HAS IT EVER occurred to you how weird it is to worry about the environment? First of all, think about the word environment. It means everything, all the stuff everywhere that’s all around you: tress, bugs, sunshine, atoms, radiation. My dictionary defines the environment as “the objects or the region surrounding anything.” Worrying about the environment is therefore about as specific and meaningful as worrying about stuff and things.
– “Hey Steve, you don’t look so good. What’s up?”
– “I’m really worried about something.”
– “Yeah? What’s that.”
– “The stuff and things.”
Of course, environmentalists claim to be worried about specific objects, like trees and endangered animals. Not any endangered animal: just the cute fuzzy ones. And the trees should be majestic if they want an environmentalist’s full attention. So, yes, there are specific things in the environment – but the truth is that environmentalism is a very broad concept, and I think it’s deliberately both ambiguous and all-encompassing because it’s easier to frighten people that way.
Before we go any further, let’s be clear that I’m not against living a decent and responsible life. This essay is not an argument for throwing diapers out of your car on the highway. Keep recycling, even though it’s probably not the panacea we tell ourselves it is. Reduce and reuse. Let’s find renewable alternatives to oil. Also, I’m not “one of those people” – you know, the climate change deniers. They’re even more ridiculous than environmentalists, because the Earth’s climate is always changing. In fact, that’s climate’s favorite thing to do.
What I am going to argue is that environmentalism is at best silly, and at its worst delusional and dangerous.
We’ve established that the word environment is hopelessly vague and broad. But my opponents in this difference of view would say they have to speak in the broadest of terms, because the Earth as a whole is endangered by our activities. The foundation of environmentalism is the idea that big, bad wicked and powerful Man is destroying poor fragile little Mother Earth. The language is supposed to make you think of spousal abuse. The Earth is a delicate lady, and Man is a big burly dude with sleeve tattoos and an anger management problem.
A lot of things that seem way-out weird today made sense in the days before telescopes and Natural Selection and the germ theory of disease. An example might be angels flying around in the sky, high above the clouds. There was probably a time when the peasants of some lost civilization believed in something like that. Then space ships were invented, and the humans who left Earth’s atmosphere noticed that they weren’t smashing into celestial objects as they did so. You see, once something has powerfully impressed itself in this way, it becomes hard to deny the plain evidence of your senses. That’s one reason I think environmentalism is ridiculous.
Last week I took a trip on an airplane. I’ve flown a lot, and for some reason having to do with the weirdness of my brain, every time I fly I look down at the ground and I think about all the people who are earnestly praying to God at that moment over some problem that’s absorbing their attention and energies. The reason I think of this is simple. Seconds after take-off, people begin to disappear. A minute or so after that, cars look like aphids and buildings look like Lego blocks. Pretty soon, all evidence of human life and activity disappears. And that’s at an altitude of only tens of thousands of feet. What I’m thinking about is the utter smallness and inconsequence of human life. The idea that a God hears those prayers from way up somewhere in heaven, much less gives a shit, is literally unbelievable for me. Crazy is probably the word I’m looking for.
Up in the air, by contrast, the Earth is astonishing. It looks massive and rugged and aloof and timeless. The land is scarred in a thousand ways, and there are a thousand things going on at once: changing weather patterns and cloud formations and moving waters and shifting tectonic plates (not that you see it happening, but it is) and much more. The Earth has been around for billions of years, and yes it’s been battered, but not like some delicate wife. More like a giant rock god who takes the blows and laughs and says “Is that the best you’ve got?”
Yet we’re supposed to nod piously when hippies say that Man is destroying the Earth. Not me: I laugh out loud. I even hear the word rape used a lot. The notion of humans raping the Earth is as serious and credible as a bedbug raping a sperm whale. Putting aside the, um, interesting sexual logistics of this imagined crime, the Earth rape metaphor gets it wrong by turning the human/environment relationship on its head. If there’s an environmental catastrophe underway (and I’m an optimist, so I haven’t ruled it out), you can be sure that it’s not the Earth that is going to be screwed. Guess who a) has only been here for a couple hundred thousands of years and who b) has no proven track record of long-haul survival. Yep, humans are screwed.
The obvious question raised by this is why environmentalism and not humanism? Here’s my highly speculative (but of course 100% correct) answer.
Go back to the big, bad wife-beating man. That’s a powerful image, isn’t it. Environmentalism is all about finding emotionally charged language to convey an imminent, all-encompassing crisis. As powerful as it might be to say that humans are in danger from their greedy behavior, it’s not enough for a true apocalyptic vision.
Environmentalism is a way of seeing the world in stark terms of good and evil. It has a vision of the end-times and a whole, carefully worked out Doomsday scenario. It promotes human guilt and fear but also offers redemption. Is any of this beginning to sound familiar to you? Does it remind you of another thought system that opposes and supersedes humanism?
A few days ago I wrote about the Darren Aronofsky film Noah. Religious people are extremely angry with this movie, which many of them are calling evil and blasphemous. The religious correctly have noticed that Aronofsky took one set of zany notions (environmentalism) and replaced a competing but equivalent set of zany notions (Judeo-Christian monotheism). The fact that you can even do this is telling. It suggests that the relationship of Judeo-Christianity and environmentalism is a close, symbiotic relationship.
You can think of this relationship as beginning with a Mad Lib template, where all you have to do is pick among a few key terms – like Creation versus God, and pollution versus sin – and, bingo, depending on what key terms you use, you get one or the other system. About 95 percent of the craziness is shared by both, and it’s that little sliver they’re fighting over.
That’s why every Christian rant I’ve read about Noah (and I’ve read a lot) zooms right in on those Mad Lib blank spaces. “You’ve changed the word sin!” “Why are you calling God the Creator!” “It’s homosexuality and pride, not consumerism.” The reason I mock and dislike environmentalism is that I see it as just another competitor for the religion of the month club, and in my view we’ve had more than enough of this sort of wackiness.
I’ll leave you with a final irony, my favorite one of all. Environmentalists make a point of showing how much they love the Earth and want to protect and nurture it. They use slogans like “Save the trees!” Well, let me tell you a little secret about the trees. They don’t need your saving, and they don’t give a shit about us. As for the Earth, ditto. The environment will be here billions of years from now, long after we humans have gone away, and I’ve never lost a moment’s sleep over this fact. On the contrary, it helps me sleep better.