In February, readers of the New York Times were enticed by this puzzling headline: “Clinton to Order Effort to Make Pollution Fairer.” Disappointingly, the article that followed merely explained that the President required federal agencies to certify that their programs do not inflict unfair environmental harm upon minorities and the poor. The influence of Benjamin Chavis, then the President of the NAACP and the loudest champion of “environmental justice” (the idea that racial justice is key to environmental policy), was apparent in this executive order.
The executive order seemed especially peculiar when juxtaposed with other stories on nature’s inherent “unfairness,” such as a winter of record snowfall and the January earthquake in Los Angeles. From whom, one might ask, does the fellow who lost his beach home in Malibu to February’s mudslides seek redress for “environmental injustice”?
Though the champions of “environmental justice” may not realize the Pandora’s Box that they have opened, the shift in the ecology movement from a focus on science to radical egalitarianism should come as no surprise. As Charles T. Rubin argues in The Green Crusade: Rethinking the Roots of Environmentalism, unscientific, alarmist forecasts, irresponsible as they are, are not the greatest failing of the Green movement. Rubin, therefore, does not content himself merely to dwell upon, for example, the Alar scare or Paul Ehrlich’s claim that the oceans would disappear by 1979. Rather, according to Rubin, environmentalism’s greatest threat is that “to save mankind,” leading ecologists are willing to forsake liberty, pluralism, and the rule of law. Rubin, a professor of political science at Duquesne University, assesses environmentalism from the standpoint of liberal constitutionalism; he notes that major environmentalists aspire to transform every segment of human existence, from our economic transactions to our private lives.
Rubin examines the origins of the environmental movement to analyze how environmental questions became everyday concerns for most Americans. He claims that in our post-Enlightenment world faith in priestly authority has largely been displaced by faith in scientific authority. Environmental popularizers play off this faith by hiding behind distorted scientific evidence to bolster their agenda. While exploiting the fear of environmental disaster, ecologists dismiss their opponents as short-sighted defenders of capitalist class interest. Lacking scientific judgment, the press and policy makers tend to accept the warnings of popularizers, thereby ignoring the pseudo-science that undergirds their suppositions. These unfounded beliefs foster a sense of alarm among the public, thereby inciting demands for political action.
According to Rubin, the framework that popularizers have established for discussing ecological problems leads people to think of their solutions in wide-ranging terms. The problems are viewed as “environmental,” rather than as, say, questions of carbon dioxide levels. Because the environment literally encompasses all things, those who wish to reform it are thus often led to advocate schemes of total control that would require massive changes in individual behavior and government policy.
Rubin devotes much of his book to summarizing and criticizing the roots of the environmentalist prescriptions for a safe and prosperous future. He shows how the fear of dire ecological disaster has repeatedly allowed the unscientific claims made by environmentalists and the consequences of the reforms they propose to escape unchallenged. Rachel Carson, who used faulty scientific evidence to decry “pesticide poisoning,” was the last of the major environmentalists who did not present an overall scheme to rearrange American economic and political institutions.
By contrast, Barry Commoner, the populist academic who ran for President on the Citizens’ Party ticket in 1980, calls for systemic change to save the environment. Commoner’s Marxist-inspired economics and praise of Soviet planning reflect his belief that capitalists generate profits only if they pollute. In The Poverty of Power (1976), Commoner argues that we should fight profits and pollution by governing production centrally in the name of energy efficiency.
While Commoner is willing to empower an “ecological technocracy,” the leaders of the zero-population growth movement, Paul and Anne Ehrlich, are comprehensive social engineers who believe that nearly all of human existence, from education to entertainment to tax policy, must be restructured to overcome our natural desire to reproduce. (As the Ehrlichian nightmare of an overpopulated planet resembles Thomas Hobbes’ state of nature, Rubin, whose book is replete with useful references to Descartes and Heidegger, could well have compared the Ehrlichs’ scheme to Hobbes’ radical absolutism.) The Ehrlichs speak openly of the need for sterilization policy in underdeveloped countries; another anti- population schemer, Garrett Hardin, speaks of giving magistrates unparalleled authority to limit growth. Their ideas for interfering in the most intimate of human relations should worry anyone who thought that, say, kindly Judge Robert Bork posed a challenge to individual freedom.
Rubin skillfully examines the role of the popularizer and shows us how the population explosion crowd is willing to interfere in the most intimate of human relations, he goes a bit too far when he depicts the Club of Rome’s call for global planning as totalitarian. The Limits to Growth (1972) did call for extensive computer modeling to save the planet from overpopulation and natural resource depletion, but, as Rubin admits, Dennis and Donella Meadows and Jay Forrester never explore the institutional mechanisms to implement their plan. In analyzing the club’s follow-up volume-Eduard Pestel and Mihajlo Mesarovic’s Mankind at the Turning Point (1974)-Rubin similarly argues that the extensive regional planning they propose is totalitarian because sectorial planning must be subordinated to the whole. Rather than focusing on parts and wholes, a framework that at times seems semantic, Rubin might have more instructively examined the tension between, for instance, technocracy, national sovereignty, and democracy.
If Rubin’s criticism of the Club of Rome seems stretched, his focus on E. F. Schumacher seems outdated. Schumacher, the author of, among other works, Small is Beautiful (1973), sought to replace mass capitalism with labor-intensive technologies. Schumacher believed that this decentralization would end the crude materialist exploitation of nature and promote meaningful communion with the whole. Schumacher’s mysticism, as Rubin notes, indeed does seem to deny pluralism itself. But however influential Schumacher’s work may have been a decade ago, Rubin would have done better to offer a detailed analysis of the current strains influencing environmentalism, including “environmental justice” or the animal rights movement.
The animal rights movement, under the direction of Peter Singer, has been the fastest–growing part of the environmental crusade. Its effects are apparent in, among various other phenomena, the boom in pet cemeteries, the anti-fur crusade, and the growing opposition to animal experimentation. Readers interested in a theoretical critique of animal rights as antiliberal would do well to consult Luc Ferry’s 1992 work Le nouvel ordre ecologique (The New Ecological Order, scheduled to be published in translation by the University of Chicago Press in 1995). Ferry, a leading French neo-Kantian, also explores the theoretical links between German Romanticism, Nazi legislation to protect forests and animals, and deep ecology’s antimodern diatribes.
Deep ecologists, Rubin reminds us, claim that the roots of our ills are more profound than our system of industrial organization. This movement, founded by Norwegian social critic Arne Naess, rejects as ”anthropocentric” the notion that humans have greater inherent worth than other life forms. In seeking to root out man’s claim to a special status in the universe, deep ecologists are pagan pantheists who reject biblical religion, especially the injunction of Genesis 1:28 to “Fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the seas, the birds of the sky, and all the living beings that move on this earth.” Deep ecology has increasingly become a standard to judge other parts of the Green movement, and has exercised enormous popular influence through such films as Dances with Wolves, The Big Blue, and Jurassic Park.
As articulated by Naess and Bill Devall, deep ecology is more a moral movement than a political one; it seeks to encourage “ecosophy,” a mental state achieved by overcoming individuation and identifying with the whole of nature. But, as Rubin points out, this attempt to create a post-human hunter-gatherer who lives in mystic harmony with the whole remains deeply reliant upon the blessings of civilization, especially the peace secured by the Enlightenment.
Rubin has written a powerful analysis of the peculiar and dangerous threat to democratic liberties posed by environmentalism. This movement is deeply at odds with science and, in fact, with nature itself.
Kenneth R. Weinstein is Director of Research at the New Citizenship Project in Washington, D.C.