The Education of an Ecomodernist
From Eco-Romanticism to Radical Pragmatism
Environmentalism came readily to many of us who grew up on the mushrooming fringes of major metropolitan areas in the 1960s. I grew up in Walnut Creek, some 25 miles east of San Francisco, amidst a patchwork of new housing tracts and old orchards: prime playgrounds for boyhood adventure. My friends and I found our paradise along the Walnut Creek, a modest stream with a few passable swimming holes and a surprisingly rich array of wildlife.
But as I grew older, the orchards steadily gave way to yet more housing tracts while Walnut Creek itself was turned into a nearly lifeless concrete channel by the Army Corps of Engineers. Suburbs like Walnut Creek, which had promised the best of urban amenities and rural repose as the epochal decade began, had by its end come to seem grimly conformist. The transformation of formerly pleasant and diverse outskirts into manicured tracts of generic houses molded by the automobile seemed emblematic of modernity gone astray in its unthinking devotion to progress.
My parents were also distressed by the suburbanization of Walnut Creek, and in my fourteenth year they moved our family a hundred miles eastward to Calaveras County in the Sierra foothills. In 1970, Calaveras was a backwoods locale with fewer than 14,000 residents and not a single traffic signal. There I found not only an environmental idyll, but also a social challenge. The boys my age were as interested as I was in tromping through the hills, just so long as it involved a lot of shooting and killing along the way.
But within a few years, things began to change. The counterculture washed over Calaveras County. Back-to-the-land hippies trekked out of Haight-Ashbury and other urban enclaves, decamping for the north coast and the Sierra foothills. My nerdy pre-pubescent identification with nature became cool at our local high school, giving me a social place and a new group of friends who lionized the hippies living in the woods. We cultivated contempt for everything associated with modernity. Our outmoded civilization, we told ourselves, was collapsing and would soon be replaced by a new order based on a higher level of ecological consciousness.
When I graduated high school, I considered only one college, the University of California at Santa Cruz, noted for its vast and gorgeous campus, radical politics, and countercultural atmosphere. In environmental studies I found an ideal major with first-rate natural history courses and an ideology that matched my own. John Muir, Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, and Lewis Mumford became my secular saints. Almost all of my classmates held similar views, as we eagerly conformed in our vociferous nonconformity.
We almost uniformly expected American agriculture to begin to collapse around the year 2000, due to soil erosion and chemical contamination. A common article of faith held that a transition to a benign, solar-based economy was prevented only by the machinations of the oil companies, coupled with the timid unwillingness of the government to provide the subsidies necessary for initiating the soft-energy transition.
As UC Santa Cruz students at the time could only double-major in environmental studies, I had to look to other fields as well. I ended up in earth science, inspired by a superb, field-oriented class on the geology of California. My geological education, however, generated my first crisis of environmental faith. The problem was the Pleistocene extinction, the disappearance of most species of large mammals across most of the world at the end of the last glacial period some 12,000 years ago. A summer devoted to research for an honors thesis convinced me that human beings were the main culprits. But this realization was highly disturbing, as “primal peoples,” uncontaminated by Western ideologies or capitalist imperatives, were supposed to be one with nature, incapable of causing real harm.
Further misgivings emerged when I wrote a speculative paper on the historical relationship between humans and elephants for an archaeology class in my senior year. Elephants, I learned, can thoroughly alter a landscape when present in large numbers, transforming woodlands into grasslands. What kinds of habitats, I wondered, would have been found in prehuman North America, which contained several species of mammoth mastodons, tree-ripping ground sloths of elephantine bulk, and Volkswagen-beetle-like glyptodonts? The nature that I so loved no longer seemed very natural, but rather an artifact of humanity’s original sin.
But if the historical foundations of my Arcadian philosophy were now shaken, I remained convinced that the modern economic system was headed for disaster. As a result, the idea of pursuing a career never crossed my mind. On graduating from college in 1979, I decided to take to heart the first half of a favorite maxim: “split wood, not atoms.” A high-school friend had made an arrangement with a Calaveras property owner who wanted his land partially cleared and was willing to provide chain saws and pay by the cord.
This, to my mind, would be a doubly eco-responsible activity; not only would we help people heat their homes in a locally provisioned, ecologically coupled manner, but by clearing out scrubby vegetation we would be doing the service originally provided by mammoths, ground sloths, and glyptodonts. But once at work, we found little reward taking out straggly growth; without a hydraulic splitter, the only way we could make a living was to cut large, relatively straight-trunked trees, and even then the rewards were scant and the work exhausting.
Late that summer, we realized our only truly profitable day by converting two magnificent black walnuts to fuel. The site looked bereft with the trees gone, and the realization that such spectacular trees would be used for firewood seemed to mock my youthful idealism.
I abandoned the firewood business and tried my hand as a laborer on local construction sites before stumbling onto more lucrative employment. The hippies who had settled the backwoods of Calaveras County in the early 1970s were now growing premium cannabis, and were happy to pay high wages to young people willing to help process their product. But when a close friend who had ventured more deeply into the underground economy was convicted of marijuana cultivation and sentenced to a year in the county jail, I decided the risks were too high.
Having exhausted every other alternative to a straight job in the capitalist economy, in 1980 I took the only alternative path that seemed still available to me. I applied to graduate school.
When I arrived at UC Berkeley in the fall of 1981 to study geography, I found a department split into two warring camps. The department had long been closely identified with Carl O. Sauer (1889–1975), a towering figure who had railed against humanity’s destructive exploitation of nature long before it had become fashionable.
More recently, the department had become home to a significant faction of Marxian social theorists for whom geography was more a convenient home than an abiding passion. Relations were generally tolerable so long as both groups stayed focused upon their shared opposition to capitalist modernity. But things took a turn for the worse in my third year when my advisor, Bernard Q. Nietschmann, took a summer research trip to eastern Nicaragua and failed to return when fall semester began.
Nietschmann was a cultural ecologist devoted to indigenous peoples’ rights, a romantic who believed that indigenous peoples live in accord with nature, wanting little and destroying less in a realm of primal plenty. Far from “merely subsisting,” he insisted, hunter-gatherers and tribal cultivators “merrily subsisted,” working — if one could call it that — only a few hours a day and devoting the rest of their time to wholesome leisure and community-bonding activities. Such an idyllic life, he implied, was our own birthright if only we could reclaim it.
Nietschmann worked primarily among the Miskito people of the region who, infuriated by land seizures and efforts to force the use of the Spanish language, had rebelled against the country’s Marxist Sandinista leaders. Rumors circulated through the department that he was running guns for the rebels. When he returned, five weeks into the term, the local Marxists denounced him as a counterrevolutionary and a CIA stooge. When a fellow graduate student and I defended him in print, we too were vilified.
The episode only heightened my respect for Nietschmann and his efforts to document and preserve indigenous cultures and communities. Here was a man who had been willing to risk his life for what he — and I — both believed in. And so, the following year, I departed for the Philippines to begin my dissertation fieldwork, studying the complex multiethnic village of Buguias, in the Cordillera of Northern Luzon, where the local people farmed some of the most spectacular agricultural terraces in the world. It was a journey that would permanently alter my outlook, my ideology, and my career.
The line between cultural geography and shoestring eco-tourism can be a fine one. I had first discovered Northern Luzon on a five-month tour through Southeast Asia the summer before I began my graduate studies. The region was gorgeous and the people were friendly and culturally fascinating. The local landscape also presented an intellectual mystery that I had found compelling: Why would an area of rugged highlands be so elaborately sculpted while adjacent lowlands with relatively fertile soils were sparsely populated and noted for their inefficient farming practices?
When I started graduate school, I began reading the scholarly literature on the highlands of Northern Luzon, which quickly solved the mystery. Spanish colonial demands for taxes and conversion to Christianity had prompted an exodus to the highlands. Faced with the prospect of abandoning traditional ways of life, indigenous communities had fled to the hills and undertaken incredibly laborious efforts to build terraces on the steep hillsides in order to continue worshipping their ancestors and running their own affairs without colonial interference or tax obligations. But other intellectual puzzles remained, as the different ethnic groups of the region had responded to the subsistence challenges imposed by their rugged environment in very different ways. To learn more, I chose a village located at the intersection of three different language groups for further investigation.
What I discovered during my subsequent year of fieldwork in the village of Buguias was far from what I had imagined. In the period after World War II, the economic basis of this particular area had been completely transformed. Subsistence cultivation had disappeared, as villagers discovered that they could enhance their economic standing by growing temperate vegetables for the national market. Demand for cabbages, potatoes, and carrots had surged in the postwar period, but such crops cannot be profitable grown in the hot and humid Philippine lowlands. In the cool highlands, on the other hand, they thrive. By the time I arrived, almost everyone in the village was fully devoted to profit-oriented vegetable production. Proceeds from vegetable farming were used to import rice, bread, tinned fish, and other foods from elsewhere in the country.
The traditional practices that the locals had fought so hard to preserve had shifted along with the economy. Now, the animistic religion practiced by the local people, proudly referred to by its adherents as Paganism (or as one eloquent elder put it in English, “our Buguias Paganism System”), was no longer being supported through subsistence farming, but through intensive modern truck farming. Elaborate prestige feasts, an old indigenous practice, were still the highlight of local social and religious life; but now they had adapted to the economic transformations underway, serving the crucial functions of economic redistribution and social leveling within an increasingly commercial, transactional economy.
Determined to find locals who resisted this shift and remained committed to practicing subsistence cultivation, I spent an entire day trudging to a remote hamlet to interview an old woman who could supposedly provide detailed information about the old days. She refused to do so, telling me (in her native Kankana-ey) merely that “Life was terrible. We only ate sweet potatoes.” Numerous additional interviews confirmed her story. With the exception of the narrow village elite, the people of Buguias in the early twentieth century almost never tasted rice, and consumed meat and fat only when ritual feasts were held. Virtually everyone I interviewed agreed that the new commercial system was vastly superior to the subsistence-oriented economy that had prevailed before World War II. Even in the most remote, inaccessible hamlets, people eagerly awaited the bulldozing of crude tracks so that they too could take up truck farming.
As I delved into local history, I discovered that the commercial orientation of Buguias was not exactly new. To be sure, in the prewar period most people subsisted largely on the crops that they grew. But the village elite, who thoroughly dominated the community, had always been merchants through and through. They ran financially sophisticated operations over large trading spheres, trading iron tools and copper cooking vats from local workshops to scattered hamlets deep into the cloud forests of the main Cordilleran ridge, where they were exchanged for acorn-fattened swine. The hogs were in turn led down to gold-mining villages on the other side of Buguias. The artisanal miners had a huge demand for pork, as they produced none of their own food and had to honor their ancestors with sacrifices of highland hogs (lowland animals would not do) every time they made a decent strike. They also had ready access to cash, obtained by selling their gold in the lowlands.
The Buguias merchant lords thus had ample supplies of money, most of which they devoted to their own prestige feasts. When commercial farming opportunities emerged in the transformed Philippine economy of the postwar period, they eagerly jumped in. New fortunes emerged at the time as well, especially by those who moved into the input business, selling seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides. The village elite also lent money to local commoners so that they too could take up the new way of life. Yet moneymaking and prestige feasting continued to be closely linked. The largest ceremony that I attended cost tens of thousands of dollars and involved the feeding of thousands of people over several days; it was held in a nearby market town by a couple that owned the local Coca-Cola distributorship as well as a “roadside rest, disco, and cockpit.” (The outdoor “cockpit” was a seldom-used cock-fighting arena.)
Despite their considerable outlays, the local elite benefited in many ways from their prestige-bestowing feasts. The same ritual system, however, took a heavy toll on the middling members of the community. Everyone who wanted to maintain a position of respectability had to observe an occasional ceremony, and those who could not afford to do so were forced into debt. My own neighbors, both of whom were modestly paid schoolteachers, were almost ruined by their own grim little feast.
Opting out of the prestige system was not an option for most people. The leaders of the indigenous religion, as it turns out, were also major moneylenders, which allowed them to maintain control over the community. Those who opted out lost their access to credit, a development that was potentially ruinous, as the vegetable market was extremely volatile and borrowing was often necessary. Poor prices could render a harvest almost worthless, and without the ability to borrow money to cover the costs of the inputs for the next harvest, few could risk the wrath of the local elders.
The volatility of vegetable prices, as much as any explicit commitment to preserving the old ways, turned out to lie at the heart of the entire system. To the believer, market prices were the domain of the ancestors, a ghostly form of the invisible hand. As a result, the dead had to be honored and placated by frequent feasts.
The community’s Pagan philosophers, not surprisingly, advanced a theory of debt as essential social glue. They railed constantly against the young men who could make enough money from carrying 40-kilo sacks of vegetable a few hours a day that they could devote most of their time to leisure. The only way to turn them into responsible adults, I was continually told, was to pressure them into marriage and ensure that their weddings were so costly that they would be paying off their debts for years.
Beyond maintaining the power of village elites, the Buguias ritual system had devastating consequences for the local environment. If the ancestors gave a sign of good fortune, discovered usually by the divination of the livers of sacrificial animals, incredibly risky cropping strategies were often undertaken, such as planting carrots on a steep field prone to slope failure during the rainy season.
As with many animistic faiths, the religion posited the existence of numerous spirits that were charged with guarding particular places, especially springs and streams. But as it turned out, all these supernatural entities were easily bribed. One could bulldoze an entire cloud forest-clad hilltop, demolishing several spiritually protected places in the process, so long as one sacrificed — and then ate — a few chickens. Holy springs could be used for washing out backpack sprayers that had just been loaded with fungicide so long as one uttered a brief prayer (and in the wet season, fungicides were liberally sprayed every few days). Wildlife, on the other hand, enjoyed no spiritual “protection” at all. Virtually everything was hunted and devoured, especially by the young vegetable porters, who loved to eat strong-tasting morsels while drinking cheap liquor (water bugs and tadpoles were particularly favored).
I was tempted to write off my unsettling discoveries as mere exceptions. Just because this particular set of animistic beliefs encouraged environmentally destructive behaviors did not mean that animism in general, much less the inherent nature of tribal societies, could be held accountable. The problem was that even a single aberration had challenged my worldview. I had previously seen modern Western society as uniquely greedy, environmentally callous, and ecologically destructive. I could no longer do so.
The more I read, the clearer it became that the practices and attitudes associated with other traditional cultures, such as ancient Chinese civilization, could be every bit as ecologically devastating as those of Europe and its offshoots. And just as indigenous cultures cannot be regarded as living in intrinsic concord with nature, so too there is nothing uniquely destructive about the West.
Suddenly, my dismissive views of modernity seemed stale and unsupportable. The indigenous peoples of Northern Luzon, after all, wanted nothing more than engagement with the modern world, provided that it was accomplished on their own terms; and I now understood that many other tribal people the world over felt the same way.
As my romantic beliefs about the human past evaporated, I began to reconsider many of my ideas about the future as well. I realized that none of the predictions of ecological doom that I had so ardently held were actually coming to pass. Paul Ehrlich had confidently told us that the 1980s was going to be a decade of massive famines leading to social catastrophes, but instead such “basket-case” countries as India were proving increasingly capable of feeding their own populations. In the United States, crop yields continued to climb despite the fact that farmers were supposedly destroying the soil though monocropping and chemical applications. The stagflation of the 1970s was supposed to intensify as energy and resource stocks were exhausted — all one had to do was examine the data presented in the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth — but instead fuel prices were falling and the economy was booming. Yet for all of this, the doomsayers were unmoved: they merely deferred the cataclysm for a few years.
In the summer of 1990, I began writing what would become Green Delusions: An Environmentalist Critique of Radical Environmentalism. Green Delusions brought together my experiences in the Philippines with my reconsideration of conventional environmentalism upon my return. Where environmental ideology tells us that indigenous peoples are stewards of nature while modern societies are destroyers, I argued that the opposite was the case. Early human societies transformed vast landscapes in order to support lives that more often than not were nasty, brutish, and short. Growing population and affluence have resulted in growing human impacts, but modern societies actually provide vastly better living standards with far less impact on the environment on a per-capita basis. Where Arcadian environmentalism argues for a return to preindustrial ways of living and for a closer relationship with nature, I argued that the solution to our contemporary environmental challenges required more modernization and more technology, not less.
After Green Delusions was published in 1992, I was accused of offering shelter to the enemy for attacking the foundational ideas of the movement. In order to offer an academically rigorous assessment of the various strands of green ideology, I had taken great care to delineate different varieties of ecoradicalism and trace their intellectual lineage. For this, some accused me of creating straw men — portraying the most outrageous ideas of eco-extremists as if they were representative of the environmental mainstream. The New York Times science editor, Nicolas Wade, meanwhile, accused me of the opposite in his review of the book. He claimed that I was hunting heretics and attempting to squash voices from the margins in order to enforce mainstream environmental orthodoxy.
If mainstream greens and more radical environmentalists couldn’t agree on the exact nature of my sin, it ultimately didn’t matter, for even moderate environmentalists mostly viewed ecoradicals indulgently, as wayward children who nonetheless act as prophetic voices in — and for — the wilderness .
Misconstrued by the Times and denounced by environmental activists and academic leftists, I found supporters in the most unusual and uncomfortable of places. David Horowitz, the 1960s radical leftist turned neoconservative scourge, had me on his radio show. Things began well until it became clear to Horowitz that, while I was critical of environmentalists, I actually wanted to protect the environment.
I received a gracious letter of thanks from Norman Levitt, coauthor of the yet-to-be published Higher Superstitions: the Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science, and reputed prompter of the famous Sokal Hoax. A mathematician of socialist bent, Levitt viewed the postmodernist attack on scientific reason as a reactionary betrayal of the historically grounded principles of the left. I was invited to contribute to a conference and an edited volume on the “Flight from Reason and Science.” But it quickly became clear that many of the participants were narrow reductionists who believed that if one wasn’t doing truly scientific research, one wasn’t doing much of anything at all. As a historical geographer trained in more interpretive methods, I did not belong.
Clearly, greens weren’t interested in the kind of self-criticism offered in Green Delusions, while their critics were more interested in using my book to score points than in considering what a pragmatic, non-ideological ecological politics might offer. Tired of arguing both with environmentalists and their critics, my work moved away from geographical explorations and environmental debates.
The diametrically different receptions of Green Delusions by the Left and Right has continued to inform my work in one important way, however. The identification of Western society by the Left as the source of all that is wrong with the world is the mirror image of a key conservative concept, which celebrates the West as the font of everything progressive in the world. Whether in its positive or negative guise, such Eurocentrism cannot be sustained without a highly selective reading of the historical record.
What is striking, looking back, is how little has changed in the 20 years since I published Green Delusions. The neo-Malthusian arguments of Ehrlich and his compatriots in the 1970s have been recycled under the guise of scientific sounding concepts such as “planetary boundaries” and “ecological footprint.” If the source of apocalyptic environmental collapse has shifted — then it was topsoil, pesticides, and resource scarcity; today it is climate change, biodiversity loss, and unspecified planetary tipping points — the apocalyptic certainty remains.
Greens continue to valorize indigenous people as natural stewards of the environment, and still believe that the soft-energy revolution is just around the corner. And Arcadian environmentalism continues to exert its power over the environmental imagination. Yesterday’s back-to-the-land hippies are today’s locavore, DIY Millennials, raising chickens and making heirloom vinegars in the backyards and basements of Brooklyn and Berkeley.
And yet, something important has changed. Environmental consciousness was new in the 1970s. If the predictions of doom and collapse didn’t come to fruition, they at least seemed plausible, as did the faith that the new order was nigh. Today, on the other hand, radical environmental visions represent a cultural attitude more than a serious political or economic agenda.
In 2002, my wife and I returned to Northern California after nearly a decade of academic appointments outside the state. I am happy to find much more pragmatism leavening the idealism of my nature-loving Stanford students than was common when I was in school. They are more inclined to see technology as a force for the preservation of nature and the uplifting of human dignity. It seems unlikely that today’s young greens, concerned about both climate change and deforestation, will need to chop down walnut trees in order to conclude that we’d be far better off splitting atoms, not wood.