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May 01st 2013 print

Daryl McCann

How to save the Environment from Green Ideologues

Green Philosophy: How to Think Seriously About the Planet
by Roger Scruton
Atlantic, 2012, 464 pages, $25.99

Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World
by Emma Marris
Bloomsbury, 2011, 224 pages, $28.99

Despotic ideologies invariably venerate one aspect of human nature over another, perhaps the local over the universal or just as likely the other way around. Hitler worshipped blood and soil, race and tribe—the local, in other words. Marxist-Leninists travelled in the opposite direction, trammelling over tradition, religion and the time-honoured customs of village life, all in the name of the international proletariat. The Greens, argues Roger Scruton in Green Philosophy, have also been unable to strike a balance between the local and the global. In Rambunctious Garden the science journalist Emma Marris details the misconceptions of the enviro-purists, especially on the subject of wilderness. She and Scruton pursue the politics of environmentalism from different directions but nevertheless arrive at a similar destination.

Some conservatives equate the very idea of an environmental movement with political extremism. This is understandable given environmental activism’s association with the Greens. The trajectory of the philosopher Martin Heidegger—sometime Nazi apologist and icon of the New Left—appears to corroborate such a jaundiced view. Heidegger’s anti-Western technophobia struck a chord with young Nazi hikers in the 1930s as much as it did with the anarcho-communist malcontents of the 1960s.

Roger Scruton holds a different view: the alliance between political extremism and today’s environmentalist movement is a tragedy but an avoidable one. Scruton does not dismiss out of hand Heidegger’s warnings about the excessive influence of technology over our lives. We have, on some level at least, been “instrumentalised” by modern technology and, argues Scruton, technophilia is not always the answer to our modern condition:

Technophilia dominates popular culture, but it is also a culture of homelessness and transgression, and its by-products, in the form of gadgets and machines discarded in favour of more exciting or efficient versions, lie everywhere about us, along the verges of our roads, in dumps and landfill sites, or even set up deliberately in city streets like the computer-designed architecture that now giggles facetiously between discountenanced façades.

Nonetheless, the remedy for “the alienation of man in the man-made world”, according to Scruton, is oikophilia, the love of home or homeland, and it is this conservative faith, rather than the neo-Marxism of a Herbert Marcuse or Jean Baudrillard, that offers us a genuine solution to any modern-day alienation.

Scruton draws inspiration from Edmund Burke for a guide to how conservatives might approach the politics of environmentalism. Society, in Burke’s opinion, should be considered “as an association of the dead, the living and the unborn”. The dead retain a voice in the here-and-now through our respect for tradition, the living best make a contribution to the world in the form of the “little platoon”, while the concerns of the still unborn should be considered in all our major decisions. Eco-fascists, on the hand, demand we renounce our ancient freedoms and cherished conventions, including free enterprise, uncensored speech, relatively cheap energy, Judeo-Christianity and the sovereignty of the nation-state, on the understanding that their radicalism—unlike the left-wing politics of the past—will deliver for future generations. Bob Brown’s “Dear Earthians” address still rings in the ears.

The German Greens, back in the 1960s, rejected all recourse to traditional conservatism or oikophilia, fearing their cause would be associated with the Nazis, whose environmentalism—along with everything else—exploited the population’s affection for the German “homeland”. Today we are more likely to agree that Hitler’s totalitarian version of nationalism had less to do with genuine patriotism (or oikophilia) than a millennialist incarnation of Social Darwinian-affected racialism. Was it not a sense of patriotism that motivated both Sophie Scholl’s plucky opposition to the Nazis and Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg’s audacious plan to blow up Adolf Hitler? Forswearing patriotism, the German Greens of the 1960s helped propel the emerging environment movement in the direction of political radicalism, with its top-down edicts and protocols demanding a new kind of revolution. Scruton rightly derides the manifesto of the British Greens and its claim that only a government run by them could harness all the self-sacrifice or altruism necessary to safeguard the natural world. These ideologues are unlikely ever to unite a population behind their misanthropic fantasies.

This misanthropy is exemplified by the zeal to preserve tracts of wilderness that are “uncontaminated” by mankind. Scruton points out a number of the downsides that arise from the eco-purists and their inflexible wilderness fixation. He offers Yellowstone National Park as a case in point. Woodlands protected from natural fire are now less able to regenerate, while invasive species continue to move into “every feebly defended ecological niche”. In fact, the National Park Service created in Yellowstone a landscape that might be more accurately described as man-made rather than virgin wilderness, the paucity of necessary predators—the grey wolf in particular—becoming a growing concern, one that would only be solved thanks to human intercession.

Scruton, like Bernard Williams before him, is alert to the “epistemological frailty” that lies at the heart of wilderness obsession. The paradox, to paraphrase Williams, is that the purists seek to use the power of humanity to preserve what is not in humanity’s power. The absurdity—and impossibility—of such an enterprise is clearly delineated in Emma Marris’s Rambunctious Garden. All the latest research, contends Marris, makes it abundantly clear that eco-purism is nothing but a delusion, with every last frontier of so-called wilderness long ago ceasing to be the “humanless idyll” of misanthropic Greens: “Nature as a separate thing has ended.”

The other great fantasy of the Greens is the utopian idea that if humanity renounced modernity—by returning to the tribal paradise of our ancestors or imitating the ways of various indigenous peoples—all would be well with the planet. David Mamet satirises this in The Secret Knowledge (2011):

The Noble Savage acts in a manner more in tune with Nature. He is uncorrupted, save the advent of the Whites, who took his land … Prior to their coming, he dwelt in peace, tilling the soil according to immemorial principles, and ruled chiefly by his love of the plants and seasons and their influence upon all things. If he had a religion it was that of God as Nature.

The truth lies somewhere else. Marris connects “the extinction of most North American megaherb­ivores” to the arrival of the first people in America 13,000 or more years ago. In Australia, similarly, “about 50,000 years ago humans arrived, and shortly thereafter everything larger than themselves disappeared”. Rather than forever apologising for our supposed transgressions against Gaia, as the Greens tediously insist upon, it is the science and wherewithal of Western modernity that offers hope for our planet.

Marris writes about a number of exciting developments in the science of ecology that make the eco-purists seem like dinosaurs. Radical re-wilding, for instance, involves the re-introduction of proxy animals to replicate those hunted to extinction during pre-modern eras. There is the plan to introduce Bactrian camels from the Gobi Desert into parts of the United States where their extinct cousins once roamed. The expectation is that “the camels would eat woody shrubs, like mesquite, that today cover much of the Southwest in a drab and disliked monoculture”. Mankind can, in other words, improve the diversity and durability of nature by actively intervening in the not-so-virgin wilderness, a recent example being the successful re-introduction of wolves into Yellowstone.

Marris also writes about the advantages of human intervention in the practice of assisted migration. She cites the case of Torreya taxifolia, or Florida torreya, a very rare evergreen that thanks to non-anthropogenic climate change became a trapped glacial remnant unable to flourish in its “natural” environment. Connie Barlow, an itinerant nature educator, committed herself to saving the Florida torreya by assisting its relocation to a more conducive environ. Eco-purists argued against her scheme. They reasoned, as Greens so often do, that everything in nature should stay pretty well where it was when the first European observers stumbled upon it, these parameters being referred to as “baselines”. Barlow, with her “deep time eyes”, ignored the eco-purists. Along with a host of other “citizen-naturalist types”—who sound reminiscent of Burke’s “little platoon”—she intervened on nature’s behalf and liberated the Florida torreya.

Assisted migration is now a seriously discussed subject by the relevant scientific community—and it was inspired amateurs, rather than ideologically driven professionals, who put it on the agenda. Marris follows her discussion of assisted migration with, not surprisingly, a chapter about learning to love exotic species. Although she acknowledges that new evolving eco-systems will “look like trash to most ecologists”, she makes the case that exotics will dominate our future eco-systems whether we like it or not, and there happens to be much that is positive about these (freshly titled) novel ecosystems. As she states in the final paragraph of Rambunctious Garden:

I delivered this book two weeks after I delivered my daughter Adele. The world she will see as an old woman in 2100 will be much changed. I believe it can be diverse and thriving and beautiful nonetheless.

Emma Marris, I should point out, is not a political conservative seeking to gatecrash the environmental movement’s party. She even quotes approvingly the thoughts of our own Tim Flannery—although it is in his capacity as a palaeontologist and not long-range weather forecaster that Flannery makes his contribution to Rambunctious Garden. On the subject of global warming Marris herself remains relatively upbeat. While accepting there is an anthropogenic factor in the rise of the global temperature during the twentieth century, she avoids any kind of alarmism. Marris is also blessed with “deep time eyes” and knows that nature, which is not static or locked into some fictional state of balance, has survived the Medieval Warming Period (850 to 1300), the Little Ice Age (1350 to 1850), and a whole lot worse. The key, as always, is adaptation, and humanity can play a part in facilitating that. After all, radical re-wilding, assisted migration, introduced exotic species and novel ecosystems will not be any less relevant if the current seventeen-year pause in the rise of the global temperature comes to an end.

Roger Scruton, conservative though he might be, does not rule out a significant anthropogenic element in the rise of global temperature up until 1995. What he rejects is the idea that international bodies or international edicts (such as the 1997 Kyoto Protocol) can ever make a difference. If the world is in peril then only conservative-minded—or should we say commonsense—solutions “which put research and enterprise before regulation and control” will do the job:

Advances in climatology and the theory and practice of geo-engineering could well put within the power of a law-abiding nation—and evidently the USA is the likely example—the means of initiating global cooling to counteract the effect of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

One of the great crimes of the eco-purists in general and the Greens in particular is to divide societies with their alarmism and radicalism. There is good will enough—call it oikophilia or the passion of “citizen-naturalist types”—if people who love their country are provided the right framework in which they can make their contribution. Academic-activist Clive Hamilton, in Earth Masters: Playing God with the Climate (2013), argues that advocates of his eco-purist political persuasion have been unfairly blamed for the polarisation that now characterises so many Western nations. Hamilton rejects the accusation that his side of the political fence is “strident”, while at the same time caricaturing his opponents as “the merchants of doubt such as ExxonMobil and the Tea Party”. The irony of his remark appears to elude him.

What is exciting about Green Philosophy and Rambunctious Garden is that they address the challenges we face, and yet they leave the reader with a reasonable sense of hope. Yes, mankind has a lot to answer for and we are obviously capable of ruining this planet beyond repair. But there is also another side to the narrative, some of which is explored by Scruton in the chapter titled “Begetting Somewhere”, which is the long history of ordinary British folk ensuring that their treasured homeland retained much of its charm and liveability despite the onset of the Industrial Revolution. The first conservation societies formed as early as 1851. Scruton follows the creation of laws to protect wildlife that go back even further. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, with its origins in the 1880s, now has 1500 employees and over a million members. Inspired by a love of their homeland and the local landscape, “citizen-naturalist types” and the “little platoon” are always going to achieve far more than radical eco-purists issuing their edicts from on high.

Scruton complains that enviro-purists have ignored the challenges and problems of the urban environment. They tend to see it as a kind of wasteland, not worthy of serious contemplation other than for its negative impact on their sacred wilderness. If, as Marris contends, “nature and man are no longer a separate thing”, it also holds that our urban landscapes need to be seen in a new light. In fact, Rambunctious Garden leaves the reader with a sense that all kinds of positive outcomes are now within our grasp:

The pristine wilderness notion is a historically created idea about what ought to count as nature, and there is no reason we can’t change it … And once we do change it, a heretofore unthinkable, exciting, and energising thought occurs: we can make more nature. We can make things on Earth better, not just less bad.

Daryl McCann wrote on Israel in the April issue. He has a blog at darylmccann.blogspot.com.au.