Friday, April 29, 2005

Biocentrism, not ecofascism

Erik Loomis at Alterdestiny (an excellent blog) wrote two posts recently (here and here) on a topic he has labeled ecofascism. After a couple of hectic days, I finally have the time to sit down and write a response. I am, however, finding it difficult to marshal my thoughts. Nonetheless, I’m going to address issues raised by his second post, which is pretty much divided between two themes. First, is the idea that activist environmentalists often embrace belief systems that share anti-humanist tendencies with certain right-wing groups. Second, is the idea that a focus on wilderness preservation shares these same anti-humanist tendencies and lacks good utilitarian justifications. I’ll address these separately.

With regards to the first theme, Erik asserts that there are basically two types of environmentalists, donors and activists. Donors give money to big enviro groups, recycle and vote enviro. Activists, on the other hand, might do these things, but they also embrace radical ideologies such as deep ecology and its potentially dangerous corollaries. These are pretty good descriptions of two types of environmentalist, but they do not constitute an exhaustive description of the environmentalist universe.

Having worked with four mainstream environmental organizations and the many fine people who work in and belong to them, I can unequivocally say that there are many environmentalists who are not captured within Erik’s description. I understand that he presents the dichotomy to highlight certain aspects of modern environmentalism, but I think it does a great disservice to many environmentalists. I know many people who have devoted their lives to the environmental movement. They are undoubtedly activists, but they are not radicals. They are devoted to the environment and its preservation, but generally equally devoted to human rights, gender and racial equality, pluralism and democracy. These folks are not perfect, but they are much more than mere bystanders and much better than mere racists. I am sure they harbor the biases and prejudices that all humans do, but I do not think they allow them to govern their lives or the policies they pursue.

This is not to say that there are not people in the environmental movement who have embraced racist or anti-human ideologies. There certainly are. However, I would argue that they are neither a majority nor a threat to the movement. The fact that they are there, of course, represents a potential grounds for a right-wing misinformation campaign (see e.g., attempts to conflate Earth Liberation Front with mainstream groups like Greenpeace and the Sierra Club). It is important to note, I think, that both Sierra Club and Zero Population Growth (now Population Connection) have defeated efforts in the last 10 years by activists (right-wing or otherwise) who wished to make anti-immigration issues part of the groups’ policy platforms.

As an aside, and at the risk of getting off course, I would like to note that I believe it is possible to have a rational discussion about limiting or regulating immigration without being motivated by racist or hyper-nationalist tendencies (click here to read a dissenting argument to this assertion). This is predicated, I think, on the acceptance of the validity of the nation-state and the idea that states may have interests that conflict with the universal human right of movement which is usually invoked to justify immigration. Because so much anti-immigration rhetoric is nationalist and racist in nature, however, such discussions are difficult and require a delicacy that is virtually impossible to find in today’s politics. To that end, I’ll leave that topic alone, and merely note that most anti-immigration rhetoric I hear today (including that from groups like FAIR) does seem to be primarily driven by racial animus. I’ll refer readers to Orcinus for good material on those issues.

In any case, my point is that there are environmental activists who espouse right-wing or anti-humanist theories, but that there are also many environmental activists who do not. I don’t think the former are a significant force within the movement, and I don’t think they represent a threat to the movement. Environmentalists need to be vigilant, as the Sierra Club case suggests, but to fixate on this minimal threat would be a strategic error that would, I think, result in a loss of focus on vital issues such as ecosystem degradation, toxics, habitat loss, etc.

This brings me, I guess, to Erik’s second issue: the role of wilderness preservation in American environmentalism. Basically, Erik seems to argue that wilderness preservation has higher priority in the environmental movement than other, more quality-of-life type issues, and that this represents possible racist, classist tendencies in the movement.

Ultimately, I think whether wilderness preservation actually has a higher priority in the environmental movement is an empirical question. Looking at major groups like NRDC, Environmental Defense, and the Sierra Club, all of them discuss wilderness issues. SC, however, is the only one that is remotely wilderness-centric. This makes sense to me, as it was started by John Muir to preserve the wilderness in the Sierra Nevada. The others, however, really do have a much more pollution-, energy-, sprawl-oriented approach to issues.

The larger issue, and one that Erik broaches, is how do we prioritize wilderness preservation in the list of environmental issues that must be addressed. He rightfully notes that this prioritization requires a value to be given to each environmental goals (e.g. pollution prevention, wilderness preservation, decreased reliance on fossil fuels, etc.). However, he asks for a value based in something other than “New Age language about people’s spirits”. Well goddam. That’s harder than it sounds. In essence, Erik wants to know whether wilderness has an existence value. Moreover, he wants to establish this existence value with no reference to non-material issues. This gives us the question: “Does wilderness have a material existence value to humans?” Erik suggests that it does not, positing one reason: our “protected lands are among the most impoverished ecosystems”.

Offhand, I can think of two responses to Erik’s question about material existence values. First, it may be possible to find an existence value for wilderness through traditional economic theory. Thus, one might employ contingent valuation as a means to determine the value of wilderness. Survey a random sample of Americans and ask them what they would be willing to pay to preserve untrammeled wilderness. This may, of course, capture their spiritual inclinations, but it would provide a value free from any overt spiritual justification. Moreover, because it asks people for an explicit value figure, it defines wilderness in purely anthropocentric terms (dollars are meaningless outside a human context).

Second, and less anthropocentric, is to assess the actual value of ecosystem services that wilderness provides. Erik suggests that American wildernesses are ecologically impoverished, but that, too, is an empirical question. It is likely possible to develop a rough estimate of the ecosystem services for a wilderness by determining whether the wilderness includes ecosystems that extend beyond the boundaries of that wilderness. A good example of this is the Frank Church Wilderness in Idaho. It contains much of the watershed for the Salmon River, which then feeds into the Snake and the Columbia. These rivers provide much of the clean water for Idaho and Eastern Washington/Oregon, and no doubt there is a calculable value to that clean water. Without wilderness protection, this watershed would be open to logging, mining and other extractive industries. Again, this measures the value of the wilderness in terms of its usefulness to humans.

The larger question, as I see it, is whether wilderness (and the environment generally) have value that does not include humans. Erik asserts that it is impossible to separate humans from nature. I vigorously disagree. I understand that humans function within the larger global environment and within regional and local ecosystems, but we often do so with an utter disregard for that environment and those systems. More often than not, I think that human decision making considers the human effects of their actions (if that) and very little else. Thus, while we may be physically within an environment, our decision making occurs regardless of or “outside” of the environment. I would call this anthropocentric and I would call this separate from nature. I’ll give you an example:

My parents have a house near a lake in Georgia. The lake is manmade, and thus located in hilly country. One of my parents’ neighbors recently took a bush hog and scraped the property around his house free of small trees, underbrush and surface cover. Why? Presumably because he felt it was unsightly and he planned on planting grass seed. The result? Erosion has increased, washing away top soil and further denuding the hillside. The lake, meanwhile, now carries a heavier load of nitrates, suspended solids, and whatever else is in the Georgia soil. Now, the question is, what was that man thinking? I would argue, not much. But his concerns were pretty obviously solely anthropocentric. He cared nothing for the water quality of the lake, nothing for the plants themselves, and nothing for the larger ecosystem in which he, my parents, and everything else in the area live.

This sort of disregard for non-human interests is what I think environmentalists are talking about when complain about anthropocentrism. They are not, per Erik’s assertion, trying to assert human control over the environment. Rather they (and me) are asking for people to adopt a more biocentric ethic. This sort of ethic would take into consideration the long-term health of ecosystems, animals, plants, and humans. Yes, long-term benefits would redound for humans within an ecosystem if such an ethic was adopted, but that is not the purpose of doing so. Rather, a biocentric ethic recognizes that all living things benefit from fully functional natural processes, and thus human decisions and actions should seek to minimize negative effects on those processes.

The problem with the biocentric ethic I just proposed, of course, is in the application. How does one balance human and non-human interests? If a zero-sum situation arises, who wins? Offhand, I couldn’t say. The key, I think, lies in preserving systems rather than individuals. When I think of an example, I’m drawn to Wendell Berry’s writings on small-scale farming. He clearly has used the land, and used it for human benefit, yet he has not abused it and has, most likely, done no harm. He has benefited, the land has not been harmed, the ecosystem remains. That is biocentric. Application in highly developed areas, might be hard, but not impossible. The question, really, is whether “downstream” effects of human decisions can be mitigated for both human and non-human interests.

On the whole, I think that Erik and I probably agree on a lot of things and that many of our differences may arise out of the limitations of language (and the blogging medium). I hope this is sufficient answer for him, and not too boring for the rest of you. I could probably write for days on the topic. For now, though, I’ll just end here.