Sunday, August 16, 2020

The Ecocentrists

U.S. Intellectual History Blog just finished a very interesting roundtable, organized by Anthony Chaney, on Keith Makoto Woodhouse's The Ecocentrists: A History of Radical Environmentalism (Columbia UP, 2018), the 2019 winner of the Society for US Intellectual History’s award for best book of intellectual history. The roundtable includes insightful essays by Roy Scranton, Natasha Zaretsky, Paul Murphy, and Daniel Wayne Rinn, as well as a response by Woodhouse.

An excerpt from Zaretsky's piece demonstrates the relevance of the series to legal and environmental historians and practitioners alike:

[The] fantasy of a world emptied of people casts humans as an invasive species and the non-human world as bouncing back once we have exited the scene. In The Ecocentrists, Keith Makoto Woodhouse terms this thinking “holism”—a tendency to portray human civilization as comprised of an undifferentiated mass of people bearing down on a planet with finite resources and capacities. This proclivity toward holism was at the heart of radical environmentalism, where it played a paradoxical role. On the one hand, it gave the movement its teeth and empowered activists to reject the incrementalism of mainstream environmental organizations and engage in direct action, often at personal risk. On the other hand, at its worst, holism could shade into misanthropy, a blindness to social and economic inequality, and even anti-immigrant nativism.

Woodhouse is keenly aware of this paradox, and the portrait of radical environmentalists that emerges are nuanced. This book neither pathologizes nor romanticizes radical environmental activists. Much of the book centers on the story of Earth First!, and at one point, Woodhouse stresses that Earth First!ers saw themselves as part of a movement rather than an organization. It is worth taking a moment to reflect on the depth of that distinction. Earth First! was founded in April 1980 at the start of a decade when the radical energies of many social movements of the 1960s and 1970s would be routed into a dense and well-funded liberal apparatus comprised of non-profit organizations, think tanks, and lobbying groups that sought to reform the system from the inside. Modern environmentalism was particularly vulnerable to this kind of institutional capture because of its reliance on litigation strategies. But Earth First!ers were “movement” people. To be a movement person is to set oneself apart from the dominant society, to feel swept up by the forces of historical change, and to place political commitment at the center of your everyday life in ways that people outside the movement often find baffling and inexplicable. These tendencies arguably ran even deeper for radical environmentalists, who were motivated by a sense of urgency predicated on the prediction that the planet was running out of time. The Earth First! slogan—“no compromise for Mother Earth”—captured the movement’s single-minded drive.

But that single-mindedness also created contradictions that dog radical environmentalism to this day. The portrait of an existential standoff between an imperiled earth and “human civilization” overlooked the histories of global capitalism, colonialism and imperialism, enslavement and coercive labor structures, the appropriation of indigenous lands, concentrations of wealth and resources in the global north, and widening social and economic inequality. When radical environmentalists simplistically argued that “people were the problem,” they failed to grapple with how these histories were entwined with assaults on land, air, and water. This critique of a “universal humanity” will be familiar to anyone who has followed the more recent debate about the Anthropocene, the geoscientific term used to mark the moment when human activity became traceable in the geological record. Scholars such as Jason Moore, Andreas Malm, and Donna Haraway reject the term “Anthropocene” for its universalizing tendencies, introducing instead clumsier but more precise designations such as the Capitalocene, the Chthulucene, and the Plantationocene. Woodhouse’s book reminds us that the current Anthropocene debate has deep historical roots. It has long proven difficult for radical environmentalists to simultaneously combat both the planetary threats posed by humans and the inequalities that exist among humans. (Radical environmentalists are not the only ones who struggle with this. Activists focused on human inequality have also tended to subordinate the non-human world, but that is a different–if not unrelated–story). 

The story presented by Woodhouse is one of lost opportunities. Holism made it difficult for radical environmentalists to form political alliances with New Left activists focused on social inequality, anti-racist activists who foregrounded racial oppression and structural racism, and union organizers who sought working class empowerment. One notable exception to the latter was EF! activist Judi Bari, who stressed the common interests shared by environmentalists and loggers in Northern California. At its worst, holism established disturbing affinities between environmentalism, eugenics, and anti-immigrant nativism. The movement’s preoccupation with population control as a remedy to environmental crisis in the 1970s and 1980s represented the inverted twin of a pronatalism that sought to control women’s reproductive lives. The metaphor of “the lifeboat,” first introduced by ecologist Garrett Hardin in 1974, advanced a brute image of survivalism in a world of rapidly diminishing resources that would require a hardening of national boundaries. Hardin described “waves of humanity” crashing over “national borders,” and by the 1980s, some environmentalists had embraced an explicitly anti-immigrant stance. This history can help us make sense of the disturbing rise of ecofascism on today’s political right at the very moment that nativism has reached a fever pitch. In a 2019 interview with The Atlantic, Fox News personality Tucker Carlson claimed that the Potomac River outside Washington, D.C., “has gotten dirtier and dirtier and dirtier and dirtier” due to litter “left almost exclusively by immigrants.” Environmentalists may be disgusted by the weaponization of some of their ideas, but they ignore the revival of ecofascism at their peril. Woodhouse offers no easy answers, but he does call on radical environmentalists to combine their longstanding sense of humility in the face of the non-human world with a rootedness in human communities.

Chaney's introduction is here; links to the essays are here.

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