What’s Wrong with the World

The men signed of the cross of Christ go gaily in the dark.


What’s Wrong with the World is dedicated to the defense of what remains of Christendom, the civilization made by the men of the Cross of Christ. Athwart two hostile Powers we stand: the Jihad and Liberalism...read more

Against the Environment, For Nature

Georgetown Professor Patrick Deneen, objecting to the term "environment", on the grounds that it establishes an untenable dualism of man and the stuff of the physical world, which is then conceptualized as existing as the raw material of utilitarian pursuits, thereby begetting the political dualism according to which one is either for people or for the planet (or some part of it), writes:

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: 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 violent anti-humanism of radical 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, in other words, let's have more Aquinas and less Bacon; more Aristotle and Augustine - even Maximos the Confessor - and less Locke. Let's talk more of the teleologies of persons, places, creatures, and things, and how these interact, and less about our desires and the means by which nature can be compelled and coerced into satisfying them. Man, after all, according to the scriptural telling, was placed in a garden, and instructed to name the creatures - which is to say, called to comprehend their natures and treat them accordingly. That is to say, man was called to cultivate the garden, which entails improving and rendering fit for human habitation, but called to do so as a steward, one who respects and preserves the creaturely integrity of these lesser natures.

All theological language aside, the dichotomy between the virulent misanthropy of some environmentalists and the pave-and-industrialize everything (or at least regard-the-prospect-with-sanguinity) mentality of some conservatives is not merely philosophically dubious, but politically unfeasible, quite apart from the possible (probable) wrongheadedness of certain contemporary environmental policy nostrums. Conservatives could attempt to orient these sensibilities in virtuous directions, or they could yield to inertia, allowing the corporatists and haters of mankind to define the debate.

I'll not be making any wagers. It is not without reason that the conservative persuasion has been deemed the stupid one.

Comments (20)

Who is this conservative thought leader who has taken this "pave everything" perspective? Is he the famous political philosopher Straw Mann?

Man vs. Nature is an age-old theme. It figures largely in myth, literature, and art from the beginning of recorded history. In Genesis, God made the garden, and then He made Man and put him in the midst of the garden; *over* it, not *of* it. That is the classical take on "nature."
Not so very long ago, the operative term with regard to intelligent and responsible human use of, and interaction with, nature, was "conservation." People who took the human task of protecting nature from degradation at human hands were called "conservationists." Conservations gathered much of the information that they used to plan their agendas from "naturalists."
When conservation of nature began clearly losing the battle for the hearts and minds of the members of society, it was decided to start using the terms "environment" and "environmentalism" and "environmentalist", specifically to engender the idea that Man is an integral part of nature, and vice-versa. Consideration of the Merriam-Webster on-line dictionary definition of "environment" immediately shows why this word was chosen for the effort of convincing society that better stewardship of nature was in human self-interest:

Function: noun
Date: 1827
1: the circumstances, objects, or conditions by which one is surrounded
2 a: the complex of physical, chemical, and biotic factors (as climate, soil, and living things) that act upon an organism or an ecological community and ultimately determine its form and survival b: the aggregate of social and cultural conditions that influence the life of an individual or community

In short, by going back to "Man vs. Nature," we would be doing exactly what this guy, Deneen, really wants.

In pointing out that Prof. Deneen is calling for a return to the actual dualism, by denigrating the term originally employed to move public consciousness away from that dualism, it might be germane to call attention to the fact that this man's CV discloses that he was formerly employed as a speechwriter for the head of the USIA. He was, in other words, a professional propagandist.

Actually, his name is not Straw Mann, his name is identical with any conservative - and there are legions of these to be found in the mainstream of conservative thought in America - who deliver their dithyrambs to the prospect of limitless growth, unending expansion, and prospectively infinite prosperity, coupled with a naive faith that scarcity and finitude will never outmatch human ingenuity (something will always turn up, so we need never contemplate alterations in our modes of living). They are the conservatives who are more interested in conserving those prospects of growth, and the lifestyles they underpin, than the natural world and its many wonders: the sort of conservatives who cringe at the mere suggestion of restrictions upon development and growth, ie., at the intimation that suburban sprawl ought not metasticize over ever-expanding swathes of the countryside.

In other words, this conservative is both instantiated throughout the conservative universe generally, and subsists as a composite type comprised of characteristics found among certain classes of conservative.

Rodak, I'm uncertain as to what you're driving at. The classical conception of the relationship of man and nature than Deneen wishes to revive held that the sense in which man was placed 'over' nature referred to his rational nature, the highest employment of which was discernment of the teleologies of created things, their divine reasons, to the end of contemplating them as analogies of divine things. Pragmatic uses of the natural realm were held to be conditioned by, and subordinate to, these natural ends. The conception of this relationship that most now regard as the classical one, that of the duality, according to which nature is the dialectical other of humanity, existing to furnish man with the material of satisfying his bodily desires and ameliorating his estate, quite apart from the teleologies of either, arises with the senescence of Scholasticism and the emergence of proto-modern philosophers such as Bacon. The Renaissance was pluriform and replete with contradictory tendencies; however, by the time the Seventeenth Century dawned, the modern dualism was firmly established.

The differentiating factor is simply the question of teleology: Granted that man is placed 'over' nature, even as he is conditioned by, and dependent upon it, is man obligated to honour, or even capable of discerning, the innate purposiveness of created things, or does the natural realm only acquire significance insofar as it is related, by acts of will, to human desires?

Deneen's use of the concept of 'nature' is essentially that of the original import of 'environment', made necessary by the degradation that term has suffered at the hands of both antihumanists and economic sophisters.

The United States Information Agency? I'm not grasping the connection, though this may have something to do with a lack of sleep.

Deneen's work is consistent on this count; he opposes the destructive binary opposition of humanity and the natural world, and is seeking a means of breaking the terminological and political impasse, in which even the term 'environment' has been assimilated to the dualistic view of things.

I sense that a particular evaluation of the Christian tradition lies back of this argument - to which I can only state that familiarity with the ancient Fathers and the medievals should dispel this notion. The contemporary Christian affirmation of the human half of the binary is really the product of the modern age, of the fact that Protestant Christianity grew up with modernity, and that even Catholicism subsequent to the Reformation was influenced, to a degree, by these philosophical tendencies, and of distinctly modern understandings of self, agency, and human nature.

Apparently I didn't express myself well. My point was that the struggle of frail man to survive the overwhelming forces of brute *nature* (Jack London's 'To Build a Fire" comes to mind) has been the human theme. Nature has been the enemy that, even though Man is dependent on her "gifts," also offers up plague, drought, blizzard, earthquake, flood, etc. I don't think that "nature" conjures up nice, philosophical thoughts about the teleologies of created things. As we discussed before, if the wolves are bad for business, get rid of the wolves--even though the wolves are where they belong, and the cows are not--is expressive of the majority opinion on "nature." Most folks don't give a fig for wolf teleology if it's going to adversely affect the price of a Big Mac.
As for Prof. Deneen, we know how fond are government bureaucrats such as those Deneen once served of buzz-words to be used in campaigns to sway public opinion. That is how we moved away from "nature" and toward "environment" in the first place. Reversing that by vilifying "environmentalists" won't, imo, accomplish what is desired. If "environment" has become degraded, a third term should be deployed; but not "nature."

Maximos, all you did was grow more straw men. I think it is easy to parody a point of view when that point of view is one that no one really has -- or if someone does, you don't divulge it so that it is impossible to defend the group being slandered via vague generality by placing it in the context of a school of thought or by demonstrating that the offending person is an outlier.

Or perhaps you are even right -- maybe there really is a legion of conservatives who deliver "dithyrambs to the prospect of limitless growth, unending expansion, and prospectively infinite prosperity, coupled with a naive faith that scarcity and finitude will never outmatch human ingenuity." When I consider that formulation I imagine you are referring to the late Julian Simon -- is it he and those in his "school" we are talking about here?

As far as I can see, the only reason to mention Deneen's service with the USIA would be to insinuate that because he once worked for a government agency - and government agencies often disseminate propaganda and mutilate the language - he must not be entirely sincere in arguing now for the use of the term 'nature' as a replacement for the term 'environment'. Seems like an instance of argumentum ad hominem to me.

Ironically, the notion of merciless nature, nature red in tooth and claw, while it has survived in various forms down to the present time, was more or less temporally coextensive with a mode of human interaction with nature that could not but respect the natural teleologies of created things, inasmuch as humanity lacked the technological means - in the majority of instances - of doing otherwise. Mankind, in the main, was compelled to ward off 'nature red in tooth and claw' by cooperating with other aspects of nature; the beneficent purposes of nature were wielded against the indifferent or hostile forces of nature. With the advent of the techniques of modern science, however, mankind developed the capacity to disregard those natural purposes, usually only in degree, but sometimes absolutely. Concomitantly, a new societal myth began to displace that of the hostile nature from whom one had to wrest a bare subsistence: science as salvation, through the mastery of nature that it makes possible. This myth is merely one aspect of the general utilitarian approach to the natural world; we are no longer subject - or perhaps significantly less subject - to the vicissitudes of nature because we have become her master, and have disciplined her away from some of her natural ends.

I submit that this more modern mythology is one potent reason for the morbid and obsessive fascination we have with natural disasters, inclusive of all of those portents of apocalypse that some attribute to climate change. We believe that we either possess the capacity to control or compensate for all of these things, or could acquire that capacity had we only sufficient resolve to do so, where the want of that volition is regarded as a moral failing. We believe that we can sustain agribusiness in relatively arid regions of the continent; we believe that we can construct cities below sea level on a coast subject to hurricanes; we believe that we can extend suburbia into desert scrubland subject to frequent brush fires; and we believe that we can actually alter the climate, if only we will to do, or undo, certain things. And the hysterical media coverage of these natural phenomena owes to our frankly religious sense that we should be able to avert all of these disasters, and that because they have befallen us, we have fallen short of the ideal of mastery somehow. We have sinned against the promises of science and technology.

Most people won't care one whit about some aspects of nature if doing so will impinge upon their nonnegotiable lifestyles; our illusion of mastery feeds this sensibility by enabling us to believe that when we wish to be rid of some natural phenomenon, we can control it, eradicate it, or shunt it aside. Nature red in tooth and claw was the nature you couldn't overcome, which would demonstrate no compassion, and struck only the meanest bargains. This is not the nature of which we believe we can dispose. That nature is modern, utilitarian, stuff-of-personal-fulfillment nature, which possesses value only insofar as we impute value to it as an act of personal or collective will, or can monetize that value in the market (which is often more or less the same thing).

It may well be the case that the proposed substitution of 'nature' for 'environment' will be unavailing; it seems unlikely that people who assimilated the latter term to the dualism will somehow awaken to the philosophical subtleties of the former term. But to argue thusly is distinct from the argument that all of this is interested, propagandistic wordplay.

I'm not buying the premise that "environment" is, or ever was, expressive of dualism. Conversely, I think that it was a move away from dualism that attempted create the mind-set of humanity "at home" in nature, as opposed to humanity huddled within shelters constructed as protection *against* nature; man inside, nature outside. This is why I think the proposal may be conscious Orwellian propaganda.
It is true that we now tend to think that in the war against nature-red-in-tooth-and-claw we think that Big Mo has turned in our direction; that we have a chance of "winning." We tend to see global warming as the Achilles Heel that may yet bring us down, just as we were about to storm the citadel of Nature's last stronghold--physical death. Man has ever been the Hubristic Animal.
But, changing what we call things, in order to change how things are perceived, and ultimately, to change behavior with reference to those things, is Orwellian, regardless of whether it's done for good reasons, or bad.
As for my suspicions about Prof. Deneen's motives, as based on his past associations, well, call me a conspiracy theorist; but I'd like to see his phone log before I relinquish my paranoia in that regard. I'd also like to know if he holds any current federal grants.

More straw men? I hardly think so. Yes, I do have in mind Julian Simon's futurist optimism, a tendency most obvious nowadays in the "dynamism" of Virginia Postrel. And no, I don't think Simon any sort of outlier, at least not in any relevant sense of the term. His understanding of the potentialities of science and technology as forces of liberation and mastery was merely a more focused expression of the general conservative/libertarian faith in the efficacy of human action in free markets and free societies: the interests of ingenious entrepreneurs and the clarity of market signals, in the absence of political 'interference', will ensure smooth substitutions of new technologies for old, and hence, actual conservation measures are largely superfluous. When any resource becomes too costly, substitutes will be developed, because, well, because they simply must. And, of course, we are becoming progressively more efficient in our use of resources, as well. All manner of ordinary conservatives articulate variants of this argument, though this has begun to change of late, as conservatives begin to reckon with the sort of regimes and movements that petrodollars and the American way of life sustain abroad.

In that sense, then, conservation might be acceptable if it enables us to fight "Islamofascism", but is never acceptable as a means of sustaining a certain type of community, for example, or limiting the rate at which finite resources are exhausted, or simply inculcating a societal resistance to crapulence and indulgence. Generally speaking, however, conservatives are not counseling the enactment of higher CAFE standards, for example, and spend the time they do devote to the subject of efficiency debunking the claims made for various types of vehicles favoured by alleged-non-conservatives. After all, such regulations only impose unconscionable limitations upon consumer choice.

Similarly, most conservatives tend to look askance at land preservation measures, as in Thomas Sowell's comments in this piece concerning the effects of such legislation. Yes, such measures tend to increase the prices of housing, but their absence tends to transform entire regions into vast expanses of sprawl. My object is not to defend the particulars of each urban growth boundary, or each land use or zoning ordinance; rather, it is merely to observe that the individual good of getting the sort of property one wants, or of being able to sell one's land to a developer at a premium, so that one need never again work, is not identical with, the common good of there obtaining a well-balanced pattern of development with a diversity of uses and livelihoods, such that communities can be self-governing. Neither is the latter good reducible to the former. Yet, in most instances, mainstream conservatives will decry any regulations of this type, however well conceived and intended, that aim at a common good as instances of nanny-state intervention, interference with market forces, or as simply unAmerican.

And then there was Jonah Goldberg's misguided attempt to conflate Rod Dreher's crunchy conservatism, itself a sort of lighter paleoconservatism with a conservationist, localist bent, with the bohemian lifestyle leftism of David Brooks' bobos. None of the writers whose work could be adduced in this connection is sui generis; rather, common tendencies unify them, forming an associative pattern: consumer choice and growth are trumps for the common good and conservation, with the trump function itself explicated in terms of the operations of market relations. The particularity of any given thinker's arguments does not minimize these general tendencies; most frequently, they simply exemplify those tendencies. When a conservative argues against tighter efficiency standards on grounds of the interference with consumer preferences, or, analogously, against restrictions on sprawl, he just is arguing in favour of the growth trump.

The term 'environment' may not be expressive of dualism, but it can be argued that it has been assimilated to dualism. The antihumanism of the ELF demonstrates as much. Moreover, in pre-modern philosophical usage, the term 'nature' does not connote that same dualism, but carries nuances that modern thought has effaced. If Deneen were at all interested in perpetuating this dualism by means of the substitution of 'nature' for 'environment', his efforts would be superfluous, as the latter term already has come to exercise that function. I don't consider it Orwellian to attempt to redirect people to the objective referents of the language we employ, especially when certain elements of the language have become debased, their meanings rendered opaque by the gradual accumulation of errors and misunderstandings.

"I don't consider it Orwellian to attempt to redirect people to the objective referents of the language we employ, especially when certain elements of the language have become debased..."

Understand that I don't disagree with your fundamental argument, in the least.
That said, any attempt to jettison "environment" in favor of "nature" for *political* purposes, e.g. as part of a TV PSA campaign, would entail Orwellian motives. If the result would be to cause a significant percentage of the population to develop certain desired, attitudes based on a consciously designed, novel-to-the-public definition of "nature," so that they might be persuaded to be inconvenienced by certain necessary regulations, or to vote for certain politicians, this would be Orwellian. I point out that such a campaign would appeal to the *emotions* of non-intellectuals. The folks you run with may be interested in "the objective referents of language, but Joe Lunchbox is not; he responds, if at all, to Smokey the Bear.
All of that said, I think it would be wiser in the long run to rehabilitate the concept of environment, with an emphasis on placing man within his veritable ecological context, than to return to the concept of nature with its built-in dualistic referents.
Paranoid as I am these days, I fear a subtextual, shadow agenda to be connected to this proposed return to nature, designed ultimately to sell the very opposite of that which it overtly seems to be pitching.

By those standards, which strike me as being somewhat hyperbolic, both sides in the present controversy over environmental policy are engaged in Orwellian endeavours. A loosely-defined 'right' appeals to the emotions of its segment of the populace by threatening people with the deprivation of their lifestyle accoutrements and the return of socialism (corporatism is the real threat, BTW, and any 'socialist' policies will be the cost of buying legitimacy, as with the increasing support of major American corporations for collective health-care solutions), while a similarly-defined 'left' terrifies its segment of the electorate with threats of the apocalypse. Both factions are appealing less to the rational faculties of their audiences than to their respective guts, their reptile brains, almost; both factions are selective in their appropriations of, and appeals to, the facts; and both factions massage those facts they actually admit. The entire purpose of these campaigns is to produce and sustain desired attitudes in the audience.

In other words, this is all consonant with the type of public discourse one can expect in open, democratic societies.

Deneen, a scholar who promotes the work of Wendell Berry, is hardly a deep-cover operative. On the other hand, the public-relations campaigns of some notable multinationals would seem to fall into the category of promoting the opposite of the overt pitch. BP, anyone?

"The entire purpose of these campaigns is to produce and sustain desired attitudes in the audience."

True. No argument there. But the situation is really only "Orwellian" where we have the powerful few manipulating the many, so as to promote the selfish interests of the few.
If you have an intellectual elite on the left attempting to manipulate the Great Unwashed in the ultimate best interest of that many, you have the left elite acting responsibly. Since the resulting sacrifices would be shared by the members of that leftist elite, if they were to have success, it is difficult to discern a motive for a deliberate disinformation campaign from that direction. The right would accuse them of being mad for power; that is obvious projection.

Ah, there's the rub. I am constitutionally incapable of believing that any of the elites are prepared to participate in meaningful actions of shared sacrifice, as opposed to merely intoning unctiously about the same. Essentially, the elites will do little more than make recourse to those secular indulgences, carbon credits and offsets - for which profitable little submarkets exist - which ordinary folks cannot afford, leaving the latter to bear all of the burden of genuine lifestyle sacrifices. It is a fashionable little hypocrisy which meshes seamlessly with the economic averaging downward of the living standards of the American middle class under globalization.

Well, that depends on whom you classify as a typical of the left elite. To the extent that you choose an Al Gore to exemplify the elite left, you probably have a point. But I would venture to say that the most typical leftist in our society is an academic. He/she makes a comfortable, upper-middle-class living, but is not rich. If he is employed at a state-funded institution in a rustbelt state, he is already being adversely affected by the loss of tax revenues due to globalization that is occurring in his state. But he sticks to his message.
That said, a true message delivered by a hypocrite--Al Gore, if you will--remains a true message. A false message delivered by anyone was never anything else. I'll take the former.
Before we even go there, I don't buy the argument that the so-called "Mainstream Media"--a term which has long-since lost its original meaning--is even flagrantly liberal, much less of the left. We don't get into leftwing territory until we start contemplating The Nation. The denizens of Hollywood, despite being easy targets of the right, are not all on the left, and, in any case, are too few and too bizarre to have much real effect on the national discoure. Again, the bulk of leftist thinking in this country comes from academia, and from folk who, by and large, live pretty normal, middle-class lives, and are affected by economic trends accordingly.

I am of the opinion that the media are a reflection of the consensus politics of the American political and economic establishment; the spectrum of viewpoints found within that establishment is replicated in the media, while those viewpoints falling outside that spectrum tend - only tend, as the exclusion is never absolute - to be marginalized as manifest fringe options.

Your point regarding the locus of genuine leftist sentiment is well-taken, though the grubby political reality is that any environmental measures actually enacted will have the character of those secular indulgences - sacrifice for the masses, moral unction for the elites - simply because this is the nature of the political establishment itself. Money and power enact their favoured policies; idealism (in the positive sense of the term) goes home to pound sand. Measures implemented to mitigate, or at least sensitize the populace to the threat of, global warming (of the threat of which I, myself, am not persuaded - my reasons for favouring conservation originate in the finite nature of resources and the unstable path dependencies we have established) will be enacted if and when the political and economic establishments can afford to do so, or devise means of structuring them so as to secure their own interests and ongoing policies and practices. Until that cynical problem can be finessed at the legal and regulatory levels, and the requisite financial protections incorporated, nothing will happen. Nothing.

"Money and power enact their favoured policies; idealism (in the positive sense of the term) goes home to pound sand."

Ouch! How painfully true that is!

"Deneen, a scholar who promotes the work of Wendell Berry, is hardly a deep-cover operative."

We'll see. I have a call in to Richard Armitage. Stay tuned.

I recommend to everyone the discussion of this topic in the November issue of Chronicles, particularly the article "The High Environmental Cost of Too Much Freedom" by Tobias Lanz.

"haters of mankind"

Where in the quoted article does the author state he hates mankind?

Post a comment

Bold Italic Underline Quote

Note: In order to limit duplicate comments, please submit a comment only once. A comment may take a few minutes to appear beneath the article.

Although this site does not actively hold comments for moderation, some comments are automatically held by the blog system. For best results, limit the number of links (including links in your signature line to your own website) to under 3 per comment as all comments with a large number of links will be automatically held. If your comment is held for any reason, please be patient and an author or administrator will approve it. Do not resubmit the same comment as subsequent submissions of the same comment will be held as well.