Industrial Environmentalism vs. Holistic Environmentalism

Photo: BONGURI/Flickr.

There is an increasing utilitarianism being used by some environmentalists. A holistic approach has been scrapped for an industrial one that isolates goals and targets solutions. We might call this industrial environmentalism. This industrial environmentalism is concerned with solving particular problems rather than a wholesale lifestyle change toward living at nature's pace. It is interested in conserving water, but not conserving farms. It is interested in stopping global warming, but it will sacrifice an ecologically significant river for a hydroelectric dam.

This industrial environmentalism is convenient for the greening of corporations. A corporation can become "green" by picking any single problem, creating some solution to it, and going about destroying the ecosystem in every other aspect of their work. Monsanto has recently embarked on a strategy to create GMO corn, soybeans and cotton that will yield twice as much as current seeds and will use 30 percent less water. This is a wonderful thing from the perspective of the industrial environmentalists. Less land could be used for growing more crops, and fewer water resources would be required for double the yield.

But there is a central problem here, and it becomes apparent when we step out of the realm of the simple logic of utilitarianism. "If the earth is holy, then the things that grow out of the earth are also holy. They do not belong to man to do with them as he will." These lines from L.H. Bailey's conservation classic The Holy Earth cuts through all of the instrumentalism of Monsanto's tired PR strategy that it is helping feed the world, improve the lives of the poor, and better the environment (a strategy that the green revolution has used for over 30 years and Monsanto is now pushing to bloggers like myself).

For Bailey the Earth is something beyond us, something that was here before us, something that we are a part of rather than possess. Monsanto uses biotechnology to create plants that cannot reproduce after the first generation, and then patents the resulting genetic code, betraying the agrarian tradition of seed saving and the free availability of genetic material. Yes, we must solve human problems, but we must do it without stepping out of the basic rules of nature, and we should proceed with great caution when determining what and where those rules lie.

As Bailey writes, "A good part of agriculture is to learn how to adapt one's work to nature, to fit the crop-scheme to the climate and to the soil and the facilities. To live in right relation with his natural conditions is one of the first lessons that a wise farmer or any other wise man learns." To be in "right relation" to our natural conditions, that is the heart of true conservation, it is the heart of the deepest tradition of environmentalism.

When we ignore that tradition and idea, we simply participate in the same mindset that has always driven the destruction of the world. It is the mindset that says "nature isn't good enough." We have to do more than cultivate its natural dispositions according to its natural limits as we do in the domestication of plants and animals. We have to change its fundamental DNA because nature doesn't meet our needs — the limits of nature are too confining.

Industrial environmentalism, it turns out, is no environmentalism at all. It is just industrialism, pure and simple, no matter what color you paint it.

Story by Ragan Sutterfield. This article originally appeared in Plenty in June 2008. The story was added to

Copyright Environ Press 2008