In an earlier post, I mentioned that significant parts of the conflict between human development and environmental protection remain hidden in our collective unconscious. In an even older post, I argued that the usual (and polarized) debate about the environment can be compared to a play within a larger play. In this post about Rousseau, I would like to explore these points in greater detail.
It is a bit of an open door to say that environmental protection is about protecting the environment, but the way the two words are linked suggests that the environment is something worth protecting. Right off the bat, and without realizing it, something is being excluded here. Are we saying that the entire environment should be protected or are we saying that environmental protection is limited to the protection of what is worthy of our protection? Is environmental protection about having zero impact or about protecting certain things in the environment? And what things are we talking about?
It doesn’t get any clearer when we consider the various definitions of the word environment and the words nature and habitat, which are often used in its place. They are defined as the air, water and land where people, plants and animals live; as the natural world as affected by human activity; as the complex factors that determine form and survival; as all circumstances that have an influence on one’s life; as the force that is responsible for physical life and as a creative and controlling force in the universe. The definitions range from a car-park to the Devine.
A further complication relates to responsibility. Who is responsible for environmental protection? Responsibility correlates with societal norms and values, whether legal, religious or cultural. Many of these are subconscious. Together, these three considerations result in a rather complex subject. No wonder that philosophers, legislators and the general public struggle with it.
Jean Jacques Rousseau
A lot can be learned from the moral code of the environmental movement. That code is based on the work of the French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau. The centuries before Rousseau, the Catholic Church had held the patent on creation. They believe that a male God created the world. In that view there is no room for a nature that is self-creating. It was Rousseau that reintroduced nature as a force in its own right. But Rousseau’s nature is half a nature. Rousseau is blinded by nature, and doesn’t see its fangs. It is called a romantic view for a reason. The limiting aspects of nature, such as cold, hunger, disease, its physical laws and death have no place in this view. Rousseau was verbal about nature’s beauty, yet silent about her limitations.
Rousseau also argued that people are born innocent and that it is society that subsequently corrupts him. Despite the fact that this idea wasn’t an overall success in politics, this part of Rousseau’s ideology has survived in the environmental movement. People such as William Wordsworth and Henri David Thoreau have turned it into the mantra which still holds today: industry pollutes and ordinary people are innocent. That places the responsibility for environmental protection squarely with industry and exonerates the consumer. I am not sure whether the freedom from oppression found in the Enlightenment was meant to have that side-effect.
This is the play within the play that I am referring to. The larger conflict between human development and environmental protection is played out on a much smaller stage between industry and consumer. Nature’s darker side and consumer complicity are not in the script, but their roles cannot be denied. Nature does what nature does and the development of the human race is continuing regardless. Not to forget that human development is largely about overcoming nature’s many limitations. Some say that the Jeannie is out of the bottle, and I agree.
As we move forward with the human development project, more questions will arise. There is still a lot to be done. There are mouths to feed, children to be educated and illnesses to be cured. The thinking of Rousseau has been able to take us this far, but its flaws are simply too great for today’s challenges; global warming being a case in point.
The effectiveness of the current environmental movement is quite limited as a result. The little value assigned to environmental protection by our monetary system is an important indicator of that. We add legislation, taxation, subsidies and emission trade in an attempt to correct the market forces, but the economy demonstrates that growth is regarded more important than environmental protection. Money reflects our desires.
In order to move the discussion about environmental protection forward, the two disqualified actors need to be brought back into the play. The definition of the environment needs to be expanded to include its darker side and the responsibility for environmental protection needs to include the consumer. The question how our environmental impacts should be reduced is no longer the right one. It should be replaced with the question: how do you want to live on this planet? This seems to add a layer of complexity, but actually, it removes one instead. Instead of the continuing struggle resulting from inadequate norms and values, we can turn our attention and creativity to making real progress. The future lies ahead.