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January 24th 2010 print

Merv Bendle

The rise of eco-extremism

It is a great tragedy that the vital debate about environmental issues should have been so effectively hijacked by the radical left and ideologues channeling the latest version of the irrationalism and totalitarianism that deformed the 20th century.

In a previous article on Quadrant Online I suggested that the Tony Abbott’s proposal to introduce a ‘Green Army’ dedicated to tackling concrete environmental issues at the grassroots level might also provide an opportunity to contest the ideological role of fanatical environmentalism, and in particular the prevailing notion that there is an inevitable link between socialism and conservationism.

In fact, this assumption is extremely deeply embedded in politics, the media, and the education system, and reflects not only the Left’s success over the past three decades in hijacking the conservation movement, but also its ability to use that movement as a vehicle for the most extreme political, social, and cultural ideas.

An excellent example of this is provided in a recent collection of articles on revolutionary environmentalism explicitly published as a manifesto of eco-extremism (Steven best and Anthony J Nocella (eds.) Igniting a Revolution, AK Press, Edinburgh, 2006). Blaming every problem in the modern world on Western liberal democracies, the ‘Introduction’ condemns the “omnicidal assault” on the world “waged by powerful and greedy forces, above all, by transnational corporations … banks, and G8 alliances. Stretching their tentacles across the Earth, they hire nation states as their cops, juntas, hit men, dictators, and loan sharks to extract natural resources, enforce regimes of total exploitation, and snuff out all resistance”.

“Western cultural development”, the editors believe, “is a dark stretch of hierarchy, domination, violence and destruction … classism, sexism, racism specieism, and anthropocentrism … built on the backs of the enslaved and exploited”, and it is now spiraling “headlong toward barbarism, self-destruction, and oblivion”, while more generally, “as global temperatures climb, icecaps and glaciers melt, sea-levels rise and forests fall, the short-lived human empire has begun to devour itself and implode”.

While noting the significance of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1963), with its legitimate concern with the overuse of agricultural chemicals, the editors insist that the modern environmental movement really emerged “in the larger social context of the 1960s, as shaped by the struggles of the ‘new social movements’ (radical students, countercultural youth, Black Liberation, feminism … peace, anti-nuclear, and gay/lesbian/bisexual/transsexual”, and is therefore properly seen as a branch of New Left political extremism, in accordance with Herbert Marcuse’s claim that the Western working class had become counter-revolutionary and that The Revolution would be carried out by groups on the margins of ‘bourgeois society’.

Consequently, the book is addressed not to the masses of working people who are genuinely concerned with issues of conservation and the environment, and are seeking concrete solutions of the type of program proposed by Tony Abbott; but rather to the ‘revolutionary vanguard’ obsessed with abstract and total solutions, and made up of “Earth liberationists, animal liberationists, Black liberationists … eco-feminists, political prisoners, primitivists, saboteurs, grassroots activists, and militant academics”, many of whom enjoyed a high profile at Copenhagen.

The mentality behind this eco-extremism is described succinctly in a scholarly study by J E de Steiguer of The Origins of Modern Environment Thought (University of Arizona Press, Tucson, 2006). Overall, he concludes, it applies an ‘ecocentric’ morality allegedly based on the needs of nature rather than that of people, asserting that these are manifest without human agency; it denounces economic progress, preferring a ‘neo-primitivist’ state of existence; it rejects democracy as inadequate to ensure that its minority demands are translated into law and enforced; and it “encourages anarchy to correct extreme environmental degradation”, although how such a goal could be achieved in a anarchical state is not clear.

Similarly, de Steiguer notes that eco-extremism rejects the principle of managerial and economic efficiency; has no faith or optimism about the ability of humans to regulate natural processes; and rejects the rational and objective analysis of ecological and social goals in favour of emotional appraisals. Above all, it “has nothing to do with the gaining and evaluating of knowledge in the traditional sense of acquiring facts and information from authoritative sources [and] does not need science, logic, nor deduction”, relying instead entirely on intuition, opening “the possibility that ‘the environment’ may be nothing more than a vehicle for attaining unrelated political goals”.

While it might seem incredible that the most important social movement in the world today should ultimately be based on an irrationalist desire to lose the self in a great collective whole – Nature, Gaia, the ecosphere – , in a fashion not dissimilar to the Nazi and fascist identification with the Volk, the Nation and the State, this is in fact the case, as a sympathetic scholar, Peter Hay, emphatically makes clear in Main Currents in Western Environmental Thought (UNSW Press, Sydney, 2002): “the wellsprings of a green commitment – at both the activist and more passive levels of identification – are not, in the first instance, theoretical; nor even intellectual. They are, rather, pre-rational” (his emphasis).

Hay goes on to cite many leading environmentalists who support this analysis of eco-extremism as a form of contemporary irrationalism, including one who claims that it is an ideology for which there can be “no ‘rational’ argument [or] logical explanation [or] reasonable dialogue”, and that indeed, “there is no ‘logic’ in feeling, in experiencing, in states of being” relating to environmentalism, despite the fact that this is a social movement that seeks to establish a system of world governance, controlling the activities of all the people in the world, to implement its agenda.

As I suggested in my earlier article, it is a great tragedy that the vital debate about environmental issues should have been so effectively hijacked by the radical left and ideologues channeling the latest version of the irrationalism and totalitarianism that deformed the 20th century. Indeed, the great Australian philosopher, John Passmore, identified this tendency at the moment of its birth some 36 years ago in his exhaustive study of Man’s Responsibility for Nature (London, Duckworth, 1974), when he challenged the intellectual tendency that became eco-extremism.

Passmore noted that while it is eminently sensible to be prudent about the way in which human beings make use of natural resources and regulates their interaction with the natural world, “it is quite another thing to suggest that they can solve their ecological problems only if they abandon the analytical, critical approach … and go in search of a new ethics, a new metaphysics, a new religion”. Unfortunately, Passmore was successfully demonized by the radicals, his warning was swept aside, and the irrationalism of contemporary eco-extremism became entrenched. Hopefully, as the full scale of the climate change fraud becomes apparent, the opportunity will arise for a rational, pragmatic, and non-ideological discussion of environmental issues, drawing on the rich heritage of Western civilization’s concern with nature.