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Environmentalist Animism

(This post has been sitting on my desktop for a few weeks as I try to make it really work well. I don't think that's going to happen, so I'm going to get it onto the blog for now.)

Thinking about how to integrate environmentalism into her lifestyle, Lauren wonders:

There seems to be a goddess-worship or animism that is emphasized in environmental theory, a rhetoric I don't understand considering that science backs this issue to the fullest degree. Considering the scientific support that environmentalists have, and considering that far more Americans would be likely to listen to science and not the gentle thrum of frogs and geese, it seems to me that a scientifically-based argument would be far more convincing to induce a change in behavior.

I'm not an animist, but I've encountered enough deep ecology/ecofeminism/nature worship to have a few outsider's observations on the topic. My first response is that there is an awful lot of science-based environmental theory. You won't see the Sierra Club or NRDC, or even Greenpeace, talking about "mother earth" in any way other than metaphorical. The second point is that science alone is not enough -- there must be a moral component, which can come from transcendental religion or secular moral philosophy as well as from animism.

But there is a strong tradition of animist environmental theory. The idea that we ought to think of nature as sacred is a popular one. In some cases there's a cynical functionalism at the root of it. Some environmentalists don't believe that the sacred nature thesis is actually true, but they believe it's a useful way to get people to do the right thing. It's easy enough to rationalize away the weakening of the food web and damage to the watershed caused by cutting down a tree, but it's harder to rationalize killing a being with a soul -- or so the thinking goes. This way of thinking fits nicely with functionalist theories in anthropology. Functionalists look at the religion of more environmentally sustainable societies not in terms of its truth or epistemology, but as an adaptive mechanism that, unbeknownst to the faithful, keeps their actions in line with what would be required for ecosystem maintenance.

The "noble lie" tactic of functionalism is not a particularly attractive one (or an anthropologically well-justified one). Most animist environmentalists are not noble liars. Yet there are echoes of it that crop up, for example in the oft-repeated contention that in order to save the world, we must reconceptualize it as sacred.

The biggest root of animist environmentalism, however, is a sense that science has failed, that it would not "back this issue to the fullest degree." One dimension of science's failure is causal. It's a straightforward fact that we wouldn't be doing so much damage to the environment without the technology that science enabled. The bison can be thankful not just to the plains Indians' religion, but also to their lack of guns and manpower -- they believed that providence would supply them with unlimited herds, and they had a bit of a rude awakening once the fur trade allowed them to test that theory. And if science is part of the problem, how can it be part of the solution? Animists are skeptical that science can be reclaimed for sufficiently radical environmental protection. There's a yearning for a knowledge base that explicitly welds together "is" and "ought" in order to keep knowledge from being used for evil.

The other dimension of science's failure is conceptual. Science, say the animists, is cold and demistifying. In one sense this is true -- science won't allow things to remain as mysteries to be meditated upon and wondered at. Scientists like to answer questions. Science is often written in a dry fashion. That rhetorical convention of dryness is not the only way science can be, though -- just read anything by Carl Zimmer to disabuse yourself of any simplistic ideas of how dull scientific explanation is. What science does lack, though, is personal experience. At its root, animism consists in treating non-human entities as if they were human, posessing that very human capacity for communication and mutual understanding. What drives many environmentalists' concern for nature is personal experience of communion with the land and its inhabitants, which is not felt in the "artificial" environment*. It's a natural outgrowth of our tendency to indentify with places and things. This experience can be described with the vocabulary of animism, but not that of science -- not because science believes that it doesn't exist, but because scientific reductionism breaks the and estranges the experience, so that a reader's sympathetic response to the scientific explanation is not evoked in the way it is when the experience is related in animist terms.

*Some environmentalists make the mistake of assuming that all other people find nature easier to commune with than artificial environments.


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