Questioning the motives of environmentalism

From a talk given by Graham Burgess, the environmental activist and wind-pump manufacturer to the Bath Philosophical Society
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I have been involved in the "environmental movement" for almost 20 years, worked on organic farms, been on demos, bicycled everywhere.

I have been involved in the "environmental movement" for almost 20 years, worked on organic farms, been on demos, bicycled everywhere.

I now manufacture water-pumping windmills. But I suppose that my questioning of the true motives of environmentalism really began during my involvement in the 1993/4 road protest against the building of a bypass near Bath.

The environmentalist phenomenon which intrigues me is not that of peoples whose lives or livelihoods are directly threatened by some development or industry. The motivation behind the "environmentalism" of, say, Amazon tribespeople, or the Ogoni of Nigeria, or even by people in Britain whose neigbourhood is threatened by housing development, is not difficult to understand. But campaigning passionately for the protection of whales, rainforests, seal pups, aboriginal lifestyles or Antarctica, for example, by people who might never see these things or visit such places, is less easy to understand. It's true that an element of self-interest may be seen to be present in other environmental concerns such as CO2 emissions and global warming, ozone depletion, acid rain, GM food and overpopulation, yet these are, in many ways, distant and often highly controversial threats.

Given, however, that these environmental ideas have now gained a good deal of weight in international politics, it does not seem unreasonable to try to understand their origins. They do not, it seems, spontaneously spring from living in a degraded environment; indeed, environmentalism is frequently absent where the degradation is caused by industry which provides local employment.

They do not result from scientific discovery of environmental damage. Environmental concern long preceded scientific concern in this field. The science of "ecology" fought hard to gain recognition as a bona fide science, and emerged out of a prior concern for ecological issues.

They don't arise simply out of a better education and wider media access resulting in a growing awareness of ourselves as enlightened "world citizens" with global responsibilities, appealing as this argument may be. Were this the case, we might expect to see a uniformity of concern across, at least First World, nations. This appears not to be the case; even within Europe, such figures as may be compiled, as well as anecdotal evidence from travels, suggest a predominance of environmentalism in the Germanic and Scandinavian countries, and a dearth in the rest, particularly France and the Mediterranean region.

It is my suspicion that the origins of this type of environmentalism lie essentially in aesthetics. Aesthetics, as a philosophical discipline, is generally considered to have emerged, along with Romanticism, towards the end of the 18th century. The word comes from the Greek esthesis, meaning "feeling" or "perception". The Romantic movement can be broadly characterised as valuing these attributes over "reason" and 18th-century Enlightenment thinking. There is an inclination towards mysticism and spiritualism within the Romantic tradition which can be readily found within current environmentalism; indeed, in many ways the two appear identical (read Blake, Emerson, Ruskin, Morris, for example). Prince Charles, in his recent Reith lecture, appealed to this sense of the "spiritual", as a basis of respect toward the environment.

As a philosopher I am uneasy with spiritualism as a basis for potent political ideas; it seems too easily misinterpreted, too difficult to teach to a general audience, and too certain of its righteousness.

As an environmentalist, however, I wish to define adequate bases and justifications for environmental concerns. It is not my intention to harm environmentalism, simply to develop the extra "tool" of aesthetics as a credible criterion of environmental protection where other justifications would be untenable, or dishonest.