Environmentalism as “Everythingism”

Thursday, December 1, 1994

Photo from Donkey Hotey courtesy of Flickr.com

Charles T. Rubin attended PERC's conference on Liberty and Environmentalism, held in June 1994. The conference, sponsored by Liberty Fund, Inc., was directed by Richard Stroup. Scholars in such fields as philosophy, ethics, and economics attempted to understand the philosophies underlying the environmental movement, to determine whether these philosophies are favorable or inimical to liberty, and to seek common ground with environmental philosophers where possible. Based on his experience at the conference, Rubin, Associate Professor of Political Science at Duquesne University, offered to share his thoughts on the term "environment" with PERC Reports readers. Rubin is author of The Green Crusade: Rethinking the Roots of Environmentalism (The Free Press, 1994).

We have come to think about problems of man and nature as "environmental problems." But what, exactly, is the environment?

Over the past thirty years, neither mainstream nor radical environmentalists have answered that question with precision. They started with the modest notion of an environment, the physical and biotic factors that define a given organism's world. But when Barry Commoner, a founding father of environmentalism, popularized the “law of ecology” that “everything is connected with everything else,” an environment became the environment.

Paul Ehrlich, stung by accusations that environmentalism was elitist, drew the corollary that urban ghettos should not be excluded from environmental concern. Following suit, the National Environmental Policy Act placed "safe, healthful, productive, and aesthetically and culturally pleasing surroundings" under the environmental rubric.

In short, anything and everything is included in "the environment." We would do little conceptual violence to "environmentalism" if we simply replaced the word "environment" with the word "everything," and likewise spoke of "everythingists" and "everythingism." But when anything and everything is, as we are so often told, tied together in a fragile web of life, there is no event to which it is not possible to attach global significance.

This immense scope leads to the possibility that, in the interest of evading one or another portended disaster, any aspect of human behavior might arguably need to be controlled. We can see now why so many environmental activists and popularizers have put forward global schemes of economic and political control in the name of such goals as safer technology, a "no-growth" society, or radical population reduction. The result? Not so long ago, only a counterculture publication like the Whole Earth Catalog would teach that "We are as gods and might as well get good at it." Now, an establishment journal like Scientific American can publish a collection of essays entitled Managing Planet Earth.

Furthermore, the goal of such management is "sustainable development." This remarkably slippery concept adds to conventional ideas of development the goal of a harmonious and unified managerial capacity for the entire world. This capacity aims at ensuring that, as the UN's Brundtland Report put it, "exploitation of resources, the direction of investments, the orientation of technological development, and institutional change" will meet "human needs and aspirations." We aim at global achievement of skills that are the envy of anyone who has ever tried to run a five-person office, let alone a large corporation.

Thus do dreams of socialist utopia, in which resources are managed by government to maximize the good of humanity, give way to dreams of ecological utopia, in which resources are managed by government to maximize the good of all life on earth. As utopian visions always do, this vision makes "the best" the enemy of the better, creating dissatisfaction with everything we have achieved, or indeed with anything we could possibly achieve.

When Friends of the Earth wanted to criticize the Rio Summit, a spokesman pointed out its "failure to set a new direction for life on earth." This remark passed muster as analysis serious enough to be quoted on the front page of The New York Times – a tribute to the pervasive effect of "everythingism" on our thought.

The total control necessary to set a new direction for life on earth would require total information. Nobel laureate Friedrich Hayek convincingly demonstrated that total information cannot be obtained in the economic sphere, and thus explained the superiority of decentralized market economies over planned ones.

Yet environmentalism requires complete information not only about the economy but about the ecology of every species of living thing. Complete ecological data are even more scarce than economic facts, but that has not stopped the U.S. government from regulating everything from the largest corporations to very small landholders.

It is a fundamentally different approach to reject the totalizing and ultimately totalitarian perspective of "the environment" and instead address problems singly, as they emerge close to home. The price of attempting to "solve" "environmental problems" is control of all our behavior.  But, in contrast, if we see how important it is to maintain the freedom to clean up our own backyards, then we will be less likely to be distracted by visions of a global utopia.

Rene Dubos was a major contributor to environmental globalism in its earliest stages, but to his credit came to have second thoughts, including about the usefulness of the term "environment." This rethinking made him less than popular on American campuses.

"Faculty as well as students were surprised and somewhat annoyed," he wrote, "when I suggested that, instead of being exclusively concerned with the nation or the world as a whole, they should first consider more local situations." Among these latter situations Dubos had in mind not only the condition of fields and streams, but the "messiness of public rooms on their campus and the disorder of their social relationships." He saw clearly that our relationship to nature was not sui generis, but simply one part of what should be our quest to become decent human beings.

Focus on the particular, the local, and the possible will conduce to a shared sense of individual responsibility, and not to the evasions that result when we define problems in such comprehensive terms that only a powerful government can even begin to deal with them. "Everythingism" creates a will-o-the-wisp that we pursue at the cost of solving real problems, and probably at the cost of our freedom as well.

Charles Rubin is an associate professor of political science at Duquesne University.  His work focuses on the political theory of environmentalism, emerging technologies, and issues in science, technology, and policy.  He is the author of The Green Crusade: Rethinking the Roots of Environmentalism (The Free Press, 1994).
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