Nihilistic Relativism Infects The Green movement

In this article, Suzanna explains how nihilistic relativism has spread across the environmental movement. It has altered our perception of right and wrong, and prevents the environmental organizers from taking a radical stance for the natural world.

This article was originally published August 26th in VT Digger. an off-the-grid farmer who lives in Walden.

Nihilistic Relativism Infects The Green movement

By Suzanna Jones/VT Digger

Last month, the Trump administration gutted the 50-year old National Environmental Policy Act under the guise of “modernizing,” “streamlining” and making the law more “balanced.”  Here in Vermont, similar language is being used to justify eviscerating our state’s landmark environmental law, Act 250. But it’s not the ethically- and environmentally-challenged Trump administration proposing the gutting, it’s the unholy alliance between the moderate Scott administration and the Vermont Natural Resources Council.

VNRC, once a staunch defender of Act 250, now supports creating numerous loopholes for harmful development in exchange for tepid forest fragmentation “protections” that would do little to halt further incursions of development into our mountain ecosystems. At the beginning of the 2020 legislative session, VNRC acted more like the Chamber of Commerce than the environmental organization it purports to be.

It lined up developers, lobbyists, and business leaders to testify in favor of their proposed exemptions to Act 250.

One such exemption: removing downtown development from regulatory oversight, with no consideration of the consequences – particularly regarding wastewater issues.

This bill, H.926, will possibly be voted on during an unusual summer session meant to address pandemic and related budget issues. Perhaps gutting Act 250 is being considered now, under cover of Covid, because public awareness and participation are severely limited. After looking over H.926, a lawyer friend of mine asked me, “Why do we now have to defend the environment from environmental organizations?”

It’s a great question.

Part of the answer, of course, involves money.  Fifty years ago, when Act 250 and other important protections were enacted, environmental organizations believed it was their role to draw lines in the sand beyond which economic interests could not go. They understood that we could not blindly expand industry, business and commerce into the landbase without inevitably degrading it.

But from the mid-1980s on, moneyed interests began co-opting the environmental movement by supporting groups that embraced “market-based” solutions to environmental problems. As environmental NGOs softened their stance against rampant development, we got “green consumerism,” “carbon trading,” “ethical investment,” “smart growth” and other business-friendly steps in place of genuine environmental protection. This form of “environmentalism” has turned corporations into “environmentalists” but failed to protect the natural world.

Were the leaders of those environmental organizations conscious of what they were doing?

Psychologist Robert Lifton’s work offers some insight.  His career focused on examining how ordinary people become involved in projects with horrific consequences. This phenomenon, he explains, emerges from a shared ideology that remains unquestioned – often with a declared higher good or “claim to virtue” justifying it – thereby blinding people to the real-world consequences of their actions. He studied people responsible for atrocities throughout the last century. Expecting to find psychosis and sociopathy prevalent among them, he found something surprising: many were actually nice people. They were well-liked and respected in their communities. They had stable families and were loving parents and grandparents. They weren’t necessarily ideologues nor particularly hate-filled.

What they were was ambitious. Lifton concluded that when one is ambitious in a destructive society, one will participate in that destruction to reap the rewards. His conclusions are a cautionary tale that should alert all of us to look deep within and examine our conduct and motivations. The environmental leaders who espouse “balancing” environmental protections with the need for economic growth are more likely to win major funding, receive invitations to government roundtables, and hold the microphones that shape opinion.

Over time, the result has been that “environmentalism” is no longer about defending nature from the voracious appetite of the ever-expanding human empire, it is about convincing the public that we can continue that destruction as long as growth is cloaked in euphemistic adjectives like “green,” “smart,” “resilient” and “sustainable.”

But why has the public gone along with this shift?

The reason, in part, is that we have been afflicted by a new brand of ethics: nihilistic relativism.  Originally identified by Hannah Arendt, nihilistic relativism allows us to deny our complicity because “right” and “wrong” are seen as simply relative measures. If our actions are better than the egregious actions of others, if they are disguised behind empty props such as “mitigation” and “balance,” our consciences are clear while our actions steadily eat away at the biosphere. The result, though, is that we have paved over our hearts and buried our affection for the living natural world that supports us all.

Firmly wrapped in the ideology of economic growth, the global ecocide and ultimate extinction we are hurtling toward is the logical endpoint of this dark pathology. Here in Vermont, nihilistic relativism reassures us that we are far more environmentally aware than Trump or his minions.

Meanwhile it blinds us from seeing that sometimes we are just as dangerous.

Suzanna Jones is an off-the-grid farmer who lives in Walden. This article was originally published August 26th in VT Digger: you can find the original, full article here:


5 thoughts on “Nihilistic Relativism Infects The Green movement”

  1. The Natural Resources Defense Council is a very pro-establishment environmental group, run by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. While what this essay depicts is true for the mainstream environmental groups and mainstream environmentalists, there are real environmental groups and individuals who still advocate against all this stuff (no such thing as “smart” growth for example, that’s just a developer propaganda term) and for the natural environment and everything that lives there. Earth First! advocated exactly what its name said, and that all species should have the same rights as humans. The Center for Biological Diversity is a group of Earth First!ers from Arizona and New Mexico that split off from Earth First! and used the legal system, very successfully (relatively) to, among other things, stop environmentally and ecologically harmful projects. Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has the same attitude as Earth First! but operates on the oceans. Amazon Watch, Rainforest Action Network, and Earth Island Institute are also good groups. The big groups have become corporate, and this essay is exactly right in calling that out. But there are smaller, very good environmental groups that do excellent work.

    As to individuals and what they do and don’t advocate for and against, let’s face reality: Humans as a whole don’t really care about the natural environment, or at least they don’t care anywhere near as much about it as they do about their unnatural destructive lifestyles (which include overbreeding) and conveniences. Looking for deep psychological reasons why people go along with all this horrible stuff is ridiculous. It has nothing to do with nihilistic relativism or anything else like it. Instead, it’s because people refuse to give up their harmful lifestyles and conveniences for the good of the Earth and all that lives here. All you have to do is talk to people to learn this, and ivory tower philosophies are irrelevant.

  2. More than ten years ago I was involved in the process of proposing new wilderness acreage in California. One of the areas being argued over is in the watershed I live in. After attending several public meetings it was my late husband, one of the most trusting individuals I have ever known, who pointed out the furtive glances from the regional representative of The Wilderness Society at the wilderness supporters in the room. He suspected that she was not being honest with us.

    He was correct. The next day I got a phone call from the woman. She was talking really fast and it was hard to understand but the gist was that she had been lying to all of us. More than half of the land in the watershed that we believed we could have designated as wilderness had already been sacrificed in a series of meetings that were held in secret with a gag order on participants. She then had the balls to try and wring some sympathy out of me because it was “so difficult” for her to have to call all of these people. I told her to fuck off.

    So a couple of months later I signed on as a declarant in a lawsuit against the Forest Service and all hell broke loose. Someone had passed around my unlisted phone number and the harassment was endless and anonymous but obviously coming from the “environmental” community. It was quite telling that the woman from the Wilderness Society managed to convince these people that I had been lying and working on sinking any chance of new wilderness acreage on behalf of some unnamed organization.

    Along the way I attempted to correct a great deal of the misinformation that was being published by, oddly enough, The Mono Lake Committee. When I pointed out that the listed acreage declared wilderness and the listed acreage “released” did not add up the writer of the articles (who I had thought of as a friend) declared that she did not like my “tone”. It was simple fucking arithmetic. I guess I was the only one who bothered to do the math.

    This was the most contentious environmental issue I had ever been involved in. The District Ranger, who supported wilderness designation received death threats, an effigy of her was hung and burned over Highway 395 in the town of Bridgeport, neighbors of mine drove around with bumper stickers saying something to the effect of “shut her down” and she eventually was given a special assignment somewhere else. I sure as hell did not feel safe. It was enlightening for me to realize that the danger to my well being and the attempted destruction of my reputation was coming from the “environmentalists” more than the motorheads. The enviros took it and made it personal. I suppose they saw it as a kind of betrayal. Funny – I was the one who had been lied to.

    One of my proudest moments was the last line of a letter I wrote to The Wilderness Society and a local group called Friends Of The Inyo when I referred to the closing scene in the book Animal Farm. Friends of the Inyo had been soliciting donations based on wilderness designation for an area they knew was already “released”. The response from the director of that organization was that I was “mean spirited”. He also said he would refund the money I had donated. He never did.

    I no longer financially support or participate in any “environmental” organization. Unfortunately that includes DGR.

  3. @Heidi Hall
    When I was campaigning to get cattle out of a local state park, I asked the regional head of Sierra Club if they could help, because Earth First! had no money and we could use some for this fight. The first words out of her mouth were, “You’re not going to do anything crazy, are you?” So that’s what mainstream so-called environmentalists think of real environmentalists.

  4. My sympathies, Heidi. The self righteous are the most dangerous, and they are found on all sides. It’s never not monkey island.

  5. Agreed! The reasoning in your article applies to an emotional engagement with reality and the idea of commitment to determine a course of action. From a recent article of mine:

    “Current and ongoing support for the Anthropocene and its ecocidal notions of progress and colonizing development demands a certain “terraphthoran” (Earth destroying) mentality, while its rejection requires a commitment to a future Symbiocene or terranascient (Earth creation) mentality. These mentalities are also emotions and, ultimately, value or ethical commitments.
    The terranascient emotions, when connected to scientific realism (Trigg, 1980), form an objective foundation for personal and social commitment to certain courses of action, namely, avoiding the sixth great species extinction, the seventh great species extinction (us), and forms of catastrophic climate chaos. The Symbiocene has science on its side.
    We have, then, a foundation for hope, as the causes we are committed to are not utopian, arbitrary, or nebulous: they are the strongest possible reasons to do something positive. For life to continue on Earth, particularly for humans, we must connect our terranascient emotions to the objective order of life as understood and described by science. ”

    “Albrecht, G.A. (2020) Negating Solastalgia: An Emotional Revolution from the Anthropocene to the Symbiocene. American Imago, Vol. 77, No. 1, 9–30. © 2020 by Johns Hopkins University Press.

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