Thursday, October 18, 2012

The False Dichotomy of Environmentalism

(Cross-posted at

It is fashionable in certain circles to assert that Republicans (and those on the politically conservative or libertarian end of the scale) want dirty air and water, want to see endangered species eradicated, and want to see coastal cities flooded by melting ice caps, whereas liberals and Democrats want the opposite. The truth is, as one might expect, somewhat more nuanced than that.

The truth about environmentalism is that it isn't an all-or-nothing prospect. It’s not correct to say that one either is or is not “an environmentalist”. Environmentalism is a spectrum, wherein the interests of climate, other species, pollution reduction, etc. are weighed against the human interests of economics, land ownership rights, costs of regulation, etc. Everyone falls somewhere on a spectrum in this sense, and where one falls on the spectrum on one aspect of environmentalism need not necessarily dictate where they fall on the spectrum on another issue. It is, for example, perfectly possible to support the conservation of endangered species much more than one supports the reduction or abolition of the use of fossil fuels.

We might, for example, place Earth First! or the Earth Liberation Front on one end of the spectrum, and Hoggish Greedly and Dr. Blight (villains from the old “Captain Planet” cartoon series) at the other end of the spectrum. Why is one end of the spectrum represented by fictional characters? Because no one actually actively wants to have dirty air and water, cause the extinction of species for the sake of doing so, and actively encourage climate change to create a new coastline.

For Pagans and Heathens, of course, this question is central, as Paganism is often characterized as an “Earth religion” or “nature-based religion”. But Pagans are no less universally on one end or the other of the environmental spectrum than anyone else. Pagans own land, have jobs, and own businesses the same as anyone else does, and thus they can have more nuanced opinions on various environmentalist issues than simply “ban the internal combustion engine, zoos equal slavery, and give lizards the same rights as humans”.

For Pagans, the issues are much the same as they are for anyone else. There is inevitably a trade-off involved on any question regarding environmentalism. Nobody likes having polluted air; but we make a decision as to whether it’s worth paying thousands of dollars of infrastructure costs to give a house solar power, vs. using the conventional electricity grid that’s powered by coal and oil and which is still cheaper on a per-kWh basis. We make a decision as to whether it’s worth forcing people to lose tens of thousands (or even more) dollars on land they purchased, which the EPA declares undevelopable because some endangered animal or plant lives on it. We make a decision when we end thousands of coal-mining jobs in the name of reducing carbon emissions.

The latter is, of course, a much easier decision to make when it’s someone else’s land, and someone else’s tens of thousands of dollars. Imagine how you would feel if the government told you that your pension or 401k would be penalized $30,000 because the government decided it was invested in "unacceptable" (for whatever reason) stocks or funds.

Some people make decisions based on the principle of the sovereignty of land ownership; that doesn't make them wrong. It just means they move the notch on the environmentalism spectrum a little farther than someone who thinks that the rights of the spotted owl trump those of loggers who need jobs to feed their families. Neither is objectively “right” or “wrong”. They each have different perspectives, and judge human needs vs. those of animals or plants, differently.

This argument doesn't bring into account those for whom environmentalism is a cover. Like it or not, there really are people who inherently don’t like business or capitalism in general, and who use environmental arguments to mask their real agenda. They really couldn't care less about snail darters, sulfur outputs, and the like. They are interested in destroying capitalism, and see environmentalism as a useful tool to advance their real agenda. To their mind, carbon monoxide isn’t the problem; British Petroleum is, and if they can exploit the one to harm the other, they will do so. The present argument cannot include such people because it is aimed at those for whom the issue of animal rights and pollution vs. the rights of economic output and land rights in general is a principled stand, rather than being a blind for something else.

Within Paganism, the question becomes, at what point is honoring Nature excessive? Does the Goddess endorse the ultra-radical Voluntary Human Extinction Movement? I would argue no, because to do so would be to destroy something that is, ultimately, itself the product of nature; the human species. Is a concrete dam really that different from a beaver’s dam, except in scale (and thereby, impact)?

Conceptually, both humans and non-human animals impact their environment all the time. If, as many pagans suggest, humans should view themselves as an integral part of nature, connected with all living things, why then should we excise our technology from that equation? Would bees be “more natural” if they didn't create hives? Are corals somehow “interfering with nature” when they create reefs? Of course not, and neither should humans be judged to be “unnatural” for creating houses, gasoline, and iPods.

This is not to say that unbridled human consumption of resources is desirable. At some point, everyone realizes that the needle needs to be nudged on the scale of environmentalism. Even the most die-hard industrialist doesn't actively want dirty air and water, and to say differently is to engage in hyperbole of the worst and most disingenuous sort. He needs to breathe and drink the same as anyone. The only place we differ is where on the scale we place the needle. Animal rights vs. human rights. Jobs needed to feed families vs. global pollution levels. Surely the Gods love people as much as they do the rest of Their creations.

As Pagans, we don’t share the Christian concept of humanity as the “steward” of nature; for one thing, we lack the differentiation of humanity and nature. We are not “God’s chosen”; we are part of an intricate web of nature and natural creations. Part of that web includes our predilection for expansion, growth, and the alteration of our environment to suit our needs. No one disputes that a balance is needed. Where we differ, and where the conversation must begin, is where that balance needs to be set. We are all the Gods’ creatures; beavers in their dams and humans in their cities. We should be able to use our unique quality of self-reflection to realize just where our enlightened self-interest lies, both individually and collectively. And, within that, where the interests of the individual conflict with those of the collective.

Remember that the next time you disagree with someone on some environmental issue. They’re not a monster bent on turning the surface of the Earth into a carbon monoxide-laden wasteland. They just have the needle on their environmentalist dial set a little differently than you do. We’re all the Gods’ creatures.

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