Earth, Air, Fire, Water: Humanistic Studies
of the Environment
The New Environmentalisms
Jill Ker Conway, Kenneth Keniston, Leo Marx
Fifty years after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima
the conviction of environmental crisis to which it gave rise
has intensified. The first use of a nuclear weapon in 1945 made
humanity aware that it had acquired the power to inflict irremediable
damage on the biosphere, a destructive power that might even
lead to human self-extinction. As it turned out, in fact, Hiroshima
was only the first in a series of events that seemed to portend
an ecological apocalypse.
In the aftermath of Hiroshima, the intellectual results of
this mounting anxiety were immediate, profound, and lasting.
In the academy the first members of what would become a large
and steadily growing international cohort of scholars -- most
of them scientists -- began to work on problems of nuclear contamination.
But in subsequent years the range of fearful ecological problems
was enlarged by the discovery of such new (or hitherto undetected)
hazards as the potential "nuclear winter" phenomenon; global
climate change; the depletion of the ozone layer; and the accelerating
rate of species extinction. With each discovery an alarm was
sounded, and the worldwide fear of an impending ecological disaster
intensified. By now that fear has been extended to the damaging
effects of many everyday technologies, and we see harm lurking
in such innocuous sites as the local garden shop, with its lawn
fertilizers and gas-powered mowers, or the supermarket with
its array of detergents and chemically improved meats and vegetables.
Responding to these fears, a set of new environmentalisms has
emerged -- movements, arguments, and analyses that target the
new, or newly identified, environmental problems of the late
twentieth century. To be sure, men and women were concerned
with preserving their environment long before Hiroshima. But
in the last decades, initiated by the use and testing of nuclear
weapons, impelled by books like Rachel Carson's Silent Spring,
embodied in local groups like the Love Canal activists, and
highlighted by disasters like Chernobyl, Bhopal, and Three Mile
Island, armed with regulatory power through governmental bodies
like the Environmental Protection Agency, the new environmentalisms
have acquired unprecedented public support and political importance.
Despite their major differences, these environmentalisms share
a concern with today's apparently unprecedented and accelerating
rate of environmental degradation.
To cope with this degradation, the prevailing assumption both
within and without the academy has been that for self-evident
reasons it is scientists who bear the major intellectual responsibility.
When we think of the forms of environmental decline calling
for most urgent attention -- eroding soils, shrinking forests,
deteriorating rangelands, expanding deserts, acid rain, drained
aquifers, stratospheric ozone depletion, the build-up of greenhouse
gases, air pollution, poisoned water supplies, and the loss
of biological diversity -- it seems only logical that scientists
should be the people mobilized to tackle these problems.
It also seems obvious that the human sciences, the term we
use to embrace the humanities and humanistic (non-quantified)
social sciences, have little to contribute to our understanding
of these threats to the biosphere. Until recently, humanists
themselves accepted this popular assumption. What can Homer
tell us about nuclear winter? How can students of language help
halt the destruction of forests? Surely only scientific experts
are capable of discovering a hazard like the greenhouse effect.
And clearly only scientists can monitor it accurately, and thus,
perhaps, devise effective remedial measures. Where else should
we look but to scientific expertise for the resolution of problems
resulting from the interaction between the peoples of modern
societies and nonhuman nature?
And yet, having said that, it is the seemingly self-evident
nature of this response that should give us pause. As cultural
historians have often demonstrated, the more obviously self-evident
a human response to change seems, the more likely it is to embody
an unconscious, or largely unconsidered, reflex of the prevailing
collective mentality. This is not to imply that all such "common
sense" responses are skewed or misleading, but they often are,
and in the case of environmental degradation there are good
reasons for skepticism about the humanists' failure to engage
with the problem. Notice, for example, the heavy burden of ideological
assumption carried by the heavily scientific, technological
names we routinely use to designate environmental problems.
(Few kinds of behavior are more revelatory of cultural bias
than naming practices.) Each of the labels mentioned -- eroding
soils, shrinking forests, acid rain .... -- designates an environmental
problem by naming its chief biophysical symptom. Missing entirely
are the simple, short everyday words by which people actually
refer to their biophysical world -- earth, air, fire, water.
The labels convey no hint of human agency. They seem to convey
that such forms of environmental deterioration are spontaneously
occurring "natural" (i.e., non-human) biophysical processes.
Such a designation places the entire process of environmental
deterioration within the realm of expertise of scientists who
study natural phenomena.
Once we examine them critically, these names are highly misleading
because, although they locate such phenomena as acid rain or
soil erosion in the biophysical realm, not one of them is in
fact wholly attributable to the operation of natural (non-human)
processes. Each, in fact, has its origin in human behavior,
in complex socio-economic practices with long histories. So,
although it is not impossible, it is highly unlikely that any
of them could be corrected or compensated for, by a simple technological
fix. In fact, these nature- and science-oriented names mask
the fact that such phenomena are forms of damage to the environment
that cannot be ameliorated or corrected without extensive long-term
changes in social behavior -- such as prevailing beliefs and
attitudes toward the interaction of humanity with nature. Amelioration
does not require exclusively scientific knowledge, but rather
changes based upon law and public policy, on institutional structures
and practices, on habits of consumption, and countless other
facets of daily life.
So, to understand, or to devise effective solutions for today's
environmental threats, we must locate them within their larger
historical, societal, and cultural setting. Only when they are
placed in this context will they be recognizable for what they
are: immediate, short-term, partial manifestations of the increasingly
heavy burden that modern urban industrial societies place upon
the finite capacities and resources of the biosphere. The root
problem of this demand is human, not physical, not natural --
although, of course, scientists, engineers, and other technical
experts can help us chart its dimensions. Once we have framed
the issues in this way we can see that many, perhaps most, of
our most pressing current environmental problems come from systemic
socio-economic and cultural causes. So their solutions lie far
beyond the reach of scientific or technical knowledge -- and,
to answer an earlier, seemingly rhetorical question -- all the
disciplines which elucidate human behavior and the functioning
of social and cultural systems are essential for the understanding
of environmental issues, and for devising effective approaches
to their amelioration.
This book, then, is an effort at correcting our deceptive nomenclature,
by locating ecological problems in the behavior of human beings
-- in the human institutions, beliefs, and practices which mediate
between humankind and that obscure but beautiful non-human world
which we call "nature". It opens with a section devoted to the
elements and the way humans have understood them in past times.
It continues with a section devoted to social institutions and
the ways in which we can learn from current and past efforts
to understand the interaction between man and nature. The concluding
section analyzes the culture of modernity and the ways in which
the human imagination has changed in response to the arrival
of modern technology -- for it is this change which has contributed
most significantly to our distancing of the human from the natural
phenomena we now consider to be the exclusive concern of scientists.
As a framework for the examples of humanistic studies of environmental
thinking which make up these three sections, we lay out some
major concerns which any humanist proposing to work on environmental
subjects will encounter. These arise from critical oppositions
inherent in current thinking about humans and their interaction
The "Constructed" and the "Real" Environment
One of the first questions confronting humanists who work on
environmental problems is: what constitutes reliable knowledge
of the natural world? Or, put differently, the problem is knowing
how to steer a reasonable course between two equally extreme
viewpoints: naive positivism (or realism) and all-embracingsocial
constructionism (or the assertion that what we call "nature"
is merely a figment of our cultural imagination).
The positivistic position assumes that reliable, unmediated
knowledge of "nature" or the "environment" is obtainable by
means of direct senseperception, and that it may then simply
be added to the cumulative findings of science. Those findings
are assumed to constitute a true picture of the world. This
picture is not considered problematic or seriously influenced
-- unless based on erroneous data -- by the unique position
of the observer, his or her outlook, history, or culture. Nature,
environment, and the world are a transparently accessible domain
of incontrovertible fact.
Those who hold the second, constructionist view regard what
we call "reality" as in actuality a kind of narrative, or "text",
that we construct about our surroundings. Such narratives are
in some measure unique to each individual, and they invariably
are the distinctive products of particular historical contexts,
cultures, and social groups with particular interests -- especially
national, economic, class, racial, or gender interests. Thus
the notion of the "environment", or "nature", as a transhuman
reality disappears; it is replaced by a variety of interpretative
lenses through which individuals convince themselves (falsely,
of course) that they are seeing something beyond -- not reflective
of -- their subjectivity, or the distinctive positions they
occupy in specific social and cultural settings. In particular,
the radical social constructionists deny the hegemony of scientific
knowledge as the only truly reliable -- or, as they say, "privileged"
-- conception of the world. Science is thus merely one among
many lenses on the world, a lens with no justifiable claim as
a source of superior knowledge. To the constructionists the
humanists' task is to understand, analyze, and deconstruct discourse
about nature and our environmental dilemma, and in the process
to challenge the illusion that we have access to the ostensibly
"real", knowable environment.
To state these two positions in this extreme, caricatured form
is to underscore the latent contradiction that often makes itself
felt in humanistic inquiry into environmental issues. Concepts
like environment, nature, wilderness, are often assumed to be
constructs whose contours are defined less by "objective" reality
than by the interests, history, and other presuppositions of
the observer. Thus, many recent humanistic studies of the "environmental
crisis" have been studies of writings about the crisis, or studies
of definitions and "constructions" of the crisis, rather than
studies of the ways that human beings, through their culturally-
and historically-influenced behaviors, help to aggravate or
ameliorate the condition of the biophysical world that surrounds
The familiar parable of the blind men trying to describe the
elephant, each insisting that a leg, a trunk, or tusk is the
whole of the beast, is a useful analogy for our own thinking.
We agree with the "social constructionists" who insist that
the world -- and especially large interpretive concepts about
the world like "environment", "wilderness", and "nature" --
is invariably seen from a particular vantage point and through
a particular lens constituted by history, culture, and individual
idiosyncrasy. There are indeed many "natures", "environments",
"ecologies", and "wildernesses", as scholars insist.1 But
the parable of the elephant derives its ultimate meaning precisely
from the fact that there is an elephant -- a real elephant --
which each blind man only partially describes.
As human beings and adherents of a culture, therefore, we have
no way of seeing other than through the lens of our own culture,
history, and personality. But the fact that we each see the
world from a distinct context and a unique perspective in no
way denies the world's existence; on the contrary, only if there
is a world to be seen through our different lenses does the
act of perception make any sense. Analogously, arguments over
the meanings of "nature", or of "wilderness", in no way deny
the existence of a non-human biophysical reality over whose
characteristics we may argue. In fact the existing non-human
biophysical reality constitutes a large part -- usually most
-- of what people perceive, and what they disagree about.
We share, then, the belief of most natural scientists that
"the environmental crisis" is real, that it is global as well
as local, and that science gives us an especially reliable and
useful -- though not unique -- way of understanding the crisis.
But of course the natural sciences make no claim to a deep or
sophisticated understanding of the dimensions of life that derive
from human behavior, culture, personality, social organization,
or history. Quite the contrary: the sciences most engaged in
the study of the environment are mute when it comes to the human
(or "anthropogenic") sources of recent environmental problems.
Thus computer models of the impact of greenhouse gases on global
climate often include projections of the increases in CO2 emissions
likely to result from human activities over the course of the
next century. But the question of why or whether humans are
seen as likely to increase CO2 emissions is not one that atmospheric
scientists try to address. To explore that question, the methods
of humanists and social scientists are needed. Several years
[how long??] after a major international effort to integrate
scientific studies of the global environment (The International
Geosphere-Biosphere Programme: A Study of Global Change, or
IGBP) was organized, a "Human Factors" group was finally established
-- as if in belated recognition that, after all, the activities
of people are at the root of virtually all the world's most
pressing environmental problems.
Another reason to doubt the exclusive authority of the scientific
viewpoint is that scientists rarely achieve unanimity on environmental
issues. They can differ among themselves as much as non-scientists
do about the meanings, implications, causes, and remedies of
environmental problems. Scientific knowledge of the environment
tends to be new, hence contested: it is rarely established,
"textbook" knowledge. Like all frontier knowledge in science,
knowledge of the environment is thus peculiarly susceptible
to conflicting interpretations, alternative forecasts, and disputed
remedies.2 In analyzing these conflicts it is important,
though by no means sufficient, to acknowledge their cultural
origins -- their roots in differing perceptions, politics, interpretations,
interests, and histories. As with all contested, "frontier"
knowledge in science, moreover, continued exploration and lively
debate also is needed, for that alone can transform contested
knowledge into scientifically established, if always open to
reexamination, "textbook" truths.
We acknowledge the importance -- more perhaps than most
humanistic inquiries -- of scientific findings. We accept their
legitimate claim to special if limited authority and usefulness,
but at the same time we stress the obligation of humanists to
study the ways that human beings actually interact with -- not
merely talk about -- nonhuman nature. Humanists and humanistically
inclined social scientists have a double task. On the one hand,
humanists can (and do) contribute to an understanding of environmental
discourse -- the ways that ideas about nature (including scientific
ideas) embody extra-scientific interests and presuppositions;
the historical origins and shifting meanings of central concepts
(like "nature", "environment", and "wilderness"); the role of
the socio-economic and political context, culture, ideology, and
history in forming the lenses through which we perceive and interpret
the biophysical world.
At the same time, humanists and their social scientist
partners have a second but often neglected task: to study the
precise ways that culturally- and psychologically- patterned behavior
contributes to the despoliation of the environment, and to the
possibility -- or impossibility -- of alleviating it. It is important,
for example, to understand the steady, worldwide growth of "consumerism",
its changing character over time and across cultural boundaries,
and its relationship to today's well-nigh universal quest -- even
in the richest nations whose populations' "basic needs" have long
since been satiated -- for a continuously rising "standard of
living". Similarly, it is important to understand why some people
are politically mobilized -- and others are not -- against perceived
environmental problems, be they global in scope (like CFC emissions)
or local (like the water pollution, deforestation, or the exhaustion
of arable land).
Varieties of Environmental Experience
carrying out any such analysis we must recognize the instability
and ambiguity of the term "environmentalism". Almost no one professes
anything but good will toward "the environment" or its protection;
yet few social movements elicit greater hostility than -- or embody
such deep divisions and bitter controversies as -- the diffuse
collection of ideas and groups labeled "the environmental movement".
The "environmentalism" of the National Rifle Association and of
sports trophy hunters is no less passionate than that of deep
ecologists and the "tree hugging" members of Earth First! To be
sure, mainstream environmentalists regard the "environmentalism"
of international paper companies or the nuclear power industry
as self-interested, exploitive, and manipulative. Although none
of the authors in this volume endorses the views of those corporations,
we are reluctant simply to charge them with hypocrisy, but would
prefer to see them as embracing a different conception of the
environment, based on different historical time spans, different
interests, and different assumptions about the essential relationship
between humanity and nature. One of the essential tasks of the
humanist, therefore, is to disentangle some of the meanings of
While the classifications that follow are somewhat arbitrary
and tentative, we think them a useful introduction to the essays
that follow. They serve to highlight that there are many varieties
of environmentalism; many sets of attitudes, values, and beliefs
subsumed within the omnibus term environmentalism.
Ecocentrism and Anthropocentrism
Nowadays environmental thinking is widely assumed to
be polarized between two opposed, probably irreconcilable doctrines:
ecocentrism and anthropocentrism. Ecocentrism is a moral philosophy
whose exponents, a vocal minority of environmentalists, are dedicated
to changing radically the way we think about humanity's relations
with nature. They look upon mainstream environmentalists as weak
compromisers who may inveigh against the despoliation of the environment,
but who in practice are all too accommodating to the despoilers.
Such weak compromising is predictable, the ecocentrists contend,
because reform environmentalists and despoilers, whatever their
differences, are indistinguishable in one crucial respect: both
assume that our chief reason for protecting the environment is
its usefulness to ourselves, to human beings. But nothing we could
possibly do to arrest the accelerating devastation of the global
ecosystem would be more effective, from an ecocentric viewpoint,
than to rid ourselves of the complacent illusion that nature exists
to serve humanity. "No intellectual vice is more crippling," writes
the Harvard sociobiologist and ardent ecocentrist, E.O. Wilson,
"than defiantly self-indulgent anthropocentrism."4
The radical transformation of human consciousness envisaged
by Wilson and his fellow ecocentrists -- which they see as a belated
accommodation to the inescapable dictates of biological reality
-- would be as profound as that which followed the discoveries
of Copernicus, Newton, or Darwin. It entails acceptance of the
far-reaching implications they draw from an unarguable fact of
nature, namely, that homo sapiens is only one of the myriad, intrinsically
valuable, interdependent species on Earth, and their conclusion
that we therefore have no right to reduce the diversity of life,
or to assess the worth of other forms of life -- or even, for
that matter, of inanimate parts of nature -- merely on the basis
of their value to ourselves. To satisfy our basic needs, of course,
humans might continue to kill some animals, consume plants, and
use nature in various other ways. But these and all other human
activities should henceforth be restricted by the ruling imperatives
of ecocentrism: to live lightly on the earth, to restrict the
scope of technological innovation and intervention, and to treat
all forms of life -- and all parts of the cosmos -- with reverence,
responsibility, and care.
The intellectual genealogy of the ecocentric doctrine
leads back to the religious origins of contemporary attitudes
toward the nonhuman environment. The ecocentric lineage may be
traced, by way of the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess, to modern
nature writers like Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, and John Muir;
to poets and novelists like Robinson Jeffers, Gary Snyder, D.H.
Lawrence and Thomas Hardy; to the great Romantics, Rousseau, Coleridge,
Wordsworth, Blake, Goethe and - especially for their shaping influence
on American attitudes toward nature - the prominent Transcendentalists,
Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Thoreau. Almost without exception,
these writers accorded the natural environment a reverence of
the kind - and of the intensity - their forbears had reserved
Emerson and Thoreau, in particular, were pivotal in
effecting the transition, in America, between predominantly theological
and predominantly secular views of nature. They played a role
analogous in many ways to that that played by Coleridge, Carlyle,
and Wordsworth in England, Rousseau in France, and Goethe in Germany.
But the religious roots of Emerson's and Thoreau's environmental
thinking seem more obvious. They patently were the heirs of Jonathan
Edwards, the greatest philosopher produced by New England Calvinism,
and of three or four generations of Puritan thinkers who preceded
him. Although they adopted a less explicitly religious language
to discuss human interactions with the environment, that discursive
change was somewhat misleading, for it disguised the degree of
underlying continuity between their ideas and those of their religious
Thus Emerson, a descendent of a long line of New England
ministers, began his career as a Unitarian pastor, and he never
stopped thinking of nature - to invoke his formulation in the
seminal boo Nature (1836 - as "the present expositor of the divine
mind." His mature philosophy was a somewhat idiosyncratic amalgam
of Anglo-German Romanticism (much of it indirectly borrowed from
the 18th-century German Naturphilsophen), post-Kantian idealism
(above all Schiller's version), and his hereditary Yankee protestantism.
Thoreau, who was fourteen years younger, began his career
as Emerson's disciple; at first he adopted most of the Transcendentalist
doctrine, but he soon too a more independent course. He became
a knowledgeable woodsman and amateur naturalist, and he developed
a distinctive literary style based on the exact observation and
depiction of natural facts. The purest examples of his brilliant
nature writing are to be found in his immense Journal. But his
most popular and influential work, Walden (1854), also conveys
a passionate aversion to the dominance of society by an acquisitive
commercial ethos that issues in a well-nigh systematic degradation
of the environment. In his nature writing, Thoreau exemplified
a pragmatic yet worshipful attitude toward nonhuman nature that
now has made him the patron saint of ecocentrism.
Unlike the ecocentrists, who emphasize the attributes
humans share with other species, the anthropocentrists hold that
we humans have a unique responsibility as stewards of the environment.
That responsibility derives in part from religious doctrine, such
as the biblical injunction (in Genesis) "to replenish the earth,
and subdue it, and have dominion over ... every living thing that
moveth upon the earth," and in part from humanity's manifestly
distinctive capacities -- intellectual, moral, technological --
to manage the resources of Earth. The concept of "resource management"
is a hallmark of the anthropocentric relationship with the environment.
Environmentalists of that utilitarian persuasion remind us that
most species that ever existed are extinct; that the history of
nature is marked by unceasing change; and that though each species
modifies its habitat in some degree, the extent to which humanity's
modification of its global habitat exceeds that of all other species
amounts to orders of magnitude. To the charge that anthropocentrism
represents an arrogant, self-serving presumption of human superiority,
the anthropocentrists respond by charging the ecocentrists with
what appears to be an even more arrogant refusal to accept the
responsibility, for which homo sapiens in the uniquely qualified
species, to oversee the maintenance of a life-enhancing ecosphere.
We are presenting the dichotomy between ecocentric and
anthropocentric environmentalism in its sharpest, most melodramatic
form. To be sure, each of these extreme viewpoints has its adherents,
but they constitute a small minority. Most active environmentalists,
as well as most members of the general public who advocate the
protection of the environment, almost certainly hold opinions
of a measured, pragmatic, utilitarian -- or anthropocentric --
tenor. But however unrealistic or impractical the severe ecocentric
code of environmental probity may seem, it nonetheless provides
a challenging long-term goal of harmonious accommodation to nonhuman
nature, and the unillusioned recognition of certain unmodifiable,
bedrock imperatives of human survival. The value of ecocentrism,
like other visionary, or utopian, doctrines, is to generate long-term
aspirations -- to educate desire.
Apocalyptic vs Gradualistic
A parallel, closely related, spectrum of opinion along
which environmentalists differ is defined by the degree of urgency
they bring to their proposals. The ecocentrists tend toward a
more extreme, even apocalyptic sense of urgency, whereas the anthropocentrists
are more likely to advocate a temporizing, gradualist agenda.
They consider it more prudent and effective, in the long run,
to make haste slowly.
At the apocalyptic extreme is the view that the environmental
"crisis" has already reached catastrophic or near-catastrophic
proportions: we currently risk the destruction of the habitat
of humankind and of most species through actions already taken
or imminent. Typical culprits are global warming, the proliferation
of toxic chemicals, the population explosion, the pollution of
air, water, and earth, and the accelerating rate of species extinction.
In this apocalyptic view, the carrying capacity and recuperative
powers of the planet have been exceeded or are about to be exceeded.
Barring massive immediate changes in human behavior, irreversible
and catastrophic destruction -- including the death of billions
of human beings and the possible extinction of life on the planet
-- will result.
This apocalyptic view is typically accompanied by calls
for far-reaching changes in the way we live, organize our institutions,
and view the world. Apocalyptic environmentalism is analogous
to -- and indeed often has historical roots in -- millennial religious
movements, with their inherited notions of imminent destruction
and their calls for dramatic and total reform, repentance, and
spiritual reawakening. Indeed, the modern sense of an oncoming
ecological apocalypse owes a great deal to the ancient Christian
tradition of millennial evangelism and fundamentalism. In the
United States, where today's "deep ecology" and ecocentric doctrines
draw heavily on the writings of the New England transcendentalists,
especially Emerson and Thoreau, there is a direct line of descent
from the eschatological tenor of the Puritan churches (via John
Muir and the Sierra Club, for example) to ecological apocalypticism.
In eighteenth-century Western thought, moreover, there was a widespread
tendency to transfer qualities previously reserved for divinity
to an abstract, post-Newtonian concept of Nature. Thus the despoliation
of the environment has come to have close affinities with the
kinds of mortal sin which merit severe divine punishment.
At the opposite extreme is the gradualist, take-no-rash-action,
we-do-not-know-enough view that is especially common among scientists,
politicians, and spokesmen for industry. Gradualists stress the
admitted uncertainty of many scientists who work on ecological
problems, and they are concerned about the harmful effects of
action taken prematurely, in the absence of certain knowledge.
They are less impressed by the rapidity than by the slowness of
changes in the state of the environment, and consequently they
stress the ways that recent human, political, and economic actions
already have achieved improvements. Thus, for example, they point
to the positive results of the environmental protection laws,
or international agreements, adopted in the last twenty years
by the industrialized nations. Above all, gradualists stress the
hazards of taking action in the absence of firm, truly reliable
It is easy to attribute self-interest to gradualism
when it is adopted by spokesmen for corporations and other institutions
called upon to adopt economically and humanly costly innovations.
But this view also is held by many who have no self-serving economic
or political interest in deferring action. They insist on the
inadequacy of existing models of environmental change, the uncertainties
of ecological knowledge and theory, and, most important, the human,
economic and social costs of taking the more radical measures
advocated by the environmentalists of the most apocalyptic cast
of mind. Whatever the environmental toll of the pesticides, tube
wells, herbicides, and "artificial" fertilizers associated with
the Green Revolution, for example, their immediate abolition would
dramatically diminish the world's food supply. This might be ecologically
sound from a long-term point of view, but in the short term it
probably would produce massive food shortages, and it might well
result in the death from starvation of millions, even billions,
of people. Gradualists contend that as yet we have no sure evidence
of irreversible environmental damage, and that remedial or preventive
action should await a knowledge of its consequences.
Materialism vs Idealism
Another divide between environmentalists separates those
who believe that environmental problems are in essence material
or technological problems from those who regard them as in essence
problems of consciousness, values, or beliefs. For the latter,
the environmental dilemma is largely ideological, spiritual, aesthetic,
cultural, or psychological in character. In contrast, at the materialist
extreme are those who assume that history is generally a record
of continuous, cumulative, steady progress, and who see contemporary
environmental problems as the result of inadequate and poorly
conceived technologies like polluting energy sources, unsafe nuclear
reactors, toxic organophosphates, inadequately re-processed industrial
wastes, or automobiles with excessively damaging exhausts. For
them the central environmental problem resides in inadequate or
antiquated technologies or in methods of intervention in the environment
developed without adequate knowledge of their potential results.
They stress the malign impact of the law of unintended consequences.
Almost invariably, then, gradualists contrive, and optimistically
endorse, technological solutions. The "green technology" movement,
with its emphasis on "reducing the waste stream", on devising
"cleaner forms of energy production", on "fail-safe third generation
nuclear reactors", on non-polluting or low-polluting methods of
transportation, typifies the optimistic views of those who conceive
of both the problem and the solution as technological. As a president
of MIT once put it, "The answer to bad technologies is not no
technologies, but good technologies."
At the other extreme are those who view the ultimate
sources of environmental problems as essentially moral, spiritual,
aesthetic, ideological, or cultural in character. Our relations
with nature do not originate in tangible, material circumstances
so much as in the beliefs, values, and meanings of which whole
ways of life -- entire cultures -- are constituted. "Tis said,"
Emerson once remarked, "that the views of nature held by any people
determine all their institutions." Thus the assumption that nature
exists to serve humankind is decisive. It manifests itself in
the culturally shaped -- and instilled -- desire for standards
of living far beyond those necessary for the maintenance of life
and health, the advent of "consumerism" propelled by a powerful
advertising industry whose purpose is to create "needs" for new
products which the population never knew it needed (VCRs, high
definition television sets, automatic bread makers, computers,
etc.), and most important a "materialist" mentality that places
the satisfaction of material needs, particularly acquisitive and
consumerist needs, ahead of non-material aesthetic, moral, or
spiritual satisfactions -- these are seen as primary causes of
the environmental crisis.
The solution, accordingly, lies not in better scrubbers
or cleaner catalytic converters or safer nuclear reactors, but
rather in a massive transformation of culture -- of human aspirations:
a willingness to dispense with superfluities, and a widespread
embrace of a life of "voluntary simplicity". This would entail
a radical change of values: a relinquishment of the pursuit of
a steadily rising level of consumption (standard of living) in
favor, as society's chief economic goal, of equitable sufficiency.
Instead of an economy committed to limitless growth, the primary
aim of this relatively ecocentric economy would be to dispense
with many superfluities, and concentrate on providing the truly
necessary material goods to all the world's people. In this view,
fulfillment would be identified with the achievement of satisfying
human relationships, with the life of the mind and spirit, and
with the effort to achieve a more harmonious coexistence with
nature. In short, the non-material aspects of life would be given
priority over the anticipated benefits of increasing human control
of nonhuman nature. The call, then, is for a transformation of
collective consciousness, a renunciation of today's pervasive
consumerism, and the abandonment of that obsession with technological
and economic "progress" that dominates the lives of people in
virtually all contemporary societies.<
Primitivism vs Presentism
Another critical distinction between environmentalisms
and environmentalists is related to their evaluation of the mindsets,
outlooks, and practices of "primitive" (i.e., pre-modern) and/or
non-Western peoples. Often associated with an ecocentric and millennial
outlook, the "primitivist" outlook sees pre-modern and non-Western
societies as an important source of ideas and practices that could
help solve contemporary environmental problems. The outlook of
pre-modern societies is often characterized as animistic, as not
drawing decisive distinctions between humankind and the rest of
nature, as committed to "living lightly on the land", and above
all to showing a loving respect and concern for all living things.
Some primitivists look with special admiration on the spiritual
reverence with which certain Native American tribes regarded animal
or vegetable totems, and others encourage the re-creation of pre-modern
rituals or the deliberate search for wilderness experiences as
a means of recovering a direct relation with Nature.5
One variant of primitivism looks less to pre-modern
societies than to non-Western societies, and in particular, to
those societies that are not influenced by the Abrahamic tradition
of God-given "dominion" over nature -- i.e., not by Judaism, Christianity,
or Islam.6 In societies like India or Japan, it is
said, even today people have a more reverential, more "ecological"
attitude toward the biophysical world. One Japanese observer claims,
for example, "Nature is at once a blessing and friend to the Japanese
people. ...People in Western cultures, on the other hand, view
nature as an object and, often, as an entity set in opposition
At the opposite pole are those who question the relevance
of pre-modern and non-Western attitudes to contemporary environmental
problems, and/or who deny the claim that these attitudes are truly
"environmental" in any useful contemporary sense. Some critics
of primitivism point out that pre-modern societies have often
despoiled and even destroyed their environments, and argue that
many previous civilizations have collapsed because of self-created
ecological disasters. Others question whether non-Western societies
like Japan are truly environmentally oriented in any comprehensive
way. For example, one student of Japanese environmental attitudes
argues that the Japanese "reverence for nature" is in fact a "highly
restricted" attitude, "confined to particular species or individual
animals, frequently admired in a context emphasizing control,
manipulation or contrivance."8
Most important, those who reject the views we are calling
"primitivist" believe that contemporary environmental problems
are sui generis -- unlike those faced by any previous civilization.
They chiefly attribute today's problems to the enormous expansion
in human understanding of, control of, and power over the environment
brought about by the scientific, technological, and industrial
changes of the last two centuries. Modern societies have the technological
power to destroy their environment and perhaps, indeed, to cause
irremediable damage to the global ecosystem, whereas previous
societies did not. Having "wilderness experiences" on plastic
rafts roaring down rapids created by the timed release of water
from an upstream hydroelectric plant -- such experiences may replenish
the spirits of those who can afford them, but they do not truly
speak to the major contemporary, environmental problems, all of
which involve complex socio-technological systems. And it is simply
not clear to critics how simple reverence for nature or pre-modern
rituals, even if they did characterize pre-modern and non-Western
societies, can help us deal with contemporary problems like global
warming, acid rain, ozone depletion, or toxic chemicals.
Worldview vs Issue
Another contrast between environmentalisms is that which
separates environmentalism viewed as the fulcrum of an embracing,
comprehensive philosophy of life, society and politics, and that
which views the preservation of the environment as simply one
important value among other, possibly equally or more important,
The contention that environmentalism is -- or should
be -- central to an all-inclusive philosophy of life and social
organization is closely associated with certain millennial, spiritual,
and global perspectives. The essential claim, as with ecocentrism,
is that a drastic reorientation of existing values is required,
such that the first criterion of every individual action, social
policy, or political act should be its bearing on the preservation
and enhancement of the environment. At the individual level, environmentalism
therefore means adopting lifestyles characterized by "voluntary
simplicity"; at the social level, it requires a redesign of all
social institutions to enlarge those that preserve the environment
and to eliminate those that degrade it; at a political level,
it means re-organizing policy and politics, and perhaps even redefining
political boundaries so as to promote environmental preservation.
So seen, environmentalism is an overriding philosophy, sometimes
described as a "new" worldview, which must supplant consumerist,
capitalist, socialist, individualist, or other allegedly environment-destroying
The alternative view sees environmental preservation
as only one among other important social values -- for example,
social justice, economic development, human rights, and the fulfillment
of individual ambitions. Proponents of this view deny that ecological
principles constitute an adequate base for an entire philosophy,
and note that there are environmentalists of every political stripe
from the reactionary right to the radical left. Other values,
such as equity and individual liberty, may at times compete and
conflict with, and deservedly override environmental values. Reverence
or care for nature in itself tells us little about how we should
organize our daily lives, our social institutions, and our political
affairs. In the Northern industrial societies, to be sure, environmentalism
is today usually associated with a "left wing" point of view;
but in the 1920s and 1930s, some ardent environmentalists were
ultra-conservatives or fascists who saw nature worship as a part
of an embracing rejection of contemporary industrial society and
a return to values of blood and brotherhood. Similar alliances
between environmentalism and ultra-conservatism are seen today
in Russia, where some environmentalists, dubbed "eco-fascists",
combine a reverence for the vast, unspoiled Russian taiga with
anti-Semitism, anti-industrialism, xenophobia, opposition to democracy,
and the call for a return to a command-and-control economy. In
short, the defense of the environment provides inadequate guidance
as to how to organize life, society, or the polity: for that,
we need additional goals and values. Environmentalism, however
important, does not in itself constitute the basis for a comprehensive
Global vs Local
Another distinction among environmental movements is
between those that adopt global, and those that adopt local, perspectives.
Global environmentalists, who have emerged as a powerful force
in recent decades, stress the worldwide despoliation of nature.
The objects of their concern are trans- national, indeed planetary.
They began, in the era of nuclear weapons testing, by stressing
the dangerous spread of radioactivity around the world, and they
then moved on to concerns over acid rain, CFC contamination, the
diminution of biological diversity and stability as a result of
human activities, the menace of overpopulation, the global threat
produced by over-fishing and modern agricultural methods, and,
perhaps most important in the late 1990s, the threat posed by
global warming and related changes in the global climate.
Such global changes, it is argued, threaten to end --
or already have ended -- the concept of "nature" as an accessible
realm free of human intervention.9 By now the very
sky above is polluted by CFCs, ozone, and greenhouse gases created
by human activity. Nothing in our corner of the cosmos is left
unaltered, uncontaminated by human interventions. The fragile
layer of earth, water, and air which sustains human activity on
the surface of Earth is threatened, and its protection must be
given the highest priority for remedial action. Globalists applaud
the Montreal agreement to ban CFCs; they urge reduction in the
emission of carbon dioxide, especially by the industrial nations;
they worry about the increase in other greenhouse gas releases
in the industrializing nations. Most of those who express such
global anxieties are not -- at least not yet -- personally affected
by the trends that alarm them, but they have informed intellectual,
idealistic, and scientific reasons for concern about the future
of the planet.
The concerns of local environmental movements are very
different: they habitually focus on a particular problem in a
particular locale, and involve those immediately affected by the
problem. Thus the so-called "toxics movements", usually led by
women concerned for the welfare of their families, are directed
against specific local dangers. These movements, in most cases
limited in the scope of their concern to a single local problem,
are a worldwide phenomenon as characteristic of India and Kenya
as of the United States and Norway. Epitomized in the United States
by the activist residents of Love Canal, they direct attention
to, say, a dam in India that is being built to support industrial
development and alleviate the national shortage of electric power,
but that also threatens the living space of tens of thousands
of villagers; a toxic waste dump, often located in a community
of poor and unempowered minority citizens; the proposed location
of a nuclear plant near a downwind village; the industrial pollution
of a what had been until recently a pristine lake in Siberia --
thousands of such local movements of resistance to local despoliations
have arisen on every continent. To some observers they constitute
today's most energetic and promising form of environmental action.
They have suggestive common attributes: they are usually led by
women; they typically mobilize individuals not previously active
in environmental movements; they often activate those who are
dispossessed, propertyless, or politically inert; with a few notable
exceptions, they resist affiliation with larger, national groups;
and they tend to disband once their local objectives have been
achieved.10 The chief point, in any case, is that these
movements devote their energies to coping with concrete, visible,
palpable local problems.
Ecofeminist vs Material Feminist
One of the more striking dichotomies in environmental
outlooks is that found within the feminist movement. At one extreme
are ecofeminists, who base their view of the nature and remedies
for environmental degradation upon an essentialist construction
of male and female temperaments, in which men seek power over
nature and women protect and revere the earth and its fecundity.
At the opposite extreme are material feminists who argue that
in specific circumstances, particularly in third world countries,
the undermining of inherited gender roles and rights, usually
through mistaken transposition of Western gender ideologies, has
resulted in mismanagement of land and water resources, and the
production of cash crops in place of traditional food staples,
mobilizing women because they are most immediately affected by
Ecofeminists clearly fit within the millennial, spiritual
renewal spectrum of environmental thought, since they argue that
the planet will be destroyed by male aspirations to technological
power over nature and by the male quest for ever more powerful
nuclear and biological weapons. As a counterbalance to this assumed
male drive they propose return to worship of the mother goddess,
and revived reverence for the earth and for the fertility of nature.
In this sense ecofeminists seek to convert humankind to a spiritual
revival based upon worship of the feminine principle, pacifism
and a return to a prehistorical, simple agricultural society.
Material feminists, on the other hand, see some successes
in the efforts to preserve women's rights to use over land in
parts of South Asia and Africa, and in educating development agencies
about women's role as the primary food producers in much of Asia
and Africa. Their programs seek political solutions through which
rights of use over land can be converted to female-owned property,
the harvesting of forests can be carried on respecting traditional
women's knowledge of forestry, and government plans for transforming
land tenure systems can recognize female as well as male rights
within village societies. They also favor agricultural education
schemes targeted at women food producers, rather than at males
who do not till the soil.
n general, ecofeminist ideas are global and ecocentric,
while material feminists are concerned with specific local issues
and fine-grained studies of why women's food producing role has
been ignored in development projects in specific regions. While
highly critical of gender hierarchies, material feminists do not
essentialize male and female temperaments, nor are they opposed
to technology provided women have equal access to its use and
equal voice in its control.11
North/South: Conflict vs Community
Almost from the beginning of environmental debate, the
differences and parallels between the interests of the "North"
-- the highly industrialized nations -- and those of the "South"
-- the poor, less developed, or "developing" nations -- have been
discussed. A major divide in debates about the relationship between
economic development and environment is the degree to which conflict
between North and South is stressed as opposed to community of
The conflictual analysis emphasizes that the industrialized
nations of the North, above all the United States, are the principal
contributors to worldwide pollution, and especially to those processes
we label "global change". Per capita outputs of almost every known
man-made pollutant are highest in the United States and in other
industrialized nations. "Southern" nations, in contrast, with
low per capita incomes, greater reliance on agriculture, and low
energy outputs, produce less global pollution both on a per capita
basis and on an aggregate basis, even though the South constitutes
75-80 percent of the world's population.
Given the commitment of the South to economic development,
environmental conflict with the North seems inevitable to many.
For example, were the nations of the South to reach the same levels
of per capita environmental degradation as the North, the carrying
capacity of the Earth might well be exceeded, with catastrophic
results. It is claimed that China and India alone, which together
contain one-third of the world's population, have the capacity
to overwhelm the planet's environment should they reach the levels
of per capita pollution that characterize the United States.
When this analysis is accepted, two conclusions are
usually drawn: that the nations of the South must limit or strictly
control their economic development, and/or that the nations of
the North must radically reduce their own level of environmental
damage to make ecological "room" for increased development --
and pollution -- from the South. To the nations of the North,
then, the ideal solution might be to try to slow the development
of the Southern nations, and/or to insist on their use of complex
(and expensive) environmental technologies like scrubbers, "green"
production facilities, low-polluting energy sources, etc. To the
nations of the South, in contrast, the obvious answer is for countries
like the United States to reduce dramatically their own levels
of environmental degradation.
Emphasizing the conflict between North and South usually
entails the further assumption that the wealthy nations are those
most concerned with environmental preservation, whereas the poor
ones are chiefly concerned with economic development. Only when
a high level of economic development has been reached, it is assumed,
are people likely to adopt "post-industrial" values like environmentalism.
In the impoverished nations, environmental concerns must take
a back seat to issues of subsistence and economic growth.
An alternative perspective stresses instead the areas
of similarity and potential collaboration on environmental issues
between North and South. It emphasizes that most environmental
problems are global in nature, and so are their solutions. Loss
of biodiversity, the destruction of forest cover, global warming,
degradation of soil, salination of arable land, depression of
water tables, the depletion of the ozone layer, acid rain, the
poisoning of land, animals, and people through intensive use of
pesticides -- all affect the developing nations in as great or
greater measure than they do the industrialized world.
Underlining the global nature of environmental concern
and problems, poll studies show that individual attitudes of environmental
concern bear no relationship to the level of economic development
of the nations studied. For example, more Filipinos and Nigerians
say they are personally concerned about the environment than do
Americans. As the authors of one study conclude, "Conventional
wisdom is wrong about the existence of major differences and levels
of environmental concern between citizens of rich and poor nations."12
In short, the notion that concern with the environment is a "post-industrial"
characteristic of the rich or the rich nations, is incorrect.
A final argument supporting the community of North and
South is the similarity of the arguments and movements organized
around the environment in both parts of the world. Wherever they
are tolerated by political authorities, as in India, citizens'
movements to protect the environment in developing nations are
extraordinarily like those in, say, the U.S. or Northern Europe.
The structure of discourse and debate about the environment, the
conflicts within environmental movements, the arguments over the
most efficacious means of protecting the environment differ little
in Latin America, Africa, and Southern Asia from that occurring
in Scandinavia, Australia, or the United States.
Wise Use vs Forever Wild
The contradiction between the "wise use" and "forever
wild" attitudes toward nature has given rise to political controversy
in the United States for at least a century. A specific variant
of the anthropocentric/ecocentric dichotomy, its political ramifications
are exemplified by the Hetch Hetchy controversy in Yosemite, California
in the late nineteenth century. At that time, engineers working
for the city of San Francisco, whose aim was to dam the Hetch
Hetchy River as a new source of city water, came into sharp conflict
with John Muir and his allies, all militant preservationists.13
The arguments of the dam builders anticipated the later "wise
use" doctrine -- today most often advocated by lumber companies,
ranchers, hunters, and other land owners -- which holds that nature
is a reservoir of energy and other raw materials for human use.
(A corollary of the doctrine holds that property rights entitle
landowners to compensation for any economic losses incurred as
a result of environmental regulations.) People are entitled to
use natural resources by means, for example, of the judicious
"harvesting" of trees at reasonable intervals; "culling" flocks
of wild animals for human consumption; "taming" wilderness areas
to prevent flooding; "controlling" undesirable species like wolves,
coyotes, bears, and jaguars. The goal is to render the natural
environment productive, pleasant, and agreeable for human use.
If a species, such as wolves, poisonous spiders, scorpions, rattlesnakes,
require elimination, and if that can be shown to benefit humankind,
then it may be done; if clearcutting proves to be the most efficacious
long-run mode of harvesting timber, then non-material, aesthetic,
or sentimental considerations -- and, in some cases, rules for
the protection of endangered species -- should be subordinated
to the material needs of the population.
At the other extreme is the "forever wild" or "wilderness"
preservation outlook. It is exemplified, for example, by the deed
of Baxter State Park surrounding Mount Katadyn in Maine, or in
the "nature preserve" movement in the former Soviet Union. Here,
what remains of the unspoiled biophysical environment, far from
being regarded as a source of society's material "resources",
is seen as a sacred or quasi-sacred place with an inherent claim
to inviolacy. Lovers of wilderness regard the natural landscape
as a source of spiritual and aesthetic nourishment, but only if
it is left in its pristine, untouched, or "wild" state. For people
without faith in a supernatural divinity, the unspoiled reaches
of the natural world, which existed prior to the evolution of
humanity, and which presumable will outlast humanity, constitute
the only remaining locus of transcendence. The Russian nature
preserves are an extreme example: they are substantial areas of
"wilderness" from which the entire population (other than attendants
and working scientists) is wholly excluded. In the United States
today, those who wish to prevent "harvesting" of forests, mining
of minerals, or grazing of cattle on public lands almost invariably
embrace some variant of the "forever wild" view.
In recent years, however, the concept of "wilderness"
has come under sharp postmodernist attack as a typically deceptive
social construction. After all, the vast areas of North America
that arriving white European settlers called "wilderness" had
for centuries been home to some millions of Native Americans.
It is easy to demonstrate that what we Americans call "wilderness",
especially when it refers to areas of our National Forests and
National Parks, is an elaborately constructed cultural artifact.
Recently, the environmental historian William Cronon offended
many ardent adherents of the "forever wild" school by arguing
that we should dispense entirely with the misleading, indefensible
space-oriented concept of "wilderness" -- wilderness as a topographical
entity -- and transfer our allegiance to the spatially neutral
concept of "wildness". Wildness, as identified with aspects of
life unmodified by human intervention, can exist anywhere, indeed
everywhere. It is inherent in our own being. Thus, Cronon suggests,
a bird in a city, say a migrating warbler in the Ramble area of
New York's Central Park, is as wild as it would be anywhere else.
Wildness is not restricted by space. Recall that Thoreau's famous
dictum, motto of the Sierra Club, is "In Wildness [not Wilderness]
is the preservation of the World."14 Thoreau, like
other nineteenth-century American writers, thought of "wildness"
as an attribute of homo sapiens as well as other animal species.
In any case, many recent debates in the United States about the
use of public lands, endangered species, and environmental regulations
generally, have involved aspects of the conflict between adherents
of "Wise Use" and "Forever Wild".
Government Intervention vs Market Changes
Another recurring distinction in environmental debates,
finally, is between interventionist and individualist, market-based
approaches. In essence, this opposition turns on the issue of
which agency (or tactic) is most effective in resolving environmental
problems. From an interventionist vantage, isolated individual
human actions, however sincere, are of little avail in a complex,
highly institutionalized, advanced, tightly organized, urban industrial
society. Even if 100 percent of the population recycled all household
wastes, they argue, it would have almost no impact on the major
sources of environmental degradation, which are industrial, military,
and governmental. Barry Commoner argues that the most notable
successes of environmental policy have entailed the simple prohibition
by public authorities of the use of toxic substances like DDT,
lead in gasoline, or CFCs.15 The results, as measured
by the diminution of toxicity, have been immediate, dramatic,
and progressive. The general principle is that intervention by
official (governmental) mandate -- i.e., regulation -- is usually
the best means of improving environmental quality.
The opposing view is that only individuals who are acting
because of changed economic incentives in a free market can in
the long run effect a reduction in environmental degradation.
Rejecting direct governmental regulation as bureaucratic, inefficient,
and easy to circumvent, proponents of "free market" environmental
measures propose instead such indirect market interventions as
taxes on environmentally undesirable behaviors or products, the
use of sellable "pollution rights" to encourage industrial conservation
of resources, or efforts to "internalize externalities" by market
mechanisms that oblige organizations and individuals that do environmental
damage to pay the real long-term costs of repairing the harms
they do. At the extreme, free market environmentalists may even
argue that, in the end, all environmental problems will be solved
simply by the automatic mechanisms of the market. For example,
as oil supplies are exhausted, the price of oil will rise so steeply
that individuals and firms will be obliged to find other energy
sources and to conserve oil. When government action is warranted,
it is only to enforce, reinforce, or strengthen market mechanisms;
not to intervene directly through regulation, standard-setting,
and difficult-to-enforce requirements.
It is obvious that there are natural affinities or likely
groupings between the positions we have separated above. For example,
ecocentrists tend to emphasize the spiritual as opposed to technical
nature of environmental problems, to view environmentalism as
an aspect of an all-embracing worldview, and to see environmental
problems in a global, millennial perspective. Conversely, those
who believe that environmental problems are largely technological
in nature tend to be gradualists, to see environmentalism as one
among many issues rather than as a complete philosophy, to stress
the uniqueness of contemporary environmental problems, and so
on. Like other cultural values and political outlooks, environmental
attitudes tend to come in "packages" or clusters of associated
It seems pointless (and misleading) for us to try to
identify any one viewpoint, or any one cluster of ideas, as "true"
environmentalism -- the rest, presumably, being "false". As humanists,
however, we deplore, as limited and ultimately inadequate, environmental
programs involving exclusively technological solutions. We insist
on the need for enhanced comprehension of the extra-technological
-- human, cultural, psychological, political, and religious --
dimensions of any effective inquiry aimed at instituting better
measures for arresting the deterioration of the global environment.
We have been increasingly struck by the realization
that many of the views we now refer to as dichotomous are in fact
not as incompatible as we (and others) had assumed. Thus there
are issues to which the extreme ideas of the apocalyptic environmentalists
quite reasonably apply, and where immediate action must be taken
if irreversible damage is to be avoided. The banning of CFCs,
which evidently contribute to the long-term destruction of the
upper ozone layer, is a case in point. But there are other issues
where a prudent gradualism makes sense, for example, involving
the causes and remedies of global warming. In that case present
knowledge is limited, and existing models do not enable us to
predict catastrophe if we fail to take immediate, costly action,
even though prudence would nonetheless seem to justify a serious
international effort to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases.
Nor do we view innovations in technology as necessarily incompatible
with preserving the spiritual benefits of our relations with nature.
On the contrary, the well-being of the environment seems to involve
importantly both changes in the values that issue in rampant consumerism
-- including a willingness on the part of the rich nations to
alter their behavior with a view to reducing inordinate levels
of environmental pollution -- and, at the same time, changes in
technology that will permit them to do so and permit other nations
to realize their justified aspirations for a more adequate standard
of life without overloading the planet's fragile environmental
In one area, however, we have taken sides: while we
appreciate and understand the ultimate, long-term educative value
of the ecocentric doctrine, we believe that it is untenable in
the foreseeable future. Or, rather, we believe it is much less
tenable than the anthropocentric view that stresses the material
and political needs of humankind. To be sure, conflict between
the human species and other species can and should be reduced
and, if possible, avoided. But in the end, we believe that the
ultimate justification for environmental preservation, far from
inhering in the absolute and equal rights of all species, is humanity's
moral obligation to its own kind. Moreover, without a reasonable
improvement in the degree of equity in the conditions of human
life, no resolution of our environmental problems is conceivable.
Anthropocentrism, as we would endorse it, does not provide a rationale
for ravaging nature to satisfy the trivial needs of human beings;
rather, it means preserving the environment, protecting it, nursing,
shepherding, and husbanding it precisely because we, as human
beings, so desperately require a flourishing global landscape.
In our view, many aspects of contemporary environmental
thought involve issues of major concern to humanists. The scholar
of the humanities has disciplinary training to elucidate the millennial
and apocalyptic nature of much environmental writing, the authoritarian
assumptions behind many plans to coerce changes in consumption,
the uninformed idealization of traditional cultures and their
environmental practices, the essentialist view of gender differences
enshrined in ecofeminism. All of these views of human history,
expectations about the future, and wholesale rejections of contemporary
science and technology touch on deep themes in the modern and
Environmental thought today also raises issues once
thought settled in the age of the Enlightenment. Is there such
a thing as progress? What is the moral standing of animals, plants,
forests, groundwater? Are we to face a Malthusian future in which
population will outrun resources? Does consumerism touch such
deep structures in the human psyche that we cannot imagine a cultural
era based upon rational voluntary restraints on consumption? Are
North/South concerns about environmental issues really so different?
Our analysis of the patterns of thought represented in Indian
environmentalism, for instance, shows the same dichotomies we
have identified for the West. These should alert us to the possibility
that thought about man and about nature as cultural category may
be more global than our current focus on ethnicity and cultural
The Humanities and the Environment: What is to be Done?
Despite the importance of such questions, our efforts
to engage humanists in systematic work on environmental issues
were often unsuccessful. We thushave asked ourselves whether there
are ways in which the professional training of humanists and the
ends toward which they direct their work might be reformulated
so as to bring the human/non-human environmental relationship
into sharper focus.
We see this question as important partly because of
the postmodern attack on the ideas of the Enlightenment, which
is one way the professional training and ethos of humanists has
been altered, often negatively, vis-à-vis environmental
issues. For one of the consequences of postmodernism lies in its
defining a broad range of questions or intellectual territories
as outside the sphere of the humanities, that is, as not part
of the humanist task to explore what it means to be human. Among
these questions are a number central to the understanding of contemporary
For example, the preparations for our workshop involved
a search for an art historian who could explicate how the history
of representations of nature might illuminate the non-verbal and
emotional changes which have accompanied environmental degradation.
Artists only began to paint landscape after land defined as private
property became the norm. And the history of art shows us how
nature gradually became merely a backdrop for human being in early
modern times. Be we were able to find no tradition of seeking
to understand what that change means in terms of the human/non-human
We also searched in vain for an economist or historian
of ideas who could help us understand just when and why humans
became defined as and encouraged to be insatiable consumers. Our
workshops helped us to see that in the wealthy modern societies
consumption is as powerful a cultural activity as production,
and that the "masses," Marxist theory notwithstanding, exercise
aesthetic judgments and sensibilities as consumers. But much humanistic
thought has been based on the demeaning notion of "mass society"
as devoid of aesthetic concerns, a point of view shaped in part
by European émigré's encounter with Fascism as a
mass phenomenon. Professional training which contested these received
ideas from a variety of cultural perspectives would be a valuable
preparation for teaching and research in the humanities today.
The contemporary study of ethics does indeed address
issues raised by the need to constrain or redirect consumption
in the interests of intergenerational environmental equity. But
we found that much remains to be done to move such concerns into
the everyday language of the humanities. We believe that they
need to be much discussed as say, the impact of the machine on
the human imagination, or the alienation of the landless poor
following the closing of the commons.
The discipline of history has in recent years shown
a growing concern with the study of events that occur outside
a human timescale: For example, the impact of climate on changes
in vegetation, the rise of sea levels, and other natural phenomena.
But the standard professional training of historians as yet places
little systematic emphasis on the understanding of such macro-environmental
events, leaving "nature" as much of a backdrop to the historian
as it was to the Renaissance artist. Moreover, while there are
now many and controversial accounts of the relationship between
the exhaustion of resource bases and the expansion of ancient
empires, those themes are rarely treated as standard in the professional
preparation of historians who study the contemporary era.<
The humanities and the social sciences converge in the
study of myth; but here, too, we found little systematic study
of apocalyptic imagery in contemporary environmental thought,
and even less analysis of those mythologized "traditional societies"
which are often invoked to instruct late twentieth century men
and women about how to live in supposed harmony with nature.
The final section of this volume deals with the problem
of modernity, a problem which calls for systematic inquiry in
all humanistic disciplines concerned with environmental issues.
Postmodernist theory has made many contributions. It is a useful
corrective to the frequent modernist rejection of Technology.
Postmodernism also contains an invaluable commentary on imperialism
and its cultural rationalizations, embodiments, and consequences.
It rightly insists upon the breakdown of barriers between the
organic and the engineered, barriers which were central to the
But there remain many crucial environmental issues to
be investigated by postmodernist thinkers. Should environmentalism
abandon totally the Enlightenment concern with human reason? Is
the 18th century stress on religious toleration irrelevant to
human experience in Serbia and Croatia today? While it is undoubtedly
true to note that war crimes are defined by the victors, are there
not some universal notions of human rights which should inform
our responses to the local and tribal conflicts of today, to the
degradation or exhaustion of natural resources, or to the abuses
of power seen in modern commercial imperialism? Central among
these questions are concerns for the rights of women and men to
use common land and forests and to retain some balance between
rural and industrial/ commercial life. Though these issues are
usually defined as economic, as having to do with development
policies, they are also humanistic, having to do with human/non-human
environmental relations in the context of contemporary politics.
Recent years have shown a steady movement by humanists
toward sustained analysis of environmental issues. Many of the
authors represented in this volume have been leaders in that movement.
But this work also reminds us that much remains to be done: The
humanities and the humanistic social sciences have barely begun
to scratch the surface of sustained inquiry into environmental
issues. Environmental questions, we believe, must be central to
the concerns of humanists, preoccupied with the most fundamental
questions of human existence. A humanistic training that neglects
environmental issues sets the humanities at the margins, rather
than at the center of modern concerns. To the skeptic who questions
the relevance of the humanities to environmental issues, we commend
these essays as examples of the fruitful linkage of the humanities
and the environment.
1. For a provocative collection of essays, most of them exemplifying
this viewpoint, by scholars in many humanistic disciplines, see
William Cronon, ed., Uncommon Ground: Toward Inventing Nature
(New York: W.W. Norton, 1995).
2. See S. Jasanoff, Science at the Bar: Law, Science, and Technology
in America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995).
3. The perspective here developed accords closely with that of
Riley Dunlap, especially in R. Dunlap and W. Catton, "Struggling
with Human Exemptionalism: The Rise, Decline, and Revitalization
of Environmental Sociology," The American Sociologist (Spring
4. E.O. Wilson, On Human Nature (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University
Press, 1978), p. 17.
5. Current issue of Social Policy (Sept. '96 ?).
6. Lynn White.
7. Murata, quoted in S. Kellert, [[add article]],
Journal of Social Issues (1993), 49:53-69.
8. Riley E. Dunlap, George H. Gallup, Jr., and Alec M. Gallup,
"Of Global Concern: Results of the Health of the Planet Survey,"
Environment (November 1993), 35, 9:36.
9. See, for example, Bill McKibben, The End of Nature (New York:
Random House, 1989).
10. FN re important exceptions; reference to volume.
11. See Vandana Shiva and Maria Mies, Ecofeminism (London and
New Jersey: Zed Books, 1993) and Bina Agarwal, A Field of One's
Own: Gender and Land Rights in South Asia (New York: Cambridge
University Press, 1994).
12. Dunlap, et al., op. cit.
13. Michael Smith.
14. See William Cronon, "The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting
Back to the Wrong Nature," in William Cronon, ed., Uncommon Ground:
Toward Reinventing Nature (New York: W.W. Norton, 1995), pp. 69-90.
For a series of critical responses to this argument, including
a reprint of the essay and a response by the author, see Environmental
History, I (January 1995), pp. 7-55.