The Irony of Environmental History

David Barr
Ph.D. Candidate, University of Chicago

22 June 2017

The debates around the Paris Agreement since President Trump’s announcement have revealed not only how much Americans disagree about climate change, but also how much we disagree about why we disagree about climate change.

Many on the left spoke of a conflict between reality and denial or between facts and greed. Meanwhile, many on the right (especially Evangelicals), put the differences in terms of world views. For example, Al Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said the following on his podcast:

The secular worldview that has been largely behind the environmental movement since the 1960s and 1970s is predicated on a very un-biblical notion of the cosmos and of human beings. That worldview largely sees human beings ourselves as the problem and the exercise of dominion as the great evil…Oftentimes in this heated controversy you will hear the two positions sometimes reduced to simply the scientists and the science deniers. But…the science itself is predicated upon a worldview, and that worldview…is very clear in seeing human beings as the problem and denying any kind of divine purpose to the creation, not to mention to the role of human beings within it.

For Mohler, this debate is less about objective evidence and more about core beliefs: The science itself is predicated upon a worldview. People’s thoughts on this subject are rooted in views about God, humanity, and the universe, regardless of their claims to scientific objectivity.

As a committed environmentalist who reads widely in the field, I concede that he is not wrong to see an anti-human preoccupation in environmentalism. A basic presupposition of the field is that whatever a landscape is like before human contact is good and normal, and whatever changes occur as a result of human action are bad. The environment is considered an intrinsically good thing, and Mohler is right that the field lacks a clear sense of a positive “role of human beings within it.” Environmentalists often view the techno-industrial development of the last few centuries as mere arrogant, greedy exploitation, with no recognition of the benefits it has brought or of the real, but limited, role of noble motivations in driving it.

The idea that human modifications of the environment are driven only by greed and avarice strikes many as implausible; it just doesn’t line up with what they know about the complexity and goodness of real people. If environmentalists so misconstrue the drivers of human civilization, it is not a stretch to think they misconstrue climate science. This is why many folks conclude that climate science is just an expression of a secular, anti-human worldview.

While I interpret the anti-human rhetoric in environmentalism as throwing the baby out with the bathwater, Mohler and others conclude that environmentalists create concern about the bathwater merely as an excuse to throw out the baby. As environmentalist rhetoric intensifies, it confirms, rather than alleviates, their suspicions that climate science is driven by a hostile view of humanity.

Here, I think Niebuhr may be of some help. In his 1952 book, The Irony of American History, he argued that the communists made several trenchant points about the growing imperialism of the U.S., warnings Americans ought to have heeded. Americans were resistant to these insights because the Marxist critics explained our economic and military ascendency as a result of our greed, ambition, and exploitation. That description, understandably, seemed unfair and inaccurate to Americans: we knew that a good portion of our wealth was the result of honest hard work, ingenuity, and so on. Because of its severity, the criticism seemed unwarranted and thus biased, so we explained it as the fruit of a twisted ideology. We asserted our innocence of all charges, thereby blinding ourselves to the real moral dangers that our newfound power placed us in. We resisted clear evidence of the moral murkiness that we had entered when we became a superpower who had to intervene in conflicts around the world. The Marxists overstated our vice, so we overstated our virtue, leading us both to miss the messiness and ambiguity of what was really going on.

Niebuhr offered a way forward by arguing that America’s history was neither purely virtuous, nor vicious, but ironic. America found itself in a position of great power despite not seeking it. Americans had wanted to develop in isolation and peace, but the very success of that development thrust us into a leadership position on a world stage. America found itself capable of causing great harm when it acted or failed to act. If we insisted on our complete innocence, in reaction to the communists, we would fail to grasp the moral precariousness of our position. “Irony” allowed Niebuhr to show our potential for injustice in our new position of power and the need to take responsibility for that power, without accusing us of unjustly seeking it. It voiced criticism in a way Americans could hear it.

I think the Niebuhrian concept of “irony” can play the same role today. Instead of diagnosing climate change as the result of greedy exploitation, we can see that it is (at least in part) an ironic result of some of the very best features of our species. We can see that the same power over nature which delivered us from natural vulnerability and danger, involves us in new vulnerabilities and new dangers. We can see ourselves with power that threatens the planet, without having sought to pose such a threat. “Irony” allows us to describe the moral dangers of our situation, without insisting that all the expressions of human life which contribute to it are therefore evil. If environmentalists can communicate the reality of climate science without anti-human overtones, then there would no longer be reason for anyone to think of it as merely a projection of anti-human ideology. In short, if we acknowledge the irony of environmental history, then we can recognize and affirm the value of human development, while accepting the reality of, and taking responsibility for, its ironic consequences.

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