When ideals lead to no deals

In a sentence, when US policy actors frame environmental debates in terms of ideology, empirical questions with serious implications for society and nature become intractable. The political stagnancy that has resulted from dogmatic, uncompromising ideology harms everyone in the long run, even those who temporarily benefit from a de facto preservation of the status quo. Arguments about climate change, biodiversity loss, water scarcity, and sea level rise, when made in ideological terms, often become irresolvable due to the incompatibilities of competing value systems, ethics, and teleologies, and thus we have so far failed to substantively address the non-arbitrary environmental problems that we face today. We become so entrenched in promoting our visions of what should be that we lose sight of what is.

I am not exempt from this critique. I have my own habit of expressing myself pontifically about the problems of American anthropocentricism, materialism, and neoliberalism, and how the existential and normative questions these value systems attempt to address would be better satiated through ecocentricism, minimalism, and existential contentment of a Taoist sort. But I recognize that these are merely my value judgments, not shared by all or even many, and so I strive to distance myself from ideological dogmatism, particularly from any shade of “ecofascism,” by humbly, yet confidently, grounding my positions in the empirical and in logic, cognizant primarily of the non-arbitrary biological preconditions necessary for life as we know it, while being especially cautious to avoid verging on the realm of arbitrary value judgments, for current norms about such arbitrary values demand (perhaps paradoxically so) strict pluralistic relativism.

But I resist the idea that politically prioritizing the ecosphere is categorically ideological, for where ideology can be irreconcilably divisive, the ecosphere fundamentally unifies human interests through our inherent organismic connectivity. To what extent this principle can or should be applied in terms of political priorities, however, is not a simple question, and when taken beyond protecting basic biological necessities, it becomes an ideological one. Such is the value latent project taken on by progressives, human rights activists, neoliberals, deep ecologists, radical environmentalists, industrialists, and the rest; each group relies on its own peculiar value hierarchy to arrive at a sense of purpose, of meaning, of belonging, and of proper social order, and it is precisely the propensity of these values to become irreconcilable that tempers my desire to join the ideological debate or pick a side.

Ideology is a strange thing – while the myriad of beliefs and value systems often give rise to conflict, it remains that humans have the common tendency to be ideological in the first place; we are the kinds of creatures that create ideologies to begin with. To which ideology one ascribes is ultimately a mere variable, for in the end we are unified by the very practice of ascription. The problem with ideology arises when we forget our underlying unification in being ideological beings. US policy actors must move beyond ideology in the environmental public sphere and attend to the empirical and the non-arbitrary, or at least embrace ideological coexistence rather than continuing to talk past each other’s value assumptions in pursuit of being exclusively “right,” for meanwhile, amidst our arguing, the oceans continue to acidify, climate continues to change, forests and biodiversity continue to disappear, and the capacity of the US government to mitigate these problems become progressively less suited for the task.

However, we should not be totally stricken with despair or frustration. The Rio+20 international commitments to sustainable energy are heartening, for at the core of our non-arbitrary environmental problems rests the human demand for energy, and so hope springs eternal. What remains to be seen is the transition from commitment to accomplishment, a process that always proves to be, at the very least, interesting. I am confident, because circumstances demand their own morality, that as ecological crises become more apparent, our value systems will naturally evolve to accommodate them. But I’m concerned that positive feedback cycles in the Earth systems will outpace our ideological reformation, and that, simply put, things will get worse before they get better. That, perhaps more than anything, is the problem with ideology.

JM Kincaid

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