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
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: