(NOTE: This 1999 speech provides one of the best summaries of my philosophical views about environmentalism. Readers of my essays on "narratives" (posted elsewhere on this site) will see direct implications of that subject here, too.)
MODERN SPIRITUAL POVERTY AND
THE RISE OF ENVIRONMENTALISM
The Objectivist Center Conference, “What Should We Worship?”
Marriott Marquis Hotel, New York City
October 23, 1999
Every culture and its institutions are the living embodiments of certain fundamental ideas about man and his place in the universe.
For individuals, these metaphysical premises posit answers to basic questions about life and its meaning, helping them to integrate their understanding of the world. They also offer a foundation for values, and thus for personal motivation. Such metaphysical premises provide individuals with the intellectual and spiritual foundations for daily living. And when widely shared, they create the intellectual and spiritual foundations for a culture.
At its birth, America’s basic premises were part and parcel of the glowing historical period known as “the Enlightenment.” It was an era from whose core radiated an exalted vision of human consciousness, and of man’s power to explore and shape his environment.
The Triumph of the Enlightenment
Historian Henry Steele Commager wonderfully captured the spiritual atmosphere of the Enlightenment in his book, The Empire of Reason. Men such as Franklin and Jefferson, he wrote, had “a prodigality about them; they recognized no bounds to their curiosity, no barriers to their thought, no limits to their activities...” Commager cited “their confidence in Reason, their curiosity about the secular world and – with most of them – their indifference to any other, their addiction to Science – if useful – their habit of experimentation, and their confidence in improvement...” Heroic achievers, these men “exalted Reason and worshiped at the altar of Liberty.”
Exaltation, worship…these aren’t words one expects to be used to describe men whose concerns were so worldly. But motivating their practicality was a spiritual quest for human progress. “The pursuit of happiness,” to Jefferson and his contemporaries, was not the chasing of idle pleasures, but a mission to make life better, through the exercise of reason.
America was the triumph of the Enlightenment. Once people were encouraged morally to employ their minds in the pursuit of personal values, and once they were free politically to do so, a torrent of human ingenuity and energy was unleashed, curing hunger, disease, poverty, and ignorance on an unprecedented scale. Capitalism – the social system based on the values of reason, individualism, and liberty – produced the greatest material abundance the world had ever known. And not only in America: every country and culture which adopted Enlightenment premises progressed dramatically, while every society mired in the pre-Enlightenment muck of mysticism and collectivism continued to stagnate and suffer.
It would seem that this demonstration of the extraordinary practical benefits of reason, individualism, liberty, and capitalism should have been enough to convince all the world – and certainly its intellectuals and leaders – of their unarguable merits. Yet today, Enlightenment ideas that have brought the world so much are considered suspect, if not evil. And not just the ideas themselves, but the agent whose rational faculty generated them.
Environmentalism vs. Enlightenment
Man is no longer praised as a heroic conqueror of nature's obstacles, or even accepted as just another part of the natural world. More and more, he’s seen as an interloper, as an alien presence on the planet – even as the planet’s enemy. His creative works no longer are regarded as triumphs of the human spirit, but as acts of desecration that alienate him from the natural order. His cities are viewed not as monuments to human progress, but as symbols of natural destruction. His science is regarded not as a source of human hope, but as a menace to all that exists.
“[H]ave our eyes adjusted so completely to the bright lights of civilization that we can't see...the violent collision between human civilization and the earth?”1
The writer is our [former] Vice President, Al Gore, and he continues in this vein throughout his best-selling environmentalist manifesto, Earth in the Balance. “...[W]e are threatening to push the earth out of balance…,” he warns. “Modern industrial civilization, as presently organized, is colliding violently with our planet's ecological system. The ferocity of its assault on the earth is breathtaking, and the horrific consequences are occurring so quickly as to defy our capacity to recognize them…and organize an appropriate and timely response.”2
Within just a few short decades, it seems, this malignant view of man and his works has supplanted the optimistic outlook of our Enlightenment ancestors, and has come to dominate modern American culture. Today, environmentalist premises are woven throughout our fabric of regulatory law; environmentalist scare propaganda permeates school curricula; environmental groups are courted by most political candidates; and environmental themes permeate popular songs, TV shows, movies, even children’s cartoons. Polls show that strong majorities of Americans agree that “nature is sacred”; that “ecological sustainability” should be an important social goal; and that “voluntary simplicity” ought to be a behavioral model.3
It’s not my aim here to revisit familiar arguments about what’s wrong with environmentalism. My monograph The Green Machine3a catalogs philosophic, scientific, and economic fallacies at the heart of environmentalism. It also directs readers to a small mountain of scholarship that demolishes environmentalism’s central claims.
What I aim to address instead is why environmentalism is succeeding in the marketplace of ideas despite all of the many things wrong with it.
Why have Enlightenment premises failed to retain broad public allegiance, despite their early influence on American culture, and their proven benefits to us all? Why have the many fine books and studies refuting environmentalism failed to make a noticeable dent on public opinion? Why, in short, is a worldview openly hostile to human progress on earth winning converts away from a worldview that champions human life, well-being, and happiness?
The answer brings us directly to the subject of this conference. It’s that environmentalism is successfully filling a void in modern life: not so much an intellectual or material void, but a spiritual void.
The Enlightenment Crackup
Powerful and fruitful as it was, the American Enlightenment worldview was vulnerable to attack and dismissal on several counts.
First, the Enlightenment worldview lacked a systematic rational epistemology. The philosophic grounding of the Enlightenment project was taken for granted by most leaders of the period, who, as practical men, were eager to get on with practical issues of daily living. But as a result, Enlightenment spokesmen couldn’t answer important technical attacks on their epistemological foundations. What they thought was a system rooted firmly in reason and natural law was actually standing in quicksand.
Second, the Enlightenment worldview lacked a rational egoist morality, an ethics consonant with its individualist politics. As a result, Enlightenment spokesmen couldn’t answer charges that their social system, based on private property and the profit motive, encouraged and depended upon selfishness. This made their system seem amoral at best, and not a cause to command the allegiance of many idealists.
These two important weaknesses are familiar to many of you, and beyond the scope of discussion here. But neither of those issues explains why the Enlightenment outlook couldn’t win a direct popularity contest against the emerging anti-Enlightenment worldview of environmentalism, which has even greater weaknesses and contradictions.
What, then, is so compelling about that outlook? What do environmentalists have going for them that our Enlightenment ancestors apparently did not?
Mythology: From Greek to Green
Put succinctly, environmentalism – unlike the Enlightenment view – has a clear-cut spiritual ideal, rooted deeply in Western cultural history. Furthermore, it’s a spiritual ideal utterly contrary to the premises of the Enlightenment.
The source of that ideal can be inferred from a passage in a book about the environmentalist movement, written by a former reporter for the New York Times, Philip Shabecoff. He summed up the movement’s outlook this way:
“…[A]n unspoiled land of great beauty and wonder began to change when Europeans came here five hundred years ago…[I]ts resources were squandered…large areas were sullied, disfigured, and degraded …[O]ur negligent use of the Promethean forces of science and technology has brought us to the verge of disaster.”4
Note first the moral language used to describe the New World. It’s “unspoiled,” a place of “great beauty,” a source of “wonder.” Then note the description of human use of that land. The words employed are “sullied, disfigured, degraded.” Shabecoff describes the use of natural resources in terms that conjur images of the rape of some innocent virgin.
But what allows him to count automatically on the reader’s sympathy with his moral perspective? Why does he assume that we’ll agree that the opening of a continent constitutes a crime against nature? Here, the allusion to Prometheus gives us a further clue.
Prometheus was a Titan of Greek mythology endowed by the goddess Athena with great wisdom. But Prometheus decided to share this godly knowledge with human beings. He taught men language and arithmetic, how to walk upright, till the soil, sail the oceans, domesticate animals. And he brought them the fire of the gods – a tool by which men could transform Nature for their own benefit.
In giving to men the knowledge of the gods, Prometheus enraged Zeus, who chained him to a rock for a thousand years. And Zeus punished man by sending him the first mortal woman, Pandora, bearing a box which he forbade her to open. But moved by curiosity, she opened it anyway, and unleashed on man its contents: all the evils of the world.
To the ancient Greeks, the worst sin – the sin of Prometheus and Pandora – was hubris: unlimited desire, a refusal to restrain oneself, the urge to arrogate oneself above others, to be godlike. They especially feared man’s unlimited quest for knowledge, believing that it brought nothing but trouble, upsetting the natural order.
What was the source of this fear? We can speculate. For one thing, at the dawn of civilization, cooperation was a necessity for human survival. Individuals who went their own way, or who sought power over others, threatened to undermine the social conditions that made life possible. For another thing, emotions are mysterious and sometimes disruptive forces in human life. Curbing the desires and ambitions of unruly individuals, then, seemed to be the only path to social stability.
For the Greeks, hubris had to be suppressed by recognizing something greater than oneself, by acquiring a sense of humility before the gods or some higher good. Man’s proper path lay in self-restraint, in the practice of virtues centered around the idea of moderation, such as prudence, wisdom, and temperance.
The importance of humility and steering a moderate course is a repeated theme in classical myth. Phaeton, who insists on driving his father’s chariot to bear the sun across the sky, fails to stay on the middle course through the heavens. Out of control, he sets the world on fire and perishes. Similarly, Icarus fails to heed his father’s admonition not to fly too high. Trying to reach the heavens on wax wings, the lad flies too close to the sun. The wings melt and he falls into the sea.
The Eden Myth
The fear of unrestrained human desires – especially the boundless thirst for knowledge – is equally evident in the Judeo-Christian tradition. In fact, the original sin of man was his eating of the Tree of Knowledge in order to become like God. For that, man is cast out of the paradise of Eden. Later, when men try to build a tower that can reach heaven, God says, “now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.” So to punish men for their unrestrained imagination and ambition, he scatters them across the earth and confuses their languages.
To this body of premises the Judeo-Christian tradition added another: what might be called the pastoral ideal, symbolized by the Garden of Eden. In the mythical Garden, Adam and Eve lived among the flora and fauna in climate-controlled comfort, without fear or want. Having no needs, they had no goals; and having no goals, not a single fugitive thought ever fled the stagnant tranquillity of their empty skulls.
This, Genesis tells us, was perfection.
By contrast, the symbol of evil was the serpent, who told Eve, in effect, to get a life. When the two witless, purposeless humans finally mustered enough courage and ambition to seek knowledge, they were told that they had committed the Original Sin: they had refused to accept arbitrary limits and remain in passivity and ignorance. So as punishment, they were kicked out of the perfect garden and consigned to a horrible fate: now they would explore the rest of the world, define personal goals and work to achieve them, and populate the earth by making love.
What’s important here are the basic premises about man and his world that these ancient morality tales have transmitted across the centuries – premises communicated in songs, images, icons, art, and eventually, scholarly works – premises that have shaped the thinking and lives of billions of people. And what precisely are the premises embedded within these stories?
Everything in nature exists in harmonious balance and perfect order. And man’s task is to find a humble niche within this benign and bountiful paradise, where he can exist simply and non-intrusively. However, human desire – especially the desire to improve oneself by gaining knowledge – represents a constant peril to this pastoral ideal. Man’s exercise of his intelligence and ambition disturb the tranquility and destroy the harmony of the pristine natural order. To prevent such chaos, man’s evil appetites and capacities must be suppressed. That’s the task of morality. Moral virtues consist of constraints: humility, obedience, self-suppression, moderation, sacrifice of self to a higher good. By limiting man’s disruptive ambitions, morality will maintain the balance, harmony, and order of nature.
All this became an early and indelible part of the Western metaphysical heritage.
And that’s the heritage Philip Shabecoff trusted that his readers would share, when he denounced the European conquest of the New World.
That’s the heritage Al Gore counted on his readers to share, when he denounced the “violent collision between human civilization and the earth.”
In fact, that’s the spiritual foundation upon which the entire environmentalist movement has been built.
A Conflict of Visions
It should be clearer now why environmentalism had a competitive advantage over the Enlightenment worldview in the marketplace of ideas. Environmentalism is swimming with the tide of the Western moral tradition, while the Enlightenment was swimming against it.
Nature abhors a vacuum, and society abhors a spiritual vacuum. Environmentalism took root during a time of modern spiritual poverty, a time at which both the pre-Enlightenment and Enlightenment worldviews were in deep trouble.
As Renaissance men awoke to the modern scientific era, the moral claims of religion began to lose their grip. For a time, the tide of influence began to turn toward reason. The Enlightenment was the culmination of that great shift.
But with the weakening of traditional morality, the quest for knowledge seemed less and less constrained. As philosopher Alston Chase puts it, “The possibility of excess, of hubris, loomed larger…The Renaissance, in awakening the human mind and conceiving the possibility of finding truth without God, had found Pandora’s box.”5
This prospect terrified and angered many intellectuals, and led them to turn their sights against the Enlightenment.
The image of Faust, the alchemist who sold his soul for knowledge and power, “came to symbolize this darker side of the Enlightenment,” as Chase notes. And Faust was just an early marcher in the postmodern literary parade. For example, in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, subtitled The Modern Prometheus, a brilliant but amoral scientist tries to imitate God and create life – but creates instead a monster that eventually destroys him. Frankenstein’s monster was to become a dark metaphor for the Enlightenment thirst for knowledge, launching a new literary sub-genre that flourishes to this day: the tale of the mad scientist, whose madness invariably consists of a proud curiosity unshackled by morality.
Other writers attacked not only the Enlightenment, but human civilization as such. Novelist D. H. Lawrence, an early convert to the theories of ecology, gave his novel The Rainbow this misanthropic ending:
She saw…the amorphous, brittle, hard edged new houses advancing from Beldover to meet the corrupt new houses from Lethley…a dry, brittle, terrible corruption spreading over the face of the land, and she was sick with a nausea so deep that she perished as she sat…And the rainbow stood upon the earth. She knew that the sordid people who crept hard-scaled and separate on the face of the earth’s corruption were living still.6
While novelists dramatized the horrors or spiritual emptiness spawned by Enlightenment hubris, philosophers tried to stifle its source. Immanuel Kant, for example, took on the mission of putting human reason back in a moral straitjacket. In a preface to his Critique of Pure Reason, he wrote: “I have found it necessary to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith.”
By the twentieth century, the Enlightenment legacy was battered and bleeding. Postmodern critics, such as the Nazi philosopher Martin Heidegger, complained that “technological domination spreads itself over the earth ever more quickly, ruthlessly, and completely…The humanness of man and the thingness of things dissolve into the calculated market value of a market which…spans the earth.” Philosopher George Sessions, a leading “deep ecology” theorist, praised the Nazi’s contributions to environmentalism’s critique of Western technological society.6a
But the attack on the Enlightenment was coupled with another goal: to restore the ancient ideal of Eden, and to make it a living reality.
Some thinkers lent the reputation of science to this crusade. In 1864 naturalist George Perkins Marsh wrote Man and Nature, widely viewed as the seminal work of modern environmentalism. Without human influence, Marsh argued, nature is basically stable and in balance. “But man is everywhere a disturbing agent. Wherever he plants his foot, the harmonies of nature are turned to discord.”7
Few noticed or cared that his thesis was little more than the myth of Eve and Pandora, dressed in scientific fig leaves. But Marsh’s work left a huge impact. It deeply affected Franklin Hough, who successfully lobbied Congress to establish the U. S. Forest Service.8 It also left its mark on Gifford Pinchot, head of the Forest Service under Theodore Roosevelt, who went on to vastly increase federal landholdings.
Building on the ideas of Hegel, 19th century German zoologist Ernst Haeckel transformed the classical idea of a natural order into a full-blown science. Haeckel saw the world of nature as a kind of global organic whole, in which all species, including man, were merely parts. In 1866, he coined the term “ecology” to describe “the whole science of the relations of the organism to the environment…”9
An early proponent of the pastoral ideal was Rousseau. “The earth left to its own natural fertility and covered with immense woods, that no hatchet ever disfigured, offers at every step food and shelter to every species of animals,” he wrote. With impressive consistency, this champion of the “noble savage” preached the inherent goodness of untouched nature; the corrupting influence of reason, culture, and civilization; the social ideal of egalitarianism; and the political ideal of sacrificing the individual to the collective.
Pastoralism, Primitivism, Pantheism
Romantic poets such as Wordsworth, and painters such as Thomas Cole of the Hudson River School fashioned a new aesthetic glorifying the pastoral ideal. Transcendentalist writers did their part, too.
Upon entering a forest, Emerson was reduced to babbling worthy of Hegel. “I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing, I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am a part or particle of God.”10
“The earth I tread on,” echoed Thoreau, “is not a dead, inert mass; it is a body, has a spirit, is organic and fluid to the influence of its spirit.” From his own private Eden, Walden Pond, he wrote, “In wilderness is the preservation of the world…The most alive is the wildest.” Hostile to the growing industrialization of the nation, he complained, “Thank God, men cannot yet fly and lay waste the sky as well as the earth.”11
Then there was their friend and student, John Muir, the mystical, misanthropic Scotsman and founder of modern preservationism.12 The pivotal day in Muir’s life was when he came across two wild orchids in a field. “I never before saw a plant so full of life; so perfectly spiritual, it seemed pure enough for the throne of its Creator. I felt as if I were in the presence of superior beings who loved me and beckoned me to come. I sat down beside them and wept for joy.”13
It was a mysticism shared by most of the others who helped him found the Sierra Club in 1892. For example, photographer Ansel Adams openly described his faith as “a vast, impersonal pantheism.”14
During the twentieth century, philosophers began to promote the spiritual ideal of Eden to a degree that would have shocked any early conservationist, and horrified any Enlightenment spokesman.
UCLA historian Lynn White Jr. called for a “new religion” based upon “the spiritual autonomy of all parts of nature” and “the equality of all creatures, including man.”15 Borrowing from both the new pseudo-science of ecology, and the holism of the German idealists, Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess took everything a step further. Individuals do not exist, he said; we’re all only part of larger “ecosystems.” The “shallow ecology” of mainstream conservation groups aimed only at improving the environment for the benefit of humans. Naess instead advocated “deep ecology” – a view that he described as “biospheric egalitarianism...the equal right to live and blossom.”16
In short: all things are created equal; they should be venerated as ends in themselves, as intrinsically valuable apart from Man; and they have equal rights to their own kinds of “self-realization,” without human interference or exploitation.
“We must learn that nature includes an intrinsic value system,” wrote philosopher Ian McHarg. And what would that be? Philosopher Thomas B. Colwell replied: “The balance of nature provides an objective normative model which can be utilized as the ground of human value. Other values must be consistent with it. The balance of Nature is, in other words, a kind of ultimate value…The ends which we propose must be such as to be compatible with the ecosystems of nature.”17
From Myth to Dogma
Let’s sum up the brief survey we’ve just taken.
The pastoral vision of classical and Judeo-Christian times idealized a perfectly balanced natural order, in which human ambitions were held in check. It had been a powerful ideal throughout Western history. But with the collapse of religious explanations during the Renaissance, this ideal no longer had enough power to curb men’s selfish appetites. The Enlightenment appeared to be the culmination of human arrogance. So while postmodern thinkers labored to demolish the Enlightenment, a coalition of pantheists and ecologists provided a new theoretical grounding for the old pastoral ideal. With the collapse of the Enlightenment, and a new rationale in place for the pastoral ideal, the environmentalist movement emerged, filling the spiritual void.
With this, it seems Western culture has come full circle in its spiritual quest. We are back in the Garden with Adam and Eve, humbly minding our tiny place in the grand design of nature. And nature has provided us with a new intrinsic value system, which operates on the following simple moral principle: Everything else in nature may behave exactly as it wants to or must; but man must not act in any way so as to affect anything else in nature.
The breathtaking irrationality of this position is a testament to man’s overwhelming need to experience a sense of spiritual worth and meaning – and to find some basis for his values – even at the cost of common sense and personal interests. These spiritual requirements lie at the heart of human aspirations. For many people, they exceed in importance even basic material needs, and there are few extremes to which they won’t go in order to fulfill them. Environmentalism is a measure of how far they will go.
This irrationality also stands as a refutation to those who hope to fight the battle against environmentalism on anything other than moral-philosophical grounds.
During the past decades, dozens of books, some quite brilliant, have dissected environmentalism on scientific and economic grounds. Focusing on the “junk science” claims of the movement, volumes have been written convincingly refuting eco-scares about pesticides, ozone depletion, global warming, electro-magnetic fields, and other nonsense. So-called “free market environmentalists” have taken a different tack, exposing the Malthusian fallacies at the root of overpopulation scare-mongering, and explaining how property rights and free markets can solve problems such as pollution, the overuse of natural resources, the protection of wild animals, and much more.
All these efforts are to be commended. But – if you’ve grasped the central point of this message – you’ll realize that none of them ultimately will make much difference in the wider battle for human life and well-being on earth.
To illustrate my point, let me cite an article in the Spring 1998 Dissent magazine, a radical left-wing publication. In it, law professor Eric Freyfogle, an environmentalist, attacks and dismisses “free market environmentalism” – not on economic or scientific grounds, but on moral grounds.
“Efficiency, the market’s most exalted promise, is a desirable quality of the means we use to achieve an end,” he writes. “But efficiency, standing alone or embedded in a market, cannot tell us whether species are worth saving. That decision requires a moral judgment… A related market message, equally troubling, is the legitimacy that it grants to self-centered behavior. However effective economic incentives might be, they do not push people to look beyond their own self-interest, and land health will never come about so long as we each look out only for ourselves.”
After calling for more collectivist control of the marketplace, Freyfogle concludes: “Progress on environmental issues, then, will depend on our continued use of moral language…”18
Given such premises, it’s useless to argue that capitalism improves human well-being, or solves environmental problems more efficiently. To environmentalists such as Freyfogle, that’s the essence of the market’s moral failure: it ignores allegedly higher moral values while it encourages selfishness. In the great scheme of things, environmentalists argue, morality trumps economics. And the whole point of morality – the morality of antiquity, which environmentalists share with conservatives – is not to improve human well-being: the ultimate goal is to constrain human activity and hubris.
Once this point sinks in, it should be clear where we ought to be turning our efforts.
By and large, people want and try to do the right thing. What they need to discover is what the right thing really is.
A New, Heroic Spirituality
But defining a new ideal is only part of the challenge. A corollary point to my message today is that while a new ideal must be defined and justified by philosophy, it cannot permeate the culture by philosophical argument alone. If, in the court of public opinion, you pit an abstract argument about an ideal against a compelling vision of an ideal, the vision will win hands down.
For proof, consider the historical survey we’ve just taken. Throughout Western history, a vivid, concretized image of a preposterous ideal has persisted in public consciousness, winning out over every intellectual challenge, every contrary argument, every economic counter-incentive, every shred of human common sense.
The reason? It has never been challenged by the one possible thing that could supplant it in people’s imaginations: an equally vivid counter-image of a new and better ideal.
As John Muir’s epiphany with the orchids suggests, environmentalist arguments about the intrinsic rights of nature or the sanctity of forests are based as much on a sense of aesthetics as on any theory of morality. In fact, for Muir, as it is for millions, boundary lines between ethical arguments and aesthetic preferences are hard to distinguish. Steeped in a timeless tradition that upholds the Garden of Eden as a moral ideal, many people hold its image as their standard of beauty as well. And by that standard, there’s no place for a city skyline, or its occupants.
We need to raise a new standard – not just an ethical standard, but an aesthetic standard.
Ayn Rand understood this well. In her essay on “The Psycho-Epistemology of Art,” she wrote of “the sterile, uninspiring futility of a great many theoretical discussions of ethics, and the resentment which many people feel toward such discussions: moral principles remain in their minds as floating abstractions, offering them a goal they cannot grasp and demanding that they reshape their souls in its image…Art is the indispensable medium for the communication of a moral ideal.”19
Her own work, and its astonishing, persistent, and growing popularity, is proof of her own thesis. Rand chose to communicate her vision of the moral ideal not only conceptually, but through the imagery of art – more accurately, through imagery that her words conjured in readers’ minds. I believe that the persistence of Rand’s influence is a direct result of the persistence of her imagery in those minds.
Thinking of imagery, a metaphor used by John Muir strikes me as terribly relevant to this message. On one occasion, he denounced the builders of dams as “temple destroyers.” “As well dam…the people’s cathedrals and churches,” he raged, “for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man.”20
The metaphor of forests as a temple or cathedral persists within the environmentalist movement to this day. Philip Shabecoff refers to our national parks as “the great cathedrals of our New World civilization,”21 while Alston Chase notes that since the 1960s, “forests would be seen by many as cathedrals in which to worship a new god.”22
The metaphor caused me to remember a song we sang as children in school, titled “Green Cathedral.” It was an ode to the spiritual beauty the songwriter found in a forest. And it seems to me the perfect metaphor for the environmentalist’s spiritual search: a quest to find meaning on earth, not through his own actions, but by passively contemplating nature.
Rand has suggested many counter-metaphors. In The Fountainhead, to take one, Howard Roark tears a branch from a tree and bends it. He tells Gail Wynand:
“Look, Gail. Now I can make what I want of it: a bow, a spear, a cane, a railing. That’s the meaning of life.”
“Your strength?” Wynand asks.
“Your work,” Roark answers. “The material the earth offers you and what you make of it.”23
That’s the antithesis of the environmentalist view of the green cathedral.
But what about beauty? Doesn’t the green cathedral embody beauty? Wouldn’t its destruction be an aesthetic, if not moral, crime?
Consider what Rand has to say about beauty. In Anthem, her protagonist – who appropriately names himself Prometheus – stands on a mountaintop and says:
“It is my eyes which see, and the sight of my eyes grants beauty to the earth. It is my ears which hear, and the hearing of my ears gives its song to the world.”24
It’s a stunning thought, again so unlike the environmentalist perspective. The environmentalist finds the beauty residing within the external object; beauty is a quality intrinsic to its nature. But to Rand, the beauty of the world is imparted by an active consciousness. Without an active mind, there is sound, but no song – color and form, but no green cathedral.
These are lessons that we must teach the world, if human life on earth is to continue and flourish – if we are to continue the journey bravely begun by our Enlightenment pathfinders.
It is a new form of spirituality, a new vision of man and his place on earth, a vision that doesn’t demean his life or diminish his world. And that vision must be communicated, yes, in words and in ideas, by all means – but also in the imagery that can fuel men’s imaginations and let their spirits take wing.
Where can we find such a sense of spirituality, a sense appropriate to our own values and ideals? If I may repeat words that I used a year ago:
“It is not to be found, but to be created – by ourselves. It is the gift from our own eyes to the world around us, a gift that bestows upon that world the blessing of our own significance. It is a gift that is ours alone to give – the kiss of an idea pressed upon the stone cold face of matter – the kiss which brings to life the romance that is ours alone to feel.”
It is the creative spirit of man – that irrepressible, inexhaustible spirit which fills the earth with meaning. And for those of us who yearn for a spiritual ideal, that is what we should worship.
1 Al Gore, Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit (New York: Plume edition/Penguin Books, 1993), pp. 1, 26-27.
2 Ibid., pp. 2, 269.
3 "The Emerging Culture,” American Demographics, Feb. 1997, p. 31.
3a Robert James Bidinotto, The Green Machine (Poughkeepsie, NY: Institute for Objectivist Studies, 1993).
4 Philip Shabecoff, A Fierce Green Fire: The American Environmental Movement (New York: Hill and Wang, 1993), p. xiii.
5 Alston Chase, In a Dark Wood (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1995), p. 56.
6Anna Bramwell, Ecology in the 20th Century: A History (London: Yale University Press, 1989), p. 113.
6a Chase, pp. 124, 129.
7 Shabecoff, pp. 56-57.
8 Chase, p. 28.
9 Ibid., pp. 96, 121-22.
10 Ibid., p. 44.
11 Shabecoff, pp. 51-56.
12 Ibid., p. 58.
13 Ibid., p. 70.
14 Chase, p. 43.
15 Lynn White Jr., "The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis," Science, Mar. 10, 1967; reprinted in Garrett De Bell, ed., The Environmental Handbook (New York: Ballantine Books, 1970).
16 Peter Borrelli, "The Ecophilosophers," The Amicus Journal, Spring 1988, pp. 32-3. Also: Alston Chase, "The Great, Green Deep-Ecology Revolution," Rolling Stone, April 23, 1987, p. 64.
17 Chase, In a Dark Wood, p. 116.
18 Eric T. Freyfogle, “The Price of a Sustainable Environment,” Dissent, Spring 1998, pp. 37-43.
19 Ayn Rand, “The Psycho-Epistemology of Art,” The Romantic Manifesto (New York: Signet, Second Revised Edition, 1975).
20 Chase, In a Dark Wood, p. 44.
21 Shabecoff, xii.
22 Chase, p. 74.
23 Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead (New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1943; Scribner edition, 1986), p. 577.
24 Ayn Rand, Anthem (New York: Dutton, 1995), p. 94