Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Locating the Environment in Political Philosophies

Professor Patrick Deneen wrote an opinion piece in yesterday's edition of The Hoya about the environmental movement's position within political philosophy. I think that it is an interesting and valuable read for its attempt to relocate respect for nature in the greater scheme of conservative philosophy; however, I feel that I need to address a lot of the overstatements that riddle the piece as well. Overall, however, I think that a debate about our role as both citizens and consumers comes out of this piece, and it is one that is central to any form of positive social reform.

First of all, I feel that the opening is too much of an overstatement. He claims that there is a "near-universal embrace" of environmentalism by today's youth. If there is, that's news to me; I must have missed the memo. Few people, of any generation, will actively speak out against the environment--unless you are Jim Inhofe, the self-proclaimed worst enemy of the environment, or one of his supporters. Wearing a "save the planet" sticker does not make you an environmentalist. Our generation might preach well on the environment, but practicing well--that's a different story.

Moving on, I feel that Deneen does raise the interesting point of personal accountability; however, at times, it feels a bit too much like an "Al Gore lives in a big house" style jab, if you know what I mean. Increased classroom technology can save paper although, at the same time, it uses energy. However, it helps to foment discussion and to promote knowledge--creating informed, well-rounded, reflective, engaged CITIZENS and individuals is the very purpose of a liberal arts education. And these citizens are the ones who make change.

However, I do feel, at times, that there is a tendency to ignore individual responsibility when advocating for corporate responsibility. One of my biggest pet peeves is environmentalists who smoke cigarettes. When you fight against the air pollution caused by the coal plant, why are you polluting the air yourself? And funding an industry that has no respect for your life? And doubtfully much for the environment either? We must be both good citizens and good consumers; they must exist together.

I disagree, however, with the issue of terminology that Deneen presents as the center of his argument. The word "nature" is a more distancing word, in my opinion, than the "environment." "Nature," as the word is commonly used, evokes the images of pretty postcards from national parks or tropical rainforests. The "nature," whether or not it should, implies an existence outside of the urban and suburban worlds. Even though the word "environment" can have the same pitfalls, at the very least, it can connote the entirety of one's surroundings. The air YOU breathe and the water YOU drink is part of your environment.

Moreover, it is not necessarily a "return to nature" that is being advocated in environmentalist discourse, but rather an "evolution with" or "growth with" nature. The problems with modern technology exist in the reliance on conflict minerals for their creation and the questionable issue of their disposal. Likewise, the electronics industry has based itself around the idea of planned obsolescence, making our iPods and laptops outdated by the time we buy them. Even though technology is the attempt to live beyond nature, we can still go beyond our natural abilities without destroying the environment to the extent that we do now.

It is true, as he notes, that early Progressive Movement often inadvertently caused environmental detriment in its aim at social liberation--just think of dams for a minute. Moreover, moving out of the scope of the US alone, just as there is no inherent respect for the environment in either socialism or capitalism. However, modern progressivism (and I will use the term "progressive" over the term "liberal") favors green jobs as a way to elevate labor by working with nature, not against it, and supports forms of energy that do not damage the health and well-being of the populace. You can harness the renewable sources of wind and sunlight rather than the nonrenewable sources of coal and oil.

However, Deneen is correct in that some elements of the environmental agenda do have firm roots in conservative principles. Take, for example, the desire to reinvigorate family farms, a system based on individual communities rather than on government-subsidized Big Ag. Growing your own food or using solar panels to get yourself off the grid are other great examples of an environmental ethos linked to a libertarian, individualist mindset. (Joel Salatin, discussed in an earlier blog post, is a self-described libertarian, for instance.) The intimate relationship between the GOP and Big Business has sadly corrupted these fundamental principles, which will hopefully blossom again.

Furthermore, I have always thought that the environmental agenda should not be ignored by those who claim to have a "pro-life" view of the world. The respect for the life of both humans and animals, wherever they are, lies at the core of the environmentalist ethos. If one purports to be "pro-life," how can one support mountaintop coal removal, which damages and shortens lives, or GMO foods that pose unknown threats to human life while under the guise of prosperity?

Ultimately, what one should take out of this is that leading a better future by working with (not over or against) the environment should not be a blindly partisan issue; however, as is the case with anything in this country, it inevitably will be.

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