Take 4 parts physics, 2 parts marketing, 16 parts music, 11 parts writing, and what do you get? A whole lot of parts would be one answer. Omer Wahaj is an amalgamation of all these and more: an independent journalist/writer and a part-time musician currently living in Toronto. He has written several short stories and is currently working on a few humorous/satirical novels. Omer occasionally DJs and has produced an eclectic mix of music in various genres of electronica. He also enjoys being an illeist. Follow Omer on Twitter @omerwahaj
Futile Endeavors: Environmentalism In A Postmodern World
Environmentalism, when viewed in a postmodernist context, can be construed as being pointless.
Ideas about environmentalism have been shifting over the past many years and various people have come up with different definitions of the word and concept. A generally accepted definition, however, is that environmentalism is a movement that helps in the protection and preservation of the natural world, a world that is classified as being distinct from the artificial one that we have created with our manmade objects, such as our homes, neighborhoods, cities, etc. However, in the postmodernist context, this would be a very narrow view of environmentalism. A postmodernist view would incorporate every aspect of Earth as being part of its natural environment, including all the plastics and smog that we produce. Since everything we do is natural in this context, trying to save the planet is akin to saying we are trying to save nature from nature. It is utterly and completely useless.
Postmodernism is usually considered a rather vague concept and is often compared to relativism. It is much easier to depict and define literature and art as being postmodernist than abstract concepts such as environmentalism. Postmodernism, in the environmentalism perspective, includes various ideas, such as the use of deep science, the inclusion of cognition, mind and spirit as being part of the natural environment, as well as dualism of nature. However, for the purpose of this article, the postmodernist view on environmentalism would be defined as holding a broader approach to what we consider “natural” in contrast to traditional environmentalists; i.e. postmodernism would view humans and our activities as being part of nature and not something removed from the “natural” world, as most traditional environmentalists tend to portray.
Modern environmentalism began in the 19th century when people began to notice how their actions were polluting the world. The main concerns of environmentalists included preservation and conservation of natural habitats and species. In more recent times, the focus has been on sustainability. Environmentalists are concerned that we are using up our resources very quickly and we will run out of fuel, water, and other resources soon, which is why we must conserve now. Modern environmentalists also talk about changes to the world’s atmosphere because of pollution and how it is affecting global warming. These might be considered as noble pursuits; however, these modern environmentalists have a very myopic view of what comprises nature. If they were to view the world through a postmodernist perspective, they’d realize that it is not just the “natural” world, but also the artificial world that is part of our nature.
Finding root in such theories as the postmodern social construction of nature and bioregionalism, the postmodern view on environmentalism would spawn the perfect beast: an “environmentalist” like me who has to do nothing but just sit and stare at the world and its environment as it continues to evolve unhindered. The reason: the world is what it is, it always has been and will always will be – that is, everything we do, even pollution, is part of the nature and trying to change, save or preserve the environment is futile, kind of like trying to save the environment from its environment, a circular exercise in vanity. Aside from the fact that nature is such a large entity that does not need saving, the idea of “doing something about it” directly defies the sanctity of nature itself. Photographers for the National Geographic let lions kill zebras because it is the way of nature and intervention. Even to save a cute little 2-week old zebra foal would be frowned upon by naturalists and environmentalists. If the “natural” thing to do is to let nature be, why make all the brouhaha about protecting the environment?
To help garner political points, perhaps? Environmental movements have long been politicized. Governments tell their citizens that fossil fuel is in short supply so they can charge them more money to put gas in their cars. “Saving the ozone” might be on some candidate’s list of things to do so that people vote for him in the next elections. Most of the aspects of environmentalism, including political activism and even eco-terrorism, are all tools of various interest groups to garner support. Environmental organizations tend to have conflicting data; some would swear by global warming, others claim it to be a myth. They are all in it for the money and the power, which are both big, in this politicization of environmentalism. Politicians, like the many parasites that inhabit our planet, are always looking for opportunities to find some way or another to connect with their constituencies and latch on to people’s votes. People are their lifelines and playing with the human emotions is fair game in politics. If exploiting raging sentiments against an oil spill can get votes, then why not put the oil company under the guillotine? Of course, like any other political ideology, environmentalism also has its left and right players that politicize various issues according to their own benefit. It gives the politicians another way to garner support or to engage in mudslinging, the true form of pollution.
Modern environmentalists, both right and left, whether political or the naively philanthropic, would argue that nature is being polluted by humans. We are throwing our trash in the oceans, spilling oil everywhere, killing off millions of species in the rainforests through deforestation, seemingly setting off global warming with our emissions, and doing lots of other miscellaneous damage in the process. There is no denying any of that; we are a wasteful and messy species and we have put a lot of “unnatural” things, like plastic bags, Styrofoam cups, aluminum cans, exhaust fumes, CFCs, etc. into the environment. However, if you look at it in the same vein as conservation of mass and energy, everything being produced and released on Earth is part of Earth itself. They might be manmade things, but they have been made by men living on Earth from materials and chemicals that they found on the very same planet. Technically, they can all be considered as being “natural” in the broader context of being from our world.
Does that mean that people are not really polluting our environment? No. Pollution is happening, but it must not be viewed as being something separate from nature. It must be viewed as being another part of the environment’s natural process of evolution because of what its species are doing to it. Birds make nests, beavers make dams, and countless other creatures build their homes and other structures to protect themselves. Would you call this pollution of the environment as well? Most people would say that this was completely natural, even though the animals change the environment to suit their own needs, which in effect means that they are changing the “natural” surroundings and thereby destroying what can adequately be described as the “natural environment.” We tend to look at such animals and admire “nature,” saying that this is part of their natural behavior.
What about humans then? Aren’t we also part of nature? Isn’t what we are doing also a very natural process with respect to the Earth? Just because we use tools and materials unlike any other animals on the planet does not mean we are not part of nature. Whatever we do, build, extract, mine, burn and mould is all part of our world and our environment. It’s nature evolving with humans building and changing their environment in a very natural way.
Think about how an alien race might view us. If they came to Earth and saw how we had trash on our beaches, oil slick in our oceans, excessive carbon dioxide in our air, etc., they would think that this was just us being natural in our environment – just like what we think about a beaver collecting wood and building a dam to stop the flow water. It might not look aesthetically pleasing, but it would still be part of Earth and our environment. This is why a postmodernist perspective would be to say that humans polluting the Earth is part of nature, which is what makes all the efforts in trying to clean up the environment are not only futile, it’s effectively interfering with nature, like trying to save a zebra from being eaten by a lion.
Moreover, the concept of “nature” itself is a romantic notion, used by such philosophers as Rousseau to placate the people and to make distinctions from the urbanized centers where people found themselves trapped and depressed in the 18th century. Nature was depicted as a perfect utopia, a pure and pristine form of the Earth, the dew-eyed counterpart for the concrete and metal monstrosities built by man. It was about this time that ideas relating to environmentalism began to surface, with people thinking that changing “nature” would equate into destroying it. On the other extreme, however, were religious groups, that believed that it was the humans’ right to rule over the planet, an idea that also found itself in science, known as the Anthropic Principle. The postmodernist view takes the more coherent and evidence-based route, putting humans and all our tools, buildings, cities, and machinery along with the wild animals, the oceans, and the rainforests as holding equal stakes in contributing to this planet’s natural world.
Since we are all part of nature and whatever we do is natural, trying to “clean up” the environment, or to reduce gas emissions, or to stop hunting the whales, and all the other things that environmentalists are concerned about would effectively be interfering in nature’s work. People complain that increased carbon dioxide levels in the air are causing global warming and whaling is making the whales extinct? So what? All of these are just parts of our natural world in a broader context, our environment evolving on its own volition by the interaction of the various species that live on it. If global warming would bring about a change in the world’s climate, then so be it. Our world, over the past 4 billion years that it has been revolving around our Sun, has gone through thousands of climate changes before. It is a very natural phenomenon. Climate change has occurred before and will continue to occur regardless of human intervention. At the same time, as some species become extinct, others will evolve into being; another cycle of nature that has been ongoing for the past several million years.
Modern environmentalists would argue about sustainability, that if the world was not conserved or preserved, then we would be leaving a wasteland for our future generations. We would run our fuel wells dry, pollute all our drinking water, mess up our air, and kill off animals, which our future generations would not be able to see. None of it matters. If the human race is meant to survive, it will survive through toxic air and acid rain. If it is meant to die out, an invisible virus contracted from a pristine lake in the mountains will exterminate us. Nature has been running its course for millions of years and it will continue to do so, with or without our insignificant interventions.
To quote George Carlin, “The planet has been through […] earthquakes, volcanoes, plate tectonics, continental drift, solar flares, sun spots, magnetic storms, the magnetic reversal of the poles, hundreds of thousands of years of bombardment by comets and asteroids and meteors, worldwide floods, tidal waves, worldwide fires, erosion, cosmic rays, recurring ice ages. And we think some plastic bags and some aluminum cans are going to make a difference?”
The postmodernist perspective on environmentalism can, therefore, shed light on how it would be an exercise in complete futility to be an environmentalist. Nature will continue to evolve no matter what we do. Our actions, good or bad, are all part of nature and we cannot say that by polluting we are destroying the environment; if anything, we are only changing it so that it evolves accordingly. Whether this evolution is good or bad for humans remains to be seen. It is most likely going to be bad, but then that’s the nature of nature: to weed out the weak and to let the strong survive. The postmodernist view on environmentalism should enlighten us about our role in our nature, which is that of symbiosis with the Earth, rather than as an amputated appendage that modern environmentalism portrays us to be. This realization should be enough to put us in our place: how did we ever become so vain as to think that our puny contribution to the formidable environment was doing anything to change the grand scheme of things? It is time we realized that nothing we can do can change the way nature works and it is better to just let Earth do its thing.