Tikkun Magazine


Tikkun Magazine, May/June 2010

Naturalism as Mastery?

by Ken Conca

Paul Wapner is right to pose critical questions about a new environmentalism rooted in technical innovation and the human mastery of nature. As he suggests, it seduces us with the possibility of avoiding constraints, limits, and the difficult moral choices they entail.

Tellingly, the instinct to mastery overstates our knowledge and control not only of the natural world but of the human one, as well. When the Carter administration's Global 2000 raised the alarm about global trends in resource use and environmental degradation, its crafters wildly overestimated how much water the world would use in the year 2000. They failed to anticipate how farmers, industry, and cities would adjust to conserve usable water as it became scarcer and more expensive in many places around the world. Unable to imagine that today we would still tolerate a world where one billion people lack reliable drinking water and more than two billion lack a decent water-based sanitation system, their models also wrongly assumed that all human needs for water would be fulfilled. The report writers' twin errors are a cautionary tale for the designers of techno-rational environmental salvation.

Some naturalist humility is, as Wapner suggests, an essential counterpoint to mastery. But is naturalism, as historically practiced, in fact rooted in humility? At the species level, perhaps it is -- insofar as we have attempted to reduce our own species' negative impact on nature -- but social adjustments are never carried out at the species scale. If we ask not how the human species relates to the environment, but rather how people relate to one another when reducing eco-harm, we see that naturalism in practice has often been just another form of mastery. The protection of wilderness areas and the biodiversity they contain may express naturalist principles of precaution and accommodation. But when implemented with barbed wire, armed guards, and the destruction of local livelihoods and identities, these protection endeavors are hardly an act of humility from the vantage point of those who are expelled from the forest. Too often, pursuing the naturalist aims of environmentalism has entailed the exportation of the costs of environmental protection onto those who are less powerful and less visible -- another form of avoiding the moral commitments that Wapner urges. Unpacking the human "we," what passes for humility at the species level reveals itself as another form of mastery, of some human purposes toward nature over others.

Naturalism can also be too humble, supplanting collective action at the core of the problem with individual action at its margins, as we see in the rise of green consumerism. The idea of shopping better to save the world can be, as Wapner suggests, an expression of the new green mastery, optimizing one's efficiency as a consuming unit through the latest clever devices. But it may also be the worst instinct of a depoliticized naturalist humility: a desire to live more humbly and lightly on the planet at the individual level, joined with an acceptance of unjust political and economic systems at the social level. Hang up that used towel at the hotel, feel good about the water and energy saved -- but what if a minimum-wage laundry worker's job loss is the principal mechanism of adjustment? To suggest that shopping is one's principal form of moral agency is to pit victim against victim in our consumerist monoculture; we struggle -- individually, unequally, and ineffectually -- to find seemingly green alternatives at the tail end of global commodity chains we neither control nor understand.

Perhaps what naturalism and mastery both share in practice is a lack of faith in the power of free people to build and nurture sustainable communities. We should be humble about our ability to control nature, and wary of the desire to do so. But when it comes to the human injustices that accompany environmental harm and that too often accompany environmental protection, humility is hardly a scarce resource.

Ken Conca is a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland. His books include Governing Water: Contentious Transnational Politics and Global Institution Building and Green Planet Blues: Four Decades of Global Environmental Politics.

Conca, Ken. 2010. Naturalism as Mastery? Tikkun 25(3): 38

tags: Biodiversity, Environment, Environmental Activism