On the “Environmentalists’ Dilemma” Reply

I’m grateful to Allen for bringing these thoughts to the table for discussion.

I suspect the portrait of the “environmentalist’s dilemma” is a bit exaggerated on both sides. It reminds me of the first vociferous “debate” in the environmental movement between so-called “Deep Ecology” and “Social Ecology” Greens (the latter largely the acolytes of Murray Bookchin). This debate was perhaps more imagined than real (insofar as it took place among a handful of writers and intellectuals and was less apparent ‘on the ground’), although it did reflect underlying tensions and questions within the Green movement having to do with the kinds of worldviews that inspired and motivated those engaged in environmentalist/ecological politics in the broadest sense. On one side, the more (loosely) spiritual-oriented folks were busy canvassing if not rummaging through the globe’s various worldviews for philosophical perspectives they believed evidenced a more holistic and harmonious metaphysical and ethical picture of mankind’s relation with the natural world; on the other side (and again, loosely), were those of Left and New Left vintage who understood the new ecological politics to emerge from within a tradition that was more beholden to the likes of Marx and Kropotkin or the Wobblies and the SDS, and thus were prone to carcicaturing their ecological counterparts as New Age whackos with irredeemably bourgeois sensibilities afflicted by historical amnesia utterly lacking in “true” socio-political and economic sophistication when it came to social analysis and understanding the dynamics of social change. There were truths to be learned from both camps, although egos and polemicizing served to obscure that fact (in time, both sides began to dismantle their character armour somewhat and the debate itself virtually vanished).

Robert E. Goodin’s book, Green Political Theory (1992) helps us to understand some of the reasons that animate the above debate as well as a more significant divide within “green political theory” and praxis. Goodin writes of a “green theory of value” that, in short, “provides the unified moral vision running through all the central substantive planks in the green political programme.” Conceptually and politically distinct but thought by many to strictly follow from this green theory of value is a “green theory of agency” that tells us how to go about pursuing the green theory of value(s). Goodin points out that part and parcel among those who concentrate their energies on the “agency” aspect of green politics are a belief in and commitment to the propogation of views revolving around choices of personal life-style, questions of New Age cosmology, and the desire for transformations of consciousness, views that tend to trivialize or crowd out more pragmatic and practical orientations and strategies that rely on conventional politics for the realization of the green theory of value. Those cleaving to such views make the price, so to speak, for subscribing to or endorsing a green politics too high for the vast majority of citizens and thus, in the end, prolong the realization of a green theory of value(s). Some years ago I wrote that while I thought Goodin was a bit hard on some of the “agency” folks, he made a compelling argument. On the other hand, he may not have sufficiently appreciated the very real obstacles presented by conventional politics for the realization of green values (this would be the position, say, of the late Rudolf Bahro or even the late Arne Naess).

The “economists” of the post would therefore be identical with or at least similar to the practical or pragmatic folks (including those willing to ‘dirty’ their hands in conventional politics) Goodin believes better capable of implementing green moral values, in other words, more likely than those “moralists” who, fewer in number, can be a bit too self-righteous or unrealistic in their advocacy of wholesale lifestyle and worldview (‘belief’) changes of the sort that could not, it seems clear, occur anytime soon, a fact with dire consequences if one is convinced of the necessity and urgency of the green political program.

In several respects, I think Goodin’s argument provided a way out of the impasse, in any case, it addressed questions of a more down-to-earth sort than those intrinsic to the theoretical and rarefied debate that took place between the deep ecology and social ecology greens and it made the larger point that “being green” did not strictly entail adopting wholesale the idiosynractic or unfamiliar worldviews of green intellectuals and movement leaders, nor did it mean adopting a radically new lifestyle on the order of the hippies and countercultural devotees of an earlier era.

It often seems to be the case that those who provide the vision and leadership of the green movement are more toward the “moralist” and “agency” end of the spectrum, for what has motivated their own idealism, activism and politics is often a conversion of some sort, to a new worldview (or the radical transformation of an existing one) and or a new lifestyle, the presumption or assumption being that it’s changes of THAT sort that are necessary for others to begin the turn toward ecological and environmental thinking and praxis. But to support and vote for green politics rarely requires such dramatic and wholesale changes among the masses. For us, the changes are more likely of a piecemeal kind (e.g., recycling, buying a more fuel-efficient car, less wasteful consumption decisions generally) and often at the ballot box (voting for a more environmentally sound politics that facilitates the progressive and wider adoption and realization of green values). And with regard to worldviews, this more often that not means people will come to simply modify their existing belief systems in ecological and environmentalist ways (see, for instance: http://fore.research.yale.edu/). Thus, in effect, we overcome the “environmentalists’ dilemma” on the ground, not unlike, at least in some measure and certain respects, Thoreau himself did.

With a brief nod to a literary dimension, it bears noting that “social ecologists” rightly took to task the ideas and tactics of those in the environmental movement who belonged to groups such as Earth First! (and the early writings of its co-founder, David Foreman), that wing of the movement farthest from a Gandhian-like practice of nonviolence (some would claim their praxis was nonetheless a species of nonviolence). These radical ecologists were avowedly inspired by the writings of Edward Abbey (e.g., The Monkeywrench Gang, 1975) who, while not accountable for their actions, most notoriously “eco-sabotage” (or ‘monkeywrenching’), seems to have endorsed them. Insofar as these actions were ‘underground’ (i.e., intentionally not public), and involved destruction of property or possible harm to living beings, they were understandably anathema to others in the environmental movement. Earth First! philosophy or political theory, such as it was, came dangerously close to if not actually espousing an ecological version of Malthusian Social Darwinism, the fundamental or representative ideas of which are enshrined in Paul Ehrlich’s writings (e.g., The Population Bomb, 1968) as well as Garrett Hardin’s formulation of “Tragedy of the Commons” idea (incisively critiqued by Partha Dasgupta, among others), alongside his later and more disturbing notion of “lifeboat ethics” (for a nice discussion of this variation on Malthusian themes, please see Robert C. Paehlke’s Environmentalism and the Future of Progressive Politics, 1989).

The environmentalist “economists” cited in the post are of course constrained in part by conceptual and value presuppositions and assumptions that heretofore have helped define their discipline (cf. S.M. Amadae’s Rationalizing Capitalist Democracy: The Cold War Origins of Rational Choice Liberalism, 2003, and works by Philip Mirowski), especially insofar as they are trained in and beholden to essential tenets of neo-classical economics. Alas, this kind of economics has become increasingly obtuse when it comes to forthrightly addressing questions of ethics or morality (environmentalist or otherwise). Amartya Sen details some of the historical and conceptual shortcomings of the discipline in his book, On Ethics and Economics (1987). In addition to informing his colleagues of how economics  can benefit from a more intimate relation with ethics, Sen makes a subsidiary point regarding the benefits that follow from ethical thinking being informed by a basic knowledge of economics. Another important work by way of addressing the moral shortcomings of contemporary economics as a social science discipline and thus useful for environmentalists of an economics suasion, is Daniel M. Hausman and Michael S. McPherson’s Economic Analysis, Moral Philosophy, and Public Policy (2nd ed., 2006). A book I believe sets the standard for a morally and ecologically sensitive economics, is Partha Dasgupta’s Human Well-Being and the Natural Environment (2001). Finally, a fine example of the  increasing sophistication of environmentalist reasoning and praxis is Moral and Poltical Reasoning in Environmental Practice (2003), edited by Andrew Light and Avner de-Shalit. The entry on “environmental ethics” in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP) is helpful by way of ascertaining to what extent our “dilemma” may afflict environmentalists as well as thinking though these topics more generally.

A word of caution: I think some environmentalists who are making their argument within the parameters of economics, try too hard to demonstrate their capitalist bona fides, thereby unnecessarily constricting the imagination of prospects and possibilities for a more ecologically and environmentally sustainable tomorrow. In short, and by way of a conclusion, we might say that the “Environmentalists’ Dilemma” arises in the first instance because the profession of economics is morally impoverished, a conceptually contingent and remediable state of affairs, foreshadowed in fine fashion, as Allen helps us see, in Thoreau’s Walden.

Readers may also be interested in a compilation from several years ago of titles on “environmental and ecological worldviews:” http://www.jurisdynamics.net/files/documents/environmental_and_ecological_worldviews.doc

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