We live in the midst of a global environmental crisis for which we are responsible and that has no precedent in history. The causes of specific instances of environmental destruction, like mountaintop removal coal mining, the extinction of the Carolina parakeet, or the overuse of antibiotics in livestock, are obvious: a combination of ignorance, short-sightedness, and most importantly, greed.
However, what about the big picture? What underlies every separate and seemingly unrelated cases of environmental destruction and degradation around the globe? Many activists and writers such as Carol Merchant have argued for one of three fundamental causes: capitalism, Christianity, and/or the scientific revolution. This is both wrong and unhelpful. I have a better answer.
The specifics of these arguments have been discussed at length many other places, so I won't go into much detail here. The basic argument is this:
1) capitalism commodifies and exploits nature
2) because of one line in Genesis, the Christian view of humankind's
relationship with nature is that of "dominion"
3) pre-scientific people believed in a living Earth, while the scientific revolution
turned the world into dead matter.
What I find disappointing about these arguments is that they ignore human nature. In effect, they claim the causes of environmental destruction exist outside of human beings, within ideologies or beliefs separate from ourselves. If only we had an economic system other than capitalism, embraced a different religion, and had a pre-Enlightenment worldview, then we would not pollute and destroy. Innate human nature is in harmony with nature, and so we are fundamentally innocent.
This deflection of our culpability is disingenuous. So too is the implication that these beliefs and ideologies have been imposed upon us.
I also find it extremely unhelpful to blame capitalism, Christianity, and the scientific revolution for our environmental ills because such blame provides no realistic solutions. No reasonable person could possibly believe that Western societies would abandon Christianity for animistic or pantheistic religions, reject capitalism for Marxism or Medieval agrarian economies, or give up the benefits brought about by science. Nevertheless, that is precisely what these writers advocate, without a hint of self-consciousness.
Such wishful thinking (if only Christianity wasn’t the West’s dominant religion...) can never be tested and thus never be proven wrong, but furthermore, if earnestly believed, leads to fatalism and inaction: nothing can be done to stop the environmental crisis since there is nothing that can be done about its causes.
However, for every Christian, capitalist, or post-Enlightenment civilization that has destroyed its environment, one can point to a non-Christian, non-capitalist, pre-Enlightenment civilization that did the same. From all parts of the globe and from all time periods, there have been destructive societies: the Anasazi, the Maya, the Rapanui of Easter Island, the Romans, the ancient Greeks, the civilizations of the Fertile Crescent, the Greenland Vikings, and so forth.
In his book Collapse, Jared Diamond details how some of these civilizations brought about their own downfall due to environmental destruction, all without the assistance of modern science, industrialism, capitalism, or Christianity.
If capitalism, Christianity, and the scientific revolution are not the culprits, then the blame lies elsewhere, and I want to firmly place it at the feet of our own nature. Let’s assume that humans generally act in ways they perceive to be in the best interests of themselves, their family, and their communities. If humans are rational, wouldn’t it be rational not to destroy the environment? Isn’t it irrational to destroy the very thing that keeps us alive? Yes. So why does this disconnect exist between our rational self-interest and our irrational actions? Well, it’s because of a few other facts of human life:
1. With each generation the environmental baseline shifts.
2. Incremental changes seem harmless or reasonable alone but in the aggregate are destructive.
3. Individuals use themselves to judge what is reasonable behavior in others.
Who drives too fast? Someone who drives faster than you. Who drives too slow? Someone who drives slower than you. Who is a workaholic? Someone who works more than you do. Who is lazy and has no work ethic? Someone who doesn’t work as hard as you do.
4. Thinking ecologically is difficult.
The multitude of cascading consequences and connections is hard to imagine. Due to ecology’s complexity, even experts have difficulty predicting cause and effect.
5. Short term stability sacrifices long term sustainability and vice versa.
6. Solutions to ecological problems are unavoidably political.
Individual action and consumer choice changes are not enough
7. Everything government does or doesn’t do affects everyone and everything unequally.
8. Politics is about balancing competing rights, but plants, animals, and the land cannot vote, lobby, or protest. Who will be their advocate?
In democracy we have universal recognition of individual human worth. What would a society look like with universal recognition of both human and natural worth? Ecological democracy?
9. The economy is structured in such a way that it requires unlimited growth.
Can a low-growth economy be compatible with individual opportunity, dignity, worth, etc? Unknown.
10. Ethical problems related to the environment face the same intractable challenges as other ethical problems.
People are good and noble but also selfish and egotistical. We know murder is wrong, and yet have never been able to end murder.
11. The whole is more destructive than its parts.
While individuals may care deeply about the environment, when they act collectively as public institutions, non-profits, businesses et cetera they tend to err on the conservative side when judging the acceptability of something that may harm the environment.
12. Environmentally destructive behavior, patterns, systems et cetera are harder to see from the inside than the outside.