“Environmentalism” in Context: A Reminder from C.S. Lewis

by Jason Peters on July 1, 2009 · 7 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Philosophers & Saints,Writers & Poets



“Each generation exercises power over its successors,” said C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man, “and each, in so far as it modifies the environment bequeathed to it and rebels against tradition, resists and limits the power of its predecessors.”

It is difficult to make the word “environment” in that sentence mean for Lewis what it means for us. Read the sentence however you will, the word is slightly out of tune. By “environment” Lewis did not mean the air and the rivers and the trees that are around us and that we can save if only we’ll recycle our milk jugs. He meant the whole picture, the cosmos, the beautiful order of things that we are in, not surrounded by, the thing we are part and parcel of–and far too permissively presuming to modify.

For Lewis was engaged in a different sort of project from the one environmentalists are engaged in today. He was taking a stand against a project that has at its core (1) the belief that man is a progressive animal and (2) the presumption that he has an unassailable right to conform nature to his desires by the means of applied science. Lewis illustrated the second of these points by means of an interesting recurrence to sixteenth-century magic. “For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious—such as digging up and mutilating the dead.”

Lewis’s enemy was “the image of infinite unilinear progression which so haunts our minds” and which, he said, has very little to do with knowledge. Bacon may have been the “trumpeter” of the new impiety, but Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus was its representative man. “You will read in some critics that Faustus has a thirst for knowledge. In reality, he hardly mentions it. It is not truth he wants from the devils, but gold and guns and girls. ‘All things that move between the quiet poles shall be at his command’ and ‘a sound magician is a mighty god.’”

Lewis’s point was that we in our own Faustian bargains think we’re doing one thing—seeking knowledge—when in fact we’re actually doing another: failing to order our desires.

Now our environmentalists today may deny that we have a right to conform nature to our desires, but it is not clear to me that their desires are in order. For the most part they are still haunted by the image of infinite unilinear progression and wholly uninterested in inhabiting the sort of cosmos tradition has handed down. Tradition, like history, is bunk. It cannot assign us a place in the cosmos because there is no cosmos.

But if we want to make sense of the word “environment” as Lewis used it—and in turn to appropriate it for what we mean by “environment”—then we must learn to play his sentence in the key in which he wrote it. We must understand his larger critique of this all-meddling and pollyanish project. And we must learn to be suspicious of any project that regards its own past as a dark age in desperate need of enlightenment. Even when Lewis said that “the Dying God has no place in chemical agriculture,” we must be cautious about making him the tutelary spirit of organic farming. We must essay, rather, to situate the remark in the tradition he feared we were rebelling against. The well-meaning efforts of environmentalists are likely to fail if they themselves fail to see that Mephistopheles is pulling their strings.

It is true that at the heart of that quotation with which I began there is an obvious and somewhat dull observation: that those who follow us are at our mercy, that we exercise over them a certain unavoidable power that Time grants us but denies them—just as it granted a power to our forbears that it has denied to us. But Lewis wanted to take that obvious and somewhat dull observation and think it through to the end, and this required of him a more carefully considered sense of the limits imposed by time. “Those who write on social matters have not yet learned to imitate the physicists by always including Time among the dimensions,” he said. So regarding birth control, for example,

there is a paradoxical, negative sense in which all possible future generations are the patients or subjects of a power wielded by those already alive. By contraception simply, they are denied existence; by contraception used as a means of selective breeding, they are, without their concurring voice, made to be what one generation, for its own reasons, may choose to prefer. From this point of view, what we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument. . . . All long-term exercises of power, especially in breeding, must mean the power of earlier generations over later ones.

(One thinks of Wendell Berry on the decision to “go into the nucleus”: Adam was only the first to decide for all mankind, but he was certainly not the last.)

It is not exactly comforting to think that every act might be as absolute as murder, but Consequence does not issue exemptions to moral creatures. We have no choice but to reconcile ourselves to this. To exercise liberty is to withhold it.

But liberty was not Lewis’s ultimate concern in this book. His ultimate concern was the abolition of man, and he took pains to be clear about it: to live in contempt of tradition is to secure for ourselves our own demise: “There neither is nor can be any simple increase of power on Man’s side. Each new power won by man is a power over man as well. Each advance leaves him weaker as well as stronger. In every victory, besides being the general who triumphs, he is also the prisoner who follows the triumphal car.”

But, triumphs notwithstanding, a small few will nevertheless rule over a great many. “Man’s conquest of Nature,” he said, “means the rule of a few hundreds of men over billions upon billions of men.” The last man, far from being an heir, will be a victim and a patient. “Man’s conquest of Nature turns out, in the moment of its consummation, to be Nature’s conquest of man. . . . All Nature’s apparent reversals have been but tactical withdrawals. We thought we were beating her back when she was luring us on.”

Why should we worry that the sun will one day go out? It went out for us long ago.

There is much in this little book that is provocative. I have quoted from only one chapter. But I want to mention briefly one more point. It has some bearing on what I wrote here about Owen Barfield and the “shaping spirit of imagination.” Lewis said:

It is in Man’s power to treat himself as a mere ‘natural object’ and his own judgements of value as raw material for scientific manipulation to alter at will. The objection to his doing so does not lie in the fact that this point of view (like one’s first day in a dissecting room) is painful and shocking till we grow used to it. The pain and the shock are at most a warning and a symptom. The real objection is that if man chooses to treat himself as raw material, raw material he will be: not raw material to be manipulated, as he fondly imagines, by himself, but by mere appetite, that is, mere Nature, in the person of his de-humanized Conditioners.

It may be that we must learn to conform our desires to reality, as Lewis said, but that does not mean that we are incapable of conjuring a reality to which we then willingly—and fatally—conform. “Perception,” said Emerson, “is not whimsical, but fatal.” If I maintain, as I do, that the imagination is constitutive, I do not therefore deny that desires, imperfectly ordered, flatter and congratulate the imagination for the world it has put on offer. And I deny absolutely that environmentalism will accomplish much at all if it cannot learn this.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar H.C. Johns July 1, 2009 at 12:53 am

-Fantastic- post. Just one thought (hopefully not too convoluted) before bed: environmentalism (at least its deep ecological variants) isn’t just normatively lacking in its absence of a eudamonic theory. The deeper problem is that it lacks an ontological doctrine of the human-in-nature, which would tell us what desire, humanity, love, etc. mean for us in our embeddedness in the natural world. The problem, at least to me, is that its not clear that a reclamation of Aristotlian ordering is what’s called for to do that. What’s been thought so far are limited accounts of human non-existence (deep ecology), returns to rationalism (social ecology), technocratic salvation (Friedman et al.) romantic idealisms (Abbey) or even eudamonic anti-consumerism (roughly FPR). Each of these pieces, since they articulate authentic possibilities for humans in history, represents some part of the knowledge we need before we can answer any ethical questions. But they’re incomplete (and therefore ungrounded) until we’ve really articulated the ground of our position in history.

Which is another reason Lewis’s work is so interesting on this point: by highlighting our position relative to the past and the future he’s pointing to a really key horizon of our natural life, namely, that unintended consequences not only come with the territory, but are essential features of it. (And that the closing of that horizon, for the last man, is tantamount to the end of history/his embeddedness in the natural world.)

avatar Patrick Deneen July 1, 2009 at 8:07 am

It’s a curiosity that most of our “environmentalists” align politically with defenses of contraception, abortion, and stem cell research. If the “Right” believes that human nature is sacrosanct while the natural world is our filling station (“drill, baby, drill”!), the “Left” seems to hold that the natural world is sacrosanct while justifying thorough dominion over the human body. Lewis eloquently points to the incoherence of both these current political positions. A wonderful post, thanks.

avatar Mike at The Big Stick July 1, 2009 at 9:39 am

He was taking a stand against a project that has at its core (1) the belief that man is a progressive animal and (2) the presumption that he has an unassailable right to conform nature to his desires by the means of applied science.

Seems like we’re talking about preservationists(John Muir, Sierra Club)verses conservationists (Teddy Roosevelt, Ducks Unlimited). I’m firmly in the latter camp, as are most Americans.

avatar Aaron Schroeder July 1, 2009 at 9:47 am

This post recalls to me the last chapter of A Sand County Almanac where Leopold calls for an ethic of ecology, or a land ethic:

“All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts. His instincts prompt him to compete for his place in that community, but his ethics prompt him also to co-operate. . . . The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.”

Passages like this first suggest that Leopold shared in Lewis’ definitions of words like “ecology” and “environment.” But perhaps more importantly, in spite of an academic segregation between the likes of Lewis and Leopold, each insists that the cure for what ails us is a reimagining of the human position in the complete ontological spectrum, even if portions of that spectrum are as yet invisible to us.

A great post.

avatar D.W. Sabin July 1, 2009 at 2:21 pm

When a Coal Fired power plant or perhaps a clogged Los Angeles Freeway or Houston Petrochemical complex is viewed as an artifact of man and therefore of nature and not something conjured up out of the restless font of our exclusive imagination, we might come to view them more critically…. not to replace them automatically or retreat into a stone age abnegation …and furthermore, not to assess their compatibility with the reputed antipode nature but to establish their quality of fit within the larger context of an ethic which fundamentally values life, man-made or otherwise.

This is an important thread and Lewis was onto it.

avatar M. H. Lucero July 18, 2009 at 12:59 am

Interesting article. The Abolition of Man is a great book that more people should read, especially these days.

I know this isn’t exactly the subject at hand, but since it was referred to briefly, I thought I’d mention that there is a really good book that specifically explores Lewis’ environmental ideas as present in his fiction and nonfiction works. It’s actually put out by the University of Kentucky’s “Culture of the Land” series, that Wendell Berry is one of the editors of. The book is called Narnia and the Fields of Arbol, and I believe is written by Matthew Dickerson.

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