How deep is your ecology?
— The New Age versus the New Militants in hardline environmentalism.
There is a stereotypical picture of the British Pagan's interest in the preservation of the environment. Beards, long hair, flowing clothes, excessive use of wind-chimes and language peppered with references to "Mother Earth", "the cosmos", "Oneness with the universe" or even "transcendence of the false ego to achieve union with nature" are recognisable facets of this stereotype. However, while it is undeniably true that the lighter element of "pagan" ecology is often used as an excuse to drink a lot of herbal tea and wear dream-catcher earrings, there are other pagan and pagan-influenced perspectives on environmental issues which are worthy of note. If not always valid as scientific hypotheses, pagan-influenced environmentalist theories offer a fascinating alternative to "conventional" (i.e. person-oriented rather than earth-oriented) ecology.
This distinction between "humanist" and "holistic" ecology may come across as arbitrary at first. For what is ecology if not simply the scientific study of the relationships that living things have to their environment and to each other? Those who advocate the "holistic" approach, and most notably followers of James Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis, would argue that the idea of study in itself suggests something that is apart from the student, a perspective which, as we are all part of the self-regulating organism that is Gaia and thus cannot separate ourselves from it, is ultimately misguided. If the earth or universe is conceived of as a self-regulating organism, then ecology, rather than being an observational scientific practice, becomes a thought system, a perspective on life and the structure of the universe that dominates all other thought. In opposition to "humanist" ecology, the accusation is that conventional scientific attitudes towards ecology are heavily rooted in the Western/Judeo-Christian perspective on nature which assumes that humanity has a certain amount of stewardship over the earth. This use of the term "humanist" is far from its standard definition — we can simply assume that, for the Gaia theorist, ecology that starts and ends with the perspective of the human is, for want of a better word, BAD. As Adrian Harris puts it in his article "Sacred Ecology":
"Besides the cerebral knowledge we all possess, the words & ideas stored in our heads, there is a deeper knowledge held within the tissue of our bodies. It is a somatic, physical knowing which comes from direct experience. This is the knowledge of faith, of emotion, of the gut feeling.
The philosophical tradition of the West is an intellectual one founded on logic & language. It is profoundly limiting, for within it whatever cannot be said does not exist. What I am proposing is a radical alternative: A Somatic philosophy which respects the knowing of the body, the knowledge memories & wisdom held within our muscles, flowing with our hormones, sparking through our nerves." (available at www.thegreenfuse.org)
All of this begins to sounds vaguely familiar — the post-Enlightenment Western worldview is a fairly easy scapegoat for social problems of any ilk. Indeed, the individualist, patriarchal, optimistic outlook can be blamed for many things, from the historical subordination of women to the state of modern pop music. The assumption that the "Western" thought perspective does not allow for true experience or insight is simply false and idealistic. The assumption that it actively damages the environment is even more false and idealistic. However, some groups of radical, "deep" ecologists would argue just that.
"Deep" ecology is defined as opposed to scientific ecology as follows:
- Scientific ecology is the study of the inter-relationships between species and their environments.
- Deep ecology is experiencing ourselves as part of the living earth and finding our role in protecting the planet.
In some ways, deep ecology has similar roots to Gaia theory, in that we are all part of the same organism. However, deep ecologists tend to go one step further than the Gaia theorists in arguing that humanity is genuinely of no more importance than an amoeba or, say, the smallpox virus. There is no clear cut line between deep ecology and Gaia theory, but the deep ecologist tend further towards a radical, almost anti-human perspective, for reasons which shall be explained below.
While Gaia theorists are led by their sense of environmental responsibility, there is a sense in which too much emphasis on humanity's role in the destruction and/or protection of the universe is seen as arrogance. As one angry young Gaia theorist/worshipper puts it on a web-based discussion board:
"…does loving and protecting the earth necessarily imply support for environmentalism? I guess that depends on what exactly you think the earth needs protection from. Like many pagans, I believe in Gaia, the planetary-scale organism of which we are all a part. I consider the well-being of Gaia to be of extreme importance. It is precisely because of this that I frequently find myself opposed to the actions and attitudes of most environmentalists. I frequently find it difficult to believe how disconnected they must feel from Gaia. I have a hard time comprehending how they can hate such large and important parts of her. And I'm utterly aghast at how often they attempt to interfere with her continued natural growth and evolution." (www.dreamsmith.org)
The idea is that to put too much emphasis on people as either protective stewards of the earth or its malevolent destructors is to vaunt humanity's influence too far. Gaia, basically, can look after herself, and does not need us to campaign on environmental issues in order to flourish. While James Lovelock, the original Gaia theorist, did emphasise the importance of ecological awareness, he was also a keen supporter of the use of nuclear energy and did not suffer the use of distinctions between "natural" and "unnatural" gladly:
"One reason why Lovelock regards the Green movement "with mixed vexation and affection" is its obsession with the chemical industry. "To many Greens, if a chemical like methyl iodide or carbon disulphide comes from some dark satanic mill, it is by nature evil, but if it comes from organically grown or natural seaweed, it must be good and healthy. To me, as a scientist, it does not matter where it comes from. I am poisoned if I eat too much of it."" (Daily Telegraph, 05.10.2000)
To an environmentalist like Lovelock, the essential question is — how can we feed, house and clothe the abundant human race without destroying the habitats of other creatures? To the deep ecologist, this is too anthropomorphic a view. Deep ecology demands the belief that humanity has no hierarchical dominance over other things, whether elephants or bacterial cells. Its simple principle is that human self-importance damages the environment and that drastic action on the part of humanity is required if that damage is to be reversed.
Earth First! is perhaps the most renowned (and also infamous) of deep ecology groups. To quote Aldo Leopold, they are guided by the belief that:
"A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise."
Or, as their own material puts it:
"…we say the ideas and manifestations of industrial civilisation are anti-Earth, anti-women and anti-liberty."
"It is a belief in biocentrism, that life < the Earth> comes first, and a practice of putting our beliefs into action." (see www.earthfirstjournal.org)
This initially sounds very worthy. Indeed, a lot of Earth First!'s uncompromising rhetoric provides a welcome, radical alternative to the standard New Age earth-loving wooliness. However, a closer look at some Earth First material reveals its attitude to the human race to be positively antagonistic. As Murray Bookchin puts it in Green Perspectives:
""Earth First!" means exactly what it says and what "deep ecology" implies — the "earth" comes before people, indeed, people (to the periodical's editor, David Foreman) are superfluous, perhaps even harmful, and certainly dispensable. "Natural law" tends to supplant social factors. Thus: is there a famine in Ethiopia? If so.nature should be permitted to "take its course" and the Ethiopian should be left to starve. Are Latins (and, one may add, Indians) crossing the Rio Grande? Then they should be stopped or removed, contends Foreman, because they are burdening "our" resources. Devall, who apparently recorded these golden views, doesn't express a word of protest or even dissent."
Population control becomes a burning issue in the debate between the deep ecologist and the Gaia theorist. As has already been pointed out, James Lovelock felt that the major ecological issue was ensuring that humans continue to flourish without causing harm. For advocates of Earth First!, the harm reduction takes precedence over the human flourishing.
Deep ecology and Gaia theory share a background in that they dismiss the importance of and difference of the human. Gaia theorists acknowledge humanity as important, but only important through being a creation of Gaia. For deep ecologists, humans are no different from, and no more important than, worms or viruses. And while each of these perspectives has its merits, they both negate themselves by ignoring the simple fact that, in encouraging debate about these issues, humans prove that they are different from other species. Ecology is as much about human society as it is about mountains and rivers. The way in which we interact with nature, the way in which groups of people go about their daily lives, is ultimately the first point in any attempt at environmental harm reduction. And the structure of a society cannot be tackled or addressed by those who casually dismiss all human society as so much damaging individualistic hot air. For the last word on the faults of both deep ecology and the more apathetic end of Gaia theory then, I would turn again to Murray Bookchin, who makes it clear that ecology which lacks respect for humans ultimately lacks validity:
"To call for a "return to the Pleistocene," as "Earth First!" has done, to degrade humanity as so many misanthropic "antihumanists" and "biocentrists" have done is not only atavistic but crudely reactionary. A degraded humanity will only yield a degraded nature as our capitalistic society and our hierarchical history have amply demonstrated."