• April 23, 2014

Against Environmental Panic

Against Environmental Panic 1

Steve Brodner for The Chronicle Review

In Jesuit schools we were urged to strengthen our faith by spending time in monasteries. We were assigned spiritual exercises to be dutifully written in little notebooks that were supposed to renew the promises made at baptism and to celebrate the virtues of Christian love and succor for the weak. It wasn't enough just to believe; we had to testify to our adherence to the Holy Scriptures and drive Satan out of our hearts. These practices were sanctioned by daily confessions under the guidance of a priest. We all probed our hearts to extirpate the germs of iniquity and to test, with a delicious thrill, the borderline separating grace from sin. We were immersed in an atmosphere of meditative reverence, and the desire to be good gave our days a special contour.

We knew that God was looking down on us indulgently: We were young, we were allowed to stumble. In his great ledger, he wrote down each of our actions, weighing them with perfect equanimity. We engaged in refined forms of piety in order to gain favors. Regarded from an adult point of view, these childish efforts, which were close to the ancients' spiritual exercises, were not without a certain nobility. They wavered between docility and a feeling of lofty grandeur. At least we learned the art of knowing ourselves, of resisting the turmoil of puberty.

What a surprise to witness, half a century later, the powerful return of this frame of mind, but this time under the aegis of science. Consider the meaning in contemporary jargon of the famous carbon footprint that we all leave behind us. What is it, after all, if not the gaseous equivalent of Original Sin, of the stain that we inflict on our Mother Gaia by the simple fact of being present and breathing? We can all gauge the volume of our emissions, day after day, with the injunction to curtail them, just as children saying their catechisms are supposed to curtail their sins.

Ecologism, the sole truly original force of the past half-century, has challenged the goals of progress and raised the question of its limits. It has awakened our sensitivity to nature, emphasized the effects of climate change, pointed out the exhaustion of fossil fuels. Onto this collective credo has been grafted a whole apocalyptic scenography that has already been tried out with communism, and that borrows from Gnosticism as much as from medieval forms of messianism. Cataclysm is part of the basic tool-kit of Green critical analysis, and prophets of decay and decomposition abound. They beat the drums of panic and call upon us to expiate our sins before it is too late.

This fear of the future, of science, and of technology reflects a time when humanity, and especially Western humanity, has taken a sudden dislike to itself. We are exasperated by our own proliferation and can no longer stand ourselves. Whether we want to be or not, we are tangled up with seven billion other members of our species. Rejecting both capitalism and socialism, ecologism has come to power almost nowhere. But it has won the battle of ideas. The environment is the new secular religion that is rising, in Europe especially, from the ruins of a disbelieving world. We have to subject it to critical evaluation in turn and unmask the infantile disease that is eroding and discrediting it: catastrophism.

There are at least two ecologies: one rational, the other nonsensical; one that broadens our outlook while the other narrows it; one democratic, the other totalitarian. The first wants to tell us about the damage done by industrial civilization; the second infers from this the human species' guilt. For the latter, nature is only a stick to be used to beat human beings. Just as third-worldism was the shame of colonial history, and repentance was contrition with regard to the present, catastrophism constitutes the anticipated remorse of the future: The meaning of history having evaporated, every change is a potential collapse that augurs nothing good.

What is the carbon footprint, after all, if not the gaseous equivalent of Original Sin, the stain we inflict on Mother Gaia?

Catastrophism's favorite mode of expression is accusation: Revolutionaries wanted to erase the past and start over from zero; now the focus is on condemning past and present wrongs and bringing them before the tribunal of public opinion. No leniency is possible; our crime has been calculated in terms of devastated forests, burned-over lands, and extinct species.

The prevailing anxiety is at once a recognition of real problems and a symptom of the aging of the West, a reflection of its psychic fatigue. Our pathos is that of the end of time. And because no one ever thinks alone, because the spirit of an age is always a collective worker, it is tempting to give oneself up to this gloomy tide. Or, on the contrary, we could wake up from this nightmare and rid ourselves of it.

It happened in 1989, and that seems centuries ago. The world was emerging from the cold war; the Soviet Union, exhausted, was allowing subject peoples to escape its rule and preparing for its transition to a market economy. Euphoria reigned: Western civilization had just won by a knockout. Twice, in the course of the past century, it had triumphed over its worst opponents, fascism and communism, two illegitimate children to which it had given birth and which it was able to suffocate.

When the Soviets bowed out, enthusiasm vied with fear: An adversary is security against the future, a permanent competitor who forces us to reshape ourselves. Though we can never be sure of the affection of those closest to us, we can always count on the hatred of our enemies. They are the guarantors of our existence; they allow us to know who we are.

Who will claim, as communism did, to substitute another system for our values? Who will challenge us on such a large scale? Fundamentalist Islam? Even if it is gaining ground in many countries, accompanying the growth of a secular mentality like its shadow, it is directed primarily against Muslims themselves, whom it considers lukewarm and complicit with the modern world. There are useful enemies that make you fertile and sterile enemies that wear you out. Islamic terrorism is a cancer that teaches us nothing except paranoia. Combined with the work of the secret services and the police, sang-froid and prudence are the best responses to the bombers' barbarity.

It is difficult to reconstruct a credible adversary that is dispersed to the four corners of the earth and that can have all sorts of faces. We have to go further, to the roots of the problem. And the problem is our aggressiveness, our relentless attack on nature. We are told by the philosopher Michel Serres, for example, that people stupidly fight one another without realizing that the real battle is not where they think it is. For centuries, we have waged war on the world by trying to dominate it; now we have to wage war on war, sign an armistice with water, trees, stones, the oceans. As Serres writes:

The damage we have inflicted up to now on the world is equivalent to the ravages that a world war would have left behind it. Our peacetime economic relationships are arriving, continuously and slowly, at the same results that a short global conflict would produce, as if war no longer belonged to soldiers alone. ... We so-called developed nations are not fighting among ourselves anymore, we are all turning against the world. This is a war that is literally a world war, and twice over, because everyone, in the sense of human beings, is inflicting losses on the world, in the sense of things.

How can this malaise be transformed into a justified anger? How can its target be identified? By designating human beings as the danger par excellence. Rousseau already did so, in Émile, contrary to all the optimism of the Enlightenment: "Man, seek no longer the cause of the evil; you yourself are the cause. There is no evil other than the evil you do or suffer, and both of them come from you."

Numerous authors tell us that humanity as a whole has gone off-course, and that it has to be understood as an illness that must be immediately treated: "Man is a cancer on the earth, ... a throwaway species, like the civilization he invented," writes Yves Paccalet. And Nicolas Hulot, the French environmentalist, writes: "The enemy does not come from outside, it resides within our system and our consciousnesses."

For the past half-century we have, in fact, been witnessing a slide from one scapegoat to another: Marxism designated capitalism as responsible for human misery. Third-worldism, upset by the bourgeoisification of the working classes, substituted the West for capitalism as the great criminal in history and the "inventor" of slavery, colonialism, and imperialism.

With ecologism, we move up a notch: The guilty party is humanity itself, in its will to dominate the planet. Here there is a return to the fundamentals of Christianity: Evil is the pride of the creatures who are in revolt against their Creator and who exceed their prerogatives. The three scapegoats can be cumulated: Ecologism can reject the capitalism invented by a West that preys on peoples and destroys the earth. It is a system of Russian dolls that fit one inside the other until the final synthesis is reached. That is why so many old Bolsheviks are converting to ecologism in order to broaden their palette of accusations. This amounts to recycling anticapitalist clichés as one recycles wastewater: Ecologism adds a supplementary layer of reprobation, claiming to be the culmination of all earlier critiques.

Thus a whole segment of the South American left has seized upon this hobbyhorse to reinforce its credo: "We have two paths: either capitalism dies, or Mother Earth dies," said Evo Morales, president of Bolivia. The globe becomes the new proletarian that has to be saved from exploitation, if need be by reducing the human population to 500 million, as some opponents of "speciesism" proclaim. Consider the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement (Vhemt), a group of individuals who have decided not to reproduce themselves:

Each time another one of us decides to not add another one of us to the burgeoning millions already squatting on this ravaged planet, another ray of hope shines through the gloom. When every human chooses to stop breeding, earth's biosphere will be allowed to return to its former glory.

To extend our sense of responsibility to all coming generations is to empty it of its meaning, to put a titanic weight on our shoulders.

In the 19th century, the French historian Hippolyte Taine already said, "I love my children too much to give them life." Even Jared Diamond, who has written a magisterial study of the disappearance of societies, gives voice to a strange dream: "If most of the world's six billion people today were in cryogenic storage and neither eating, breathing, nor metabolizing, that large population would cause no environmental problems."

The despondency is striking, given that our lives are still extraordinarily pleasant. Everywhere the culture of lament prevails. We have to wear grave expressions on our faces and wrinkle our brows: The perils are so numerous that we can hardly choose among them. Sounding the death knell is our viaticum. Saving the world requires us to denigrate everything that has to do with the spirit of enterprise and the taste for discovery, especially in the field of science. We have ceased to admire; we know only how to denounce, decry, whine. The capacity for enthusiasm is dying out.

That is because at the turn of the 21st century a paradigm change took place: The long list of emblematic victims—Jews, blacks, slaves, proletarians, colonized peoples—was gradually replaced by the planet, which has become the paragon of all the wretched. It is not a specific community that we are asked to identify with, but rather a small spaceship that carries us and groans. It is no longer a question of transforming the world but of preserving it.

An example? Sir Martin Rees, an astrophysicist at the University of Cambridge, published a book with a resounding title—Our Final Hour—in which he gave humanity a 50 percent chance of surviving the 21st century, because of its proliferation and its wicked inventions.

This sort of literature is proliferating and turning into clichés. The litany of failure is endless. Ecologism has become a global ideology that covers all of existence. In it are found all the faults of Marxism applied to the environment: the omnipresent scientism, the appalling visions of reality, the admonishing of those who are guilty of not understanding those who wish them well.

All the foolishness of Bolshevism, Maoism, and Trotskyism are somehow reformulated exponentially in the name of saving the planet. Authors, journalists, politicians, scientists compete in announcing the abominable and lay claim to a hyperlucidity: They alone see things correctly, whereas others vegetate in the slumber from which they will someday awaken, terrified. They alone have emerged from the cave of ignorance in which the human herd mills around, deaf and blind to the obvious.

Why do we in the West take such pleasure in predicting our own disappearance? In situations of all-out war, foreseeing the worst is proof of lucidity: "You've got optimists and pessimists. The first died in the gas chambers. The others have swimming pools in Beverly Hills," Billy Wilder remarked in 1945. There can be a desperate optimism and an active pessimism, a source of energy. But defeatism is also the second home of privileged peoples, the contented sigh of big cats purring in comfort. A tragedy that strikes far away transforms the platitude of our everyday lives into a high-risk adventure: We are living on the edge of the abyss! To sound the alarm is to re-enchant the routine under the sign of danger.

The fear is permanent, its object is purely contingent; yesterday it was the millennium bug, today it is global warming and nuclear energy, tomorrow it will be something else. This alarmism is as lazy as naïve optimism and no less illusory. The adepts of the worst-case scenario are still the victims of a fantasy of omnipotence: For them, to prognosticate a hateful destiny is to ward it off. It is one thing to teach the science of catastrophe as a science of reacting to and resisting disproportionate misfortunes; it is another to believe that we will be able to cope with mistakes by forecasting them.

In this rhetorical intoxication, the future becomes again, as it had once been in Christianity and communism, a tool of blackmail. The Catholic religion asked us to sacrifice our present joys for the sake of gaining eternal life, while Marxism asked us to forget our bourgeois happiness and embrace instead the classless society. Ecology calls upon us to adopt a rigorous diet in the name of future generations. It was the German philosopher Hans Jonas who invented the concept of "anticipatory remorse." Our technological and scientific power so far outstrips our knowledge that we are forced to imagine all the wrongs that we might inflict on our descendants by living as we do.

Worrying about what does not yet exist: Is that a gesture of love or the worst kind of argument, an excess of scrupulous conscience? For fear of soiling our hands, we prefer to cut them off right now. How far can responsibility go without turning into an abstraction? To extend our sense of responsibility to all coming generations is to empty it of its meaning, to put a titanic weight on our shoulders. By being accountable for everything, we are accountable for nothing.

Exhausting ourselves trying to imagine the craziest scenarios for tomorrow—a bacterial infection, computer bugs, intergalactic wars, meteorological or nuclear cataclysms, falling asteroids—and sacrificing everything to the conceptual ectoplasm of "future generations" is to buy a conscience on the cheap and to close one's eyes to present scandals.

To change the world, change life. To this formula inherited from Rimbaud and the communist tradition, ecologism adds a fundamental corrective: We have to change our lives in order to preserve the world. For ecologism, the domestic becomes immediately political, and we can permanently inflect the course of societies by turning off lights, turning down the heat, and becoming economical and if possible vegetarian, which would reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.

Since our mode of production is destroying the planet's resources, the first thing we have to limit is our desires, and a sense of restriction must be inculcated in everyone. The home, where we enjoy ourselves with those close to us, is the epicenter of the crime. It is there, in the warmth of the family, that the conspiracy against the earth is fomented, in a mixture of negligence, greed, and dependency that constitutes the heart of civilized corruption. We are all potential killers who subsist only by destroying.

This amounts, as we have seen, to an enormous restoration of Original Sin under the auspices of the extinction of species, the collapse of marine ecosystems, and rising temperatures. The slightest act—eating meat, turning on a radiator, letting the water run while you brush your teeth—is heavy with unexpected consequences.

The past century has, in fact, invented a phenomenon that condenses in its temples all the ignominy of the human race: consumer society. The consumer combines three radical defects: He behaves like a predator by contributing to the looting of the planet's resources. He is an anthropological monstrosity, a Pavlovian being, driven by rudimentary instincts of hunger and satisfaction. Worse yet, he is a kind of Sisyphus doomed to eternal dissatisfaction, repeating the process over and over. Prey to artificial needs that make him the slave of his own well-being, he sees only his material interest, to the detriment of his freedom and of the common concern.

In short, every discourse agrees in denouncing him: Vulgar, selfish, wasteful, he insults our ideas of justice, equality, and beauty. "[M]ass society," Theodor Adorno said, "did not first produce the trash for the customers, but the customers themselves." In other words, the buyer, in turn, is transformed into human junk. That is the terrible impact of commodification on subjectivity. It engenders robots that all desire the same objects before moving on to others, of which they will soon grow tired as well.

Rousseau had already grasped this perverse mechanism of insatiability:

[A]mong men in society, other things are involved: It is primarily a matter of providing for necessities and then for the superfluous; afterward come delights and then immense wealth and then subjects and then slaves; there is not a moment of respite: What is most singular is that the less natural and urgent the needs, the more the passions increase, and worse yet, so does the power of satisfying them.

Progress is a curse: It forbids us to be content with our condition, makes us avid for the slightest innovation, and the phenomenon is amplified in a mass society in which millions of individuals are in the grip of the demon of rapacity. "The superfluous is something very necessary," said Voltaire. But this appetite is both diabolical and mediocre; apart from the fact that it gives rise to a factitious abundance, it arouses the desire of the masses, who aspire in vain to equal the affluence of the most prosperous groups.

Fortunately, in the depths of the abyss, redemption is possible: We can mend our arrogant ways by adopting an extremely ascetic code of behavior.

Here we have to examine a rhetorical tactic that is frequently employed in environmentalist literature, and that was first extensively used by Christianity: Less is more. The last on earth will be the first in heaven; the fools of this world will be the wise in the next; blessed are the simple-minded, for they will be golden. This way of thinking in antonyms, the notion that evil is a hidden good that will be revealed at some later point, constitutes above all a machine for legitimating a state of affairs. Apparent iniquity masks a promise whose fulfillment we have to be able to wait for. This kind of reasoning was very fertile in the works of the church fathers and of Leibniz, and also in those of the theorists of the "invisible hand," from Mandeville to Hayek, without forgetting totalitarian regimes that made it a fearsome weapon for subjecting people.

In environmentalist propaganda, this kind of logic consists in reversing values: Since wealth leads to despair, need ought to elicit a return of hope. In fact, the progress of the material standard of living in the United States has been accompanied by an undeniable decrease in real happiness among most Americans. Conclusion: Since having more means being less, having less will mean being more. A marvelous acrobatic act: We have to voluntarily deprive ourselves in order to enrich ourselves spiritually. Subtraction as amplification!

You will need to get rid of your car, take showers instead of baths (and the showers must be limited to four minutes; little hourglasses are sold for the purpose), stop buying imported fruit and vegetables, practice "locavorism" (that is, eat only locally produced food), decrease or even halt your consumption of meat and fish, avoid the elevator and even the refrigerator.

Each of us has to kill the frenetic consumer within us, for he is the scruffy wretch who through his greed is causing the melting of the polar icecaps, the rise in sea level, tremors in the earth's crust, acid rain, and who knows what else.

Are you cold in the winter? Put on a sweater, for heaven's sake, instead of turning up the heat, and go to bed early. Yves Cochet, a member of the European Parliament, tells us: "We have to manage to live with 50 percent less electricity. ... We have to take maximum advantage of daylight." And our friend of humanity further suggests a surtax on those who make excessive use of electricity and heating systems. Are we going to set up police brigades that are responsible for switching off electricity and enforcing a curfew?

What is worrisome about ecologism is that it energetically insinuates itself into the most intimate aspects of our lives—our eating habits and our clothing—the better to control them. The project here is authoritarian. On reading its recommendations, we can almost hear the heavy door of a dungeon closing behind us.

Either the lugubrious prophets are right that we are rushing toward the abyss, and the only avenue left is the human race's voluntary or involuntary self-extinction, or there is still room for maneuver, and we should explore it fearlessly. The ecology of disaster is primarily a disaster for ecology: it employs such an outrageous rhetoric that it discourages the best of wills. It tries so hard to avoid our ruin that it will hasten it if we follow its recommendations and wrap the planet in cellophane like a Christo sculpture. (In the Swiss and Austrian Alps, some ski resorts have covered glaciers with isothermic blankets to keep them from melting.) Either ecology persists in imprecations and sterile gestures, or it returns in a lucid way to the great idea of humanity's moral progress, learning from its earlier mistakes.

A race has begun between the forces of despair and those of human ingenuity. In other words, the remedy is found in the disease, in the despised industrial civilization, the frightening science, the endless crisis, the globalization that exceeds our grasp: Only an increase in research, an explosion of creativity, or an unprecedented technological advance will be able to save us. We have to try to push back the boundaries of the possible by encouraging the most fantastic initiatives, the most mind-boggling ideas. We have to transform the increasing scarcity of resources into a wealth of inventions.

Every new invention must strike the heart of human desire, elicit astonishment, and allow people to embark upon an unprecedented voyage. It is a narrow door (Luke 13:24), but it is the door to salvation. We have to count on the genius of the human race, which is capable of overcoming its fears in order to improvise new solutions.

If a generous defense of the environment is to develop in the course of the next century, it will exist only as the servant of humans and nature in their mutual interaction and not as an advocate speaking through an entity called "the planet."

The friends of the earth have for too long been enemies of humanity; it is time for an ecology of admiration to replace an ecology of accusation.

Save the world, we hear everywhere: Save it from capitalism, from science, from consumerism, from materialism. Above all, we have to save the world from its self-proclaimed saviors, who brandish the threat of great chaos in order to impose their lethal impulses. Behind their clamor we must hear the will to demoralize us the better to enslave us. What is at stake is the pleasure of living together on this planet that will survive us, whatever we do to it. We need trailblazers and stimulators, not killjoys disguised as prophets.

Pascal Bruckner is the author of many books, including The Paradox of Love (Princeton University Press, 2011) and The Tyranny of Guilt (Princeton, 2010). This essay is adapted from his new book, The Fanaticism of the Apocalypse, published by Polity Press.

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