Penthouse Retrospective

by Christopher Manes Originally Published: May, 1990

Green Rage | 30 Years Ago This Month

In Playing God in Yellowstone, retired academician Alston Chase exemplifies the former failing. According to Chase’s revisionist history, radical environment a I thought came out of a “swirl of chaotic, primeval theorizing” about Buddhism, Heidegger, and psychotherapy. The central problem, concludes Chase, is that radical environment a Iists desire to return to the Garden of Eden when humanity lived in bliss — a yearning that must come as a shock to the likes of Foreman, an ex-marine; Roselle, an ex-oil field rough-neck; and Wolke, an ex-bar bouncer and wilderness guide in some of the roughest country in the lower 48 states.

Being a professionally trained philosopher from the right, Chase can probably be excused for misunderstanding the facts about a new social phenomenon. The left, however, should know better. But where the politically conservative Chase sees nothing but chaos, the left discerns a conspiracy lurking behind the radical environmental agenda. At the July 1987 Green Conference in Amherst, Massachusetts, philosopher and social critic Murray Bookchin laid down the first brush strokes of this representation, painting radical environmentalists as “eco-brutalists” and “nature worshipers” with ties to fascism through a “crude biologism.” For Bookchin, radical environmentalism is not truly revolutionary, since it does not follow the typical leftist interpretation of the environ mental crisis as the result of capitalism. Bookchin was soon joined by a chorus of East Coast leftists displeased with the perceived anti-humanism of Abbey and Foreman, variously labeled as sexist, racist, and fascist.

Both Chase and Bookchin, whose positions are representative of the critical literature on radical environmentalism, are simply incorrect in their description of the movement, mostly because their ideas come from reading a few articles in the popular press rather than actual knowledge of the environmental movement and the radicals’ role in it.

Neither of them even attempts an interpretation of ecotage, the activity that more than anything else defines radical environmentalism. More importantly, both men see radical environmentalism as a monolithic doctrine, a system of beliefs structured like their own, and hence a failure by that standard.

It would be more accurate, however, to describe radical environmentalism as a sensibility, that elusive word the English language has all but lost during the twentieth century. The radical environmental sensibility is not attempting to create a “new” philosophy to displace the dominant ideas of industrial society.

If radical environmentalism has a watchword, it is probably its oft-repeated imperative, “Let your actions set the finer points of your philosophy.” An ecological sensibility, according to most radical environmentalists, abides in one’s actions to defend nature, not in ideological exactitude.

Another way to put this is that radical environmentalism is responding to a particular social context, a culture dominated by technology, and its relationship to that society defines it, not a series of propositions.

Certainly there are specific ideas and themes that have arisen out of radical environmentalism’s confrontation with technological culture — the notion that man-kind is not the center of value on this planet, the conviction that the other species on earth have just as much right to exist as humans, the belief that wilderness, not civilization, is the real world.

But their validity cannot be ascertained by philosophical analysis so much as by the role they are playing in a culture facing a period of ecological up-heaval. As one Earth First! activist put it, “It is the character of movements to move.” This kinetic aspect of radical environmentalism has been lost on many commentators, who understand this new cultural force as a body of ideas rather than a body in motion.

The significance of radical environmentalism does not lie in some jaundiced history of environmental philosophy, nor in the dark urge for political power. Rather, it is based on our understanding of one simple but frightening realization: that our culture is lethal to the ecology that it depends on, and has been so for a long time, perhaps from the beginning.

If, as many scientists are now saying, our global industrial society is unsustainable, then the words and deeds of radical environmentalists today may be a window to the future state of the world. And to the chagrin of those who now control the earth’s ecology, whether that window shows a living green world or a wasteland may very likely depend on the success or failure of the radical environmentalists’ activism.

Ignore the environment for long enough, and it may protect itself with a Green Rage. The environmentalist simmer will eventually boil. Do nothing for long enough, and saving the planet will become a multifaceted active confrontation.

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