Conservation and Christianity

I’ve always been a bit suspicious of the decrying of environmentalism as ‘puritanical’. My objection can be found in exaggerated form in a Hakim Bey one-liner: ‘The dullard finds even wine tasteless but the sorcerer can be intoxicated by the mere sight of water.’ My experience of the culture of environmentalism is of people (who may or may not be sorcerers) who are involved in awakening a deeper sensual engagement with the world — only one less beholden to a profit-driven stimulation overdrive approach. (Though yes, they would probably want the wine as well as the water.)

At the same time, through my research into prehistoric and indigenous violence, I developed a great respect for the work done by Survival International to fight prejudice against foragers and tribal societies. So reading Survival director Stephen Corry’s article on the roots of American environmentalism in Calvinism, and the terrible consequences of this for indigenous people, was a curious mixture of feelings — like a few too-comfortable notions being stirred by a breath of fresh air. As ever, properly including so-called ‘primitives’ in the picture leads to a more sophisticated perspective.

The crux for Corry is the apparent prevalence of Calvinist inheritance in the foundations of the mainstream US conservation movement. The Calvinist belief is that nature — as God’s work — is one of our best inroads to contemplating divinity. Combine this with a predictably heavy-handed approach to human frailty, and you have a recipe for a profoundly anti-human environmentalism. Scholars say that the theological term applied to humans here — ‘total depravity‘ — has been much misunderstood. But surely, understandably so!

This current, feeding as it does into environmentalism, has serious implications for environmentalist thinking and attitudes. But as is often the case, simple-minded critiques fuelled by their own ideologies usually compound the problem. A typical leftist reaction — coming from the core leftist background of atheist fundamentalism, and a militant humanism with an instrumentalist attitude to the environment — is to decry environmentalism per se as merely a sentimental theological inheritance, hair-shirt Puritanism. Clearly, given the Calvinist angle, this attack seizes on an important point. But the attack blunders in and trashes much that’s important in environmentalism. The left has slowly conceded much here, as ecological issues become harder to ignore; but you’ll still find many stuck in their perception of environmentalism being stuck in theology.

Vital to understanding Corry’s attack is the important work he’s involved in. Survival International run a specific campaign about the overlap between conservation and indigenous cultures — an overlap that frequently devastates tribal populations. Their subsistence hunting becomes ‘poaching’, and they are sometimes terrorised by WWF-funded anti-poaching squads.

While Survival have a clear agenda, they’re not ideological enough to just reactively trample over conservationism as a concept. In fact, there is a good case to be made for indigenous protectionism and conservation to be natural partners. Many ‘pristine’ wildernesses (the Amazon rainforest is a good example) have actually been profoundly shaped by native populations over long periods of time. Corry rightly argues that indigenous people are usually the best stewards of any landscape, and that the Calvinist drive to conserve the environment by ridding it of humans — even those who have lived there for thousands of years — is having grave consequences. Not least for the humans, but also for the environment.

I do have some reservations about Corry’s position. While I fully support his motives, and don’t see his agenda as distorting the issues damagingly, there are some distortions going on. It’s important — given the penchant that civilisations have for classing hunter-gatherers as sub-human — to maintain the truth that the indigenous are people just like us. However, they’re clearly not cultures like us. The reason they are often the best stewards of a bioregion is that their social scale and the way they subsist can easily mesh sustainably with the local ecology. They’re not perfect, benevolent guardians.1 They are, as Daniel Quinn put it, ‘as harmless as sharks’. Not ethical saints (a civilised ideal, which arose in response to the scope for corruption that civilisation unleashed), but parts of nature. The word ‘harmonious’ is tempting to use, but it seems freighted with too much romantic baggage. We just need to remember that this baggage has been loaded onto it by reaction against demonstrably unharmonious industrial societies.2

Corry favourably compares Europe’s national parks — which often integrate working farms or villages — with the US ring-fencing attitude. It’s a bit disingenuous, though, to remark, ‘I can find no conservation zone on that continent [Europe] that has been founded on the eviction or killing of its inhabitants.’ To simply compare this situation with the US, without an extended foray into the Mesolithic and Neolithic spread of farming across Europe, seems off. Historically we’re talking about apples and oranges. And from the perspective of Britain, which has clearly deprived itself of too much uncultivated space, the attitude to conservation here is perhaps lax—like someone reacting against a stern Protestant background and getting a bit too slovenly.

At the same time, there is undoubtedly an important point here. While there are significant differences in integration with nature between pre-civilised societies on the one hand, and industrial societies on the other, and while there is no question of a ‘return to nature’ (i.e. the Stone Age) as a global way forward, any way forward surely involves some new mode of integration between humanity and nature. We cannot literally mimic the hunter-gatherer way, but there is inspiration to be found in this, our most successful way of living to date. Not a return to the Palaeolithic, but a return of the Palaeolithic, as Hakim Bey said.

The task we face is to juggle the recognition of human embeddedness in nature and the aggressive energy needed for the dismantling aspect of a transformation of industrial civilisation. Emphasising embeddedness as a simple fact runs the risk of enabling the obviously destructive aspects of civilisation. Aggressive dismantling without embeddedness risks lacking a vision for what’s next other than another Stone Age. Corry emphasises embeddedness in order to resist the idea that tribal people, because of their embeddedness, are somehow fundamentally ‘other’ than us, as well as to counter the Calvinist ‘hands-off’ approach to conservation. However, there are myriad factions — from outright money-greedy polluters to those pursuing misguided attempts at ‘green capitalism’ — whose ultimately destructive approaches are emboldened by simple reactions against this Calvinism.

Bear this in mind as we try to unpick this unfortunate inheritance, another gripe in our Christian hangover. Perhaps just as importantly, we need to do this unpicking. Environmentalists must do it, as a form of positive self-criticism. Otherwise anti-environmentalists will do it, and they will do it badly.