Pantheism and Two Kinds of Environmentalism

Alexis de Tocqueville, as my friend Mark Movsesian reminds us, believed that the passion for equality in democracy would lead inevitably to the rise of pantheism, because even in their religious views people would no longer tolerate any inequality, including the distinction between the creator and the created. Today I see Tocqueville’s prediction most confirmed in the pantheism manifested in certain forms of environmentalism.

By no means is all environmentalism a religion. Cold economic analysis shows that without the restraints of law, companies and even individuals may impose harmful pollution on others. It makes sense to impose liability on such actors for several reasons. They are generally the lowest cost avoiders because they can most easily take steps to mitigate or eliminate the noxious effluence of their activities. Moreover, those who profit from an activity should pay for the diminution of others’ substantial enjoyment.

But some environmentalism is concerned with preventing change even if the vast majority of people would not feel the effects of that change as harmful. That seems to be the conception of E.O. Wilson who argued in the New York Times that it is imperative that we prevent the loss of species that human activity is causing. He did not even show that the we are losing species on net. Some scientists believe that the environmental changes caused by humans are also bringing many species into being. That is hardly a surprising proposition: throughout evolution changes in the environment have created millions of species even as they have destroyed others.

But what is most striking about Wilson’s argument is that he makes little or no effort to connect the loss of our current set of species to concrete harms to humans or even to disturbance of the enjoyment of anyone but the scientists who study them. To be sure, he is right that knowledge of these species will be lost, but it wholly unclear if that will have substantial effects either, particularly if knowledge of replacement species is gained instead. But it is clear that regulating human activity so as to avoid all species loss may have large costs, particularly in the developing world. That is the kind of consideration that a more pragmatic environmentalist would make in a cost benefit analysis.

Similarly, it is reasonable to worry about climate change to the extent that it harms people. But there is no reason in a pragmatic morality necessarily to be concerned with having a static climate.  In determining social policy man should be treated as the measure of things, not animals or the inanimate world. To think otherwise is to adopt the religious view about which Tocqueville warned.