Against the Environment

by Patrick J. Deneen on June 5, 2009 · 9 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Economics & Empire,Region & Place


Alexandria, VA The other night I happened to catch the second half of an ABC special program, “Earth 2100.”  The program was a “speculative history” of what the world might look like at the end of this century if humankind does not cease its consumptive, wasteful ways.  I was struck that it included some “talking head” testimony from the likes of James Howard Kunstler and Richard Heinberg, both of whom have been prominent in efforts to educate fellow citizens about the perils that will accompany (or, are accompanying) “peak oil.”  Kunstler in particular – but Heinberg as well – have urged their contemporaries to reconsider our current form of living, and above all to realize that the future is not one of “globalization,” but “re-localization” – either by choice or forced by necessity.  We can have an orderly reconfiguration of our way of life in which our lives are lived much closer to where we are, or we can emerge from the chaos of oil shortages and resource wars in a condition just as local, but that may resemble gang or tribal forms of organization of the sort depicted in Kunstler’s recent novel A World Made by Hand.

What struck me about the ABC program, however, is that its “reporters” were content – even eager – to broadcast the warnings of Kunstler and Heinberg in the long first part of the program (designed to get us to support some sort of action), but failed to bring them back onstage for roughly the last 30 minutes of the broadcast.  That part of the program aimed to show us a “better future,” and was dominated by techno-optimists who believed that science and technology – alongside enlightened global government policies – would permit us to live almost exactly the same sorts of consumptive and autonomous lives we now lead.  Nowhere was a voice to be heard suggesting the problems, if not outright foolishness (as Eugene Robinson does in today’s Washington Post in regard to “carbon capture and sequestration), of some of The Jetsons-like proposals.  Nowhere was a voice to be found suggesting that we would have to live fundamentally differently – in particular, more regionally and locally, doing more things for ourselves, working more with our own hands, and supporting ourselves with an economy in which our contributions are more immediately visible and in which we are more obvious local participants.  Nowhere was there a hint of the notion that to do less harm will mean at once to do less (consumption) and do more (work).  The program aimed at fear induction to support ever-more centralized (world) governments and massive expenditures on new “green” technologies.  (NB: See Sharon Astyk’s earlier analysis of Al Gore’s similar assumptions in a terrific posting from 2008, in which she explodes the idea that you can have any such intensification of (fossil fuel) investments and expect to come out the other side as a transformed, low energy growth economy.)

This is the conceit of “environmentalism,” its fundamental flaw – and why it is today so popular.  What it offers the world is a techno-perfected future in which we have overcome natural limits – including, it seems, the second law of thermodynamics and attendant entropy – by retaining a world of permanent increase and consumption (the “developing” world, it is assumed, will develop to first world standards using the magic of technology, somehow avoiding the predictable result of a world stripped bare), supporting “lifestyles” of autonomy and cosmopolitanism, all the while ceasing in any significant way the consumption of the planet’s bounty and the damage to ecosystems.  We have gone from a totalitarian relationship with nature – in which our demand is met by force – to a fantastical science-fiction relationship, in which we can have everything for nothing.  These are the leading conceits of our two current “parties” – our “conservative liberals” who channel Francis Bacon’s view that humankind should master nature, or our “liberal progressives” who adapt a fanciful Marxian belief that we can have all the material bounties of capitalism with none of its downside.

What is studiously avoided is consideration of what kind of civilization we would have to build if exercise of self-control, restraint of appetite, and commitment to the health of places was to replace our current ethic of consumption, indolency, itinerancy, autonomy and mobility.  While the former was in many ways the logical conclusion of the “warnings” that the program was promoting, the idea that we should actually alter our basic set of operating assumptions was clearly off the table.  Ironically, the commercial “interruptions” underscored that ABC’s more fundamental commitment was to continue things as they are.

Further, what is striking in these sorts of programs – and the general ethic of “environmentalism” – is studied avoidance of the word nature itself.  We should see clearly the reason for the preference of the word “environment.”  As I’ve written elsewhere and earlier, unconsciously many today adopt and embrace the word “environment” without reflection on its meaning.  This is unfortunate, as the very unconscious way in which we use the word obscures how deeply embedded is our antipathy toward nature.

An “environment” is something that surrounds us:  it environs us, provides us space we occupy and in which we move.  I discovered during a recent trip to Italy that the preferred Italian term is “ambiente” – a word that similarly expresses an externalization of the object that surrounds us.  On the one hand it turns the “environment” into a separate entity; on the other hand, it makes humans distinct from the world they occupy.

It’s worth reflecting on why we have so readily embraced the term “environment” but utterly eschew the word “nature.”  Nature, of course, is the “normative” term of Aristotelianism and Thomism:  it is a standard and represents a limitation.  Humans are creatures of and in nature.  We are subject to its laws and to its strictures.  Nature is not separate from us; we are natural creatures (special ones – political animals – but animals nonetheless).  To employ the word “nature” would mean a fundamental reconceptualization of the relationship of humans to the world with which we live.  Rather than either extending human mastery over our “environment” or attempting to stamp out the contagion of humanity, to re-claim the language of nature would require us to change our fundamental conception of a proper way of living well.  Living as conscious natural creatures in nature requires the careful negotiation between use and respect, alteration and recognition of limits to manipulation, and thus calls for the virtues of prudence and self-governance.  Neither of these virtues are particularly valued in the “environmental” movement, whether that advanced by corporate America in the effort to continue our growth economy of itinerant vandals or the fantasy-based, “have it all” wishful thinking of our techno-environmentalists.  Until we reacquaint ourselves with the language, and more importantly, the reality of nature, we will continue in our current condition of human-environmental dualism, or delusion.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Empedocles June 5, 2009 at 11:16 am

You should at least mention that there are plenty of environmentalists, probably the majority of them, who are not techno-utopians and are interested in localization and sustainability rather than cosmopolitanism and growth. You made it sound like the vast majority of environmentalists are the techno-utopians which I don’t take to be the case at all, although the those who say we can just build windmills and keep the “happy motoring utopia” (to use Kunstler’s phrase) running maybe get the most attention since the alternative is very depressing to most people. Anyone aware of the true challenges of peak oil quickly abandon this view.

avatar Jon S. June 5, 2009 at 12:33 pm

Empedocles, would you concede, though, that environmentalism has become a marketing tool? This is perhaps what Patrick alludes to with the commercial breaks to sell us stuff in the middle of a show about the using up of our resources. This hit me recently in the supermarket when I saw a kids breakfast cereal (I’ve forgotten the name), no different from any breakfast cereal, with pictures of polar bears and seals on the box. They clearly were attempting tap into the notion that “green is good.” So they just repackaged their cereal as “green”; I mean, just look at those cute seals! To be green is cool. I think Patrick is largely right in that “going green” is now a marketing tool to a significant extent, especially geared toward kids who are already propagandized to in school about how “green” people are better. Also, we are sold (literally and figuratively) the mistaken belief that wind, solar and biofuels can replace fossil fuels and energize our current technological world. Sorry, it just ain’t so.

avatar Thomas G. June 5, 2009 at 1:09 pm

Well, if there is a silver lining to the fact that ABC neglected to tout localism, and limits as the solution, it’s that our global media overlords aren’t trying to coopt the Front Porch movement. Yet.

The day ABC does a 2 hour special on Wendell Berry is the day that the borg has assimilated us all. I for one hope that the New Agrarian Cornflakes are at least tasty, and come in a cleverly designed retro package. They tell me the future will hurt a lot less if we just relax and go along with it. I’m sure the technocrats no what they are doing. They have our best interests in mind afterall…

avatar Sidharth June 6, 2009 at 7:40 am

Nice article … also check this … goes for world environment day …

avatar D.W. Sabin June 6, 2009 at 11:51 am

The growing conflict with the earth’s capacity to accommodate mankind’s rather profligate and violent behavior will, if history indeed “rhymes” not go too well. Given the fact that those in positions of power are so heavily invested in the current exploitive and extractive paradigm, the chartered bus to an auto-pooch will no doubt continue with enthusiasm. Sure, the entertainment media will add to the daily Frightometer with tales of doom and gloom that are really quite banal by now and entirely predictable but they will steer, in the end, the discussion of solutions into ways and means that suit their ends. Truly questioning and doubting the efficacy of the “System” will not be abided. This is why Jim Kunstler is usually barred from discussions going beyond simply how dumb we are. The consensus is we cannot fail and no longer need the God Nemesis to assist in fighting our courtships with hubris. We’ll invent our way out of cause and effect.

Inasmuch as both the media and the government are vassals of the industrial edifice, don’t expect any help from their direction. The only help one can possibly glean is that if one figures the opposite of what is said is closer to the truth, one begins to gain a certain clarity on reality.

What is happening in Detroit, Wall Street and California now is a harbinger of the fate of our institutions. Because ecological shifts have a tendency to build slowly but swing capriciously , the citizenry has no real clue how close they are to possible catastrophe far beyond the comic book scenarios of the ABC “Earth 2100″. What is truly funny about the ABC approach is that they dwell, as usual… on human privation and how this portends an “End” and not the more complex shifts of the larger ecosystem that has been experiencing serial devastation for decades but will no doubt survive us in one form or another. Our own stubborn hubris is swamping us in advance of whatever rise in ocean levels might occur. Imagine the agro-conurbation of Mesoamerica, nearly vanished into the encroaching jungle in less than a thousand years and one gains a bipolar glimpse of man finding an end but nature a new future.

One of the greatest potential economic and social generators in the history of the species is waiting out there for our captains of industry and feckless politicians to recognize as a way out of the consolidating mistakes we currently jabber about but we have bigger fish stocks to deplete. Expect more rhetoric on our coming punishments at the hands of an “angry environment”, while industry crows about “Green Sustainability” for a system that is patently unsustainable without radical shifts of emphasis toward a culture of life. Like Faust, we are supposed to get a pass on our evil works just because we strive.

avatar Septeus7 June 13, 2009 at 2:00 am

This is the conceit of “environmentalism,” its fundamental flaw – and why it is today so popular. What it offers the world is a techno-perfected future in which we have overcome natural limits – including, it seems, the second law of thermodynamics and attendant entropy – by retaining a world of permanent increase and consumption (the “developing” world, it is assumed, will develop to first world standards using the magic of technology, somehow avoiding the predictable result of a world stripped bare), supporting “lifestyles” of autonomy and cosmopolitanism, all the while ceasing in any significant way the consumption of the planet’s bounty and the damage to ecosystems.

This is pure Malthusianism and really bad science. Entropy isn’t a universal law but applies to closed systems in limited sense. Ever since the discoveries Planck and Einstein adhering to Boltzmann’s statistical interpretation of the second law of thermodynamics is quit suspect (that’s the nice way of saying it’s total BS).

Bringing the third world into decent standard of living requires no magic just the natural development of sovereign nation-states free of anti-human notions of Imperialism and environmentalism.

We currently have all the technology we need to bring the third world up to our standard of living.

Need energy and want near zero carbon emissions? Easy. Go nuclear and nuclear doesn’t have to be centralized at all. We have 1 MW module reactors and we can mass produce them and we can build them even smaller if we want.

Worried about nuclear waste? Easy, get rid of the stupid Carter policy and build reprocessing plants and starting using LFTR and IFRs.

After you have enough of 4th gen fast reactors you can shut down the waste creating water reactors.

Worried about Uranium supply? Easy. Use Breeders and Thorium.

Worried about all the trash our because of our evil consumption?

Worried about where we will get future raw materials?

Easy. Start elemental recycling using plasma converters so we get 99% recovery of everything in the production cycle.

Need clean water? Easy nuclear desalination.

Need fuels for vehicle? Easy. Make hydrogen using the high temperature reactors.

Need farmland? Easy Complete all the developmental projects shelved in the after the 1968er’s ruined everything and also check out vertical farming.

There are no problems of technology. Everything, I mentioned is a currently available working technology the only problem is that stupid Bankers and Beaurocrats don’t know enough science or economics to understand why everything else is a waste of time and money and have a compulsive need to useless economic overhead with lunatic global finance ponzi schemes and free trade destruction of local development.

“Humans are creatures of and in nature. We are subject to its laws and to its strictures. Nature is not separate from us; we are natural creatures (special ones – political animals – but animals nonetheless).”

Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! The basis of oligarchism, dehumanization, depopulation, slavery, and imperialism.

This a denial of Christian doctrine. Man is not an animal and you cannot treat him like one. No animal is created in the Imago viva Dei. No animal can discovery universal principles of truth. No animal species can willfully increase their population density.

Humans do all the time, it’s called civilization and if you got a problem with it then you aren’t a conservative.

Let’s talk about nature. In nature, every beast has talon, fang and claw with strength, speed, and instinct. But man born weak and has neither talon, fang, nor claw, little strength, little speed, and no natural instincts so how doesn’t nature intend man to survive?

Answer? By man’s development of technology that come from man’s nature as creative and capacity of understanding truth. To deny technology is possible is to deny civilization itself.

It’s human nature to improve the environment and it was God that said we are “to take dominion over the earth.”

We aren’t animals that just go out into the environment and find some niche rather we order the Earth and only question is whether actions will based on true principles which the creator put in place or whether we will deny them and attempt deceive ourselves into believing that our action should guided anything other than the truth like the “hedonistic calculus” or other delusions of oligarchism.

The problem is that our society has bought the liberal lie that our self-interest is like everything else based on our sense perceptions rather than knowledge of moral and physically principles. We have denied truth, beauty, and virtue and live by nothing but our passions and vices.

avatar Patrick Deneen June 13, 2009 at 6:23 am


“This is … really bad science. Entropy isn’t a universal law but applies to closed systems in limited sense.”

Last time I checked, the earth is a closed system. Everything you write here might be true (though I doubt it. 99% recovery through recycling? How much energy would that require?). We’d still be generating entropy. I suspect, under your scenario, we’d actually be generating quite a lot – but, as usual, we would engage in bad accounting practices. It’s an epidemic of our age.

I don’t oppose “technology” (e.g., farming) and don’t deny humanity is a technological creature. I oppose technology that is culture-destroying. I explain that in more detail here:

avatar Septeus7 June 18, 2009 at 6:35 am

Last time I checked, the earth is a closed system. Everything you write here might be true (though I doubt it. 99% recovery through recycling? How much energy would that require?).

When did you last check, in the 1880’s with Rudolf Clausius?
The Earth is not a closed system like a bucket of water and heated iron rod that simple distributes heat until it reaches equilibrium.

The Earth has many complex processes which cannot simply characterized as entropic everywhere and the most important being living and human creative processes.

Tell me, Patrick what entropic characteristics does creativity have?

I’m saying that you believe in universal entropy because you don’t understand Plank and Einstein and that “entropy” is essentially a metaphysical equant created by the mathematics used by Ludwig Boltzmann.

The concept of entropy must be considered from the historical development of the idea and when you do that you find that the camp that pushed this same camp as Descartes, Newton, Malthus, Clausius, Kelvin, and Maxwell aka the consistently wrong lackeys of the Oligarchy.

This group was the opponents of Leibniz, Gauss, Reimann, who characterized the universe as negentropic. Leibniz and company are the consistently mocked and have their works burn but are proven correct.

What’s “negentropy” is the obvious increase ordering of nature of various kind of matter. The universal development of the elements is negentropic as we matter go from the simply hydrogen into complex heavier multi-nucleated atoms and we see “negentropy” with the growth of living matter from single cells into human beings.

So in this universe we have processes which are negentropic and some that entropic and so there was a debated as to how characterize the substance of matter universally because the increased influence of the British Empire in the middle 19th century people came to the believe the idea of entropy but later science didn’t agree with Boltzman.

There was a problem with Boltzman and how he had assumed certain random processes were universal in order to create the idea of equilibrium. Entropy is an process reaching an equilibrium where the energy is distributed in perfectly random fashion i.e the heat has flowed from the iron rod into the buck of water and is randomly distributed (i.e. the water is warmer everywhere).

But then came along Max Planck and his experiments with black body radiation and idea of the entropy of an ideal oscillator. But Planck found Boltzman’s assumptions of randomness didn’t work because spectrum of thermal radiation wasn’t organized randomly but harmonically.

Einstein build upon Plank’s work using Riemann’s mathematics to develop quantum theory as the result the classical foundation of Boltzman’s work crumbled entirely and we still haven’t caught all of the implications.

When you start using Einstein you have to start questioning the classical physics that Boltzman was using as ask yourself is entropy the rule here in say nuclear reactions where we breed new fuel as the nuclear reaction?

The answer is no and you begin to understand that idea of universal entropy is result of textbooks teaching everyone from the view point of Newton and just like Rayleigh, Jeans, and Lorentz set Planck’s constant to zero in order to align with classical physics Environmentalist’s keep bringing up entropy as universal characteristic of all living and economic systems.

It is not and so there are no limits to growth as far as the science goes and the only question is what are limits to growth set in place by our culture that believes in nonsense like universal entropy.

The cause of the failure of the world economic system currently was based the mathematical models rooted in the entropic theory in order for the major financing institution “spread the risk” using derivatives because they believe that left unregulated the market would find a equilibrium.

How did that turn out? That’s what happens when you believe in bad science because theirs is no equilibrium and Austrian school was correct in predicting the crash because they don’t believe in equilibrium like the Neo-classical schools do.

So the only question is will we learn from this disaster and so far the answer is no because folk’s are prattling on about “free trade” and hoping for a sudden turn around how we can reform the system. There is no reform of the current system. Either it dies and is replaced or the Zombie corpse will kill us all.

I feel like I’m watching a bad horror movie where the actors keep trying to revive old man Morgan who has become a zombie and is trying eat the brains of everyone in the room. It’s just really sad.

Everything you write here might be true (though I doubt it. 99% recovery through recycling? How much energy would that require?).

99% is possible if you build enough plasma converters and you could even start reclaiming junk in landfills and massive Texas sized island of plastic trash floating the ocean.

Elemental recycling isn’t like traditional recycling you send your trash through a plasmic arc that is I think 30 times hotter than the Sun and it breaks the molecular bonds breaking turning everything into the basic atomic elements and after that you can sort what need for raw materials and fuel.

It is like turning trashing into oil field in term of amount of carbon you can reclaim for plastics and anything else you can use carbon for and that’s not even getting into the hot fusion based plasmas can do.

I’m not exactly sure how much energy it would require globally but I know that for United States we need to raise the per capita electric generation ability from 3.1 killowatts per person to about 5 kilowatts person.

So basically let’s we need to double our electric generation ability into order to the fix the environment and since the United States has enough thorium allow us to generate 10 times our currently electricity usage for the next 1000 years at least I we should not only build 100 LFTRs like McCain wanted but about 1000 LFTRs and we currently only have 100 light water reactors that supply with 20% of our electricity and these old pieces of crap generate not where near as efficient and generate many times the waste that the Gen IV LFTRs produce.

What we currently do with uranium with our Luddite energy policy is like burning the bark off a log and then taking out of the fire and throwing it some Arabs. We take fuel in the form of depleted uranium munitions and shooting it at people to steal their oil.
We have shot more energy at Iraqis in form of DU munitions than we will ever get from their oil fields.

I don’t oppose “technology” (e.g., farming) and don’t deny humanity is a technological creature. I oppose technology that is culture-destroying.

I also oppose culture destroying technology and good example of culture destroying technology is digital systems and automobiles. The automobile has to the dumbest piece of technology of all time.
The problem is that while have access to technology we as society have de-industrialized and as result the culture that comes from production has died and therefore the our society has collapsed morally.

We have entitlement culture because we don’t have the industrial ethic of “if you want it then you have earn it by producing it” and that is the result of 40 years of free trade ideology and de-industrialization.

If you believe that you don’t have to protect your industry because with free trade you can have it all because other people can make it cheaper then you are stupid because your culture is your economy and without a culture of production you wouldn’t be able to produce things of value and thus have trade and therefore free trade reduces trade in the long run.

So we are now making all sort of culture destroying technology but it not because we are so technologically advanced but because we aren’t. We are fakers. We don’t know how to make the technology we use and so we use it to do dumber and dumber things and mystify technology letting it become our master rather we being master’s of it.
That’s what this trans-humanist/neo-eugenics movement is all about. It isn’t techno-optimism it is techno-mystification and show an incompetent understanding of human creativity and its relationship to technology.

The question is how you principle determine if a technology is good or a bad? The answer to have to understanding that technology must derive from anthropomorphic science and art.
If it does not to this then is harm us because if we adopt a technology that then our human character will limited to the degree that we adapt that technology because our power in the universe depends on our human character and if the technology is based a limitation or distortion of that character then our power to existence is ultimately lessen by the technology rather than enhance.

A good example of bad technology is digital modeling for climate science. Why? Because the model is limited to various statistical and linear programming options but most physical geometries in the real world are non-linear with transfinite qualities they cannot be modeled by digital systems because of the analogue i.e. continuous nature of the physical constructions that occur in climate and therefore if you try make a digital model you will have assumptions into your work for which you have no evidence and your model because is require those assumptions in order for it to work can never be questioned.

Leave a Comment

{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: