw in this ungrounded view since "dispensing with the category of "nature" means that there are no reigning guidelines for valuing one set of arrangements, or one artistic creation, over another" and proposes a way out.

I would like to present a third response to contemporary eco-criticism, accepting the intellectual insights of postmodern critics and, at the same time, providing some guidelines for protecting the nonhuman world. My argument will focus less on the fundamental character of reality-an endless debate-and more on the ethics of environmentalism. The two responses that I've just described ask whether a postmodern sensibility has the right epistemological or ontological "take" on reality-with the first denying and the second defending the rightness. I will ask instead how we want to live in the world and what kind of people we want to be. But I will try to build my answers on (or out of) the ontological debris created by postmodern criticism.

But Wapner's proposal, an ethical system, is no more grounded than the aesthetic system proposed by Anderson. Both are important and useful perspectives that contribute to the simple fact that we do have to choose "how we want to live in the world and what kind of people we want to be", but they need grounding.

Wapner provides a basis for a more grounded view when he says: "... preserving the nonhuman world-in all its diverse embodiments-must be seen by eco-critics as a fundamental good." This is not an ethical issue, it is sound biology. It is life itself that is useful, indeed a requirement, for human existence. Policies that tend to increase life tend to be useful for humans and other life. We can make choices based on aesthetics and ethics but they are constrained by the need to privilege abundance and diversity of life.

There are practical applications of this more grounded approach for resolving some of the agricultural issues discussed in earlier posts. Environmentalists object to industrial agriculture enabled by subsidized production, especially of grains. Fair trade advocates object as well since it leads to overproduction and dumping, acts which they claim keep poor countries poor.

So we can ask: Is a maize field good? Does it make sense to grow maize to make food or fuel?

And we can answer: No, a maize field has very little life, compared to a natural meadow or prairie, and extremely little diversity. A healthy meadow has more biomass below ground - worms, fungi, insects, bacteria, burrowing mammals, etc - than a maize field has above ground. The meadow also has much life above ground. All things considered it is incomparably more alive and diverse.

We can't stop growing grain and still have human civilization but it is clear that choosing to grow more than is needed, especially for wasteful objectives such as fuel, is not a sensible aesthetic or ethical choice.

How about an old growth forest? Is it good, in need of preservation? Would more life exist if the forest was managed to be diverse, with a mix of young, middle aged and old growth? Would there be more diversity of life in a mixed age forest? Yes, in most types of forest there would be far more life and far more diverse life if managed to be mixed age rather than old growth. There are exceptions, not all forests are alike, and there are possibly forms of life that are unique to old growth forests. Details count but by using the concepts of existence and diversity rather than fuzzy aesthetic and ethical decision tools we can make useful judgements.

How about ethical systems. Shall we be vegetarians because we measure the value of life on an anthropocentric scale, life more like ourselves is more valuable? No, growing maize, wheat, soybeans, rice etc. greatly diminishes life though it is most destructive of life forms least like ourselves. Fungi, worms and bacteria, grass and weeds are not cute, don't have doe eyes to tug our heart strings but are much more essential to environmental health. Better we should have more meadows and eat higher on the food chain since it is less destructive.

The leftist critique of environmentalism is useful, a tool to help think our way past the Ludditism and anti-humanism of the green barbarians-in-training. But we still need grounding in physical reality to constrain the range of aesthetic and ethical choices we might make and so make better decisions. Repeatedly applying the principle of maximizing biomass and biodiversity to human agriculture, industry and settlement practices would not only 'preserve' wilderness, it would heal areas already made comparatively lifeless. Human behaviors - diet, leisure, housing, industry etc, - can all be measured against this metric and provide useful policies. Where there is conflict - humans do love their maize and pasta - we can knowingly bear the consequences rather than wallowing in confusion about our acts. The amount of life is a barometer of our activity telling us whether our actions endanger ourselves and the other.

posted by back40 | 8/29/2003 12:40:00 PM


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