September 2007 -- Every culture and its institutions are the living embodiments of certain fundamental ideas about man and his place in the universe.
These basic premises posit answers to questions about life and its meaning, helping us to integrate our understanding of the world. They also offer a foundation for our values and personal motivation. When widely shared, they create the intellectual and spiritual foundations for a whole culture.
At its birth, America’s basic premises were part and parcel of the glowing historical period known as “the Enlightenment.” It was an era from whose core radiated an exalted vision of man and of his power to explore and shape his environment.
Historian Henry Steele Commager wonderfully captured the spiritual atmosphere of the Enlightenment in his book The Empire of Reason. Men such as Franklin and Jefferson, he wrote, had “a prodigality about them; they recognized no bounds to their curiosity, no barriers to their thought, no limits to their activities . . .” Commager cited “their confidence in Reason, their curiosity about the secular world and—with most of them—their indifference to any other, their addiction to Science—if useful—their habit of experimentation, and their confidence in improvement...” Heroic achievers, these men “exalted Reason and worshipped at the altar of Liberty.”
Exaltation, worship. These aren’t words typically used to describe men whose concerns were so worldly. But motivating their practicality was a spiritual quest for human progress. “The pursuit of happiness,” to Jefferson and his contemporaries, was not the chasing of idle pleasures, but a mission to make life better, through the exercise of reason.
America was the triumph of the Enlightenment. Once people were encouraged morally to employ their minds in the pursuit of personal values, and once they were free politically to do so, a torrent of human ingenuity and energy was unleashed, curing hunger, disease, poverty, and ignorance on an unprecedented scale.
Capitalism—the social system based on the values of reason, individualism, and liberty—produced the greatest material abundance the world had ever known. And not only in America: Every country and culture that adopted Enlightenment premises progressed dramatically, while every society mired in the pre-Enlightenment muck of mysticism and collectivism continued to stagnate and suffer.
It would seem that this demonstration of the extraordinary practical benefits of reason, individualism, liberty, and capitalism should have been enough to convince the whole world—certainly, its intellectuals and leaders—of their unarguable merits. Yet today, Enlightenment ideas that have brought the world so much good are considered suspect, if not evil. And not only the ideas themselves, but the agent whose rational faculty generated them.
Man is no longer praised as a heroic conqueror of nature’s obstacles or even accepted as just another part of the natural world. More and more, he’s seen as an interloper—as an alien presence on the planet—even as the planet’s enemy. His creative works no longer are regarded as triumphs of the human spirit, but as acts of desecration that alienate him from the natural order. His cities are viewed not as monuments to human progress, but as symbols of natural destruction. His science is regarded not as a source of human hope, but as a menace to all that exists.
“[H]ave our eyes adjusted so completely to the bright lights of civilization that we can’t see . . . the violent collision between human civilization and the earth?”
The writer is Al Gore, and he continued in this vein throughout his bestselling environmentalist manifesto Earth in the Balance. “. . . [W]e are threatening to push the earth out of balance…,” he warned. “Modern industrial civilization, as presently organized, is colliding violently with our planet’s ecological system. The ferocity of its assault on the earth is breathtaking, and the horrific consequences are occurring so quickly as to defy our capacity to recognize them . . . and organize an appropriate and timely response.”
These are lessons that we in the individualist tradition must teach the world—if human life on earth is to continue and flourish.
Within just a few short decades, this malignant view of man and his works has supplanted the optimistic outlook of our Enlightenment ancestors and has come to dominate modern American culture. By 1997, a poll in American Demographics would reveal that strong majorities of Americans agreed that “nature is sacred”; that “ecological sustainability” should be an important social goal; and that “voluntary simplicity” ought to be a private behavioral model.
Today, environmentalist premises are woven throughout our fabric of regulatory law; environmentalist scare propaganda permeates school curricula; environmentalist groups are courted by most political candidates; and environmentalist themes permeate popular songs, TV shows, movies, even children’s cartoons.
I don’t intend to revisit here the familiar refutations of core scientific and factual claims made by prominent environmentalists like Al Gore. Instead, I aim to ask: Why has environmentalism succeeded in the marketplace of ideas despite its many fallacies? Why have the many fine books and studies refuting environmentalist claims failed to make a noticeable dent on public opinion?
Likewise, why have Enlightenment premises failed to retain broad public allegiance, despite their seminal influence on American culture and their proven benefits to us all? Why is a worldview openly hostile to human progress on earth winning converts away from a worldview that champions human life, well-being, and happiness?
One plausible reason is that, powerful and fruitful as it was, the American Enlightenment worldview was vulnerable to philosophic attack and dismissal.
First, the Enlightenment worldview lacked a solid epistemology—that is, a theoretical validation of reason and human knowledge. The rational grounding of the Enlightenment project was simply taken for granted by the leaders of the period, who, as practical men, were eager to get on with practical issues of daily living. But as a result, Enlightenment spokesmen couldn’t answer important technical attacks on the validity of reason itself—and hence, the rationality of their theories. What they thought was a worldview rooted firmly in reason and natural law actually stood in quicksand.
Second, the Enlightenment worldview lacked a morality consonant with its individualist politics. Tacitly (and often explicitly) accepting the conventional, Judeo-Christian ethic, Enlightenment spokesmen couldn’t answer charges that their social system, based on private property and the profit motive, encouraged “greed” and “selfishness.” This made their political system seem amoral at best, immoral at worst—hardly a cause to command the allegiance of conventional “idealists.”
But neither of those facts fully explains why the Enlightenment outlook couldn’t win a direct popularity contest against the emerging anti-Enlightenment worldview of environmentalism, which has even greater weaknesses and contradictions.
What, then, is so compelling about the environmentalist outlook? What do environmentalists have going for them that our Enlightenment ancestors did not?
Put succinctly, environmentalism is successfully filling a spiritual void in modern life—and it has done so by building upon ancient themes drawn from the West’s earliest and most primitive myths. Environmentalism has a clear-cut spiritual ideal, rooted deep in Western cultural history—an ideal completely contrary to the core premises of the Enlightenment.
The source of that ideal can be inferred from an early passage in A Fierce Green Fire, a book about the environmentalist movement written by a former New York Times reporter Philip Shabecoff:
Note first the moral language used to describe the New World. It was “unspoiled,” a place of “great beauty,” a source of “wonder.” Then note the description of human use of that land. The words employed are “sullied, disfigured, and degraded.” Shabecoff describes the pioneers’ use of natural resources in terms that conjure images of the rape of some innocent virgin.
But what allows him to count automatically on our sympathy with his moral perspective? Why can he smugly, safely assume that we’ll agree that the opening of a continent constituted a crime against nature?
His allusion to Prometheus gives us a clue. Prometheus was a Titan of Greek mythology endowed by the goddess Athena with great wisdom. But Prometheus decided to share this godly knowledge with human beings. He taught men language and arithmetic, how to walk upright, till the soil, sail the oceans, domesticate animals. And he brought them the fire of the gods—a tool by which men could transform Nature for their own benefit.
In giving to men the knowledge of the gods, Prometheus enraged Zeus, who chained him to a rock for a thousand years. And Zeus punished man by sending him the first mortal woman, Pandora, bearing a box which he forbade her to open. But moved by curiosity, she opened it anyway, and unleashed on man its contents: all the evils of the world.
To the ancient Greeks, the worst sin—the sin of Prometheus and Pandora—was hubris: unlimited desire, the refusal to restrain oneself, the urge to arrogate oneself above others, the attempt to be godlike. The Greeks feared especially man’s unlimited quest for knowledge, believing that it upset the natural order and brought nothing but trouble.
What was the source of this fear? We can speculate. For one thing, at the dawn of civilization, social cooperation was a necessity for human survival. Individuals who went their own way or who sought power over others threatened to undermine the social cohesion that made life possible. For another thing, emotions are mysterious and sometimes disruptive forces in human life. Curbing the desires and ambitions of unruly individuals, then, seemed to be the only path to social stability.
For the Greeks, individual hubris had to be suppressed by recognizing something “greater than oneself,” by acquiring a sense of humility before the gods or some “higher” good, such as one’s tribe. Man’s proper path lay in self-restraint—in the practice of virtues such as moderation, prudence, wisdom, and temperance.
The importance of humility and of steering a moderate course is a theme repeated again and again in classical myth. Phaeton, who insists on driving his father’s chariot to bear the sun across the sky, fails to stay on the middle course through the heavens. Out of control, he sets the world on fire and perishes. Similarly, Icarus fails to heed his father’s admonition not to fly too high. Trying to reach the heavens on wax wings, the lad flies too close to the sun; the wings melt; and he falls to his doom into the sea.
The fear of unrestrained human desires—especially of the boundless thirst for knowledge—is equally evident in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The “original sin” of man was his eating of the Tree of Knowledge in order to become like God. For that, man is cast out of the paradise of Eden. Later in Genesis, when men try to build a tower that can reach heaven, God says that “now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.” So, to punish men for their unrestrained imagination and ambition, God scatters them across the earth and confuses their languages.
To this body of premises, the Judeo-Christian tradition added another: what might be called the pastoral ideal, symbolized by the Garden of Eden. In the mythical Garden, Adam and Eve lived among the flora and fauna in climate-controlled comfort, without fear or want. Having no needs, they had no goals; and having no goals, not a single fugitive thought ever fled the stagnant tranquility of their empty skulls.
This, Genesis tells us, was perfection.
By contrast, the symbol of evil was the serpent, who told Eve, in effect, to get a life. When the two witless, purposeless humans finally mustered enough courage and ambition to seek knowledge, they were told that they had committed the Original Sin: they had refused to accept externally imposed limits on their personal growth and to abide by a command to remain in passivity and ignorance. So, as punishment, they were kicked out of the perfect garden and consigned to a terrible fate: Now, they would have to explore the rest of the world, define personal goals, work to achieve them, and populate the earth by making love.
This, Genesis tells us, was punishment for sin.
Now, consider the basic premises about man and his world that these ancient morality tales have transmitted across the centuries—premises communicated in stories, songs, images, icons, art, and eventually, scholarly works—premises that have shaped the thinking and lives of billions of people:
Everything in nature exists in harmonious balance and perfect order. Man’s task is to find a humble niche within this benign, bountiful paradise, where he can exist simply and non-intrusively.
However, human desire—especially the desire to improve oneself by gaining knowledge—represents a constant peril to this pastoral ideal. Man’s exercise of his intelligence and ambition disturb the tranquility and destroy the harmony of the pristine natural order.
To prevent such chaos, man’s evil appetites and capacities must be suppressed. That’s the task of morality. Moral virtues consist of constraints: humility, obedience, self-suppression, moderation, sacrifice of self to a higher good. By limiting man’s disruptive ambitions, morality will maintain the balance, harmony, and order of nature.
All this has become an indelible part of the Western philosophical heritage.
And that’s the heritage that Philip Shabecoff trusted his readers to share when he denounced the European conquest of the New World.
That’s the heritage Al Gore counted on his readers to share when he denounced the “violent collision between human civilization and the earth.”
In fact, that’s the spiritual foundation upon which the entire environmentalist movement has been built.
It should be clearer now why environmentalism had a competitive advantage over the Enlightenment worldview in the marketplace of ideas. Environmentalism was swimming with the tide of the Western moral tradition, while the Enlightenment was swimming against it.
Environmentalist arguments are rooted as much in a sense of aesthetics as in any theory of morality.
Nature abhors a vacuum, and society abhors a spiritual vacuum. Environmentalism took root during a time of modern spiritual poverty, a time when both the religious, pre-Enlightenment worldview and the secular Enlightenment worldviews were in deep trouble.
As Renaissance men awoke to the modern scientific era, the moral claims of religion began to lose their grip. For a time, the tide of influence began to turn toward reason. The Enlightenment was the culmination of that great shift.
But with the weakening of traditional morality, the quest for knowledge seemed less and less constrained. As philosopher Alston Chase puts it in his magnificent history of environmentalism, In a Dark Wood: “The possibility of excess, of hubris, loomed larger . . . The Renaissance, in awakening the human mind and conceiving the possibility of finding truth without God, had found Pandora’s box.”
This prospect terrified and angered many intellectuals and led them to turn their sights against the Enlightenment.
As Chase notes, the image of Faust, the alchemist who sold his soul for knowledge and power, “came to symbolize this darker side of the Enlightenment.” And Faust was just an early marcher in the postmodern literary parade. For example, in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (subtitled The Modern Prometheus), a brilliant but amoral scientist tries to imitate God and create life—but creates instead a monster that eventually destroys him. Frankenstein’s monster was to become a dark metaphor for the Enlightenment thirst for knowledge, and it launched a new literary sub-genre that flourishes to this day: the tale of the “mad scientist,” whose madness invariably consists of a proud curiosity unshackled by morality.
Other writers attacked not only the Enlightenment, but human civilization as such. Novelist D. H. Lawrence, an early convert to the theories of ecology, gave his novel The Rainbow this misanthropic ending:
While novelists dramatized the horrors or spiritual emptiness spawned by Enlightenment hubris, philosophers tried to stifle its source. Immanuel Kant, for example, took on the mission of putting human reason back into a moral straitjacket. In a preface to his Critique of Pure Reason, he wrote: “I have found it necessary to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith.”
By the twentieth century, the Enlightenment legacy was battered and bleeding. Postmodern critics, such as the Nazi philosopher Martin Heidegger, complained that “technological domination spreads itself over the earth ever more quickly, ruthlessly, and completely . . . The humanness of man and the thingness of things dissolve into the calculated market value of a market which…spans the earth.” Philosopher George Sessions, a leading “deep ecology” theorist, praised the Nazi’s contributions to environmentalism’s critique of Western technological society.
But the attack on the Enlightenment was eventually coupled with another goal, drawn from Judeo-Christian morality: to restore the ancient ideal of Eden and to make it a living reality.
Some thinkers lent the reputation of science to this crusade. In 1864 naturalist George Perkins Marsh wrote Man and Nature, widely viewed as the seminal work of modern environmentalism. Without human influence, Marsh argued, nature is basically stable and in balance. “But man is everywhere a disturbing agent. Wherever he plants his foot, the harmonies of nature are turned to discord.”
Few noticed or cared that his thesis was little more than the myth of Eve and Pandora, adorned in scientific fig leaves. But Marsh’s work was hugely influential. It deeply affected Franklin Hough, who successfully lobbied Congress to establish the U.S. Forest Service. It also left its mark on Gifford Pinchot, head of the Forest Service under Theodore Roosevelt, who went on to vastly increase federal landholdings.
Building on the ideas of Hegel, nineteenth-century German zoologist Ernst Haeckel transformed the classical idea of a “natural order” into a full-blown science. Haeckel saw the world of nature as a kind of global organic whole, in which all species, including man, were merely parts. In 1866 he coined the term “ecology” to describe “the whole science of the relations of the organism to the environment . . .”
An early proponent of the pastoral ideal was Rousseau. “The earth left to its own natural fertility and covered with immense woods, that no hatchet ever disfigured, offers at every step food and shelter to every species of animals,” he wrote. With impressive consistency, this champion of the “noble savage” preached the inherent goodness of untouched nature; the corrupting influence of reason, culture, and civilization; the social ideal of egalitarianism; and the political ideal of sacrificing the individual to the collective.
Romantic poets such as Wordsworth and painters such as Thomas Cole of the Hudson River School fashioned a new aesthetic glorifying the pastoral ideal. Transcendentalist writers did their part, too. Upon entering a forest, Emerson was reduced to babbling worthy of Hegel. “I become a transparent eyeball,” he wrote. “I am nothing, I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am a part or particle of God.”
“The earth I tread on,” echoed Thoreau, “is not a dead, inert mass; it is a body, has a spirit, is organic and fluid to the influence of its spirit.” From his own private Eden, Walden Pond, he wrote, “In wilderness is the preservation of the world . . . The most alive is the wildest.” Hostile to the growing industrialization of the nation, he complained, “Thank God, men cannot yet fly and lay waste the sky as well as the earth.”
Ansel Adams openly described his faith as “a vast, impersonal pantheism.”
Then there was their friend and student, John Muir—the mystical, misanthropic Scotsman and founder of modern preservationism. The pivotal day in Muir’s life was when he came across two wild orchids in a field. “I never before saw a plant so full of life; so perfectly spiritual, it seemed pure enough for the throne of its Creator. I felt as if I were in the presence of superior beings who loved me and beckoned me to come. I sat down beside them and wept for joy.”
It was a mysticism shared by most of the others who helped him found the Sierra Club in 1892. For example, photographer Ansel Adams openly described his faith as “a vast, impersonal pantheism.”
During the twentieth century, philosophers began to promote the spiritual ideal of Eden to a degree that would have shocked any early conservationist and horrified any Enlightenment spokesman.
In “The Historic Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis”—a widely cited and reprinted essay first published in Science in 1967—UCLA historian Lynn White, Jr. called for a “new religion” based upon “the spiritual autonomy of all parts of nature” and “the equality of all creatures, including man.” And borrowing from the new pseudo-science of ecology and the holism of German idealists, Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess took everything a step further. Individuals do not exist, he said; we’re all only parts of larger “ecosystems.” The “shallow ecology” of mainstream conservation groups aimed only at improving the environment for the benefit of humans. Naess instead advocated “deep ecology”—a view that he described as “biospheric egalitarianism . . . the equal right to live and blossom.”
In short—and in defiance of the Founders’ Enlightenment-based Declaration of Independence—Naess was declaring that all things are created equal; that they should be venerated as ends in themselves, intrinsically valuable apart from Man; and that they have equal rights to their own kinds of “self-realization,” without human interference or exploitation.
“We must learn that nature includes an intrinsic value system,” wrote philosopher Ian McHarg. And what would that be? Philosopher Thomas B. Colwell replied: “The balance of nature provides an objective normative model which can be utilized as the ground of human value. Other values must be consistent with it. The balance of Nature is, in other words, a kind of ultimate value . . . The ends which we propose must be such as to be compatible with the ecosystems of nature.”
To summarize this brief survey:
The pastoral vision of classical and Judeo-Christian times idealized a perfectly balanced natural order in which human aspirations were held in check. But with the collapse of religious explanations during the Renaissance, this ideal no longer retained enough persuasive power to curb men’s selfish appetites. To critics of these trends, the Enlightenment appeared to be the culmination of human arrogance.
So, while postmodern thinkers labored to demolish the Enlightenment, a coalition of pantheists and ecologists provided a new theoretical grounding for the old pastoral ideal. With the collapse of the Enlightenment and the rise of a new rationale for the pastoral ideal, the environmentalist movement emerged, filling the spiritual void.
With this, it seems that Western culture has come full circle in its spiritual quest. We are back in the Garden with Adam and Eve, humbly minding our tiny place in the grand design of nature. And nature has provided us with a new “intrinsic value” system, which operates on the following simple moral principle:
Everything else in nature may behave exactly as it wants to or must; but man alone must never act in any way so as to affect anything else in nature.
The breathtaking irrationality of this position is a testament to man’s overwhelming need to experience a sense of spiritual worth and meaning—and to find some basis for his values—even at the cost of common sense and personal interests. For these spiritual requirements lie at the heart of human aspirations. For many, they exceed in importance even basic material needs, and there are few extremes to which they won’t go in order to fulfill them.
Environmentalism is a measure of just how far they will go.
This irrationality also stands as a refutation to those who aim to fight the battle against environmentalism on anything other than moral-philosophical grounds.
During the past decades, dozens of books, some quite brilliant, have dissected environmentalism in scientific and economic terms. Focusing on the “junk science” claims of the movement, volumes have been written convincingly refuting phony “crises” about pesticides, ozone depletion, global warming, electro-magnetic fields, and the like. Meanwhile, so-called “free-market environmentalists” have taken a different tack, exposing the Malthusian fallacies at the root of overpopulation scare-mongering and explaining how property rights and free markets can solve problems such as pollution, the overuse of natural resources, the protection of wild animals, and much more.
These efforts are to be commended. But—if you’ve grasped the central point here—you’ll realize that none of them ultimately will make much difference in the wider battle for human life and well-being on earth.
To illustrate, consider an article that appeared back in the Spring 1998 Dissent magazine, a left-wing publication. In it, law professor Eric Freyfogle, an environmentalist, attacked and dismissed free-market environmentalism—not on economic or scientific grounds, but on moral grounds:
After calling for more collectivist control of the marketplace, Freyfogle concluded: “Progress on environmental issues, then, will depend on our continued use of moral language . . . .”
In the face of such ethical premises, it’s useless to argue that capitalism improves human well-being or solves environmental problems more efficiently. To environmentalists, that’s the essence of the market’s moral failure: It ignores “higher” values while it encourages selfishness. And the whole point of morality—the morality of antiquity (which environmentalists share with conservatives, incidentally)—is to constrain human ambitions and progress.
By and large, people want and try to do the right thing. What they need to discover is what the “right thing” really is.
Throughout Western history, a vivid, concretized image of a preposterous ideal has persisted in public consciousness, winning out over every intellectual challenge, every contrary argument, every economic counterincentive, every shred of human common sense. The reason? It has never been challenged by the one thing that could supplant it in people’s imaginations: an equally vivid counter-image of a new and better ideal.
While a new ideal must be defined and justified by philosophy, it cannot permeate the culture by philosophical argument alone. If, in the court of public opinion, you pit an abstract argument about an ideal against a competing, compelling vision of an ideal, the vision will win, hands down.
For proof, consider the historical survey we’ve just taken. As John Muir’s epiphany with the orchids suggests, environmentalist arguments are rooted as much in a sense of aesthetics as in any theory of morality. In fact, for millions, the boundary lines between ethical arguments and aesthetic preferences are hard to distinguish. Steeped in a tradition that upholds the Garden of Eden as a moral ideal, many hold its image as their standard of beauty, as well. But by that standard, there’s no place for a city’s skyline or its inhabitants.
A metaphor used by Muir strikes me as terribly relevant. On one occasion, he denounced the builders of dams as “temple destroyers.” “As well dam . . . the people’s cathedrals and churches,” he raged, “for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man.”
The metaphor of the forest as a temple or cathedral persists within the environmentalist movement to this day. Philip Shabecoff refers to our national parks as “the great cathedrals of our New World civilization,” while Alston Chase notes that since the 1960s, “forests would be seen by many as cathedrals in which to worship a new god.”
The metaphor caused me to recall a song we sang as children in school, titled “Green Cathedral.” It was an ode to the spiritual beauty the songwriter found in a forest. And it seems the perfect metaphor for the environmentalist’s spiritual search: a quest to find meaning on earth, not through his own creative actions, but by passively contemplating nature.
Individualists must raise a new standard—at once ethical and aesthetic.
Novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand was the most prominent proponent of such an approach. In her novel The Fountainhead , for example, hero Howard Roark tears a branch from a tree and bends it. He tells his friend, Gail Wynand:
“Your work . . . The material the earth offers you and what you make of it.”
That’s the antithesis of the environmentalist ideal of the “green cathedral.”
But what of beauty? Doesn’t the green cathedral embody beauty? Wouldn’t its destruction be an aesthetic desecration if not a moral crime? In her novel Anthem, Rand’s protagonist—who appropriately renames himself Prometheus—stands on a mountaintop and says:
It’s a stunning thought—again, so contrary to the environmentalist worldview. The environmentalist finds the beauty residing within the external world: beauty is a quality intrinsic to nature. But to Rand, beauty arises from man’s relationship to the world; beauty is imparted to nature by his consciousness. Without an active mind—a human, rational mind—there is sound, but no song; there is color and form, but no green cathedral.
These are lessons that we in the individualist tradition must teach the world—if human life on earth is to continue and flourish, if we are to continue the journey bravely begun by Enlightenment pathfinders.
It amounts to a new form of spirituality—a new, heroic vision of man and his place on earth, a vision that neither demeans his life nor diminishes his environment. And that heroic vision must be communicated, yes, in words and in ideas, by all means—but also in imagery that can fuel men’s imaginations and let their spirits take wing.
Where can we find such a sense of spirituality, a sense appropriate to secular values and ideals?
It is not to be found, but to be created—by ourselves.
It is a gift from our own eyes to the world around us, a gift that bestows upon that world the blessing of our own significance.
It is a gift that is ours alone to give: the kiss of an idea, pressed upon the stone-cold face of matter—the kiss that brings to life the romance that is ours alone to feel.
It is the creative, heroic spirit of man—the irrepressible, inexhaustible spirit that fills the earth with meaning. And for those of us who yearn for a spiritual ideal on earth, that is something we can worship.
This article is adapted from Robert Bidinotto's lecture at a conference on spirituality held byThe Atlas Society in New York City on October 23, 1999.