Monday, April 5, 2010

Environmental Decadence

None of us wants to be poisoned by industrial pollutants. We do not want to ingest a load of mercury with the smoked salmon and we do not want to inhale dangerous levels of carbon monoxide while walking around town.

Environmentalism began with the best of intentions. It wanted to clean up the air, the water, and the land. Everyone war for it; everyone is still for it.

At some point, however, environmentalism jumped the proverbial shark and became more like a cult. Everyone understands the inherent dangers in heavy metals and other toxic exhaust fumes. Only an enlightened few grasp the idea that the ultimate pollutant is carbon dioxide.

Carbon dioxide is the stuff that we exhale; the stuff that plants convert into sugars through photosynthesis. From cleaning up the side-effects of industrialization, environmentalism became the enemy of industry and energy. It felt like they wanted to roll back the Industrial Revolution. Sad to say, but environmentalism became a reactionary cult.

It was return-to-nature time. The enemy of the pristine beauty of nature was nothing less than mankind. Human beings were the worst thing that had even befallen the planet. Their economic activity was destroying life.

Cults always traffic in caricature. This one was not even new. It was a retread, dating from the early days of the Industrial Revolution. Led on by Romantic poets and philosophers, eighteenth century reactionaries-- masquerading as revolutionaries-- tried to keep hope alive. They called for the return to a prelapsarian age, when we would all frolic in the woods and fields, happy, healthy, contented, unstressed, in tune with nature.

As Wordsworth put it: I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering, and dancing in the breeze.

Was Wordsworth really in touch with nature? Or did he typify the Romantic longing for a natural world that would be just like a work of art, that could provide permanent fodder for his aesthetic decadence? Wordsworth does not give us a picture of man in nature. He offers a picture of man cured by nature, of man being cured by identifying with nature, but especially of man looking at nature as though he were looking at a work of art.

I was reminded of this folly as I was reading Robert Preston's post on the death of Candice Berner. Link here.

You remember the story of Candice Berner, though probably not her name. Berner was the sweet, small, special-ed teacher who was attacked and killed by a pack of wolves while jogging in the Alaskan wilderness. At the time of her death, she was probably having one of those gloriously decadent moments, a moment of pure pleasure, blissfully absorbed in her run, accompanied by the only good thing advanced civilization has produced, her iPod.

Here Robert Pearson makes an excellent remark, one that was doubtless overlooked in the press coverage of this sad event. Pearson lives in Alaska; he knows something about the Alaskan wilderness. He was amazed that Berner was not carrying a gun.

At a time when Sarah Palin's prowess as a huntress has given risen to gales of laughter among the cognoscenti and the illiterati, we forget that if you go out in a real wilderness area you need to protect yourself. An iPod will not do it. Your good nature will mean nothing to a pack of wolves. Your feelings about the aesthetic beauty of the wilderness are not going to help you out when it is not daffodils but wolves approaching.

In the Alaskan wilderness everyone carries a gun. As Pearson notes, if you fly a plane in Alaska you are forced, by law, to carry a gun. Alaska is not Midtown Manhattan. Those of us who live in the insulated precincts of the great American cities, who have been cared for and fussed over for most of our lives, who consider that real courage involves going to a museum and seeing two people standing there naked-- I didn't make that up-- have simply become, in Pearson's word, soft.

And soft is really another term for decadence. If your life is based on creature comforts and if your attitude toward nature is manifest merely in environmental activism, you are unlikely to understand what is really involved in living with nature. If your attitude toward nature involves aesthetic contemplation of its beauty, if you believe nature was put there to give you aesthetic satisfactions, you are simply not respecting nature or the real wilderness.

Is this why Berner did not carry a gun? We do not know. But we do have other examples of people who believe that they are so kind and loving that they can tame nature, that they can live in peaceful harmony with it. Or better, that they can tame exotic wild animals.

Remember Travis the Chimp. Brought up as a near-human being by Sandra Herold, one day Travis reverted to form and mauled Sandra's friend Charla Nash, nearly to death. My take on the story here.

And what about the better known case of Chris McCandless, subject of Jon Krakauer's book Into the Wild.

McCandless was a young man possessed of far more idealism and love of nature than common sense. He went out alone into the Alaskan wilderness and promptly starved to death. Link here.

It was, I would say, a pathetic waste of a human life and an of extraordinary act of cruelty toward his parents.

Yet, through the lens of Krakauer's artistry McCandless became a martyr for a cause, an environmental zealot who had the courage to live his ideals.

Was McCandless looking to become one with nature? Was he trying to prove that human beings did not really need what industrial civilization provided? Unfortunately, McCandless was more a fool than a martyr. Apparently, he was so in love with his idea of nature that he never bothered to learn about the practical difficulties of living alone in the wild? And he did not even bother to prepare himself. He was too soft for the rigors of the wilderness and did not even know it.

An Alaskan Park Ranger had an interesting take on the McCandless experience: "People, nearly always young men, come to Alaska to challenge themselves against an unforgiving wilderness landscape where convenience of access and the possibility of rescue are practically nonexistent.... What he did wasn't even particularly daring, just stupid, tragic, and inconsiderate.... He spent very little time learning how to actually live in the wild. He arrived at the Stampede trail without even a map of the area. If he had a good map he could have walked out of his predicament. ... Essentially, Chris McCandless committed suicide."

Maybe McCandless read Wordsworth. Maybe he bought into the current cult of the pristine beauty of ANWR-- the famous Arctic National Wildlife Reserve-- which is, truth be told, completely overrun by one form of wildlife that most of us try to avoid: mosquitoes. Whatever it was, nothing in his studies or in his aesthetic prepared him for reality. He did not even understand why they call it wild.


xenophon said...

"But we do have other examples of people who believe that they are so kind and loving that they can tame nature, that they can live in peaceful harmony with it. Or better, that they can tame exotic wild animals."

Timothy Treadwell is an example par excellence of this variety of eco-enviropathology. But his lunacy resulted not only in his death, but that of his girlfriend as well. Bears have to eat too.

Robert Pearson said...

Stuart, thank you very much for the link to and commentary on my post. Your other examples are spot on, as well. I wouldn't want to imply that you, or New Yorkers or people who live in cities are necessarily "soft." I think 9/11 showed that all of those ancient skills and behaviors are still there, when the gravest extreme occurs.

But I also recall the gut-wrenching accounts of the Virginia Tech university shooting spree, when some pitiable young man, as shots rang out again and again and the wounded screamed and moaned in a darkened classroom, kept repeating over and over "It's okay, they're coming..." meaning the police, the ambulances, some they who would save everyone. Instead, someone should have been throwing chairs and coffee cups and whatever lay to hand at the shooter's head, rushing him and disarming him.

It is an attitude, and fortunately there are a decent number human "protector dogs" scattered among the sheep, at least so far. Contemplating that some philosophers, educators and politicians are explicit in their desire to bind or expel this leavening of protectors is not reassuring.