Science and Reason
Environmentalists, especially radical environmentalists, tend to be very skeptical of science, reason, logic, Western culture, and stuff like that. I’m impressed that you and your staff are bucking that trend. Can you explain a little why you decided on that position?
—A Ph.D from Florida
Thanks for your letter. I think the biggest reason science is important to us “wildernerds” (as someone once called us) is that the usual radical environmentalist critiques are rather weak, very often false, and usually stem from a fundamental misunderstanding of what science is. (Also, not all of our staff are radical environmentalists.) For example, they’ll say things like “science separates us from the natural world,” but science is for us what enchants the natural world. Almost everyone from the editorial team and staff, for example, is extremely indebted to the inspirational work of evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson, who himself explains in all his work how beautiful the scientific worldview really is. As he once wrote, “Material reality discovered by science already possesses more content and grandeur than all religious cosmologies combined.” And it’s true!
Furthermore, radical environmentalist skepticism of science doesn’t actually stem from a desire to understand and interact with the natural world. If that was the case, they’d have proposed a better alternative by now, and they haven’t. Instead, the environmentalist skepticism is almost wholly derived from the notion that “our ancestors” (prehistoric humans or indigenous people) didn’t use it. They’ll not always admit this of course, but in my own experience ideas become much more convincing to environmentalists when you can somehow tie it to “ancient indigenous lifeways.” It’s a psychological thing, apparently.
In any case, not only is that position somewhat incorrect (and often phrased insultingly!), but it is a rather absurd line of thinking. I’m always reminded of the story of the Ghost Dance, which was a religious movement that some Native Indians adopted in the late 1800s. It stemmed from a prophecy by the messianic spiritual leader Wovoka, who preached that if the “Ghost Dance” was done just right, the spirits of the dead would fight on behalf of the Natives and make the colonists leave. Part of this was a belief that the dancers had “ghost shirts” that would protect them from bullets. I’ve heard a radical environmentalist actually say—actually say—that this was an example of their spiritual superiority, their “oneness with the Earth.” Apparently she hadn’t heard the end of the story, because in 1890 soldiers opened fire on Natives at Wounded Knee, and the ghost shirts did not, in fact, protect the two hundred plus individuals who died that day. The only “oneness with the Earth” they ended up experiencing was the oneness of their corpses with ashes and dust.
The moral of the story isn’t, “Ha! Look at those ignorant Natives.” To the contrary, Wovoka-ish mysticisim has played out plenty enough times throughout history for us to know that humans just seem to be prone to these sorts of things. The moral of the story is, however, that radical environmentalist talk of “the inarticulable,” “oneness with Nature” and other such gobbley-gook is very likely or at least prone to becoming yet another example. So far I’ve seen no other tools able to combat this better than science and reason.
— John Jacobi
What do each of you think of the recent upsurge of Christians concerned with the environment? Pope Francis, for example?
—James from Germany
I’m not a big fan of religion and especially Christianity. This doesn’t stem from ignorance, either; as I wrote in my “Influences” blog post, I’m extremely familiar with the Bible and theology.
In all, there are three problems with the Christian approach. The first is the evangelizing about nonsense metaphysical beliefs. My response to Dr. Florida’s letter explains this a little bit, but books by Dawkins, Hitchens, and some others debunk religious beliefs in a fuller manner.
Then there’s the issue of Christian ethics. What is the fundamental reason they are (ostensibly) espousing a love of the non-human world? For people like Francis, I don’t think it’s very genuine. The Catholic church is really in need of revitalization, and in history they’ve often achieved that by absorbing the language of alternative systems but none of the content. They did this with paganism in Ireland, for example, and it’s no surprise that they’d choose environmentalism today, since Nature seems to be the main source of spiritual experiences for contemporary secularists.
But in cases where Christians have a discernible environmental ethics, it is, in my view, repugnant. On the one hand, you have people who advocate “good stewardship,” which is completely opposite to the “wildness first” approach of the magazine. Then you have the Christian social justice faction, which sees caring for the environment in the terms of left humanist values. And, as I’ve written elsewhere, left humanism is anathema to an ethic of wildness.
— John Jacobi
In all honesty, I don’t have much interest or care really what the the church thinks about environmentalism, so I can’t really answer your question.
— Atticus Grey
The Noble Savage
How is the Wildernist’s ideas not noble savage myths just repackaged and sold nicely?
—Carrie from Alabama
Good question. Well, Wildists, and the wilderness purists before them, tend to actually have a fairly ignoble view of human nature and thus of the capacity of uncivilized men to solve their conflicts according to the standards of civilized moralities (e.g., peacefully, or with non-instrumental consideration for people outside their close relations). That is, human nature isn’t “all bad,” but we’ve certainly been fated with a mix of rather messy faculties, tendencies, and limitations.
I like to compare the nomadic hunter-gatherer ideal, then, to the ingenious system of checks and balances devised by the American Revolutionaries, who has a similar view of human nature. The whole idea is that while humans certainly have the capacity to do good, only hard limits built into the system could assure it with any reasonable stability. For the revolutionaries, checks and balances were devised to counter political corruption. In a much more reliable manner, the hunter-gatherer mode of production would place a pretty hard material limit on the amount of control humans could have over Nature. Thus, the ideal isn’t a veneration of nomadic hunter-gatherer life as much as it is a rational suggestion of what mode of production would be most likely to result in positive human-Nature interactions. Of course, Atticus (the other editor) and I, and our friends over at The Wildist Network, don’t suggest the nomadic hunter-gatherer way of life as a practical goal, but as a moral ideal, well, there it is.
— John Jacobi