When I was taking life science in middle school, there seemed to be an overwhelming concern with the ecosystem in all the chapters of the textbook and in most of the lectures we were presented. It had the feel of what I can now call conservation biology. The message through much of my primary education went along these lines. With each science book read, or every class trip to the zoo, or the arboretum, it was exhaustively revealed that the environment was being destroyed, that the rain forest was being cut down at an alarming rate, that smog and acid rain were destroying landmarks, that pollution was becoming rampant, and that many species were becoming extinct. The typical things we heard were like, “at the current rate of destruction, by the year 2010 or so there won’t be much left of the rain forest.” While I and many others were taught that this was assuredly a terrible, tragic thing, there was the sense of thinking to myself, “No, people cannot be that stupid.” Or, perhaps more naively, “Well, they just don’t know what they are doing. Surely, once they are educated to realize we need the rain forest to stay the way it is, they will stop the clearcuts.
Obviously, little has changed. Pollution continues unabated, deforestation continues, species continue to die off at faster and faster rates. These facts are widely known, and have been for a long time, yet little concrete progress is made in conservation. (Certainly environmental destruction far outweighs conservation.) As a cultural critic, what concerns me is not the science or even sense of the ecosystem itself, but rather how culture perceives its relationship to the environment. What is the veil of denial that blinds the dominant culture from witnessing the clear evidence? What prevents it from acting? What numbs us from the pain of losing the essence of the world?
The perpetuation of the political atmosphere is, of course, and ideological maneuver. But the continual dismissal of the natural world, the kind of thinking behind not really believing in global warming, along with a litany of other dissociations from the ecosystem composes a set of ideologies which perpetuate the split from nature. Here I endeavor to look at the ideologies about nature through examining the way the dominant culture speaks about, reports on, and presents the natural world through its arts and media. Here I will examine how culture denies nature by attempting to convert nature from its wild, fluid organicity, into a domesticated, known, virtual order conforming to human ideologies that ultimately blind us, leading to familiar patterns of human inaction and passivity that perpetuate ecological destruction.
The premise behind this dissociation is not a truly deep embodied ecology, but persists as social construct, a mere idea of nature. It is the idea that nature is not something that is needed because it does not constitute a critical degree of perceived reality in the cultural milieu. That is to say, nature does not exist. I call the perpetuation of this social construct and idea of nature, this environmental ideology, envirology. It consists of virtual reality, virtual trees, virtual oceans, and an eventually complete virtualization of nature. It is not the world-in-itself. On the contrary, it is the murder of the world via mimesis. It is mere green screen, the digital setting for the action of culture.
Envirology, when turned from idea into behavior and affectation, does not concern itself with insight into the human condition. Envirology is an affront to humanity and everything that lives, because envirology is not living, it is undead, it is dead, but had the appearance of living. Envirology robs the human and nonhuman of subjectivity, declares war on subjectivity, enslaving the natural world in objective theoretical categories. Envirology lends to facile environmentalism. It is environmentalism co-opted by governments, corporatists, marketing executives, and oil barons. It becomes ideological propaganda which plays to the precise dissociation, alienation, and fragmentation of a postmodern technoculture obsessed with appearance, surfaces and endless wordplay. It is not introspective. It is rather the opposite, concerning itself with the appearance of concern; and the appearance of environmental and social responsibility. It usually entails the transference of responsibility onto another, turning responsibility into guilt-trips, false protests, and inefficient token actions which it celebrates as its own greening policies and its always inflated image of self-magnamamity and beneficence. Envirology offers no stimulus, no perception, no knowledge of how reality is. Envirology is simply the idea that nature is not really real.
Envirology has its most radical expression in modernity, in radical humanism, in the self-serving all-importance of the narcissistic modern self. It is technological. It is the urban night lights, creating a glowing halo over the city, destroying the existential link between the psyche and the universe of the night sky. It is the solar empire at the height of anthropocentrism. Envirology is the shade of the natural world as seen by the (post)modern self.
Origins of Envirology
C.G. Jung palpably felt this shade, fearing that humankind should not become so fuzzy-headed with modernity, with over-compensated Reason and civilization. He cautioned the dangers of a civilization disconnected from its physical, instinctual moorings. Reading the writing on the wall, he declared modernity owed a “Promethean debt.” [i] He adamantly argued that modernity was terribly lost in a culture of abstraction. “The danger that faces us today is that the whole of reality will be replaced by words. […] This accounts for the terrible lack of instinct in modern man, particularly the city dweller. He lacks all contact with life.” [ii]
In the absence of this contact with life, with the development of consciousness and language, nature becomes envirological scenery, becomes denaturated. Anarcho-primitivist philosopher John Zerzan writes, “At present we live within symbols to a greater degree than we do within our own bodily selves or directly with each other.” [iii] It is in this world of signs which urban, postmodern denizens reside. We know far more about mother culture than mother earth.
The first dissociation from direct contact with reality is the invention of symbolic thought. Symbols, while varying in their dissociative qualities, are direct compared to simulations. In his revolutionary book, Simulacra and Simulation, Jean Baudrillard develops the thesis that the world of culture and sign is so divorced from reality, that we can no longer apprehend the real at all. The real is forever lost, devoured by the simulation. “Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin of reality: a hyperreal […] – a precession of simulacra.” [iv] Where in myth, a symbol directly relates to a referent in the psyche, in postmodern culture, the opposite occurs, the simulation has nothing to do with the real. “Simulation […] is opposed to representation. Representation stems from the principle of equivalence of the sign and the real. Simulation, on the contrary, stems from the utopia of the principle of equivalence, from the radical negation of the sign as value, from the sign as reversion and death sentence of every reference.” [v]
In four stages of the disintegration of the image, Baudrillard breaks down how the direct representation of the authentic referential has devolved into its own radical system of images that, in effect, mock reality, eventually shrouding it in the obscurity he calls the “desert of the real”:
Successive phases of the image:
it is the reflection of a profound reality;
it masks and denaturates a profound reality;
it masks the absence of a profound reality;
it has no relation to any reality whatsoever: it is its own pure simulacrum.[vi]
It is here, in simulacrum, that envirology thrives, colluding itself with (post)modernist ideology, joining itself with the endless media stream of the hyperreal. Here concern about the environment becomes a news blip on the CNN ticker. Environmental concerns are expressed without deeper understandings of causation, relationship, and are reported merely as random, fragmentary, atomistic events, in which the trust of science ensures the culture that they have the know-how and technology to respond to any eco-crisis if only we conserved, recycled, and made minor tweaks in policy.
To an urban denizen, the image rules reality, as we create ever new ways to re-invent, alter, and surgically enhance our bodies and lifestyles. Guy Debord wrote in The Society of the Spectacle, that social life was signaling a, “decline of being into having and having into merely appearing.” [vii] Appearance rules, not reality. The Real now only seems like a falsehood. Baudrillard writes, “It is the TV that renders true.” [viii] It is not that “reality television” depicts reality, it is that television is reality. Compared to the reality of television, the reality of global warming is just a whopper, a hoax concocted by environmentalist wackos. It, along with the rest of reality is a trash heap of incredulity.
Ecological damage and something like global warming always seems like the normal thing because the world of culture is so fast, no one notices the real. How much destruction has already occurred is forgotten, unspoken, disappearing to irrelevance. Ecological destruction does not even make the news unless a notable cultural (that is, relevant) landmark is harmed. Edmund Carpenter, in his incendiary book Oh What a Blow that Phantom Gave Me!, writes, “News is what is reported, what isn’t reported isn’t news. Unreported news events don’t cease to exist, of course, they simply fall into an area devoid of social responsibility.” [ix] Or, it could be re-stated that the image is conveyed, what is not conveyed is not real. What is not imagined is not real. Only what is imagined becomes real. Entertainment has murdered reality, and got off the hook, having erased all the evidence that has disappeared into incredulity. This is true because trees no longer sing to our ears. All we hear is the high-pitched whine of the tube.
Network’s Howard Beale states the problem more plainly, pinning television down as the most potent weapon on the planet, the weaver of illusions perpetuating the modernist scheme to colonize the mind and peddle illusion for reality:
You people and 62 million Americans are listening to me right now. Because less than three percent of you people read books. Because less than fifteen percent of you read newspapers. Because the only truth you know is what you get over this tube. Right now, there is a whole and entire generation that never knew anything that didn’t come out of this tube! This tube is the Gospel. The ultimate revelation. This tube can make or break presidents, popes, prime ministers. This tube is the most awesome goddamn force in the whole godless world. And woe is us if it ever falls into the hands of the wrong people. […] And when the twelfth largest company in the world controls the most awesome goddamn propaganda force in the whole godless world, who knows what shit will be peddled for truth on this network! So you listen to me, listen to me! Television’s not the truth! Television is a goddamn amusement park! Television is a circus, a carnival, a traveling troupe of acrobats, storytellers, dancers, singers, jugglers, sideshow freaks, lion tamers, and football players. We’re in the boredom-killing business. […] We’ll tell you any shit you want to hear. We deal in illusions. None of this is true! But you people sit there, day after day, night after night, all ages, colors, creeds … we’re all you know. You’re beginning to believe the illusions we’re spinning here. You’re beginning to think the tube is reality and your own lives are unreal. You do whatever the tube tells you! You dress like the tube, you eat like the tube, you raise your children like the tube, even think like the tube! This is mass madness, you maniacs! In God’s name, you people are the real thing! We are the illusion! So turn off your television sets. Turn them off right now! […] Turn them off and leave them off! [x]
It was with Beale’s same sentiment of the death of reality that visual anthropologist Edmund Carpenter looked into how media, particularly visual media, changed societies being introduced to television and photography. His central idea is that visual media, even literacy, divorces mind from body, creates a split between an original instinct and the abstraction derived by disembodied signs that hints at the mastery of the simulation suggested by Baudrillard. Carpenter writes, “No dream experience, no ancient religion ever separated spirit from flesh more effectively than the electronic media.” [xi] This is why many cultures, he said, are suspicious of having their image taken by a camera, suspecting their soul would be stolen. He studied how cultures being introduced to photography suddenly became obsessed with how they appeared in the camera. It started a cultural crisis in society as the mystery of the subject became objectified in the image, confined to science, to our way of understanding, ultimately confined to our dictates of a technology of simulation. Carpenter writes, “We use media to destroy cultures, but we first use media to create a false record of what we are about to destroy.” [xii]
It would be a simple thing to do, and thought of as nothing but normal, to take a chainsaw to the rain forest if it was already killed by the television. The media destroys nature by submitting it to the tyranny of abstraction. The dominance of virtual reality assuredly maintains the separation of illusion and reality for generations now colonized by the imagery of a constant channel-flipping hyperreal collage. It is precisely the real which is sacrificed for its simulation. Just as in war, as soldiers dehumanize their human enemy in order to commit systemized murder, nature is denaturalized by envirology. Clearcuts are strangely like genocide in all its routine banality.
As a prosaic example, take the tiger logo of Exxon. Marketers intend it to mean the power of their fuel, asking consumers to “put a tiger in your tank.” But this kind of simulation of a tiger totem comes at the real-world expense of a multinational corporation causing the exact kind of ecological destruction that is killing endangered species like the Bengal tiger. Just assuredly, BP’s new green logo cost more to create and market than the sum total of their corporate initiatives developing clean fuel. This is how envirology mocks and destroys reality. The symbol has nothing at all to do with the reference, it disguises the reference, becoming its executioner.
It has too been remarked that as the genocide of the indigenous Americans was occurring, there were already “Indian head” coins being minted. Native Americans are still converted into the dominant culture’s racist and denaturalizing symbols for professional sports franchises. It is as though media were a factory designed to convert living realities and peoples into static images, wax figures for a postmodern referential vortex. The deathnail to once-thriving cultures is confined to the plastic diorama of history museums. Animals are kidnapped from their wild homes and placed in our zoos, into foliated cages, studied under our scientific order. They are preserved from the ecosystems our technocracy eradicated.
Recently, I got the HD-DVD box set of the BBC’s “Planet Earth” series, which shows some of the most fantastic nature cinematography ever attempted.[xiii] The narrator says that part of the motivation for making the series is that a few years this imagery will be a historical document. It is a time capsule chronicling animals converted from living flesh to simulation.
In showing my own amateur nature photography to my friends, I always have to meekly apologize for the quality of the photograph, adding the contrite caveat, “This doesn’t quite get it. You can’t really see how beautiful it was there.”
Trees do not exist in themselves, are not beautiful on their own merit, but are for show, for entertainment, for landscapers and arborists to mold into human vanities. Envirology is as reckless as English lawns and fake ponds in Phoenix.
The real reason to cut down old forests and plant saplings in their place has nothing to do with the trees themselves. Along roadsides in Houston, groups have started “reforestation projects.” Saplings are planted in mulch beds along the roadsides and in the medians. Pine trees near The George Bush Intercontinental Airport are crop-planted like corn. It could be that the planting is motivated out of an ecological guilt. But the planting shows not a bit of the thriving diversity of a healthy forest. It is devoid of wildness. It is completely controlled and irrigated like a flowerbed. The planting is, on the contrary, envirological. It is ever the domesticated hyperreal screen to hide more and more roads. Underneath even this motivation to hide the roads rests a deeper need. This is a projection of what we think of ourselves. Ultimately, what is domesticated is nature, but ourselves. This is about human crops: planted in little rows, into our scientific, statistical, data-laden domestic order.
In some dystopian near-future there will be a video game for environmentalists. It will be an interactive environment where you play an eco-warrior on a mission to save trees. And the avatar (the residual image of the digital self) can blow darts at bulldozers and chain herself to digital oak trees in some futile last-ditch effort to save old growth forests. This is the envirological ideal – to domesticate the planet into complete abstraction. The last forest will be a hologram, an no one will notice the difference.
The hologram is already upon culture. Derrick Jensen introduced the concept of the toxic mimic in his massive tome, Endgame. [xiv] As we are basically Pliestocene bodies growing up in a postmodern culture, and while we are acculturated into the tyranny of appearances, we yet possess the instincts of the ancients and maintain the naïve longings for an authentic relationship with nature. In our homes, we toxically mimic this relationship without understanding its significance or purpose. We hang pictures of natural scenes, or have artificial plants, CDs of birdsong, water fountains, aquariums, or pets. Sports mimic the primordial gestures of hunting clans. Telecommunication networks mimic authentic tribal communities. Television may be a mimic of dream life. Candy often now comes in the shape of actual food – candy that looks like corn, hamburgers, or fruit. Extracting candy from a machine mimics the action of picking berries off a bush.
Envirology and (Post)modern Consumer Environmentalism
Envirology is the toxic mimic of deep ecology. It mocks relationship. It is interested in its own agenda – the perpetuation of the simulation. It is the mode of ideological thinking which perpetuates facile concerns for the environment it destroys. Envirology is confined to the tyranny of appearances, where deep ecology seeks to realign the instincts toward the real. Envirology relies on marketing campaigns that carry political and corporatist agendas that appeal to the consumerist relationship. Envirology relies on slogans to express itself. “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” and “Green it, mean it!” come to mind. Envirology is behind the holiday Earth Day. (Only a heliocentric society would create an arbitrarily-dated earth-based day. Terracentric societies celebrated holidays for the sun – Solstice and Equinox). It creates plantations of trees in the wake of clearcutting once healthy, diverse old growth forests. It is this obsession with appearances and surfaces that play to the sociopathic drift of global corporatism, bent on robbing nature of subjectivity. It converts the real of the living ecosystem into the pure abstraction of cash. And it is these shallow maneuvers of environmentalism to press for biofuels, hybrid technology, and the like, which only make oil go further rather than derive real, concrete, long-term internal answers for the ecological crisis. And it is the domination of the media to manipulate information, perpetuate the disembodimenent of modern culture, and confuse realty in a glass darkly effectively obscuring ecology and ecological scientism from understanding. The dominant society has a talent for appropriating the local into the global, organizing it within itself, creating a parody of genuine change. Environmentalism is this parody of deep ecology. It prevents change, while trying to maintain the appearance of care and concern. This false concern is a castrated concern, having no real potency except as a simulation of care. At best, environmentalist corporate slogans, (most of which coincide with the token holiday – Earth Day), effort themselves to relieve the corporation of guilt by placing undo responsibility and guilt on consumers with ideological injunctions to conserve resources.
Zerzan agrees that postmodernism lends its dogma to an ever-increasing technocracy over the human. In Running on Emptiness: The Pathology of Civilization, he writes, “Virtual reality’s merely surface experience is exactly mirrored by postmodernism’s fascination with surfaces. As the culture that can just barely still be called one, postmodernism celebrates its own depthlessness, and is thus nihilism’s essential accomplice” (113).[xv] He continues, “The modernist project at least made room for the apocalyptic; now we are expected to hover forever – as if much of even survival seems likely – in a world of surfaces and simulation that ensure the “erasure” of the real world and the dispersal of both the self and the social.” [xvi]
In effect, postmodern environmentalism has been ineffectual at slowing the inertia of modernity because it fails to offer a radical enough break from the modern self. The culture of media, information, and the fragmentation of news and discourse has done nothing but exacerbate the dismemberment, confusion and numbness moderns feel towards their ecosystem. It is in the gargantuan piles of stats, images, recordings, archives, libraries, and infinitesimal gigabytes of digitalized data about the virtual world that we have lost the simplicity of the direct enchantment of our home planet and bodies. For all our data, we lack wisdom.
Ecofeminist philosopher Charlene Spretnak, author of The Resurgence of the Real, also rails against this type of postmodern doctrine, calling it just as dogmatic as the modernity it purports to rebel against, viewing reality only as a series of social constructs, rather than as reality for its own sake:
Besides being a theory that presents humans as disembodied and disembedded, thus perpetuating the modern belief that we live on top of nature, there are other problems with deconstructionism. It is very patriarchal in its conceptualization of relationship as inherently oppressive, making no distinctions between relationships that are oppressive and those that evoke and nurture the unfolding of the person and the deep subjectivity of every entity on the planet. […] The path I would like to take beyond the mechanistic, dualistic, anti-nature, anti-spiritual orientation of modernity is a postmodernism that leads not into the nihilism of extreme relativism but, rather, to an ecological postmodernism. Such an orientation would emerge from the sense that our social construction is grounded in the fact that we are embodied organisms embedded in subtle processes of nature. [xvii]
Postmodernism has lent itself in de-potentiating the atomistic and anthropocentric biases of modernity, but has forced the Englightenment Project into even more radical and doctrinaire version of modernity consisting of posthuman technocracies, abstraction, and even pervasive unreality that has exacerbated envirological contempt. The critical issue facing postmodernity is its ineffectiveness as a critique of the dominant worldview. This leaves a void for an alternative critique and worldview. What deep ecology and depth psychology is offer a different critique of modernity, a premodern critique of the western self. It results in a far more radical shift from the foundations of modern civilization – a subject with far-reaching consequences beyond the scope of this paper – but which is the sole antidote to the deathly hallows of envirology.
Collapsing the Virtual World / The Secret Desire for Green Apocalypse
Beyond culture is a language older than words, a language of the body, of trees, of animals, of rivers. It echoes through the body, a faint call of the sensuous. The way is lighted by fireflies, longing for the ancient world. It is mirrored in romantic notions of the primitive, burgeoning as a premodern critique. The eventual embrace of this premodern critique may not be a casual choice for culture to finally have to make. For if the ecosystem is to be taken seriously, as it must, it is the ecosystem itself which will force the issue and demand its legitimate place in the body, hermeneutically, in the dreams of the collective prepared to engage the world with a renewed sensibility. Perhaps people do not really understand global warming as a reality because of simple epistemological ignorance. Because we see not what hubris we have, and what havoc we’ve sown. In this, we are much like the Atlantians. As we witness the waters rise and coastal cities flood, nature will insist on its supremacy over reality and deflate the hubris of the modern self, bringing (post)modernity to a halt. Perhaps there is a secret primitivist desire, like a splinter in the collective, longing for collapse, for the wild, for a vast untamed expanse.
[i] C.G. Jung, The Earth Has a Soul: The Nature Writings of C.G. Jung, Ed. Meredith Sabini (Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2005), 78.
[ii] Ibid, 138.
[iii] John Zerzan, Running on Emptiness: The Pathology of Civilization, (Los Angeles: Feral House, 2002), 2.
[iv] Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, Trans. Sheila Faria Glaser (Ann Arbor, MI: U. of Michigan, 1995), 2.
[v] Ibid, 6.
[vi] Ibid, 6.
[vii] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Brooklyn, NY: Zone Books), 16.
[viii] Jean Baudrillard, 29
[ix] Edmund Carpenter, Oh What a Blow that Phantom Gave Me!, (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1976), 12.
[x] Sydney Lumet (dir), Network (Warner Brothers, 1976).
[xi] Edmund Carpenter, Oh What a Blow that Phantom Gave Me!, (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1976), 165.
[xii] Ibid, 12.
[xiii] Alister Fothergill
Reproduced from my archive, 2008