Tikkun Magazine, May/June 1996

Toward a Meaningful Ecological Politics

By Paul Wapner

The word "ecology" comes from the Greek root oikos, meaning "home." The idea is that the earth is a place of close relationships - that plants, animals, minerals, and humans matter to each other and together constitute an integrated whole. Ecology, as a scientific discipline, studies the interconnections between species and habitat. It arose from the insight that nature's character could not be understood by merely concentrating on individual parts but that one must also focus on nature's mutualities and interdependencies. Contemporary environmentalists, however, often forget the connection between the earth and the notion of home. They want to protect the earth, but they only concentrate on preserving it as a physical object, not as a set of intricate relationships. To them, the earth is merely a house: a material structure, a shelter, an abode to support us and our things.

Liberals, even of the greenest variety, often fall into this mind-set. The earth, according to liberals, is a storehouse of natural resources. It is made up of oil, timber, plants, animals, and other resources that we use to fuel our cars, build our houses, and feed ourselves. The earth is also an absorptive mechanism that we use to assimilate our wastes. Forests consume carbon dioxide, oceans dissipate toxic substances, and the earth's soil buries solid wastes. Liberal environmentalism is about using the earth's resources and its absorptive capacities in a sustainable manner. It entails figuring out how best to pull resources and emit wastes without overshooting the carrying capacity of the planet.

Liberal environmentalism has been enormously important in identifying and containing many harmful activities. The Clean Air Act, the National Forest Management Act, and the Clean Water Act represent liberal victories that go a long way toward safeguarding the environment. Moreover, in the present political climate, where the so-called "fiscally responsible" continue to push for the emasculation of environmental laws, liberal environmentalism stands as perhaps the most reasonable response. It argues that environmental protection is compatible with economic growth, corporate enterprise, and technological prowess. Policy makers need only see the profit potential of, for example, removing subsidies from petroleum, nuclear power, and unsustainable agriculture, allowing companies to trade pollution permits, and investing in green technologies.

Yet reasonableness and genuine environmental protection are different things. Liberal environmentalism is so compatible with contemporary material and cultural currents that it implicitly supports the very things that it should be criticizing. Its technocratic, scientistic, and even economistic character give credence to a society that measures the quality of life fundamentally in terms of economic growth, control over nature, and the maximization of sheer efficiency in everything we do. By working to show that environmental protection need not compromise these maxims, liberal environmentalism fails to raise deeper issues that more fundamentally engage the dynamics of environmental degradation. Liberal environmentalism is unconcerned with reflecting upon who we are, our place in the global ecosystem, and our relationship with the other species who also inhabit the earth - issues that strike at the core of a genuinely ecological politics.

Liberalism and Nature

It is no coincidence that liberalism assumes such a compromising position. At the root of liberal thought, nature is seen as an obstacle to what liberals prize most - namely, human freedom. As any good liberal will tell you, the core liberal value is liberty. Because humans have free will, they are endowed with certain rights to make choices about their lives. The history of liberal struggles is about protecting those rights - an effort that involves fighting forces of domination, be they governmental, economic, or social in character, and enlisting assistance for those unable for one reason or another to exercise freedom of choice.

The liberal focus on freedom has ecological ramifications as one realizes that the greatest constraint on human autonomy is often nature itself. The vicissitudes of nature - wind, cold, rain, drought, and so on - cramp our style; they restrict, rather than expand, our choices. To advance human freedom we need to subdue nature - to discipline its vicissitudes or at least protect ourselves from them. In the words of Francis Bacon, nature is something to be "hounded in her wanderings," "bound into service," and "put in constraint" - a position not unlike that held by John Locke and other key figures of liberal thought.

Liberalism can assume this approach to nature because it refuses to grant animals, rocks, or plants moral standing. Morality is fundamentally about how humans treat each other. It concerns itself with issues of duty, right conduct, and virtuous action between free, autonomous human beings. Plants, animals, and rocks are not free; they are part of the realm of necessity. And, insofar as there is no element of rational deliberation in their activities, they are undeserving of ethical treatment. Nature is a casualty of human freedom.

Having said this, liberalism can still generate an environmental sensibility and has done so. As mentioned, liberal environmentalism works to curb exploitation; the idea is to preserve the stock of natural resources and the absorptive capacity of the earth so human life can continue and even prosper. While certainly not wrong, such an orientation is limited. It still sees the earth as a physical entity whose vital functions need to be preserved only so far as they operate for human material well-being. It fails to see the earth as a set of relationships whose quality must be enhanced. Liberal environmentalism, in other words, is still minding the house when a deeper, more promising approach entails nurturing a home.


A politics of the home begins with connection. It has to do with how we think about our place in the universe and how we relate with all that we find around us. So much of what we do is instrumental. So many aspects of our lives require us to treat other people, things, and ultimately the earth as objects to be utilized for personal gain. Much of this is, of course, unavoidable or at least understandable: we all must eat, secure shelter, and find livelihoods that require using the world. Moreover, we often do so with others in mind: We objectify and manipulate parts of the world to get things for our children, spouses, members of our community. The problem is that this orientation often filters down to the capillaries of our experience and informs our every move.

Connection is about being in the world in a different way. It sees our lives as webs of relations constituted by mutual support, respect, and care. Connection places us in the world and allows us to experience and concomitantly reinvigorate the networks of interdependence of which we are a part. By way of analogy, one could say that if minding the house involves vacuuming rugs, watering plants, and taking out the trash, cultivating a home entails acting in ways that create the kind of warmth of intimacy that results from extending our care to each other.

Ecologically, connection involves seeing the earth as an intricate weave of air, water, land, and species, and appreciating how we are braided into its very fabric. This involves understanding not only that we depend upon a well-functioning natural world to support us, but also that we are literally of the earth and intertwined with its life. Ecological connection is about the warmth of intimacy that develops as we no longer simply use the earth for our own gain but attempt to live with it with a sense of care and respect.

The history of environmental thought has danced around this orientation for decades but has yet to feel secure in expressing it clearly in its politics. The great debate has always been between anthropocentrists and biocentrists, with little middle ground. Anthropocentrists regard human beings as the central fact, or final aim, of the universe; nature is here for our benefit. This is essentially the principle underlying liberal environmentalism and responsible for seeing the earth's bounty as a set of resources and its physiology as an assimilator of human wastes. Biocentrists, on the other hand, argue that life itself is the central principle and that humans are simply one among other species. Biocentrists claim that plants, animals, and - according to some - even inorganic matter (a position called "ecocentric") have the right to exist simply because they are part of nature. They are not resources for human consumption nor waste baskets for pollution but simply other entities with whom humans share the planet.

A politics of the home, a genuinely ecological politics, has affinities with biocentrism but ultimately tries to carve out a middle ground. It is impossible to be purely biocentric. Such a view would be unable to discriminate between different species and thus would have to privilege the Ebola virus as well as the humpback whale - a view that few people could sincerely maintain. Moreover, any time one worked to preserve the life of a given organism "for its own benefit," the value of doing so would itself be a human construct and thus ultimately derivative of an anthropocentric perspective. A more sensible approach, and the one underlying the politics being articulated here, is to infuse our anthropocentrism with a sense of respect for the natural world derived from the experience of being interconnected.

Generating Respect for Nature

The conservationist Aldo Leopold, writing before anthropocentrism and biocentrism found themselves at intemperate odds, claimed that there have been two stages in the evolution of ethical concern and that the world was due for a third. The first focused on the relations between individuals and aimed to establish principles for the way people should treat each other. Leopold used the Mosaic Decalogue - the Ten Commandments - as an example. The second stage concentrated on the relations between the individual and society; it addressed the way the individual is integrated into society and the rights and obligations that follow from such integration. The third stage, which Leopold thought would come about as the natural extension of the other two, would focus on the way humans relate to nature. Writing in the 1940s, Leopold saw that there was no informing ethic - which, for him, entailed a limitation on freedom of action - to guide human orientations toward the natural world. Human use of nature was a function of economic motives; one did not curtail his or her activities based on any other consideration.

The ethic Leopold ultimately offered placed human beings in the center of environmental dynamics, yet insisted that they see themselves not as conquerors of the earth but as citizens of a biotic community. It called on people to respect their fellow citizens, which included plants and animals as well as other people, and the community as a whole. Seeking to extend the sphere of ethical relevance, Leopold's intent was not to equalize humans, rocks, trees, and animals, but to heighten human regard for non-human existence and emphasize how tightly human life is entwined with the natural world.

Adopting Leopold's so-called "land ethic" can invigorate the contemporary environmental movement. Inviting humans to be part of a biotic community enlarges the meaning of environmental protection, and this in itself can inspire greater political effort.

Although certainly important, the liberal approach to the environment evokes little passion and rarely elicits long-term commitment, probably because it turns humankind's relationship to nature into a technocratic problem - a matter of maintaining a steady flow of inputs and absorbable outputs. While such a view presents a challenging puzzle, it displays a narrowness of vision that has little to attract most of us. Indeed, liberal environmental protection is probably best left to those who specialize in maximizing efficiency, engineering the sustainability of throughputs, and mastering technological innovation - the technocrats, bureaucrats, and systems analysts of the world.

In contrast, Leopold's land ethic, and the orientation being articulated here, go much further. According to this view, environmental degradation is not simply inexpedient but also, and perhaps more fundamentally, ethically wrong. It's wrong because it belittles and, in practical terms, frays and severs the interrelations that constitute the earth. As Leopold put it, "A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise." Thus, the reason we protect the earth is not simply because it makes economic or pragmatic sense, but also because it honors the human condition - defined as inextricably and essentially a part of nature.

Toward a Meaningful Ecological Politics

According to Lawrence Kushner, in his book, Honey from the Rock, the meaning of meaning is to be "connected with something that is itself connected with something." It is to be part of a constellation that is itself part of an even greater pattern of relationships. Liberal environmentalism is not meaningless. It derives its significance from being part of contemporary, industrial society. It makes sense because it is compatible with the broad principles that currently animate our lives - principles such as economic growth, control over nature, and maximization of efficiency.

A genuinely ecological politics does not refute the liberal aim so much as embed it within a larger context. Protecting the earth is not simply about sustaining the material mechanisms that ensure human life; it also entails honoring and working to preserve the integrity of nature's networks of support, of which we are a part. As E.M. Forster said in a very different context, "Only connect!" This injunction needs to be at the heart of our environmental efforts. We must insert ourselves, practically as well as emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually into the ecological fabric of the planet and play our role as biotic citizens. In this way we can exercise a more purposeful orientation in our politics and, consequently, more successfully safeguard the natural world.

A box within the article:

A Platform for Meaningful Ecological Politics 

Bio-regional awareness: One indication of our lack of ecological connection is a shared ignorance of our local ecosystems. How many of us know where our water comes from? where our electricity is generated? where our food is grown? where our wastes go? It is probably one of the great wonders of contemporary society that we can live lives completely oblivious to the fundamental networks that keep us alive. Moreover, this ignorance simply intensifies our ignorance of how keeping ourselves alive may adversely affect other species and parts of the earth. To counter this lack of awareness, an ecological politics would call on us to spend some time, if only a couple of days every few years, becoming familiar with and enhancing the biological requisites that support human societies and understanding the pressure these requisites generate on the non-human world. One can imagine, for instance, people briefly working at water treatment plants, landfills, local farms, and reservoirs to integrate themselves into and help maintain the systems so vital to our lives. Additionally, one can imagine people briefly working with each other in local parks, watershed areas, and streams to minimize land and water degradation. In the same way that jury duty serves a vital democratic function by integrating ordinary citizens into the justice system, ecological participation would incorporate ordinary people in the task of preserving our ecosystem.

Concretizing a biotic community. An ecological politics must ultimately recognize that environmental dynamics transcend political boundaries. Birds do not put on the brakes as they approach the Mexican border; air, water, and shifting soils do not situate themselves within national boundaries. As we develop a politics of respect for nature, the divide between political and ecological spheres must be softened at least to the extent that one can extend one's sense of caring beyond the nation-state. National sovereignty often undermines promising environmental action. At the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, oil-rich states, for example, argued that petroleum was not an environmental hazard because it was less harmful to the atmosphere than coal. Likewise, timber-producing countries worked to water down a forest convention to a set of non-binding principles so they could continue unsustainably to harvest wood. Finally, former President George Bush stated that he was "President of the United States, not president of the world and that [he] would do what is best for U.S. interests." In each case, leaders understood environmental facts as national in character rather than ecological and thus undermined any sincere attempt to protect the earth's ecosystem. To counter this narrowly nationalistic environmental perspective - if only symbolically - we might follow Daniel Deudney's suggestion that each country sew a picture of the globe in the corner of its flag to signify that the nation is part of a larger, more profound whole. The idea is not to proclaim that people of the world are all one - the flag itself works against this message - but that one's country is embedded in the larger ecological whole.

Participatory ecological practice. A final step along these lines would be to lace ecological globalism with participatory localism. A key element of a genuine ecological politics to remind us that although we are not all equally responsible for environmental degradation - our friends at DuPont wreak much more damage than our friends at Tom's of Maine - we are all responsible to ecological well-being. If environmental protection were simply a matter of expediency, it might make sense to leave the job of safeguarding the earth to those best suited to address expediency issues - the technocrats, bureaucrats, and economic analyst. To the degree that environmentalism also involves "being with the earth," the task devolves to each of us. We each undertake the challenge of generating respect for nature and exercising non-manipulative, non-objectifying, and non-exploitative human capacities.

Citizenship involves responsibilities as well as rights. As members of a biotic community, we all assume the responsibility of enhancing communal life. In concrete terms, this step is perhaps the most difficult to translate. At a minimum, it calls for individual effort - planting trees, reducing personal waste, eating lower on the food chain, helping those who depend on environmental exploitation find other means of livelihood, and supporting organic farming. How such effort might find support in the family, school, neighborhood, and marketplace still needs to be thought out. An ecological politics is not something that can be delegated. It must be lived by all.

Paul Wapner is an assistant professor at the School of International Service at American University. He is the author of Environmental Activism and World Civic Politics (SUNY, 1996).

Source Citation

Wapner, Paul. 1996. Toward a Meaningful Ecological Politics. Tikkun 11(3): 21.

tags: Environment, Environmental Activism  
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