These thoughts are occasioned by reading Crow Planet by Lyanda Lynn Haupt, this year’s mandatory all-campus reading at my college. (I had nominated Behind the Beautiful Forevers, but common readings aren’t allowed to be downers.)
In many ways this is an admirable book. It’s rather well-written. I learned a lot about crows, which is important because I probably see them more often than any other animal except humans. It also reminds us that nature is not some exotic place we have to travel to get to, but is all around us—and within us—all the time. Good!
But it is also suffused with a sort of pop environmental psychology that is the bane of green politics, or more precisely, makes rational green politics a non-possibility. Here is my caricature of this view of the world:
Modern people are surrounded by artificiality—artificial goods, artificial jobs, artificial needs—that make it difficult to realize our place in nature. This is why we have screwed up our environment. The solution is for each individual to cultivate a true appreciation for the natural world. We should learn about the environment, beginning with our local ecoregion, and how each of our actions affects it. We should develop a consciousness, or even a spirituality, based on the intricate web of interconnections that tie us to all of nature. In doing this we will obtain wisdom for ourselves and become agents for the social change that’s needed to halt ecological destruction.
The insidious thing is that it’s not all wrong. It is a good idea to learn more about your surroundings and your place in them. Paying attention to other living things, individually and collectively, can be deeply satisfying. There is probably truth to the notion that it’s not enough to just have an intellectual understanding of a problem, whether social or environmental; there also needs to be a passion that turns understanding into action.
But there are also two enormous problems with pop ecopsychology.
First, by exalting the select few with advanced ecological consciousness, it implicitly denigrates everyone else. If acquiring personal ecological wisdom is the path to solving environmental problems, those not undertaking this journey must be the ones making the problem worse. And who are these despoilers? You know, the people who drive big cars or eat fast food or live in suburban housing developments. They have a bad lifestyle, and the good, ecologically aware people need to either enlighten them so that their consciousness changes or force them to live more in harmony with the Earth.
My advice: if you want to make political change, you don’t start out by defining everyone who is not part of your movement—a substantial majority of the population in fact—as evil or benighted. It’s not a great strategy for outreach. In addition, there is something to be said for observing your fellow humans with the same open-mindedness you should bring to crows and spiders. You might just find that there are plausible reasons why people drive big cars or eat fast food or live in the burbs. That doesn’t mean their consumption patterns don’t have broader effects or are even in the best interest of those that engage in them, but they are not products of pure ignorance either.
The second problem is that, by passing immediately from individual consciousness to collective problems (like climate change), pop ecopsychology simply eliminates any role for the things that social scientists study, like social norms, economic interests, political structures, etc. The notion that environmental problems stem from shortcomings of consciousness and that solutions depend on individual transformation is essentially religious. In fact, the crow book makes repeated comparisons between the acquisition of eco-consciousness and the monastic discipline of the Benedictines.
Preaching to others that they might acquire the elevated level of consciousness you have already attained is not a political strategy. At least since Aristotle, the terrain of politics has been understood as the “we”, the networks, structures, and interests that we jointly create and that create us. Yes, the personal is political, but the opposite is not true: the political is not just the personal added up. It’s something we do together, finding common interests across our myriad differences.