Tuesday, October 10, 2006

That Which Surrounds Us

Over at Grist, Kit Stolz staggers under an awful rhetorical burden:

If I call myself an environmentalist, I'm using pretentious diction, for the sake of vagueness….Environs means essentially: that which surrounds us.

But can you imagine calling yourself a "surroundalist"?

Can you imagine claiming you're passionate about "surroundalism"?

Of course not, it sounds absurd.

That's why I'm frustrated with the word "environmentalist."

On a spiritual level, it's self-contradicting.

On a linguistic level, it's irritating.

On a political level, it means little.

On a moral level, it binds us to nothing.
I don’t think I agree. On a political level, the term means a great deal (thanks in large part to its enemies, who’ve managed to define it as everything from joyless asceticism to self-coddling decadence). And how “surroundalism” might bind us to nothing, or be spiritually "self-contradicting,” is beyond me.

At any rate, while Stolz confronts this existential crisis, Bob Herbert discusses the dumping of toxic waste in poor neighborhoods:
The evidence has been before us for decades that black people, other ethnic minorities and some poor whites have been getting sick and enduring horrible deaths from the filth that they breathe, eat, drink and otherwise ingest from the garbage dumps, landfills, incinerators, toxic waste sites, oil refineries, petrochemical plants and other world-class generators of pollution that have been deliberately and relentlessly installed in the neighborhoods where they live, work, worship and go to school.
And former Surgeon General David Satcher says that black people receive substandard medical care:
[M]ore than 83,500 "excess deaths" among black Americans annually could be prevented if the "black-white mortality gap" could be eliminated.
Which of these two stories is about "the environment"? For that matter, what is "the environment"?

In my experience, people tend to think of it as "wilderness." I'd argue that whereas wilderness is an emotional construct - and has as much to do, in “these ravaging money-mad days,” with nostalgia and romanticism as with ecosystems - "environment" is a political term inclusive of polar ice shelves and refineries sited in residential areas and racially biased healthcare.

To me, contaminated neighborhoods and substandard healthcare are symptoms of the same sickness; they're based on the same lunatic confidence in the possibility of distance and autonomy, which is promoted by the same corrupt, shortsighted ideologues. Like toxic waste, mistreated people and untreated diseases tend not to stay where we dump them. They can affect anyone and may affect everyone, and viewing them as isolated rather than systemic problems is, to quote Marilynne Robinson, “like quarreling over which shadow brings evening.”

People like Michael Crichton – people, that is, who wear their stupidity like a halo - tend to conflate wilderness and environment, in order to imply that opposing the construction of a coal-fired power plant is basically the same thing as allowing oneself to be stung by tse-tse flies or eaten by grizzlies. To hear them tell it, opposing drilling in ANWR will one day force us to undergo gallstone surgery while wide awake, like Samuel Pepys, and will end in a return to cave dwelling and cannibalism.

Sheldon Richman of the Future of Freedom Foundation is a member of this school. He invokes no less an authority than Ayn Rand to argue that wilderness is worthless until oil is struck or trees are felled:
[I]t is hard to make sense of the claim that a pristine wilderness that no human being is anywhere near is intrinsically valuable. What does that mean?
Richman can’t quite grasp that human nearness is relative, especially when you’re talking about a small planet surrounded by airless space. South America could be completely uninhabited, but that wouldn’t mean that razing every inch of it would have no effect on people in Europe. Alaska could have nothing in it but birds, but migratory birds interact with people and animals all along their flyways.

These are facts that very small children have managed to learn. But they remain hermetic mysteries to clever people like Richman, who presumably know that the earth goes ‘round the sun only because Ayn Rand, at some point, devoted forty pages' worth of sophistical hectoring to the proposition.
“[V]alue” indicates a relationship between something and a being capable of valuing. As Rand puts it, it is something one “acts to gain and/or to keep.” Value presupposes a valuer. No valuer, no value. There is no intrinsic value.
You don’t have to be a theologian to wonder whether God - that special friend and confidant of the American conservative – might possibly count as a “valuer.” But one needn’t ascend into metaphysics to notice that Richman’s concept of “valuing” depends for its persuasive power on magically ending the chain of causality at the first convenient point: What happens in Antarctica stays in Antarctica, for no other reason than that if it were not so, Richman would have to find a new tune to whistle.

So the problem really isn't that it's absurd to call oneself an environmentalist, even in the sprawling sense of "surroundalist." The problem is that we’ve naturalized the cornucopian fantasy that it’s possible for reasonable people not to be environmentalists, so that calling attention to the demonstrable realities of our situation seems like special pleading. A sense of rootedness in and subjection to our environment is realism; any other approach to the world is escapist at best. There's not much point in debating solutions until you've got a fair grasp of the basic problems you face, but devotees of Ayn Rand are incapable of recognizing any other basic problem than insufficient attention to the thought of Ayn Rand.

By contrast, environmentalism demands attentiveness to "that which surrounds us." Ideally, it should help one to reject false dichotomies and false economy wherever they're found, from public health to business to industrial design to environmentalism itself. Far from being "vague," it requires a commitment to looking at a larger picture than theory-struck loons like Richman can conceive, instead of treating greed-addled tunnel vision as a moral necessity, or naturalizing historically contingent economic arrangements, or assuming that earth has an inexhaustible supply of the things that make human life pleasant, let alone possible. Compared to the narrow, pinched, irresponsible outlook of objectivism and its allies, the all-embracing "surroundalist" sense of "environmentalism" really isn't all that bad. But "realism" would probably be more to the point.

(Photo via Pruned.)


catalexis said...

You have nailed this one to the freaking church door. Well written. mon ami. This is a post that should be whored, a lot. Lots more than that.

juniper pearl said...

why does richman assume that no one would value a pristine, uninhabited space? why do so many people assume it, actually? much of the time it seems to me that if environmentalism is a foundering effort, it's because too many people can't conceive of any value other than monetary. if a piece of land isn't being put to use in a manner that pays someone's salary, it's useless. if products that are more environmentally friendly are also a few cents more expensive than those that aren't, there's no incentive to buy them. and you're so right in pointing out that this mindset completely fails to take into account the increasingly finite amount of space we have to work with on this planet and how interwoven every part of it is with every other part. i'm still not sure if it's honest ignorance or willful blindness, but more and more i lean toward the latter. we can pour ourselves into education, but no amount of teaching will override a selfish individual's desire for convenience and personal gain.