Whose Environment?

The Atlas Society's picture
Submitted by The Atlas Society on Sat, 2010-06-19 15:46

Whose Environment?
by David Kelley

I was walking back to the office one day, not long after The Atlas Society moved to Washington, when a young woman accosted me on a street corner. “Got a minute for the environment?” she asked, thrusting a leaflet in my direction.

Welcome to Washington, I thought. In New York, where I used to live, people passing bills on the street were usually selling one of two things: men’s suits or sex. But Washington is a political town. Here we sell causes.

I didn’t stop. I didn’t have a minute for her, or for much of anything except getting back to work. Besides, it seemed a little presumptuous of her to claim to represent the environment. And what did she mean by “the environment,” anyway? What does the term refer to? And then it struck me: that is an interesting question.

The street-corner environmentalist expected passers-by to understand what she meant, as do editorialists who speak of “environmental policies,” as do companies that tout their products as “Earth-friendly,” as do “environmentally conscious” consumers who conspicuously drive hybrid cars. No one is puzzled by these references. Everyone seems to understand what the environment is.

Yet “environment” is a highly abstract concept. It refers to the totality of external conditions that an organism of a particular type can interact with and that affect its survival, as opposed to its internal structure and processes. For every species there is a different environment, set by its nature. The environment of a garden flower in Florida is not the same as the environment of a Siberian tiger. “Environment” is a relational concept, like “husband” and “wife.” You can’t be a husband unless someone is your wife, and there can’t be an environment except as the environment of something. There is no such thing as the environment.

So what do people mean by that term? The next time I heard the “Got a minute…” pick-up line, I asked, “Which environment do you mean? Whose environment?” The question seemed to startle the person. “You know, the environment. Like, the Earth.” The Earth? No, that can’t be the referent of “the environment,” not literally. As a the third planet from the sun, the Earth doesn’t need a minute of our help staying in orbit, nor is it in danger from anything short of astrophysical calamity. As the sphere that all living things occupy, the Earth includes human beings and everything they have created, along with all other living things and inanimate matter. Again, that’s clearly not what is meant.

Perhaps the intent is to distinguish what is natural from what is man-made. That’s a rough-and-ready distinction, valid as far as it goes. But the realm of the natural doesn’t really coincide with the range of things people seem to include in “the environment.” On the one hand, environmentally correct organic produce is just as man-made as any other kind. On the other hand, digestion is a natural function and so, therefore, are its waste products and the pollution they cause if left untreated. In fundamental terms, the distinction between natural and man-made flounders on the fact that human beings are part of nature, and that it is our nature as a species to live by production. The artificial is natural to man.

This is obviously not the conception that environmentalists invoke and expect everyone to understand. So, again, what do they mean? What is the referent of “the environment”? The answer is that the term doesn’t have a referent, because it is not intended to do real cognitive work. It is a political code-word, like “family values,” that signals allegiance to a set of causes. These causes relate in diverse ways to our physical environment. Some of the particular causes are reasonable, some are not. But my point is that they are not held together by a coherent ideology, even a false one. They are held together by various unexamined assumptions (e.g., resources are limited, business is rapacious), feelings (fear of exhausting resources, guilt about prosperity), and images (dark satanic smokestacks, the beautiful blue-green planet from space). In this respect, “the environment” is what Ayn Rand called a floating abstraction, which acquires its content through emotions and associations rather than by derivation from reality.

Many observers have noted that the core themes of environmentalism have striking parallels to religion. The idolization of primitive societies living in balance with nature is a secular version of the Garden of Eden. Guilt about production, prosperity, and resource use are the environmentalist form of original sin. Like Hebrew prophets, environmentalists warn that the end is near, from global warming or some other apocalypse, unless we change our sinful ways and atone through ritual sacrifices of recycling, meatless Mondays, and abstinence from the demon drug carbon.

We can now see yet another parallel. The religious narrative presumes the existence of God, but theologians have never been able to define or even give definite content to the idea of God. The idea at the very heart of religion is vaguely imagined, imbued with feelings of hope, dread, and awe but incapable of definition except (at best) in negative terms. God is outside nature, outside time, not finite, and above all not man. “The environment” likewise has a floating content of images and feelings, incapable of coherent definition but with a similar negative cast: the environment is that which is not man. It’s the way the world would be if humans weren’t in it.

I don’t expect that this analysis will have much impact in current debates about global warming, “cap and trade,” pesticide use, and the like. Epistemology is a long-range weapon, of limited use in a street fight. But I do not think we will ever succeed in creating a free, rational, and—in the literal sense of the term—a fully humane society until we establish the right conceptual framework in which to think about specific issues.

There is such a thing as the environment of human beings as a species. But this valid concept of environment is poles apart from the one that environmentalists invoke. For one thing, humans do not have a fixed environment set by nature. As a species that lives by production, we constantly transform our environment, investing the stuff of “raw” nature with layer upon layer of man-made things. From cropland that has been tilled for generations, to the animals we breed for food and other uses, to the cities most of us live in, to the communication networks we use every day, we live in surroundings pervasively shaped by human effort. In any environment that humans occupy today, disentangling the man-made from the natural would take the most complex investigation, if indeed it is possible at all.

As social animals, moreover, we produce institutions and networks for trading, exchanging knowledge, and other forms of interaction. So our environment is not solely physical. It includes the economy in which we produce and trade. It includes the culture in which we acquire knowledge and seek rejuvenation in art. It includes the political environment of rights and laws. “For always roaming with a hungry heart,” says the Greek hero Ulysses in Tennyson’s poem,

Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments…

Cities of men and manners, councils and governments—all of these are as much a part of the human environment as climate, because all of them affect our survival and, together, form the set of factors we interact with.

This human environment is the one I care about. For this, I do have a minute—and much more.
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Kelley is the founder and executive director of The Atlas Society, the center for Objectivism.


Exactly, Marcus!

Lindsay Perigo's picture

Of course, the English themselves are highly unnatural, and the respositories of many deliciously unnatural practices. Eye

Nature untamed is the enemy. Unmoderated it thwarts us at every turn, and even when moderated comes up with some nasty surprises. Francis Bacon's "Nature to be commanded must be obeyed" is quoted often enough; I prefer to say that man, to fulfill human nature, must conquer and command the rest of it.

Perhaps the intent is to distinguish what is natural

Marcus's picture

It is interesting to note that in England virtually nothing is "natural".

Much wildlife has been introduced too, such as the deer, goats, boar and squirrels.

Nearly every stretch of England has been cultivated or manipulated by man.

Even many rivers and streams have been diverted.

An artificial network of canals cover the country, designed for trade.

Nature in England natural? No way.

Good piece

Doug Bandler's picture

Yes. Excellent piece. Kelley can have moments of brilliance. There is much of value in his work, especially his defense of the evidence of the senses.

Mr Kelley

gregster's picture

Great piece. You've got it sussed.

This is an exceptional

Mark Hubbard's picture

This is an exceptional article David: I've bookmarked for long term reference.

[As I said in my Russel Norman post, the 'environmental movement' is a contradictory and philosophical mess.]

If only ...

Lindsay Perigo's picture

... the whole world would read (and grasp) this. What an excellent piece!

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