A Post Environmentalist View

By John Young

Harvard University Press. 225 pp. $19.95

LOVE YOUR mother: This, the latest mantra of the environmental movement, is now chanted across a remarkably wide political spectrum. Joining the chorus are those on the green left, for whom this phrase is at once redemptive and apocalyptic (Love Mother Earth -- or else). Signing on too are those who sport a lighter shade of green, such as members of the Audubon Society, who may not be convinced that the end is near, but who, just to be safe, put earth first. Even the president, not noted for radical public policy initiatives of any kind, least of all in this realm, believes it's prudent to be concerned about the environmental thing.

This doesn't mean that we'll see President Bush's cigarette boat joining a Greenpeace flotilla anytime soon, but it does suggest how influential environmental rhetoric has become in modern political discourse. Explaining this influence is one of the tasks that John Young has taken on in his new work, Sustaining the Earth, a book that combines intellectual history with political advocacy. Indeed, that combination shapes how he analyzes the greening of world politics over the past couple of decades, a process he happily champions.

Green politics have come of age for a number of reasons, Young argues. In this, he rounds up the usual suspects: mounting fears of nuclear Armageddon, a painful realization of the impact of unrestrained economic development, the threat of runaway population growth and an hitherto unrealized spiritual hunger for a more humane life. Individually and collectively these have forced us to reevaluate our political and moral relationship with the planet, to recognize that in its survival lies the key to our own.

To make this case, however, Young must tackle two of Western culture's most powerful totems, science and religion. Both are found wanting. Some of the book's best passages, for example, are those in which Young critically analyzes the philosophical biases and grand designs of environmentalists such as Barry Commoner and Paul Ehrlich who, in the 1970s, captured center stage by playing to and off of people's fears about global disaster. What Young finds most objectionable about their work, however, is not that "they were too anxious, but that they were anxious about the wrong things." For these scientists, environmental problems occurred because humanity was unable to control the monster it had itself unleashed. The solution was simply to regain control through some form of technological "quick fix." But this approach depended upon a delusion, Young believes, that the scientific method would solve the very problems that it had earlier produced.

Christianity is no better equipped to answer pressing environmental concerns. Its dogma is strikingly anthropocentric. Moreover, its concept of the human stewardship of nature provided the very "ideological, educational, and administrative basis for a society . . . organized for economic growth" that placed the earth in its present, precarious position. Although Young notes that there are countercurrents within Christianity that challenge this overriding emphasis on economic expansion, and suggests that a "countercurrent can be diverted into the mainstream by a sudden turn of events," he doesn't really believe it. Liberation from what he calls "the imperatives of industrial society" more truly arise from secular sources or from a "Creation Spirituality" that predates Christianity.

This, as with other aspects of Young's analysis, depends on his steadfast belief that most effective remedies for the current debacle invariably have come from the political left. From eco-feminists we gain a spiritual connectedness with the planet that transcends sexist exploitation (just as from animal liberationists we have learned to respect other species); organic farmers offer a radical alternative to the wasteful practices of agribusiness; leftist ecologists have reminded us of the inequities of development, and point the way to more equitable distribution of goods, services and environmental health. It is out of this welter of groups and ideas, which, when combined with the anti-materialism inherent in the Islamic fundamentalist revival and Third World anti-colonialism, that Young hopes to forge a post-environmental consciousness, a kind of socialist good earth. IT MAY never flourish, of course, if that's its sole political base. The left's internecine struggles in capitalist countries, which so frequently deflect its energies, are legion. And its track record in countries in which it has held power, isn't exactly stellar. On the contrary, the governments of Central and Eastern Europe have been on the cutting edge of ecological despoliation. There, red and green have not mixed.

In this there is no little irony, for it has been the dramatic ringing down of the Iron Curtain that gives one such hope that other forms of political rejuvenation, including the reversal of long-standing patterns of environmental destruction, can be implemented. But the warm glow of glasnost can only stretch so far, as the recent Persian Gulf crisis reminds us. When threatened, we instinctively grab for bellicose imagery -- either Iraq will be flattened like a pancake, bombed back to the Stone Age or turned into a parking lot -- that reveals how expendable we in fact feel the earth to be. So much for loving your mother.

Char Miller teaches history at Trinity University in San Antonio and is writing a biography of Gifford Pinchot.