In his essay ‘The Land Ethic’, Aldo Leopold recognized that what is really significant about human beings is less our intrinsic value as individuals, and more our habit of imputing value to others. We have an evolved propensity to project value to anyone recognised as being part of family or community, and therefore morally considerable. All human beings perceive value in this way. What has changed through history is the boundary of community. On returning from Troy, Odysseus hung twelve slave girls for sexual misdemeanours. He did so casually, because the women in question were not perceived as being part of the community. Such brutality seems repugnant to modern readers because since Homer wrote the Odyssey, the ambit of moral consideration has been extended to include women and slaves. In The Rights of Nature Roderick Nash builds upon Leopold’s insight to present a reading of human development as a process of progressive liberation involving the gradual extension of community. Culminating most recently with the consolidation of a universalist conception of individual human rights, he speculates that in the decades to come, this process might continue to include animals, plants and even non living entities such as stones or features of the landscape.
Leopold’s essay is pithy and brilliant. A ‘land ethic’ intimated a structure of personality that constrained individual behaviour with respect to non-human nature. His insight was essentially that what prevented the emergence or an ecological conscience was the hegemonic or common sense understanding of community. Most people didn’t recognise animals and plants as kith and kin. But once the real meaning of Darwin’s theory of evolution percolated into the vernacular, ethics and behaviour would follow. After all, molecular genetics has confirmed that every organism on the planet – every virus, bacterium, seaweed, and lichen – is quite literally kith and kin. Our consanguinity is evident in shared biochemical pathways, shared genes and the shared language of DNA.
So far so good! It might be argued that over the course the twentieth century, Leopold’s vision has begun to be realised. As the Darwinian vision of the phylogenetic unity of the biosphere has trickled into popular consciousness, attitudes and behaviour towards non-human organisms have begun to change. It is no longer preposterous to propose that primate cousins should have legal ‘human’ rights. The Animal Rights movement has become a vociferous counter culture. Environmentalism has become mainstream, at least in aspiration. Saving the whale, saving rainforests… certainly some kind of space has opened up.
But not really! The planet has never been more screwed than it is now. It is forty years since the phrase ‘limits to growth’ encapsulated what should be obvious, but our political and social systems are still utterly dependent on a cycle of permanent expansion. Blue boxes and personal carbon calculators notwithstanding, the metabolic throughput of energy and materials associated with pretty well any activity (brushing teeth? Listening to music? Keeping a dog?) seems to increase each year and with each generation. We may at an intellectual or cognitive level recognise kinship with the wider ecological community, but in at the level of behaviour, we are still out there with Odysseus slaughtering slave girls on a whim. Why?
One thing that is clearly going on is some kind of mass cognitive dissonance. We know about ecological community. We understand ecological interdependence. And yet we continue to act as if ecological laws don’t apply to our species, as if we were somehow independent and immune from any systemic consequences. Cognitive knowing, it seems, is not enough.
Janice Dickinson recently published a rather brilliant essay using the ideas of Ernest Becker to get to the heart of this problem. Her argument boils down to this. For decades environmentalists have presented data and information about limits to growth, species loss and climate change, in the expectation that with new information, ordinary people would vote with their feet and change the way that they behaved. In fact this period has coincided with the biggest consumption binge in history. So what is going on? Liberal-left environmentalists have a cognitivist bias. They tend to assume that rational deliberation and information processing drive behavioural change. And they are wrong. Drawing upon Karl Jung and Sigmund Freud, Becker argued that the most significant driver of behaviour is the unconscious fear of death. The function of culture is to insulate us against the terrifying recognition that life is fleeting and ephemeral and that sooner rather than later we will all end up as worm food. It does this by equipping us with hero and immortality projects: forms of socially sanctioned activity through which we garner social prestige and self-esteem (to bolster our egos against the equation of small & fleeting = worthless) and which provide mythological orientation and meaning (to help us understand where we are located in the greater cosmic scheme of things).
In Social Psychology Becker’s ideas have been formalized and tested to destruction under the banner of ‘terror management theory’ (TMT). Hundreds of studies have confirmed his basic intuitions as to the fear of death as a pervasive motivation. TMT has also confirmed a series of ancillary theses the most significant of which is that when thoughts of death percolate towards conscious awareness, people are very likely to respond by becoming much more aggressive in affirming their own cultural armour (the hero/immortality projects provided by their own culture). At the same time, thoughts of death also make people more antagonistic to alternative worldviews. One reason for this is that credible immortality project often has to be exclusive: in a very overt way, the Christian idea of heaven is weakened and relativized if it coexists alongside non-Christian immortality projects. There is a very strong psychological tendency towards intolerance and homogeneity in relation to orienting, cosmic origin myths. And as many TMT researchers have shown, this can easily spill over into bigotry and even violent conflict (e.g. Solomon).
OK – so fear of death is a pervasive driver of behaviour; all cultures provide insulation in the form of hero/immortality projects; and where such projects but up against each other there is potential for conflict. But what is the particular problem with regard to ecology? The problem is that modern industrial societies are as Max Weber argued, ‘disenchanted’. Scientific rationalism is wonderfully effective in advancing the Baconian programme of controlling nature for the betterment of human kind – as long as by ‘betterment’ you mean constantly increasing GDP, increasing the ‘standard of living’ and increasing the throughput of energy and materials available for every citizen. But it also undermines the kind of shared ontologies, mythologies, communitarian we-identifications and commitment to place enjoyed by all pre-modern, pre-industrial societies. Scientific rationalism strips away ‘participatory consciousness’ – the deep presumption things are connected to a broader cosmic order. It erodes opportunities for what Victor Turner refers to as ‘communitas’ – the joyful recognition of togetherness and cosmic sense of place that emerges spontaneously in the stream of community life. As Eliade argued in The Sacred and the Profane, losing access to sacred or mythical time, modern man experiences only the profane: ‘…man feels no responsibility except to himself and to society. For him, the universe does not properly constitute a cosmos – that is, a living and articulated unity; it is simply the sum of the material reserves and physical energies of the planet’ (93-4). Profane existence precludes qualitative judgements. Without cosmic orientation, we find it impossible to experience cosmic responsibility – in relation to the present state of our biosphere, let alone its past and future potential diversity and complexity. In a disenchanted world, the only constraints on human behaviour are instrumental-rational, calculative and, to a much more limited extent, social. It is therefore not surprising that, in modern industrial societies, the pervasive hero/immortality projects are overwhelmingly narcissistic and constructed around individual consumption and material wealth. It just so happens that the political economy of twentieth century capitalism has made the entire structure of welfare and the public services dependent on growth and so upon the cycle of endless consumption.
But more than that, in a disenchanted, rationalised world, traditional hero/immortality projects are no longer sufficient. They don’t work. Society is too heterogeneous and individualised for vocational occupations serving a clear function in relation to wider society, to provide effective hero projects. There is insufficient consensus around even such basic social roles as mother or fatherhood, or the dutiful son or daughter, for these to function as hero projects. And the combination of secularization and the differentiation of religious belief have undermined the salience and psychological traction of traditional immortality projects. In place of communitarian role play and religion, the characteristic hero/immortality projects of late modern society instead centre on individual consumption. And it is in this context that we should understand what Christopher Lasch and more recently Jean Tweng have dubbed ‘the narcissism epidemic’ – the pervasive and corrosive self-centred thinking and behaviour, that has become unapologetic and rampant in the age of Facebook, smartphones and the ‘selfie’.
So in some ways Aldo Leopold must be right. To the extent that people really understand ecological community as kith and kin they do experience a deep sense of connection and moral obligation. But for most people theoretical statements about genetic affiliations are in fact no more engaging than factual propositions about climate change. The positive impact of greater knowledge about humanity’s evolutionary and ecological relation to the rest of nature is blunted and made irrelevant by a narcissistic personality structure and an unconscious reliance on personal and conspicuous consumption and relative wealth as the focus for hero/immortality projects. The perfect storm of overconsumption and ecological implosion has been given an unstoppable momentum by a political economy of welfare, which binds progressive welfare irrevocably to growth.
This, argues Dickinson, is why when faced with categorical information about the impact of personal consumption on climate change, most people have voted with their feet. The last twenty years has seen the greatest consumption binge in history. When faced with evidence as to the catastrophic and even terminal consequences of our collective behaviour, the overwhelming pattern of response from politicians, the public and even many environmentalists has been:
- An even greater commitment to consumerism (as an expression of lifestyle and identity) [A ‘DEATH PRIME’ REINFORCING THE DOMINANT SET OF HERO /IMMORTALITY PROJECTS]
- An even greater commitment to the countervailing growth-dependent commitments of the welfare state [ALSO: A ‘DEATH PRIME’ REINFORCING THE DOMINANT SET OF HERO /IMMORTALITY PROJECTS]
- Greater hostility to out-groups and competing sets of cultural armour (e.g. the war on terror; chants of ‘drill baby drill’ at the Republican Party Congress; the ferocity of ad hominem attacks by climate sceptics on those associated with or publicising mainstream climate science)
This puts environmentalists in a very difficult position. Contra Emerson, non-rational drivers of behaviour rather than ‘things’ per se, ‘are in the saddle and drive mankind’. If we keep focusing on ‘things’, ‘data’ and ‘facts’, the likelihood is that we will evoke among politicians, ordinary people and perhaps also extremist political parties (e.g. The Tea Party) the same pattern of response, with ever-greater vitriol and with increasingly likelihood for conflict. If we want people to migrate en masse to a new way of life, a new set of eco-communitarian commitments and to facilitate ecological conscience formation, it may be that we have to think much harder about irrational drivers of behaviour. Environmentalists need compelling hero/immortality projects that
(1) Speak directly to the need for re-enchantment.
(2) Can appeal to large sections of conservative/mainstream opinion
(3) Combine liberal/progressive concerns with more place-bound communitarian commitments
(4) Embrace issues of spirituality and religion and recognize that human beings are above all ‘meaning seeking creatures’
Such an agenda is likely to be uncomfortable. I will risk upsetting others and unsettling myself by considering these issues in my next blog.
Becker, Ernest (1973). The Denial of Death, The Free Press. ISBN 0-02-902380-7
Morris Berman (1981) The Reechantment of the World
Dickinson, J. L. (2009) The people paradox: self-esteem striving, immortality ideologies, and human response to climate change. Ecology and Society 14(1): 34. [online] URL: http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol14/iss1/art34/
Eliade, M (1957) The Sacred and the Profane
Lasch, C (1979) The Culture of Narcissism (New York: Norton, 1979)
Leopold, A (1949) A Sand County Almanac (Oxford)
Nash, R (1989) The Rights of Nature: A History of Environmental Ethics (Wisconsin)
Pyszczynski, Thomas; Solomon, Sheldon; Greenberg, Jeff (2003). In the Wake of 9/11: The Psychology of Terror, American Psychological Association. ISBN 1-55798-954-0
Quilley, S (2009) The Land Ethic as an Ecological Civilizing Process: Aldo Leopold, Norbert Elias, and Environmental Philosophy In Environmental Ethics Volume 31, Issue 2, Summer 2009 Pages 115-134 DOI: 10.5840/enviroethics200931215
Solomon, Sheldon, Greenberg, J., & Pyszczynski, T. (1991) “A terror management theory of social behavior: The psychological functions of esteem and cultural worldviews”, in M. P. Zanna (Ed.) Advances in experimental social psychology Volume 24, Academic Press, pp. 93–159. ISBN 0-12-015224-X
Turner, Edith (2011) Communitas: The Anthropology of Collective Joy (Macmillan)
Twenge, J (2010) The Narcissism Epidemic (Atria)