“The Fanaticism of the Apocalypse”

Fanaticism of the ApocalypseThe 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

7 thoughts on ““The Fanaticism of the Apocalypse””

  1. Such an excellent article. I can relate so much, and especially this quote rings true: “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.”
    This is exactly how they come across. Now if only we can get them to actually *read* this and other such common-sense pro-environment posts.

  2. Bruckner, and your application of his thesis to our local issue, has hit the proverbial nail on the head. Now I have a basis for understanding the zealotry of native plant enthusiasts. Thank you for what little comfort I derive by understanding.

  3. Although quite an interesting and thus thought provoking piece, I suspect the psychoanalysis to have been stretched too far, as often is. Likely there are individuals with uncannily-similar motivations as described, but I suspect a wider range in the camp.

    One set of such possibilities revolves around the great Darwin quote about the species that survives is the one most adaptable to change. It is extremely common to see interpretations of the survival of the fittest that define it differently.

  4. What Bruckner describes is not a branch environmentalism or extreme environmentalism; it is mainstream environmentalism or a Bruckner terms modern environmentalism. Humans are regarded as a disease infecting the planet by Greenpeace, the Sierra Club and similar well-funded organizations. It may be true that former Marxists have joined and have influenced the green movement, but I don’t see that as the dominant philosophy. In any case, this is not your father’s environmental movement. The environmental problems we had fifty years ago for the most part have been solved and we may have reached the point of diminishing returns on many of those issues. For these organizations and the movement to continue to exist they must create a new crisis to attract new converts.

    It is interesting that in wealthy nations we have the resources and the luxury to maintain a native garden. Or that we can worry about maintaining an urban forest to meet our recreational or spiritual needs. In undeveloped poor nations, the forest would be cut down for firewood and the wildlife consumed for dinner.

    I see the main conflict as the purpose of an urban park. The NAP folks see the purpose as maintaining an environment for wildlife. NAP opponents see the purpose as maintaining an environment for people. Not that one necessarily excludes the other, NAP proponents are people, but it is a matter of priorities. Arguing over bio-diversity or who is more concerned about critters may be a distraction from the people priority.

    Webmaster: Opponents of NAP have a wide range of concerns. Some are primarily concerned about the loss of habitat for wildlife. Some object to pesticide use in the parks because they believe pesticides are harmful to both humans and other animals. We have said in this post that we cannot generalize about the motivations of native plant advocates or their critics.

    You continue to confuse Mt. Sutro with Mt. Davidson. The UCSF plan and NAP plan are not synonymous. As far as science goes I see a lack of it on both sides. Both sides first stake out a position and then proceed to cherry pick evidence to support that position and ignore or dismiss evidence that does not support the position. That’s was lawyers do. The truth is often somewhere in the middle.

    Webmaster: We are not “confused” about either Mt. Sutro or Mt. Davidson. We have said nothing in this post about either place, so perhaps the confusion is Don E’s. We are quoting what native plant advocates say about both places. We understand that the plans for Sutro and Davidson are different, but both have in common the destruction of many trees (at least 1,600 in the case of Davidson and at least 30,000 in the case of Sutro).

    Don E’s accusation that we are “cherry picking” evidence is ironic. Don E has said several times on this blog that he does not believe in the reality of climate change nor does he believe that pesticides are harmful. Maintaining such beliefs in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary is an extreme case of “cherry picking” evidence.

    We provide citations of peer-reviewed studies for nearly every statement we make on Million Trees. Native plant advocates rarely provide any evidence other than their firmly held beliefs. Since science is rarely unanimous in its findings, we are not surprised that it is possible to find studies that reach different conclusions than those we cite. However, in comparing our “evidence” with that provided by native plant advocates, we are clearly on firmer ground.

    In my view it is important to maintain a forested open space for city dwellers. Both Mt. Davidson and Mt. Sutro are special places that are spiritual in nature. When I visit both, I have the feeling I am visiting a cathedral. I guess in that sense I too am engaging in religion. However, it is obvious to me that both cathedrals are in need of maintenance.

    Webmaster: The word “maintenance” is not an accurate description of the plans for these two forests. In the case of Sutro, the word “destruction” is a more accurate description. In the case of Davidson, trees will be destroyed in specific areas where native plant gardens of grassland and scrub will replace the forest.

    1. Don E,, I couldn’t agree with you more about the state of environmental groups. They are waging battles where the war has already been won, and in many cases they were the victors by protecting the open space from development. Today, they are not relevant and mostly absent in the fight against climate warming and corporate polluters.

  5. Don’s patronizing ” In undeveloped poor nations, the forest would be cut down for firewood and the wildlife consumed for dinner” is also and inaccurate myth. Only the most besieged populations in poor countries where their cultures and enviroment have been devastated (often as a result of US or European colonialism/invasion) and have been introduced to foreign agricultural methods, which destroyed their land, is this true.

    Actually, Aboriginal/Indigenous peoples tend to be much more respectful of the forests, water, animals and nature where they live, and are much more savvy than Euro-descent people (who destroyed much of their forests before invading and doing the same to the Americas) have been. They see the interconnectedness of all the beings and the environment, and are reluctant to upset the balance. They also have been open to introduced plants and animals, as First Nations people accepted horses.

    Webmaster: I can add from personal experience…Although Native Americans have rarely expressed their opinion about the controversial native plant “restorations” in the Bay Area, when they have, they have not been supportive of them. I’m not going to presume to represent their viewpoint based on my experience with just three examples. However I can say that in every case, they did not support the destruction of trees and existing habitats.

    Part of the problem with the fanatical pretend environmentalists you’ve already described so well in this blog. Another part is a deep fear of nature, of animals, of trees themselves. The Euro-descent style carried into the US is to “tame” nature and to not feel part of it. I constantly hear people say how afraid they are when I lead nature hikes, and I have to remind them that the wild animals are no danger — the real dangers are the same as in the cities, which is male humans and dogs off leash.

    All anyone has to do to see how much damage has been done to the Bay Area in terms of “environmentalism” is to go see the devastation where trees have been killed, beautiful little lakes where many native species once lived destroyed for no reason, endangered animals poisoned and killed in an effort to eliminate introduced plants. It is horrible. It is the opposite of what environmentalism is supposed to be.

  6. This is for your information not necessarily for posting.

    That was an interesting comment about Native Americans. In discussing Manzanita in another forum it was pointed out the Indians managed Manzanita with fire. Frequent burning of manzanita stimulated shoot growth, increased berry production, induced seed germination, and eliminated dead growth that could lead to high-intensity, damaging fires if left to accumulate. Manzanita had economic value and has been managed by humans for thousands of years. How then can we know what is natural for a “natural area?” Beyond that, planting more Manzanita on Mt. Davidson is a bad idea from a fire safety perspective.

    This led to a discussion of indigenous landscapes that cutting down forests to create grasslands is not returning to nature or historical conditions. Grasslands may give priority to one species over another but they may not be natural. The Indians created grasslands by burning down forests to benefit animal species that provided them with food and other material.

    For millennia Native Americans have been burning down forests to create prairies for bison and deer. “So extensive were the cumulative effects of these modifications that it may be said that the general consequence of the Indian occupation of the New World was to replace forested land with grassland or savanna, or, where the forest persisted, to open it up and free it from underbrush.” “Conversely, almost wherever the European went, forests followed. The Great American Forest may be more a product of settlement than a victim of it.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Native_American_use_of_fire
    There was a large precolumbian Native American agrarian settlement in the Midwest that that was larger than any European cities at the time.

    California Native American’s used fire for similar purposes to divert and harvest game and to create areas attractive to ducks and geese. For plants they practiced a regime of frequent, low-intensity burning, pruning, sowing, tilling, and selective harvesting to manage the ecosystem and increase production of desired plants.

    I won’t get into the issue of early inhabitants of America hunting some large herbivore species to extinction and causing the extinction of carnivorous species that depended on them. And there will be no mention that the first Indians who had European horses used that technology to conquer and subjugate other Indians who did not have that technology.

    Webmaster: Yes, this is one of the themes on Million Trees. The grassland prairies that native plant advocates are attempting to replicate were not “natural.” Grassland is the first successional stage when lakes, glaciated land, marshland, marshy meadows, etc., become dry. Over time they are naturally occupied by shrubs. The “climax” successional stage is usually forest, depending upon soil and climate constraints.

    Native Americans artificially maintained grassland by burning it frequently. The new grass attracted the game they hunted and the game was more easily hunted in the open grassland. Here are two posts on Million Trees about this issue: https://milliontrees.me/2012/02/21/the-globalization-of-ecology-by-humans/ https://milliontrees.me/2010/08/27/invasion-or-natural-succession/

    One of many reasons why we are opposed to the artificial recreation of grassland prairies is that they are not sustainable without periodic prescribed burns, pesticides use, or constant mechanical or hand removal of shrubs that occur naturally in open grassland. It seems absurd to us to recreate an historical landscape that will require constant maintenance in perpetuity, especially since the usual methods of maintenance are harmful to the environment. It is also ridiculously expensive to intensively garden thousands of acres of open space which in the past has not required any maintenance.

    So far the “Natural Areas Program” in San Francisco has not been allowed to conduct prescribed burns. That’s why they use so much pesticide, which is the only economically viable alternative to prescribed burns. We are not advocating for prescribed burns. They pollute the air and frequently cause major wildfires because they cannot be reliably controlled.

    Manzanita cannot germinate without fire. It seems absurd to reintroduce endangered Manzanita to San Francisco, which will obligate the city to conduct prescribed burns for its long-term survival. If San Francisco does not conduct prescribed burns where endangered Manzanita has been reintroduced, it will undoubtedly be sued by the same organizations that sued to have the Manzanita designated as endangered.

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