January 21st 2006

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: B.A. Santamaria: the making of a political warrior

EDITORIAL: Unbalanced economy: the problems ahead

CANBERRA OBSERVED: The Coalition - a rocky road ahead for 2006

NATIONAL SECURITY: How Australia should fight terrorism

POLITICAL ISSUES: Muddled thinking in green politics and ecology

MEDICAL SCIENCE: D-I-Y abortion drug RU-486 endangers women's lives

CULTURE AND CIVILISATION: Western elites lack moral courage

The struggle against forgetting (letter)

Living standards and the labour market (letter)

A slogan for RU-486? (letter)

CINEMA: Paradise Now - Portrait of deranged killer as hero

CINEMA: C.S. Lewis tale brilliantly translated to big screen

BOOKS: JOHN KENNETH GALBRAITH: His Life, His Politics, His Economics, by Richard Parker

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Muddled thinking in green politics and ecology

by Brian J. Coman

News Weekly, January 21, 2006
Australian research biologist and author Brian J. Coman makes a useful distinction between resource ecologists and radical ecologists.

Three years ago, Amanda Lohrey gave us a very good account of the Greens in Australia, and of their leader Bob Brown, and why she thought that their fortunes would continue to rise. (See her "Groundswell - The Rise of the Greens", Quarterly Essay, November 2002).

Yet, when one digs under the surface of her rather rosy picture of the Greens and attempts to analyse the basis of Green ideology, certain antinomies are apparent. Indeed, Lohrey herself is not wholly unaware of these and, in the very last sentence of her essay she admits that the chief difficulty for the Greens in the future will be "in keeping up with the complexity of expansion within the ecological constituency and in maintaining a balance of forces within their own movement".

Those opposing "forces" she speaks of have to do with the very nature of our understanding of the term ecology and, in the final analysis, come down to opposing philosophical ideas which are as old as our civilisation itself. That they can be "balanced" or reconciled in some way is, to say the least, questionable.

Indeed, the modern version of this ancient "human-in-nature" debate shows even less sign of drawing towards some resolution. There is now an entire philosophy journal devoted to the subject of "environmental ethics" and debates employing hugely intricate argument upon subjects such as "intrinsic value in nature", still rage in its pages.

One can, I think, divide modern ecological thinkers into two broad and opposing groups - resource ecologists and radical ecologists. These two terms correspond reasonably well to the shallow ecology/deep ecology split proposed by the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess in 1973.

Resource ecologists constitute the mainstream group since most governments espouse the basic tenets of their ideas and they enjoy widespread public support. Put simply, resource ecology views the natural world in an anthropocentric manner, but seeks to place constraints on human use of natural resources.

It sees humans as having certain obligations towards the natural world but those obligations are essentially to secure the present and future well-being of humans, both in terms of the maintenance or improvement of aesthetic values as well as the more basic, instrumental requirements of natural resources (food and water, clean air, etc.).


These obligations are most clearly manifested in the various national and international policies now in existence - maintenance of biodiversity, sustainable development, pollution controls, world heritage listings, endangered species legislation, and so on.

By and large, resource ecology has its basis in a purely material and anthropocentric understanding of the universe and it is not concerned with any metaphysical understanding of the natural realm. In this, it differs markedly from radical ecology.

Radical ecologists completely reject the notion of a human-centred cosmos and call for fundamental changes in the way in which humans view their place in the natural order.

Drawing heavily on evolutionary theory, they see humans as no more than intelligent apes whose activity in nature since Paleolithic times has been such as to "unhinge" them from the rest of the natural order in a way which is potentially disastrous, not only to themselves as a species, but to the whole of the living world in general.

The transformation of nature through human work is a wholly negative development, separating humans from the rest of nature. They see the root cause of this separation as being a fatal dualism in which humans have set themselves apart from and above the natural order.

The solution to this problem, they suppose, is to completely change the way in which we view our place within the natural order such that we become eco-centric rather than anthropocentric. We are no longer to suppose that we enjoy any position of eminence or superiority as a species save for our intelligence which demands of us that we regard the remainder of the natural order in the same way that we regard our own species.

We then re-enter the ecological web of life in a fully harmonious way, operating with the same general principles as the rest of the created order. The notion of human work in nature fits very awkwardly into such a schema.

Inherent in radical ecology is some notion of spirituality, albeit often of a rather feeble nature. Some radical ecologists think of a form of "world soul" or anima mundi, but then construe this in terms of a sort of web of interactions between all organisms and, indeed, between organic, living things and the inorganic.

This notion goes back to Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919), a German biologist and Monist philosopher who used the term oekologie to describe the web that linked organisms and their surrounding environment. Indeed, it is from his writings that the modern word "ecology" is derived.

Humans then simply become "a node in the vast, interconnecting web of life". Others go much further and, drawing heavily on their own interpretations of ancient mythologies, speak in terms of "eco-spirituality" or "sacred landscapes".

It is significant that few, if any of these constructions of spirituality go beyond a form of degraded pantheism and even fewer attempt to understand the human-in-nature question from within the traditional, metaphysical understandings contained in the major world religions.

Part of the reluctance of radical ecologists to embrace a fully transcendental approach in this area stems from a perceived difficulty in aligning this view of nature with that presented by the popular, Darwinist approach. Transcendental beliefs are seen as giving to humans an undeserved degree of ascendancy or, indeed, a realm of existence which lies outside that allowed by the science of ecology.

Views from both resource ecology and radical ecology are found in Green politics. They are often mixed together in a very strange amalgam and this, I think, is evidence that the Greens as a political party, have not really come to grips with the basic ideology they purport to represent.

Indeed, Lohrey's own position vis-à-vis the "human-in-nature" question is not easy to discern and she seems to reflect those basic contradictions which I believe to be inherent in all Green ideology.

"Plundering" of nature

She appears to adopt the general posture of the resource ecologist in her description of Green ideology, yet her language betrays a certain ambivalence. On page 81 of her essay she supposes that "No matter what our position is within the political spectrum we are most of us programmed to accept some plundering of nature as the price of progress ...".

The word "plundering" is significant. So are the words "programmed" and "progress". For someone who believes that the Greens are about "sustainable management of resources", use of the word "plundering" is inappropriate.

In the West, since the time of Plato and up until no more than 50 years ago, the idea that human use of nature constituted "plundering" would have been thought very strange indeed. It is a word much favoured by radical ecologists. Other species "dominate" or "modify" environments, but humans plunder.

I do not suggest that Amanda Lohrey is such a radical, merely that she has taken up certain of their notions by some form of unconscious osmosis. We are all influenced in this way. After several decades of viewing television nature shows, the deprecation of Western humanity becomes an acquired characteristic. The Lamarkians might be right after all!

Again, the idea that Western civilisation has been "programmed" to accept the plundering of nature is a notion characteristic of radical ecology. The "programming" that radical ecologists have in mind is the joint influence of Greek rationalism and Judeo-Christian ideas, those very ideas which have formed the basis of Western civilisation.

Yet, curiously enough, Lohrey believes in "progress" - a concept entirely characteristic of the modern West. As Professor J.B. Bury pointed out in his classic work, The Idea of Progress (1920), the whole notion of progress as an idea did not really come into being until the seventeenth century when Christianity in the West began to lose its commanding position in public life.

Some purpose and direction in history were certainly implied in pre-Enlightenment Christianity; but the progress it had in mind was spiritual and eschatological, not material.

It was the Enlightenment philosophes who gave us the modern notion of material progress although it was certainly prefigured in the writings of Francis Bacon. With the Great War of 1914-18, the idea of progress lost much of its force and events since that time have only served to diminish it further.

Today, the idea of progress is in very poor health and, if radical ecologists had their way, I feel sure they would support some form of assisted euthanasia. Even resource ecologists are uneasy about the idea of material progress.

True enough, certain American conservatives like Robert Nisbet still believe in the idea of progress and some can even envisage an end point where the whole world enjoys a liberal democracy of the American sort. Mind you, Nisbet thinks that progress cannot be achieved without a spiritual renewal. I wish him luck. A spiritualised version of Ronald McDonald or Colonel Sanders is difficult to imagine.

Put simply, the problem for the Greens is to accommodate the widely differing philosophies of their adherents while at the same time maintaining some identifiable and credible platform of basic ideas.

The danger is that in reaching some highest common factor, they will find that the resultant platform is so highly attenuated as to be next to worthless. Consensual arrangements, whether in terms of Christian ecumenism or ecological solidarity, tend to obey the second law of thermodynamics - entropy increases.

Role of middle class

Finally, there is the question of social and economic climate. Anyone who has bothered to look into the history of ecology and green politics quickly realises that the "green" phenomenon had its birth in those countries with a large, educated, and prosperous middle-class possessed of a strong liberal and Protestant culture (Britain, Germany and North America).

Ecological concerns tend to arise when other, more basic concerns have been satisfied. Indeed, certain cynics have suggested that, having acquired the second car, the Jacuzzi spa, and the speedboat, your average western Joe now desires the next item on the list of "must have" acquisitions - a nice clean environment in which to enjoy all these things.

All jokes aside, ecological concerns always work best on a full stomach and if Australia's social and economic position deteriorates, then the popularity of the Greens may well subside.

  • Dr Brian J. Coman is a former research biologist. In 1999, he published a history of the European rabbit in Australia, Tooth and Nail. His recently completed doctoral thesis, entitled Ecology, Modernity and the Western Tradition, argues against a particular modern view of history in the West which lays much of the blame for environmental decline at the feet of the Christian Tradition.

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