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The Irony Of Environmental History (David Barr and Jeremy Sabella)

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The following inaugurates an occasional symposium on contemporary politics through a Niebuhrian lens.  The original posts on which these discussions are based may be found here

The debates around the Paris Agreement since President Trump’s announcement have revealed not only how much Americans disagree about climate change, but also how much we disagree about why we disagree about climate change. Many on the left spoke of a conflict between reality and denial or between facts and greed.

Meanwhile, many on the right (especially evangelicals), put the differences in terms of world views. For example, Al Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said the following on his podcast:

 The secular worldview that has been largely behind the environmental movement since the 1960s and 1970s is predicated on a very un-biblical notion of the cosmos and of human beings. That worldview largely sees human beings ourselves as the problem and the exercise of dominion as the great evil…Oftentimes in this heated controversy you will hear the two positions sometimes reduced to simply the scientists and the science deniers. But…the science itself is predicated upon a worldview, and that worldview…is very clear in seeing human beings as the problem and denying any kind of divine purpose to the creation, not to mention to the role of human beings within it.

 For Mohler, this debate is less about objective evidence and more about core beliefs: The science itself is predicated upon a worldview. People’s thoughts on this subject are rooted in views about God, humanity, and the universe, regardless of their claims to scientific objectivity.

As a committed environmentalist who reads widely in the field, I concede that he is not wrong to see an anti-human preoccupation in environmentalism. A basic presupposition of the field is that whatever a landscape is like before human contact is good and normal, and whatever changes occur as a result of human action are bad.

The environment is considered an intrinsically good thing, and Mohler is right that the field lacks a clear sense of a positive “role of human beings within it.” Environmentalists often view the techno-industrial development of the last few centuries as mere arrogant, greedy exploitation, with no recognition of the benefits it has brought or of the real, but limited, role of noble motivations in driving it.

The idea that human modifications of the environment are driven only by greed and avarice strikes many as implausible. It just doesn’t line up with what they know about the complexity and goodness of real people. If environmentalists so misconstrue the drivers of human civilization, it is not a stretch to think they misconstrue climate science. This is why many folks conclude that climate science is just an expression of a secular, anti-human worldview.

While I interpret the anti-human rhetoric in environmentalism as throwing the baby out with the bathwater, Mohler and others conclude that environmentalists create concern about the bathwater merely as an excuse to throw out the baby. As environmentalist rhetoric intensifies, it confirms, rather than alleviates, their suspicions that climate science is driven by a hostile view of humanity.

Here, I think Niebuhr may be of some help. In his 1952 book, The Irony of American History, he argued that the communists made several trenchant points about the growing imperialism of the U.S., warnings Americans ought to have heeded. Americans were resistant to these insights because the Marxist critics explained our economic and military ascendency as a result of our greed, ambition, and exploitation.

That description, understandably, seemed unfair and inaccurate to Americans. We knew that a good portion of our wealth was the result of honest hard work, ingenuity, and so on. Because of its severity, the criticism seemed unwarranted and thus biased, so we explained it as the fruit of a twisted ideology.

We asserted our innocence of all charges, thereby blinding ourselves to the real moral dangers that our newfound power placed us in. We resisted clear evidence of the moral murkiness that we had entered when we became a superpower who had to intervene in conflicts around the world. The Marxists overstated our vice, so we overstated our virtue, leading us both to miss the messiness and ambiguity of what was really going on.

Niebuhr offered a way forward by arguing that America’s history was neither purely virtuous, nor vicious, but ironic. America found itself in a position of great power despite not seeking it. Americans had wanted to develop in isolation and peace, but the very success of that development thrust us into a leadership position on a world stage. America found itself capable of causing great harm when it acted or failed to act.

If we insisted on our complete innocence, in reaction to the communists, we would fail to grasp the moral precariousness of our position. “Irony” allowed Niebuhr to show our potential for injustice in our new position of power and the need to take responsibility for that power, without accusing us of unjustly seeking it. It voiced criticism in a way Americans could hear it.

I think the Niebuhrian concept of “irony” can play the same role today. Instead of diagnosing climate change as the result of greedy exploitation, we can see that it is (at least in part) an ironic result of some of the very best features of our species. We can see that the same power over nature which delivered us from natural vulnerability and danger, involves us in new vulnerabilities and new dangers.

We can see ourselves with power that threatens the planet, without having sought to pose such a threat. “Irony” allows us to describe the moral dangers of our situation, without insisting that all the expressions of human life which contribute to it are therefore evil. If environmentalists can communicate the reality of climate science without anti-human overtones, then there would no longer be reason for anyone to think of it as merely a projection of anti-human ideology.

In short, if we acknowledge the irony of environmental history, then we can recognize and affirm the value of human development, while accepting the reality of, and taking responsibility for, the unintended consequences of those actions.

David Barr is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago, who specializes in Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christian realism and environmentalism.

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A Response By Jeremy Sabella

By engaging the topic of climate change, Barr’s Irony of Environmental History tackles one of the Gordian knots of American politics. He argues convincingly that Niebuhr’s category of irony can create space for both sides of the climate change debate to engage in productive dialogue. His original reflection merits a careful read, as it is rife with implications for our hyper-partisan moment.

Barr begins by noting that our impasses on climate change are more fundamental than we typically realize. We don’t merely disagree; “we disagree about why we disagree about climate change.” After quoting Southern Baptist Theological seminary president and climate change skeptic Al Mohler at length, Barr notes, “For Mohler, this debate is less about objective evidence and more about core beliefs… about God, humanity, and the universe” that shape how we view and interpret climate data. In other words, “the science itself is predicated on a worldview.

For Mohler, the worldview underpinning environmental science is anti-human. Based on his environmental history background, Barr concedes that environmental science is often couched in anti-human terms. As a field, environmentalism tends to presuppose that ecosystems are at their pristine best prior to human contact and begin to degrade as soon as that contact is made.

In this narrative of decline, humans take on the biblical role of Satan: they are responsible for the fall and ongoing degradation of the environment. It is little wonder, then, that the millions of Christians who read the Creation story of Genesis literally would respond to environmentalist critiques in such negative terms: what could be more fundamentally false than depicting the human species in terms reminiscent of the serpent in the Garden?

For Barr, Niebuhrian irony creates space for productive dialogue by pushing us to acknowledge unintended consequences. Niebuhr published The Irony of American History in 1952, at the height of the Cold War. On Barr’s reading, Americans were unable to hear the Marxist critique because they perceived it as too one-sided. Where Marxists attributed America’s overwhelming economic and military might as the product of unbridled greed, rank-and-file Americans saw American success rooted in ingenuity and hard work.

For many Americans, the Marxist failure to acknowledge American goodness discredited Marxist critiques. Niebuhr used irony to affirm the nobility of his audience’s intentions while pushing them to take responsibility for their actions. Although American behavior on the world stage was typically driven by good intentions, well-intended actions can have unintended negative consequences. And we have an obligation to take responsibility for these consequences—even when brought to our attention by Marxist-Leninists.

I would argue that Cold War era impasses ran deeper than one-sidedness. Much like today’s impasses over climate change, it was predicated on fundamentally different worldviews. For those who saw the Cold War as a contest between the godly West and godless communism, Marxist-Leninism was an antihuman ideology that required individuals to sacrifice their God-given freedoms for the sake of the collective. Whatever critiques of America this form of Marxism might generate came out of such a distorted worldview that it wasn’t even worth engaging.

Niebuhr didn’t try to absolve Marxist-Leninism of the charge of being dangerously misguided. Instead, he argued that the moral character of our actions has less to do with the “correctness” of our worldview than we like to think. As finite and deeply flawed human beings, even our most well-intentioned actions can have disastrous consequences. And even our foes can have insights we lack into what we’ve done wrong and how to fix it. This obliges us to at least listen to the other side, no matter how fundamentally wrong we believe them to be.

Which brings us to what Niebuhrian irony has to offer our own hyper-polarized moment. If we take Niebuhr’s treatment of irony seriously, we cannot use worldview as a litmus test to determine who is and isn’t worth listening to. If even the most enlightened among us see through a glass darkly, our closest allies can take disastrous courses of action, and our staunchest opponents can have valuable insights.

Environmentalists and conservative Christians have something to teach one another. Starting from this premise, perhaps they can at least start talking to rather than past each other.

Jeremy Sabella studies religion and politics in the post-World War II era. His doctoral thesis, entitled The Politics of Original Sin, examined how prominent political actors in the early Cold War period deployed the Christian notion of original sin to shape U.S. foreign policy. His present work explores how the apocalyptic and Manichean language used to frame Cold War conflict persists in contemporary politics. Most recently, he served as lead consultant for An American Conscience, the award-winning documentary on twentieth century theologian and social critic Reinhold Niebuhr featured on PBS, and authored the eponymous companion book published by Wm. B. Eerdmans in 2017. He currently teaches at Kalamazoo College. 

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