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The Rights of Nature: Has Deep Ecology Gone Too Far?

A specter is haunting the French humanist mind these days--a radical ecology movement that threatens to replace the idealization of humanity with an idealization of nature. Already we see "the passing of the humanist era," writes Luc Ferry, a philosopher at the Sorbonne and the University of Caen, in this prize-winning critique of that movement, a book all environmentalists ought to read. It is by turn witty and sneering, brilliant and disturbing, wildly alarmist and, in the end, surprisingly conciliatory. Ferry recognizes that we need a new relationship with nature but hopes we can get there without sweeping changes in Western humanism and liberal society. Yet he exaggerates the danger radical environmentalists pose and resists the changes that are needed.

In 1587 the village of Saint-Julien brought suit against a colony of weevils attacking the vineyards. The villagers lost in court, the judge declaring that the insects, being creatures of God, possessed the same rights as people to live in the place. Ferry is amused that such a trial could ever have occurred, but he is not amused by today's animal liberationists, deep ecologists, greens of the left or right, or ecofeminists, all of whom seem to have too tender a regard for weevils, even to the point of preferring them over humans. Ferry calls this brigade the "ecologists," a term that refers not to the quantitative science of ecology, with its computer models of plant and animal dynamics, but to a moral philosophy that would give rights to the whole ecosphere, the entire natural environment.

The origins of this specter lie in "the Anglo-Saxon world," a quaintly out-of-date phrase used by French politicians as well as intellectuals to refer to England, Canada, and the United States (though mainly the latter, an irrational country prone to sudden strange enthusiasms), which together constantly challenge France's cultural hegemony, and in Germany, the old nemesis, the dark home of anti-modern romantics. Ferry acknowledges that these foreigners have their French counterparts in writers like Michel Serres; nonetheless, he fears that it is France itself, the great font of modern humanism, that is under attack by the eco-revolutionaries.

THE NEW HUMAN BEING

A major source of the global environmental crisis, say the radicals, is the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, which promoted a new vision of human beings as set apart from, and above, the rest of nature by their capacity for reason. Through reason, humanists sought to transcend the earth in two ways: an ethical triumph over brute egotism and a technological domination over nature that would make human life richer and more comfortable. Although these ideas sprang up all over Europe--and it was near Edinburgh that one of the most important figures of the age, Adam Smith, the founding ideologue of capitalism, appeared--France was certainly a world center of the Enlightenment. From its philosophe-inspired revolution of 1789 emerged a modern democratic society enshrining the rights of all humankind, or, as Americans like to say, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The utopianism in that revolutionary era was palpable. A new human being was expected momentarily to arrive. Freed from tradition, which Ferry describes as "second nature," akin to natural instinct and just as confining, that person would make up his own ethics, without divine guidance, becoming as it were his own god.

Ferry still believes in that noble dream. We humans have no nature, he argues, but are proudly "unnatural." We alone have a history. We alone pursue a future, constantly tearing down the old, moving on to the new. Unique among species, we create moral ideals and try to live up to them.

While no thoughtful person would disagree that humans are distinguished from the rest of nature by their moral consciousness, the history they have made over the past 200 years has not demonstrated much realization of Ferry's ideal. Ecologists have not been the first to make this point; it has been gathering force for a long time, through a succession of world wars, totalitarian regimes, and, most recently, weapons of annihilation. The hydrogen bomb, that dreadful and arrogant product of some of the most intelligent minds ever, has been particularly hard to square with humanism. Following hard on those events have come dying rivers, lakes, and forests, the wholesale extermination of species, and global warming. Unfortunately for nature, there are now six billion of us gods around, swallowing resources at a ferocious rate; our vaunted economic freedom has been won at the expense of all other living beings. Is it misanthropic to see and regret such destruction, or to question the Enlightenment project of environmental conquest, or to denounce that old notion of freedom when it is unchecked by compassion or responsibility? The religion (if such it has been) of humanism has shattered against the dark facts.

I SUFFER, THEREFORE I AM

The first section of Ferry's book deals with the crusade for animal liberation, which has little to do with ecology, aimed as it is at protecting individual animals rather than the integrity of the ecosphere. The Australian philosopher Peter Singer argues that because animals can suffer, or have their "interests" damaged, they should be given legal rights. Ferry disagrees, holding that animals cannot be liberated at all because true freedom involves rising above instinct. Animals can be let out of their cages, but they cannot become other than what they are. Yet he understands that they deserve better treatment than having their eyes poked out by callous experimenters or their pain made into sport. We need rules to stop unnecessary cruelty--protective rules for animals, rights for humans. It is a fine line, and the courts are likely to find it harder and harder to draw.

The animal rights advocates are merely illogical, Ferry believes, confusing distinct categories of being, but the radical or deep ecologists advocate a truly dangerous set of doctrines that threaten a new tyranny. They want to overturn modernity itself. They look on nature as sacred. They teach that humans are only one species among many, that the earth is greater than any single part. They have no tolerance for democratic procedures. Seizing on a few paragraphs in a handful of texts, however, Ferry fails to do justice to the movement, especially its more mature leaders.

Deep ecology's leading voice is Arne Naess, a Norwegian philosopher, who feels that environmental concerns should go beyond purely human matters such as public health or long-term economic viability to the preservation of all living organisms and ecosystems. "Present human interference with the nonhuman world is excessive," he writes, "and the situation is rapidly worsening." Curtailing that interference would require a drastic reversal of the growth in human population and consumption. Radical thoughts, yes, unlikely to gain wide acceptance anytime soon. Yet how could such a change of thinking, if it came, pose any danger to the human spirit or to freedom?

DICTATORSHIP BY ECOLOGICAL RIGHT?

It would, says Ferry, if ecologists started using force to get their way, requiring people, for example, to practice birth control or stop buying automobiles. If force means Soviet repression, Ferry is right to be worried, but if it means passing laws and regulations in the time-honored Western fashion, then he is overwrought. Naess, for one, does not advocate violent, authoritarian tactics, nor did Aldo Leopold, the American forerunner of the deep ecologists and author of the widely admired essay "The Land Ethic," which argues that, through education, humans might develop a sense of personal responsibility to preserve the beauty and integrity of the earth. Garrett Hardin, another American ecologist, went further, calling for "mutual coercion mutually agreed upon," but even that formula is perfectly compatible with liberal democracy. Deep ecology presents itself as a peaceful effort to achieve a radical moral vision: the subordination of individual and species self-interest to the welfare of the whole ecological community. Interestingly, that struggle toward altruism is precisely what Ferry means by human freedom. The only difference is that altruism now includes more than humankind.

Of course, antidemocratic tendencies can develop in almost any movement (including the Enlightenment; remember how the Paris revolutionaries treated their foes). Ferry shows how Walther Schoenichen, a member of the Nazi party in the 1930s and a German wildlife conservationist, is echoed in many of today's radical ecologists' love of wilderness, disgust for Western imperialism, and desire for roots. Other Nazis found in the hearty outdoor life a source of virility for the super-race and talked about getting back to the forest, where the German soul found its home. Although they may have passed laws to enforce conservation, it is hard to find any genuine respect for nature in the Third Reich, whether in Mein Kampf, the Nazis' deadly war machine, or their technological fantasies. Ferry's warning about these precedents is well taken, to be sure: a passion for nature neither guarantees respect for other people's lives or views nor stops all moral outrages. The obverse is also true: many good humanitarians have seen nothing wrong with destroying nature for trivial ends.

Ferry is not among them. Despite his professed hostility toward radicals of all sorts, he confesses that the time has come for reconsidering the place of nature in Western thinking. He offers a "democratic ecology" that would teach the duties of environmental protection and preservation without endangering the rights of man. Nature, he allows, possesses value, which is to say that value is not simply a human creation. Nature achieves a beauty and harmony that humans must not destroy. Natural ecosystems display an "intelligence" often superior to that of people and requiring respect. Ferry rejects the Cartesian idea that living things are mere machines, without feeling, which people may disassemble at will. He denies that endless consumption is the way to a liberated human consciousness. All these concessions are still novel ideas to many humanists, and acceptance of their full implications would bring profound changes to Western ethics. Nature, on the other hand, remains profane for Ferry, and also for most environmentalists, who are not deep ecologists. Even many radical ecologists acknowledge that there is much in nature that is against us, like the Ebola virus coming out of the African jungles. Nature in the modern, secular, scientific age is too complicated an idea to define, let alone carry a religious meaning, as it once did for American Indians, Buddhists, and Christians.

What really separates Ferry from the ethical radicals he despises? More than anything else, it is the radicals' project to overturn powerful modern institutions--not democracy so much as the institutions of industrial capitalism. Ferry supposes that capitalism, or "the market," can remain intact by greening up for a new generation of environmentally conscious consumers. Radical ecologists would tend to disagree, wondering how an economic institution founded on self-interest and greed can ever become compatible with an ecological conscience or, for that matter, how it could ever have coexisted with the moral side of humanism.

Ecology is, Ferry writes, a potentially revolutionary force, and why not? He insists that we had our revolution 200 years ago, the only one we will ever need. The ecologists reply that deteriorating environmental conditions have made a new revolution necessary, and they wonder why our age should not have the chance to invent new ethics and institutions. If it is human to try to escape tradition, to explore new moral frontiers, then the radical ecologists are, in spirit if not dogma, the rightful heirs of the Enlightenment.

The Rights of Nature: Has Deep Ecology Gone Too Far? by Donald Worster crossposted from ForeignAffairs December 1995 Issue

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