One of the most important premises of environmental thought seems to be that we do damage to the earth because of indifference, ignorance, and apathy, and that the solution, therefore, is to rekindle affections for places, for natural beauty, and for the simple pleasures of the outdoors. In the hands of more romantic thinkers, this formula becomes a kind of quasi-spiritual journey and an argument for a renewed form of animism. If we just paid nature closer attention, it would reveal its spirit to us and its inherent goodness, and we would discover, almost inevitably, our reasons for caring.
I have long been persuaded by much of this diagnosis, and I still believe that for many people, a simple rekindling of appreciation for nature is an important place to start. But I am not convinced that the only reason we do damage to the earth is because we don’t care. I think we do damage to the earth sometimes because we feel we want and need to. I think sometimes we are so afraid of nature, afraid of its powerful reminders of our mortality, afraid of its indifference and power, and afraid of not being in control, that we act out in violence against it, almost in a subconscious way.
A more superficial form of environmentalism would say that this fear is merely due to a lack of appreciation for its caring and womb-like qualities, as if Mother Earth always has her arms outstretched, ready to gather her children in a warm embrace. Or it might say that this is due to a failure to see nature’s beauty. But any serious understanding of the complexities of ecosystems, and the myriad and almost untraceable interdependencies between life forms, and the dizzying array of life that has existed on this planet, not to mention the staggering amount of death and violence that lie at the heart of life’s engine, leads to the conclusion that there are many good and important reasons to fear nature. It is simply a fear that we need to do a better job of recognizing and owning up to. Even nature’s beauty is so surprising and unpredictable that if we are serious about attaching ourselves to it, it leads us out and away from home, it drains us of any confident sense of a discrete self, and it can challenge our most fundamental trust in an ordered world.
I wrote a piece recently of literary criticism that explores some of these themes in a more academic way. It is short, and it features Melville, so those are at least two reasons you should read it. You can find it here at a new website, edited by the brilliant Bill Jordan, that promises lots of insights into the question of values as they pertain to environmental care.