No absolution for pollution?
Toby Litt reads from the environmentalist gospel, and finds that humanity has been reincarnated as the evil serpent despoiling the Garden of Eden
'Man is vile enough to bow down to beasts and even worship them.' (Pascal, Pensées)
What is pollution? Let us take a simple example: one after the other, a man and a dog come and piss into a river. An environmentalist would accuse the man of polluting the river. The dog, on the other hand, even if it pisses the exact same amount of equally toxic liquid, will be quite free from the environmentalist's reproach. (Unless, of course, the dog is in the care of the man, in which case its behaviour becomes problematic. The dog-owner becomes responsible for not preventing the act of pollution, yet the dog itself is still innocent of the act.)
In this case, as with larger pollutions such as oil spills and the disposal of nuclear waste, the notion of preventability comes into play. The man could be reasoned, by rational persuasion, out of pissing in the river; the dog, unless it was quite an exceptional dog, could not. The difference between a man and a dog is that a man acts whereas a dog behaves. The man's acts, being chosen rather than unthought, are seen to have a moral dimension. Man, in other words, has knowledge of Good and Evil.
Environmentalism, it seems to me, is based implicitly upon an interpretation of the Book of Genesis. Yet it is a reading so confused and self-contradictory that it ends up being a complete rehashing. In the environmentalist gospel man remains in the Garden of Eden, but damages its perfection with his every act. Man, in other words, has become the serpent.
This false theology is the basis for deeming man, and man alone, as capable of 'polluting the environment'. (One of the earliest definitions of pollution is 'profanation of that which is sacred'.) The dog is incapable of pollution because it has no knowledge of Good and Evil. It is a natural, Edenic, innocent animal. Man, on the other hand, is extra-natural, post-Lapsarian, guilty. Man is capable of polluting the environment with a single touch. (Man's ownership - even temporarily - of the dog alters its piss from non-pollutive into pollutive.)
Most people would argue that for one reason or another - for example, the possession of forethought or a written language - man is different from other animals. But this need not prevent man from being an animal. And it does not make him utterly extra-natural. Like all animals man basically acts in protection of his genetic material. And if man is part of nature then so are his products. The space shuttle, as an evolutionary tool, is no less natural than a spider's web.
If, like me, you believe that man, although a different kind of animal, is still within the realm of nature, then you must abandon any notion of 'pollution'. Nature cannot pollute itself. Pollutants must, by definition, come from outside what they are polluting. If you are standing on a football field you can only kick a football off the field, not on to it.
The environmentalist argument goes something like this: 'If man had not been so environmentally negligent, this disaster would not have happened.' This is akin to saying, 'If this man had been more good, he would not have sinned'. A tautology, for the reverse is equally true: 'If this man had not sinned, he would have been more good.' And their argument does depend upon concepts of straightforward Good and Evil. To 'preserve the environment' is seen, by almost everybody, as a wholly good thing. No wonder environmentalists inevitably adopt an evangelical tone. They want, more than to prevent individual acts of pollution, to make man Good - so that he is no longer, in the first place, capable of polluting the environment.
This is the only solution which environmentalists leave themselves. For, if one was to follow their argument to its logical conclusion, there would be nothing left to do but expel man from the Garden of Eden. As far as I know, most environmentalists - even 'eco-terrorists' - have so far avoided mass suicide pacts. None of them has yet argued that Stalin's gulags were the most environmentally friendly enterprise of the twentieth century.
For the environment, just like the Garden of Eden, is defined by its relation to man. It is man's environs, surroundings, habitat. Without man, it would have nothing to be centred around - and would, conceptually, cease to exist. (Obviously, with man gone, there would be nobody around capable of having concepts.)
But how can one possibly make man Good? The environmentalist's answer seems to be: 'By preventing him from performing any evil acts, ie, pollution.' But, at the same time, by relying so heavily upon the concept of an environment which requires protection from man (by man, of course - the dogs aren't going to do anything), the environmentalist reinforces the idea that man is irredeemable. The only thing that can possibly be achieved by this corrupt theology is not a more pleasant planet, but an infinite proliferation of environmental projects.
The entire environmental movement would be far stronger if it based itself not upon pseudo-Christian concepts of fallen humanity, but upon simple genetic self-interest. It could start by getting rid of the concept of pollution. Either that or it should declare itself a religion proper.
Toby Litt is the author of Adventures in Capitalism and Beatniks
Reproduced from LM issue 119, April 1999