June 17, 2010 -- I was walking back to the office one day, here in Washington, D.C., when a young woman accosted me on a street corner. “Got a minute for the environment?” she asked, thrusting a leaflet in my direction.
Welcome to Washington, I thought. In New York, where I used to live, people passing bills on the street were usually selling one of two things: men’s suits or sex. But Washington is a political town. Here we sell causes.
I didn’t stop. I didn’t have a minute for her, or for much of anything except getting back to work. Besides, it seemed a little presumptuous of her to claim to represent the environment. And what did she mean by “the environment,” anyway? What does the term refer to? And then it struck me: that is an interesting question.
"Environment" is a political code-word, like “family values,” that signals allegiance to a set of causes.
The street-corner environmentalist expected passers-by to understand what she meant, as do editorialists who speak of “environmental policies,” as do companies that tout their products as “Earth-friendly,” as do “environmentally conscious” consumers who conspicuously drive hybrid cars. No one is puzzled by these references. Everyone seems to understand what the environment is.
Yet “environment” is a highly abstract concept. It refers to the totality of external conditions that an organism of a particular type can interact with and that affect its survival, as opposed to its internal structure and processes. For every species there is a different environment, set by its nature. The environment of a garden flower in Florida is not the same as the environment of a Siberian tiger. “Environment” is a relational concept, like “husband” and “wife.” You can’t be a husband unless someone is your wife, and there can’t be an environment except as the environment of something. There is no such thing as the environment.
So what do people mean by that term? The next time I heard the “Got a minute…” pick-up line, I asked, “Which environment do you mean? Whose environment?” The question seemed to startle the person. “You know, the environment. Like, the Earth.” The Earth? No, that can’t be the referent of “the environment,” not literally. As a the third planet from the sun, the Earth doesn’t need a minute of our help staying in orbit, nor is it in danger from anything short of astrophysical calamity. As the sphere that all living things occupy, the Earth includes human beings and everything they have created, along with all other living things and inanimate matter. Again, that’s clearly not what is meant.
Perhaps the intent is to distinguish what is natural from what is man-made. That’s a rough-and-ready distinction, valid as far as it goes. But the realm of the natural doesn’t really coincide with the range of things people seem to include in “the environment.” On the one hand, environmentally correct organic produce is just as man-made as any other kind. On the other hand, digestion is a natural function and so, therefore, are its waste products and the pollution they cause if left untreated. In fundamental terms, the distinction between natural and man-made flounders on the fact that human beings are part of nature, and that it is our nature as a species to live by production. The artificial is natural to man.
This is obviously not the conception that environmentalists invoke and expect everyone to understand. So, again, what do they mean? What is the referent of “the environment”? The answer is that the term doesn’t have a referent, because it is not intended to do real cognitive work. It is a political code-word, like “family values,” that signals allegiance to a set of causes. These causes relate in diverse ways to our physical environment. Some of the particular causes are reasonable, some are not. But my point is that they are not held together by a coherent ideology, even a false one. They are held together by various unexamined assumptions (e.g., resources are limited, business is rapacious), feelings (fear of exhausting resources, guilt about prosperity), and images (dark satanic smokestacks, the beautiful blue-green planet from space). In this respect, “the environment” is what Ayn Rand called a floating abstraction, which acquires its content through emotions and associations rather than by derivation from reality.
Epistemology is a long-range weapon, of limited use in a street fight.
Many observers have noted that the core themes of environmentalism have striking parallels to religion. The idolization of primitive societies living in balance with nature is a secular version of the Garden of Eden. Guilt about production, prosperity, and resource use are the environmentalist form of original sin. Like Hebrew prophets, environmentalists warn that the end is near, from global warming or some other apocalypse, unless we change our sinful ways and atone through ritual sacrifices of recycling, meatless Mondays, and abstinence from the demon drug carbon.
We can now see yet another parallel. The religious narrative presumes the existence of God, but theologians have never been able to define or even give definite content to the idea of God. The idea at the very heart of religion is vaguely imagined, imbued with feelings of hope, dread, and awe but incapable of definition except (at best) in negative terms. God is outside nature, outside time, not finite, and above all not man. “The environment” likewise has a floating content of images and feelings, incapable of coherent definition but with a similar negative cast: the environment is that which is not man. It’s the way the world would be if humans weren’t in it.
I don’t expect that this analysis will have much impact in current debates about global warming, “cap and trade,” pesticide use, and the like. Epistemology is a long-range weapon, of limited use in a street fight. But I do not think we will ever succeed in creating a free, rational, and—in the literal sense of the term—a fully humane society until we establish the right conceptual framework in which to think about specific issues.
There is such a thing as the environment of human beings as a species. But this valid concept of environment is poles apart from the one that environmentalists invoke. For one thing, humans do not have a fixed environment set by nature. As a species that lives by production, we constantly transform our environment, investing the stuff of “raw” nature with layer upon layer of man-made things. From cropland that has been tilled for generations, to the animals we breed for food and other uses, to the cities most of us live in, to the communication networks we use every day, we live in surroundings pervasively shaped by human effort. In any environment that humans occupy today, disentangling the man-made from the natural would take the most complex investigation, if indeed it is possible at all.
As social animals, moreover, we produce institutions and networks for trading, exchanging knowledge, and other forms of interaction. So our environment is not solely physical. It includes the economy in which we produce and trade. It includes the culture in which we acquire knowledge and seek rejuvenation in art. It includes the political environment of rights and laws. “For always roaming with a hungry heart,” says the Greek hero Ulysses in Tennyson’s poem,
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments…
Cities of men and manners, councils and governments—all of these are as much a part of the human environment as climate, because all of them affect our survival and, together, form the set of factors we interact with.
This human environment is the one I care about. For this, I do have a minute—and much more.
David Kelley earned his Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton University in 1975, and later taught cognitive science and philosophy at Vassar College and Brandeis University. His articles on social issues and public policy have appeared in Harpers, The Sciences, Reason, Harvard Business Review, The Freeman, and elsewhere. His books include Unrugged Individualism: The Selfish Basis of Benevolence; The Contested Legacy of Ayn Rand; The Evidence of the Senses, and The Art of Reasoning, one of the most widely used logic textbooks in the country. Kelley is founder and executive director of The Atlas Society.
TNI articles by David Kelley Atlas Society articles by David Kelley
David Kelley is the founder of The Atlas Society. A professional philosopher, teacher, and best-selling author, he has been a leading proponent of Objectivism for more than 25 years.