“Environmentalists see the asphalting of the country as a sin against the world of nature, but we should also see in it a kind of damage that has been done to humans, for what precedes environmental degradation is the debasement of the human world. I would go so far as to say that there is no solution for environmental destruction that isn’t first a healing of the damage that has been done to the human community.”
White became a hero of mine when I read the first part of his essay in Orion’s last issue. I have thought for a long time that the planet’s environmental problems are a symptom of a sickness in the way we live, and White articulates this with the force of great eloquence. Where once, Having was something that complimented our Being, over the past hundred years, we’ve come to act as though our Being is entirely for the purpose of Having. Since the pleasure of Having is so short lived, we must Have more and more in our attempts to be happy. That means consuming more and more of the planet’s resources and pumping more and more toxins into its water, earth and air.
I’ve said over and over to radio hosts and journalists and pretty much anyone who will listen that among the roots of the planetary eco-crisis is the breakdown of community. Not only do we live in isolated little houses or apartments, unknown to our neighbors, but families go to their own rooms to watch their own TV shows or play their own computer games. True relationship with one another and our wider society has been replaced by Nintendo and Tivo. Because we lack community, we lack the feeling of accountability to anything larger than ourselves.
As the resulting logic goes, why should I change my life for the sake of a world to which I feel only the slightest connection? Wouldn’t I get more improvement in my life if I instead exerted my efforts towards the purchase of an HD TV?
People sometimes think that the No Impact experiment is about deprivation, but I would argue that we are already hugely deprived. There is a man who shows up in New York’s Union Square offering “free hugs” and he gets many takers. Why? Why can we not find enough affection within our own lives? We are deprived of relationship. Paradoxically, No Impact’s letting go of the idea that we should spend our lives working for and accumulating more “stuff” allows space for the things that end our deprivation—like friendship and community and the time to enjoy them.
A psychiatrist friend, Stephan Quentzel, went so far as to suggest in conversation that environmentalism could be like a new religion that binds us together with a sense of common purpose and greater meaning. My friend Rabbi Steve Greenberg said to me that the rules of living environmentally—an extreme example of which are the rules my little family follows in the No Impact experiment—could be a sort of new eco-kashrut, social rules of behavior that make life eco-kosher and which we would follow in order to be part of a larger tradition and community and to serve a common good.
Professor White writes in his Orion essay:
“Responding to environmental destruction requires not only the overcoming of corporate evildoers but “self-overcoming,” a transformation in the way we live. A more adequate response to our true problems requires that we cease to be a society that believes that wealth is the accumulation of money (no matter how much of it we’re planning on “giving back” to nature), and begin to be a society that understands that “there is no wealth but life,” as John Ruskin put it…”
Which leads to my wondering, why is much of the current environmental thinking so conventional? Why is it so inside the box? Why are we talking about eco-economies and “externalities” and trying to fit all the problems and solutions within economic theory? To my way of thinking, the system that we live in is a hodgepodge. It was never designed to accommodate six billion people. In fact, it was never designed at all. Why do we have to protect it and the status quo? Why not be willing to change it? Why not work towards a better system?
“As a matter of conscience,” White writes, “we should be willing to say that the so-called greening of corporate America is not as much about the desire to protect nature as it is about the desire to protect capitalism itself.”
But what goes in place of the values that are central to capitalism (and before I get 67,000 emails about the failure of the Soviet experiment, I'm not arguing for communism)? What can we find to supplant worshiping at the altars of supply and demand, want and satiation. The whole system is designed not to find a way out of the cycle of desire—which the world’s great religions exhort us to do—but only to give us temporary relief by more and more Having.
Why do we bury the big questions that confront us all? What is the meaning of my existence? What is my relationship to your existence? How should I live my life? If I accept that I will die one day, is there any meaning to my life that will endure? Because if we embrace these questions—or I should say when I do—Having just seems so much more trivial.
Which brings me back to why Professor White is another hero of mine:
“I would also suggest,” he writes, “that what has the best chance of defeating the “beast” is spirit. In accepting science as our primary weapon against environmental destruction, we have also had to accept science’s contempt for religion and the spiritual…Environmentalism should stop depending solely on its alliance with science for its sense of itself. It should look to create a common language of care (a reverence for and a commitment to the astonishing fact of Being) through which it could begin to create alternative principles by which we might live. As Leo Tolstoy wrote in his famous essay “My Religion,” faith is not about obedience to church dogma, and it is not about “submission to established authority.” A people’s religion is “the principle by which they live.””
Professor White’s most recent book, if you’d like to take a look, is The Spirit of Disobedience: Resisting the Charms of Fake Politics, Mindless Consumption, and the Culture of Total Work.