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Don't Should On Us - Page 2

Author // Charles Eisenstein

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In other words, much environmentalist exhortation comes down to a demand to sacrifice your own selfinterest, with guilt and shame the main mechanisms by which to enforce that demand. Now, I don’t know about you, but I tend not to trust people who want me to act against my own self-interest. No wonder the environmental movement has been so ineffectual for 30 years.

Fortunately, there is another way, rooted in the realization that society’s winners are not winners at all. It is rooted in the observation that the 8,000-square-foot house is a breeding ground for loneliness, isolation and depression, a pathetic sop to the poverty of modern existence. It is rooted in the realization that the consumer thrills of our luxury cars, entertainment technologies and sports spectacles feed a gaping void caused by our separation from nature, community and spirit. The emptiness of the modern formula for success is palpable, as is the robbery of life and youth in exchange for money. Yet the assumption that success as conventionally defined is the key to happiness is ubiquitous in our culture. Just one example: the economic term for anything bought or sold for money? A “good.”

The alternative I am suggesting starts by making the point that the rational self-interest everyone buys into is neither rational nor in anyone’s interest. It is not in your interest to work at an unfulfilling job that pays well, to enjoy “security” that isn’t and “goods” that aren’t. Even if we don’t make this point explicitly, it can inform our every interaction in the cause of the environment. When we approach people with the energy of wanting what is truly in their best and highest interest, they will instinctively trust us. Sometimes, to be sure, a person must experience something in order to realize that isn’t what they actually wanted. But the message will stay with them until the time comes for it to sprout. When we act from the knowledge that a person’s “selfish” interest is actually toward simplicity, closeness to nature, and closeness to community, then our urgings lose any judge mentality and assume the force of a trusted friend’s support.

Similarly on the policy level, arguments based on the economic consequences of bad environmental policies are ultimately self-defeating, because they reinforce the ideology that for something to be (a) “good,” it must take the form of a commodity denominated in dollars. So immersed are we in this logic that it is hard to even articulate the value of nature otherwise: hence the profusion of environmentalist arguments based on cost-benefit analyses. Why should we save the rainforests? Because of all the medicines that might be produced from the undiscovered plant species there? Because of the economic value of their contribution as a carbon sink? Of their pollinating species? Well-meaning as they are, arguments that try to persuade us to protect the environment based on the fact that the long-term cost to the economy of environmental destruction far exceeds the economic cost of preservation only exacerbate the root problem, which is the basic Benthamite assumption that goodness can be quantified, that the way to make life better is to maximize financial returns, and even more deeply, that nature can be made ours, and yet more deeply, the illusion of our separateness. Such arguments grant the disastrous premise that nature is indeed a thing best disposed of according to the financial consequences.

Cost-benefit arguments for environmental protection have the further disadvantage that they are usually ineffective even as a short-term tactic. I am inspired in this regard to Gandhi’s exhortation to “appeal to their reason and conscience,” and by Edward O. Wilson’s invocation of a universal “biophilia”—a love of living beings—innate to each one of us, however deeply buried. In the long run, and probably even in the short run, it may be more effective to appeal to people’s sense of beauty and their desire to do the right thing. “Let’s save the environment because otherwise it will cost too much” is an appeal to a baser instinct, greed, which therefore disrespects its audience by assuming that greed is their strongest motivation. (It is especially counterproductive when facing people who in fact stand to gain financially from consuming natural capital.) It is also on some level dishonest: I do not know any environmentalist motivated by the long-term economic savings of environmental protection. Let us instead appeal to what is highest in other people: their sense of rightness, beauty and justice; their desire to be a good person; their longing to enact their innate love for our beautiful planet. The greed behind the plundering of the planet, and the insecurity and anxiety behind the greed, is, after all, a product of our money system, as well as an inevitable effect of our separation from self, spirit, nature and each other, and not our true essence.


Pathways Issue 35 CoverThis article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #35.

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