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Toward an Ecological Populism



Having seen in the preceding chapters that Arendt and Chesterton shared many similar concerns in common, I will conclude by suggesting some possible directions in which certain Arendtian-Chestertonian themes might be integrated into a philosophically realist and politically populist ecological theory. Against the dominant trends of narcissism, commodification and the rule of exchange, such a philosophically realist ecologism would be grounded in wonder, gratitude and the appreciation of the inexchangeable value of person, place, and creature. This populism would insist on the centrality of accepting limits to the human condition and would maintain that nature is not a mere ‘social construction’ which we can endlessly remake according to nothing but our own desires. Indeed, the recognition of Creation’s origins as lying outside ourselves is the prerequisite to establishing an enduring home on earth. We shall see that strong forms of ‘social constructionist’ perspectives are the mirror image of biological reductionism and may serve to rationalize an intensified domination of nature through the new bio-technologies. Against the subjectivism and short-term contracts of self-interest which typify the free-market economy and free-market sexuality now endorsed by the ‘new class’ elites, this ecological populism stands for durability, long term commitment, and the preservation of local community. It is not my intention here to present any kind of ecological populist manifesto but rather to sketch out some possible lines for future inquiry.


Populism and Realism


Recent years have witnessed an upsurge of populist unease within Western democracies. The fundamental claim of such populist movements is that there is an unwarranted power being exercised by the state on behalf of certain elites and against the wishes of the majority of the people. Populism, of course, comes in a variety of forms,[1] some leading to the rule of charismatic leaders who are supposed to represent ‘the will of the people’ while others call for more grass-roots participation by ‘the people’ themselves through decentralized institutions of direct democracy—revolutionary conservatives such as Arendt and Chesterton (to the extent that they can be classed as represents of the populist spirit) would be located on this wing of populism and it is such a ‘democratic’ rather than ‘charismatic’ populism that I am concerned with in this concluding chapter. Populism is not limited to providing the critiques of governments which although in theory are supposed to rest on popular sovereignty in fact act against the public interest. The same global corporate elites which dominate government directly undermine the interests of small businesses and small farmers and destroy local communities for the sake of financial gain. Cultural trends too can be of major concern to populists and this would include opposition to the way in which, for example, the police, the armed services, schools, universities, the media, art galleries, and other cultural institutions have come under the control of privileged elites who seek to transform these institutions into tools for promoting their own ‘politically correct’ agendas.


Given that the theories of ‘intellectuals’ have often been the focus of populist critique it is not surprising that, in the words of Margaret Canovan, the actual claims of populists have often been brushed aside while the movements themselves “are usually treated as pathological symptoms requiring sociological explanation.”[2] Nevertheless, following the crisis in socialism, and with growing awareness of both the environmental damage reaped by industrial capitalism together with the social disaster which followed in the wake of the ‘sexual revolution’, some thinkers whose roots are in the political Left have come to question the idea of automatic progress and to see populism in a new and favorable light. A key figure in the positive reassessment of populism was the American historian and social critic Christopher Lasch who is very interesting for our present concerns here for his own thought was much indebted to Arendt.[3] In his book The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics, Lasch aimed to reassert a tradition of thought which had been marginalised through a focus on progress which had been the hallmark of modernity. Either celebrated as the glorious march into the future or lamented through nostalgia for a lost sense of the past, this focus on progress can appear as either a “fatalistic optimism” or a “wistful pessimism.” Against these poles of optimism and pessimism, Lasch calls for the regaining of the sense of hope—a disposition marked by an awareness of the sense of limits which stems from a “grateful acceptance of a world that was not made solely for human purposes.”[4] In John Milton, Lasch found the animating spirit in such a concept of virtue to be the “courage, vitality, and life-giving force emanating, in the last analysis, from the creator of the universe.”[5] This virtue, Milton recognizes, derives from an awareness of the blessings conferred by God on mankind together “with the grateful recognition of life as a gift rather than a challenge to our earthly power to shape it according to our purposes.”[6] Lasch found this sense of gratitude and the concomitant recognition of our dependence on a greater power expressed in the thought of Jonathan Edwards who maintained that we should love God’s creation without thought as to whether it encouraged or thwarted our intentions. Thus gratitude stems not from a sense of being appreciated or loved but out of the acknowledgement of God’s unaccountable power to order things as he pleases: “True virtue primarily consists, not in love of any particular Beings, because of their virtue or beauty, nor in gratitude, because they love us; but in a propensity and union of heart to Being simply considered; exciting absolute benevolence . . . to Being in general.”[7] By contrast, sin as the antithesis of virtue, consisted in refusing to acknowledge that there were limits to human powers and in the resultant striving to achieve god-like knowledge and powers.


From the discussion in the proceeding chapters, it can be seen that Hannah Arendt and G. K. Chesterton both, in their own ways, aimed at a similar approach to understanding contemporary society. Indeed, it is such a shared sense of wonder, gratitude and limits asserted against the dominant tones of optimism and pessimism which allows for such disparate thinkers as Arendt and Chesterton to be considered within the boundaries of a single thesis. Lasch describes this sense of hope and limits which avoids the pitfalls of optimism and pessimism as a ‘sensibility’ rather than as a particular intellectual tradition. This is because it provides the common thread which unites a number of thinkers who from different perspectives find themselves running against the dominant currents of modernity. This ‘populist’ sensibility becomes manifest in a number of recurring themes in the work of the various authors Lasch examines and which together constitute a ‘politics of limits’: “The habits of responsibility associated with property ownership; the self-forgetfulness that comes with immersion in some all-absorbing piece of work; the danger that material comforts will extinguish a more demanding ideal of the good life; the dependence of happiness on the recognition that humans are not made for happiness.”[8]


The True and Only Heaven was a crucial text for the recent reassessment of populism by a group of independent-minded intellectuals associated with Telos, an American journal of radical social thought.[9] One of which, Timothy W. Luke, has recently called for an ‘ecological populism’ which takes its inspiration from nineteenth century American populism but addresses itself to the ‘postmodern condition’ and pits itself against the designs of the ‘New Class’ global elite of public policy makers and administrators.[10] However, in contrast to the sense of wonder at, and gratitude for, Being shared by Arendt, Chesterton, and Lasch, Luke—writing in the idiom of both ‘Frankfurt School’ Critical Theory and French postmodernism—appears to accept both the theory of the ‘social construction of nature’ and the (quite distinct) thesis of the ‘end of nature’ associated with Bill McKibben. Lasch disliked the ‘deep ecology’ thinking which lay behind McKibben’s book and as we can see some from remarks he made in an interview, he felt troubled by the book’s underlying sense of pessimism which eclipsed the sense of hope—or wonder—which was intrinsic to his own strain of populism.[11] Furthermore, Lasch pointed out that the professional elites who disdained manual labor inhabited a computer generated world of hyper-reality abstracted from any engagement with reality and the common world and so were themselves easy prey to the postmodernist belief in the social construction of reality.[12]


First let us consider the question of the ‘social construction of nature’ which is quite distinct from McKibben’s ‘end of nature’ thesis and a theoretical perspective, I believe, quite at odds with Arendt and Chesterton’s sense of wonder at Being, at the fundamental reality of existence, at the sheer ‘thingness’ of things. In any case, the social constructionist approach is thoroughly useless for a populist critique of society. As we shall see below, populist theory needs to become philosophically realist if it is to seek to counter the domination of nature (and a possible revival of eugenics) which can easily be rationalized by deploying notions of ‘social construction’.


What has been the ‘standard’ view in twentieth century philosophy of science has been more concerned with epistemology—the theory of knowledge—rather than ontology—the theory of existing reality. Empiricism, as William Outhwaite points out, has “shifted attention from reality to our knowledge of reality and analyzed that knowledge in terms of sense impressions.”[13] And as Roy Bhaskar suggests, the philosophy of science has been marked by a tendency towards narcissism: “A picture has indeed held philosophy captive.  It is the picture of ourselves or our insignia in any picture—the picture as invariably containing our mirror-image or mark.”[14] This empiricist notion that reality could be unproblematically reduced to our experience of the empirical world suffered a devastating blow by the increasing awareness of the ‘theory laden’ nature of observation statements. The publication of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in 1963 opened the floodgates for ‘conventionalist’ perspectives in the philosophy of science by which an objective existing reality dissolves away as choices between alternative scientific theories are psychologized into personal decisions while all claims to truth are abandoned.[15] 


In such an intellectual climate as this, anti-realist philosophies such as French poststructuralism and the postmodern pragmatism of Richard Rorty have become immensely fashionable amongst academics in the Anglo-American world. As Bhaskar points out, such conventionalist accounts are themselves outgrowths of the dissolution of empiricism for they commit “the epistemic fallacy, the definition of being in terms of knowledge.”[16] According to Bhaskar, against both empiricism and conventionalism it is necessary for a realist philosophy to distinguish between the intransitive objects of science—the objectively existing structures and entities of reality—and the transitive objects of science—the theories and concepts which aim to express in thoughts and language the properties of that reality. Thus although knowledge is socially produced, it is knowledge of a reality which itself exists independently of our concepts and sense-experience. Ontological relativism is thereby overcome for alternative theories are not necessarily incommensurable as they are open to rational assessment in terms of their success in describing an objectively existing reality.[17] Philosophical realism thereby escapes the narcissism of other philosophies. Adopting a realist ontology involves a radical “anti-anthropocentric shift in our philosophical conception of the place of humanity in nature.”[18] As we shall see, ‘strong’ forms of social constructionism confuse the transitive and intransitive objects of science and provide a fundamentally narcissistic view of the surrounding world.


One consequence of the ‘postmodern’ or linguistic turn in academic life is that there has in recent years been an upsurge in the number of studies being produced for which the notion of ‘social construction’ is central. Formerly associated with the discipline of sociology, the social constructionist approach is now being advocated throughout the humanities and social sciences.[19] Furthermore, the notion of social construction is no longer merely applied to the realm of human affairs; social constructionists are now urging the view that what we call nature is, no less than anything else, an artifact of our linguistic constructions. It is this ‘social construction of nature’ perspective which I shall briefly consider here and which can serve to illustrate the nature of social constructionism in general. Incidentally, it can be seen to be an example of the process thinking which Arendt believed was endemic in modern society. The social constructionist is not interested in the truth or falsity of claims about a particular entity (e.g. nature) but about the process in which such claims are constructed through discourse. And so “what we regard as truth,” claims Vivien Burr, “is a product not of objective observation of the world, but of . . . social processes and interactions.”[20] 


There are both ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ forms of social construction, and one would be hard pressed to find anyone who didn’t accept the suggestion that our observations and concepts of nature are always informed by a particular historical and cultural location. However, the strong form of social construction is staunchly anti-realist in its assumptions and eager to deny that there is any nature ‘out there’ possessing properties of its own[21] and it is with such a ‘strong’ form that we are concerned with here. Such a perspective is of great interest to our concerns for the ‘strong’ social constructionist bears a striking resemblance to the character of the idealist maniac who appears in Chesterton’s Orthodoxy (1908) and who believes that “everything began in himself,” and doubts “the existence of men and cows,” which he considers to be “a mythology made up by himself.” “This horrible fancy,” says Chesterton, “has in it something decidedly attractive to the somewhat mystical egoism of our day.”[22] Chesterton’s insight would seem to be borne out by Lasch’s diagnosis of today’s society as a ‘culture of narcissism’[23] and indeed some psychoanalytically informed critics have identified the strong forms of social constructionism as instances of a narcissistic denial of reality through phantasy which has become a defining characteristic of our age.[24] 


In the briefest and simplest of terms, in psychoanalytic theory the infant’s earliest psychological experience is one in which there is no distinction between itself and the world (i.e. the mother). As Lasch points out, mental life begins in the “‘oceanic’ contentment of the womb, which we spend the rest of our lives trying to recapture.”[25] The original experience of the universe—primary narcissism—associated with this ‘oceanic’ state of union is both solipsistic and symbiotic: “Self-contained and therefore independent of the need for any external source of care and nourishment, we nevertheless flowed indistinguishably into our surroundings.”[26] Birth initiates the pain of separation and the infant begins to sense its own helpless and dependent position in the world. In the process of distinguishing itself from its surroundings, the infant comes to learn of its dependence on others, shedding the illusion of omnipotence, self-sufficiency, and the belief that its own wishes control the world. However, narcissism can now take the form of defenses against the reality of dependence and helplessness:


Fantasies of this kind seek to dissolve the tension between the desire for union and the fact of separation, either by imagining an ecstatic and painless reunion with the mother or, on the other hand, by imaging a state of complete self-sufficiency and by denying any need for others at all. The first line of defense encourages a regressive symbiosis; the second, solipsistic illusions of omnipotence. Neither solves the problem of separation; each merely denies its existence.[27]


Regressive narcissism represents the denial of Oedipus and the paternal principle. In the words of Stephen Frosh, it represents a general “refusal to engage with reality,” and as a consequence the “violent obliteration of otherness.”[28]


As we have seen in the preceding chapters, one of the core concerns which Arendt and Chesterton shared—and which surely pits them against contemporary postmodernists—was an anxiety over the modern tendency for people to prefer a simplified fiction over a multifarious reality.[29] Indeed, social constructionist approaches are keen to present a concept of nature radically at odds with that which can be found in the work of environmental activists and authors. Whereas the latter may consider that it was the sheer complexity of the natural world that, forever beyond our ultimate grasp, elicits a diversity of responses, the social constructionist considers ‘nature’ to be a blank sheet upon which we can project any construction we desire. From the observation that different cultures and times have construed nature in divergent terms, social constructionists claim that we cannot speak of a single ‘nature’ but only of a plurality of ‘natures’.[30] For example, for Keith Tester the notion of ‘animal rights’ is merely a humanly constructed discourse about the status of humans themselves and not at all about animals.  Thus, as a good relativist, Tester views ‘animal rights’ as a discourse merely ‘different’ and neither better nor worse than any other previous discourse.[31] What is clear from Tester’s position is that the objective qualities and experiences of animals themselves to which such ‘discourses’ refer have evaporated away completely. The following passage has proved particularly absurd to realists: “A fish is only a fish if it is socially classified as one, and that classification is only concerned with fish to the extent that scaly things living in the sea help society define itself. . . . Animals are indeed a blank paper which can be inscribed with any message, and symbolic meaning that the social wishes.”[32]


Social constructionism is therefore a form of relativism, as in the words of William Cronon it “hardly needs saying that nothing in physical nature can help us adjudicate among these different visions, for in all cases nature merely serves as the mirror onto which societies project the ideal reflections they wish to see.”[33] It goes without saying that Cronon’s view of nature is manifestly narcissistic and that in these terms a ‘good’ concept of nature is not one that approximates to any objectively existing reality (for that is denied) but is ultimately that which is ‘good for me’. The upshot of all this pluralizing and inverted commarizing of nature is the denial of limits, which again is radically opposed to both Arendt and Chesterton’s social analysis as well as the claims of environmentalists.[34] In the words of Phil MacNaghten and John Urry: “There is no pure ‘nature’ as such, only natures.  And such natures are historically, geographically and culturally constituted. Hence there are no natural limits as such, but each depends on particular historical and geographical determinations, as well as on the very processes by which ‘nature’ is culturally constructed and sustained, particularly by reference to the ‘other’.”[35]


But as Kate Soper has rightly pointed out, just because we understand nature in terms of language it does not necessarily follow that there is no distinction between our linguistic concepts and the nature to which they refer: “inverted commas ‘nature’ is nature, and we should therefore remove the inverted commas.”[36] What troubles realists such as Soper is that social constructionists slide from saying that concepts of nature are socially constructed (on which realists agree) to the untenable claim that nature itself is socially constructed.  In other words, strong forms of social constructionism fail to distinguish between the transitive and intransitive objects of knowledge and thus commit what Bhaskar terms the ‘epistemic fallacy’ by confusing being with knowledge about being. Thus Soper maintains that the question of environmental devastation cannot be reduced to a discussion of how we conceptualize and describe nature: “it is not language that has a hole in its ozone layer; and the ‘real’ thing continues to be polluted and degraded even as we refine our deconstructive insights at the level of the signifier.”[37] Contra Tester, despite the divergent ways in which fish have been understood, “a fish,” writes Peter Dickens, “surely also has a real physical being, one which can be (and in many instances is being) damaged. It simply ceases to be a fish if it is surrounded by a toxic environment that kills it. A fish which has lost its life or its capacity to swim is by no stretch of the imagination just a social construction. In short, there are real differences between how people construe fishes, but this is a wholly different matter from how a fish is physically constructed.”[38] 


The attractiveness to cultural radicals of a relativist and social constructionist perspective which denies natural limits is easy to understand when considered in relation to human nature. Anna Peterson points out that “the notion of ‘nature’ or the ‘natural’ has so often served as a common court of appeal for people seeking to legitimize or condemn certain practices or traits. In discussions of human sexuality, for example, repressive policies have been justified by reference to some supposedly universal and absolute notion of what is ‘natural.’”[39] Again, the strong form of argument insists that human traits such as race, gender, and sexuality do not just derive their meaning through human interpretation but their actual existence. Thus in the words of Susan Bordo, “there is no ‘natural’ body. . . .  Our bodies, no less than anything else that is human, are constituted by culture.”[40] In this way the very distinction between gender and sex is obliterated—sexuality no less than gender is nothing but a ‘social construction’.[41] Human bodies, like Tester’s fish, become for the social constructionist mere blank slates upon which any discourse can be stamped without any consideration of biological make-up. As Peterson points out, these perspectives arose in response to biologically reductionist approaches such as sociobiology but they are themselves equally reductionist in denying that there are any common biological characteristics which transcend cultural distinctions.[42] What is particularly troubling from the present perspective is that in denying that there is any biological substratum to human existence—if our bodies are understood as merely ‘social constructions’, a site for the infinite play of contestation—then these perspectives can offer no critical engagement with any impending eugenic oppression. In fact, the ‘social construction of nature’ perspective might actually serve as a rationalization for the domination of nature, whether human or non-human. Just as Chesterton attacked the fashion for ‘eastern spirituality’ among western intellectuals on the grounds that it would aid rather than inhibit oppressive social policies, so too an ecological populist perspective might critically examine today’s intellectual fashions, and strong forms of social constructionism are an obvious candidate for this.


As realists have pointed out, such abstract claims as those made by the social constructionists would be of little relevance to anyone if wasn’t for their impact on human lives, other creatures, and inorganic nature.[43] In this regard, David W. Kidner maintains that the social constructionist perspective is the ideological counterpart to the industrial domination of nature.  Kidner suggests that the social constructionist perspective “can be seen as rooted within a broader reconstructive project which reconfigures both humanity and the nonhuman world according to an industrialist blueprint. The physical and ideological replacement of nature, understood as the larger order out of which we grow, by a reduced order based on industrialist rationality finds its academic counterpart in the doctrine that nature is a mere part-actor in the wider drama of life and language.”[44] The attempt to define reality in linguistic terms has many precursors in the history of colonization. Just as other forms of colonization have proceeded by perceiving conquered lands as ‘empty’ and the indigenous populations as ‘cultureless’ so too, Kidner argues, the process of industrial colonization of the natural order acts by disavowing and disintegrating any structure which is discordant with it in preparation for consuming the emerging ‘raw materials’. The academic obsession with language “has the effect of assimilating wildness to the realm of discourse; and an environmentalism which accepts the priority of language is therefore one within which wildness is already lost.”[45] Deeply relativist and anti-realist, social constructionism is far from being a radical approach and is ultimately conformist: “All recognition of radical difference, all recognition of mystery, all ability to judge our own lifestyles by external criteria have disappeared; and the human industrialist project floats free within an ethical and ontological vacuum.”[46] As Kidner realizes, in psychoanalytic terms, the denial of reality implicit in social constructionism is not only an epistemological error but “a profound psychological problem” and an aspect of today’s ‘culture of narcissism’ in which a failure to achieve a relational maturity lends itself to the need to incorporate into the self that which has an external existence, denying reality by reducing it to our own projected phantasies.[47]


New Age Spirituality or a Durable World?


Let us now consider the thesis which states that because we have changed the earth’s climate nature has itself ended—an idea which has been popularized by Bill McKibben in his book The End of Nature. The basic thesis of McKibben’s book runs as follows: “We have changed the atmosphere, and thus we are changing the weather. By changing the weather, we make every spot on earth man-made and artificial. We have deprived nature of its independence, and that is fatal to its meaning. Nature’s independence is its meaning; without it there is nothing but us.”[48] McKibben laments this loss but maintains that there is nothing we can do about the situation: nature has ended.[49]


As the Aristotelian-socialist and environmental philosopher John O’Neill has maintained, the total humanization of nature depicted in theses which declare the ‘end of nature’ is not only (as McKibben suggests) undesirable, it is in fact impossible: “humans are not capable of directly transforming everything in nature.”[50] The view that nature is now or indeed ever could be a mere human artifact is rejected by O’Neill: “While it is undoubtedly true that humans have had enormous influence on the natural world, an influence to be increased still further through the changes in the global climate, it does not follow that nature is a human construction. That A influences B does not entail that B is A’s construction.”[51] The point I wish to make here is that, despite the social constructionist ‘deconstruction’ of nature and our industrial impact on the environment, there still is an objectively existing nature which can elicit the response of wonder and gratitude as it did for Arendt and Chesterton.[52]


So, the problem for the populism I am here proposing is not that the natural earth is now merely a human artifact—in any case an impossibility—but that within the context of a technological and commercial society the concepts employed and the modes of activity in the world means that nature is disclosed to humans predominantly in terms of humanly constructed categories and projects. The fact that nature—objectively speaking—does not reflect human desires is manifest in Arendt’s example of the astronaut: for him to confront nature directly would mean his death. Just so in our earthly encounters, as O’Neill points out: “that nature is impersonal and indifferent to human concerns and needs is not something that humans are capable of changing.”[53] No amount of fabrication can remove nature’s sublime indifference to our concerns. As O’Neill suggests, we need to recognize the ways in which human alienation from nature is not objectionable:


Nature’s strangeness and indifference to our concerns is not only something that we cannot overcome, but it is also something that we ought not even attempt to overcome. The assumption that the discovery of nature’s impersonality and indifference is something to be regretted, a cause of the ‘disenchantment of the world’, needs to be rejected. It is based on an assumption that the only entities which we can value are those that are capable of reciprocating such attitudes to ourselves. The assumption that we can care only for those capable of caring for ourselves represents an anthropocentric set of values. The depersonalisation of nature represents not a disenchantment of the world but the basis of a proper enchantment with it. Appreciation of the strangeness of nature is a component of a proper valuation of it.[54]


O’Neill regards the substitution of market accumulation for the pursuit of the good life as both an other and self-regarding vice. It leads to the treatment of non-human nature as if it had no intrinsic value. By doing this it also embodies a narrow conception of the human good, one so narrow that it can only view nature as a potential resource. This is in fact a narcissistic attitude towards nature, a perspective for which “non-human beings and objects only have value in so far as humans can see in them the embodiments of their own powers.”[55] Nature becomes a mirror, reshaped so as to reflect our own human powers. It is, as O’Neill points out, an attitude apparent in Marx’s project for the “humanisation of nature”. Marx’s narcissistic project for the humanization of nature is traced back by O’Neill to the Hegelian notion of a reconciliation between humanity and nature. Marx gives this a materialist twist by transforming nature through labor into an embodiment of human power. For O’Neill, this project of reconciliation is mistaken; that we cannot see ourselves in nature ought not to be construed as a problem. Nevertheless, much Green thought has embraced both the critique of the alienation from nature and Marx’s solution for resolving this alienation which would entail “fuzzing the boundary between self and nature.”[56] O’Neill has in mind ‘deep ecology’ theorists who promote a more ‘holistic’ and ‘transpersonal’ concept of the self and these will be considered presently.


Chesterton’s thought is of great relevance to an understanding of ecological concerns in that (unlike Arendt) he explicitly relates the question of wonder and gratitude for existence to its source in the Creator and offers some illuminating critiques of the pantheistic and nature-worshipping religions to which many ecological activists have been attracted. While Chesterton believed that it was religious authority that preserved reason, he also saw that the modern secularized world was not becoming more rational but in fact more superstitious.[57] He detects a trend towards polytheism and makes a startling prediction of the arrival of a kind of New Age mysticism which became so apparent at the end of the twentieth century: “The most probable result would seem to be a multitude of psychic cults, personal and impersonal, from the vaguest reverence for the powers of nature to the most concrete appeal to crystals and mascots.”[58]


Many ecological thinkers now maintain that there is no significant distinction between the individual self and the world taken as a whole, and attack perspectives on nature which ‘split things up’ refusing to see inherent interdependence and relatedness of all existence—holism. In this perspective, the nature-culture divide is taken to one of a number of ‘dualisms’ which make up the dominant, ‘patriarchal’, Western tradition which is often blamed for having legitimized the domination of nature.[59] 


Andrew Dobson believes that ecological holism is the governing principle of political ecology. This is in fact a moot point for it is not clear that nature does in fact operate in terms of wholes.[60] While such holistic thinking has become immensely popular amongst the Green movement a number of green political theorists have rejected its basis in any objective reality and have expressed fears over its implications. Luke Martell, for example, notes that “it is not clear that ecosystems do actually function according to principles of holism and interdependence.”[61] Further: “Giving value to systems has dangerous implications. It means we can value systems over individuals and individuals can be sacrificed for the sake of an impersonal structure.”[62] As we saw in Chapter Five, a similar concern was expressed by Arendt in terms of conceptualizing history or nature as ‘process’. Furthermore, attempts by Green thinkers—most notably Fritjof Capra—to ground ecological holism in quantum physics have also been rejected as being a distortion of scientific theory.[63]    


Nevertheless, this holistic approach is very typical of ‘deep ecology’. As Dobson has pointed out, as a result of philosophical difficulties arising out of a bio-centric attempt to find intrinsic value in nature, some deep ecologists have abandoned ‘intrinsic value theory’ for a grounding of ecological ethics in the development of a new and holistic ‘ecological consciousness’. Dobson neatly summarizes this position of the ‘transpersonal self’: “The idea involves the cultivation of a sense of self that extends beyond the individual understood in terms of its isolated corporal identity.  To this is added the notion that the enrichment of self depends upon the widest possible identification with the non-human world.”[64] At the back of this theory of an expanded self is the belief that if we identify with the whole of the natural world we will care for that world much as we would care for ourselves. Thus the deep ecologist Warwick Fox suggests that “one will naturally (i.e. spontaneously) protect the natural (spontaneous) unfolding of the expansive self (the ecosphere, the cosmos) in all its aspects.”[65]


This dissolution of the ‘illusionary’ individual ego into an ‘ecological self’—identified with nature in its entirety—is also an aspect of North American ecofeminism. This form of ecofeminism is a distinctly spiritual movement which aims towards a ‘reenchantment’ of nature. One aspect of this spiritual side of ecofeminism is the desire to move away from ‘Sky-Gods’ (such as we find in the Judeo-Christian tradition) which represent the ‘masculine’ dualistic splitting of earth/body, on the one hand, and spirit on the other. 


For many in the spiritual ecofeminist movement the aim is to reinstate the pantheistic worship of the ‘Goddess’, the ‘Earth Mother’, thus reuniting earth/body and spirit. We are thus called to re-open ourselves to the feminine principle of the universe.[66]  In this endeavor, Deena Metzga stresses the importance of meditative or ecstatic practices to achieve loss of ego. One of the meditational practices which Metzga suggests can help end an individual’s separation from the universe by the dissolving the ego is the ‘Trespasso’. Metzga tells us that by staring into someone else’s eyes, for up to forty minutes, we can: “dissolve whatever arises in our minds of superiority, hierarchy, boundaries, distinction, separation, etc. . . .” When this meditation is done alone with a mirror, claims Metzga, one experiences one’s objective—not subjective—reality.[67] For Metzga, such ego-loss is the way to restore compassion and the absolute balance and equality of all things. This would involve “restoring wolves, trees, rivers, and stones to equal standing with us, affirming their equal right to life, territory, food, water, air, and to their own distinct way of being.”[68]


Although there are strong grounds for the moral consideration of nature, this biospherical egalitarian approach—which can also be found in ‘deep ecology’—does not provide one. Compassion for the equality of all things has no practical meaning for how we should conduct our lives in the real world: that is, of how we should act. The position (common to spiritual ecofeminism and deep ecology) that there is “no hierarchy in nature: among persons, between persons and the rest of the natural world, or among the many forms of non-human nature”[69] provides us with no guide as to how we should act if we were to see a wolf attack a child, or to what legitimate use humans may put sentient or non-sentient nature. As Richard Sylvan has pointed out, “The guidelines as regards day-to-day living and action for a follower of deep ecology remain unduly and unfortunately obscure.”[70] Indeed, the refusal to value things differently—whether this be in the form of relativism or pantheism—was for Chesterton at the root of political inaction.[71]


Chesterton would surely have rejected those elements in contemporary Green Political thought which attempt to project the ego into the whole of nature seen equal in all its interdependent parts. For Chesterton, such a position would be akin to the pantheism which he saw was becoming fashionable amongst Edwardian intellectuals. Edwardian ‘Theosophy’ and contemporary spiritual ecology, which both draw on ‘eastern’ religious traditions, would be devoid of the sense of wonder: “The pantheist cannot wonder, for he cannot praise God or praise anything as distinct from himself.”[72] For Chesterton, Christianity which embodies the wonder at a distinct Creation separate from God, and the response of gratitude directed to a transcendent Creator, is inherently a fighting faith: “The truth is that the western energy that dethrones tyrants has been directly due to the western theology that says ‘I am I, thou art thou.’”[73] As for O’Neill, it is our very separateness from nature which is the basis upon which we can begin to appreciate it—Chesterton, as we saw in Chapter Two, likes the wind, the rain, and the lightning because they defy him, we do not inhabit a solipsistic universe after all. As we shall see presently, Arendt’s notion of a world which separates and relates us to nature is crucial as an institutional embodiment of such a sense of wonder and a counter to narcissistic illusions.


Arendt and Chesterton should be of interest to ecological thinkers today for their thought was suffused with the sense of wonder which some are now coming to recognize as the source of value in nature. Thus for Erazim Kohák it is precisely the ancient sense of wonder connected to the gratitude for existence having been given—which is at the core of the Judeo-Christian tradition—that is the root for comprehending the moral sense of nature: “The ancients spoke of thaumazein, the philosophic wondering, which confronts being not in the instrumental sequence of time but in its reference to eternity, as the presence of the eternal in time. Wonder, though, is still ambiguous. . . . To the thaumazein of Athens, we might do well to add the agape of Jerusalem. The uniquely human stance is the loving wonder which can knowingly cherish the beauty, truth, and goodness of the creation.”[74]


Both Arendt and Chesterton conceived of existence as a gift, and starting from a conception of existence as having been given has profound ecological implications not often recognized by mainstream political thought. This acknowledgement of existence as given is central to the contemporary ecological thought of Wendell Berry who writes in both the Jeffersonian and Judeo-Christian traditions. It is important for Berry that we recognize “land as a gift—not a free gift or a deserved gift, but a gift given upon certain rigorous conditions.”[75] For Berry too the perception that the source of existence lies outside ourselves implies a sense of limits: “[D]eeply implicated in the very definition of this gift is a specific warning against hubris which is the great ecological sin, just as it is the great sin of politics. People are not gods. They must not act like gods or assume godly authority. If they do, terrible retributions are in store. In this warning we have the root idea of propriety, of proper human purposes and ends. We must not use the world as though we created ourselves.”[76]


Chesterton’s attacks on the various superstitions of his time recognized that they all contained a truth, indeed this is why he thought that they could be so dangerous. The problem was that the various ‘fads’ was not that they were entirely false but that they took an aspect of the truth and made it the truth to the exclusion of all others. It is not too unreasonable to suggest that this is the case with the contemporary deep ecologist who is not entirely wrong to see a ‘circular’ ‘natural’ ‘at one with nature’ aspect to existence. Where the deep ecologist goes wrong is in taking the aspect to be a principle for existence in its entirety, it becomes a form of ‘cosmic consciousness’ which denigrates that which is linear, artificial, or separate from us.


The workability of Arendt’s distinctions between labor and work has often been doubted, but they are important for they reflect the contradictory character of human beings, that we are biologically embodied beings who nevertheless transcend nature. Arendt’s analysis of the engagement of natural processes through labor and the world-creation of work gives this understanding a practical embodiment. While a quick reading of The Human Condition (1958) may give the impression that the insistence on agriculture as a form of labor may be a way of downgrading it, the opposite is in fact the case. Agriculture-as-labor emphasizes that it is a non-instrumental mode of activity by which humans accommodate themselves to the organic rhythms of nature and in which the land is constantly cultivated in loving care. Arendt’s notion of agriculture corresponds very closely to the traditional practices of crop and animal husbandry (what we would now call ‘organic’ farming) which work with the cyclical processes of nature. By contrast, it is modern ‘agribusiness’ which instrumentally violates the cycles of nature, extracting the forced produce of the land in the mode of fabrication, which can be seen to downgrade the activity of agriculture. As H. J. Massingham once pointed out, in such a situation “we are confronted with the astonishing perversion that agriculture, which is a kind of organic shorthand of nature’s life-processes, is regarded as a province of manipulative technology just like the conversion of inert raw material into manufactured products.”[77]  


But ecological populism is not to be confused with a romantic naturalism.  Fundamental to the kind of ecological populism I am here proposing is the notion that in order to be natural one has to be artificial. That we can only be natural by being artificial is a core aspect of the common ground held by Arendt and Chesterton. Modern society, they both claim in their different ways, has concentrated its attention on natural processes and the desire to sever these processes from any sense of limits. The paradoxical outcome of this is not that humans are now living a more natural form of life, but that they are living an unnaturally natural form of existence. Human economy has become perverted and a core element of that perversion is the eclipse of durable use objects by immediately obsolescent and interchangeable commodities.


Arendt’s emphasis on the importance of durable ‘worldly’ objects exposes today’s lack of concern for the material side of life. Similar concerns are voiced by Berry, who is worth quoting at length:


Apparently because our age is so manifestly unconcerned with the life of the spirit, many people conclude that it places an undue value on material things.  But that cannot be so, for people who valued material things would take care of them and would care for the sources of them. We could argue that an age that properly valued and cared for material things would be an age properly spiritual.  In my part of the country, the shakers, ‘unworldly’ as they were, were the true materialists, for they truly valued materials. And they valued them in the only way that such things can be valued in practice: by good workmanship, both elegant and sound. The so-called materialism of our own time is, by contrast, at once indifferent to spiritual concerns and insatiably destructive of the material world. And I would call our economy not materialistic, but abstract, intent upon subversion of both spirit and matter by abstractions of value and power. In such an economy, it is impossible to value anything that one has. What one has (house or job, spouse or car) is only valuable insofar as it can be exchanged for what one believes that one wants—a limitless economic process based upon boundless dissatisfaction.[78]


Berry’s insight concords well with a point I have repeatedly made throughout this thesis: that perversion entails the eclipse of durability and commitment to particular people and places by the abstract principle of interchangeability. In Aristotelian terms, a life organized around exchange—the motor which drives unlimited accumulation of wealth—does not constitute a ‘good life’. Neither is it a life that allows for the appreciation of nature. Berry again: “It is not the lover of material things but the abstractionist who defends long-term damage for short-term gain, or calculates ‘acceptability’ of industrial damage to ecological or human health, or who counts dead bodies on the battlefield. The true lover of material things does not think this way, but is answerable instead to the paradox of the parable of the lost sheep: that each is more precious than all.”[79]


Here we are a long way from the Green ‘holism’ which can so easily degenerate into sacrificing the particular for the sake of some abstract ‘whole’. In their emphasis on durable artifacts, Arendt and Berry allow us to see the mistake which is often made by Green theorists who attempt to oppose dominant ‘materialistic’ values with new ‘spiritual’ values and conceptions of ‘post-material fulfillment’. It is precisely the separation of people from the material side of the production of both life’s necessities and worldly use-objects that is the prerequisite for an ever expanding accumulation of wants. ‘Post-materialist values’ and consumerism go hand in hand. Arendt shows a profound understanding of the importance of durable material artifacts for a human culture. Ironically, and as Arendt helps to show, it is precisely our ‘materialistic’ culture which does not recognize the value and importance of material artifacts in constituting a stable public life and individual identity. The message for Greens here is that they ought not to let notions of recycling eclipse the production of durable use objects, to do so would be precisely to adopt the logic of consumerism and built-in-obsolescence.[80] Recyclability—or the ‘rule of return’[81]—should govern our organic agricultural practices but durability is the principle for building a world which anchors our experience in reality.


As we have already seen in Chapter One, the ‘world’ does not only serve to relate and separate individual humans; it also mediates between humanity and nature, without the presence of a distinctive world we cannot appreciate nature in its otherness. As Lasch has argued drawing on both Arendt and D. W. Winnicot’s psychological theory of ‘transitional objects’, such a ‘world’ is necessary as a form of mediation between humanity and nature and serves as a guard against those two forms of narcissistic illusion which would either pull humanity back into a state of being ‘at one with nature’ in the name of ‘deep ecology’ or which, on the other hand, can only view the earth in terms of the projection of human desires.[82] Two aspects of the latter, it could be added, are the abstracted materialism of the genetic patentees of nature who see only transformable matter and the abstracted idealism to be found amongst theorists of the ‘social construction of reality’ who are blind to nature’s objective qualities. 


Grounded in this dual relationship with nature by which labor and work are in balance with one another—in which we at once serve the organic cyclical rhythms of nature yet inhabit a position separated from nature by a fabricated ‘world’—scientific appreciation of nature could become focused on wonder and contemplation and not on any overwhelming technical interest.[83] The ‘otherness’ of nature could be appreciated independent of human needs. Thus we can see that in responding to Being through gratitude the whole of given existence would be opened up for our appreciation. As such we might learn to fully humanize our perception and widen our experience as nature in its objectivity is opened to language and neither the subjectivity of either a primal immersion in nature or the mathematisation involved in scientific fabrication.


The kind of public and non-subjective forms of political action that typify such a world could also help in the appreciation of the objective qualities of nature. Arendt’s notion of the public realm includes more than the ‘common world’. The public realm is also a space for political action and deliberation. In modern society, however, Arendt believes that politics has become swamped with social concerns over activities previously confined to the household. When household concerns were taken out of the private realm and into the social sphere they took on a different existence. Both needs and wealth accumulation come to be viewed as unlimited within the social context of market exchange. Natural existence becomes itself unnatural: the rise of society coincides with an ‘unnatural growth of the natural’.[84]


Contemporary politics, argues the Aristotelian environmental philosopher John O’Neill, embraces not the household understanding that acquisition is limited but the market definition of an individual’s interests “in terms of the never-ending acquisition of goods to satisfy their wants”.[85] In these circumstances, politics becomes “a process of aggregating consumer preferences and not one whereby citizens arrive at public judgements about what is of value.”[86] For O’Neill, this conception of politics “as a market pursued by other means” is inimical to formulating conceptions of the good life as opposed to ‘mere life’. Moreover, O’Neill gives three reasons why a politics and public life conceived in terms of the good life would be ecologically rational:


First, it is within the context of such practices that an appreciation of and concern for the goods of the natural world occurs. In particular, the development of human capacities within the sciences and arts, properly conducted, opens humans to the goods around them. . . . Second, . . . they also place individuals within a historical tradition in which the well-being of those in the present is tied to those in the future. Third, it is in the context of such practices that living well is distinguished from living—that the boundaries in the human acquisition of material goods are recognized.[87]


A proper valuation of nature, O’Neill believes, depends not on the conception of politics modeled on the ‘social’ institution of the market, but on decentralized institutions of citizen deliberation. This, according to Whiteside, is where Arendt’s notion of politics as a form of public deliberation rather than the aggregation of private interests, ties in with ecological critics of the free-market and a politics modeled upon it, for “framing all choices as a matter of purely individual decision is what threatens to undermine every standard that could make anything in existence a thing to be valued.”[88] 


That there be an artifice of a distinctly human world presupposes respect for the boundaries upon which both a natural realm and a public realm may encroach upon one another. The regaining of the artifice of a public world and the preservation of nature are in no way incompatible, in fact they demand one another. Arendt stressed the importance of the boundaries which separate one household from another and which in ancient times represented a ‘no-man’s land’ that mediated between the private and the public realms.[89] Perhaps we can see also that these boundaries could be a ‘no-man’s land’ in an ecological sense; as preserves of wilderness amidst the human world. As Berry suggests, preservation of wilderness serves as a reminder of our own finitude and of the limits placed on the human condition: “We need wilderness of all kinds, large and small, public and private.  We need to go now and again into places where our work is disallowed, where our hopes and plans have no standing.  We need to come into the presence of the unqualified and mysterious formality of Creation.”[90]


Against the margin-defying monocultures of industrialization, Berry upholds the vision of a “highly diversified, multipurpose landscape, democratically divided, with many margins.”[91] Berry stresses the importance of these margins as boundaries:


They are the divisions between holdings, as well as between kinds of work and kinds of land. These margins—lanes, streamsides, wooded fencerows, and the like—are always freeholds of wilderness, where limits are set on human intention. Such places are hospitable to the wild lives of plants and animals and to the wild play of human children, they enact, within the bounds of human domesticity itself, a human courtesy towards the wild that is one of the best safeguards of designated tracts of wilderness. This is the landscape of harmony, safer far for life of all kinds than the landscape of monoculture. And we should not forget to notice that, whereas the monocultural landscape is totalitarian in tendency, the landscape of harmony is democratic and free.[92]


It would seem then that good fences—as preserved margins of wilderness—really do make good neighbors.[93] More generally, the preservation of wilderness areas, as distinct from cultivated nature, serves as a reminder that we value nature as more than a narcissistic reflection of human powers. Wonder through contemplation of that which transcends human interests provides the basis for its value.


While the distinction between the public and private realms has been rejected by those who insist that the private is political, Arendt may have a real point in insisting that the public sphere has no business in interfering with the activities of the household in contrast to maintaining the boundaries or limits which insure the stability of the world.  Does this mean then that economic matters are merely of private significance or meaning? Certainly not—it is precisely the acceptance of the need to preserve boundaries which fosters the recognition of the existence of the needs of both others and the land. Such an economy, as Berry constantly emphasizes, would essentially be one of conservation rather than competitiveness and circumscribed by notions of justice, honesty, mercy, compassion, mutual aid, nurturing, and good workmanship. As Berry points out, managing property in this manner can only pursued through private ownership and not through the abstract administration of an absentee ‘public economy’. Oriented around the conservation of boundaries, such a household economy is the ground of a distinctly human culture or, to use Arendt’s term, ‘world’ in that it transcends mere subjective biological desire. Recall that Arendt refers to the household as a ‘privately owned place in the world’, it follows that when household activities are properly undertaken they will be world sustaining for a defining characteristic of the ‘world’ is its durability. As Berry points out, an economy which does not recognize limits, which assumes as a matter of course that one’s own enterprise is attempting to usurp someone else’s property “does not permit us to live and work as human beings. . . . Rats and roaches live by competition under the law of supply and demand; it is the privilege of humans to live under the laws of justice and mercy.”[94]


Another aspect of Arendt’s notion of a common world which is of interest in thinking about our attitudes toward nature is that it provides a temporal link between generations. Concern for future generations is important for Green thinking because it raises the issue of how justifiable our present actions are in relation to the consequences (e.g. resource depletion, pollution) that those who come after us will have to face.[95] An important aspect of Arendt’s notion of world is that it is not simply held in common by contemporaries but stretches across “man’s enduring chronicle” into both past and future. It can be seen that Arendt’s account has the added attraction of not being merely concerned with future generations, but with past generations as well.  Arendt’s notion of obligations is no abstract philosophical analysis but rooted in worldly everyday existence. For Arendt, meaning was given to life by the presence of a durable world that transcended our individual existence. Human actions gain their permanence through remembrance. That our lives are given meaning thus requires an obligation on the part of future generations to preserve the memory of the actions of their predecessors, a concept rich with ecological implications.


In both Arendt and Chesterton’s position there is an Aristotelian element which argues that the full meaning of a human life is not revealed until after death. For Arendt, the story of a human life can only be told retrospectively, Chesterton gives this idea a distinctly Christian twist, the human story is like a magazine serial: “life ends with the promise (or menace) ‘to be continued in our next.’”[96] In any case, such a non-subjectivist view of the human good in terms of observable actions rather than inner states presupposes the existence of lived connections between past, present, and future generations. As O’Neill has pointed out, from an ecological perspective it is necessary to overcome the solipsism and “temporal myopia” of subjectivist accounts of well-being which set the tone of a market-driven commercial society:


A subjectivist theory of well-being undermines our ties to the future, for it fails to allow that the success of our lives is tied to those of the future, just as the good of those of the past is in our hands. If the only thing that is good for us is particular mental states, then there is no perspective from which to defend obligations to future generations, except an impersonal perspective. One is forced to treat the problem of future generations as a concern for strangers whose own goods are not bound up with our own.  Each generation is isolated into itself.[97]


While O’Neill seems to prefer socialist alternatives to rooted family-owned private property as a means of combating ‘chrematistic’ accumulation and temporal myopia, the ideal for both Arendt and Chesterton is the widespread ownership of private property and the non-separation of the realm of household and of labor. In this way the life process is placed within the limits—the walls and fences—of the ‘privately owned share in the world’ and does not overrun the public realm with ‘social’ concerns. Concomitant to this, is the fact—as Berry has often pointed out—that economic matters (which would include both the care of the earth and the enactment of fidelity in marriage) cannot be properly conducted by a public realm abstracted from the competencies, knowledges, and loyalties which can only be gained through an intimate association with a particular and necessarily small part of the world, its fellow neighbors and creatures—the household.[98]


In agreement with socialists such as O’Neill however, radical populism must challenge the abstraction of what now passes as ‘economy’ and re-emphasize that the accumulation of wealth is not properly considered as an end in itself to which all other activities are considered subordinate. De-commodification of worldly objects and institutions is the economic aim of the populism proposed here.  Here radical populism can integrate and develop the Aristotelian insights of Arendt and Chesterton regarding the oikos and the limited production for use as opposed to the unlimited acquisition through exchange. Radical populism needs to promote the old distributist demand for the decentralization of property ownership. As Berry has pointed out, there is nothing more absurd than an ‘economy’ which devours rather than maintains households. We live in a consumer society in which households no longer know how to practice, and in fact must not practice, economy in its original meaning as practicing household thrift: such a non-consumerist way of life is now considered ‘bad for the economy’![99] Indeed, from the present perspective it is such an ‘economy’ which has been the motor of the ceaseless change which has transformed human beings into marketable labor-power, marriage into a market of exchangeable partners and nature finally into interchangeable genes to be reshuffled into the most profitable combination, dissolving lasting institutions and enduring identities into the maelstrom of perpetual motion. Against this condition of worldlessness, of enforced modernization and perpetual transformation, the populist hope for a more human future will spring from a general refusal to ‘move with the times’ any more. Populist resistance to the relentless dynamism of global capitalism, its intrusion into every single aspect of human life, the commodification of both human culture and the natural world itself, will have to come from those who demand the need to accept limits to human actions, and who yearn for more permanence in human affairs. 


To read Chesterton within the context of Arendt reveals the seeds of an analysis of what Arendt would later refer to as the ‘liberation of the life-process’, except that Chesterton also points to its expression in the sexual dimension. With the fracturing of the household, not only has economic production spiraled off into a limitless process of production and consumption which wrecks the durability of the world but sexuality, liberated from the enduring bonds of marriage, becomes a mode of mere behavior, the endless pursuit of purely subjective ‘experiences’. As we saw in Chapter Four, this is a form of life which yields retrospectively less of a human story so much as a chain of identical and predictable events—a catalogue of ‘behavior’. This is a perspective which should at least give those attracted towards Arendt doubts about endorsing the effects of the ‘sexual revolution’, or as we might call it, the liberation of the sexual life process from its world sustaining limits.


Chesterton maintained that marriage was not a contract, by which he means that marriage is in its essence is about overcoming self-interest and so cannot be easily dissolved when self-interest dictates thus. While Chesterton here appears to the contemporary as a conservative or even a ‘reactionary’ he is in fact being a thorough radical.  He completely rejects capitalism and its culture of self-interest. Emancipation of women from the home was no more desirable than had been emancipation of men from the home. It is quite mistaken to suppose that Chesterton was suffering from a romanticisation of ‘bourgeois domesticity’, an accusation often directed at those who depart from the standard Left-wing distrust of traditional family life.[100] What was ‘bourgeois’ was the reduction of marriage to a contractual relationship of self-interest which could easily be dissolved when self-interest decreed, together with the move away from the spiritual transfiguration of human sexuality towards the fleeting and purely subjective demand for ‘fulfillment’. What Chesterton wanted was not to free men and women from the home but to free the home from the pressures and distortions of industrial capitalism as a prerequisite to fostering a culture of economic independence and increased hospitality rooted in a sustainable form of agriculture—he knew that this, and not the proposals of the sexual libertarians, was a fundamentally revolutionary demand within the modern world. Freeing people from the bonds of marriage and family life would, for Chesterton, be merely freeing people from the conditions of being human and wreck the possibilities for a decentralized and sustainable agriculture centered around the long-term commitment embodied in small-scale family-owned farms. 


Again it is Wendell Berry who has explored the meaning of this.  Berry sees “an uncanny resemblance between our behavior toward each other and our behavior toward the earth.”[101] The estrangement of the sexes from one another resembles the estrangement of humanity from the land through ‘social mobility’. These two forms of estrangement are historically parallel, both “caused by the disintegration of the household, which was the formal bond between marriage and the earth, between human sexuality and its sources in the sexuality of Creation.”[102] Without the household and its practical content, marriage becomes an abstraction: “work is the health of love. To last, love must enflesh itself in the materiality of the world - produce food, shelter, warmth or shade, surround itself with careful acts, well made things.”[103] For Berry, marriage and the care of the earth are deeply connected though increasingly under threat in modern society: “As the household has become increasingly generalized as a function of the economy and, as a consequence, has become increasingly ‘mobile’ and temporary, these vital connections have been weakened and finally broken. And whatever has been thus disconnected has become a ground for some breed of salesman, specialist, or expert.”[104]


Chesterton’s emphasis on the loyalty of the vow also connects well with Kohák’s recent stress on the importance for the moral understanding of nature of the bond of mutual belonging to other persons and to place which stems from lived experience—as opposed to the notion of possession and domination which arises out of abstract, contractual, or legalistic thinking:


The bond of belonging that grows up over the years, love and labor is the most basic truth of being human in a world. Here the claims about the ‘sacredness of private property,’ trite and blasphemous when used to justify abstract possession become meaningful. They reflect not possession but the utterly basic relationship of belonging between a human and his world. It may well be within the prerogatives of the society which established those conventions to modify or disestablish them as it sees fit for the common good. To sever the bond of belonging that love, life, and labor shared have forged between two humans or between a human and the segment of the natural world in which he is incarnate is always a crime and a sacrilege, no less heinous than depriving a person of his body. That is a bond no human imposed and no human can cut asunder. As the land and I came to belong together, I ceased to possess it: I could no longer ‘alienate’ it as if it were a possession, sell it or carve it into subdivisions.[105]


In Kohák, Chesterton, and Berry, it is possible to detect something of the ancient hope of Isaiah (62: 4-5) of a people wedded to the land: “Thou shalt no more be termed Forsaken; neither shall thy land any more be termed Desolate: but thou shalt be called Hephzi-bah, and thy land Beu-lah: for the Lord Delighteth in thee, and thy land shall be married. For as a young man marrieth a virgin, so shall thy sons marry thee: and as the bridegroom rejoiceth over the bride, so shall thy God rejoice over thee.”[106] Technological advances in modern society, however, seem to be further eroding the possibility for regaining, as Berry would say, the household economics of ‘husbandry’ and ‘housewifery’.


The Reproductive Revolution


For Arendt, our dealings with nature have changed from one of labor, work, and contemplation to a form of action. It could be added that as a consequence the heroic virtues of public life have become channeled into our dealings with nature. These virtues, according to Arendt, are alien to labor: “the daily fight in which the human body is engaged to keep the world clean and prevent its decay bears little resemblance to heroic deeds; the endurance it needs to repair every day anew the waste of yesterday is not courage, and what makes the effort painful is not danger but its relentless repetition.”[107] The idea that labor is somehow heroic is also rejected by Berry. Berry opposes the industrial heroics of technological pioneers with his principle of good workmanship:


To use knowledge and tools in a particular place with good long-term results is not heroic. It is not a grand action visible for a long distance or a long time. It is a small action, but more complex and difficult, more skilful and responsible, more whole and endurable, than most grand actions. It comes out of a willingness to devote oneself to work that perhaps only the eye of Heaven will see in its full intricacy and excellence. Perhaps the real work, like real prayer and real charity, must be done in secret.[108]


Most conventional accounts of Arendt’s work devote their attention to the question of the destructive influence of good works when performed in public. Little or no attention is focused on the implicit corollary: that the activities of the private realm—which are best undertaken out of public view—are debased in the social sphere when they are subject to the heroics of technological forms of action.


From the Arendtian-Chestertonian perspective, genetic engineering could be understood as representing the potential triumph of society—the collective household—over human plurality. It thus unleashes a new intensity to the human domination of nature, both external and internal—the specter of eugenics which so troubled Chesterton has returned. Indeed, just as Jonathan Schell saw that nuclear technology was heightening the modern sense of worldlessness, superfluousness, and futility,[109] these same dangers can be detected in the potential threats of the new bio-technologies.


In Chapter Five we saw that nuclear technology was considered by Arendt to be a form of ‘acting into nature’. Elisabeth Young-Bruehl believes that ‘acting into nature’ is more typical in our age in the form of genetic engineering. Humanity tends not only to respond to the conditions of life in resentment rather than gratitude but increasingly attempts to change the conditions of life themselves. Plurality and worldliness have been eroded by ‘society’; with the revolution in bio-technology life itself, the earth, mortality and natality are under threat.[110] “If Arendt had lived to see the development of biotechnology,” Margaret Canovan corroborates, “it would no doubt have confirmed her fears” about the potential threats to the human world through modern developments in science.[111] From an Arendtian-Chestertonian perspective, bio-technology as a case of “action into nature” can be seen as the latest manifestation of human resentment against limits.  Bio-technology could also be viewed as the culmination of the rise of society which has eclipsed the private household. The total rationalization of production is now being complemented by an attempt at the total rationalization of reproduction[112] and it is this intensification in the domination of human nature with which I am concerned with in this section of my conclusion.


Whereas Arendt saw that the danger in the domination of homo faber in our relationship towards nature viewed all natural creation as only raw material for some other purpose, so bio-technology which acts into nature by fabricating new processes takes this one step further through depicting human biology in strictly utilitarian terms. As Leon R. Kass suggests, the begetting of children would be replaced by a conscious depersonalized process of fabrication: “human nature becomes simply the last part of nature which is to succumb to the modern technological project, a project which has already turned the rest of nature into raw material at human disposal, to be homogenized by our rationalized technique according to the artistic conventions of today.”[113] As we saw in Chapter Six, Chesterton felt that the industrialist was intending to harness human sexual energy to his industrial machine just as he had previously harnessed the rest of nature.


Developments in bio-technology and reproductive medicine have proceeded at a very rapid rate in recent years, extensively increasing the possibility of ‘acting into nature’ within the process of human reproduction itself. According to Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim, the very scope of the technological developments means “that they are fraught with consequences which are causing far reaching changes in society, social institutions, politics, and the individual psyche.”[114] These developments, according to Beck-Gernsheim, move the question of social acceptability on to center-stage. We need to be aware of the potential dangers of research and put them to public discussion—a demand that we saw Arendt make in Chapter Five in the face of the prospect of a ‘conquest of space’. 


The new bio-technologies could also be seen to represent the potential triumph of the ‘society of laborers without labor’. As Ruth F. Chadwick notes, “artificial reproduction services inevitably takes reproduction out of the private sphere and into the public.”[115]  It was precisely the sense of mystery of the pre-modern household which conferred the sacredness of the private realm according to Arendt: “The non-privative trait of the household realm originally lay in its being the realm of birth and death which must be hidden from the public realm because it harbors the things hidden from human eyes and impenetrable to human knowledge.”[116] Yet with the technical triumph of ‘society’, procreation is brought out of the protective shelter of the household and becomes subject to the penetrating and public gaze of the technicians. As Kass observes: “The mysteries and intimate processes of generation are to be moved from the darkness of the womb to the bright (fluorescent) light of the laboratory, and beyond the shadow of a single doubt.”[117] A concern for the Arendtian-Chestertonian perspective would be that along with mystery, in vitro fertilization technology eliminates the sense of wonder for the technicians: “To the extent that they feel that there is nothing unusual or awesome in what they are doing, to that extent they have already lost the appreciation of mystery, the sense of wonder.”[118]


In terms of Arendt’s theory, these developments should be a cause for great concern:  “Privacy was like the other, the dark and hidden side of the public realm, and while to be political meant to attain the highest possibility of human existence, to have no private place of one’s own (like a slave) meant to be no longer human.[119] It is indeed difficult to imagine a greater invasion of privacy than the increasing likeliness that one’s conception will not arise through a private act of love by one’s parents but through an in vitro laboratory process initiated by a third party technician. Taken together with the possibility of a life-time of genetic ‘counseling’ and ‘preventative’ intervention it is likely to make the experience of life much harder for newcomers:


The more completely modern society discards the distinction between what is private and what is public, between what can thrive only in concealment and what needs to be shown to all in the full light of the public world, the more, that is, it introduces between the private and the public a social sphere in which the private is made public and vice versa, the harder it makes things for its children, who by nature require the security of concealment in order to mature undisturbed.[120]


Arendt does not herself explore what happens to this second dimension of labor concerned not with individual but species survival—the begetting of children—when it is no longer a private affair but a matter of social management. Yet it may be suggested that a result has been a loss of the ‘worldly’ aspect of the household as sex, love, and the begetting of children, once united together in the family bond—however imperfectly this may have been in practice—and which served to connect the individual to a world and generations beyond the self, these activities become fragmented and integrated into the subjectivism of market-oriented ‘society’. Already, with the erosion of marriage and the marketization of sexual partners, we have witnessed the severance of human sexuality from the context of a loving relationship. In vitro fertilization and the possible development of ‘artificial wombs’ further severs sex from fertility and threatens to remove the last form of labor within society: the labor of childbirth. These developments, real and potential, give a new twist to Arendt’s words in The Human Condition: “what we are confronted with is the prospect of a society of laborers without labor, that is, without the only activity left to them.  Surely nothing could be worse.”[121]


Maren Klawiter sees these trends as the culmination of Arendt’s notion of modern worldlessness: “Modern human beings are so removed from affirming a connection and commitment to the human artifice and the relations which operate between individuals in society that the most basic bond or tie imaginable—that between human life and human birth—is now being questioned, challenged, and found to be an obstacle to liberation rather than the basis of human connection.”[122] But before the possibility arises that a child may some day be carried to term in an artificial womb—ectogenesis—they are already being conceived in vitro as well as through surrogate motherhood, with the concomitant severance of any necessary connection between biological, genetic, and social parenthood. As Ruth Chadwick points out, the revolution in bio-technology and infertility treatment make it increasingly likely that in time fewer and fewer people will be genetically related to their parents or possess any knowledge of their genetic roots.  Bio-technical developments may very likely heighten the ‘rootlessness’ which Arendt associated with modern worldlessness and for which Chesterton condemned commercial society. Such a condition of genetic rootlessness may well help to initiate a sense of ‘identity crisis’ as an individual comes to lack any knowledge of their biological roots or who feels abandoned by those who had begotten but would not rear them. Because of these implications, Chadwick emphasizes the importance of caution about “producing a situation where children feel they do not really belong anywhere, because their genetic history is confused, or they feel alienated because they have been designed to suit their parents aspirations, not their own. There are good reasons . . . for maintaining the link between begetting and rearing.”[123] An Arendtian-Chestertonian approach to bio-technology would be concerned with the implications for human plurality and the distinctness of the individual.  According to Beck-Gernsheim, those who seek medical guidance bring with them an enormous variety of motives, values and orientations. This plurality, however, is flattened out by the scientists into a human being who “is smooth surfaced, free of feelings, sterile—a laboratory product.[124]


Recalling Chesterton’s suggestion that the new medical domination was something that was going to be done to the poor, Beck-Gernsheim suggests that these technologies are socially biased and becoming the allies of the educated, financially well off, professional classes.  Marginalised groups who lag behind in the use of these technologies of conscious control of the body will, more than ever, appear to the elites as “unenlightened and suspect outsiders.”   Such groups may be subtly coerced into following ‘progress.’ In America, for example, coercion has taken the form of “cuts in social welfare if poor people ‘recklessly’ bear children instead of acting ‘responsibly’, no insurance payments for a handicapped child if the mother did not undergo prenatal diagnosis, and criminal proceedings to control the behaviour of pregnant women.”[125]


The new bio-technology follows a logic of constant expansion which troubled both Arendt and Chesterton. Even now, according to Beck-Gernsheim, it is transcending infertility treatment and heading towards the goal of the total rationalization of family planning. “Already in some American surrogate-mother contracts, the surrogate mother commits herself to prenatal diagnosis and have an abortion if the results are unfavourable.  In the combination of technologies and their promises, a ‘quality product’ is envisaged. The wish for a child is becoming the made-to-measure planned child.”[126]


New bio-technologies may not mean the treatment of illnesses so much as the ending of lives. In relation to Down’s syndrome for example, the illness is treated by the abortion of those afflicted. Through the rationalization of reproduction, the culmination of society as the collective household, far more efficient means of eliminating those deemed ‘undesirable’ will be available than previously was the case. Those defined as undesirable in the light of the social elite’s values become consigned to the “holes of oblivion” before they even have chance to be born. Bio-technology offers the gruesome potential for initiating the attempt at eliminating from appearance those who would deviate from statistical norms or exhibit unusual characteristics. It represents, in fact, an assault on human plurality itself. As Jean Bethke Elshtain points out, this refusal of bodily limits “will lead to a narrowing of our acceptance of human life in all its variety; a radical constriction of who we admit into the human community.”[127] 


Maren Klawiter, viewing the new reproductive technologies from an Arendtian perspective, forms a similar conclusion:


Genetic screening and research into genetic engineering . . . seek to transform human individuality and the uncertainty, unpredictability, and openness of human reproduction into a predetermined, controlled, and regulated assembly line that churns out high-quality, genetically perfect models of human beings. . . . Modern society’s aversion to action is manifest in its growing aversion to the openness embraced in human reproduction. Laboring society seeks not only to control and regulate gestation and birth itself, but to disengage conception from the body and transfer it to the test-tube so that all variables can be controlled and all uncertainty eliminated.[128]


Such developments would undermine a belief in the openness of the future: they represent the attempt to write people’s story for them before they are born. Yet Klawiter loses sight here of Arendt’s notion of the unpredictable consequences of action—the attempt to eliminate uncertainty may very well have uncertain consequences. Bio-technology is indeed “initiating a new relationship of human beings to themselves and to their own nature.”[129] The possibilities unleashed mean that “the world is becoming a laboratory and society itself is becoming the object of the experiment.”[130] Bio-technology thus confirms Arendt’s fears in relation to nuclear experiments involving the detonation of atomic bombs: science now takes the entire human world and natural earth as its laboratory.[131] As Chesterton pointed out about the eugenicists, they really don’t know quite what it is they are doing for heredity is extremely complex and involves the interaction of factors which is unpredictable. 


Yet Klawiter is correct to point out that biotechnology reflects laboring society’s emphasis on ‘mere life’ and the increasing inability to look at ‘who’ a person is rather than ‘what’ they are. People come to be seen less in terms of their publicly observable actions and more in terms of their private biological inheritance. Thus we are seeing the beginning of genetic screening and the denial of access to work or health insurance for some people. David Bennett, amongst many others, has expressed concern over these developments: “in relation to such matters as insurance, we should operate on the basis of observable indications, rather than on the basis of what is essentially private information about a person’s genetic structure. . . . As soon as we begin to look below the surface to what is seemingly essential to the constitution of an individual, I think we are in a very difficult moral area . . . .”[132]


Arendt believed that in the totalitarian concentration camps human nature itself was at stake and for Chesterton the advent of the Eugenic State was one of the most menacing possibilities on the horizon. Jeremy Rifkin has suggested that the eugenics that will inevitably come if genetic engineering is not abolished will not be the ‘social eugenics’ of the Nazis but a ‘commercial eugenics’.[133] However different, both share a similar logic: the belief that humanity is reducible to an improvable biological nature  Beck-Gernsheim describes the ideological effect of bio-engineering: “It is becoming increasingly plausible and legitimate to look for the conditions of human development more in man’s biological nature and less in his social and cultural environment. . . . Whereas in the past social reforms seemed necessary, in the future parents will be able to put their money on the ‘genetic improvement’ of their offspring.”[134] 


There are two driving forces towards this quality control of children according to Beck-Gernsheim: “First there is the fact that in the socially mobile society parents are under considerable pressure to do all they can to give their children optimal starting-up chances. In other words the demand for ‘quality control’ already exists. Second we know from the history of technology that a new technology often helps in itself to create further demand. With each new promise the wishes grow.”[135] If unchecked, this process will lead to a transformation in our concept of education: “To reduce it to a trenchant formula, it becomes bio-engineering instead of education. The project of the enlightenment, which came into being at the outset of the modern age and helped to determine its design for the future, would then clearly and with the dialectic of enlightenment.”[136] Education, within the context of widespread genetic modification, could simply come to reflect the values of laboring society: the preoccupation with biological enhancement. Indeed, one leading genetic ethicist appears quite willing to reduce a great deal of education to the


Both Arendt and Chesterton stressed the hope that comes from each new birth. What happens when the new-born have their characteristics genetically pre-determined so as to conform to the demands of society? Similarly, what happens to the condition of mortality if genetic engineering offers significantly extends life spans or, as Paul Ramsey points out, the possibility of human cloning encourages the belief that people are readily replaceable and that there is therefore no longer any need for grief in death?


Arendt and Chesterton stressed the need to regain the sense of gratitude—which we have seen is linked with the sense of wonder. If the new bio-technologies remove, as Kass suggested, the sense of mystery in life, then it is quite likely that developments in genetic engineering will further undermine this sense of gratitude. Wonder and gratitude are linked to the surprise which things or people solicit when their being comes as unexpected.  Attempts at human cloning—which appears now to be only a matter of time and willingness to reduce human fetuses to mere experimental and disposable matter—should, if successful, likely to erode the sense of surprise and gratitude: “The cloned individual,” writes Kass, “is not simply denied genetic distinctiveness; he is saddled with a genotype that has already lived. He will not be fully a surprise to the world; people are likely always to compare his performance in life with that of his alter ego.”[137] Such developments would undermine a belief in the openness of the future: they represent the attempt to write people’s story for them before they are even born.


Already existing infertility technologies may indeed by initiating this process by which we debase gratitude. The gift of existence which calls for gratitude is a debt so profound it can never be fully repaid. Thus as Chesterton once pointed out, the wise know that they hold an unrecoverable and infinite debt of gratitude: “the man who really knows he cannot pay his debt will be for ever paying it. He will be forever giving back what he cannot give back, and cannot be expected to give back. He will be always throwing things away into a bottomless pit of unfathomable thanks”[138] When a new life comes to be perceived not as a gift of God—from a source outside ourselves—but as the product of a team of doctors and technicians gratitude will likely assume the form a fee to be paid.  With the loss of the sense of mystery gratitude is replaced by the cash-nexus of market ‘society’.


A defining aspect of totalitarianism for Arendt was the unique combination of determinism and hubris.[139] Both movements surrendered human freedom to the irresistible march of forces—nature for the Nazis and history for the Stalinists—and believed that “everything is possible.” In the modern world, Arendt wrote, these two concepts of history and nature as process met in the form of technology. This theme finds echoes in Paul Ramsey’s study of the ethical implications of human bio-engineering, Fabricated Man: “profoundly symptomatic of the modern condition . . . is the combination of boundless determinism with boundless freedom in all our thoughts.”[140] In the specific terms of the application of bio-technology this represents “the unlimited subjugation of everything else—of human reality as it now is, and of the genetic future—to the determinism of that usurped freedom.”[141] Ramsey suggests that Man becomes “his own creator, the unlimited lord of the future.”[142] The danger is that not only humans but other earthly creatures will come to be viewed as an obstacle to a future perfection and that this will undermine our sense of responsibility: “The notion of the perfectibility of Homo Sapiens and of nature alike not only distracts us from being responsibly engaged in the here and now, it also places greater emphasis on our ‘becoming’ rather than quality of our existential being. Hence, social Darwinism with the mythos of evolutionary ‘progress’ is future oriented.”[143]


Ecological populism would however be skeptical of opposition to genetic engineering based on ‘New Age’ demands for a more ‘holistic’ and ‘preventative’ approach to medicine. Chesterton rejected the notion of preventative medicine of which eugenics was itself an example: “Prevention is not only not better than cure prevention is even worse than disease. Prevention means being an invalid for life, with the extra exasperation of being quite well.”[144] Fifty years after Chesterton expressed his belief that prevention was worse than cure and meant being treated as sick even when was quite well, similar concerns would be expressed by Ivan Illich in his book Medical Nemesis. Through the “medicalization of prevention”, says Illich, “[p]eople have become patients without being sick.”[145] If we recall that for Chesterton the preventative medicine of Eugenics embodied the simultaneous break-up of the family and the removal of ties of loyalty between marriage partners we can now begin to see where those ties are being displaced.  Illich grasps the essence of the situation for the life-long patient in a single sentence: “He learns to depend on the physician in sickness and in health.”[146] Chesterton’s point could be well taken by contemporary opponents to genetic engineering and eugenics who seem to believe that ‘holistic’ preventative medicine is an ‘ecological’ alternative to the materialism of bio-technological intervention. For example, after delivering a withering critique of genetic engineering in his aptly named Declaration of a Heretic, Rifkin, one of the most outspoken critics of the new eugenics, slips strait into a pantheism recast in the form of an ‘holistic’ and ‘empathetic’ science which emphasizes prevention over cure: “With this new approach to knowledge we are constantly asking about the many ways in which we are related to everything else. We seek to identify with the things around us, to recognize ourselves in the other and the other in ourselves. Our goal is to join with, to become one with all of the rest of creation.”[147]


It is curious that such an unrelenting critic of biotechnology as Rifkin should fail to see that eugenics is preventive medical treatment and that his own ‘holistic’ philosophy far from being in opposition to genetic engineering is in full accord with it. What better practical example of breaking through the boundaries, of becoming one with nature, of humanity fusing with all other creatures, than a technology which, through the transfer of human genes to animals, may soon lead to cows producing ‘humanized milk’ and pigs growing human organs for transplant?[148]


Rifkin endorses precisely the eclipse of distance and distinction, a return “back to the gates of Paradise,”[149] which Chesterton can see is the very demonic core of modernism and the road to Hell. Modern forms of knowledge, says Rifkin, are alienating us from “that beatific estate where no differentiation existed, where there was no awareness of self and other.”[150] As we saw in Chapter Two, this confusion of self and other was precisely the illusion into which the idealist-maniac fell. And as we have already pointed out in Chapter Six, Chesterton specifically associates the evolutionary formlessness embodied in eugenics with theosophical mysticism in What’s Wrong with the World.[151]


Although environmentalists have often expressed hostility to the Judeo-Christian tradition which Chesterton represents, many in the Green movement would also find Arendt’s bracketing out of spiritual concerns equally problematic, for as a political movement rather than as an object for academic philosophy political ecology has strong links to the reassertion of ‘spiritual’ over ‘material’ interests. In Jonathon Porritt’s account: “It seems to me so obvious that without some huge groundswell of spiritual concern the transition to a more sustainable way of life remains utterly improbable.”[152] Porritt—himself sympathetic to Christianity—then goes on to quote approvingly from an exchange which took place in the 1970s between Arnold Toynbee and Daisaku Ikeda attending to the need for a religious change of heart as a necessary prerequisite in confronting the environmental crisis. Porritt however stops short of mentioning Toynbee and Ikeda’s own preference for what that religion would be: “I conclude that the religion we need to embrace is pantheism, as exemplified in Shinto, and that the religion we now need to discard is Judaic monotheism and the post-Christian non-theistic faith in scientific progress, which has inherited from Christianity the belief that mankind is morally entitled to exploit the rest of the universe for the indulgence of human greed.”[153]


Commenting on this passage, Stephen R. L. Clark—who agrees on the reality of a pressing environmental crisis—explicitly rejects Toynbee’s conclusion: “pantheism in all its forms is exactly what we do not need. . . . Christian faith along with the other great religions of the Book, does already teach respect for the dignity and sanctity of God’s creation. The attitudes he criticizes are actually unChristian, and unJewish.”[154] Chesterton’s thought could be of great importance to anyone concerned with developing an ecology which embodies a Christian world-view. Chesterton’s emphasis on the earth and its beings as Creation and Creatures lends him a powerful perception of the objective value in nature, independent of any human interests. Yet, he does not succumb to the trap which awaits for ‘deep ecology’ thinkers who can only adopt a ‘hands off’ approach to nature. The interest in the revival of good practices in agriculture centered around the family-owned farm shows that distributists are deeply concerned with the right use of nature. As Paul Thompson has recently pointed out, environmental philosophers have paid little or no attention to agriculture and consequently find very little to say about right use rather than wilderness preservation.[155]   


In fact, it is a merit of Chesterton’s refusal to secularize his concepts that it becomes of direct relevance to contemporary issues in Green political thought, for many ecological activists feel attracted towards a form of pantheistic spirituality. Chesterton warns that urging the worship of nature into which so many human perversions have been projected may indeed be counter-productive and far from leading to the benevolent consequences that the theosophical ancestors of ‘deep ecology’ hoped for may actually lead to greater destruction. The orthodox Christianity of Chesterton provides for a far more adequate understanding of nature in that exists between the tensions of a wonder at Creation upon which ‘God looked and saw that it was good’ and the recognition that humans must use this nature in order to survive and must fashion from it an ordered human world. Chesterton’s agrarian populism and his call for ‘peasant proprietorship’ embody both  the sense of limits that recognition of nature as God’s Creation entails together with the need to work upon this earth. Chesterton avoids both the reduction of nature to nothing other than manipulatable matter and the standpoint which can only appreciate nature in its pristine unspoiled state. Chesterton’s orthodoxy cuts through the abstracted materialism which culminates in the technological hubris of genetic engineering; the abstracted idealism of the postmodernist to whom nature does not possess any objective qualities; as well as the neo-pantheism of the deep ecologist ‘at one’ with nature and so cut off from its otherness and paralyzed for action by a biospherical egalitarianism which fails to appreciate the differences between creatures. In emphasizing both Creation and Incarnation, Chesterton’s thought can be seen to operate amid the fruitful tension, identified by Robert Mye, “between the enjoyment of wonder and the enjoyment of ‘the good things of the earth’ conveyed to us through human effort.”[156]


It is not unreasonable to assume that Chesterton would view the revolution in our attitude towards Creation which coincides with the possibilities unleashed by the new bio-technologies as representing the antithesis of the appreciative wonder at ‘that which is as it is’. Instead of wonder, we are witnessing a radical extension of the principle of exchange which has perverted the awareness of the intrinsic value of a being as a creature of God. Thus Chesterton would probably endorse the popular perception that genetic modification is a case of ‘playing God’ in that the ideologues of bio-technology believe the world is their own creation to re-mould as they wish. Chesterton might well consider the new bio-technologies as representing a hubristic denial of limits to human actions as well as a denial of the identities of living creatures which are henceforth to be considered as nothing more than bundles of genes to be reshuffled into the most convenient and profitable combinations. More than ever, Chesterton would today see the need for a purification within the human imagination of the perversions which have been projected onto nature.[157]


Modern culture is indeed, as Lasch characterized it, a ‘culture of narcissism’ and radically solipsistic approaches to nature are rife in our society. The growth of New Age mysticism is an obvious instance of this yet such a narcissism is also apparent in two tendencies which one would initially suppose to be quite contrary: amongst the biological reductionists who see mere collections of interchangeable genetic information as well as those who see nature as nothing other than a blank sheet onto which they can project any ‘discourse’ we care to choose. Both alike have lost the sense of the distinctness of things, and both can see nothing beyond human designs and purposes. In fact the ‘culturalist’ stance that nature is our ‘social construction’ is ultimately conformist for it plays straight into the hands of the genetic patentees of nature. Conceptualizing nature as a ‘blank sheet’ dissolves away any sense of those objective qualities in nature which environmentalists may seek to preserve and paves the way for its industrialized replacement.


Against such biological determinism and cultural hubris, an ecological populist perspective would seek to reawaken a sense of realism towards the external world. This means that we would have to learn how to wonder and ground our knowledge in appreciation; to remember that we did not create existence and so begin once again to cultivate a sense of limits. But we also need such a sense of realism towards one another—to learn that others have an existence beyond our own desires and phantasies. As Michael Mayne has suggested: “[T]o wonder, by giving proper attention to the mystery of people and things in the process of learning to love them, is what it means to be human. Without it we shall have no vision of what it means to live either as stewards of this astonishing creation or as fellow-members of the human race.”[158] It is a great merit of Arendt and Chesterton’s work that it unfolds out of a directing of wonder into the world of human affairs and we have much to learn from them. Not least that a new ecological vision need not, ought not, be anti-human. We need to regain not only a new respect for the earth and its creatures but, in the words of Lasch, “a recognition of others not as projections of our own desires, but as independent beings with desires of their own.”[159] 


In contrast to the narcissistic and utopian vision of absolute freedom to remake nature, populism has a more homely (i.e. ‘ecological’) set of concerns tempered by a sense of limits to human designs and aspirations.[160] It is the ecological populist hope that in expanding the possibilities for the practice of small-scale organic farming, the workshop, or the family-owned business, ordinary people might come to reject what Berry would term the ‘consumptive’ household and regain instead a productive one as a means to a more humanly satisfying life which is at once less destructive of our earthly surroundings. At the root of the endurance needed for such an adventure—which would represent the restoration of our world—would be, as Chesterton realized, the liberating power of the vow, the giving of our word. Rather than continue with the process of industrialization by the transformation of nature into the patented property of the wealthy and powerful elites, an ecological populism would have to encourage ways of de-industrializing the countryside while seeking to foster the development of living communities anchored in long-term commitment, dignified work, right stewardship of the earth, and proper respect for God’s creatures.



[1] For an analysis of various types of populist movement see Margaret Canovan, Populism (London: Junction Books, 1981).

[2] Margaret Canovan, ‘Trust the People!  Populism and the Two Faces of Democracy,’ Political Studies Vol. 47 No. 1 (March, 1999), p. 2.

[3] In an interview towards the end of his life Lasch revealed that “A lot of my ideas are ultimately hers.”  See Peggy Brawer and Sergio Benvenuto, ‘An Interview with Christopher Lasch,’ Telos 97 (Fall, 1993), p. 130.

[4] Christopher Lasch, The True and Only Heaven: Progress and its Critics (New York and London: W. W. Norton and Co., 1991), p. 15.

[5] Ibid.

[6] ibid.

[7] Ibid., p. 249.

[8] Ibid., p.16.

[9] See for example Paul Piccone, ‘Postmodern Populism,’ Telos 103 (Spring, 1995), pp.  45-86.

[10] Timothy W. Luke, ‘Searching for Alternatives: Postmodern Populism and Ecology,’ Telos 103 (Spring, 1995), pp. 87-110; Capitalism, Democracy, and Ecology: Departing from Marx (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999). This book’s dedication reads ‘For Kit’—which is how Lasch was known amongst his close friends.

[11] See his remarks in Brawer and Benvenuto, ‘Interview with Christopher Lasch,’ p. 129; True and Only Heaven, p. 534.

[12] Christopher Lasch, ‘Introduction: The Democratic Malaise,’ The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (New York and London: W. W. Norton and Co., 1995), p. 20

[13] William Outhwaite, ‘Toward a Realist Perspective,’ in Gareth Morgan (ed.), Beyond Method (Beverly Hills: Sage, 1983), p. 321.

[14] Roy Bhaskar, ‘Rorty, Realism and the Idea of Freedom,’ Reclaiming Reality: A Critical Introduction to Contemporary Philosophy (London: Verso, 1989), p. 147.

[15] Outhwaite,’ Toward a Realist Perspective,’ pp. 322-3; New Philosophies of Social Science: Realism, Hermeneutics and Critical Theory (London: Macmillan, 1987), pp. 5-44.

[16] Bhaskar, ‘What is Critical Realism?,’ Reclaiming Reality, p. 181

[17] Outhwaite, ‘Toward a Realist Perspective,’ p. 323.

[18] Roy Bhaskar, ‘Realism in the Natural Sciences,’ Reclaiming Reality, p. 12.

[19] See for example Kenneth Gergen, ‘The Social Constructionist Movement in Modern Psychology,’ American Psychologist 40 (1985), pp. 266-75.

[20] Vivien Burr, An Introduction to Social Constructionism (London: Routledge, 1995), p. 4.

[21] Failing to deny such realities leaves one open to accusations of ‘essentialism’. See the discussions in Andrew Sayer, ‘Essentialism, Social Constructionism, and Beyond,’ The Sociological Review Vol. 45 No. 3 (August, 1997), pp. 453-85; Martha C. Nussbaum, ‘Human Functioning and Social Justice: In Defence of Aristotelian Essentialism,’ Political Theory Vol. 20 No. 2 (May, 1992), pp. 202-46.

[22] G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (London: The Bodley Head, 1927 [1908]), p. 43.

[23] See Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (New York: Norton and Co., 1991 [1979]); The Minimal Self: Psychic Survival in Troubled Times (London: Pan, 1985).

[24] See Ian Craib, ‘Social Constructionism as a Social Psychosis,’ Sociology Vol. 31 No. 1 (February, 1997), pp. 1-15; David W. Kidner, ‘Fabricating Nature: A Critique of the Social Construction of Nature,’ Environmental Ethics Vol. 22 No. 4 (Winter, 2000), pp. 354-6.

[25] Lasch, The Minimal Self, p. 166. Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel identifies the ‘ego ideal’ as that aspect of the psyche which serves as the substitute for the state of perfection and total gratification experienced in the stage of primary narcissism. It is separate from the ego and human beings constantly strive to overcome that gulf, a quest which “lies at the base of the most sublime achievements, but also the most baleful errors of the human spirit.” Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel, The Ego Ideal: A Psychoanalytic Essay on the Malady of the Ideal (London: Free Association Books, 1985 [1975]), p. 4. Pursuit of the ego ideal is regressive when it seeks to avoid the Oedipus complex and the reality of separation embodied in the super-ego.

[26] Ibid., p. 167.

[27] Christopher Lasch, ‘Afterword: The Culture of Narcissism Revisited [1990],’ The Culture of Narcissism, p. 242.

[28] Stephen Frosh, Identity Crisis: Modernity, Psychoanalysis and the Self (London: Macmillan, 1991), p. 94.

[29] Though the tendency is not peculiar to modern life—it is a temptation intrinsic to the human condition—it is just that (in psychoanalytic terms) modern culture acts to encourage a regressive solution to narcissistic longing based on the denial of reality rather than a mature reconciliation of ego and ego ideal by a successful resolution of the Oedipus complex which seeks, in the words of Lasch, “to recapture the sense of oneness not by denying the fact of separation but by overcoming it in the pursuit of an ideal—erotic. aesthetic, or religious—of devotion and self-sacrifice.” Christopher Lasch, ‘Introduction,’ to Chasseguet-Smirgel, The Ego Ideal, p. xii. Lasch identifies the following factors which encourage regressive narcissism and disrupt a mature reconciliation with the ego-ideal via the reality principle: “the stimulation of appetites by advertising; the confusion of public discourse; the waning belief in the rationality or intelligibility of moral standards; the decline of the father’s role in child-rearing and moral instruction; the emotional estrangement of men and women, which may encourage mothers to make husbands out of their sons and daughters.” Christopher Lasch, ‘A Society without Fathers: Cooperative Commonwealth or Harmonious Ant-Heap?,’ in Meg McGavran Murray (ed.), Face to Face: Fathers, Mothers, Masters, Monsters—Essays for a Nonsexist Future (Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1983), p. 5. Perhaps the most important factor for Lasch (following Chasseguet-Smirgel) is the way in which “the collapse of religious illusions has only prepared the way for more insidious illusions, and science itself, instead of serving as an agency of general enlightenment, helps to reactivate infantile appetites and the infantile need for illusions by impressing itself on people’s lives as a never-ending series of technological miracles, wonder-working drugs and cures, and electronic conveniences that obviate the need for human effort.” Ibid. By the time of writing The True and Only Heaven, Lasch would cease to refer to religion as an agreeable ‘illusion’ and see it as a truer response to the reality of Being.

[30] See Kidner, ‘Fabricating Nature,’ pp.340-1.

[31] See Luke Martell, Ecology and Society: An Introduction (Cambridge: Polity, 1994), p. 132.

[32] Keith Tester, Animals and Society: The Humanity of Animal Rights (London: Routledge, 1991), p. 46. See Peter Dickens, Reconstructing Nature: Alienation, Emancipation and the Division of Labour (London: Routledge, 1996), pp. 72-3; Martell, Ecology and Society, pp. 132-3, 172-6; Anna Peterson, ‘Environmental Ethics and the Social Construction of Nature,’ Environmental Ethics Vol. 21 No. 4 (Winter, 1999), p. 351; Kidner, ‘Fabricating Nature,’ p. 87.

[33] William Cronon, ‘Introduction,’ to William Cronon (ed.), Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature (New York: Norton and Co., 1996), p. 36. Chesterton would be totally opposed to such a narcissistic attitude: “I want to adore the world, not as one likes a looking glass, because it is one’s self, but as one love’s a woman, because she is entirely different.” Chesterton, Orthodoxy, p. 242. Needless to say, Chesterton would today also find himself up against those advocates of the social construction of (human) nature who seek to deconstruct the distinctions between male and female. Chesterton’s anticipation of the culture of narcissism which confuses self with non-self and embodies an ideology of perversion which is linked to a confusion of sexual differentiation is startling. Especially important in this regard is G. K. Chesterton, ‘What is Right with the World [1910],’ The Apostle and the Wild Ducks and other essays, edited by Dorothy E. Collins (London: Paul Elek, 1975), pp. 161-9, in which Chesterton rejects narcissistic attitudes towards nature as well as the confusion between the sexes and the generations which is, in Chasseguet-Smirgel’s account, the defining aspect of perversion corresponding to a narcissistic rejection of the reality principle. See Chasseguet-Smirgel, The Ego Ideal, p. 15.

[34] “It is important to stress the word ‘natural’ because green ideologues argue that economic growth is prevented not for social reasons—such as restrictive relations of production—but because the Earth itself has a limited carrying capacity (for population), productive capacity (for resources of all types) and absorbent capacity (for pollution).” Andrew Dobson, Green Political Thought, third edition (London: Routledge, 2000), p. 15. From a psychoanalytic perspective, the acceptance of limits imposed by an external reality is a core element of emotional maturity.  See Jeffrey B. Abramson, Liberation and its Limits: The Moral and Political Thought of Freud (New York: The Free Press, 1984). As Lasch points out: “Psychoanalysis confirms the ancient religious insight that the only way to achieve happiness is to accept limitations in a spirit of gratitude and contrition instead of attempting to annul those limitations or bitterly resenting them.” Lasch, ‘Afterword: The Culture of Narcissism Revisited,’ p. 242.

[35] Phil MacNaghten and John Urry, ‘Towards a Sociology of Nature,’ Sociology Vol. 29 No. 2 (1995), pp. 207-8. It is difficult to grasp what social constructionists (and postmodernists in general) actually mean by ‘the other’ when everything in their perspective becomes culture. As Gary Snyder has declared: “For all the talk of ‘the other’ in everybody’s theory these days, when confronted with a genuine Other, the nonhuman realm, the response of the come lately anti-Nature intellectuals is to circle the wagons and declare that Nature is really part of culture.” As quoted in Peterson, ‘The Social Construction of Nature,’ p. 354 n. 50. Christopher Norris has noted how poststructuralist celebrations of ‘difference’ and ‘otherness’ are purely rhetorical.  See his Truth and The Ethics of Criticism (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994), pp. 37ff.

[36] Kate Soper, What is Nature? (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995), p. 151.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Dickens, Reconstructing Nature, p. 73.

[39] Anna Peterson, ‘The Social Construction of Nature,’ p. 342. Though it has to be pointed out that representatives of the deconstruction of human sexuality into ‘sexualities’ (on which they legitimize their practices) hardly display much in the way of tolerance towards those whose beliefs contradict the ideology of perversion.

[40] Susan Bordo, ‘Anorexia Nervosa: Psychopathology as a Crystallization of Culture,’ in Feminism & Foucault: Reflection on Resistance (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1988), p. 90.

[41] See M. E. Bailey, ‘Foucauldian Feminism: Contesting Bodies, Sexuality and Identity,’ in Caroline Ramazanoğlu, Up Against Foucault: Explorations of Some Social Tensions Between Foucault and Feminism London and New York: Routledge, 1993), pp. 99-122.

[42] Peterson, ‘Environmental Ethics,’ p. 345.

[43] Dickens, Reconstructing Nature, p.73.

[44] Kidner, ‘Fabricating Nature,’ p. 436.

[45] Ibid., p. 351.

[46] Ibid., p. 354.

[47] Ibid., p. 354-5. See also Craib, ‘Social Constructionism,’ passim. The anti-populist phenomenon of ‘political correctness’ (‘PC’) is related to the same ‘linguistic turn’ which has stimulated the growth in social constructionist studies and likewise consists in a narcissistic denial of external reality (hence the almost ‘magical’ belief that things can be actually transformed by renaming them). Drawing on the theory of the ego ideal developed by Chasseguet-Smirgel, Howard S. Schwartz explores this PC phenomenon as an example of a regressive solution to the human desire to reinstate the lost sense of fusion experienced in the infant’s early phase of primary narcissism when it has not yet formed a distinction between itself and its mother. Current attacks on a rule-bound and hierarchical ‘male’ principle from the standpoint of a supposed empathic, non-hierarchical, more spontaneous ‘female’ principle, in the words of Schwartz, “do not represent a [desirable] revision of the idea of optimal development by adding maternal to paternal elements. Rather, we can see a shift in the embodiment of authority from the biparental model to one based on the more primitive primordial mother. The danger of this shift is not so much that it repudiates the father, but that it puts into political form the repudiation of what the father represents—external reality itself. That is what we see happening in PC.” See Howard S. Schwartz, ‘Psychodynamics of Political Correctness,’ Journal of Applied Behavioral Science Vol. 33 No. 2 (1997), pp. 133-49, as published on the internet, http://www. (accessed 12/02/01).

[48] Bill McKibben, The End of Nature (Harmondsworth: Viking, 1990), p. 54.

[49] McKibben’s thesis is quite distinct from the social constructionist view in assuming that there was once a nature which existed independently of human influences. This has angered social constructionists such as Richard White who maintain that such an independent nature is “only an idea” and never can be an objective entity. See Peterson, ‘The Social Construction of Nature,’ pp. 348-9.

[50] John O’Neill, ‘Humanism and Nature,’ Radical Philosophy 66 (Spring, 1994), p. 23.

[51] Ibid., p. 24.

[52] Those who would concede that while Arendt may well have wished to direct wonder into the realm of human affairs but may wish to object that she would have dismissed a wonder at nature as ‘romantic’ are mistaken and are referred to Arendt’s unpublished review of Rock Crystal by Adalbert Stifter in ‘Great Friend of Reality,’ as published on the Arendt Collection at the Library of Congress website, (accessed 19/6/01). As we saw in Chapter One in the discussion of Arendt’s biography of Rahel Varnhagen, ‘romanticism’ is rejected for its preoccupation with subjectivity and is the very antithesis to being open to something external to the self (such as nature).

[53] Ibid., p. 26.

[54] Ibid., pp. 26-7.

[55] Ibid., p. 21.

[56] Ibid., p. 25.

[57] “Wherever men are still theological there is still some chance of their being logical.” G. K. Chesterton, Irish Impressions (London: W. Collins Sons and Co., 1919), p. 217; “Superstition recurs in all ages, and especially in rationalistic ages.” G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1947 [1925]), p. 134. That the scientization of society has fostered an illusionary mysticism of unmediated union is suggested by Chasseguet-Smirgel, The Ego Ideal, pp. 217-9.

[58] G. K. Chesterton, The New Jerusalem (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1920), p. 165.

[59] For a critique of these claims, see John O’Neill, Ecology, Policy and Politics: Human Well-Being and the Natural World (London: Routledge, 1993), pp. 148-152; Martell, Ecology and Society, pp. 91-3, 181-3.

[60] See Andrew Brennan, Thinking About Nature  (London: Routledge, 1988).

[61] Luke Martell, Ecology and Society, p. 91.

[62] Ibid., p. 93.

[63] See O’Neill, Ecology, Politics, and Policy, pp. 148-152.

[64] Dobson, Green Political Thought, p. 57.

[65]As quoted in ibid., p. 58.

[66] For a collection of writings by spiritual ecofeminists see Judith Plant (ed.), Healing the Wounds: The Promise of Ecofeminism (Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1989). A warning against this approach is issued by Stephen R. L. Clark, How to Think About the Earth: Philosophical and Theological Models for Ecology (London: Mowbray, 1993), p. 39: “That nature, Gaia, is a Goddess is actually what lies behind some of our silliest practices: because we think her divine, we think her indefatigably purifying, and pump wastes and novel poisons into the earth and water in expectation of a good return.”

[67] Deena Metzga, ‘Invoking the Grove,’ in Plant (ed.), Healing the Wounds, p. 124.

[68] Ibid., p.123.

[69] Ynestra King, ‘The Ecology of Feminism and the Feminism of Ecology,’ in Plant (ed.), Healing the Wounds, p. 24.

[70] Richard Sylvan, ‘A Critique of Deep Ecology (part two),’ Radical Philosophy Vol. 41 (1984), p. 13.

[71] See Chesterton’s depiction of Nietzsche and Tolstoy meeting at the crossroads in the land of Nirvana in Orthodoxy, p. 74.

[72] Chesterton, Orthodoxy, p. 245. Peter Reed rejects ‘Self-realization’ approaches, found in the work of deep ecologists such as Arne Naess and Warwick Fox, which seek to dissolve the distinction between humanity and nature. Drawing on Martin Buber’s analysis of the ‘I-Thou’ relationship and Rudolph Otto’s idea of ‘the Holy’, Reed formulates a position which is directly comparable to Chesterton:  “[I]t is our very separateness from the Earth, the gulf between the human and the natural, that makes us want to do right by the Earth. According to this approach, nature is a stranger.  It seems to me that recognizing the moral distance between ourselves and the world helps us recognize the values in nature that are totally independent of what we humans think is beautiful, right, and good. Moreover, recognizing these values, some strong conclusions for how we ought to behave suggest themselves.  If we turn our attention from our petty hubris, insignificance, and appalling ignorance to a universe vast beyond our ability to comprehend, we might treat the Earth a little less arrogantly.” Peter Reed, ‘Man Apart: An Alternative to the Self-Realization Approach,’ Environmental Ethics 11 (Spring, 1989), p.56. Chesterton, however, could serve as an antidote to Reed’s more misanthropic moments.

[73] Ibid., p. 246.

[74] Erazim Kohák, The Embers and the Stars: A Philosophical Inquiry into the Moral Sense of Nature (Chicago and London: University of Chicago, 1984), p. 202.

[75] Wendell Berry, ‘The Gift of Good Land,’ Standing On Earth: Selected Essays (Ipswich: Golgonooza Press, 1991), p. 89.

[76] Ibid.

[77] H. J. Massingham, The Faith of a Fieldsman (London: Museum Press, 1951), p. 142.

[78] Wendell Berry, ‘Preserving Wilderness,’ Standing on Earth, p. 219.

[79] Berry, ‘The Gift of Good Land,’ p. 96.

[80]  “The fiction of combining present levels of consumption with ‘limitless recycling is more characteristic of the technocratic vision than of an ecological one.  Recycling itself uses resources, expends energy, creates thermal pollution; on the bottom line, its just an industrial activity like all the others. Recycling is both useful and necessary—but it is an illusion to imagine that it provides any basic answers.” Jonathon Porritt, Seeing Green: The Politics of Ecology Explained (Oxford: Blackwell, 1984), p. 183.

[81] See H. J. Massingham, ‘Introduction,’ to H. J. Massingham (ed.) England and the Farmer: A Symposium (London: B. T. Batsford, 1941), pp. 2-7.

[82] See Lasch, The Minimal Self, pp. 244-59. ‘Transitional objects’ would seem to stand to the child in the same manner that Arendt’s ‘world’ relates to adults. In Lasch’s account, Winnicott refers to transitional objects as those blankets, teddy bears, and other toys which serve to aid the child in the awareness that he is not only separate from, but connected to, the outside world. Transitional objects symbolically inhabit the margins of subjectivity and objectivity: “The object represents the infant’s transition from a state of being merged with the mother to a state of being in relation to the mother as something outside and separate.”  Winnicott quoted in ibid., p. 194. Although children grow out of the need for particular transitional objects, this is merely because “transitional phenomena have become diffused, have been spread out over the whole intermediate territory between ‘inner psychic reality’ and the ‘external world as perceived by two persons in common,’ that is to say, over the whole cultural field.” Winnicott quoted in ibid.

[83] Arendt can be seen to possess a more multi-faceted understanding of the human interaction with nature than Jürgen Habermas who apparently derived his own distinction between instrumental and communicative action from The Human Condition. Such a reading ignores Arendt’s distinction between labor and work for only the latter was deemed to be ‘instrumental’ (labor moves in the cyclical processes of nature; work instrumentalises nature, transforming it to serve the ends of worldly use). In addition, it ignores Arendt’s fears that in the modern world action was not in fact confined to the interpersonal sphere as science was beginning to ‘act into nature’. Habermas introduced these concepts in his Toward a Rational Society (London: Heinemann, 1971) in order to refute the hope for a reconciliation with nature expressed by an earlier generation of Critical Theorists. This found its most explicit form in Herbert Marcuse’s call, tentatively sketched in One Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society (London: Routledge, 1968 [1964]) and based on the theoretical underpinnings of Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud (Boston: Beacon Press, 1974 [1955]), for a ‘new science’ centered on a non-exploitative and more empathic relationship towards nature. Habermas rejected this suggestion on the grounds that Marcuse was confusing two distinct forms of rationality. For Habermas, the domination of nature operates according to a different logic than the distortion of human communication. Science and labor are inherently linked to the instrumental manipulation of nature. The goal for Habermas is to prevent this form of rationality from impinging on the interpersonal sphere of communicative rationality. The anti-ecological implications of this move have led to a reassessment of the first generation of ‘Frankfurt School’ thinkers, see for example Vincent Di Norcia, ‘From Critical Theory to Critical Ecology,’ Telos 22 (1974/5), pp. 85-95; Andrew Dobson, ‘Critical Theory and Green Politics,’ in Andrew Dobson and Paul Lucardie (eds.) The Politics of Nature: Explorations in Green Political Theory (London: Routledge, 1995), pp. 190-209; Robyn Eckersley, ‘Habermas and Green Political Thought,’ Theory and Society Vol. 19 No. 6 (December, 1990), pp. 739-76. However, as I have shown elsewhere, in celebrating the perversions and polymorphous sexuality via a misguided understanding of psychic repression, Marcuse offers a regressive solution to our narcissistic longing by rejecting the reality principle and which is thereby a mirror image of today’s culture of industrial capitalism. See Richard Gill, ‘Psychoanalysis and Utopia in the Work of Herbert Marcuse,’ (University of Sussex: unpublished M.A. dissertation, 1995). Like other approaches criticized in this chapter, Marcuse is cut off from appreciating the otherness of nature. Useful commentary on Marcuse, nature, and narcissism can be found in C. Fred Alford, ‘Nature and Narcissism: The Frankfurt School,’ New German Critique 36 (Fall, 1985), pp. 174-92; ‘Eros and Civilization after Thirty Years: A Reconsideration in Light of Recent Theories of Narcissism,’ Theory and Society Vol. 16 No. 6 (November, 1987). pp. 869-90; ‘Reconciliation with Nature?  The Frankfurt School, Postmodernism and Melanie Klein,’ Theory, Culture & Society Vol. 10 (1993), pp. 207-27. Being centered on the ‘reality principle’, the present Arendtian-Chestertonian perspective is offered as representing a solution to our narcissistic longing via the long path to maturity which recognizes both our separation from, and dependence upon, the outside world. Crucial here is the counter to regressive solipsistic illusion represented by Arendt’s notion of a ‘world’ which relates and separates us from both nature and one another together with Chesterton’s Christian understanding of Creation and a transcendent Creator upon whom all is dependent.

[84] I agree with Kerry Whiteside—for Arendt ‘the earth’ and ‘the world’ are distinct but they are not necessarily in opposition. See Kerry H. Whiteside, ‘Worldliness and Respect for Nature: an Ecological Application of Hannah Arendt’s Conception of Culture,’ Environmental Values 7 (1988), pp. 25-40. In fact, I believe that it is by living in a ‘world’ that the natural aspect of humanity is preserved. With the loss of the ‘world’ natural existence is itself perverted into an ‘unnatural growth’. I do not however completely agree with Whiteside’s assertion that we respect nature because we can see ‘worldly’ qualities reflected in it. As I attempted to show in Part One of this book, the value of nature lies in its indifference to human concerns. The perception of otherness is fundamental to the experience of wonder—which Whiteside himself recognizes as important for Arendt in an earlier article. See Kerry H. Whiteside, ‘Hannah Arendt and Ecological Politics,’ Environmental Ethics 16 (1994), pp. 356-7.

[85] O’Neill, Ecology, Policy and Politics, p. 170.

[86] Ibid., p. 173.

[87] Ibid., p. 180.

[88] Whiteside, ‘Hannah Arendt and Ecological Politics,’ p. 352.

[89] See Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989 [1958]), p. 59.

[90] Berry, ‘Preserving Wilderness,’ p. 220.

[91] Ibid., p. 225.

[92] Ibid.

[93] ‘Good fences make good neighbors,’ is a line from Robert Frost’s poem ‘Mending Wall’, quoted in Richard King, ‘Hannah Arendt,’ in David Murray, (ed.), American Cultural Critics, (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1995), p. 213.

[94] Wendell Berry, ‘Economy and Pleasure,’ What Are People For? (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990), p. 135.

[95] See for example Robin Attfield, The Ethics of Environmental Concern (Oxford: Blackwell, 1983), pp. 88-114; John O’Neill, ‘Future Generations: Present Harms,’ Philosophy 68 (1993), pp. 35-51; Richard and Val Routley, ‘Nuclear Energy and Obligations to the Future,’ Inquiry 21 (1978), pp. 133-179.

[96] Chesterton, Orthodoxy, p. 251.

[97] O’Neill, ‘Future Generations: Present Harms,’ p. 45.

[98] O’Neill maintains that we need not return to household economy as ‘civil society’ institutions can adopt the principle of limits previously embodied in an Aristotelian oikos as a counter to the unlimited ‘chrematistic’ accumulation through exchange. Nevertheless, as psychoanalytically informed critics of contemporary culture have pointed out, it is precisely the diffusion of socialization away from family life into such institutions which engender the very same narcissism which O’Neill decries. 

[99] See Wendell Berry, ‘Foreword,’ The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural (San Francisco: North Point, 1981), pp. ix-xvii; Home Economics (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1987), passim.

[100] I am thinking of criticisms which have been leveled against the first generation Critical Theorists T. W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer. Via Hegel, these thinkers had adopted a philosophical interpretation of Christian marriage which explicitly rejected the Kantian notion of marriage as a contract of self-interest.  See Rudolph J. Siebert, Hegel’s Concept of Marriage and Family: The Origin of Subjective Freedom (Washington: University Press of America, 1979). These writers could not take a rosy view of the spreading divorce culture as they knew it represented the intrusion of the market relations of capitalism into the core of personal life: “Marriage shrinks more and more into a relationship of exchange serving purely private ends. . . . The individual becomes exchangeable here too as they do in business life, where one leaves a position as soon as a better one offers itself.” Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, Aspects of Sociology, with a Preface by Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, translated by John Viertal (London: Heinemann, 1973 [1956]), pp. 139-140. Adorno and Horkheimer were also distinctly cool towards the celebration of sexual radicalism put forward by their former colleague Marcuse in Eros and Civilization. That the ‘marketing orientation’ and the principle of exchange have eroded the capacity for love in the condition of modern consumer capitalism is also argued by Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1974 [1957]). Because the ‘marketing character’ can form no deep attachments to self or others, Fromm believes they remain unmoved by the threat of nuclear and ecological crisis; neither can they appreciate material artifacts and so approach them in the mode of relentless consumption. See Erich Fromm, To Have or To Be (London: Sphere, 1988 [1976]), pp. 145-52.

[101] Wendell Berry, ‘The Body and the Earth,’ Standing On Earth, p. 49.

[102] Ibid.

[103] Ibid., p. 58.

[104] Ibid.

[105] Kohák, The Embers and The Stars, p. 107.

[106] See Clark, How to Think About the Earth, pp. 110-2.

[107] Arendt, Human Condition, p. 101.

[108] Berry, ‘The Gift of Good Land,’ pp. 97-98.

[109] See Jonathan Schell, The Fate of the Earth (London: Jonathan Cape, 1982).

[110] Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World (New Haven and Yale: Yale University Press, 1982), p. 320.

[111] Margaret Canovan, Hannah Arendt: A Reinterpretation of Her Thought (Cambridge: University Press, 1994 [1992]), p. 84 n. 78.

[112] This is a central theme in Christopher Lasch, Haven in a Heartless World: The Family Besieged (New York and London: W. W. Norton and Co., 1995 [1977]).

[113] Leon R. Kass, ‘Making Babies—the New Biology and the “Old” Morality,’ Public Interest No. 26 (Winter, 1972), pp. 49-50.

[114] Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim, The Social Implications of Bio-engineering (New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1991), p. 12.

[115] Ruth F. Chadwick (ed.), Ethics, Reproduction, and Genetic Control (London: Routledge, 1994), p. 39.

[116] Arendt, Human Condition, pp. 62-3.

[117] Kass, ‘Making Babies,’ p. 23.

[118] Ibid., p 51.

[119] Arendt, Human Condition, p. 64.

[120] Hannah Arendt, ‘The Crisis in Education [1958],’ Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought (New York: Penguin, 1993 [1968]), p. 188.

[121] Arendt, Human Condition, p. 5.

[122] Maren Klawiter, ‘Using Arendt and Heidegger to consider Feminist Thinking on Women and Reproductive/Infertility Technologies,’ Hypatia Vol. 5 No. 3 (Fall, 1990), p. 83.

[123] Chadwick, Ethics, Reproduction, and Genetic Control, p. 127.

[124] Beck-Gernsheim, The Social Implications of Bio-engineering, p. 18.

[125] Ibid., p. 27.

[126] Ibid., p. 51.

[127] Jean Bethke Elshtain, ‘Looks that Kill,’ The New Republic (January 20, 1997), p. 23.

[128] Klawiter, ‘Using Arendt and Heidegger,’ p. 82.

[129] Beck-Gernsheim, Social Implications of Bio-engineering, p. 14

[130] Ibid.

[131] Arendt, Human Condition, p. 150 n. 13.

[132] David J. Bennett (ed.), Biotechnology—Friend or Foe?: The Social, Ethical, Political, Religious and Economic Impacts (London: Bioindustry Association, 1993), p. 25.

[133] Jeremy Rifkin, Declaration of a Heretic (Boston: Routledge, 1985), p. 63.

[134] Beck-Gernsheim, Social Implications of Bio-engineering, p. 53.

[135] Ibid., p. 57

[136] Ibid.

[137] Kass, ‘Making Babies,’ pp. 43-4.

[138] G. K. Chesterton, St. Francis of Assisi (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1944 [1923]), pp. 94-5.

[139] See Canovan, Hannah Arendt: A Reinterpretation, p. 79.

[140] Paul Ramsey, Fabricated Man: The Ethics of Genetic Control (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1970), p. 92

[141] Ibid.

[142] Ibid., p. 105.

[143] Michael W. Fox, Superpigs and Wondercorn: The Brave New World of Biotechnology and where it all may lead (New York: Lyons and Burford, 1992), p. 172.

[144] G. K. Chesterton, Eugenics and Other Evils, p. 55.

[145] Ivan Illich, Medical Nemesis: The Expropriation of Health (London: Calder & Boyars, 1975), p. 48.

[146] Ibid., p. 50

[147] Rifkin, Declaration of a Heretic, pp. 83-4.

[148] The ‘humanized milk’ example comes from Fox, Superpigs and Wondercorn, p. 105. Again, in an otherwise excellent examination of the implications of bio-technology Fox endorses the ‘progressive’ shibboleth of a “preventive ‘holistic’ ecological medicine,” p. 31, and criticizes genetic engineering for failing to be preventive when it quite obviously is.

[149] Rifkin, Declaration of a Heretic, p. 82

[150] Ibid., p. 83.

[151] As Lasch has pointed out, the desire to technologically dominate nature and the attraction to New Age mysticism are two sides of the same coin of regressive narcissism:  “New Age spirituality, no less than technological utopianism, is rooted in primary narcissism. If the technological fantasy seeks to restore the infantile illusion of self-sufficiency, the New Age movement seeks to restore the illusion of symbiosis, a feeling of absolute oneness with the world. Instead of dreaming of the imposition of human will on the intractable world of matter, the New Age movement, which revives themes found in ancient Gnosticism, simply denies the reality of the outside world.  By treating matter essentially as an illusion, it removes every obstacle to the re-creation of a primary sense of wholeness and equilibrium—the return to Nirvana.” Lasch, ‘Afterword: The Culture of Narcissism Revisited,’ pp. 245-6.

[152] Porritt, Seeing Green, p. 210.

[153]  As quoted in Clark, p. 2

[154] Ibid.  Clark suggests that a strain of anti-Jewish thought can be detected amongst some forms of ecologism: “On the one hand, despite a thousand theological rebuttals, we are constantly told that the ecological crisis is the consequence of Jewish thought. On the other, the image of humankind as a sort of biological infection or a plague of vermin constantly reappears.” Ibid., p. 48.

[155] Paul B. Thompson, The Spirit of The Soil: Agriculture and Environmental Ethics (London: Routledge, 1995), pp. 3, 49, 72. “Recent philosophical treatments of nature would be enhanced by considering the spirit of the soil so common in folklore and religion.” Ibid., p. 6. For a synthesis of Christianity, stewardship, and distributism, see H. J. Massingham, The Tree of Life  (London: Chapman & Hall, 1943).

[156] Robert P. Meye, ‘Invitation to Wonder: Toward a Theology of Nature,’ in Wesley Granberg (ed.) Tending The Garden: Essays on The Gospel and The Earth (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 1987), p. 47.

[157] See Clark, How to Think About the Earth, p. 16: “Maybe Chesterton was right, that the past had to be purged and purified.  Gardens, woods and the stars themselves were polluted (that is, the world of nature as it features in our imaginative experience was polluted) by the perversions of late paganism. Only when four centuries of ascetic practice had purified the imagination could St. Francis rededicate the natural world, ‘Man has stripped from his soul the last tag of nature-worship, and can return to nature.’”

[158] Michael Mayne, This Sunrise of Wonder: Letters for the Journey (London: Fount, 1995), p. 307.

[159] Lasch, ‘Afterword: The Culture of Narcissism revisited,’ p. 242.

[160] In contrast to the desire for universal luxury, writes Lasch, “[p]populists . . . regarded a competence, as they would have called it—a piece of the earth, a small workshop, a useful calling—as a more worthy ambition. ‘Competence’ had rich moral overtones; it referred to the livelihood conferred by property but also to the skill required to maintain it. The ideal of universal proprietorship embodied a humbler set of expectations than the ideal of universal consumption, universal access to a proliferating supply of goods. At the same time, it embodied a more strenuous and morally demanding definition of the good life.” Lasch, The True and Only Heaven, p. 532







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