Ecorealism: Part II Mythic Environmentalism

Following up on themes raised in Environmentalism as Religion on Michael Crichton’s website.

For background on the series of related articles concerning environmentalism for the 21st century, Crichton gives autobiographical references in the first essay on the same page linked above (the essay entitled: Fear, Complexity, Environmental Management in the 21st century). Crichton details how he had originally planned to write another of his techno science-thrillers on global catastrophe. So he studied what he unreflectively had been told was one of the greatest calamities in history–the nuclear explosion at Cherynobl. His research led him down a road he did not imagine taking, one that disabused of so many unreflective notions he had around the environmental issue. Cherynobl was a horribly tragic event, replete with government corruption and human malfeasance, but the effect on collective human psyche was more damaging. 56 died at Chernobyl. Roughly 4100 died at the also tragic explosion at the Indian reactor at Bhopal. Those were preventable deaths.

So are the 40,000 (that’s 40,000!!!) who die every day—EVERY DAY–from malnutrition, water borne illness (like diarrhea), and poor ventilation. Most of those deaths are to children. Those are preventable deaths as well.

Cherynobl by the way, after the so-called experts predicted it would be a grisly omage to death, never to return to health, is now seeing a remarkable explosion of plant and animal life. Nature, it seems, is a far stronge gal than we humans tend to imagine.

So anyway, the essay is a short piece entitled Environmentalism as a Religion.

Now this is a fairly loaded issue, but there are some general comments worth making that will help set frame the picture.

The first and in my mind the most important is that the stages of human consciousness are universal. That is, for example, using Spiral Dynamics, every human being goes through a beige, purple, red, blue, orange, green (although a person can stop at any of those waves).

The specific charge that environementalism is a new religion, is basically a charge that non-traditional religious believers (many of whom are atheist or unconcerned with the existence or non-existence of a divinity) predominantly manifest their blue (mythic believer) wave through environmentalism, unconsciously repeating the traditional Christian theological drama.

Jung called the existence of these mythic-level quasi-universal patterned perpsectives archetypes. These archetypes recur over and over again–often without conscious understanding–throughout dreams, literature, politics, and philosophies.

The Western Christian archetype is sourced in the notion of a Fall. More specifically Western Christianity believes not only in a Fall (Eastern Orthodox Christianity believed in this) but in the darker, more sinister notion of Original Sin. Crichton covers both under the general heading of the Fall. For the purposes of this discussion, since in Western theology and spirituality Original Sin=The Fall, it doesn’t much matter.

Others have noticed this similarity, but it bears repeating.

The typical environmental doomsday scenario goes something like this:

Humanity used to live in a perfect past. Lived in ecological harmony, everything was unified and wonderful. Then humans came to study nature as an object and gain knowledge of her, leading to an explusion from this state of blissful unicity. After the expulsion, life was filled with turmoil, pain, and longing for the perfect days lost. This path of “industrialization” is heading inexorably to a final catacylsmic reckoning.

Now that story of of course is the story of the Fall. We lived in Eden, ate the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, fell from the Garden, have toiled in sweat, misery and blood for all time since and have become so enmehsed in our prideful rejection that we are slated for a final judgment at Armaggedon.

Keep in mind that Rabbinic Judaism never put much emphasis on the story of Adam and Eve, and never created an elaborate theology of a Fall, Sin, and Redemption. That is a purely Christian reading of the text—surprise surprise then that environmentalism grew out of Christian descended individuals (even if again they themselves did not practice, believe, and/or identify themselves as such. Rachel Carson, John Muir, etc. Gentiles not Jews.
When perspectives (which are probabilty waves of finding a certain set of actions, beliefs, emotions within a fluid worldspace) become formalized through long-term tetra-prehensive unification (constant patterning moment by moment throughout evolution), these perspectives become quasi-universal structures of consciousness. This structure-stages are molded by and manifest according to the unique cultural, psychological, historical, economic, ecological, and sociological factors relevant to the person(s). group(s) invovled. But the permanent features of the deep structure, precede the birth of any and every individual.

They must travel this path. They must bring this aspect of themselves into conscious integration.

Otherwise it becomes, in terms of the amber (blue) mythic membership wave, a dogmatic ideology, unopen to verification (or disverification) by evidence outside its own concentric cirlces of legitimacy.

And indeed, and sadly, environmentalism (in parts) does manifest this tendency. This tendency is especially promient in Western Europe and so-called Euro-America (liberal bicoastal, US establishments that look to Canada, W.Europe, and Australia as a marker for social-cultural views, usually, but not always lighting up a secularist green postmodern probabilty wave).

Western Europeans are post-Christian. They no longer practice Christianity, no longer find it a source of legitimation or guidance in this world. They are not, however, nor could they ever be, post-blue. Not in the sense that there is no growth beyond blue–of course there is–but post-blue as post-mythic in the sense that they can ever be done with development through this important phase of human development.

The same goes for Gens X & Y in North America, particularly in the so-called blue states.

When this aspect of development is not consciously engaged–recognizing its strengths, overcoming its failings–it becomes unconscious and poisons a movement’s own better intentions. In this case environmentalism.

As Crichton notes, the environmental equivalent of salvation is sustainability. If you ask people if they are in favor of sustainability, they will answer yes. Sounds great. Who wants growth that is out of control, cancerous? But probe a little deeper, even with an environmentalist, and you are likely to find not much depth or complexity to the notion.

Sustainable development. What kind or kinds of development are sustainable and which are not?

A better notion philosophically and morally, I believe, is that the obligation is development for the greatest depth and the greatest span. Sure, this “maximal” notion of development (as opposed to more cautious sustainable one) is bound to make mistakes. But sustainable development is mostly an arid abstraction.

Its like asking most Christians what they mean by salvation. Considering it is lauded as such an important topic, you would expect an erudite response, but more likely going to get a very fuzzy answer. Usually the answer comes in the negative. Salvation is having sin abolished. Or better self-referential: Salvation is being saved.

Sustainability is being sustainable. Sustainable development is development that is not unsustainable.

I also had to chuckle at Crichton noting that organic food are like the Eucharist of the Environmental Religion. They are the source of “Communion” with this Sustainability.

Who said the proper pole on which to define development is sustainable or not? Sustainability is, as Crichton notes, actually a very “conservative” notion. Just like the words “conserv-ation” and “preserv-ation”. Helpful to recall at this point that environmentalism pre-Rachel Carson was mostly a rich, white male, aristocratic establishment in the US (think Aldo Leopold).

When development is cordoned into a polarity between sustainable and unsustainable, then of course any “rational” person is going to vote for sustainable. Who wants to be in favor of sin, I mean unsustainability?

Conservation, preservation, sustainable, all point to a deeply embedded, and I believe very unexamined, conservative thought pattern. Now, conservativism isn’t inherently wrong. There is plenty to conserve, plenty worth preserving. Plenty worth sustaining.

But all those notions are missing an element of expansion, of growth. What about a Flowering, an Explosion, a Bounty? What about Flowering Development? Bountiful development….strange words maybe, but see how it shifts the psychic weight?

It shifts the discussion away from a scarcity model (which has the word SCARE in it).

All of this conservatism and scarcity, I can tell you, is 1.a product of experience but 2. and almost never described a product of the Western Christian mythic overlay to this whole disucssion.

Scarcity models come (mythically at least) from a Fallen Worldview. What is true of the Fall is that no actions in this world will ever be complete, will ever be perfect. We will never in live in a world without injustice, oppression, and hatred. But that is different than believing that everywhere we turn nothing but sin (excuse me unsustainable industrialization) is rife. It is far too simplistic of a notion which either allows people to naively assume: A) things will just keep getting better (because its so Fallen, it has nowhere to go but up); B)things are doomed from now on–and if you are rich or lower middle-class, too bad for the f’in poor, buildup the walls, lock your doors, and hang on to every scrap you can; C)adhere to naive revolutionary ideals–everything is so Fallen, all we have to do is overthrown the system and then the New Order of Perfection will begin.
This is what happens when a religion (and by extension the spiritual worldview of a culture descended therefrom) denies nonduality (Indistinct Union). We have to understand the polarities of the world. Falleness, if you like, has to do with the Absolute/Relative Divide: the Relative will never transform into the Absolute. It already is essentially the Absolute. But relatively, certain things get better (actually better), other things are neglected and get worse.
Certain things get better which cause new possible things to go wrong–as Wilber says atoms don’t get cancer, people do. Certain things get better and this highlights injustice-poverty prevalent before just not noticed. Most of the economic-cultural-political injustice of the world is of this time. During the agrarian premodern world, everyone suffered. A lot. There was no hope of social expansion. Even the couldn’t stave off bacterial infections. So some people in this world live in amazing wealth (the middle class of the US even by historical standards lives better than the wealthiest monarch of the Middle Ages) and are fortunate to live in free, civil societies. Its not inherently that those who are not afforded these advantages have been wronged necessarily by those who do. Its not necessarily that things have gotten worse for these poor. Its just that the gap now highlights the disparity. And the poor can see this gap for themselves on their makeshift TVs. And this highlighting and making conscious of the gap does make the situation worse. But notice that it has happened as an unintended (negative) consequence of a good action. So should the solution be to get rid of all the TVs of the poor, zap their brains Men in Black-style and force those who have been blessed in this world to return to utter degradation?
That would certainly eliminate the problem of hope unfulfilled fueling despair, humiliation, and
rage among say young men of the Middle East, but the cure would be worse than the disease.
That is the dialectic of progress spoken of by Habermas, a concept that drives directly at the heart of the absolutization of the Fall mentality. It drives at the heart of the revolutionary naivety (and eventual totalitarianism) of both the Left and Right. It drives at the heart of apathy, naive utopian capitalistic idealism.
And environmentalism unforunately, for most of its member, has not grasped the dialectic of progress. Even Sustainable Development is not Salvation-the Relative world will never be PERFECTED since it is already, always PERFECT. It does not need salvation, essentially. It needs healing and justice. And those are relative virtues. And this so-called “sustainable” development initiative, if put into place and done properly, would certainly alleviate many ills curently existing. It won’t penetrate perfectly into all sectors of all societies, and therefore will only continue to expose the growing gaps between the developed, free societies and the undeveloped, corrupt, lawless ones. And then the new level of wealth and health and freedom brought by sustainable development will engender its own serious of problems that do not currently plague us, worse in nature and scope than ones we currently face.
Again, this is how the relative world happens. So much of environmentalism, as in all else in life–environmentalism is probably no more prone to this than any other religion–is a romantic notion of nostalgia and rage against the Relative Path.
Whether that Rage is the Western psyche’s rage against relativity–wanting to see it go up in apocalypse or end in some perfected state of the future (some technotopia free of death&disesase, the classless state of Marx, the Millenium, whatever). Or the Eastern psyche’s “rage” (or denunciation) of the relative world as Maya, Illusion, simply a Game to be seen through.
Environmentalism, in its mythic and romantic-magical manifestations, gets lost in all these flaws. They are in the end spiritual deadends. But without the deep understanding of the relative process (the dialectic), what else is there to expect?
When certain environments get cleaner, like the US and Western Europe, it reinforces the disparity in environmentally degraded areas–North Kora, Andean South America, China, Sub-Saharan Africa. Were those areas ever environmentally untouched? Of course not. Not since homo sapiens anyway–and unless you plan on killing our entire species off, better get used to the notion….which incidentally would indeed prove that we are the most “un-natural” of all species, for what species would destroy itself to let other ones live?
If we are going to focus show much attention on the negative impact of the human species on earth it needs to be historically accurate–humans have been helping and hurting nature forever. And also, we need not just the Litany of Environmental Destruction, but the Opposing Recitation of Things that are getting better.
Outside of that widescope, caring and yet discretionary view (dialectical), then the rest is so charged with irrational emotionalism, mythicism, and egotism its hard to make heads of tails of the situation. Which is why most people dont, are paralyzed by environmental jingoistic journalism, and don’t do anything.

As I’ll show in the article on Environmental Management in the 21st century and in the review of ideas from In a Dark Wood, environmentalism is not only hampered by overly amber mythic perspectives but also by immature, modernist perpspectives (e.g. The Balance of Nature, Biocentrism, and Linear, Static Formal Operational Cognitive Processes).

Ini other words, simplfying enormously, the difficulties occur, when envionrmentalism uses policy recommendations arising in the orange worldspace undergirded by a strong, defensive blue (premodern) posture and overlayed with an anti-capitalist green (postmodern deconstructist) tenor. Whereas the science of today is turquoise.

Although, following the Spiral down, there as well purple and red environmental movements–the notion of the noble savage living in ecological purity, ecomasculinism, ecotage (like Earth First!), ecofeminism and Goddess worship (when promoted as a return to a maternalistic past where humans lived in harmony with the earth viewed as a Great Mother). And lastly the green (environmental, not postmodern) wing of the Nazi Party. Whenever someone mentions that foreign species (of say plants are animals) need to be eradicated to bring back the purity of the land, think of what that would mean analogically with human beings. A gas chamber.

Those have already been covered extensively by others, particularly by Wilber in SES (what he calls pre-trans fallacy, the mistake of postmodern writers to believe anything non-rational is inherently trans-rational, when in fact much of what is non-rational is pre-rational).

But I’d like to take the discussion to a further stage, returning to the notion of Christianity and Enviornmentalism.

As I have mentioned on this blog (see Two Truths of Christianity) there is bifurcation between the American Christian experience and that of Western Continental Europe (and actually Eastern Europe, Near East for that matter).

The split occurs because the US is a predominantly Calvinist (Puritan) derived experience, whereas the European consciousness is molded by the Catholic tradition. And for all intensive purposes, Scandanavia and North Germany, being Lutheran, fall into the same category.

Calvinism is a distinct, radial re-interpretation of Christianity. I should out myself at this point, given that I am not a big fan of the Calvinist trip. I was raised in the Catholic Tradition, so my allegainces lie there.

But there are of course great aspects to Calvinism. In some ways Calvin himself was not very different from the traditional medieval Catholic world (Luther certainly was not).

The most important doctrine in Calvin’s thought was not double predestination, as most believe, but the grandeur and majesty of God’s glory.

Double predestination, as the name implies, is the stated belief that a person is either born going to heaven or hell and there is nothing that individual can do to sway the decision one way or another.

Now techincally, as I argue, this is Augustine’s teaching whether we like it or not. Catholic Christianity officially endorsed the teaching but hedged the bets on it. Lutheranism too. Faith, in all the Western Churches, is a theological virtue–that is by grace alone through faith. Faith is the sign of salvation, ergo God chooses the saved. Back to that in a moment.

But again, the main teaching is the majesty and absolute transcendence of God. What separated Calvin was his growing rationalism about religion. He sought to do away with “supernatural” beliefs like that the Eucharist is the body of Christ, the angels, the saints, and miracles.

God was so absolute, so majestic, his glory was seen in the perfect revolutions of the spheres (whoops, that later turned out to be false). There is a tendency in Calvinism towards a cold, ethereal beauty of utter transcendence. Not the emotionally connected, heavenly court of Catholicism. Nor the transcendence in weakness, the beauty of the infant in the crib, the lovely lord of the Cross as in Luther.

This beautiful, majestic, almost icy-God is the God of the rigid determniism of double predestination.

He is also the God of the natural laws of creation (again no supernatural here).

So Calvinism, as we see is setting the stage for deism and the modern loss of the sense of the sacred.

Now, since Calvinism wanted to throw away the Fathers of the Church, Sacramental Devotion, the tradition, it veered towards a renewed interest in the Old Testament, read in a more literal, historical way (or what was considered at the time, literal and historical, which of course also turned out to be wrong, but that’s another story).

Calvinism especially become interested in the stories of Joshua, Judges, and the conquest of the land of Canaan. The interest in these “Historical” books of the Old Testament, led to an intense focus on the notion of covenant and its attendant concept of blessing.

Blessing is an immensely important notion in Calvinist theology. As God told Abraham, “I will bless you.”

Now the majority of humans can not live with the utter detachment concerning their everlasting fate that Calvin seemed (genuinely) to have possesed. For him the notion of double predestination was meant as a great relief. IF there was nothing you could do either way, why worry? But in reality it led to increased anxiety.

Catholicism teaches that grace is a product of God alone but that good works are the sign of God’s grace. So Catholics, particularly in the Middle Ages, went about trying to do good works (or buying the equivalent) to prove to themselves, God, and others (presumably) that they were in fact saved.

Calvinism devolved into the notion that prosperity–particularly monetary–was the sure sign of God’s choice of predestination. So, of course, Calvinists went about trying to become wealthy to prove to themselves, God, and others that they were saved. [That in a nutshell, is the short short version of Max Weber’s thesis on the Protestant–meaning Calvinist–Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism).

So notice these themes they will return in a very interesting way: blessing and cosmic dualism.

Now, as I was saying, when the intermediary forces of the angels, Mary, saints, mysticism, and the sacraments are wiped away, the Calvinist is left with in a void. A dark, often frightening void. This void is ruled by the iron logic of double predestination. There are no intermediaries ot petition, no good works to “earn” salvation, no merits. There is nothing left bu the mysterium tremendus, the awful majestic God of Glory. There is only relation between the Soul and its Creator.

Whem tramscendence, in the form of the so-called supernatural (what I would call the intermediate realm) is destroyed, than, as I said we are on the road to deism, theism–as the idea that God is totally separate and other from the world, and eventually its cousin atheism.

Less noticed is that when heaven is dissolved, the notion that God is Found in Nature easily shifts to God is Nature. This is known of course as Pantheism.

And Puritan theology in New England of the 18th century was pantheistically obsessed. The Two Great Fathers of American Environmentalism, if you will, are Henry David Thoreau and John Muir, both sons of this Puritan pantheist strain.

When there is no heavenly spirit, then Spirit can easily be relegated solely to the material plane. This pantheism, particularly in Muir celebrated a notion of wildness and “naturalness.” Nature was to be left untouched because it was Divine. We can not overlook the tendency in certain environmental quarters to see all destruction of Nature as inherently diabolical and catastrophic. If Spirit is nothing other than Nature, one is bound to think this. That Nature has destroyed her own and herself multiple times, that Nature is in every mometn both creative and destructive, seems lost in this view. What was to Muir “natural” and the temple of his pantheistic prasise was itself only one of many iterations of that same landscape. How was it that what he viewed–which itself was strongly influenced by the presence of Native Americans who practiced an early form of land management (consisting of burning trees and killing large game mammals some to extinction)–normative? Other than becuase of his mythic romantic pantheistic belief?

Was Spirit inherently the essence of what vieweed? Of course. Is it still, even with all the ugly industrial buildup–yes. Spirit is Unconditional Love, not the Conditional Love of what is claimed to be “natural” and “wild” and Nature’s True Glory.

Notice something else, the American landscape was itself therefore projected into the two themes of Calvinist (as refracted often through deistic and pantheistic lenses): blessing and comsic dualism.

The landscape of America was considered the New Eden. Americans considered themsleves the “New Jews”, America the New Zion. It was to America, the land of Eden, the new Canaan, that God had sent the New Jews, known as the Settlers–the SAVED. The Indians were the Hitties, Jebusites, and Canaanites of this land, and God ordered the New Jews to exterminate them just as he had to the old ones. Canaan was their blessing, their promise for the taking.

This view of course is known as Manifest Destiny. That Manifest Destiny would birth both the industrial “sin” decried by the environmental movement and the environmental movement itself shows the inherently mythic-modern constuct of the movement, at least in teh United States.

As Paul Tillich noted, in the Enlightenment, there was both an increased emphasis on rationality (industrialization, scientific progress, technological innovation) and Emotionalism. Tillich cites the common practice of excessive weeping in public in Europe during the classical modenr period. When the transcendent was lost, then the emotional life is no longer tied to its Source in the Divine. Again–there is no real emotional connection to the utterly other God of Calvin.

The emotional ducts, therefore, welled up to the Earth, the body, sensuality, and the arts. The Romantic movement, like fundamentalism in this regard, is a thoroughly modern phenomenon. It is a attempt at re-fashioning the modern world. But it is one that is bulldozed–literally and figuratively–by the more rationalist-techno-economic-scientific-secular mindframe. And ultimately it can not overcome it because it suffers from the same inherent disease.

The other great Calvinist theme: Cosmic Dualism.

The other great theme in early American literature of course is the darkness of the forest. Hawthrone’s works are filled with this: Goodman Brown comes to mind. The forest is the place of witchcraft, covens, Indian savage rites, sexual excess, debauchery, death, primitivism.

There is no recognition of one’s sinfulness when one is blessed and the chosen. The evil is external.

Frederick Jackson Turner wrote that the American soul is defined by the wilderness. Surely this is an overstatement, but the basic point is true. The Widlerness signifies the love-hate dualims of the American mindframe. The Wild is the Beautiful, the Sacred, the site of lovely deer grazing on the grass, listening to the sweet birds sing their hymns. But it is also the dark, ferocious land of the grizzly, the coyote, and the wolf, stalking their prey, ready at the wait to end life viciously.

The Wildneress as Site of Evil and Irrationality is the Flip Side of the Cosmic Dualism.

Next, I’ll explore a little more deeply–with the help of In a Dark Wood, the history and underpinnings of the uniqueness of the American environmental movement (as opposed to its Continental European cousin) pursuant to the theme of American Puritan theology vs. European Catholic theology.

While it is important to show the distinction, and this disinction does still have importance and can still be seen, the environmental movement through electronic linkage is breaking down the barriers between the Atlantic, and overall I think this differnece is becoming less and less important. Still, I think it is definitely worth investigating, if only for learning how a new environmentalism would learn to speak to the mythemes of America. Because the more American environmentalists adopt the language of (Catholic-sourced) European environmentalist, they are adopting a very different worldview, one that will not have as a strong a resonance in Red State USA.

Published in: on January 26, 2006 at 10:07 am  Comments (1)  

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Dear Chris,

    Thank you for your thoughts on Christianity and the environment. I look forward to following your interesting blog. I have been writing on the same topic from a different angle. Are you interested in topics about the Apocalypse, End times, the End of the world , Eschatology , Last days , the Horsemen of the apocalypse , The beast , Prophesy , Prophesies , Revelation , 666 , Bible Prophesy , Prophets , Canaan , Canaan’s land , Land of Canaan , or the Christian future? If so you may enjoy reading ” Land of Canaan.” This is a free online book. The Link is
    Let me know what you think.


    Paul M. Kingery, PhD, MPH

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