For quite some time now, such representatives of the conservative movement as, say, Rush Limbaugh, have charged the environmentalist left with insincerity. Far from having a genuine concern for the environment, as he claims, the environmentalist is motivated, rather, by a desire to assume unto himself as much power as possible, the power, that is, to achieve his true objective: the destruction of “capitalism” as we know it.
For however pervasive it may be among my brethren on the right side of the political divide, this notion that the environmentalist is, at heart, Machiavellian, is not altogether correct. In fact, there are a couple of considerations that militate decisively against it.
Over the last few decades, Americans have grown exponentially more health-conscious, and in no respect more so than with respect to their bodies. From counting calories and trans-fats to spending hundreds of dollars each month on “supplements” of various sorts, the obsession that legions of Americans have with perfecting their bodies knows no bounds. This phenomenon is both idolatrous and, from the perspective of traditional Christianity, blasphemous: it is idolatrous because the body has eclipsed all potential competitors—including God—for the health zealot’s focus of attention; it is blasphemous because it presupposes that, by their own efforts, individuals can arrest their own mortality. Granted, everyone grasps intellectually that one day will be their last here on Earth, but the health zealot speaks and acts as if as long as he does this and avoids that, he will live indefinitely.
The obsession with physical health reflects the growth of a secular, materialist culture. Yet the environmentalist movement is also a product of that very same culture. In other words, the environmentalist is as much moved along by our culture’s impulse to ever greater safety and health as anyone. The difference between him and those whose central concern is the perfection of their own bodies is that the environmentalist centers his attention on the safety and health of the planet.
This is the second reason why I take issue with the conventional analysis of environmentalism. While I do indeed agree that the environmentalist craves lots of power, I doubt that there is any self-conscious desire on his part to undermine “capitalism”—i.e. an economic system. Regrettably, his aims are much more troublesome than that. The environmentalist is the enemy, you see, not merely of a peculiar set of economic arrangements, but of just those political arrangements delineated in the U.S. Constitution.
He is the enemy, that is, of civil association.
Since their emergence near the beginning of the modern era, there has been much confusion regarding the character of the “nation-state.” America is no exception here. But given our Constitution’s numerous restrictions on our government, “checks and balances” within the interstices of which the individual’s liberties are to be found, there can be no quarrel with the verdict that America was at least originally conceived as a civil association. The Constitution refrains from specifying, not only grandiose purposes for the country, to say nothing of the world, but even actions for citizens to perform. What it does establish are laws, conditions that citizens are obligated to observe while pursuing their own purposes, the engagements of their own choosing.
The environmentalist is at once bored and frustrated with this idea of America. He would never come right out and say this, of course, but the environmentalist is a visionary, and neither the Constitution nor the idea of civil association that it embodies can be anything but anathema to the visionary. The environmentalist, like all visionaries, sees the nation-state, with all of its resources in citizens’ time, energies, and money at its disposal, not as a civil association, but—as Michael Oakeshott described it—an enterprise association.
An enterprise association derives its identity from the ends to which the eyes of its members are focused. For the environmentalist, the end of the enterprise that is the United States is the well being of the environment of the entire world.
This longing for community, a world community, is something with which most of us can sympathize. The problem, however, is that it is fundamentally at odds with something else for which many of us have developed quite an affection: individuality. The individuality that many of us prize and that is presupposed by the U.S. Constitution is neither innate nor eternal; it is an historic achievement made possible by the indefatigable efforts of our European, especially English, ancestors. This individuality is, then, an inheritance, an artifact of a sort that, like any other, can be lost if we are careless with it.
The environmentalist, like every other ideologue who seeks to impose upon the United States the character of an enterprise association or community, has no appreciation for any of this. His dreams can come true only at the cost of throwing this inheritance to the wind.
Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.