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National Observer Home > No. 68 -Autumn 2006 > Articles

Whose Environment Is It?
Some Reflections on Modern Environmental Philosophy

by Brian J. Coman

National Observer
(Council for the National Interest, Melbourne),
No. 68, Autumn 2006,
pages 55–62.


A good place to begin any analysis of modern environmentalism is the Oxford Dictionary. There you will find the following primary definitions:

Environment. Surrounding; surrounding objects, region, or conditions, esp. circumstances of life of person or society ….

Environmentalist. One who is concerned with the protection of the environment …..

What is very obvious here is the fact that the whole notion of environment is set against a background of human existence. It is, in other words, an anthropocentric (i.e., human-centred) notion. This fact is of paramount importance in dealing with the whole environmental debate, because failure to recognise it can lead to all sorts of misconceptions and errors in thinking.

Perhaps the best way to begin to understand some of these errors is to consider the history of the environmental movement. We may say, at the outset, that whilst the environmental movement is of recent origin (it really got underway in the 1960s), some forms of environmentalism are as old as Western civilisation itself. Thus, for instance, Plato (circa 400BC) gives an account of prehistoric Athens and supposes that in those days the soil was more fertile and the mountains were well forested (Critias, 111). Homer, too, waxes eloquent about the natural beauties of Ithaca. There have always been individuals with a concern and interest in the state of health and of the beauty of our environment. What has changed in recent times (the last two hundred years or so) has been the general philosophy underlying such interests and concerns.

In the West, from the time of Homer and Plato up until the 18th century Enlightenment, it was considered as a given that humans and human destinies were the central reference point through which meaning and purpose could be given to the world— indeed, to the universe. In the Platonic philosophy, it is true, the universe of matter was but a poor copy of the “perfect intelligible universe”, but it was good because it was made by the divine artificer (an agent of the supreme deity), albeit from some pre-existing “stuff”. Moreover, there was a close correspondence between “macrocosm” and “microcosm” — that is to say, between the way the material world is structured and the way the human creature is structured. Early Christianity, while it certainly adopted some of the ideas of Plato, could not relegate the earth to a mere shadow of reality (as did Plato) because of the account of creation in Genesis. For Christians, the world is created ex nihilo (out of nothing) by God and it is fully real. Moreover, it is seen as being less than complete until humans are introduced to it as stewards (see Genesis 1, 2).

The importance of human activity in this earlier Western concept of the world cannot be over-emphasised. It is highlighted in both ancient Greek thought and in early Christian thought. For instance, the idea of human artisans participating in or recapitulating the creation has deep roots in the Western Tradition. We can see its beginnings in Greek mythology with the story of Prometheus. After being charged with the duty to inspect the creation activities of Epimetheus, Prometheus sees that humans are in need of further means to secure their existence. To effect this, he steals the mechanical arts of Hephaestus and Athena, and fire (without which the practice of these arts could not occur) and gives them to humans, a transgression for which he pays dearly. These new arts bequeathed to humans take the place of the natural protections and defences granted to the animal world. They are, in effect, God-given. Here it is possible to see the genesis of the idea that humans can survive and perpetuate themselves only by applying their arts, tools and inventions to nature. The idea is taken further by Plato in his theory of craft and this is of great importance because of its later influence in the application of Christian theology to the workplace.

Thus, for instance, there is a sense in which Plato sees the role of the human artisan as “completing” the work of the divine artificer. Even earlier, Homer admonishes the Cyclopes (the giants encountered by Odysseus [=Ulysses]) because they do not farm their land but let everything run wild and unchecked. Later, we see evidence of this idea in the many of the great Christian monastic orders. Very often, one of the first things established at a new monastery was a beautiful garden with a great variety of plants. The idea was to enhance the beauty of the created order. It was a profoundly religious action to establish and tend a garden.

At this point, we need to introduce the concept of wilderness and what it meant in ancient times as contrasted with what it means now. Wilderness is a biblical term — we find it everywhere in the Old Testament. In different contexts the word had different meanings. For instance, it was often used to distinguish non-arable from arable land (cropping land from grazing land). More often though, it denoted land that was deficient in natural beauty and natural resources — in a word, desert. So often, the imagery is of Yaweh transforming the wilderness into a land of milk and honey or a beautiful garden. In other words, wilderness areas were those which lacked some “fullness of being”.

For modern environmentalists, of course, the concept of wilderness is the very opposite of the biblical model. Wilderness comprises those places unmarked by human activity! Before European agricultural man sullied the world, the whole of nature lay in a state called “wilderness”. This, according to environmentalists, is the perfect, aboriginal state of nature. And yet, when we look at the matter more closely, it is apparent that “wilderness” is very much a creation of modern, industrial society. In a secular age like ours, the idea of wilderness performs much the same function as the idea of paradise in religious cultures. In fact, for many environmental historians, the concept of wilderness provides a principle of interpretation for all past history. Until a few centuries ago, history in the West was interpreted through Christian eschatology. With the increasing secularisation of society, various other principles of interpretation arose. Marxism was one, basing its interpretation on the dialectic of class conflict. “Wilderness” is merely another, and more recent example. Fortunately, some of the more thoughtful environmental writers are now becoming aware of the wholly human construction of the idea of “wilderness”.

Perhaps the best known and the most controversial is William Cronon, an American author whose writings have drawn heavy fire from the more extreme environmentalist camp. In an essay entitled The Trouble With Wilderness, he points out:

“Only people whose relation to the land was already alienated could hold up wilderness as a model for human life in nature, for the romantic ideology of wilderness leaves precisely nowhere for human beings actually to make their living from the land.”

The romantic ideology of wilderness as the standard against which to measure the failings of our human world is simply an untenable position to hold. As Cronon says:

“To the extent that we celebrate wilderness as the measure with which we judge civilisation, we reproduce the dualism that sets humanity and nature at opposite poles. We thereby leave ourselves little hope of discovering what an ethical, sustainable, honourable human place in nature might actually look like.”

It is noteworthy that modern “wilderness” philosophy can sometimes allow for the presence of tribal humans, but not any others. Why? It seems that “tribal people” are supposed to live in harmony with nature whereas all other humans cannot. But this is a silly notion. All humans, tribal or not, have some influence on their environment. To suppose otherwise is to actually denigrate tribal societies. For one thing, it supposes they cannot contribute to history — that they cannot “make a difference”. But the facts of history speak against it anyway. For instance, we know that the Australian Aborigines had an influence on the Australian environment via their practice of patch burning. We know, too, that the Maoris had a profound influence on the natural environment in New Zealand. For instance, they almost certainly wiped out the Moas in New Zealand (see Prodigious Birds by Atholl Anderson. Cambridge University Press, 1989), introduced the Pacific Rat, and converted a large part of the South Island from forest to tussock grassland.

One of the central notions underlying modern wilderness philosophy is the concept of “intrinsic value” — that is to say, the natural world has value quite independent of any human valuers. This notion is still hotly debated by environmental philosophers. I for one cannot conceive of a world in which there are no valuers but there are values. Some philosophers say that diversity (i.e., a wide range of plant and animal organisms in a given environment), for instance, is an example of an intrinsic value. But is not diversity a human concept? It is us who think that “variety is the spice of life”.

But let us now return to some history. Earlier in this paper, I suggested that a watershed in our thinking on environmental matters was the Enlightenment of the 18th century. Why was this so? In the first instance, the primacy of Christian theology was abandoned in favour of a secular concept where, to quote A.C. Swinburne:

Glory to man in the highest

For man is the master of things.

Henceforth, humans were to make their way in this world entirely under their own steam, as it were. It was the philosophers who announced the death of God, but, of course, one of the consequences of abandoning the traditional view of humans and of human work in nature was the development of a very de-humanising industrial world. Let us not forget that in abandoning the notion of the created world as a work of Almighty God, it is then relegated to mere substance — material to do with as we wish. This is one of the great ironies of the modern age. Environmentalists often accuse the Christian centuries of being insensitive to nature. They put the argument that, because Christians are only interested in the next world, they believe that the circumstances of this world are of little importance and hence, treat nature with contempt. In reality though, the great changes wrought by industrialisation came after the Christian West abandoned its heritage.

One further irony involved in the Enlightenment process of abandoning traditional Christianity has been the rise of what I will call “anti-human” philosophy. We recall that the great figures of the Enlightenment saw humans as masters of their own destiny. Gradually though, humans have been demoted until, in the eyes of many modern environmentalists, we are merely another species on the planet, no more or less important than any other species. This has one important consequence which is often overlooked by modern environmentalists.

If humans are merely another species in nature, then whatever we do is “natural” — we cannot “interfere”, only “interact”. How can we behave wrongly in nature? We are not masters of our own destiny — merely blind subjects of impersonal evolutionary forces. One might argue that, in multiplying their numbers, building their cities and devouring an ever-increasing amount of the earth’s natural resources, humans are simply acting out some genetically or environmentally determined role under a process of natural selection. Ecological harmony, after all, is the harmony of balanced warfare, since the blind process of natural selection knows nothing of charity and moral virtue. The cuckoo survives by destroying the embryos of its avian relatives and replacing them with its own so that it holds its neighbours in no higher regard than slavish wet nurses. For humans, there is no room for genuine freedom because this hints at some sort of transcendental Reality. Real freedom would imply that, at least in some respects, humans were not “part of nature”. The argument can be put in fairly simple terms: if humans are wholly “within nature”, then everything that they do is “natural”. Philosophers often put this sort of argument as “no ought from an is”. That is to say, from a set of statements about how things are in nature, we cannot deduce how things ought to bevis a vis human behaviour.

Note that this problem is a peculiarly modern one arising from a strictly materialist and “scientific” understanding of the cosmos. The Christian West, for most of its history, has had no problem in understanding how humans can be both “in nature” and yet outside it in some sense.

But the modern “anti-human” philosophy often goes much further. It supposes that humans are a blight on the planet and that we should take steps to decrease our numbers. This attitude is widespread and even colours the thinking of those who are not environmental activists. As an example, I once set the following question for my class of students studying for the TAFE Diploma of Natural Resource Management: “Humans are the greatest pest species on the planet! Do you agree or disagree? Give reasons”. Every student (there were about 15) answered in the affirmative, albeit with heavy qualifications in a few cases. It is not difficult to see just why such attitudes are prevalent. The “human as destroyer” idea is implicit in most of the popular ecology shows on television and in many of the textbooks set for biology students. Here, for instance, is a paragraph from the preface of a popular textbook at tertiary level, Nature’s Web, by Peter Marshall (Cassell, London, 1992) in which the author describes his ascent of Moelwyn Mawr in Wales:

“But as I neared the summit, I suddenly felt strangely melancholy. However much I tried, I could not prevent the stark truth invading my mind. The snow around me was not pure and pristine; it was made of acid rain and was contaminated with radioactivity. The air was not clean; it contained an artificial excess of hydrocarbons. A man-made layer of carbon dioxide lay between me and the sun, inexorably heating up the globe. In a hundred years, there might not be any more snow falling on this mountain. Nature, in the sense of the world independent of man, has come to an end. The human species, which has sought to climb the highest mountains and to dive into the deepest seas, has so dominated nature that it has begun to transform it irredeemably.”

Commenting on similar but more extreme examples from the writings of animal liberationists, Bernard Levin, a well-known English columnist, has this to say:

“This is, I think, a phenomenon very much of our time. St. Francis loved the beasts and preached to the birds; indeed, he spoke kindly of a flea. But his love of animals stemmed from his love of mankind, and it would never have occurred to him that the one precluded the other; in his father’s house there were many mansions. Now, we hear on all hands that man is the enemy, that the planet cannot stand much more of him, that only animals are noble and pure. I think it is worse than that; I think there is a hatred of life itself somewhere down in the cellarage, an unbearable rage at the very fact that there is a universe and that we are in it, for good or ill, along with the animals.”

These are, of course, rather extreme examples, but I would argue that the whole notion is implicit in the attitude of many milder commentators such as David Suzuki and even Sir David Attenborough. While Attenborough purports to give us simply the “wonders” of nature, his whole approach is almost always to cast modern, non-tribal humans as intruders in nature. Have you ever wondered why his commentaries are whispered out? I think I know the reason. He casts himself as a sort of voyeur, peering through the keyhole at the undressing of innocent nature. We are all outsiders peering in illicitly, and even our pleasure in the beauties of nature has a certain guilt attached to it. Hence the whispered commentary.

Now, is this not a most remarkable thing? That very process, the advancement of science, by which the great Enlightenment thinkers supposed that we would overcome all obstacles and cast aside the superstitions and terrors of the past, has led to a hatred of human life itself.

We find that this particular attitude is most marked when people think of European history in the “New World’ — especially Australia and America. When you come to think about it, the undoubted dominance of American writers in the broad area of nature conservation (I am thinking of people like John Muir and Aldo Leopold) is hardly surprising. Only in the “New World” could the effects of European civilisation upon a certain perception of nature (nature as wilderness) be clearly observed in the course of a few generations. The changes were both obvious and rapid.

By contrast, in Europe, the landscape had been changing under human influence for thousands of years so that some benchmark or starting point of “pristine nature” was not available. Geoge Orwell once wrote of “the ancient bone heap of Europe where every grain of soil has passed through innumerable human bodies”. It is true that the word ecology comes from Germany, not America, but the originator, Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) was not really thinking of “pristine” nature. Rather, his emphasis was on an anti-mechanistic and holistic approach to biology. It was the approach, not the subject matter, which concerned him in the main.

And this, I think, also explains why we in Australia tend to accept the American model so readily. Like the Americans, we are in a position to observe rapid changes in our “natural environment” over a relatively short time. When I was at school, the frontispiece of the Victorian Readers Eighth Book included a reproduction of McCubbin’s Pioneers as a fit subject of admiration — here were people who had made Australia liveable for us. Further on in the book one could find similar sentiments in poems and stories. George Essex Evans’ The Nation Builders praised the sturdy timber cutter of the east coast “where the axe is ringing in the heart of the ranges grim”. Nowadays, a large proportion of the population regards the cutting down of native forests as a necessary evil at best and an act of vandalism at worst. We now equate all human-implemented change in this category of nature as a fall from harmony.

But the climate has changed even further in some quarters. If one has some concept of a pristine nature — a modern “wilderness area”, let us say — then there are other interesting situations which arise. Take the question of wildfires, for instance. If a lightning strike causes a wildfire in some “wilderness area”, should we as humans endeavour to put it out? The situation is similar regarding the notion of “maintenance of biodiversity” (another very hazy term beloved of bureaucrats). At the present time we have a certain suite of “indigenous” species of plants and animals. Every effort is being made to prevent further extinctions and yet, as the evolutionary biologists tell us, extinctions are a normal process in nature. Of course, we can argue that recent human activity has greatly hastened the process of extinction of species. Nonetheless, it remains true that if we were able to completely prevent further extinctions we would, in so doing, be acting against “evolutionary forces”. In short, our actions would be unnatural. Had we been about in the days of the dinosaurs and taken every effort to prevent their extinction, the particular degree of biodiversity that we now have may very well have been less. Who knows?

Sadly, many people within the Christian churches themselves often seem not to be aware of all the problems involved in modern environmentalism and, indeed, it is they as much as anyone else who praise the environmental wisdom of tribal societies and condemn their own past. Perhaps they do so in ignorance of what harm such a depiction does to both tribal religions and to Christianity itself. It is surely something of an irony that, while the remnants of Western Christianity are busily engaged in making themselves more “relevant” to the modern world, the modern Western world itself, through environmental commentators like Richard White and William Cronon, is now having some misgivings about the whole project of deprecating its past history and its religious heritage. One has the distinct sense of modern Christianity unfurling its sails and lifting anchor to catch the fleet, only to find, once they are out on the stormy seas, that the fleet has returned to the home port after a long and uncomfortable circumnavigation of the idea of being “human”.




Brian J. Coman is a former research biologist and author of a history of the European rabbit in Australia, Tooth and Nail (1999). His recently completed doctoral thesis is entitled Ecology, Modernity and the Western Tradition.




National Observer No. 68 -Autumn 2006