Left Green Perspectives #15




The Population Myth II
by Murray Bookchin

Before the 1970s, Malthusianism in its various historical forms claimed to rest on a statistically verifiable formula: that population increases geometrically while food supply increases merely arithmetically. At the same time, anti-Malthusians could refute it using factual data. Arguments between Malthusians and their opponents were thus based on empirical studies and rational explorations of the proliferation of human beings (despite the failure of Malthusians to introduce social factors that could either promote or inhibit population growth). Anti-Malthusians could empirically inventory the food that is available to us and take practical measures to increase the supply; food production could be assessed in terms of technological innovations that enhanced productivity. Land available for cultivation could be explored and put into production, often with minimal ecological damage. In short, pro- and anti-Malthusian arguments occurred within a rational arena of discourse and were subject to factual verification or refutation.

Today this situation seems to be changing radically. In an era of aggressive irrationalism and mysticism, earlier empirical assessments are becoming increasingly irrelevant. The l980s have seen the emergence of a New Age, indeed a mystical Malthusianism that does not draw on rationality to justify its own amorality and indifference to human suffering. The relationship between population and food is being thoroughly mystified. Herein lies a major problem in contemporary discussions on demographics.

Often this view surfaces as a pious concern about the human suffering that could be alleviated in presumably “overpopulated” areas through population control measures. This view can be as sincere as it is naive. But taken still further–as it commonly is–it can shade into a more sinister demographic ethos that argues for the need to keep those populations that are sinking into chronic famine from climbing into and overloading the human “lifeboat.”

Biocentrism and the New Age Malthusians

If earlier discussions on population were anchored in rational discourse, the current crop of Malthusians tend to mystify the relationship between population and the availability of food. Human beings are often seen as a “cancer” on the biosphere, a force for ecological dislocation and planetary destruction. The earth, in turn, is deified into an all-presiding “Gaia.” “Gaia” is imparted with a mystical “will” and with divine powers that countervail a socially abstract “humanity,” bereft of any gender, class, ethnicity, or social status. “Gaia” can then visit upon this socially undifferentiated “Us” retributive acts like famine, war, and, more currently in the Malthusian repertoire of vengeance, the AIDS epidemic. This view is not arguable; it is totally irrational.

Cast in this sinister form, the eco-mystical Malthusians of the post-sixties era tend to reduce human misfortune and its social sources to an eco-theistic apocalypse. The traditional Malthusian numbers game tends to give way to a New Age morality drama in which the social sources of hunger are eclipsed by ineffable supernaturalistic ones. All this is done in the name of a theistic version of ecology–one that ironically is grounded in a crudely anthropomorphic personification of the earth as a divinity.

In principle, Malthusianism and most of its later variations have argued that people breed indefinitely, like lemmings, until they come up against “natural limits” imposed by the food supply. “Biocentricity” has provided a new wrinkle; the biocentric notion that human beings are “intrinsically” no different in “worth” from other animals lends a helping hand to Malthusianism. For after these “natural limits” are reached, “Gaia” dictates in some strange voice of “Her” own that starvation and death must ensue until population is reduced to the “carrying capacity” of a particular region.

By reducing the need for social sophistication to biological simple-mindedness, biocentrism’s broad identification of the “worth” of human beings and the “worth” of nonhumans denies to our species the enormous role that conceptual thought, values, culture, economic relationships, technology, and political institutions play in literally determining the “carrying capacity” of the planet on the one hand and in influencing human behavior in all its forms on the other. With startling mindlessness, socioeconomic factors are once again erased and their place is taken by a crude biologism that equates human “intrinsic worth” with that of lemmings, or–to use the animals of choice in the firmament of biocentrism–wolves, grizzly bears, cougars, and the like.

Two very important conclusions emerge from such one-dimensional thinking. The first is the equatability of human with nonhuman beings in terms of their “intrinsic worth.” But if human beings are no better “intrinsically” than lemmings, their premature death is at least morally acceptable. Indeed, their death may even be biologically desirable in the “cosmic” scheme of things–that is, in order to keep “Gaia” on course and happy. Population control can then go beyond mere contraceptive advice to calculated neglect, fostering a “permissible” degree of famine and welcoming mass death from starvation. Such a situation occurred in Europe in the terrible Irish potato famine of the l840s, when entire families perished due in no small part to Malthusian arguments against “intervention” in an “natural course of events.”

Whether biocentrism’s mystical equation of the worth of humans and lemmings will pave the way to a future Auschwitz has yet to be seen. But the “moral” grounds for letting millions of people starve to death has been established with a vengeance, and it is arrogantly being advanced in the name of “ecology.”

A second conclusion that emerges from biocentric mysticism is an attempt to deprecate human intervention into nature as such. A blanket assumption exists among many biocentrists that human involvement in the natural world is generally bad and that “Gaia knows best.” With this mystical assumption of a “knowing” Gaia that has a suprahuman personality of its own, the earthquake that killed tens of thousands of Armenians could easily be justified as “Gaia’s response” to overpopulation.

Not surprisingly, assorted environmental groups who have made biocentricity a focal point in their philosophies tend toward a passive-receptive mysticism. Heidegger’s numbing “openness to Being,” Spinoza’s fatalism, and various Asian theologies that enjoin us to yield to a mindless quietism have attained a trendy quality that beclouds ecological issues with mystical overtones. We thus spin in an orbit of circular reasoning that subordinates human action to a supernatural world of largely mythic activity. The result is that action as such become suspect irrespective of the social conditions in which it occurs.

Exactly at a time when we need the greatest clarity of thought and rational guidance to resolve the massive environmental dislocations that threaten the very stability of the planet, we are asked to bend before a completely mysterious “will” of “Gaia” that serves to paralyze human will and that darkens human perception with theistic chimeras. The ability to clearly think out the contradictions this mentality produces is blocked by theistic appeals to a mysticism that places a ban on logic and reason.

When a prominent ecological poet who has embraced deep ecology can claim (as he reportedly has) that for humanity to co-exist with grizzly bears and redwood trees, California’s population will have to be reduced to one million people, another dilemma confronts us. It is no longer even an area’s material “carrying capacity” that is to determine the human population it can sustain. “Carrying capacity” itself is literally dematerialized and redefined in an eco-mystical way as “wilderness,” which acquires suprahuman, even mysterious qualities of its own. No longer do people seem to be crowding out wilderness, but rather wilderness is expected to crowd out people.

This counterposition of “primal” wilderness to humanity and to humanity’s social “second nature” is completely atavistic. The view pivots on a myth that humanity is a stranger to natural evolution–indeed, that humanity’s social “second nature” has no relationship to biology’s presumably enchanted “first nature.” To the Enlightenment of two centuries ago, humanity–at least, potentially–was the very voice of nature, and its place in nature utterly noble insofar as society was rational and humane.

The Mystical Malthusians

Today we are beginning to hear a new message. “The human race could go extinct,” declares Dave Foreman, “and I, for one, would not shed any tears.” Absurd as it may be, this view is not a rarity. Indeed, it is implicit in much of the thought that exists among the eco-mystics and eco-theists.

What is important is that when grizzly bears can be placed on a par with human beings in the name of biocentricity–and I am surely not trying to make a case for the “extermination” of bears–we are witnessing not a greater sensitivity to life in general but a desensitization of the mind to human agony, consciousness, personality, and the potentiality of human beings to know and to understand that no other life form can approximate. In an era of sweeping depersonalization and irrationalism, the value of human personality and human rationality ceases to count.

Reverence for nature, even respect for nonhuman life, provides no guarantee that humans will be included in the orbit of a “life-oriented” mythos, the present crop of eco-mystics and eco-theists to the contrary notwithstanding. The classical example of this is what Robert A. Pois has called an “ingenuous permutation of mysticism” in the Nazi movement. Nazism, alas, was more than ingenuous. Hitler’s Mein Kampf registered a stern, indeed “cosmic” view “that this planet once moved through the ether for millions of years without human beings, and it can do so again someday if men forget that they owe their higher existence, not to the ideas of a few crazy ideologists, but to the knowledge and ruthless application of Nature’s stern and rigid laws.” Alfred Rosenberg, the ideologist par excellence of Nazism, railed against Jewish “dualism” and avowed a neopagan pantheism “for a bridging of the gap between spirit and matter through deification of nature,” to cite Pois’s summary. This kind of language can be found at varying levels of intensity in the writings of deep ecologists, eco-mystics, and eco-theists today, who would certainly eschew any association with Nazism and who would avow their innocence in fostering the cultural legacy they are creating.

Heinrich Himmler, who deployed the entire machinery of the SS in a vast operation to systematically kill millions of people, held this view with a vengeance. “Man,” he told his SS leaders in Berlin in June l942, at the height of the Nazis’ extermination operations, “is nothing special.” Ironically, his icy rejection of humanism found its fervent counterpart in his passionate love of animal life. Thus Himmler complained to a hunter, one Felix Kersten, “How can you find pleasure, Herr Kersten, in shooting from behind cover at poor creatures browsing on the edge of a wood, innocent, defenseless, and unsuspecting? It’s really pure murder. Nature is so marvelously beautiful and every animal has a right to live.” Such a passion for animal “rights” is often the opposite side of the misanthropic coin. Indeed, hatred of humanity has often reinforced adulation of animals, just as hatred of civilization has often reinforced hypersentimental “naturalism.”

I have adduced the shadowy world of suprahuman “naturism” to suggest the perilous ground on which many eco-mystics, eco-theists, and deep ecologists are walking and the dangers raised when de-sensitizing an already “minimalized” public, to use Christopher Lasch’s term. As the late Edward Abbey’s denunciations of Latin “genetic inferiority” and even “Hebraic superstitions” suggest, they are not immunized from the dangerous brew in its own right. The brew becomes highly explosive when it is mixed with a mysticism that supplants humanity’s potentiality as a rational voice of nature with an all-presiding “Gaia,” an eco-theism that denies human beings their special place in nature.

Reverence for nature is no guarantee that the congregant will revere the world of life generally, and reverence for nonhuman life is no guarantee that human life will receive the respect it deserves. This is especially true when reverence is rooted in deification–and a supine reverence–in any form whatever, particularly when it becomes a substitute for social critique and social action.

Demography and Society

It was Marx who made the firm observation that every society has its own “law of population.” When the bourgeoisie needed labor in its early years to operate its industrial innovations, human life became increasingly “sacred” and the death penalty was increasingly reserved for homicidal acts. Before then, a woman in Boston was actually hanged merely for stealing a pair of shoes. In an era of automatic and automated devices, human life again tends to become cheap–all pieties about the horrors of war to the contrary notwithstanding. A social logic that involved depopulation, mingled with a pathological anti-Semitism, guided Hitler even more than his mystical “naturism.” Demographic policy is always an expression of social policy and the type of society in which a given population lives.

The most disquieting feature of deep ecology theorists, Earth First! leaders, eco-mystics, and eco-theists is the extent to which they nullify the importance of social factors in dealing with ecological and demographic issues–even as they embody them in some of their most mystified middle-class forms. This is convenient, both in terms of the ease with which their views are accepted in a period of social reaction and in the stark simplicity of their views in a period of naiveté and social illiteracy.

William Petersen, a serious demographer, has carefully nuanced what he calls “Some Home Truths About Population” in a recent issue of the American Scholar. Political factors, he points out, may play a larger role in recent famines than economic or even environmental ones. “Mozambique, recently named the poorest country in the world, has a fertile soil, valuable ores, and a fine coastline,” Petersen observes. “That its GNP has fallen by half over the past five years and its foreign debt has risen by $2.3 billion, one must ascribe to its Communist government and the destabilizing efforts of neighboring South Africa. Of the population of roughly fourteen million, more than one person in ten is a would-be refugee, on the road fleeing civil war but finding no refuge anywhere.”

Even more striking is the case of the Sudan, a land once celebrated for its agricultural fecundity. The Sudan is currently viewed as an appalling example of mismanagement, largely as a result of a British colonialist legacy of commitment to the cultivation of cotton and to World Bank loans for the development of agribusiness. Pressure by the Bank for increased cotton production in the late 1970s to offset balance-of-payment problems, the impact of rising oil prices on highly mechanized agricultural practices, and a considerable decline in home-grown food reserves–all combined to produce one of the most ghastly famines in northern Africa. The interaction of declining world prices for cotton, interference by the World Bank, and attempts to promote the sale of American wheat–a cereal that could have been grown in the Sudan if the country were not forced into the cultivation of crops for the world market–claimed countless lives from hunger and produced massive social demoralization at home.

This drama, usually explained by the Malthusians as “evidence” of population growth or by eco-mystics as an apocalyptic visitation by “Gaia” for presumably sinful acts of abuse to the earth, is played out throughout much of the Third World. Class conflicts, which may very will lie at the root of the problems that face hungry people, are transmuted by the Malthusians into demographic ones in which starving country folk are pitted against almost equally impoverished townspeople, landless refugees against nearly landless cultivators of small plots–all of which immunizes the World Bank, American agribusiness, and a compradore bourgeoisie from criticism.

Even in the First World, where demographic profiles reveal a growing proportion of older people over younger ones, lobbies like Americans for Generational Equity (AGE) threaten to open a divide between recipients of social security and the young adults who presumably “pay the bill.” Almost nothing is said about the economic system, the corporations, or the madcap expenditures for armaments and research into “life control” that devour vast revenues and invaluable resources.

Population may soar for reasons that have less to do with reproductive biology than with capitalist economics. Destroy a traditional culture–its values, beliefs, and sense of identity–and population increases may even outpace soaring preindustrial death rates. Life expectancy may even decline while absolute numbers of people rise significantly. This occurred during the worst years of the Industrial Revolution amidst major tuberculosis and cholera pandemics, not to speak of monstrous working conditions that repeatedly thinned out the ranks of the newly emerging proletariat. Ecology, the “carrying capacity” of a region, and least of all “Gaia” have very little to do with social demoralization and the breakdown of cultural restraints to reproduction. Economics and the exploitation of displaced agrarian folk are the really decisive factors, mundane as they may seem in the “cosmic” world of eco-mysticism and deep ecology.

But conditions can stabilize and, given a higher quality of life, yield a relatively stable demographic situation. In more recent times, entirely new factors have emerged that may give rise to negative population growth. I refer not only to a desire for small families and more cultivated lifestyles, and concern for the development of the individual child rather than a large number of siblings, but, above all, women’s liberation movements and the aspirations of young women to be more than reproductive factories.

In demographic transition, changes from traditional agrarian economies to modern industrial and urbanized ones involve a change from conditions of high fertility and mortality to those of low fertility and mortality. Demographic transition has been called by George J. Stolnitz, a serious demographer, “the most sweeping and best-documented historical trend of modern times.” What should be added to this conclusion is a crucial provision: the need to improve the living conditions of people who make this transition–generally, an improvement brought about by the labor movement and socially concerned educators, sanitarians, health workers, and radical organizations. If demographic transition has not occurred in the Third World (as a population-bomber like David Brower has suggested), it is largely because semifeudal elites, military satraps, and a pernicious domestic bourgeoisie have harshly repressed movements for social change. It is evidence of the incredible myopia and intellectual crudity of deep ecology, eco-mystical, and eco-theistic acolytes that the notion of demographic transition has recently been written off as operative, with no attempt to account for the festering shantytowns that surround some of the largest Third World cities.

In the meantime, relative improvements in material conditions of life in the First World have produced not the soaring population growth rates one would expect to find among fruit flies and lemmings but rather negative rates. In Western Europe, where Malthusians of several decades ago predicted soaring populations and accompanying famines–particularly in England and Germany–the bulk of the populations are far from starving. Birth rates in Germany, Denmark, Austria, Hungary, and even Catholic Italy and Ireland have either fallen below the national replacement rate or are approaching zero population growth. Food production, in turn, has equaled or exceeded the needs of growing populations. Cereal production since 1975 rose 12 percent. Even India, the so-called “worst case example,” tripled its production of grain between 1950 and 1984.

Much of the correlation between population growth and harsh living conditions is due largely to patterns of land ownership. In southern Asia, where population growth rates are high, 30 million rural households own no land or very little. These figures encompass nearly 40 percent of all the households in the region. Similar comparisons can be cited for Africa and Latin America. Land distribution is so heavily weighted in the Third World toward commercial farming and elite owners (who have reduced rural populations to virtual peonage) that one can no longer talk of a “population problem” in purely numerical terms without providing an apologia for terribly harsh class and social disparities.

Will Ecology Become a Cruel Discipline?

Divested of its social core, ecology can easily become a cruel discipline. Malthusians–contemporary no less than earlier ones–often exhibited a meanness of spirit that completely fits into the “me-too” Yuppie atmosphere of the eighties. Consider the following excerpts from William Vogt’s The Road to Survival, the work of an eminent biologist, that was published a generation ago. Anticipating more recent prescriptions, he avowed, “Large scale bacterial warfare would be an effective, if drastic, means of bringing back the earth’s forests and grasslands.” And in a more thumping passage, he adds well on into the book that the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations “should not ship food to keep alive ten million Indians and Chinese this year, so that fifty million may die five years hence”–a form of gothic “generosity” that recurs throughout the Malthusian literature of the eighties. (That this kind of prediction, like so many others uttered by older Malthusians, was utterly fallacious and irresponsible seems never to affect new generations of Malthusian acolytes.)

These recipes essentially faded away as social unrest in the Third World itself began to surge up and render them untenable in the Cold War’s demands for new political alignments abroad. The year l968, however, was not only a climactic one in radical politics but an initiating one in reactionary politics. In that year, perhaps one of the earliest manifestations of the move to the right was the publication and staggering popularity of Paul R. Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb, which ran through thirteen printings in only two years and gave birth to an army of population bombers.

For deep ecologists like George Sessions and Bill Devall to call Ehrlich a “radical ecologist” verges on black humor. The book still reads like a hurricane on the loose, a maddening blowout of spleen and venom. From a sketch of human misery in Delhi in which “people” (the word is used sneeringly to open almost every sentence on the first page) are seen as “visiting, arguing, and screaming,” as “thrusting their hands through the taxi windows, begging . . . defecating and urinating,” Ehrlich and family seem to swoon with disgust over “people, people, people, people.” We have a sense–by no means one that was felt by most of the book’s American readers–that we have entered anther world from Ehrlich’s sublime campus at Stanford University. Thus it was, we are told, that Ehrlich came to know “the feel of overpopulation,” in sum, the sense of disgust that pervades the entire work.

Thereafter, our “radical ecologist” runs riot with his misanthropy. The Third World is depersonalized into computer-age abbreviations like “UDCs” (underdeveloped countries); medical advances are described as forms of “death control”; and pollution problems “all can be traced to too many people” (Ehrlich’s emphasis). Terrifying scenarios engage in a ballet with each other that is strangely lacking in noticeable references to capitalism and the impact of an ever-expanding grow-or-die market economy. Apart from the usual demand for increased tax burdens on those who “breed” excessively, the need for contraception, and educational work on family planning, a centerpiece of the book is Ehrlich’s demand for a “powerful governmental agency.” Accordingly: “A federal Department of Population and Environment (DPE) should be set up with the power to take whatever steps are necessary to establish a reasonable population size in the United States and to put an end to the steady deterioration of our environment.” (The book enjoyed a great vogue, incidentally, during the Nixon Administration.) Lest we waver in our resolve, Ehrlich reminds us: “The policemen against environmental deterioration must be the powerful Department of Population and Environment mentioned above” (my emphasis in both quotations). Happily for the “business community,” Ehrlich quotes one J. J. Spengler to the effect that “It is high time, therefore, that business cease looking upon the stork as a bird of good omen.”

The Population Bomb climaxes in a favorable description of what is now known as “the ethics of triage.” Drawn from warfare, “the idea briefly is this: When casualties crowd a dressing station to the point where all cannot be cared for by the limited medical staff, some decisions must be made on who will be treated. For this purpose the triage system of classification was developed. All incoming casualties are placed in one of three classes. In the first class are those who will die regardless of treatment. In the second are those who will survive regardless of treatment. The third contains those who can be saved only if they are given prompt treatment.” The presumption, here, is that the medical staff is “limited” and the diagnosis is free of political considerations like a country’s alignment in the Cold War.

Among New Age Malthusians, hardly any attempt is made to think out premises, indeed, to ask what follows from a given statement. If all life forms have the same “intrinsic worth” as deep ecologists contend, can we impart to malarial mosquitoes or tsetse flies the same “right” to exist that we accord to whales and grizzly bears? Can a bacterium that could threaten to exterminate chimpanzees be left to do so because it too has “intrinsic worth” and, perhaps, because human beings who can control a lethal disease of chimps should not “interfere” with the mystical workings of “Gaia”? Who is to decide what constitutes “valid” interference by human beings in nature and what is invalid? To what extent can conscious, rational, and moral human intervention in nature be seriously regarded as “unnatural,” especially if one considers the vast evolution of life toward greater subjectivity and ultimately human intellectuality? To what extent can humanity itself be viewed simply as a single species when social life is riddled by hierarchy and domination, gender biases, class exploitation, and ethnic discrimination?

Demography and Society

The importance of viewing demography in social terms is all the more apparent when we ask: would a grow-or-die economy called capitalism cease to plunder the planet if the world’s population were reduced to a tenth of its present numbers? Would lumber companies, mining concerns, oil cartels, and agribusiness render redwood and Douglas fir forests safer for grizzly bears if–given capitalism’s need to accumulate and produce for their own sake–California’s population were reduced to one million people?

The answers to these questions is a categorical no. Vast bison herds were exterminated on the western plains long before the plains were settled by farmers or used extensively by ranchers, indeed, when the American population barely exceeded some sixty million people. These great herds were not crowded out by human settlements, least of all by excessive population. We have yet to answer what constitutes the “carrying capacity” of the planet for even larger human populations, just as we lack any certainty, given the present predatory economy, what constitutes a strictly numerical balance between reduced human numbers and a given ecological area. All the statistics that are projected by demographers, today, are heavily conditioned by various values that remain unexplored, such as the desire of some people for pristine “wilderness,” mere open land, a pastoral concept of nature, or a love of cultivated land. Indeed, human taste has varied so widely over the centuries with respect to what constitutes “nature” that we may well ask whether it is ever “natural” to exclude the human species–a distinct product of natural evolution–from our conceptions of the natural world, including so-called “pristine” wilderness areas.

This much seems reasonably clear: a “wilderness” that has to be protected from human intervention is already a product of human intervention. It is no more “wild” if it has to be guarded than an aboriginal culture is truly authentic if it has to be shielded from the impacts of “civilization.” We have long since left the remote world when purely biological factors determined evolution and the destiny of most species on the planet. Until these problematic areas that influence modern thinking on demographics are clarified and their social implications–indeed, underpinnings–are fully explored, the Malthusians are operating in a theoretical vacuum and filling it with extremely perilous ideas. Indeed it is a short step from writing anti-Semitic letters to Jewish furriers in the name of “animal rights” to scrawling swastikas on Jewish temples and synagogues.

Eco-mystics, eco-theists, and deep ecologists create a very troubling situation when they introduce completely arbitrary factors into discussions on demographics. “Gaia” is whatever one chooses to make of “Her”: demonic avenger or a loving mother, a homeostatic mechanism or a mystical spirit; a personified deity or a pantheistic principle. In all of these roles, “She” can easily be used to advance a misanthropic message of species self-hatred or worse, a hatred of specific ethnic groups and cultures–with consequences that cannot be foreseen even by “Her” most loving, well-meaning, and pacific acolytes. It is this utterly arbitrary feature of eco-mystical and eco-theistic thinking, often divested of all social content, that makes most New Age or “new paradigm” discussions of the population issue not only very troubling but potentially very sinister.

Letter to the Editors

Spirituality and rationality

Janet Biehl’s reply to Kym Lambert [Green Perspectives #14] was well handled, if a bit gentler than Ms. Lambert deserved. One issue which could have been raised in the reply, but which was not, is that if (according to Ms. Lambert) “the Goddess is Nature,” what possible point is there in burdening the language with a superfluous synonym for “Nature”? (Note the majuscule letters in “Goddess” and “Nature”–a traditional means of symbolically placing things outside and above the realm of ordinary experience, that is, outside and above the natural world.)

The only possible reason for this setting up of an abstracted symbol (the “Goddess”) and then denying that it is one (“the Goddess is Nature”) is that it serves the unhealthy desires of “the spiritual.” One wish seems to be that of avoiding the hard work of logical analysis–making observations, gathering facts, forming hypotheses to explain observations, discarding hypotheses which do not conform with all of the demonstrable facts, forming theories, when enough is understood, which explain the observed facts and which can predict others, and, finally, revising old theories or formulating new ones when new facts come to light which the old theories cannot adequately explain. This is not the easiest thing in the world to do, so it’s no wonder that a great many people take the slovenly way out–“spirituality” and irrationality.

But perhaps this does “the spiritual” an injustice. A recent survey reported by Jon Miller of Northern Illinois University states that only 6 percent of U.S. adults are “scientifically literate.” So, it’s quite possible, probable in fact, that the vast majority of those promoting “spirituality” over “rationality” aren’t lazy–they’re just profoundly ignorant. (Ms. Lambert, for example, who states, “there is too much intellectual rationalization going on. Rationality can be used to twist around facts,” doesn’t even know the difference between rationality and rationalization.)

A second, perhaps equally disturbing, reason for the rush to “spirituality” among leftists and ecologists is that in an intensely competitive capitalist world (in which very few come out “winners”), most people feel small, isolated, and like “losers.” To such people, “spirituality” can look awfully attractive–it requires no individual effort, no individual achievement, and allows the self-described “spiritual” to feel like members of an exclusive club which is superior to the rest of humanity, especially to those who do the hard work of rational analysis.

An added bonus for “the spiritual” is that the term “spirituality” is very difficult to define, with the number of definitions being approximately equal to the number of “spiritual” persons capable of attempting to define it; thus the only way to “test” if someone is “spiritual” is if s/he says s/he is. In short, being “spiritual” is a very easy means for those who feel inadequate to immediately and effortlessly achieve “superiority.”

Yes, the ecology movement must be based on ideals and ethics; but “god” help us if it’s based on “spirituality.”

Best wishes,
Chaz Bufe

Janet Biehl replies:

I salute Chaz Bufe’s wittily militant letter, support his point that the “Goddess” is a superfluity, and firmly agree that formal rationality and empiricism must be defended–particularly in the natural sciences. I should also note, however, that I do not claim to be an empiricist (“testing hypotheses”) nor a formal rationalist in matters where they are inappropriate–such as in studying the social, historical, and political affairs of human beings. I suspect that Chaz would agree with this approach and is not a strict empiricist in the English philosophical sense, notably Locke and Hume. Like other social ecologists, I recognize both the strengths and the limitations of formal reason and empiricism and am committed to exploring another kind of rationality, a dialectical rationality, that is relevant for human affairs. For one of the better, fairly short expositions of dialectical rationality, see Bookchin’s “Thinking Ecologically” (Our Generation Fall/Winter l987).¤