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Pantheism and Two Kinds of Environmentalism

Alexis de Tocqueville, as my friend Mark Movsesian reminds us, believed that the passion for equality in democracy would lead inevitably to the rise of pantheism, because even in their religious views people would no longer tolerate any inequality, including the distinction between the creator and the created. Today I see Tocqueville’s prediction most confirmed in the pantheism manifested in certain forms of environmentalism.

By no means is all environmentalism a religion. Cold economic analysis shows that without the restraints of law, companies and even individuals may impose harmful pollution on others. It makes sense to impose liability on such actors for several reasons. They are generally the lowest cost avoiders because they can most easily take steps to mitigate or eliminate the noxious effluence of their activities. Moreover, those who profit from an activity should pay for the diminution of others’ substantial enjoyment.

But some environmentalism is concerned with preventing change even if the vast majority of people would not feel the effects of that change as harmful. That seems to be the conception of E.O. Wilson who argued in the New York Times that it is imperative that we prevent the loss of species that human activity is causing. He did not even show that the we are losing species on net. Some scientists believe that the environmental changes caused by humans are also bringing many species into being. That is hardly a surprising proposition: throughout evolution changes in the environment have created millions of species even as they have destroyed others.

But what is most striking about Wilson’s argument is that he makes little or no effort to connect the loss of our current set of species to concrete harms to humans or even to disturbance of the enjoyment of anyone but the scientists who study them. To be sure, he is right that knowledge of these species will be lost, but it wholly unclear if that will have substantial effects either, particularly if knowledge of replacement species is gained instead. But it is clear that regulating human activity so as to avoid all species loss may have large costs, particularly in the developing world. That is the kind of consideration that a more pragmatic environmentalist would make in a cost benefit analysis.

Similarly, it is reasonable to worry about climate change to the extent that it harms people. But there is no reason in a pragmatic morality necessarily to be concerned with having a static climate.  In determining social policy man should be treated as the measure of things, not animals or the inanimate world. To think otherwise is to adopt the religious view about which Tocqueville warned.

Reader Discussion

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on March 12, 2018 at 10:22:18 am

I find no fault with McGinnis's analysis, but have a question about his conclusion:

Similarly, it is reasonable to worry about climate change to the extent that it harms people. But there is no reason in a pragmatic morality necessarily to be concerned with having a static climate. In determining social policy man should be treated as the measure of things, not animals or the inanimate world.

Is this conclusions any less religion-based than E.O. Wilson's? McGinnis's worldview depends upon drawing a distinction between "man" and "animals." He discusses with equanimity the idea of the succession of species, yet that equanimity does not extend to matters that affect the species Homo sapiens. And he offers no defense of this distinction.

Ultimately, the choice of what we value strikes me as arbitrary, in the sense that I cannot argue my way to knowing what to value because the arguments themselves must rest on a value system. This arbitrary choice of value system I often call a "religion." Thus, I sense it would be more honest for McGinnis to criticize Wilson not for espousing a religion, but for espousing a minority religion.

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nobody.really
on March 12, 2018 at 11:33:43 am

One of Nietzsche's recurring themes was how the demand for "justice" is usually made the most insistently by people whose true desire and motivation is to be made judges. The Green movement generally is a perfect example of this. Greens have designated themselves as the "protectors of the planet" and demand we recognize their authority as such. The unfortunately named EPA is a case in point. No one goes to work for such an agency who does not see its mission, and therefore his or her mission, as being to "protect" the environment. The assumption going in is that the environment needs "protection" and there is no chance the self-designated protectors will ever decide that no further protection is necessary. Quite the reverse: the esteem in which prior generations of environmental "protectors" are held motivate today's protectors to redouble their efforts to find ever more ways in which "the planet" is vulnerable to human predation and to stamp on our faces forever with their Green boots.

I disagree, however, with the categorical nature of McGinnis's statement Moreover, those who profit from an activity should pay for the diminution of others’ substantial enjoyment. This principle is the primary weapon of all progressivism. As if state-caused diminution of substantial enjoyment is somehow acceptable where privately-caused diminution is not. As if the word "profit" is a valid method of differentiation. The fact is that human beings in the exercise of their wills unavoidably limit others in the exercise of theirs. The "harm to others" that is conceptualized as the bound to individual liberty is continuously enlarged until no exercise of liberty is exempted from the sort of tort algebra favored by Richard Epstein and the state-prohibitory algebra favored by progressives. There is no act anyone anywhere can undertake that does not impose a "cost" on someone else somewhere somehow, according to the 21st century West's highly refined understanding of "cost."

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QET
on March 12, 2018 at 13:28:07 pm

Good Gawd, Edith!!!

so your *religion* would put humans on a par with animals - nicely done, sir, nicely done!!!!!

then again, if one is to support any one of a myriad of current day fantasies, say, gender as a social construct, then it IS essential that a) there be no enduring value system and b) as a consequence thereof, animals must be on a par with humans.
Yet some folks would argue that animals DO have a fairly stable value system appropriate to their rather simple existence.

And why should not humans then have a value system appropriate to their infinitely more complex existence; could it be, dear boy, that one of these values is that human life is worth far more than that of a cockroach?

nobody.really doesn't believe that!

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gabe
on March 12, 2018 at 14:03:38 pm

The earth is a dynamic system in which Homo sapiens, being the dominant predator species, relies on the diversity of life for sustenance. The issue for environmentalists is basically preventing harmful human feedback into this complex environment that incurs changes faster than can be accommodated by natural selection. The narrow and short-termed worldview of libertarians whose religiosity based on human supremacy and greed as liberty endanger the survival of the human species.

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Dan Slaby
on March 12, 2018 at 16:40:13 pm

" Some scientists believe that the environmental changes caused by humans are also bringing many species into being. "

Really? Who? What species? Do these new species compete with us or are the varieties of e coli that merely thrive on our waste?

EO Wilson is not a conservationist, he is an evolutionary sociobiologist. In fact, he became the first evolutionary sociobiologist when he published "Sociobiology" in 1975.

What underlies Wilson's argument in the NYT is the idea of the carrying capacity of any environment for any given species. This is the classic "fish pond" found in all introductory biology and calculus texts. Any given pond can support only so many fish of the same species. See; the Wiki entry on "carrying capacity" https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carrying_capacity⧸

The carrying capacity is always described by the natural logarithmic function (ln x) which gives a characteristic curve which increases sharply from a steady state to a plateau that is the carrying capacity for that species in a given environment. When the population reaches the carrying capacity of its environment, the population may stabilize or it may collapse.

When one species is particularly well adapted to its environment and has crowded out other competing species as its population increased then the environment becomes effectively a monoculture and the collapse the species occupying the monoculture is usually catastrophic, that is on the order of 90% or more. That is the point Wilson is making.

The dominant economic model for the past 100 years has assumed that population growth to infinity is not only possible but desirable and necessary. Of course, this is the survival strategy of a cancer cell or a particularly deadly virus. That is implicit in Wilson's argument.

It may be observed that most of the economic migrants that have recently been troubling the West come from countries that enjoyed the benefits of the Green Revolution of the 1960s. Really, there is only so much land that can easily support large populations. When one adds the quality of the environment to the equation, the available land decreases further.

Malthus and Ehrlich were not wrong and neither is Wilson. Population growth to infinity is not possible.

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EK
on March 12, 2018 at 20:01:31 pm

Without quibbling over the denominational distinction between the materialism of EO Wilson and other bio-centric materialists who worship at the scientific altar of evolutionary biological determinism and the materialism of, say, Jay Gould who prayed to the economic god of capitalism, it is apparent that each man had a religion, that of materialism in which man worships nature with man either as the center of nature (anthropocentric) or as merely one of its significant components (bio-centrism.) Wilson is bio-centric. Rachael Carson was speaking (as she worshipped) bio-centrically when she said in Silent Spring, "The 'control of nature' is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man.'' (Those who read Carson are forced to excuse her ignorance not just of anthropology and religious history but of biology.)

Judeo-Christianity does not believe that nature exists for the convenience of man. Judeo-Christianity is not scientific materialism. It is a revealed, supernatural religion which, while highly valuing both science and materialism, sees their intrinsic, severe limitations. It is neither anthropocentric nor bio-centric because it is not materialistic. It posits that man's soul, not his material body, is the center of creation, that man's purpose is not material, that earthly existence in nature is but a material path to man's true spiritual end which is eternal union with his Creator, but that nature is precious matter in service of God's purpose and is to be protected (shepherded) and nurtured as the beloved work ("it was very good') of the Creator.

Judeo-Christians are neither anthropocentric nor bio-centric, and there are no anthropocentric ecologists. The bio-centrists are ALL "deep ecologists" some of whom see man as primus inter pares in nature, more of whom see man as secondary at best and an expendable nuisance at worst, but all of whom are materialists. Their theological fight is with Judeo-Christian super-naturalists who see the soul, not matter, as the center of and primary in creation.

And there can be no rational discourse between the two camps because of their irreconcilable conflict of visions.

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timothy

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.