Environmentalism 2.0(12, 13…) and nature v. nature

Slate published an article recently by Keith Kloor on the “battle over nature” in mainstream environmentalism. It starts out from a now well-rehearsed departure point: Nordhaus and Shellenberger’s declaration that environmentalism is dead.

Since then, as Bryan G. Norton so nicely put it, environmentalists are at best mourning a movement past. As the opening gambit of one of his major works states, the obits have been written. Of course, Norton doesn’t think this is exactly right. For him, what is dead is a particular version of environmentalism, one pitched between the preservationist (i.e. hands-off nature) view anchored in John Muir and the conservationist (i.e. use nature wisely) view anchored in Gifford Pinchot. Norton’s view is that it is this version of environmentalism that is dead.

So what comes next?

According to the Slate article, environmentalism 2.0 is the new battle for nature where the remaining preservationists are confronted by pragmatic modernists. If those are the two options, it looks to me like conservationism in a new outfit. And not, as Norton would have it, a new environmentalism characterized by a thorough-going pragmatism – which is a philosophic view where the test of truth is what prevails in the long run and in which experimental policies drive assessments of how to relate to nested and complex social and ecological systems. It is a philosophy, for Norton, of adaptive management.

But if this is so, of what interest is “nature” in the Slate article?

As I’ve noted here before, following some of Tim Morton’s work, working without nature is the way to go. But it is not quite accurate to say that we can do ecology without nature, as Morton asks us to do. I’m not interested in emphasizing differences, but my view is that ecology is entangled with nature. And that it will be so for the foreseeable future. Which is to say, even if we think that the concept, worldview, or proposition of “nature” is outdated, wrongheaded, or empty, it remains the case that the social and ecological systems we inhabit have been actively shaped by it for quite some time. So while we need philosophic work on doing ecology without nature, we also need a practical philosophy for an ecology entangled with it. We need something like transition ecology.

Back to Slate. It seems fairly clear that most of our existing environmental policies and institutional structures took shape at a time when environmentalism was alive and kicking, and when “nature” figured as the backdrop for plays of human drama; let’s say, mid to late 20th century. Putting things in this context clarifies where the Slate article goes off track: it is that environmental folk are already worried that regulations and institutions are too lax, yet they cannot admit that the kind of institutions we now have are inadequate. So on the one hand they want better regulations, but they have a poor foundation to build on. They have built their house on the sandy land (which, yes, is intended both as biblical metaphor and aimed at an interpretation of Leopold where he fits neatly into the preservationist’s building).

And this is where the Slate article gets it wrong in its idea that environmentalism 2.0 is right, or even a palpably new option suitable for 2012, 2013 or 2xxx. Or for any time in the Anthropocene for that matter. The mistake is that it pits failed preservationist ideas against an amplified and globally extended anthropocentrism, cloaked in the idea of ecosystem services (i.e. that the entirety of Earth Systems can be valued in terms of human well-being). And this is not a moral anthropocentrism (in some versions, yes, but that is not my point) but a social, scientific and technological one; where all that counts as the “world” is what befits our current and contingent understanding of our relationships with complex systems. But this is not a new foundation; this is building an ever teetering edifice.

And when you paint a wall white and decide its too bright, you don’t put on a new coat. You change colors.