Demythologizing environmentalism

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14 Scopus citations


In the early 1950s Grant McConnell, Jr., called for a political adjudication of our environmental and political visions. He pointed out the arbitrary nature of Gifford Pinchot's noble-sounding formula ("The greatest good for the greatest number over the longest time"), noting that such a determination depended on whom you asked. No technocrat can determine the greatest good on the basis of some secret expertise or privileged knowledge. We need to resolve our disparate visions of the uses of nature and human beings politically, without recourse to privileged knowledge. But does such a political adjudication imply the unimpeded domination of the will of the majority? Not necessarily, because there is no overall majority for a total "bundle" of policies and programs - these must be horse-traded and haggled over on the basis of shifting coalitions. Yet, can it not be argued that even so, some very deeply held values of minorities will be trounced and trampled? It would be dishonest not to admit to such a danger. What we must do is try to define and develop a workable conception of baseline human rights that will be inviolable by the will of temporary majorities, and this itself is a tenuous political process which we have only just embarked on in recent times. The danger of Valentin Rasputins, Vernadskii cultists, and Deep Ecologists everywhere is that they are arguing from privileged knowledge. "We know what is really best for you, what will cure you," they assert. They alone know the distinction between natural harmony and disorder, social health and corruption, pollution and purity, alienation and unity. They do not recognize the social construction of their ethical beliefs and political visions; they absolutize their individual truths. They may be right, but what if they are not...? It is therefore all the more important for those of us who wish to preserve a maximum of biotic and human diversity for our-selves and for future humans (and nonhumans) to be explicit about the moral and political agendas we embrace. The soundest way for us to prevail is to persuade our neighbors on this planet that our visions have something of value for them, too. We must keep in mind the fact that in a world where there exists more than one fanaticism, peaceful coexistence is in principle impossible. And if fanaticisms, including ecological ones, are the products of the fear or the fact of material, cultural, or spiritual dispossession, then we must work harder to make a world in which each of us and our interests are treated with equal respect. We cannot get there through the tainted means of absolutizing individual truths. Aldo Leopold, in his testament Sand County Almanac, as much as called for a new myth, for us to "think like a mountain."57 He called for a new myth because he believed that humans were dangerous (to ourselves, first of all, and to the planet), and that inculcating a myth was the only way to effect a deep behavioral change on a massive enough scale to save the situation.58 It is my belief that myths are often more dangerous than the situations they seek to remedy. We need to cultivate a taste of de-mythologizing, of making our lives more self-aware. We need to become aware of our needs and our value preferences and to take responsibility for them as individual preferences. Then we will be in a good position indeed to respect and compromise with the preferences of our neighbors all around this planet, just as we would have them respect and compromise with ours. *** DIRECT SUPPORT *** A8402064 00005 *** DIRECT SUPPORT *** A8402064 00006 *** DIRECT SUPPORT *** A8402064 00007

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)385-411
Number of pages27
JournalJournal of the History of Biology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 1992

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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