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

The most pressing non-environmental, environmental issue

Campaign finance regulation (re Citizen’s United v. FEC) is arguably the most pressing non-environmental, environmental issue facing the United States today. Obviously, there is room for debate on this point – Ronald Coase makes the case that it is the lack of clearly distinguished property rights (for goods of the commons such as the atmosphere) that’s most pressing, while James Boyce argues, on another hand, that income inequality is the ultimate source of environmental injustice. In many ways, both are compelling and correct. I, however, opt to focus on the ills of our current campaign finance situation over the aforementioned two issues because, on one hand, I question the wisdom of assigning human ownership to something as vast and interconnecting as the atmosphere, and on the other, I am confident that income inequality can only be fruitfully resolved after we amend our campaign finance problems, for the policies needed to redress the injustice of inequity will likely not find their origins in a corrupt Congress.

The unabated flow of corporate money into American politics undermines the health of our democracy as well as the health of the ecosphere. Contemporary special interest groups exercise power of Gilded Age proportions, while Citizen’s United and the resulting super-PAC phenomenon have successfully institutionalized an unprecedented entrenchment of environmentally negligent industries in our political system. And this is absolutely not a partisan critique. Republican and democrats alike, by necessity of the new Congressional fundraising status quo, have become engrossed with raising money, large amounts of which come from sources like Chevron Corp., Merck and Co., the American Petroleum Institute, and the American Action Network.

With that said, please allow a quick digression (or clarification). This is in no way an attempt to demonize the fossil fuels industry. While the various oil, gas, and coal companies are frequently delinquent in relation to environmental protection, they are ultimately the elements of the world economy that enable the incredibly high standard of living that many of us enjoy, myself included. And we must remember that it is not the intention of corporations to damage the environment. It’s just not their intent to protect it, either, especially given the current regulatory structure. Like good offspring of neoclassical economic thinking, the corporate interest is to maximize benefit for stakeholders. But even Adam Smith was wary of corporate power and what its absolutely free exercise could mean for the human quality of life. So it is, in my humble opinion, the responsibility of policymakers to create policies that ensure the internalization of externalities, such as Pigouvian taxes, or aim to reduce externalities altogether via market-based credit trading programs, and it is the responsibility of businesses to abide by those policies (as is our social contract). While I would obviously prefer that the business community undergo a rapid paradigm shift toward ecological consciousness, I am also one for being realistic.

More to the point: the current state of campaign finance verges on a dangerous autocatalytic cycle. Wealthy special interest groups provide campaign funding to ensure the election of sympathetic and indebted politicians, who then create policies that reinforce the wealth of those interest groups, who then, again, will invest in the campaigns of politicians who, again, will create policy to bolster the status quo, ad infinitum (or so I am concerned). Often, such special interest groups represent extractive or otherwise environmentally damaging industries. National campaign finance reform would be a good step toward breaking this cycle and restoring any real sense of regulatory hope for the ecosphere.

But what hope is there that an already corrupted Congress will reform campaign finance laws? It would seem, at least outwardly, that we need uncorrupted legislators to create the reforms for fair campaigns and elections, but we need fair campaigns and elections in order to have uncorrupted legislators. So how do we resolve this chicken-or-the-egg conundrum?

I asked this very question of New York State Assemblyman Kevin Cahill on May 11, 2012, when he so graciously visited my environmental policy class at Bard CEP to talk with my colleagues and I about NYS energy policy. His response was heartening. Apparently, national legislators are also human beings. For legislators, the tangible effects of the Citizen’s United decision manifest as having to spend as much as six hours per day fundraising, just to remain electorally competitive. For a politician whose primary interest is in re-election, perhaps this is permissible. But as people, such a lifestyle is undesirable. And so, Assemblyman Kevin Cahill assured me that he’s beginning to see bipartisan support emerge for campaign finance reform because legislators are simply fed up with the absurd fundraising demands.

Now, I would prefer for Congress to be motivated to act on campaign finance because of the legislators’ pride in the quality of our nation’s democratic representation, rather than how much time they’re having to spend “dialing for dollars.” But in this case, I suppose the end justifies the means.

While I doubt that corporate personhood will be overturned, maybe Congress will decide that people can only contribute such-and-such amount of money to a given campaign. But then again, because money is “speech,” and knowing our attachment to the First Amendment, I’m sure that any attempt to regulate “speech” will be met with virulent public outcry, despite the obvious impairments to our freedom perpetrated by the current campaign finance system.

JM Kincaid

Hope amidst the cynicism

Recently in a seminar at the Bard Center for Environmental Policy, Dr. A. Karim Ahmed, Director of the National Council for Science and the Environment in Washington D.C., posed a provocative question about the state of contemporary environmentalism. In short, his question was this: Where can one find hope amidst the cynical pessimism of today’s environmentalism? If you are constantly confronted with talk of catastrophic climate change, imminent sea level rise, the unsustainability of modern agriculture, ocean acidification, environmental injustice, rampant deforestation, unprecedented biodiversity loss, and the major ecological damage associated with extractive industries, how to be hopeful is a daunting question. Nevertheless, what follows is a short attempt to provide such a glimmer.

We Westerners must start with a potentially difficult admission. We must admit to ourselves that the past two and a half millennia of anthropocentric philosophy, religion, and science are among the root causes of the modern ecological crisis. Ours is a rapacious way of life and we have a habit of regarding the Earth as a mere resource stock. This is especially obvious when one contrasts our paradigm with the more eco-centric worldviews stemming from Buddhist, Taoist, and Dharmic philosophies.

However, even though Western thought has traditionally distinguished we human beings from the greater natural cycles and other animals (Rene Descartes, Francis Bacon, Immanuel Kant, etc.), recent progress in chemistry, biology, physics, astronomy, microbiology, genetics, evolutionary biology, and ultimately ecology, has begun to emphasize the utter connectivity of everything from microbes, to human beings, the Earth, and the Universe (to recall Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s remarks about our universal origin in star dust). While Baird Callicott’s “new, new ecology” synthesizing Buddhist spirituality with the Western paradigm has not yet emerged, the progression of Western thought is unveiling empirical conclusions that the aforementioned Eastern existential and metaphysical worldviews also support.

Science is an undeniable source of human power and potentially stands as a reason to reinforce our sense of cosmic arrogance and beliefs about the righteousness of the human dominion over nature, but I believe scientific progress will ultimately serve to remind us of and humble us about our place in existence, and I am confident that that humility will disseminate through society as science education is more heavily emphasized. Hopefully the result will be a proliferation of love, awe, respect, appreciation, and feelings of connectedness to the ecosphere that we have so unfortunately lost touch with from being constantly surrounded by the concrete, plastic, and technology of modern life. What hope is there? I hope that progress in science will eventually humble we human-centered Westerns about our place in nature, and remind us that we are but one small part of a beautiful greater cycle. Once we remember our fundamental connection to nature, we may become less consumed with pursuing the anthropocentric and arbitrary purposes that have thus far been a major source of our ecological crisis. Perhaps we will begin to cultivate our sense of meaning in life from being part of the ecosphere, rather than from exploiting it.

JM Kincaid