(en) Some of my best friends are people

pj lilley (pj@tao.ca)
Sun, 9 Mar 1997 15:15:32 -0500 (EST)


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Some of My Best Friends are People by Len Bush <ag526@FREENET.CARLETON.CA> in Canadian Dimension (Feb'97)

"Reduced to merely one life-form among many, the poor and the impoverished either become fair game for outright extermination if they are socially expendable, or they become objects of brutal exploitation if they can be used to aggrandize the corporate world. Accordingly, terms like "oneness" and a "biocentric democracy" go hand-in-hand with a pious formula for human oppression, misery, and even extermination." - Murray Bookchin, 1989

This essay is in response to an article written by David Orton for the July - August 1996 issue of Canadian Dimension [Deep Left Dilemmas, CD 30-4]. While Orton's article addresses a lot of issues, I would like to focus specifically on his efforts to link deep ecology, and biocentric thinking, with leftist practice. It is my contention that deep ecology and left politics are irreconcilable positions.

I can pinpoint the moment when I started to drift away from the "environmental movement. " It was during a meeting of the Ottawa chapter of the Green Party. We were brainstorming platform positions for the upcoming municipal election when one of the members suggested banning people from moving into Ottawa. Another member, aghast, blurted out that this was fascism, only to be argued against by a sizable number of those in attendance. The arguments were the usual: can't exceed the "carrying capacity of the area," Ottawa's "ecological footprint" and assorted eco-justifications. In the face of such blatant and crudely defended selfishness I felt, as did many of the others in attendance, little choice but to leave the Green Party.

Another anecdote about my disillusionment with environmentalism: I had helped to bring well-known "eco- warrior" Captain Paul Watson (high seas defender of whales and seals) to the university where I work. During his lecture he started to discuss efforts to cure AIDS. He felt that all these efforts were useless and that AIDS served a positive function - it decreased the human population! Now, I was quite shocked by this. I approached him afterwards and mentioned that disease is a remarkably poor way to control population and that the best method was the education of women and support of women's liberation movements. Did his organization support feminism? No, feminism was just another anthropocentric ideology!

How does all this relate to David Orton's article? I bring it up because I think that together they exemplify what is one of the most fundamental problems with the environmental movement and in particular the entire deep ecology/ biocentric/bioregional streams. Namely, these ideological positions are being used, in the guise of a radical critique, to defend the social position of middle to upper class white men.

Before you get me wrong, the devastation of ecosystems and our planetary habitat are still major concerns of mine. Furthermore, I work in an organization that spends a lot of time and energy addressing these issues. It is just that I feel environmentalism, in its present form, is such a flawed political practice that I cannot support it. For Orton, most environmentalists are too oriented in the social, for me not enough!

Why is it that when women, aboriginal peoples, people of colour, lesbians, gays and bisexuals, and a diverse range of social identities finally start making inroads into contemporary

societies that self-professed radicals start chiding them for being "anthropocentric"? Imagine, First Nations peoples might want to overcome the crushing poverty that racks their communities by allowing some logging. Orton tells us that environmentalists shouldn't work with them then because they are thinking anthropocentrically! He says that "social justice for native peoples in Canada does not demand more development, however this concept is qualified...." That's right, we whites might have home heating and other conveniences, but that's not for our native brothers and sisters! And while I agree with Oorton about the pitfalls of unqualified support of First Nations peoples, I am extremely uneasy with his evoking Reform party like rhetoric: "Today there can be no absolute claim to different privileges or rights for Canadians of aboriginal ancestry or anyone else."

Can calls for dismantling welfare be far behind? To ignore the historic oppression of colonialism and the exploitation of contemporary aboriginal peoples is to be complicit in it!

How easy it is for a straight white man, roaming the seas looking for whaling ships to crash into, to glibly condemn millions of people with AIDS, and the millions more caring for them, to suffering. or, for middle class suburban home-owners to want to prevent outsiders from moving into their community, or for a home owning middle-class writer to tell Third World and aboriginal peoples that they shouldn't aspire to the material wealth that we have. "Have to protect the mother!" Yeah, right.

Feminists for decades have highlighted how being paired with nature has been part and parcel of their oppression. Now they are told that they were better off being considered connected to nature and the struggle to have their issues recognized is mere anthropocentric thinking. Janet Biehl replies better than I could in her essay Ecofeminism and Deep Ecology:

"The strange mixture of John Wayne confrontations with wilderness and Taoist platitudes about self- effacement are suited more to privileged white men with a taste for outdoor life than to feminists and their struggle for selfhood, individuation , and a truly human status in both nature and society."

Deep ecologists, with their concerns about over-population and oppositon to human centred politics, such as feminism, offer a potentially frightening prospect for the rights of women. Just how do they expect to lower the population? Far too many countries, ignoring the concerns of women, have initiated horrifying programs for population control for this issue to be taken lightly! Biocentrists (I note that the coining of jargon is definitely a growth aspect of the environmental movement) would no doubt argue that I am overly simplifying their position, that anthropocentrism's distinguishing of human from non-human life is the origin of all hierarchical oppressions. They would assert the primacy of environmental over social justice issues - "the 'Left' is subordinate to the 'green'," as Orton puts it. I am not buying any of it. First, while humanity does share much with all other life on the planet, it also differs in exceptional ways. our social evolution makes us unique on the planet. A deep ecologist I know calls humans simply apes with less hair. Well, not many apes are that proficient on the word processor or the piano, at understanding Marx or bell hooks, or aware, as this deep ecologist apparently is, of the theory of evolution. our ability to be self conscious, craft and utilize tools and create new and unique social groupings does distinguish us from the non-human species. Furthermore, we are told that we are no different from all other species on the planet, but on the other hand our technological development is threatening the entire biosphere and as a species we must choose to radically change ourselves. No other species on the planet is capable of consciously making the changes necessary for global survival! Second, the "environmental crisis" to which so much paper and thought has been dedicated is rooted in human activity and social relations. It is based in the exploitation of human beings for private gain. Environmental degradation is a consequence of the extraction of surplus value from workers for a wealth owning minority which also has control over the goods necessary for the survival of the majority. This crisis is rooted in the social relations of industrial capitalism and will only be resolved through a radical reorganization of human society. only with the liberation of oppressed peoples is this possible.

Third, biocentric politics is one that is ultimately doomed to failure. I find it hard to believe that a single native band in Canada will forego efforts to improve the material conditions of its community for the pleasures of biocentric harmony ("running water? - heck no! - let's all chant now - oomm"). The working class is unlikely to rally behind the call to give up what meager possessions it now has. And while yes, I do think that consumer culture is abhorrent and that it stands in the way of human liberation, I am not convinced that lowering the standard of living helps. (Actually, come to think of it, who does benefit from a lowering of the expectations of the working class?) And this would likely carry over to all oppressed social identities. I once overheard a deep ecologist tell a disabled man that in the future there would be no wheelchairs as the industrial production of them would be too polluting. His solution was that for those disabled who survived they could be carried everywhere. Needless to say that disabled man remains firmly anthropocentric.

A two-headed ideology

Deep ecology seems to have two heads. on one side we have a relatively benign quasi-mystical set of beliefs. We should, as deep ecology theorists Session and Devalls tell us, "think like a mountain." Radical social transformation will come when we all submerge our egos into the great unity of nature. At least they are not telling us that "we will get pie in the sky when we die" but this distorted rip-off of Eastern religion has very much the same effect. We should give up our demands for selfhood and the redistribution of wealth in the name of Mother Earth. For biocentrists wealth and power aren't the cause of the world's problems; each of us individually is because we think more of other human beings than of the planet. Bosh! The board of directors of Union Carbide is far more accountable for global environmental devastation than any ghetto community! Pollution is a social justice issue.

The other stream of deep ecology is more akin to the social Darwinism and neo-Malthusianism espoused by neoconservatives than any leftist position. It is not a coincidence that Dave Foreman, a founder of Earth First!, worked as a Republican booster. And the biocentric philosophy espoused by many is remarkably similar to that advocated by many historic and contemporary Nazis (think about their concerns with immigration and the "population problem;" opposition to trade unions and feminism).

Orton tells us that many "Left" biocentrists are opposed to industrial capitalism, but are not necessarily socialist or communist. Well what are they then? Seems to me that one of the political positions that this suggests is Fascism. Not that I consider all deep ecologists, and in particular Mr. Orton, Nazis by any stretch of the imagination. But, it is also important to look at the problems with a political practice that would shift the focus of struggle away from the material conditions of people's lives to pursue some elusive oneness with nature. Struggles for social justice absolutely require that people think anthropocentrically. If we are to avert an environmental catastrophe human beings are going to have to utilize those very traits that make them unique on the planet - intelligence, culture and creativity.

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