Apoptosis is a biological term that refers to the death of cells that occurs as a normal and controlled part of an organism’s growth or development. Destruction is a process that is hard-coded into life. In something of a paradox, destruction and life are inextricably intertwined. Life contains, and in fact only exists in the first place, because of destruction. Living things consume. It’s what they do. The most successful lifeforms turn acts of consumption into chemical processes that through acts of sustainable destruction perpetuate life. Think of how your own body turns a diet of fat, carbohydrates and proteins into constantly replenished blood, muscle, and skin cells. Our bodies break down the cells of other living things to replace its own dead cells that are then purged as waste through the excretory system. In the absence of food, our bodies consume themselves. Life is sustainable destruction. Sustainability is just a nicer sounding word for destruction.
As beings that owe our own existence to sustainable destruction, it is no surprise that we have developed political and economic systems that mimic this fundamental biological force. Consider the Marxist concept of the dialectic, which is a process of change through the conflict of opposing forces. This is why Marxists are quick to say that a system like capitalism sows the seeds of its own destruction.
In a sense, the Marxists are right. Capitalism does sow the seeds of its own destruction, and from time to time we see capitalism go through major reinventions of itself. What those who parrot this statement get wrong is that they assume capitalism’s self-destruction will create a space where it will naturally be replaced by communism or some other system of proletariat utopia. The metaphor of the seed is right, but those who use it in this context miss one of the important and defining characteristics of seeds: seeds are how organisms propagate their own kind. To say that the seeds of capitalism’s destruction will yield a harvest of communism is like saying an acorn will grow a maple instead of an oak.
In this sense, Joseph Schumpeter’s concept of “creative destruction” is more apt. Capitalism does sow the seeds of its own destruction, and from these seeds grow new variations of capitalism. For this reason, in order to transform an economy from one based on free market principles to one based on Marxist principles, Marxists have to quite actively capture cultural and political power. A Marxist system won’t naturally grow out of a capitalist system.
Just as lifeforms and economic systems exist at the mercy of a process of creative destruction, so do ideological movements. Contemporary environmentalism is a movement that is arguably at the precipice of a major self-reinvention.
I define contemporary environmentalism as the iteration of environmentalism that started in the 1960s and 1970s. It came into being through a confluence of cultural and legal paradigm shifts. On the legal front a slate of new laws (Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, NEPA, FLPMA, and various efforts to create wilderness and protected swaths of land through vehicles as diverse as federal law down to conservation easements on private land). On the cultural front you have books like Silent Spring and The Monkey Wrench Gang, which while revolutionary in their time, have become mainstream. One of the highest grossing films of all time, Avatar, borrows the plot and characters from The Monkey Wrench Gang, gives them a new planet and some special effects and turns a cult-favorite novel into one of the mass-consumed cultural products of all time.
Currently environmentalism has the legal deck stacked in its favor. In order to be an effective and well-paid environmentalist in 2017, one option is to be a lawyer. Federal courts are packed with environmentalists suing corporations, individuals and governments. They win so often, that just the threat of these lawsuits accomplishes more in the way of favorable policy outcomes than the actualized lawsuits. Environmentalism is good at portraying itself as the little guy, but make no mistake, on the legal front environmentalism is nothing less than hegemonic. This isn’t to say environmentalism is accomplishing all of its goals. It has some very lofty goals, that it would likely fail to achieve in even the best of circumstances. It does accomplish many of its goals, and it is one of the few organized and coherent political forces to be reckoned with in our time.
Another way to be an effective and well-paid environmentalist in 2017 is to be an A-list hollywood actor, writer or director. The captains of the pop culture armadas are fully on board with the environmentalist agenda, and they use their power to give environmentalism an almost unlimited supply of moral authority and cultural cachet.
Those who are subjugated by the success of environmentalism and are forced to bear the costs of its success in achieving policy outcomes have little recourse to secure their own interests. For this reason, contemporary environmentalism isn’t going to falter at the hands of some hegemonic counterbalancing opposition.
Who will it be? Big Oil? Big Oil has adopted the language of environmentalism, and some of the most formidable environmental NGOs owe their wealth and resources to their direct ties to the oil industry.
While it is true that environmentalism’s biggest failure, at least in the U.S., has been its ability to find and field candidates that can win elections and stay in office long enough to reprogram the legal operating system to further their interests (see failure to pass cap-and-trade legislation in 2010 with Democratic controlled Congress and White House). Environmentalism doesn’t need to do this. It is not existentially threatened if new legislation isn’t passed. The current legal operating system installed in the 1960s and 1970s is serving them well enough. When you combine the legal power already on the books with the cultural endowment of moral authority it enjoys, and environmentalism can hack laws like the 1906 Antiquities Act. And they have. By hacking old laws, they can circumvent the political checks and balances that otherwise thwart their agenda and move forward.
If the laws that form the basis of environmentalism’s legal power were successfully repealed, that would be existentially threatening. There seems to be little likelihood of this happening anytime soon.
In this sense, environmentalism’s greatest threats will probably come from within its own movement.
Most environmentalists rally to the banner of climate change. On the surface, combining wilderness protection, endangered species protection, national monument creation, etc. to the moral crusade of reversing climate change is a relatively painless endeavor. Inherent symbiosis exists between different factions of the environmental movement and the pure essence of the climate change narrative. It wouldn’t be surprising, however, if in the near future those who are hardcore advocates for doing whatever it takes to mitigate climate change will find themselves increasingly at odds with their opportunistic allies in the broader environmental movement.
Case in point, an article was recently published in The Anthropocene Magazine about the impossibility of stopping climate change by planting trees by Sarah DeWeerdt. Since the author comes to the conlusion that the only way to mitigate climate changes is dramatic reductions in emissions, it’s safe to say this author is firmly in the camp that is opposed to large-scale geo-engineering projects. She would rather focus on engineering desirable outcomes out of the inherently unpredictable and unstable terrain of human politics.
The fetishization of political power is the default position of the climate change alarmist, but despite this, the article still contains this passage:
The sheer scale of biomass plantations that would be required to meaningfully mitigate our carbon dioxide emissions is mind-boggling, and likely to involve unbearable human or environmental costs.
Converting large areas of natural landscape to biomass plantations threatens these already stressed ecosystems. Converting agricultural land makes it harder to feed the world’s population. Fertilizing tree plantations requires huge inputs of nitrogen fertilizer—which also results in the release of greenhouse gases—and watering them taxes an already water-scarce world.
Suppose, for example, we continued on a “business-as-usual” pathway for now, and then had a collective change of heart after blowing past the 2° C mark—considered an important threshold for preventing the worst consequences of climate change—around mid-century.
At that point, growing trees to mitigate carbon emissions would entail turning virtually all natural ecosystems on land into biomass plantations, the researchers calculated.
Although the author might be opposed to a global colonization project to turn every natural landscape into a “biomass plantation,” that this is even being considered as a solution at all even on a limited or theoretical scale should be seen for what it is – a fault line in the environmental movement.
On one side you will have the geo-engineers. These will be the true believers in climate change. These will be the purists. At some point they will be more and more willing to unleash the applied knowledge of scientific understanding – in other words “technology” – to address climate change.
On the other side you will have the increasingly anachronistic wilderness warriors, whose historical moment will be coming to an end. These are the opportunists. These are the charlatans who sold out their pure interest of protecting wilderness to hitch the wagon of their movement to the climate change movement. Certainly there is much mutual benefit to go around. Parroting the interests of the climate change movement is good for fundraising, it is good for corporate branding, and the political benefits are nothing to sneeze at. However, if you truly believe in the main premise of climate change – that the atmosphere is being transformed on a molecular level in a way that is reverberating through every living system in the biosphere – then there is simply no wilderness left to protect.
While these two factions appear to get along swimmingly in the current moment, once the geoengineers start acting out on their grand visions for the planet in the name of science, the wilderness warriors and those who have believed in the false god of healthy biosphere baseline (e.g. proper amount of CO2 in atmosphere, proper level of biodiversity in an ecosystem, proper ph level of a body of water) will find themselves fighting a desperate battle against obsolescence.
It is possible that the geoengineers will not win the battle of public opinion and therefore not be given the moral legitimacy to act. However, in the long run, communicating the message “technology and science will solve these problems” shouldn’t be too hard to sell to the digital native generations that will be the deciding factor in this debate.
Nature worship is strong in western cultures. You cannot deny this. Technology worship is stronger. You also cannot deny this. The climate change faction of contemporary environmentalism is sowing the seeds of destruction to the movement as we know it today. What rises from the ashes of this conflict will be decidedly more anthropocentric.
If this is true, here are some other areas to keep an eye on:
- Anthropocentrism everywhere – You can’t have an anthropocene without a healthy dose of anthropocentrism.
— Hailey Whelan (@CanvasCanyons) June 10, 2017
- Individuals and corporations that can act bigger than governments going out on their own to solve environmental problems
- The metastasis of the eco-surveillance state
- Unprecedented human intervention into natural systems in order to “save them.”