Sunday, December 05, 2004

Beautiful Abstractions

It looks as though the GOP is gearing itself up to make some of those "hard" decisions - which they always seem to find so easy - between the environment and the economy. Animals are getting underfoot yet again; the sage grouse, in particular, is rampant and ululant. While some animals are self-solving problems in that they're edible, or large enough to make a satisfying sound when shot (a wise provision of nature indeed), others are mere obstacles; they have about as much claim on our sympathies as a tree that's fallen across a two-lane highway. Who are they to stand in the path of short-term profit? And who are their defenders to put sloppy emotionalism before rational self-interest?

In his fine book Dominion, the conservative author Matthew Scully - who was once, amazingly, one of George W. Bush's speechwriters - complains about the modern conservative's amoral vision of environmental economics, in which "no human appetite goes unmet," no matter how base or destructive or irrational it is. Scully points out that this idealized form of free enterprise

...can at times cut against the conservative's own belief in man as a fundamentally moral and not merely economic actor, a creature accountable to reason and conscience and not driven by whim or appetite. Often, too, we find conservatives and libertarians bringing to animal and environmental issues their own unique brand of sentimentality, invested in the conquest of nature instead of in nature itself.

He's absolutely right. Conservatives pretend to a superior understanding of personal responsibility, of morality and self-control and rationality, but will scorn these ideals whenever and wherever they interfere with squandering natural resources. Scully correctly identifies this as vanity, and as a triumph of mere appetite over reason. (One might even call it "self-centered hedonism.")

He's also correct - and this is particularly astute of him, I think - that the idea of conquering nature involves a form of sentimentality to which the American Right often succumbs. It's somewhat along the lines of the timid, sickly, virginal Friedrich Nietzsche's observation that "man was made for war, and woman for the recreation of the warrior." It's a sentimentality about power to which weaklings and cowards are especially prone, and it's also an expression of the naturalistic fallacy that confuses what does happen with what should happen. In the grip of these errors, conservatives draw moral distinctions between humans and nature that are no less strict for being arbitrary, and no less arbitrary for being the product of "rationality."

This is a subject I'll return to soon enough, but I'll let Scully have the last word, for now:
Conservatives are wary of environmentalism and its more radical strains of nature-worship. They would do well, however, to examine their own beautiful abstractions.

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