Love and Vinyl Chloride
A Deep Ecologist Reconciles With His Father and the Modern World
My father’s child-rearing methods were nineteenth century. Discipline came from the back of a belt, and compliments were few and far between. He rarely showed his feelings and spoke of them even less.
When I finally had enough fuzz on my face, I asked my father to show me how to shave. As a chemical engineer, he approached the issue methodically. It was strictly a technical matter, one that could be mastered with practice, not a rite of passage.
A conservative Republican, he worked in the chemical and plastics industry for B.F. Goodrich. For me, and for my mother, my father’s emotional distance was inseparable from his politics and profession.
My mother was intelligent, complex, and sensitive. Like so many women of her generation, she abandoned her personal ambitions to have a family. But she had flirted with communism in college and never abandoned her left-wing sensibilities. The problem with corporations was not only that they were engines of capitalism; they also required her husband (and thus her family) to uproot itself repeatedly. Between 1944 and 1984, the family moved eight times.
My own relationship with my father was no less complicated. With eight children at home, there wasn’t much time for any one of us. All the more so as my father’s growing responsibilities took him from the industrial laboratory into sales and management, which required frequent business travel. I spent a lot of time outdoors, where I hoped to find emotional solace to compensate for what was missing at home. The love for nature that led me to environmentalism has its roots here. But the outside world could never substitute for satisfying emotional bonds with other people.
The political is, for all of us, always personal. My alienation from my father and my search for a life and a self-identity that felt authentic and meaningful would shape my radicalism and rejection of modernity as a young philosopher in the 1970s, when I helped theorize deep ecology. My reconciliation with my father in the 1980s was inseparable from a coming to terms with modernity and the unavoidably anthropocentric world that we all inhabit. Doing so did not require me to abandon my commitment to the environment. But it did require me to appreciate my father, with all his limitations, for his technical mastery, his rational mind, and for the modern world that he helped to build. Without his labors, and those of so many of his peers, my environmental consciousness could not have existed. In this, there is a lesson for environmentalists and modernists alike.
Born in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1919, Harry M. Zimmerman came of age during the Great Depression. He played French horn for the Louisville symphony orchestra as a high school student and won a full scholarship to the University of Kentucky, where he played for the marching band and studied chemical engineering. Upon graduating in 1940, he faced the enviable choice of studying music at Juilliard or chemical engineering at MIT. He chose MIT. Chemical engineering offered a more secure future for a child of the Depression.
A heart murmur had made him ineligible for military service, but in 1942 my father left MIT without completing his dissertation to contribute to the war effort. He went to work for the legendary Waldo Semon at B.F. Goodrich, joining a company at the forefront of rubber and plastics research.
In the 1920s, Semon had found a way to “plasticize” (soften) an otherwise brittle and thus commercially unviable synthetic compound known as polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Starting in the 1930s, PVC was used for a growing number of commercial products, including fabric coatings, wire insulation, and many other applications that proved important for the American military during World War II.
Semon’s contributions to the war effort did not end there, however. In 1940, Goodrich introduced a new form of synthetic rubber that Semon had developed known as Ameripol, which was higher quality and could be produced more efficiently than earlier forms of synthetic rubber. Before then, cars and trucks could only run on tires made from natural rubber, which was grown on vast plantations in Southeast Asia and would become unavailable to the US military if Japan invaded rubber-producing countries.
In June 1940—the same month that Goodrich began selling Ameripol—President Roosevelt created the Rubber Reserve Company (RRC) to conserve and to stockpile one million tons of rubber. Weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Goodrich, Standard Oil of New Jersey, Firestone, Goodyear, and U.S. Rubber Company signed an extraordinary patent- and information-sharing agreement under the auspices of the RRC.1
During 1942, the rubber consortium, which my father went to work for when he joined Goodrich, ironed out conflicting approaches to synthetic rubber production, opening the way for mass production, which went from a few thousand tons in early 1942 to about 800,000 tons per year by 1945. The collaboration between the federal government, private industries, and universities was unprecedented. Much has been made of the extraordinary effort to develop the atomic bomb through the Apollo Project; but the little-known “Akron” project, such as it was (Akron was where the synthetic rubber effort was based), was arguably far more important to the war effort. Had the US not solved the problem posed by lack of rubber, the war could not long have been sustained.
In the years after the war, my father earned three patents for his PVC research and helped pioneer a range of new uses for the compound, including a new kind of PVC that allowed for the manufacture of light and unbreakable plastic bottles, interior wall siding for the new Boeing 707, and the plastic used in credit cards. Upon retiring in 1985, he was second in command of the Port Allen, Louisiana, Georgia-Pacific plant, which at the time produced more PVC annually than any other plant in the world.
Coming of age in the 1950s and early ’60s, the double-edged nature of modern industrial society was never far from my view. I remember being thrilled at the grainy black-and-white TV images of John Glenn becoming the first American to orbit the Earth (Glenn was a graduate of Ohio’s Muskingum College, and classes at Newcomerstown High School were dismissed that day so we could watch the launch). A few months later, the Cuban Missile Crisis reminded us that the same scientific and technical achievements could also destroy us.
That summer, The New Yorker serialized Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. I can still remember my mother’s alarm at Carson’s grim warning. When my friends and I weren’t running behind trucks that dispensed dense white clouds of DDT for mosquito control to cool off at the height of the sweltering Midwestern summers, we spent countless hours playing on glacial cliffs and seemingly endless fields on the edge of our suburban town.
Around the same time, a family trip took us through Pittsburgh, which was a hellish scene of lurid, stinking clouds of smoke spewing from the city’s enormous steel mills. People born in the 1970s have a kind of environmental amnesia about how bad pollution was at that time, but trip to parts of today’s China will reveal what air and water pollution used to be like in the United States.
In college, I began to regard my father’s work with suspicion. Dow Chemical was manufacturing napalm to douse North Vietnamese while promoting “Better Living Through Chemistry” in its advertisements at home. PVC, too, was in the news, having been linked to a rare liver cancer contracted by workers in PVC production. Between 1967 and 1973 four men, working with the vinyl chloride monomer in Goodrich’s Louisville plant, were afflicted with a rare form of liver cancer known as angiosarcoma.
I majored in philosophy in part because I increasingly associated the sciences and engineering with the control-of-nature mentality that was responsible not only for material abundance, but also for modern weaponry and industrial pollution. By the year 2000, I was quite certain, human activity would almost certainly turn the surface of planet Earth into a smoking ruin.
But my interest in philosophy and my environmentalism were about something else as well. Growing up Catholic, I was continually reminded that there is a transcendent domain beyond material reality. While I left my childhood faith behind when I went to college, my interest in transcendence, in the search for depth and meaning, remained.
The search for authenticity, an idea central to the early works of Heidegger and Sartre, drew me to philosophy and came to constitute for me the antithesis of the materialism, consumerism, and environmental destruction that I associated with modern industrial society. How could one be true to one’s humanity while at the same time heedlessly destroying nature? Reconnecting with our authentic selves and healing our split with nature became, for me, one and the same project.
In 1969 I enrolled in a philosophy PhD program at Tulane University, where I studied European thinkers such as Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, and Heidegger. On the side, I read Carlos Castaneda and dabbled in meditation, hatha yoga, and Asian religions, eventually finding my way back to the New Testament, in search of an authentic life that could reconcile the transcendent and immanent domains of human existence.
Ultimately, I focused my work on Heidegger, who maintained that modernity discloses everything—including human beings—as nothing but raw material or resources.2 My dissertation was titled The Concept of the Self in Heidegger’s Being and Time, and my first book was called Eclipse of the Self: The Development of Heidegger’s Concept of Authenticity (1981). Both documents examined Heidegger’s approach to how humans can exist in a way that is “authentic.”
My ideas about authenticity, modernity, the environment, and progress were deeply influenced by a year I spent as a Fulbright Fellow in Brussels in the early 1970s. While researching and writing my dissertation, I read the two-volume Nietzsche lectures, which Heidegger had read at Freiburg University in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
Deconstructing the prevailing idea of political, scientific, and economic progress, Heidegger wrote that Nietzsche’s doctrine of the Will to Power was the culmination of the West’s long decline into nihilism. Modern science’s objectification of nature was allied with the drive to gain total control over nature, including the human animal.
Far from being “progressive,” techno-industrial modernity was the last stage in the decline from a noble beginning. Western humankind had reduced itself to the status of a clever animal bent on promoting its own power. For Heidegger, Nietzsche’s discourse about “the death of God” concerned not only the collapse of Platonic-Christian values, but also the erasure of any sense of transcendence, apart from the material “progress” enabled by growing control over the planet. In reducing all of nature to raw materials, we had reduced ourselves to clever animals, objects manipulating objects, or One-Dimensional Man, as Heidegger’s student Herbert Marcuse argued in a book popular with so many of my New Left peers.
In 1976, I presented a paper at an American Philosophical Association meeting, proposing that Heidegger’s call to “let being be” could provide the philosophical underpinnings for the then-emerging environmental ethic that nature, like humans, had inherent value. My paper drew the attention of George Sessions, who would, in 1984, publish the “Deep Ecology Platform” with the Norwegian philosopher Arne Næss, who had coined the phrase in the early 1970s. I proposed to Sessions that we read Heidegger as a forerunner of Deep Ecology, and Sessions and I spent many years exchanging ideas about how best to formulate Deep Ecology. Heidegger’s notion that we should “let beings be” would become a slogan for Deep Ecology in the 1980s, and his rejection of modernity and enlightenment notions of progress became a touchstone for a significant thread of post-60s environmentalism more broadly.
Yet even as I worked with Sessions to theorize Deep Ecology, I came to see the ways in which Heidegger created as many problems for Deep Ecology as he solved. Most Deep Ecologists embraced what would soon be called “biocentric egalitarianism,” according to which no member of the biosphere has greater value or standing than anything else. A termite is as good as a deer or a human being. The making of hierarchical distinctions among life forms was arrogant, anthropocentric, and subjective.
Putting aside the practical matter that flattening creation in this manner provides no guidance as to what one should do when preserving one organism required harming another, the larger problem, from the Heideggerian perspective, is the failure to acknowledge that there is something special about human existence.
Only through human existence, Heidegger believed, can beings “be.” Without humankind, life on Earth could not reveal itself as being there and as having already been there. Understood as an animal organism, of course, humankind is kin with all other life and dependent on the biosphere. But humans are animals plus. What they add is the awareness through which beings can reveal themselves in ways that they cannot do so within the awareness allotted to nonhuman animals.
Heidegger maintained that Darwinism and other efforts to interpret humans as clever animals has the opposite effect to the one that many environmentalists hope it will. If humans are no different from other animals, and if animals seek to maximize their reproductive fitness, then humans are perfectly justified in giving free rein to their own reproductive Will to Power, leading to total domination of the planet by the human animal.
Why, then, should we expect humans to curb their Will to Power? The other animals don’t. White-tailed deer would be happy to cover the planet with their own kind, for example. If one replies that humans have a moral conscience and thus are obligated to show proper concern for other species, then this assertion once again singles out the human species as somehow “special.”
For Heidegger, “being” can only occur within the “clearing” constituted by human consciousness. In the name of ecocentrism, deep ecologists made the same error as the modernists they rejected, reducing humans to being mere animals in the same way that moderns reduced nature to raw materials. To the contrary, Heidegger maintained that the real desolation wreaked by techno-industrial nihilism is its effect on human existence. Our openness to being has become so constricted that entities—including humans—appear in highly limited, one-dimensional ways.
My break with Deep Ecology became clearer to me after reading Ken Wilber’s book Up From Eden, which helped me to better appreciate the benefits of modernity, as well as its limitations.3 Wilber, like Heidegger, recognized the ways in which moderns had, in dissociating themselves from traditional beliefs and religions, also too often dissociated themselves from the sacred and transcendent in the human experience. And like Heidegger, he rejected the ontological leveling called for by biocentric egalitarians.
Instead, following Heidegger, he retained a special place for humans in the cosmos. Human consciousness is necessary to tell the history of the universe, and human specialness is necessary to see the specialness in nonhuman nature. Greens, Wilber argued, rightly affirm the intrinsic value of the nonhuman world in a way that modernity failed to do. But in yearning for premodern, nonindustrial lifeways, they ignore the brief human lifespans and often-oppressive social practices that characterized such eras, and indeed the knowledge, science, and freedom from scarcity that allows contemporary environmentalists to appreciate nature in the ways that we do.
One summer day in 1984 I called my father and asked if he would give me a tour of the Georgia-Pacific PVC plant where he worked in Port Allen, Louisiana. Rebelling against one’s parents and their world may be a necessary step in growing up and creating one’s own identity, but creating a workable world of one’s own often involves integrating what was valuable about the previous generation, even while recognizing its shortcomings. If I were ever going to stand up for what is right about modernity, I was also going to have to embrace my father and his worldview.
After he gave me a tour of the plant, we sat down and talked. To my surprise, I discovered that he was in his own way an environmentalist! He complained about top-down EPA regulations that required his plants and others along the Mississippi River to dispose of “toxic wastes,” which were often valuable chemicals. At the time, companies were not allowed to make the more efficient move of trading or selling those chemicals. Instead, they disposed of them by injecting them deep beneath the earth’s surface. He argued that we have far too little knowledge of geological processes to trust that such toxins will not migrate, perhaps into aquifers used for drinking water and agriculture.
He was aware of the dangers involved in producing PVC. The deaths of the Louisville workers were a wake-up call for those involved in PVC production, and he had worked hard to decrease the dangers to his workers. He didn’t dismiss concerns about PVCs’ possible effects on consumers and the natural environment, but he strongly believed that the social and economic value of PVCs far outweighed the risks posed by them. Trained as an engineer, he could comprehend and assess the implications of technical claims and statistical findings in ways that most people cannot.
There are, of course, still those who argue that PVC production results in unacceptable environmental and public health costs. But however one weighs the cost and benefits, one thing of which I am certain is that my father would never have countenanced direct human harm arising from his work. Indeed, by several accounts, his professional career was shortened by his insistence on reporting things as he saw them, not as others may have wanted to see them.
In reconciling with my father, I was forced to differentiate between his human limitations, on the one hand, and the negative side of modernity, on the other. My father and his cohort were determined to materially improve the world and mostly did so with the best of intentions. To be sure, they possessed plenty of the usual personal failings and blind spots. But then, so too did my cohort. We baby boomers could aspire to be “different” only because of the economic foundation provided by our parents. In our own way, we were as smug as our parents. I am reminded of Emerson’s remark that a “self-reliant” young man is one who is “sure of his dinner.”
My early Green sensibilities, tied up as they were with my personal search for authenticity and transcendence, imagined the world and human societies as being in a sort of zero-sum conflict, between authenticity and the inherent value of nature on one side and materialism and one-dimensional humanity on the other. These ideas created profound conflict with my father, who truly understood the hardships imposed by material deprivation and had dedicated his life to creating material abundance, even if that brought consequences for the natural environment.
Reconciling with my father forced me to reconcile my aversion to the industrial aspect of modernity with my support for its emancipatory aspect, including liberation movements that had proliferated in the 1960s and 1970s and provided the template for my ecological radicalism. And I came to better appreciate how “sweet” it is for engineers and scientists to solve technical problems. Having long looked down upon industrial production, I came to see what a remarkable expression of humankind’s desire to re-create the world it is, both as an end in itself and as a way of enhancing material well-being.
The modern environmental movement has importantly introduced new values—most importantly, respect for the intrinsic value of nonhuman nature—that were not found in earlier expressions of modernist thought. Greens deserve credit for bringing the spiritual and transcendent value of nature back into the clearing that is human consciousness.
But I cannot abide the “biocentric egalitarianism” favored by many deeper Greens. It reduces both humanity and nature to one-dimensionality. There is something strange, wonderful, dangerous, frightening, and unique about human beings. Our specialness and our responsibilities to the nonhuman world cannot be separated.
The eternal tension between our capabilities for creation and for destruction, our love of nature and our sometimes arrogant disregard for it, is fundamental to the human condition and to human consciousness. Modernization brings both greater appreciation and love for nature and greater capabilities to destroy it But there is no going back to a premodern way of life or consciousness. The only way forward, for humans and nature, is to integrate our modern commitment to abundance and liberation with our postmodern consciousness of the nonhuman world and our responsibilities to it.
1. United States Synthetic Rubber Program, 1939-1945, Commemorative Program, National Historic Chemical Landmark dedication by the American Chemical Society, Akron University, August 29, 1998, p. 3. Source: ACS website.
2. Michael E. Zimmerman, Eclipse of the Self: The Development of Heidegger’s Concept of Authenticity (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1981) and Heidegger’s Confrontation with Modernity: Technology, Politics, Art (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991).
3. Ken Wilber, Up From Eden: A Transpersonal View of Human Evolution * Wheaton, Illinois: Quest Publications, 1981.