March 20, 2008
Buddhism, Nihilism, and Deep Ecology
Carbon-sucking trees. Mirrors in space. Biochar. Some of the proposed solutions to climate change seem better suited to the annals of science fiction. Geo-engineering -- along with nanotechnology and bioengineering -- belongs to a class of scientific innovation that many fear will threaten the integrity of life as we know it. Humans have been innovating new technologies since the first forward-thinking caveman used a rock to crack a nut from its shell, but new technologies still sometimes manage to weird us out. Certain technologies -- fertilizing the oceans with urea, for example -- just don't seem natural. Environmentalists of the deep ecology school fear that a tech-heavy approach to climate change glosses over the real issues (human greed and overconsumption), and could drive us toward a future more Blade Runner than ecotopia.
Deep ecology sees the environment as governed by a complex natural order superior to any human artifice. When faced with the challenge of climate change, deep ecologists believe that we must restore the world's natural balance, and that overly technical solutions are an arrogant attempt to improve upon nature. Wendell Berry, Michael Pollan, and others have pointed out that many technological solutions address problems that were themselves created by technology, and that we're ignoring the simple solutions that nature has already provided.
In her seminal book "Biomimicry," Janine Benyus imagines nature as the best problem-solver the world has ever seen: "Our planet-mates (plants, animals and microbes) have been patiently perfecting their wares for more than 3.8 billion years...turning rock and sea into a life-friendly home. What better models could there be?" Nature may well offer some inspiring solutions, but it just as often produces processes that we wouldn't want to emulate: taste of these bright red toxin-laced berries, anyone?
Proponents of biomimicry assume that nature will always act favorably toward humans, when just as often, nature dishes out problems and we must use our uniquely human ingenuity to solve them. No one today is criticizing nature for smiting us with floods, fires, and diseases, but plenty of people take issue with new technologies. The Buddhist philosopher John McClellan finds much of this criticism arbitrary:
Deep ecologists seem to have the same fear and loathing toward today's out of control technology as humans have had until just recently toward Uncontrolled Nature, with her savage, untamed wastelands. They call technology inhuman, cruel, and heartless, using the same words we once used to describe cruel wilderness - and like humans of the 19th century waging war on wild nature, environmentalists today long only to conquer technology, to subdue and control it, as we have nature herself.
Nature is no wiser than technology, and claiming adherence to nature's laws is an attempt to bypass the messy business of ethics and values. When environmentalists urge us to follow nature's way, they are referring to a mythical nature that never changes, that is necessarily always in balance; that is the root of all things good. But this conception of nature is nostalgia masquerading as values. This nature has no place in politics; it belongs in a museum. And of course, a true museum of the planet's history would contain a catalog of horrors: long stretches without oxygen or anything green; obliteration after obliteration; Edward Abbey's jagged desert monuments miles underwater. Nature, like technology, follows one prime rule: change. As the natural and technological scenery changes, it transforms politics, economics, and society with it.
For all the environmental movement's talk about the need for societal change, many environmentalists are deeply conservative in their attachment to a certain idea of what nature is and should be. But as any good Buddhist or mildly observant person can attest to, we live lives of constant change. Just as surely as the Mesozoic gave way to the Cenozoic, our country's agrarian past is giving way to a information-based future. Attachment to a single idea of nature is nihilism; it denies whole worlds of future possibilities, and carves out a world utterly devoid of value.
Nietzsche argued that emulating nature means living a life of indifference:
"According to nature" you want to live? O you noble Stoics, what deceptive words these are! Imagine a being like nature, wasteful beyond measure, indifferent beyond measure, without purposes and consideration, without mercy and justice, fertile and desolate and uncertain all at the same time; imagine indifference itself as a power--how could you live according to this indifference? Living--is not that precisely wanting to be other than this nature? Is not living -- estimating, preferring, being unjust, being limited, wanting to be different? And supposing your imperative "live according to nature" meant at bottom as much as "live according to life"--how can you not do that? Why make a principle out of what you yourselves are and must be?
Since nature isn't rational, it's absurd to try and model our lives after it.
Technology -- though it belongs to that hallowed realm of human rationality, science -- is not rational either. Inventions frequently end up solving entirely different problems than they were intended to address. Thomas Edison didn't set out to increase opportunities for women, but that was one of the major impacts of his electricity transmission system. Cheap, widespread electricity streamlined the grueling household drudgery that women were disproportionately responsible for. The Internet began as a military project, but ended up transforming every aspect of our daily lives. To be sure, these advances created new problems, but few would advocate we return to life without electricity, the Internet, or any number of the innovations that have transformed our lives.
Technology is one of the few human endeavors that has the power to transform the world as we know it. If we are to stand a chance against climate change, perhaps the biggest challenge humanity has ever faced, we must embrace technology, and harness its power to the best of our ability. We will never be able to predict all the ways technology will change the world, but that mystery is part of what it means to be human here on earth.