The Left's Gospel: Humans Own the World

by Lorna Salzman (October 2015)


"We are as gods, and might as well get good at it" (Stewart Brand)

"..the world originally and essentially belongs to everyone..this common heritage may be divided into property only in ways that the dividers can justify on moral and political grounds..the built world ..is a shared product of human labor and intelligence and its fruits should therefore be distributed justly." ("an egalitarianism for the anthropocene..", Jedediah Purdy, Dissent magazine, fall 2015).

Can anyone detect more than a hair's width difference between these two statements? The former is by the futurist and technophile Stewart Brand.The latter is by Duke law professor Jedediah Purdy.

Put aside the differences now and let's concentrate on the meat of the matter. This is the notion that the world belongs to human beings. Think about that. This is a proposition being seriously proposed, and more importantly, by a leftist, Purdy. Now take this proposition and compare it to those of Peter Kareiva, chief scientist of The Nature Conservancy, who announced that wilderness no longer exists and that humans alone are now in charge and must rescue the earth not because it is a marvel of evolution and life forms but because humans need the "services" of Nature to preserve their way of life (and of course lift the poor out of their poverty and enfranchise them in the industrial/commercial world of unlimited economic growth).

Anyone who blames Republicans, neo-cons, creationists and climate deniers for the sorry state of environmental wisdom is really missing the heavy hitters, the liberals who command media attention, the ones who use their built-in academic podiums to misinform students, those with a gift of gab who get showcased on TV or interviewed on the radio, the ones who become idolized not because their thoughts are new but because they don't rock the boat or ask embarrassing questions or propose ridiculous things like carbon taxes and de-growth.

Purdy is a liberal heavy hitter, having blasted his way into public consciousness as a young university student eons ago. Now he teaches law at Duke University, publishes books and in his latest piece in Dissent manifests a plentiful lack of brains. Other writings of his appear to be, at least superficially, better researched and better reasoned, so it probably seemed logical to Dissent editors to choose him to write on that esoteric subject called environmentalism for their special issue of leftist thought.

Their choice of Purdy should embarrass them, because it indicates that Dissent itself is completely oblivious to the really serious thinking of many American liberals and progressives who have been involved since the 1960s in thinking and writing about the environment. There are trunkloads of books and journals covering the philosophy, ethics, economics, science and social justice aspects of environmentalism, if one is sincerely interested in digging up the important thinkers on the topic. The best Dissent could do was turn to Purdy. Even a cursory glance at today's media might have led them to Naomi Klein, herself a long-standing leftist and now vigorous activist and writer on climate change and the fate of the earth. And there are many many others (though they do not self-identify as leftists).

So let's go right now to Purdy and see why he is closer to Stewart Brand and Peter Kareiva and the technophiles who look to technology and geoengineering to save us. Off the bat he gives the back of his hand to what used to be called "tree huggers" dismissively. Here is how he opens his piece, with the usual and now tiresome attack on  nature lovers:

“...the movement remains disproportionately white, elite and motivated by romantic attachment to high mountains, old forests, and charismatic animals". ROMANTIC attachment? We are not talking about rhapsodic 19th century poets, Jed. Read your science books. We are talking about biodiversity and the preservation of ecosystems; we are talking about species and systems on which all of human civilization depends. Don't take my word for it; go do some reading and research in ecology. I can give you a good reading list if you want; you obviously have a very short one.

No one should be embarrassed to be part of a white movement, elite or not, any more than blacks should be embarrassed to be part of a black movement like BlackLivesMatter. Blacks didn't start the environmental movement and though they have always been welcome, they decided to stay outside and eschew groups that were not started by or controlled by blacks.

This is not to say that blacks lack an environmental commitment or ecological awareness, but rather that black community leaders have tended to characterize local environmental battles in their communities  as social or racial justice battles. This black separatism is  why most environmental groups are predominantly white.

Blacks did not join these groups early on or even in their full flower in the 1970s. Their entry into the movement was circumscribed by focusing on "environmental racism"and their purported exclusion from the mainstream groups. But it was a voluntary exclusion on their part. They took a different activist path with different objectives. That was their privilege; the environmental path was taken by others. Each one had different priorities.

“...the politics of nature has often been democratic and creative in advancing the notion of the living world AS PART OF A HUMAN ECOLOGY ( LS caps).  For Purdy, "a human ecology" (undefined) subsumes the living world! Well, that is literally true in one sense: human technology, industry and resource exploitation HAVE in fact subsumed to the point of desolation and destruction the physical landscape and systems around the world. Human technological endeavor is swallowing the living world in its giant maw. But this is not what Purdy means. What he is saying is that human societies and endeavors MUST take priority, and the consideration of nature (if not its protection)  must fit into what humans have created. Yes, definitely the mark of the Brand is here,  humans as gods shaping the earth for strictly human purposes.

"Nature has often meant what comes before politics and sets its limits, and environmentalism has sought to speak for nature in these terms". This follows a condemnation of environmentalism that he describes as "often undemocratic in origin and effect", though he does not provide any examples.

Translation: Politics comes first, before nature, and environmentalists have got it backwards.

Not content with damning the past, he then comes up with what is widely accepted as leftist scripture:

"The first task for left environmentalists is to own up to this history and ask how today's green mainstream still lacks, or even blocks, democratic and egalitarian projects...The conceptual anchor of such politics might be an update on a very old idea - that the world originally and essentially BELONGS TO EVERYONE,  (LS caps), and that this common heritage may be divided into property only in ways that the dividers can justify on moral and political grounds".

I am not ready to be a divider and I am curious as to who Purdy thinks will do the deed, but I have a sinking feeling that if he is still around when the revolution breaks out, it is going to be a useful leftist idiot...or worse, a totalitarian offspring of Kareiva or Brand. Take your pick.

However, the most disturbing near-psychotic part of Purdy's statement is the  unqualified assertion that Planet Earth "belongs to everyone", i.e. to humans. Not to other animals or plants or ecosystems. Just to humans. This is truly terrifying: to see a law professor who thinks social justice can  be achieved by ignoring the exigencies of ecology and evolution.  Purdy is indeed a faith-based leftist. This is as powerful a statement of faith in human-created technology as you can find, possibly exceeding the wildest dreams of Stewart Brand himself or those who have booked one-way tickets to Mars.

Once again the left has thrown down the gauntlet to insist that social justice takes precedence over ecology and over the preservation of planetary systems. Does the left think the human species has a permanently guaranteed spot on earth? An eternal life? Just how does social justice lend itself (apart from a complete geoengineering of our planet with artificial food, among other things) to survival? Not at all.

The social justice movement, which is more or less contiguous with the left, has, if one regards Purdy as representative, given up all  pretense of ecological responsibility or comprehension. It has stepped outside what, in future history books, will be seen as the most important intellectual movement since the  Enlightenment: the movement to not merely love and appreciate nature but to rein in human hubris and its domination and destruction of life. It has not only stepped outside it but is now barefacedly attempting to discredit it. It is no exaggeration to say that the social justice movement in this country is as subversive to society and the planet as the neo-cons, the free marketeers and the climate deniers. They are in effect doing the same dirty work; the neo-cons and deniers lie while the social justice people just ignore.

 

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Lorna Salzman's career as an environmental activist and writer began when the late David Brower hired her to be the regional representative of Friends of the Earth in NYC. Later she worked as an editor on National Audubon's American Birds magazine and as director of Food & Water, an early opponent of food irradiation, and then spent three years as a natural resource specialist in the NYC Dept. of Environmental Protection. She co-founded the New York Green Party in 1984 and in 2004 she sought the U.S. Green Party's presidential nomination. She is the author of “Politics as if Evolution Mattered,” which addresses the intersection of evolution with socio-political policy. 

 

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