The Cooler: Does Environmentalism = Totalitarianism?

June 21, 2013

Pascal Bruckner. Image credit: Ji-Elle/Wikimedia Commons.

Bob Lalasz directs science communications for The Nature Conservancy.

Ever feel like your fellow enviros are too doomy or gloomy? Read them a few pages of Pascal Bruckner’s latest book — The Fanaticism of the Apocalypse: Save the Earth, Punish Human Beings (Polity Press). But be careful: You might soon be looking for new friends.

That’s because Bruckner, a 64-year-old French philosopher and social commentator who’s made a career out of puncturing political and religious pieties, argues in Fanaticism that today’s environmentalism is a spiritual and rhetorical descendent of not just millennialist Christianity but Communism, too — fueled, he writes, by rampant guilt and self-hatred, fearful of pleasure and technological progress, and addicted to a vocabulary of impending catastrophe with which it uses to blackmail us into a dour, anti-consumerist asceticism that criminalizes (a la totalitarianism) our most private behaviors.


For Bruckner, this catastrophist, self-policing mindset — the “fanaticism of the apocalypse” — explains why environmentalism will never be a truly majority movement. 

“The ecology of disaster is primarily a disaster for ecology; it employs such an outrageous rhetoric that it discourages the best of wills,” he  writes. “The slightest act — eating meat, turning on a radiator, letting the water run while you brush your teeth — is heavy with unexpected consequences.” Our carbon footprints, he goes on, are just a contemporary rendering of Original Sin.

It’s not that Bruckner is anti-environment, or even -environmentalist. In fact, he wants to return what he calls “ecologism” to optimism —namely, in humanity’s ability to overcome environmental challenges. “A race has begun between the forces of despair and human ingenuity,” he writes in Fanaticism:

“[T]he remedy is found in the disease, in the despised industrial civilization, the frightening science, the endless crisis, the globalization that exceeds our grasp: Only an increase in research, an explosion of creativity, or an unprecedented technological advance will be able to save us…If a generous defense of the environment is to develop in the course of the next century, it will exist only as the servant of humans and nature in their mutual interaction and not as an advocate speaking through an entity called ‘the planet’…The friends of the earth have for too long been enemies of humanity; it is time for an ecology of admiration to replace an ecology of accusation.”

You can see that Bruckner has a flair for the aphoristic and the melodramatic. Those qualities, coupled with a contrarian argument, form  an excellent recipe for gaining attention, so get ready to hear Bruckner’s name a lot in coming months, especially from those thinkers who are more sanguine about nature’s prospects in the Anthropocene. Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus have already written admiringly of Fanaticism in the San Francisco Chronicle. The British conservative press has also reviewed it well.

By contrast, Ian Jack has written thoughtfully in the Guardian that environmental pessimism has its uses and that Bruckner is naïve in his assumption that “ingenious technical fixes” will save us. (You can read a long excerpt of Fanaticism in the Chronicle Review, which also has a nice piece by Emily Eakin that traces Bruckner’s intellectual development — one marked by skepticism about all dogmas, from Catholicism to sexual liberation to multiculturalism.)

My point in bringing Bruckner to your attention? That grappling with his arguments is not just a healthy exercise for any environmentalist — it’s an essential one.

It’s hard to deny the apocalyptic strain that runs through much of environmental messaging today. And regardless of whether you think Bruckner’s lens is crystalline, cracked or really just a mirror of his own preoccupations, he requires you to exchange your customary framing of reality for one that’s almost diametrically opposed, and to get a fresh perspective on both. It is the best tonic for stale science communications I’ve read in a while.

He forces us to make conscious again the social factors behind the scientific inquiries we select, how we frame them, and how we communicate them. Are we catering to a prevailing, reflexive pessimism within environmentalist culture in order to boost traffic or get better peer reviews? Do we even realize when we’re pandering thus? And do we realize the price we might be paying in doing so?

In making us defend our choices as choices, not simply as the way things are, Pascal Bruckner does environmentalism a world of good, even as he is flaying it alive.

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.

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  1. My personal view of the world is increasingly trending toward the apocalyptic, on long term biodiversity and climate, but I tend to think this is much more a question of PR and mass human psychology. The mass of humanity is not going to deeply research climate change science and yet we must reach out to them if we hope to preserve anything particularly if the most pessimistic scientific models prove accurate. On climate, my preference is a grand mobilization including a mix of technological fixes and massive shift in emphasis to renewable energy sources. Getting to consensus on the need for a world war level of commitment to rapid change without shutting people down into denial and anger is going to be extraordinarily difficult with massive fossil fuel economic interests fighting against it every step of the way. Getting there is at minimum a serious conundrum.

  2. Hi,
    As a reporter and human rights supporter, as well as someone dedicated to the environment I would say Bruckner’s book is all opinion and no supportive evidence. Why bother to read it?

    The first thing is that communism does not care one bit about environment, the largest carbon foot print is in China, which is the largest communist country. Although it does take away rights, viciously.

    Yep, of course people are scared and might have a doom and gloom mindset when looking around at how commerce and their governments and science are mishandling, ignoring or using ecology to their own ends in some cases (not all). This can hardly be attributed to a religious agenda, as fanaticism is within our very limited science as well (as is arrogance). It might be attributed to just a form of fear generated by an inner knowing of what the environmental harm can lead to.

    The only fanaticism I see is in the opinion of the author. I’m not sure science as we know it can change or save the environment for the better, it didn’t create cosmos’, but some higher intelligence did, and I am not a religious person, but in nature and it’s beauty, and harmony I find, much like Thoreau, Muir and Blake, a peace and awareness that transcends the known and is founded in a system of balances humankind’s science can, possibly, never fully understand.

    1. “Beauty and harmony”???!!!

      Is it beautiful when a male gorilla takes over the troop and systematically kills every baby, knowing they’re not his? Is it beautiful when a wasp’s larvae eat a caterpillar from the inside out? Is it beautiful when 999 out of 1000 baby sea turtles are killed and eaten before they make it a mile out to sea?

      Face it, life is a cruel mess, and the only escape we’ve ever found from the cruelty and the messiness is our technology. Abandon it now and you doom our species to the same fate that’s befallen 99+% of all other species ever to appear on our planet: extinction. We are our only hope.