Fear of a Green Conservatism, Composing, 16/12/2014

Now that my vacation away from the obligation of having to travel to Oakville and back four days a week has started, I’m still working. I just get to do it in my pyjamas. I’m back at the writing desk again. 

This time, I’m going through my Ecophilosophy manuscript. Some very pleasant things have come together regarding publishers over the couple of weeks, so I’m polishing the manuscript in detail to update the style to the more vernacular approach that I’ve developed through the blog. I spent a good chunk of today working on the second chapter, which is mostly about why political opponents of environmentalism see it as a threat to democracy.

Enough lobbyist money will even turn you against this
Nixon-founded bastion of liberal anti-economy claptrap.
On an intellectually basic level, most political opposition to environmentalism is based on the idea that anything that’s good for the environment is bad for the economy. This mostly comes out of the mouths of conservative politicians who are speaking on behalf of their petroleum company and chemical company lobbyists. In the Canadian case, there are more profound affinities between the Harper government and the oil industry, but I’ll save those comments for later, once I start working through Daniel Gutstein’s Harperism. That’ll be my fun reading after I finish this old Joseph Conrad I picked up at a bookstore bargain bin a while back.

But the more philosophically profound part of that chapter is about defending a basic idea behind liberal political thought from what is seen as an environmentalist challenge. This goes beyond the simple idea that too many people still hold (and that I examine in detail in this chapter), that humanity and nature are essentially in a zero-sum game, and that valuing nature means debasing humanity. To give you the short version of my argument against this: Well, no.

The typical liberal I discuss in this section sees that challenge as an imperative to give up on human freedom to save nature. It sees the environmentalist challenge as the contention that the best, most authentic place for humanity is nestled into a sustainable community enjoying the fruits of nature. 

If I am free, goes the liberal opposition to this vision, then I should be free to break from the conditions of my home place. That break could very well involve ecologically destructive activity, or perhaps not. The point is that humanity should be open to this freedom, or else it is constrained by the social conservatism of culture and duties to the environment. Human freedom lies in the power to break radically from where you grew and create an entirely new line of flight.

I’ve felt like this about my own life before. This was very much how I felt when I left St. John’s in 2008 to come to Ontario for my doctoral program. I felt enormous pressure to stay in St. John’s from the wider culture, but it only chafed me. I wanted a new beginning, and I knew it would liberate me. When a liberal hears about the environmentalist vision of small sustainable towns of people in mutually nurturing relationships with their land, they’re rightly afraid that this heralds a stagnating humanity, that environmentalism is a radical social conservatism that has found itself emerging from the political left.

The short version here is also: Well, no. The slightly longer version, which will be just as unsatisfying because my whole argument is a 10,000 word book chapter, is that the ability to break radically with your past is never taken away. The environmentalist vision of a sustainable community enforces no greater social conservatism than any other political philosophy. If anything, its model figures are more wary of social conservatism because environmentalism grew up in counter-culture. 

Environmentalism simply adds a new set of stupid decisions to the list of avenues that human freedom has stumbled down and discovered to be terribly destructive and generally awful. It’s the new critique of freedom so that the next time we exercise our freedoms to begin a new life, we won’t make similar mistakes as the last time, destroying our ecologies in the name of some amorphous progress. 

Change and newness is necessary for evolutionary development at a biological and cultural level. We must know what does and doesn’t work. Today, we know that environmentally destructive habits largely don’t work. Liberal freedom to start new lives is how we begin future experiments, some of which will be successful, and most of which won’t. Freedom is the ability to break. Wisdom in freedom is the knowledge not to break bad a second time.

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