The New Old Eco-Pessimism

by Victor Davis Hanson

The American Spectator

The release of Al Gore’s environmental documentary An Inconvenient Truth — and its attendant criticism that our heating planet arises out of Western pathology — harkens back to a long tradition of gloom and doom in Western thought and art.

Hesiod, the 8th-century B.C. Greek poet, sang of a past Golden Age long lost by the greedy and small-minded farmers of his own time. The famous chorus of Sophocles’ Antigone marveled how the clever Greeks of his day had to ply technology endlessly to recapture a modicum of what nature used to offer up spontaneously. The later Roman poets Virgil and Ovid have several allusions to the bounty of a more natural life before the hustle and bustle of the late Roman Republic — a lost Golden Age that perhaps the emperor Augustus might restore. But later the imperial satirist Juvenal thought the luxury of the empire had turned the once noble Roman peasant into a degenerate urbanite.

To this ancient pagan notion of something akin to a lost Big Rock Candy Mountain, Judeo-Christianity offered the spiritual dimension of The Fall. Various scriptures explain the stained nature of man and, after banishment from the Garden of Eden, his precarious existence in an unforgiving world. The German pessimists, such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Oswald Spengler, wove a somewhat counter-intuitive, and much darker, thread of Western decline. Their past Golden Age was not a lost paradise of natural bounty, but rather a rugged precarious time for a now romanticized Volk once energized by its daily elemental challenges before falling into the degeneration of modernity. In contrast, the corrupting materialism, radical egalitarianism, and bourgeois leisure of the 19th and 20th centuries had left Western man soulless, weak, and “without a chest.”

Despite these multifaceted themes of Western degeneration, there are a few constants that should guide us in our latest bout of environmental pessimism. Such glumness with the present often arises during periods of prosperity. Like Jacques Rousseau, Western intellectuals and philosophers, enjoying the leisure and safety of their own times, have the opportunity to fanaticize about a primordial Eden-like past, or romanticize about a purer nature unsullied by industrialization and urbanization.

In this regard, recall of the 20th century that never have so many humans become so wealthy, so healthy, and so leisured as in the last 30 years with the spread of globalization. Western-style modes of production have brought a chance at prosperity to 2 billion of the Third World, while thanks to new democracies in Asia, Africa, and the Americas there is now the greatest number of consensual governments in civilization’s history.

Second, environmental worries — global deluges, earthquakes, fires, and plagues — for millennia have proven perhaps the most resonant of all strains of Western depression. The Greeks of the polis feared lest they would share the collective fate of a mythical submerged Atlantis, while Al Gore’s bestsellerEarth in the Balance warned us that our clueless craving “for shiny new products” was destroying our earth or, to employ Gore’s Greek nomenclature, ruining mother “Gaia.”

This alarmists’ success with the public in inciting environmental Armageddon derives not from too little or too much wealth, the wrong politics, or sin, but rather the loss of the very air, water, or land that nourishes mankind himself. When in 1962 Rachel Carson wrote in Silent Spring of a soon to appear spring without the very sounds of birds, or Paul Ehrlich (The Population Bomb, 1968) throughout the 1970s prophesied a demographic implosion of India and China, they hit a chord well beyond the novelty of Spengler’s enervated Westerner or Rousseau’s noble savage: No one anywhere was exempt on our shared shrinking earth from the deleterious effect of modern Western life.

Yet there have always been intrinsic problems with the fear that we are shortly to commit collective environmental suicide. If Westerners display such devilish ability to over-multiply or over-consume or overexploit their habitat, surely they are also empowered by that very ability to react, adjust, and to rectify damage to the environment — employing the empiricism and cold rationalism that led to such intractable problems to solve them.

The advance of technology and human inventiveness explains why there are now more forests in New England than 200 years ago, while the greatest comparative leaps in the planet’s wealth have taken place in the once written-off India and China.

The most famous chapter of Carson’s Silent Spring, “A Fable for Tomorrow,” envisioned an (imaginary) American community in which every living thing — birds, plants, even children — were all “silent,” vanquished by DDT toxins that had infiltrated every aspect of the food chain. In truth, the banning of DDT has resulted in far more deaths of humans — mostly in Africa from mosquito-borne malaria — than any collateral damage from use of the pesticide.

But besides these traditional objections to eco-pessimism, more recently this genre of doom has oddly had to defend itself from charges of Western chauvinism from fellow leftists, who with the rise of multiculturalism argue that there was nothing much exceptional to the West to begin with other than its propensity to colonize, subjugate, and extinguish. Thus the old Western Declinism could now be ironically seen as ethnocentric: Even those Westerners who blame their own civilization should not assume that the planet’s destiny is in their hands — or that there is anything unique about their culture to make them think they had expertise to save the planet.

UCLA’s Jared Diamond addressed those objections cleverly in both his widely popular Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997), and Collapse (2005), while still managing to promulgate the age-old gloom. Yes, Diamond argued, things are indeed getting worse — now to the point of threatening the survival of the human race itself. Yes, we teeter on the brink because of the spiritual selfishness of capitalism and the blinkered arrogance of Western science, religion, and technology. And yes, non-Western peoples, untouched by our pernicious protocols, such as Diamond’s friend Yali of New Guinea, live a much simpler, natural, and ultimately more satisfying life.

But to deny the wealth and influence of the West — or its own power to undo its own damage — is unfortunately impossible. In compensation, Diamond offered this politically correct carrot: the regrettable dynamism of Europeans did not derive from any exceptionalism such as free markets, democracy, religious tolerance, rationalism, or commitment to constitutional law. Nor did the West produce any “Great Men” whose careers changed world history in any significant way: “It remains an open question how wide and lasting the effects of idiosyncratic individuals on history really are.” A Jesus, Shakespeare, Newton, Marx, or Churchill really did not do much in comparison with larger, lifeless forces that predetermine historical reality.

Instead, European pre-eminence simply derived from a long-ago accident, as Westerners themselves did nothing to win their present influence. Primordial Europe was blessed with an exceptional landscape that offered unique plants and crops, plentiful ores, and an absence of lethal disease that in combination gave it a collective head start on Asia, the Americas, and Africa. Only in such a protected natural greenhouse could the lucky Europeans have the leeway to craft their civilization in relative natural safety and largess.

Such reductionism was, of course, also simpleminded. The polis Greeks inherited the same land and crops after the collapse of the palatial culture of their Mycenaean predecessors and feudal Dark-Age forefathers, but within two centuries — on the same ground — crafted a far wealthier, more sophisticated, and cultured society, thanks to radically different protocols. The Pharaohs may well have exhausted the soil of the Nile Valley through over-intensive farming, coupled with salinization. But again, the Ptolemaic Greeks, farming on the same supposedly played-out ground, by the 3rd century B.C. reached levels of prosperity undreamed of by the palatial Egyptians largely because of an empirically based sophisticated agronomy that addressed problems of fertilization, drainage, and irrigation.

Rather than being essential to the rise of the West, the environment was almost irrelevant to it — once the classical paradigm of freedom, rationalism, individualism, and consensual government evolved into later European culture. That is why Westerners could implant thriving communities in the lagoons of Venice, or the marshes of Mexico City, or the fjords of Scandinavia, possessing as they did a system that could be superimposed on a wide variety of naturally hostile environments.

Nevertheless, by shaking his finger at an affluent West to remind it that we were lucky rather than smart, Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel went on to be a best-seller. And its geographical determinism suggested a natural sequel: If a powerful West rose as a sort of accident predicated on inanimate natural forces at work, a fluke if you will, how might such an aberrant and dangerous culture end?

Here the problem that faced Diamond was that with an overcrowded China and India thriving, thanks to the adoption of a capitalist paradigm, and cramped cities like Singapore, Shanghai, and New York relatively stable, it was hard to find any hard evidence that Westerner-style patterns of exploitation were destroying the environment beyond the ability to salvage it. For all the pollution of a Shanghai, the hyperconfidence of Sydney, or the schlock of Las Vegas, there was no evidence of hunger, disease, salinization, or massive population decline.

So in Collapse, Diamond, with the same canniness evidenced in Guns, Germs, and Steel, selected a number of mostly past fragile landscapes in out-of-the-way and now mostly unnoticed places that could serve as his environmental canaries in the mine. Easter Island, Greenland, Pitcairn Island, the desert of New Mexico, and the high plains of Montana, all these now depopulated ghost communities reveal the footprints of past failed societies that, according to Diamond, through both ignorance and greed degraded their environment and thus deservedly disappeared.

Note the selectivity of his case studies. All are fragile landscapes with limited arable land and occasionally harsh weather that prove only that there are occasionally a few places that colonists and settlers should not try to turn into bustling communities, and simply are not worth the effort when there are other more inviting candidates ripe for exploitation. Thus, Diamond does not discuss the deserts outside Phoenix or Las Vegas, California’s rapidly growing Central Valley, or the now crammed Orange County where millions have ingeniously altered the landscape through roads, damns, power plants, and canals to create thriving cultures. And of course, Montana and Wyoming, far from being the impoverished and exhausted plains of failed ranchers and short-sighted farmers, are more recently growing as never before, thanks to their increasingly valued energy deposits, new technologies of exploitation, and their enduring reputations as pristine frontier escapes far from the rat-races of our cities.

Whereas there are plenty of large populous civilizations that have vanished — the Greek city-states, the Roman Empire, the Aztecs, the Venetians, and the Ottomans — they are conveniently not discussed in any meaningful detail by Diamond, since their collapses were not predicated on the environment, but entirely human-induced. Either war, conquest, changing patterns of trade, high taxation, or an inability to respond to sudden change sealed most civilizations’ fates — not vast predetermined geographical and environmental laws.

On the few occasions Diamond does discuss the status of more populous and economically vibrant societies the results border on the absurd. For example, we are to praise the neighborly culture of the “polter” (the reclaimed lowland) of the supposedly sustainable Netherlands in which the environmentally correct Dutch have embraced cooperation and thus crafted an ecologically sound society — as if the stability of a culture depends entirely on wind power or the communitarian effort to manage responsibly the tides. This was all written before the murder of Theo Van Gogh, the brouhaha over Hirsi Ali, the courageous feminist critic of traditional Islam in the Netherlands, and the complete transformation of Dutch culture — after it woke up to the reality that its multicultural and therapeutic protocols were a recipe for natural suicide. The Netherlands may be the most green country in Europe, but its “polter” culture, through land reclamation, birthed the most radical artificial alteration of any environment in Europe — and later tried to appease the very Islamists that it had earlier failed to assimilate.

Diamond suggests that Australia is doomed unless it regresses to a population of about 8 million, the maximum number of people that the entire continent can supposedly sustain. This also was authored just as the economy of Australia skyrocketed, as its natural resources were shipped to fuel the ascendance of China — in turn just the sort of overcrowded failed state that according to a Paul Ehrlich should long ago have perished. In fact, what ignited Australia’s unprecedented recent prosperity were the open-market policies of the John Howard government, and the capitalist reforms of a voraciously importing China.

The problem with eco-pessimism is not that crying environmental wolf is not without some value, since we do not wish to use indiscriminately organophosphate pesticides or rashly waste water on too many private lakes and golf courses in the desert. But warnings about our exuberance can be made without slanting evidence and shrilly condemning capitalist and Christian society. There is no need to turn sober concern about the environment into pseudo-crises of earth being literally held “in the balance” as we seek guidance from Jared Diamond’s aboriginal chums, such as the genetically superior Yalis of New Guinea.

Indeed, once the rich vein of cultural pessimism is tapped, the anti-Western pessimist also enjoys a number of exemptions from the usual liberal criticism. Racism? Listen to Diamond on the genetic differences of the New Guinea tribesmen: “It’s easy to recognize two reasons why my impression that New Guineans are smarter than Westerners may be correct.… That is, in mental ability New Guineans are probably genetically superior to Westerners.” Hypocrisy? Read how terrible things are from the resident of Westwood who, in the manner of the fabulously wealthy Al Gore, flies around the globe lecturing about the pernicious effects of the culture of the CEO and gated community. Nonsense? For such geographical determinists, are there really subtle environmental mini-climates that might explain why one society works and another does not, as for example along the present fault lines at Tijuana/San Diego, Tel Aviv/ Jericho, and Seoul/Pyongyang, or the past radical divides among East and West Berlin or Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland?

From Hesiod or Spengler, gloomy predictions usually tell us far more about the author than they reflect an empirical assessment of the actual conditions of contemporary societies. Pessimism apparently fulfills a need in affluent, but otherwise guilty or troubled Westerners to feel bad about their privileges without ever having to give them up. And that explains why more than anything authors write that we are doomed by too many people, too much heat, and too much consumption — and why so many of us apparently enjoy reading of our misery to come.

©2006 Victor Davis Hanson

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