The Desecration Paradigm

Environmentalism's Antihuman Strain

Among the paradigms that structure discussion of environmental policy are what Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, among others, have called the pollution, depletion, and conservation paradigms. To these, I think, another must be added: the desecration paradigm.

The desecration paradigm treats the human appropriation or alteration of biomass, minerals, or landscapes as an immoral profanation of something sacred. This attitude has become so familiar that it is not surprising to find that the Merriam Webster online dictionary illustrates the concept of desecration with a sentence about how development has marred a beach:

1: to violate the sanctity of: profane <desecrate a shrine>

2: to treat disrespectfully, irreverently, or outrageously <the kind of shore development … that has desecrated so many waterfronts — John Fischer>

The desecration paradigm is different in kind from the other patterns of environmentalist thought. Those who invoke the pollution, depletion, and conservation paradigms appeal to the collective self-interest of industries, nations, and humanity as a whole. Enlightened selfishness requires us to conserve essential resources and to avoid poisoning our own habitat with pollution. And despite quasi-religious apocalyptic imagery, warnings that we must avert climate change typically are utilitarian in their structure, warning of the damaging effects of global warming on human civilization. Civilization is something worthwhile that deserves to be protected from harmful, human-induced climatic disaster.

In contrast, the desecration paradigm makes no appeal to legitimate human interests. Rather, the human race itself is seen an evil force, alien to “nature” which is identified with the entire universe other than human beings — from landscapes and rivers and oceans to plants and other species of animals. A comment I found on the web has countless variations: “The human race is a parasite on the earth’s resources.”

Desecrationism is a kind of inverted Gnosticism. The ancient Gnostics believed that they were good spirits trapped in a monstrous material nature created by an evil Demiurge. The mystical, anti-human strain of environmentalism reverses these values. This time it is the material universe that is holy and valuable, and human beings who are the wicked force.

Or, to use another ancient analogy, the desecration paradigm marks a resurgence of primitive animism or pantheism. To believe that human beings incur guilt, by converting a forest to a farm or damming a river or building a city, is to revive the kind of mythological thinking which held that woodsmen, in cutting down trees, might injure the tree nymphs who resided in them.

This neo-animism is equally abhorrent to Abrahamic monotheism, in which God authorizes human use of nonhuman nature, and scientific naturalism, in which nature has no value other than that derived from its economic or aesthetic utility to humans (or other intelligent animals that might exist on other worlds, or that might have existed on this one, if, for example, highly intelligent dam-building beavers had evolved, instead of intelligent apes). Feelings of sympathy might inspire us to support benevolent treatment of higher animals, but we need not apologize to earthworms for ploughing, mining, or paving a field.

The desecration paradigm is incompatible with liberalism, both as a broad philosophy and in the modern sense of progressivism or the center-left. Let’s start at the beginning of the liberal philosophical tradition, with John Locke. In his Second Treatise of Civil Government, he writes:

It is labour indeed that put the difference of value on everything; and let any one consider what the difference is between an acre of land planted with tobacco or sugar, sown with wheat or barley, and an acre of the same land lying in common, without any husbandry upon it, and he will find that the improvement of labour makes the far greater part of the value.

This kind of reasoning is abhorrent, according to the desecration paradigm. Nonhuman nature has an intrinsic value that has nothing to do with its usefulness to the human species. Indeed, a wild field is innately superior to one cultivated to provide a secure, abundant source of humans, who are a plague on the planet anyway.

Equally alien to the desecration paradigm is liberalism in the narrower, modern political sense (recently renamed “progressivism”). Lyndon Johnson, the greatest liberal statesmen in American history after his mentor Franklin Roosevelt, in his Inaugural Address in 1965 had this to say:

For this is what America is all about. It is the uncrossed desert and the unclimbed ridge. It is the star that is not reached and the harvest sleeping in the unplowed ground. Is our world gone? We say "Farewell." Is a new world coming? We welcome it – and we will bend it to the hopes of man.

Even more than the two Roosevelts, Johnson helped to usher in the modern era of environmental awareness and protection. And yet his vision of nature is of a nature waiting to be transformed for human uses by technology. Adherents of the desecration paradigm would prefer that “the uncrossed desert” remain uncontaminated by human footprints or wheel-tracks, that “the unclimbed ridge” is off limits to tourists in a “roadless wilderness,” and that “the harvest sleeping in the unplowed ground” remains merely potential and the ground unplowed. And isn’t there something violent and sadistic in the metaphor of bending the world to the hopes of man?

LBJ’s First Inaugural is worth reading in its entirety, for its mid-century liberal celebration of technology and the complete absence of today’s fashionable neo-Malthusian pessimism. Here are its fifth and sixth sentences:

Even now, a rocket moves toward Mars [Mariner 4]. It reminds us that the world will not be the same for our children, or even for ourselves m a short span of years.

He continues:

Think of our world as it looks from the rocket that is heading toward Mars. It is like a child's globe, hanging in space, the continents stuck to its side like colored maps. We are all fellow passengers on a dot of earth. And each of us, in the span of time, has really only a moment among our companions.

In the decades since, flyby probes have been followed by landers and robots exploring the Martian surface. From the perspective of the desecration paradigm, humanity, having despoiled the Earth, is now wrecking the unspoiled beauty of dead planets.

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