Review: Green Delusions by Martin Lewis

Summary—Martin Lewis’ Green Delusions is a critique of various forms of radical environmentalism. This review explores how these critiques relate to the wildist ideology.

Introduction

green-delusions-martin-lewis-minMartin Lewis is a former believer in radical environmentalism who published Green Delusions to refute these ideologies once he came to the realization that, according to him, the very things he once opposed actually offer the best way to institute environmentalist values. Worse, he claims, the more radical of radical environmentalisms would actually betray these values.

While some reviews have said that Lewis constructs a straw man, my own experience has confirmed that the grassroots of the environmental movement consists of individuals thoroughly confused about technology, primitive life, and the impotence of irrationalism as a basis for politics. Certainly some eco-radicals, thankfully the most influential, have more robust and scientifically-informed views, but they are by no means the majority, and in practice “radical environmentalism” often obscures facts for the sake of its ideology, rather than its ideology building from facts.

All that said, Lewis does only attack the low-hanging fruit, not really interacting with the more sophisticated non-marxist environmentalisms in a fair way. This review outlines those pitfalls in relation to wildism, explaining that, with the exception of some elements of his “decoupling” thesis, nearly all elements of his critique are irrelevant to the ideology.

A Book with Few Weaknesses

Although Lewis occasionally appears daft or overly polemical, Delusions is mostly a strong text, one that I wholeheartedly recommend to any eco-radical. In fact, if a radical cannot weather the storm Lewis sends his way, he ought to seriously reconsider the basis of his radicalism.

This is especially true regarding the scientific evidence presented in each chapter. Lewis points out, and he is unfortunately correct, that many, if not most, eco-radicals base their politics on unfounded, dubious, or flat-out wrong assumptions. Perhaps the strongest examples of this are those outlined in chapter two, “Primal Purity and Balance,” in which Lewis critiques both the noble savage idea and the idea that ecosystems have a “natural balance” (this, while true in some respects, is not true to the degree that many eco-radicals would need it to be to support their conclusions; see Hettinger & Throop, 1999).

Lewis also makes several powerful arguments against irrationalism. Writing with the correct assumption that most environmentalists are from the left, he writes, “Irrationalism may be inherently radical, but it can just as easily be harnessed to the radical right, as examples of the philosopher Heidegger and of the deconstructionist savant Paul de Man—onetime nazis both—so clearly show” (p. 161). Related is his critique of the environmentalist obsession with Eastern religions. On this point hse quotes an interesting passage by van Wolferen (1990, p. 241):

Actually, the historical function of Japanese Zen, which thrived among the warrior class, was to lower the resistance of the individual against the blind obedience expected of him, as can be gathered from the common Zen imagery of ‘destroying’ or ‘extinguishing’ the mind. Indeed, all of the Asian creeds so eagerly embraced by eco-radicals have been associated with notoriously anti-liberal political regimes.

Later chapters in the book critique anti-technology stances, predictably arguing for technical progress primarily on the basis of medical values, and anti-capitalist stances, arguing that capitalism is better for third world countries than collapse would be, again on the basis of humanist values. For a wildist, his arguments in favor of capitalism will likely be somewhat boring, his most interesting claim instead being that the collapse of technical and economic infrastructure would betray environmentalist values.

As a part of his proposed alternative, he notes an important point regarding the “limits to growth” hypothesis (p. 185):

Limits do exist for specific resources, but in the most important cases they are so remote as to be virtually meaningless. Using the same logic one could declare all human endeavors futile, seeing that the sun will eventually go supernova and consume everything. More importantly, environmentalists must come to understand that economic growth increasingly entails not the ever mounting consumption of energy and raw materials, but rather ever increasing value added–which as often as not is accomplished through miniaturization, partial dematerialization, and the breakdown of the very distinction between goods and services.

Lewis is probably correct. Although it is possible that miniaturization will combine with expansion to create a hyper-technical landscape, current environmental problems are more likely to ensure that economic practices will go through a rapid change in the future, resulting in less growth in exchange for more value added, and resulting, ideally, in more efficient and stable distribution of resources. Several from the technician class have predicted as much.

Some weaknesses of the book do stand out. In particular, although Lewis clearly understands radical environmentalism, having belonged to the movement once himself, he sometimes makes arguments that he should know would be unconvincing to a radical. For example, in a chapter that is otherwise quite good, he supports his argument that urbanism is better for the environment by writing that “public transport, which is almost always less polluting than travel by private automobile, is feasible only in and between cities.” As if the travel practices of primitive man, or even transportation in agricultural societies, even approached the damage done by industrial public transport! He also says that he “can only shudder” at Aldo Leopold feeling “unspeakable delight” while hunting (p. 96), which is a classic case of the pathological aversion to violence present in many modernoversocialized individuals.

Finally, Lewis shows a clear and probably undue bias for eco-marxism, calling it the “most sophisticated of eco-radical ideologies.” But he ignores two important facts. First, non-marxist radical environmentalism is much newer than marxism, so it necessarily possesses a smaller theoretical body of knowledge. Second, some circles, who Lewis only ever addresses fleetingly or indirectly, have actually developed rather strong and reasoned foundations for their radicalism. This is the same circle that produced the field of conservation biology, The Wildlands Network, the concept of rewilding, and the now-defunct publication, Wild Earth.

Rarely Challenges Wildism

Unfortunately, Lewis’ strongest arguments, his scientific ones, are so strong precisely because most eco-radicals favor irrationalism and utopianism as the basis for their resistance. However, since wildism is built within the context of scientific materialism, most of the critiques do not apply to it.

For instance, Lewis argues that radical environmentalism is built on four faulty assumptions: (1) that primitive peoples lived or live harmoniously with nature; (2) that small-scale political structures are more socially and ecologically benign; (3) that technical progress is inherently bad for the environment; (4) that capitalism is inherently bad for the environment. He further argues that eco-radicalism’s main energy is derived from the belief “that continued economic growth is absolutely impossible, given the limits of a finite planet.”

However, almost none of this applies to wildism. In addition to its scientific materialism, wildism is mostly immune from these critiques because it is a non-humanist ideology, so does not hold dear the values of large-scale solidarity, equality, non-violence, and so forth. Rather, in lieu of social progressivism, wildists argue for the conservation imperative to be extended to human nature, which is known to come with bad (or “bad”) aspects as well as good ones, just as in nature generally. For this reason, nomadic hunter/gatherer life is a useful model not because primitive peoples live (or lived) “harmoniously” with non-human nature, but because they represent, in a rough way, the natural state of man. Scientific findings based on this insight have been revealed by sociobiology and its cousins.

Furthermore, although primitive peoples do not always live in an ecologically benign manner, they are several orders less damaging to the environment than industry. Oftentimes critiques of the noble savage mythology fail to note this, instead relying on the shock value that comes with the direct character of primitive man’s ecological damage. Thus, the point is not that primitive peoples necessarily live morally good lives, but that they at least live less bad ones, and this is ensured not by some naïve faith in human self-restraint, but by the hard, material limits of primitive technics.

On the question of technical progress, wildists do not insist that specific instances of technical progress are inherently bad for the environment, which is significant because the rebutting evidence Lewis offers often consists only of this. Wildists also note that technical progress could, hypothetically, be good for some aspects of naturalness, such as biodiversity. However, the core contention of wildism is that conservation should always aim to restore nature’s autonomy, or its wildness, and so far technical progress as a whole has necessarily amounted to a loss of this autonomy.

Thus, wildism demonstrates a reasoned way to come to eco-radical conclusions. The argument goes something like this: nature has intrinsic value, and the wildness of nature is of the utmost importance, even such that civilization at least until now has been morally unjustifiable. Since civilization arguably can’t and almost assuredly won’t be reformed into something sufficiently benign, the most moral way forward is probably to dispense of industry completely. Nearly none of what Lewis says is a great challenge to this, given the starting value of wildness.

The critiques most relevant to wildism are closely related to the half-earth idea, which poses, so far as we at the institute can tell, the only viable challenge to the idea that collapse is the way out of our ecological problems. This idea will be addressed on its own in a later piece. It is enough to say here that the strongest critiques relevant to wildism do not challenge the core value of wildness, but demand that wildists eco-radicals consider what other values have to be present for them to favor collapse over the alternatives. Lewis’ particular alternative (he calls it “Promethean environmentalism”) is inadequate, but evidence he offers strengthens the relevance of the central dilemma: if further development can mostly decouple humans from non-human nature, which is possible in some significant ways, would wildness-centered eco-radicals be willing to sacrifice the wildness of human nature in exchange for the wildness of non-human nature, or must they have both?

For instance, Lewis points out that densely packed urban industrial environments more efficiently use land and resources than rural environments, leaving more land for wildlife. Although this could be akin to the argument that public transport is desirable because it is better than cars, I find this argument to be somewhat more sensible, because collapse will not happen in all places at once, which means a potentially long period of ruralization in some areas before the period of technical regression ends. This could mean a lot of damage to wildlife. Furthermore, Lewis offers some evidence that non- or minimally-industrial back-to-the-land living could be more harmful than cities. This is mostly anecdotal, however, and also relies on emotional capital in the same way critiques of noble savagism do, so more data is needed to support the point.

Lewis’ argument is made stronger, of course, by the possibility of an even more radical decoupling for which industrial cities lay the foundation. That is, new digital technologies, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, and so forth could decrease the ecological footprint of each human being by several orders, potentially to a level smaller than even primitive man. This may make the population decrease that has historically come with industrialization sufficient to make the late industrial mode of production less harmful to non-human nature than primitive modes of production. In the context of transhumanist ideas, like uploading human consciousness to the internet, this idea starts to look like the best of both worlds: progressivists get to continue technical progress for humans, while at the same time non-human nature will continue to be restored.

I and a few others at the institute believe that there are serious problems with this idea, reflecting many of the points brought up by McCarthy (1993), but we have outlined neither our moral rebuttal nor our empirical doubts. Because of this, Lewis currently has the upper hand, and the “decoupling” aspect of his critique is a profoundly important consideration for wildists.

Conclusion

Lewis’ critique of radical environmentalism is unfortunately stronger than it should be, because among the grassroots activists that form the majority of the movement, irrationalism reigns supreme, as do humanist values. This is especially true in regards to radical environmentalist accounts of small-scale societies and noble savage mythologies. However, because wildists are not bound to humanist values and insist on a scientific analysis, Lewis’ critique is mostly impotent for us. Nevertheless, to the extent that it is feasible, his “decoupling” thesis offers an attractive potential alternative to collapse, and a pressing concern for wildists should be outlining the moral and empirical criticisms of this alternative, if they exist.

Bibliography

Hettinger, N., & Throop, B. (1999). Refocusing ecocentrism: De-emphasizing stability and defending wildness.Environmental Ethics, 21(1), 3-21.

Lewis, M. (1992). Green Delusions: An Environmentalist Critique of Radical Environmentalism. Durham: Duke University Press.

McCarthy, J. P. (1993). Reviewed work: Green Delusions: An Environmentalist Critique of Radical Environmentalism by Martin W. Lewis. Economic Geography, 69(4), 425-428.

van Wolferen, K. (1990). The Enigma of Japanese Power: People and Politics in a Stateless Nation. Vintage Books.

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