The Fanaticism of the Apocalypse: Save the Earth, Punish Human Beings is a critique of modern environmentalism by a French philosopher, Pascal Bruckner. (1) I read it slowly and thoughtfully, savoring its eloquence that is a testament to the elegance of the French language. However, because it is so close to the center of my advocacy, I don’t have confidence that I can do it justice in a description for our readers. Therefore, I quote this brief review from the Amazon website:
“The planet is sick. Human beings are guilty of damaging it. We have to pay. Today, that is the orthodoxy throughout the Western world. Concern about the environment is legitimate, but catastrophism transforms us into cowering children. Distrust of progress and science, calls for individual and collective self-sacrifice to “save the planet” and cultivation of fear: behind the carbon commissars, a dangerous and counterproductive ecological catastrophism is gaining ground.
Bruckner locates the predecessors of today’s ecological catastrophism in Catholicism’s admonishment to give up joy in the present for the sake of eternal life and in Marxism’s demand that individuals forsake personal needs for the sake of a brighter future. Modern society’s susceptibility to this kind of catastrophism derives from what Bruckner calls the “seductions of disaster”, as exemplified by the popular appeal of disaster movies. But ecological catastrophism is harmful in that it draws attention away from other, more solvable problems and injustices in the world in order to focus on something that is portrayed as an Apocalypse. Rather than preaching catastrophe and pessimism, we need to develop a democratic and generous ecology that addresses specific problems in a practical way.
This sharp and contrarian essay on one of the great issues of our time will be widely read and discussed.”
Here are a few of the themes in this thought-provoking book that struck a chord with us:
Pervasive pessimism of extreme environmentalism
It was some comfort to know that we are not unique in our reaction to the extreme negativity of the branch of environmentalism that is driving the native plant movement in the San Francisco Bay Area. When we walk in the urban forest, which we often do, we enjoy the bird song, the rustle of the wind in the trees that surround us, the flicker of sunlight through the leaves, and the lush green of the understory in places like Mount Sutro. When native plant advocates describe the same places, we often wonder if they inhabit a dark, parallel universe. They see a degenerate, dying forest, being strangled by vegetation, inhabited solely by rats. Destruction is the only cure for the catastrophic disease they see.
We laboriously try to change their perception by providing them with what seem to us irrefutable facts: the opinions of scientists about the health of the forest, including a local professor of urban forestry, detailed censuses of the birds and animals that live in the forest conducted by reputable scientists, the scientific studies about changes in our urban ecosystem that are an inevitable consequence of the rapidly changing environment, the photographic evidence that non-native forests have not “invaded” our open spaces.
Pascal Bruckner explains why these facts fall on the deaf ears and blind eyes of native plant advocates. In an increasingly secular world, extreme environmentalism satisfies many of the same human needs that were satisfied by religious belief in the past. The appeal of religion starts with the deep guilt we often feel for the failings that are an inevitable part of life. Religion offers redemption from guilt, but first it asks us to pay a price in the form of penance for our sins.
Extreme environmentalism derives from our guilt for the damage humans have done to the Earth. Redemption requires that we heal that damage. In the case of native plant advocates, the damage to the Earth is symbolized by the demise of native plants. The restoration of native plants is the penance they believe we must pay to expiate our guilt.
We are unable to convince these true believers that these projects inflict more damage on the Earth in the fruitless attempts to restore native plants where they are no longer adapted, by destroying healthy trees and spraying our public lands with herbicides because their belief is based on faith and faith cannot be swayed by facts. No price is too great to pay for the restoration of native plants. Any damage inflicted in the process is incidental to their quest for redemption.
The seductive appeal of having an enemy
Bruckner also reminds us of the appeal of having a clearly defined enemy. For most of the 20th century, the ideological enemy of the West was Communism. The Cold War satisfied the need for an enemy. The West was defined by anti-communism. We were united in our opposition to a common enemy. The ideological waters have been muddied by the demise of Communism.
Bruckner believes that extreme environmentalism has satisfied the need for an enemy for some people. Consumption and materialism are the enemies of extreme environmentalism. If you have engaged in the debate with native plant advocates in the past 15 years, you will know what we mean. We have been called “selfish nature haters” and “creepy imbeciles” in those debates. Comments on this blog have accused us of being funded by the Koch brothers, of sounding like Fox News, and of being as uncompromising as the NRA. We are mystified by the association with right-wing politics.
However, we take Bruckner’s observation to heart. We are a part of a large community of people who are opposed to the destruction associated with native plant “restoration” projects in the San Francisco Bay Area. We know that people come to that conclusion from a variety of perspectives. Some are primarily concerned about the destruction of healthy trees. For others, the use of herbicides is the primary issue. The impact on wildlife living in our open spaces is sometimes the chief concern.
Just as we are a diverse coalition of people, who come to this issue from a variety of perspectives, we must make every effort to treat native plant advocates as the individuals they surely are. We must listen to their opinions with an open mind, look for ways to compromise with them, and treat their concerns with respect. We will not be seduced into treating native plant advocates as enemies.
Looking for the light in Bruckner’s thesis
We share many of the concerns of extreme environmentalists about the future of the Earth. Although we agreed with Bruckner’s cautionary tale about the hopeless negativity of extreme environmentalism, we found little to reassure us about an alternate course. Bruckner merely reminds us that dark predictions about the fate of humans are not new. The end has been prophesied many times in human history. And the way forward was not predictable before it materialized in the form of the technological innovations that resolved each existential crisis. Our adaptability has been repeatedly demonstrated and we trust that it will be again, though we are unable to foresee it at the present time.
(1) Pascal Bruckner, The Fanaticism of the Apocalypse: Save the Earth, Punish Human Beings, Polity Press, Cambridge, England, 2013