Where is the Environmental Movement Today?
Sustainable Sources

Where Is the Environmental Movement Today?

Guest Editorial by
Bill Stephenson

As we round the corner into 2000, we're learning that we are not only Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal, Christian or agnostic, straight or gay, but that more basically, we're either mechanistic or organismic--that is, anti-environmental or pro-environmental in our basic mindset. We're learning it's possible to talk a good green line and head up the neighborhood's most active recycling program and still have a blatantly anti-environmental mindset, just as it's possible to be a Christian in name only, or a Democrat who resists instead of welcomes social change. We used to call Bucky Fuller a visionary environmentalist, but now we see that Spaceship Earth thinking is expressive of our rationalistic death-oriented mindset, productive of such things as genetic engineering and virtual reality.

Environmental writers employ their favorite terms to describe the opposing mindset between Cartesian or Enlightenment Rationality and Environmental Consciousness. Often their language contains elements of their religious underpinnings, as evident, for instance, in the Gaiaist terminology. The Gaia group contains both scientific materialists and various kinds of pantheists, and harbors most of today's famous environmentalists--people like Carl Sagan, Edmund Wilson, Stephen Jay Gould, or Stephen Hawkins who come from the world of science and use words that tend to begin with bio- or geo- People like Abrams or Rothenberg from the world of the humanities use words that tend to start with eco- or organ-. Any of the thirty or forty major environmental histories of the past fifteen years will include an adequate summary of how biosphere thinking, which views earth as a living, self- or God-directed organism, differs so radically from the old-fashioned scientific picture, guided as it was by Cartesian dualistic or mechanistic thinking which saw earth as a collection of matter, rather meaninglessly but consistently arranged into things that humans call individuals and species, more or less randomly walking, swimming, or flying around this planet that is itself spinning aimlessly around the empty universe.

It's too early still to tell how much of this new environmental awareness has actually filtered down to the people. It's supposed to take twenty years, which we've had. But even if the people may not be fully aware, they're ready. Sensing that they've been told one too many lies and given too many empty promises, the citizens of American have reacted not only by forming militias, state and private, but also sometimes by assuming their own share of responsibility. If our political parties won't provide leaders, we'll generate our own, we say. We need a few basics securities, like good jobs, safe streets, and homes with people in them. We need and have earned proper health care, and we demand a little old-fashioned accountability and ethical behavior from those we would call leader. We may not be ready to give up our big lawns, big garages, big televisions, or big budgets, but we'd really like to learn how to get smaller deficits, waistlines, and taxes. We know our air and water is still polluted, our species are still dwindling, and our (my how that word keeps reappearing!) rainforests still disappearing. We're starting to learn about visual pollution in such things as fast food strips, billboards, and endless walls of gang graffiti. We're starting to reject rather than glamorize the emotional pollution of our superstars, whom we indirectly pay to infect a thousand women with the HIV virus. We're starting to get interested in the difference between emotional and spiritual pollution, and beginning to admit that wrong belief invariably produces wrong action...even if our relativistic ethic prevents us from calling wrong wrong, or right right. In short, we're ready for a revolution, provided of course it doesn't cost too much.

I don't think our religious or secular community is yet ready to embrace the different mindset that's needed to produce major change, which is another way of saying that it costs too much. I fear things will have to worsen before they get better, just as happens with dysfunctional families or individuals. The alcoholic still can't buy his way around his problem but must go through it--must proverbially bottom out--before he can gather strength to face the necessary turnaround. Historians may look back on these days as the bottoming out period, and the environmental crisis as what precipitated it. The abortion and euthanasia crisis, plus what I see looming as the great debate of the twenty-first century--the debate over whether we'll allow humans to genetically engineer humans--could be all part of society's bottoming out process. If so, movement to the new way of thinking would have to evidence some kind of turnaround. Right now people think that society is debating the pros and cons of environmentalism the same way society debates capital punishment or even abortion. But if the old mindset is indeed death-productive, as all environmentalists seem to agree, and if the new mindset is indeed life-productive, then it's not just a position about which we're trying to arrive at consensus. The real question is whether our society will keep on debating what it knows to be wrong. Will it keep on trying to convince itself that we humans have the right to do whatever we collectively decide is right (which invariably means doing whatever we have become capable of doing)? The scientists say we shouldn't clone "until we get the technical bugs out." Have they missed the point about where that cloning will invariably lead? Will one day our society move beyond denial of our human spiritual nature and begin to dispassionately examine it? Will we one day ask what spiritual is?

For a long time the environmental enterprise remained a pretty simple and straightforward cause, one that only backward rednecks could oppose. The scientists, under the lead of soft spoken Rachel Carson back in the middle of the century, were trying to alert the populace or anyone who'd listen to the dangers of mankind's invisible destruction of brother earth and all of its different inhabitants. Given what we were busy doing, one day we'd wake to find spring silent, not filled with bird songs. The task of tracking and addressing physical degradations has continued up to the present time, and will always form the core of "environmentalism," since destruction and harmful rearrangement of physical life is the prime subject. In most colleges "environmental studies" is located in the sciences, or taught out of the biology department, and concerns such things as point source pollution. But in the 1980s one or two environmental colleges added a social science track to their science-oriented environmental studies programs, and by the middle 1990s, Middlebury College's environmental studies major--which included by this time such things as environmental history, philosophy, theory, and literature--was attracting more than 100 majors every year, seriously competing with popular majors like English or biology.

The subject became a hot literary matter when academics discovered people avidly reading Thoreau, Muir, and Edward Abbey, and when they heard that Loren Eiseley's Immense Journey sold half a million copies. By the early eighties, the second and third generation of nature writers had come into their own and names like Annie Dillard and Barry Lopez were becoming household words. Back in the eighties, no one would have bet money that the fledgling movement would make it into the nineties, but now it's safe to say it's not only here to stay, but is getting more popular every year. As a 1995 New York Times Magazine article states, "Deconstruction is compost. Environmental Studies is the academic field of the 90's." It marks a return to activism and social responsibility and "signals a dismissal of theory's more solipsistic tendencies." This new movement is not just romantic protest against urban life, "awareness" of the need for environmental action, affirmation of canoeing and backpacking, or a repackaging of ecology and biology, but is a field of study of its own. Even within one aspect of the larger discipline, environmental literature, Ph.D. candidates write dissertations on authors who haven't yet made it out of their thirties, and the field's professional organization swelled its ranks from zero in 1993 to 800 in 1996.

As we all know, "the environmental movement" is here to stay. But do we really understand it? How can a person who waits expectantly for the electronic perfection of virtual reality secretly be harboring a mindset inimical to environmentalism? The old-fashioned environmentalists resembled high tech solar energy scientists who always preferred to find energy-consumptive high tech schemes for the production of energy, and could say with a clear conscience that just conserving fossil fuel energy is good enough, compared with not conserving. Today's newer breed of Deep Ecologists, counterpart to the low tech solar enthusiasts, tell us that it's not enough just to stop doing certain things. We need to start, in small and big ways, doing other things. In order to do this, say the Deep Ecologists plus certain environmental educators like David Orr, a different mindset is needed-- the new organic one. These radicals look at "the system"--whether it be educational system, political system, or economic system--and say NO, this will not do! They say that academia not only compartmentalizes its knowledge--sometimes even its environmental courses, which should more than any be truly interdisciplinary in nature--but that academia also makes very outdated assumptions about what should and shouldn't be taught. Such things as goodness or "the good life," which the Greeks for instance took as their primary subject matter, are discussed only in a rare ethics course, and there usually superficially, using today's popular pro- and con- style of debate that parades as dispassionate examination. Anyone listening attentively to a deep Deep Ecologist would hear the voice of yesterday's minister, save for the missing altar call to salvation.

One of my hardest tasks, as teacher at an environmental college, has been to prevent negative students from wanting to characterize Homo sapiens as a cancerous mutation, heedlessly devouring the planetary body that nurtures and sustains it. They would convince us that the created world is not good, and because the system lacks a good head, the best thing for humans to do is bow out. But I don't think the majority of people believe humans to be a cancerous mutation, any more than the majority of people believe the world was designed solely for human life. If it's true that most people are not satisfied with only their purely material well being, and have longings for permanent values, and desire their lives to be organized around lasting certainties that they consider important, then it is possible our religious institutions can help us forge a new awareness that harmonizes rather than separates the spiritual and physical dimensions of life. If so, Christians, for instance, will have to begin rethinking their traditional notions about growth, large, and success. Instead, they may look toward small, decentralized, and simple. They will certainly have to begin seriously questioning their basic anthropocentric mindset which does not acknowledge the loss of topsoil as a diminishment of human worth. In that the evangelical Christian community has always been conservative and stressed the importance of individual and group responsibility, they are certainly better positioned than the secular liberal community, which has always looked to political remedies rather than personal reform. But as Deep Ecologist Chet Bowers argues, both secular and religious communities foreground individualism and background the cultural component. Both communities buy into hidden Eurocentric assumptions about the progressive nature of change, the role of science and technology in bettering mankind's state, and the necessity of critical reflection as the sole source of legitimate knowledge. Our ecological crisis is symptomatic of a deep crisis in human values and beliefs, and might call for as radical a stock-taking as the Amish have already done. We may need to examine our notions of time, knowledge, freedom, competition, progress, success, change, and even community. We definitely need to examine our priorities.

Have we begun the task? Perhaps only superficially. Were we to ask a teenager what good actions need to be taken today, chances are that high on the list would be environmental cleanup and protection. This I take to stand for the secular mindset: it does focus on nature, and does recognize environmental problems. But it tends to offer only technological solutions. Were you to ask a churchgoer the same question, environmental action would probably not be on the list of good actions needed. As stated, the Christian community needs to admit that their environmental duty has not yet fully sunk in. It should be high on everyone's list. But missing from the secular list is something that's ultimately more important for all life on earth than a focus on "environmental problems." This is a deeper understanding of what "spiritual" means. The postmodern view of connubial love is usually depicted or described in terminology reminiscent of the psychology of the Spanish gold seekers of the sixteenth century: a loved one is not a person but a partner or relationship which (not who) gives a limited "yield," and when that yield falls below expectation, it's time to move on. We've eliminated the "conquest" terminology, but clearly not the content. So far is the world from a deeper understanding of love, joy, and happiness, that it thinks believing in God takes one away from all three rather than immersing one in all three.

The environmentalists sometimes say the ultimate problem is spiritual, by which they mean religious. Religion has failed us. It has, but ordinary citizens are as much to blame. The deepest problem is a spiritual, not just religious, failure--on the part of both believers and non-believers. The former know about spirit, but don't allow Spirit to govern their lives; the latter do not believe in spirit or Spirit, or if they do, secularize their belief in ways that must inevitably trivialize it. This is evident in their very discussions about spirituality. Carl Sagan, before he died, moved a small step away from his lifelong atheistic position, saying that God indeed exists, and is nothing more than the sum of the natural system. What kind of a God is that? --Certainly not one you can pray to. If the ultimate environmental problem really is a spiritual one, perhaps it's time we began a discussion, rather than heated argument, about what spiritual really means.

Return to:

Green Building Conference | Sustainable Sources | Building Sources | Articles: Sustainable Building and Beyond

Webmaster: Bill Christensen