Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Green Values

Elizabeth Kolbert’s article on Amory Lovins (“Mr. Green” Jan. 22, 2007) exposes a vexing problem at the core of contemporary environmentalism. Lovins offers example after example of ecologically savvy solutions, by shrewdly linking energy conservation with the charms of free-market economics. Then, towards the end of the article, Lovins unconvincingly invokes the phrases ‘moral’, ‘spiritual’, and ‘higher purpose’ in order to explain why people will not simply consume more resources once energy can be produced and consumed more efficiently: “Every faith tradition that I know decries materialism.” Lovins then quotes the first two lines of Wallace Stevens’s poem “The Well Dressed Man with a Beard”: “After the final no there comes a yes / And on that yes the future world depends.” Importantly, though, Stevens is playing off of Nietzsche’s insistence that the ‘no’s of the world are precisely spiritual and theological in nature: so-called ‘higher purpose’ is often an excuse for not taking lower, earthly matters more seriously. Thus, to be truly environmental, humans must say ‘yes’ to the material world—in all its complexity—before enduring positive changes can be enacted. Kolbert’s article shows that as long as environmentalists defer to metaphysical justifications for human behavior, true ecological awareness will be endlessly deferred.