Monday, October 20, 2008

uh... whoops (lunchtime edition)

We're going to see a lot more revelations like this once people begin to realize (and admit to the fact) that "green" measures aren't always as green as they initially seem. When it comes to all things green, can we have a rational discussion instead of a clash of ideologies?

I've ranted on this topic elsewhere in cyberspace. Basically, I side with Michael Crichton and George Carlin. My own take on what "Save the Planet Environmentalism" (STPE) is:

STPE is a movement whose tacit goal is the arresting or otherwise controlling, on the global level, of human and nonhuman macroprocesses to maintain an environment congenial to human existence for an indefinite period, all while claiming that the movement's actions are performed in the service of the planet and not merely of human life.

While I'm not a lefty myself, I have an interesting ally: Al Gore. I'm not sure how many non-lefties actually bothered to watch Gore's movie "An Inconvenient Truth," but I came away liking what he had to say. I don't know enough to quibble with the science that appears in his movie (though I am aware that there are plenty of solid reasons to doubt his claims; after you watch his movie, go watch "The Great Global Warming Swindle" to balance things out), but at the very end of the film, Gore says that we have to act on behalf of later generations, i.e., humanity basically has to save its own ass. Whether Gore intended to be so frank is debatable, but I give him credit for telling it like it is.*

You see, environmentalism is perfectly fine when viewed as a fundamentally selfish (or speciesist) project-- an attempt to stretch out this epoch in natural history for as long as possible, larger trends be damned. Such an approach is, at least, honest. But it's the height of human vanity to style our efforts as "saving the planet." Such rhetoric stinks of the arrogant paternalism that keeps me from moving beyond my political centrism to a more lefty stance.**

It's also what keeps me at a distance from most strains of environmentalism. You might reply that "save the planet" rhetoric is harmless if it's moving people in the right direction (i.e., forcing nature to remain human-friendly), but I disagree: the misguided world-saving impulse leads us too quickly to proclaim Solution X to be "green," when in fact it might not be. That was why I offered that first link for your perusal: it highlights the consequences of a surfeit of religious zeal.

There are scientifically astute environmentalists who can paint a very realistic picture of the consequences of human action, and who, at the same time, won't fall into the trap of romanticizing nature-- something that far too many other environmentalists do. Nature is red in tooth and claw; suffering is the law of the land, and disasters are part of the mix. A volcano can blast noxious vapors down its slopes and wipe out an entire ecosystem quite without human intervention; this is neither good nor bad: it just is. Humans have, in my opinion, little justification for imposing anthropocentric values on the environment at large, thinking that by saving Species X or by not building a dam in location Y, they are preserving biodiversity for biodiversity's sake. But because I'm a human myself (last I checked), I'm all for preserving biodiversity if it means that I get to live longer.

Why can't environmentalism just drop the false nobility and get behind Al Gore?

Future generations may well have occasion to ask themselves, "What were our parents thinking? Why didn't they wake up when they had a chance?" We have to hear that question from them, now.
--Al Gore, last words of "An Inconvenient Truth"

*Of course, Gore did write a book bombastically titled Earth in the Balance.

**We can talk later about what keeps me from swinging fully over to the right, but I suspect that consumers of the normal media will see abundant evidence of what's wrong on the right for themselves.



Anonymous said...

You may find this video... interesting.

I'll warn you: it actually causes me physical pain to watch it.

Kevin Kim said...

The comments to that vid were pretty funny, too. I especially liked:

"Please excuse [me] while I vomit diarrhea from every orifice."

Strangely enough, I did sympathize with the person in the video who saw the forest as more of a church than a typical man-made church. I tend to think of nature as my cathedral as well, and when some Buddhists talk about bowing to a tree or flower, I can understand the impulse... but chopping the tree down and putting it to good use works for me, too. So does eating the flower.

(Nature is my cathedral, but this thought didn't stop me from peeing on my cathedral's floor when I was hiking and camping in the sparser regions of the Pacific Northwest.)


Anonymous said...

Except that your critique of environmentalism seems to assume the boundaries of my "self" are absolute and therefore separate me from the larger environment.

If these boundaries are not absolute, but porous or even to some extent illusory, then there is no proper distinction between "biodiversity for its own sake" and "biodiversity for my sake".

Come on, you're a nondualist, right? This shouldn't be that hard for you.

Kevin Kim said...

Green Buddhist,

"Except that your critique of environmentalism seems to assume the boundaries of my 'self' are absolute and therefore separate me from the larger environment.

If these boundaries are not absolute, but porous or even to some extent illusory, then there is no proper distinction between 'biodiversity for its own sake' and 'biodiversity for my sake'.

Come on, you're a nondualist, right? This shouldn't be that hard for you."

I'm glad you said seems to assume, because it would be mighty foolish to accuse someone of engaging in dualistic thinking (an accusation implied in your final question) just because that person expresses his thoughts through the inherently dualistic medium of language. Buddhists in particular are vulnerable to counterattack when they make such accusations; it's a bit like the anti-technologist who uses a technological medium such as the Internet to make a point: the self-professed nondualist has to engage in dualism to accuse his interlocutor of dualism! Not only that, but highlighting a dualism/nondualism dichotomy is also dualistic. Two-level irony!

Thought experiment: let's say that you, as a "green" Buddhist, bemoan the destruction of a swath of forest that will become a massive (and probably ugly) apartment complex. I see this phenomenon in South Korea, where the apartment complexes look like macro-scale images of viruses attacking something that was once pristine.

But is there a real, legitimate reason to bemoan the situation? What is it? The suffering of the life that got plowed under? The probability of more human pollution? The offense to one's aesthetic sensibilities? Fine, but what about the families that need housing-- some sort of living space? Don't those people suffer if builders refuse to build? And doesn't that human suffering breed its own set of possible negative consequences in the form of homelessness, anomie, discontent, etc.? I don't think anyone is enlightened enough to pass judgment on such complex situations. Far better to look at nature-- and humanity's role in it-- as not-good, not-bad. That's nondualistic.

You're right: that was easy.


PS: You put the word "self" in scare quotes, perhaps because you were thinking of the anatman doctrine. Question: did the Buddha say there was no self at all?

Because of the negative emphasis of this no-Self doctrine, some interpreters of early Buddhism have proposed that the Buddha held that there is no self at all. This interpretation is clearly wrong. In fact, such a view is identified as "annihilationism" (a view attributed to Materialism) in the canon and is specifically listed in the Brahmajala Sutta as a wrong view. The no-Self doctrine denies the existence of a self that is permanent, blissful, pure agent, and yet there is a positive teaching about human persons. The Buddha taught that there is a self, but it is a dependently arisen self, composed of the "five aggregates" (khandas)-- body, feeling, perception, dispositions to action, and consciousness-- rather than permanent essence. Here, again, the Buddha espoused a "middle way." Between the extremes of a permanent Self and no self at all, the Buddha taught that the self arises as a nexus of causal factors or processes.

[Holder, John J., ed. and trans. Early Buddhist Discourses. Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 2006. (p. xvii)]

In other words, there's plenty of justification for "self" language, and therefore plenty of justification for a proper distinction between "biodiversity for its own sake" and "biodiversity for my sake." The world "self" might deserve its scare quotes, but we can't conflate "no fundamental, permanent self" with "no self at all." Perhaps you haven't made such a conflation, but my spider sense tells me you'd like to move in that direction. Based on the above quote from Holder, your claim that "there is no proper distinction between X and Y" is clearly wrong. Proper distinctions can be (and routinely are) made from within a Buddhist cognitive framework. If you deny this, then I dare you to ride your cat to work instead of taking your car.

So we've established that there's room in Buddhism for separation and distinction, which means that, when it comes to environmentalism, there's room for more points of view than those that fetishize nature.

Anonymous said...

Just one rather incoherent (I assume it's incoherent, anyway--I'm too tired to really be sure): Somehow, we're going to have to, as a species, balance our self-interests (as individuals, as families, as social groups at various levels, as a species) with the needs of the rest of nature around us, or we will, inevitably, either breed or pollute ourselves out of existence, or end up living in conditions that no one will find acceptable (or almost no one--some people will no doubt come out on top and perhaps manage to carve out something resembling a comfortable niche for themselves.) It's a simple mathematical fact that we can't increase our population forever--the earth will not support an infinite population of anything, not even us, regardless of how clever we are at pushing the boundaries.

You find some environmentalists' concerns too --what, abstract? --somehow not "honest"? --and take exception to them. I call that arguing over semantics while the house burns down around us. Does it really matter all that much if we call it saving the planet or saving ourselves, as long as enough gets saved to save our collective b****s as a species?

Kevin Kim said...


I thought I'd addressed this issue in talking about the way that over-romanticizing nature can lead people to adopt "green" solutions that aren't really green. If the house is burning down, such "solutions" represent a deplorable waste of time and energy.

I'm not entirely convinced the house is burning down quite yet, but if it is, there's a reptilian part of me that says we're merely getting what we deserve. A Clint Eastwoodish part of me replies with equal coldness that "Deserve's got nothing to do with it." If we disappear, we disappear. Given our collective stupidity, which encompasses more than just environmental issues, perhaps that's not such a bad thing. Sure, I want to live, but as Carlin said in that routine: "Pack your shit, folks. We're goin' away."

Out of curiosty, is "b****s" the word "butts"? Are you shittin' me, lady? You can't write the word "BUTTS"?

Oh, you know I'm gonna abuse you for this.


PS: You're right, of course, that we as a species can't expand infinitely. We're going to need to think about moving offworld at some point. No, I'm not joking. I'm with Stephen Hawking on this one. Humanity's future is in the stars.

Anonymous said...

Hey Kevin,

I agree that language, being inherently dualistic, makes speaking about nondualism difficult. I apologize if I came off as overly snarky in my comment.

However, it is precisely because language can such a problem for nondualists that we need to be cautious of the conclusions we draw. It is very easy to use nondualism to simply lapse into a facile confirmation of views we already hold, or to collapse into outright nihlism. I would argue this was the case for Japanese Zen Buddhists who enthusiastically proclaimed "the highest unity of Zen and holy war" as the Japanese Empire expanded.

While I'm not accusing you of sinking into nihlism here, I do think that both your critique of environmentalism and your defense of posting scatological material here seems to suffer a little from the former charge. It seems that nondualism can be

I would agree that we can't simply look at "nature" as being "good" and "humanity" as being "bad". Nevertheless, that isn't justification for our current policies. Pratityasamutpada implies that I depend on the environment even as the environment depends on me.

Now certainly, we can draw a provisional distinction between the two and it's not inappropriate to do so---contrary to your spider sense, I have read the Pali Cannon and I am not one of those New Agey Buddhists who claims that the Buddha said unequivocally that there is "no self". Selves has conventional existence. Distinctions are of course made, but they should be made with an understanding of emptiness and dependent origination.

Ultimately I think your analogy with the expanding apartment complex fails because it's not simply either or; i.e. either we preserve "nature" in its pristine purity or else human beings suffer. Rather than simply shrugging our shoulders and saying "oh well" (which is what it sounds like you are suggesting), we can change the way we build, where we build, what materials we use. There are steps we can take.

Ultimately you seem to want it both ways. On the one hand you admonish me that we can make distinctions from a Buddhist perspective; on the other hand, you want to hold off on judgment. It seems to that if distinctions can be made, then we have judge---but we can take care that our judgments don't fall into essentialism.


PS With all respect due to Hawking for his discoveries in physics, I think his suggestion is poorly thought out. We can barely handle this planet as it is. What makes Hawking think we won't run into the same problems on another planet and then be forced to leave? The whole idea seems to turn human beings into "cosmic locusts" exhausting one planet after another.

It should also be noted that until we get a handle on the environmental crisis it is doubtful we will have the technology to go elsewhere, but that if we do manage to get such a handle on things then the need for going elsewhere becomes pointless.

Kevin Kim said...

My reply to Green Buddhist's thoughtful comments is here, a blog post in its own right.