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Earth's Resident Aliens
The Psychological Roots of Environmental Irresponsibility
Since Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America was published in 1977, the face of American environmentalism has shifted dramatically, pivoting away from down-to-earth battles over land usage to the much grander concerns of global climate change. Then as now, however, the solutions proposed to the ecological problems of our day seem to arise primarily from what Berry called “the cult of the future.”1 That is to say, the disasters created by the progress of modern science and its associate, modern industry, are to be resolved by the rapid acceleration of scientific and industrial progress. New technologies, broader scientific education, and government action on a global scale are necessary to stem the tide of habitat destruction, climate volatility, and extinction. In many cases, the proposed solutions require substantial changes in our lifestyles, for example, the replacement of meat by carefully crafted vegetable substitutes or more radical changes such as hyper-urbanization. Yet it remains the despair of the environmentalists that the populace is insensitive to the needs of the planet. The American citizen is prodded into action with limited success even by the law; and without the law, his propensity to reform his life to suit a Green program seems limited indeed.
Simply put, no matter how many starving polar bears drag themselves across our monitors in all their high-resolution grotesqueness, materialism and overconsumption remain more attractive options for the purchasing public than frugality and recycling. The problem, of course, is not primarily that the public is wasteful. The problem is that public waste belies public apathy, that environmentally indifferent lifestyles are a signal that we have not identified ourselves with what we pretend to protect. The values of conservation have not been broadly internalized. Why?
To answer this question, it is necessary to ask how our population interacts with what is variously called Nature, the natural world, the Environment, and the Earth. Invariably we find that this interaction is indirect. Garbage is dumped by others, the smoke of the factory is far removed from the city skyscrapers, and even positive actions such as the planting of trees or rehabilitation of endangered species are transacted by charities. Above all, the state, not the people, is the instrument of change: individual responsibility, and thus individual involvement, are both regarded as irrelevant. When the individual acts, he acts on the state, and not, so to speak, on the Earth. Consequently, those who believe in the power of education, informative graphics, and hockey-stick-charts to evoke mass climate action have misunderstood the situation. The problem is not education, but alienation. Unsurprisingly, the citizens who interact with the natural environment only through the medium of the state do not identify with that from which they are separated. Indeed, the very fact that we refer to Nature as something apart from ourselves indicates the degree to which the “natural world” has been exoticized, which is another way of saying Othered. The proof of this is the phenomenon of Ecotourism. The interest of the New York broker in Yosemite is that of the potential tourist. It is not his land—again, it is the state’s—and he has interest in it only because it is not his, that is, because it is strange, unusual, exotic, and therefore interesting. But we cannot expect him to sacrifice to protect land that is not his.
The government may create ever so many national parks, a man may see ever so many touching National Geographic specials, but this will not address—it will only aggravate—the fundamental problem of the exoticization of Nature and its alienation from human beings.
Ultimately, the ecotourist and the diabolical capitalist of Green nightmares share the same basic relationship with the Earth: it is the relationship of extraction. The tourist desires nothing more than the passing satisfaction of his psychological needs—for beauty, perhaps, or relaxation—and then he will pass away from the forest, the prairie, and the park forever and ever. Contrast this with the interest of the farmer in his fields. That is the interest of an unbreakable connection, an identity of fate. The farmer’s desire is not to extract, but to maintain, because he knows that he will have to live with what he does to his land. Berry might well identify the plight of our whole Earth as the plight of a “farm” that “had begun to be used by someone who did not belong to it.”2 Our alienation from what we call Nature, but which we might more reasonably denominate the Land, neglects the fact that it belongs to us, true. It also ignores that we belong to it.
We may see in the attitude of extraction the cause of that exceptionally uninspiring characteristic of contemporary environmental activism, namely that its stated purpose is not to transform the materialistic habits of contemporary Westerners, but to maintain them. On such a view, mass environmental devastation matters primarily because it will eventually take the Big Macs from the mouths of Americans. But it is difficult to convince people used to the creature comforts of modern life to abstain from their luxuries in order to save their luxuries—that is, in order that they may enjoy them more guiltlessly when the whole crisis has blown over. As a result, the sort of widespread cultural change necessary to make progress towards sustainable consumption is made impossible. Because, for example, fighting climate change is presented as a means of preserving our consumer culture—i.e., from some impending Apocalypse—rather than transforming it, it cannot in practice justify the disruption of that which it purports to be saving. This is the unfortunate result of climate activism’s transformation into an establishment doctrine.
The environmental problems we face today will not be solved by purely economic or even technological methods. The problem is cultural, and requires a cultural answer. The attitude of citizens towards their land must be changed. We should expect technological progress divorced from cultural change to accelerate, not resolve, the problems of ecological destruction by making it easier to exploit Nature, while softening the blow by replacing the aesthetic attractions of national parks with digital facsimiles. The model of extraction itself must be altered if the Land is to be preserved in the long term. This means that citizens must again identify themselves in the natural world and its prosperity, not in an abstract or mediated way, but concretely. Solutions that do not take into account this cultural foundation of concern for the environment or that endeavor to evoke pity through threatening statistics or devastated landscapes will only aggravate the causes of public apathy.
A version of this article originally appeared in Scorched Earth, the March 2022 print issue of the Salient.
Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2015), 70.