Jan Brueghel, Peter Paul Rubens

The Dangerous Naivete of Back-to-The-Garden Environmentalism

ONE

I’m standing at the foot of a magnificent glacier in Iceland, it’s towering deep blue face dripping and glistening, a broad thick river of ice curving down through the jagged black canyon the ice has cut through a still-active volcano. From a distance the scene was magnificent, but just a still life. Here, up close, everything is so incredibly dynamic, the earth alive; the melting and moving and cracking ice, steaming geothermal vents spewing their sulfuric clouds, fresh volcanic rock just being colonized by the first mossy green plants. It’s humbling to reflect, at this one instant in time, on the millions of years it took nature’s inconceivable power to create this majestic scene, and to realize that those forces will still be at work hundreds of millions of years after this instant, and I, are gone.

Eventually, of course, this massive river of ice will be no more, a victim in part of anthropogenic climate change, but mostly of the larger natural forces that make and melt glaciers in the first place. The volcano and surrounding mountains will surely also succumb to those same greater powers. Iceland — a geological spectacle of volcanoes and plate tectonics building the earth up, and ice caps and glaciers and raging seas all inexorably tearing the earth back down — is the place to witness these natural processes at work, to understand their power and vast time scale, and to put the relatively puny and temporary forces of humanity in perspective. The dynamism of this place confronts you with the inescapable truth that, for all the ways in which humans are changing the natural world and all our hubris about our species’ power, the far greater forces of nature are still in charge.

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Even here though, in the face of this truth, it’s hard to be humble. Our anthropocentric arrogance runs deep. From our schools and literature, from our academics and our poets and our priests, from everywhere across time and cultures people are taught to believe that we are special, that humans are the pinnacle of nature’s creation, the center, and that the fate of Nature is in our powerful hands. We are taught that Nature is ours to use, and ours to protect, but ours.

Earth was given us as a garden, cradle for humanity, tree of life and tree of knowledge placed for our discovery.

says a Unitarian Universalist hymn.

The heavens are the Lord’s heavens, but the earth he has given to mankind

says Judaism’s Psalm 115:16.

Islam teaches that

Humanity is located at the axis and center of the cosmic milieu.

The Christian God gave Adam and Eve

dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth. (Genesis 1:28)

It’s understandable that our cultures and faith stories would see things this way. It is the nature of human cognition itself, after all, to perceive the world out there from in here. We make sense of everything relative to ourselves. There is you and there are others. There is the place you are in at any given moment and other places. There are your experiences and job and lifestyle and needs, and those of others. That puts us at the center of our own existence, but also creates the sense that we are separate from everything else. As Albert Einstein put it,

A human being is a part of the whole, called by us the ‘Universe’ — a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.

This delusion allows modern environmental prophets the hypocrisy of proclaiming that humans are part of Nature and that we have to live that way, but also that there is Nature, and separately, there is us. As Bill McKibben put it in the book that vaulted him to wider renown, humans have caused The End of Nature. Not the “The Alteration of Nature” or “The Disruption of Nature” or even a plaintive lament for “The Suffering of Nature“. The END. McKibben wrote that humans have “ended nature as an independent force…” Which is poetic and appealing, but arrogantly anthropocentric, to say nothing of scientifically naïve.

Or consider another high priest of modern environmentalism, esteemed biologist Edward Wilson. In his bestselling book The Creation, which he devotes to “the restoration of Eden” Wilson writes of humans that “We strayed from Nature with the beginning of civilization.” Wilson defines Nature as ”that part of the original environment and its life forms that remains after the human impact.” As though humans, for all the unprecedented and egregious harm we certainly do to the natural world, are not part of that natural world, that we are not a species too. His remarkable ants are “Nature”, and plants and fish and bacteria and the biological and chemical and physical forces that create and run the biosphere are “Nature”, but not the human animal. Where Homo sapiens are, Nature, as E.O. Wilson defines it, is not.

This anthropocentric arrogance, and hypocrisy, that we are part of Nature, but that we are separate from it, is necessary for the central conceit of classical environmentalism; that humans and our special powers and our modern technologies and products and progress have despoiled Nature, ruined Nature, and the solution is, as Joni Mitchel wrote, to ‘turn the bombers into butterflies’ and ‘get ourselves back to The Garden’… the idealized Garden of Eden…the pre-human ideal of Nature, the way IT was meant to be until WE came along and mucked things up.

In order to believe that you have to separate humans from nature. You have to believe that unlike all other living things, humans are behaving unnaturally. You have to reject the obvious truth that humans are just one species, doing only what every other species naturally does, using every available tool and skill and instinct to survive, the most universal natural imperative of all. Only by denying this inescapable biological truth and separating humans from Nature can classical environmentalism set up the hero — Nature — and the villain — Us, a threat so powerful that the fate of all things is in our hands.

That allows for the appealing but naïve belief that the thing that makes us different, our ability to reason, is so powerful that it can overcome our basic animal instincts and show us the way Back to The Garden, to the mythical virginal Nature that represents the world unravaged by the horrendous hand of man. As McKibben says, “We are different from the rest of the natural order, for the single reason that we possess the possibility of self-restraint, of choosing some other way.” Reason to the rescue. As Wilson puts it, “When waters lap over downtown Miami and the species counts plummet to the point that they can’t be ignored anymore, when we see how badly we are destabilizing the world, then I think we’ll turn to reason. And with reason, we can solve these problems.”

It is a hopeful case. But believing that we are so intelligent that we can consciously conquer our ancient animal instincts and, effectively, outwit the natural ways we are programmed to behave, is beyond naïve. It is pious, and ignorant, and worst of all, dangerous, because it places our future in the hands of a solution that can’t work.

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TWO

The leaves float down as we walk along a stream snaking through the trees. The water splashes over rocks that have tumbled down from Appalachian mountains now worn soft and low but which in their youth, a quarter of a billion years ago, rose higher than the Himalayas. The autumn red and orange and yellow of the oaks and maples and birch mix with the ever-green of the firs, turning the rolling White Mountains into the dappled impressionist landscape that annually brings millions to celebrate the natural beauty of these woods.

Except, a hundred and fifty years ago these woods weren’t here. This was all open farmland, the timber cut down and the rocky fields cleared to help build and feed an expanding America. Now regrown, these pretty forests and the gentle mountains they cover are a gift, not just for their natural aesthetics, but as a reminder of how, despite all our human insults and demands, the patient and persistent forces of the natural world that some refer to as Gaia will just keep going.

The environmental philosopher James Lovelock chose the Greek Mother Goddess Gaia, who created the Earth and all the universe, to represent nature as a single dynamic living system, the product of the hydrological and geological cycles and chemical cycles and the diverse biological cycles of all living species, including but hardly revolving around Homo sapiens. These components are all interactive parts of one larger living being. It’s interesting that Lovelock’s eco rather than anthropo-centrism borrows Gaia from Greek myth, because humans were not a part of the Greek genesis story. They come along much later, as relatively powerless playthings for the Gods. Hardly the center of things. Hardly the ultimate force in charge.

But Greek myth did recognize the threat humans posed to the natural world. Prometheus was harshly punished for stealing fire from Zeus and giving it to humans. Interestingly, Zeus not only punished Prometheus for giving fire to humans. He punished humans too, giving them Pandora and her mysterious jar, which curious humans opened, setting free all the ills of the world. (It’s also noteworthy that in one version of Greek myth the only thing left in Pandora’s jar when she finally got the lid back on, that didn’t escape into the world of humans, was Hope.)

Christianity’s God too realized the mess humans would make of Eden if they got too powerful by eating from the Tree of Knowledge. And as were the humans in Greek myth, Christianity’s humans were cursed with suffering for gaining power they weren’t supposed to have. The ancient authors of these two different faith stories perceptively foresaw just what environmentalists today rightly decry, that knowledge and technological power have made humans a uniquely dangerous species to the natural world.

With the powers of knowledge and fire — reason and technology — we have made life much better for humans in many ways. But we have also done tragic, sweeping damage to the natural world of which we are a part and on which we depend. Such damage, in fact, that we threaten our own existence. The threat to Nature in its current state is very real. Which is of course very different from ending it altogether. But then we tend to see all things from where we stand, which means that of the whole long story of the Earth before us, and long after we’re gone, we only think in terms of how things are now.

That myopia, about human time scales versus natural time scales, is the same selective hubris classical environmentalists have about our powers of reason. We’re smart enough, they argue, to use reason ‘to solve these problems’. That’s myopic too, because the truth is that we just aren’t as smart as we think we are. Yes we are blessed with the powerful ability to reason, but we are also saddled with the even-more powerful instincts and innate biology that mostly compel our choices and behaviors. Evidence from many fields developed in the past several decades has resoundingly disproved the appealing but naïve Enlightenment belief in the superiority of reason, and convincingly shown that human judgment and decision making are the product of what Melissa Finucane and Paul Slovic and others call the Affect Heuristic; the mental shortcut our brain uses to quickly and subconsciously take the facts we have (usually only a few), run them through filters of emotion and experience and instinct and life circumstances and needs, and produce our affective perceptions of the world, and our behaviors.

The evidence is clear that Ambrose Bierce was right when he wrote in Devil’s Dictionary (paraphrasing);

Brain (n) the organ with which we think we think.

How stunningly, dangerously naïve it is in the face of mountains of evidence to the contrary to believe that we can out-think our instincts, that we can consciously overcome the deep biologically-embedded survival imperative that compels our behaviors far more than does relatively weaker reason…to believe that we are so smart that we can outsmart Nature itself.

In fact, there is almost an immorality to the arrogant claim that we are so different and so smart that human wisdom can conquer natural instinct, that ‘we can choose restraint’, that we can ‘think globally’ and do what’s best not just for ourselves but for all. How piously easy that is to proclaim for those who sit comfortably sheltered, fed, and safe at the very top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. At the bottom levels of the hierarchy, where the needs are food and water and shelter and safety…you know, the basic levels at which the vast majority of humans live their lives… our brain is principally occupied with meeting our immediate instinctive personal needs in pursuit of survival.

Indeed the proof that we aren’t as smart as Wilson and McKibben and others hope we can be, is the very damage that environmentalists lament, the irrational damage we’re doing to the biological systems on which our own long term survival depends. That’s pretty dumb for creatures supposedly smart enough to be able to rationally figure things out and save ourselves from ourselves. If we were that smart would we have caused climate change in the first place, or driven species we depend on for food to near extinction, or filled our air and water with pollutants and filth that kill hundreds of millions of people each year? Wilson scolds that “Civilization was purchased by the betrayal of Nature.” So for the 11,000 years or so since hunting-gathering humans turned into settled farmers we’ve had the ability to reason, but it hasn’t kept us from making a hell of a mess. Indeed — as foreseen in the Bible — the power of reason that the enviro prophets promise as our salvation has played a central role in causing the very problems that those preachers suggest reason can now solve.

Assuming that humans are smart enough to overcome our natural instincts, in the face of all the evidence that virtually screams “NO, WE’RE NOT” is pretty dumb all by itself. But worse, assuming that we’re smarter and more intellectually in control of our behaviors than we actually are gives us a false sense of power and hope. It lets us pretend we can think our way out of the mess we’ve made. It allows the fantasy that we can overcome the deep animal instincts of the species Homo sapiens, and the further fantasy that Back to The Garden is where reason ought to, and can, take us.

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THREE

The one lane road weaves through a rough valley of boulder-strewn fields in the mountainous Western Autonomous Region of China, just east of Tibet. An occasional Buddhist monastery sits on a hillside, decorated with strings of waving colored prayer flags that brighten the otherwise austere landscape. We drive along, peering anxiously up at the overcast sky, hoping the clouds will break and allow us the once-in-a-lifetime experience of a glimpse of a total solar eclipse

The sky begins to dim, and like a gift the clouds thin, just enough that we can see it has begun. We pull over next to a small white prayer Stupa along a stream and gape up. A dark sharp curving shadow is spreading down from upper edge of the sun! Through thin clouds we can see it all, see the curved shadow growing, watch it move, see the sun steadily disappearing in the middle of the day! Our hearts race! Buddhist prayer chants echo from distant monasteries all along the valley, to honor a moment so special that it is believed to magnify the Karmic results of one’s actions millions of times.

The sun slowly disappears until only a sliver at the bottom is left, a bright Cheshire cat grin, and then, as if a switch was flipped, it is fully gone and the dim afternoon falls suddenly into nighttime darkness, only a glowing shimmering edge around the shadow left to mark where the sun is hiding. It is magical. We know it is no more than a well-understood physical phenomenon, a predictable astronomical coincidence. But it feels magical, special, a privilege, and a reminder to be humble, almost like a purposeful message from Nature saying “Hey you puny humans, don’t get so proud that you forget who is really running things!”

The moon’s shadow slides slowly on, and after a few minutes of complete darkness the tiniest sliver of the sun appears, and night snaps back into day. Grinning, we tuck the gift of this moment in our hearts and drive on.

The mythical ideal of an unspoiled natural Garden of Eden past, and the belief that we are separate from that Nature, that we are so powerful that we are destroying all of Nature, and by dint of our superior reason that we can outsmart our own natural instincts, pose a serious threat to human and environmental health in two ways. As mentioned, it’s dangerous to place so much faith in a solution that simply can not be achieved given the instinctive nature of human cognition and the overpowering ‘me first’ imperative of survival. But more, the narrow anthropocentric view that modern civilization is ruining Nature…that modern civilization is almost antithetical to the very concept of Nature…fuels a growing rejection of anything that isn’t natural. This simplistic concern about anything human-made or altered animates a growing opposition to many of the modern tools which, if more wisely applied, can help reduce some of the damage we’re doing. Consider just a few;

  • Classic environmentalism preaches that commercial-scale agriculture, vital for feeding a world of seven going on 10–11 billion people, is too big, too ‘mono-culture’, relies too much on synthetic chemicals. Rather, we are told we should go back to small scale natural ‘organic’ local farming, though it can’t produce nearly enough food to feed a hungry planet. We should eat only natural foods, though they offer no nutritional advantage but cost more and rot faster. We should drink unpasteurized raw milk, which tastes great but can carry bacteria that used to kill thousands. You know, we should do things the natural way, like they did back in The Garden of Eden. Which had a population of two.
  • We are warned that nuclear power — which emits no particulate or green house gas emissions — creates risks from radiation, though 65 years of study of atomic bomb survivors has shown those risks to be far less than is commonly feared. No, we are told we should use the wind and the sun, like back in Eden, even though sometimes the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow at the same time that hundreds of millions of people, each instinctively striving for their own safety and comfort, demand electricity. (And by the way, none of those industrial-looking windmills or solar farms near where I live, thank you. Adam and Even didn’t have to look at such modern ugliness.)
  • We are cautioned that unnatural agricultural biotechnology — genetically modified food, that has proven to increase yields, decrease pesticide use, and which can create more nutritious crop hybrids resistant to disease and increasingly stressful environmental conditions — has as-yet-unknown risks, though the near-unanimous consensus among the top science bodies in the world says there is no evidence of human health risk (that scientific consensus is as strong as there is about climate change). Environmentalists preach that we should stick with the crops that are natural, organic, nothing modified by humans, even though everything we eat has been modified by humans since back when humans settled out of hunting and gathering. (Enter the Paleo diet, to go back to the pre-civilization times — back toward Eden — to solve that problem.)
  • We are told that synthetic chemicals — vital components of just about everything in modern life — cause an ever-growing list of health problems, although in many cases those speculative problems do not in fact occur because at the doses to which we are exposed there are no harms at all, a qualification that most environmental advocates, and journalists, fail to note. So let’s get rid of plastics and pesticides and artificial ingredients in food and chlorinated water and most consumer products and modern transportation and and human-made vaccines and…you know, let’s get Back to the Garden, before we mucked things up.

These products and technologies, and many more, are the ‘monsters’ in Bruno Latour’s insightful essay Love Your Monsters, Why We Must Care For Our Technologies As We Do Our Children. Mistreated and misused, our technological creations certainly can turn into monsters, which is how some environmentalists see them. To environmental leaders like Vandana Shiva, who preach that we need to get Back to The Garden, modern technologies, and even modern civilization itself (as Professor Wilson also laments), are villains. Threats. Only harmful, not also potentially helpful. The products of our intelligence, modernity itself, have become the bad guy. As Shiva has written, modern humans and science are at war.

The war against the Earth began with…Francis Bacon, called the father of modern science, who said that science and the inventions that result do not ‘merely exert a gentle guidance over nature’s course; they have the power to conquer and subdue her, to shake her to her foundations.’

Of course Bacon wasn’t necessarily advocating that ‘science and inventions’ should go to ‘war against the Earth’, though in many ways they have. Perhaps he was also warning against just such harms, that we should use our tools and our intelligence carefully, responsibly. But he would have laughed at the version of the Precautionary Principle proposed by more ardent classical environmentalists, the idea that because those tools might do harm, that we reject them outright, regardless of their potential benefits, for even the most speculative harm they might do. Were Bacon around now, the father of the scientific method would mock the Back to the Garden naivete of those who more and more think of science and it’s inventions as threats, monstrous Dr. Frankenstein creations only to be feared and rejected. And he would surely note the hypocrisy of those who say that our salvation lies in our power to reason, and yet who reject many of the products of that power because they conflict with the Back to Garden ideal.

There are, of course, all sorts of environmentalists, which broadly just means anyone concerned about the immoral and irrational damage humans are inflicting on the natural world. That’s most of us. Many recognize that human-made technologies, though they have been part of the problem, can and must be part of the solution. But the most strident environmental leaders (and many of the most popular) have less room for such compromise, and they are turning our shared concern for an injured Gaia into a sweeping Back to the Garden religion that goes way too far in demonizing the tools and products of modern life, tools which, for all the harms they have undeniably done have also provided vast benefits, and which if wisely applied can help us live in better balance with Gaia going forward.

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There is no question that humans, and the biosphere we live in, are headed for an inevitable nasty crash that will certainly largely be our fault. This crash is unavoidable, because of all of the processes we’ve already set in motion, and because the instincts that subconsciously compel most of our behavior are far more powerful than our purposeful conscious reasoning. Our modern advanced brain is not powerful enough to overcome the ancient animal we mostly remain.

But as Stewart Brand has so pithily put it when laying out the goal of his counter-culture Whole Earth Magazine and Catalog in 1968;

We are as Gods, and we might as well get good at it.

We are smart. We do have remarkable technological tools. But we can only apply those tools if we use our intelligence to recognize that we are a part of nature, and humbly accept that we are not so smart that we are apart from it. We have to be more modest about the limits to human reason and get beyond the hubris of how special we think we are. If we are smart enough to do that, then we might see past the naive Back to the Garden faith that a pre-human Nature is the ideal and only true Nature, and see how the poetic appeal of a return to Eden blinds us from achieving effective solutions to the terrible harm we continue to cause.

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Epilog

I am 40 feet below the surface of the South Pacific off the island of Peleilu, face to face with a cuttlefish that does not seem happy at my attention. It is flashing iridescent colors along its body, spreading its tentacles toward me menacingly, and the jaws of its beak are open in what is clearly a “DO NOT COME ANY CLOSER” pose. How engrossing it is to be one-on-one with this remarkable and clearly sentient, intelligent creature, a species possibly older than fish or sharks with abilities science has only begun to fathom. Focused one ach other, the connection between us feels like a gift.

A dark thought runs through me, that the damage humans are doing to the oceans may doom this remarkable being. But then I remember those pictures our dive master had shown us of this site from ten years ago. The coral was white, skeletal, seemingly bleached dead by El Nino warming in the Pacific. There were no cuttlefish, no fish at all. A decade later it’s a multi-colored vibrant garden of life, a resilient complex ecosystem blithely going about its natural business, heedless (except for the cuttlefish) to the invader who needs bulky awkward risky technology to even be in this foreign environment, where the cuttlefish is totally at home.

And as this all goes through my mind, the cuttlefish, apparently satisfied that I am no longer a threat, slowly turns so his tail is to my face and, rather smugly it seems, swims casually away and fades into the depths.

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