Saturday, January 13, 2007

Environmental Myopia: Smart-but-Dumb

Just after the new year (2007), the Washington Post ran a story about Monica Lewinsky graduating from London University with a degree in social psychology. Lewinsky, for you youngsters, made news during the Clinton administration for her, uh, coquettishness. The title of her LU thesis, “In Search of the Impartial Juror: An Exploration of the Third Person Effect and Pre-Trial Publicity,” impressed Post reporter Libby Copeland. “A revelation on this order [the loftiness of Lewinsky’s topic—H],” wrote Copeland, “suggests Lewinsky belongs to a fascinating subspecies, dumb-but-smart.”

In 2002, Harvard sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson published “The Future of Life,” a book that suggests Wilson belongs to another fascinating subspecies, smart-but-dumb. That Wilson is smart is beyond dispute, given his two Pulitzer Prizes, among other accomplishments. He’s a heavy hitter, academically, but reaches beyond his grasp and street smarts in, “The Future of Life.”

Wilson lapses into cliché when he moralizes about humankind’s Earthly toll. He’s right that the planet has a limited “carrying capacity,” but a mushrooming human population trapped on a small planet is not a problem that will be remedied by a “universal environmental ethic.” Sure, we can huddle together and breathe shallowly, or we can move to a roomier crib. Wilson dismisses the idea of extraplanetary expansion, however: “Surely these are not frontiers we will wish to explore in order simply to continue our reproductive folly,” he snorts. What contemptible misanthropy.

Imagine a fetus, perhaps her mother’s ham on rye had been in the sun for too long, who falls into a trance and envisions life outside the womb. And imagine the little fetal cells responding to the expansive vision with, “Surely we would not wish to continue our reproductive folly out there.”

In outer space exponential rates of reproduction might not be folly, as they are on Earth, but an adaptation. The environmentalist foible lies in Wilson's assertion that we should be asking ourselves, “How best can we shift to a culture of permanence, both for ourselves and for the biosphere that sustains us?” Insofar as permanence implies stasis, Wilson’s question is merely reactionary, like the notion of immutability traditionally attached to God’s perfection. The prospect of an unnatural, authoritarian rationing of resources and control of reproduction—in the name of the new “ethic”—is what confinement to Earth necessarily spells. Permanence of the human enterprise, in a desirable form, can be secured only through extraterrestrial expansion.

Wilson clues us into the psychology behind his ethic when he characterizes Earth’s relationship to humanity as, “. . . our cradle and nursery, our school . . . .” But Wilson’s inner child isn’t satisfied to embrace these childhood institutions. He wants to go all the way, to the womb. “To [Earth’s] special conditions we are intimately adapted,” he says, “in every one of the bodily fibers and biochemical transactions that gives us life.”

The Freudian psychology behind environmentalism—planet as maternal womb—is archetypal. “Mother Earth” did not spring from today’s environmental movement. She is an archaic conception/metaphor. (If Wilson wants us to take the metaphor of Mother Earth literally, fine, then let’s acknowledge natural and human history as her gestation.) We have reached an historical juncture at which, for the sake of our own survival, we must re-direct the Freudian craving for connection to the maternal organism onto the exo-womb of weightless space. Only there will the human enterprise find a permanent home worth occupying. And one that it can’t destroy.

“The great dilemma of environmental reasoning,” Wilson concludes, “stems from [the] conflict between short-term and long-term values.” On this point he could not be more insightful. At least no more so than Monica Lewinsky might be.