By James Miller
In October I was invited to participate in a symposium on International Perspectives on Nature and Culture organized by the Institute for the Humanities at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. I was on a panel responding to a paper by the French philosopher Augustin Berque. His most recent book is called La pensée paysagère (Paris: Archibooks 2008), and it articulates a fundamental distinction between “thinking of the countryside” or “la pensée du paysage” and “country thinking” or “la pensée paysagère.” In modernity, he claims, we have ideas about “nature” or “the environment,” but we do not have ideas that are grounded in nature as a biophysical reality or which express themselves in the flourishing of nature. We have too much “pensée du paysage” and not enough “pensée paysagère.” The contradiction of modernity is that the theorization, symbolization and fetishization of nature as a concept proceeds apace and at the very same time as the annihilation of nature as a biophysical reality.
The thought that “environmentalism” is a kind of fetish that actually hinders the progress towards ecological sustainability came to me again when I heard a talk given by Gus Speth, the Dean of the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University. His talk was a searing indictment of the environmental movement, which has failed to achieve any real progress in the past twenty years. The reason for this failure, he claimed, is that the environmental movement has not focussed on the core problem at hand, namely the system of global capitalism. This is an argument he made most forcefully in his recent book The Bridge at the End of the World, in which he points to systemic failures within the system of capitalism as the cause of our continuing ecological crisis. If his argument is correct, it makes one wonder how the ecological crisis can ever be dealt with satisfactorily. The review of his book in The Washington Post made the same point in the following way: “But short of a cataclysmic event — like the Great Depression or some equally profound social breakdown — Speth does not suggest how we might achieve the change in values and structural reform necessary for long-term sustainability. ‘People have conversion experiences and epiphanies,’ he notes, asking, ‘Can an entire society have a conversion experience?’ ”
For anyone who researches culture and cultural change, it’s perfectly obvious that entire societies can have conversion experiences. The most obvious two cultural conversion experiences in the twentieth century have been the dismantling of apartheid in United States, South Africa and elsewhere, and the struggle for equal rights for women.
While historical events can provide the flashpoints around which movements coalesce and societies transform, they are not sufficient to bring about social and cultural change. Events such as the Great Depression or the current global financial meltdown can well become catalysts for change, but only if the right kind of cultural arguments are in place. Conversions do not take place in a vacuum. They occur in a context of struggle over meaning and value in our culture. In the cases of the struggle for racial and gender equality, this was a long struggle in which religions played a key role, because through their scriptures, values and institutions, they provided legitimacy for arguments both progressive and reactionary.
It’s no surprise to me, therefore, that religion is now a site of meaning that is deeply contested within the environmental movement: is environmentalism a kind of spiritual orientation towards the world? And the environment is also a site of meaning that is deeply contested within religious movements: what is our moral duty towards nature?
Or alternatively, as Augustin Berque implies: is environmentalism just another “ism” that operates within our modern consumer culture? If so, Gus Speth’s question naturally follows: is there any hope than environmentalism can challenge the cultural and economic framework within which it operates?
To me, these questions reveal that the environmental struggle is not just a battle over science, education and public policy. It’s a human struggle over value and meaning. What value does nature have in our world? Where do we locate our ultimate sources of meaning? These are quintessentially religious questions with which the human species has been grappling since prehistoric times. They are also questions that Chinese environmentalists are grappling with as they debate the meaning of traditional Chinese ideas about “respect for nature” and their relevance for 21st century China.