December 5th 2015

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Well designed same-sex marriage law no solution

CANBERRA OBSERVED Kidman hectares to stay in local hands ... for now

EDITORIAL How to respond to Islamic State's latest outrages

OPINION What's left if Malcolm is in the middle?

LIFE ISSUES Feminists, conservatives unite against surrogacy

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Turnbull government is not serious about defence

HISTORY Geography the great shaper of Taiwan

PHILOSOPHY AND POLITICS Green ideology balances illogic with contradiction

SOCIETY Cultural displacement and the new terrorism

PUBLIC POLICY Cannabis for R&D has precedent in poppy trade

FAMILY AND SOCIETY Swedish daycare: paradigm or cautionary tale? Part I

CINEMA Not your average psychopath: James Bond: Spectre

BOOK REVIEW Fantastical Four


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Green ideology balances illogic with contradiction

by Brian Coman

News Weekly, December 5, 2015

The average Australian would, I think, regard the appearance of Green ideology as a fairly recent affair.

A major Green contention

is that nature stays in

balance when we human

beings do not interfere.

They might put the phenomenon down, in part, to a growing scientific knowledge of biological interactions, the shrinking of the world as jet travel and space flight give us the notion of “spaceship earth”, an increasing population of humans occupying the planet (with a consequent escalation in the human utilisation of natural resources) and, lastly, rising levels of affluence – the average person now has more spare time to digest media reports, etc., and fewer and fewer people actually interact directly with the natural world by way of human work in nature.

Indeed, many people now interact with nature only in the form of recreation – hiking, bushwalking, canoeing, and so on.

Many would see the Lake Pedder controversy as marking a definite crystallisation of Green ideas in Australia, although the Little Desert campaign in Victoria might also be regarded as a watershed event in this regard.

The history of environmental activism and Green ideas in Australia is the subject of two books known to me: A History of the Australian Environment Movement by Drew Hutton and Libby Connors (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1999), and Defending the Little Desert, by Libby Robin (MUP, 1998). Although the latter book is subtitled “The Rise of Ecological Consciousness in Australia”, it deals almost exclusively with the campaign to save the Little Desert.

The Hutton and Connors book, by contrast, ranges over many different campaigns and introduces the reader to important figures and ideas which long pre-date the Little Desert and Lake Pedder events.

But all of this is still relatively recent history. Are there more remote sources for many of the Green ideas that we find today? I believe that certain basic ideas associated with environmentalism and Green politics can be traced back, not just to the Romantic Movement or to the Enlightenment, but to philosophical and religious positions that are almost as old as Western civilisation itself.

At the heart of the matter is that ancient distinction between thought and matter – humans as primarily rational beings and humans as primarily biological beings. For most of its history, the Western Tradition has held the former view – a view predicated on the idea that, in some sense, the human person can experience genuine freedom. That is to say, the spiritual aspect of a human life is not bound by the deterministic laws of nature. Christians are well acquainted with such an outlook since it is a persistent theme in Christian theology.

It is precisely on this point that Green philosophy runs into trouble. On the one hand, it proposes that we, as intelligent apes, are all organically connected to “the web of life” so that we are all “part of nature”. And yet, in building our cities, in multiplying our numbers, in altering our physical environments, we are somehow at odds with nature. In short, our actions are unnatural and hence wrong.

But, of course, if we are all simply just “part of nature”, then everything we do is natural by definition. To bring in considerations of value – and of subsequent moral judgement – is to call upon some entity which lies entirely outside the standard Darwinian/materialist schema. This problem has been pointed out by several modern philosophers, including the influential American philosopher, Thomas Nagel (see, for instance, his Mind and Cosmos, OUP, 2012).

Of course, concern for the long-term health and status of the “natural” environment is a proper attitude – one that we all ought to share. But there are problems of interpretation here that require careful dissection, and I place the term “natural” in inverted commas because the definition of the word is a troublesome business and by no means straightforward.

Nature in its natural state

It turns out that what Green ideology usually means by nature is “that which has not been interfered with by humans”. Here again, the same problem applies, for if we are part of nature we cannot interfere with it in any sense which implies some form of value judgement.

In any case, most of the habitable world has been subject to some form of human modification over the ages. For instance, it is now generally agreed that the first people arriving in New Zealand from tropical East Polynesia initiated an immediate and rapid transformation of the landscape, long before European settlement. And yet, for the Greens, tribal civilisations are generally seen as “living in harmony with nature”.

Closely associated with the Green notion of nature is the concept of “wilderness”. In Green philosophy, wilderness represents those areas or ecosystems untouched (or relatively untouched) by Europeans. It is immediately clear that such a notion could only arise in the New World – those countries settled by Europeans during the Age of Discovery. Only here was it possible to conceive of the notion of a “wild” nature. In Europe, by contrast, most of the countryside had been altered by humans over a vast period of time. In his essay, Inside the Whale, George Orwell referred to “the ancient bone-heap of Europe where every grain of soil has passed through innumerable human bodies”.

As noted above, for the Greens, tribal societies can live in wilderness (Indians of North America and Aborigines of Australia), but not Europeans. This, in a sense, is very demeaning for tribal societies, since it implies that they are simply a “component” of the ecosystem, and nothing more. Their dignity as rational beings is played down.

Little Green Book

One common attempt to overcome the problems outlined above is to posit, both in ecosystems and in individual organisms, some form of intrinsic value. During the 1970s, Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess, proposed the term “deep ecology” to cover such a view. In 1984 Naess and fellow philosopher George Sessions formulated what they called “The Platform Principles of the Deep Ecology Movement”. This became something of a Little Red Book for Green ideas worldwide.

I reproduce the first four of these principles below:

1. The wellbeing and flourishing of human and nonhuman life on Earth have values in themselves (intrinsic or inherent value). These values are independent of the usefulness of the nonhuman world for human purposes.

2. Richness and diversity of life forms contribute to the realisations of these values and are also values in themselves.

3. Humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity except to satisfy vital human needs.

4. The flourishing of human life and cultures is compatible with a substantial decrease of human population. The flourishing of nonhuman life requires such a decrease.

It is worth noting that the first two of these principles seems to invoke an Aristotelian telos, or final cause for all life forms – some inherent purpose or end towards which they strive. Of course such a notion is abhorrent to hard-line Darwinists, to whom nature has no purpose or goal but operates simply on natural selection working with blind chance (recall Richard Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker). And yet, Green ideology embraces Darwinism! In fact, the concept of intrinsic value is a profoundly Christian one, having its roots in the concept of being.

Being as hierarchical

Taking as their starting point the concept of being as enunciated by the ancient Greeks, Christian philosophers then developed this into what was traditionally termed the Great Chain of Being. Here every organism has an inherent value because it is, so to speak, held in existence by God, the author of all being.

Thus, in his treatise De Genesi ad litteram, St Augustine says: “As the creative will of a sculptor hovers over a piece of wood, or as the spiritual soul spreads through all the limbs of the body; thus it is with the Holy Ghost; it hovers over all things with a creative and formative power.”

Green ideology – at least in its popular, non-scientific form – also holds to the notion of “the balance of nature”, such that, when left to itself an ecosystem will maintain its diversity and “richness”. In fact, all the modern scientific evidence points to sudden and irreversible changes in natural ecosystems caused by such things as bushfires or the appearance of some new virulent disease.

Moreover, to use diversity as a measure of ecosystem health is questionable, to say the least. Why should a forest ecosystem with n species be “better” or “healthier” than one with, say n+10 species? Indeed, if you care to look into the matter carefully, you will find that the concept of diversity as a value long predates modern environmentalism.

It is fundamentally a philosophical/theological notion arising from the ancient idea that God’s perfection requires that all possible life forms should be represented in creation. Otherwise, God’s creativity might seem to be limited. It was St Thomas Aquinas who famously asserted that a universe containing one angel and a stone was more complete than a universe containing two angels!

Finally, we ought to note that Green ideology, so insistent upon the destructive nature of the human presence in nature, nonetheless constantly exhorts us to interfere in natural processes.

Consider, for instance, the very topical question of “environmental flows” in the Murray-Darling Basin. Environmentalists demand that we take action in drought years so that water flows in the major rivers are maintained. But such action is entirely “unnatural”, because droughts (and consequent low river flows) are a natural feature of the Australian environment.

Moreover, those same environmentalists who protest against the damming of rivers in this instance insist that water from such “artificial” sources is needed to maintain river health. The double standards here are staggering!

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