People say “I care about the environment” the way you might talk lovingly and with a hint of guilt about a plant in your home that’s not doing very well.
“Look at that sad plant. I really should take better care of it. Maybe it needs water?”
Yes, maybe you should. Poor little plant. If it had a voice, it would probably tell us “Hey! I’m dying! Water me! And make sure I get enough light as well!”
The environment is like a plant. But it is not a plant that lives in our home. It is our home and the basis for our ability to live. We are tiny little organisms that live inside the plant, feed off of the plant, whose existence and survival depends entirely on the plant. We’ve built a feeding machine that eats the plant faster than we ever could with our own hands and mouths. Our lives depend on the continued function of the machine. At the same time, however, the very mechanism that we believe to be the basis of our survival is threating our survival.
The environment is not like a plant. The environment is like a body competing with a growing cancer for nutrients. The cancer cells are practically indistinguishable from regular body cells, the main difference being that they blindly grow without restriction until there is no more energy for them to feed on. On their travels through the oceans and rivers of the body, they discover new areas for growth for themselves and future generations. Their will to live is what risks their eventual collective death.
The environment is not like a body. A body acquires meaning and identity through the ways in which it separates itself from and entangles itself with objects and subjects outside of its point of view. A body has a place, has things beside it and around it. The environment has no outside, no purpose, no desires and no opinion. The environment is an image that exists in our minds. It is real to the degree that its existence makes a difference to us, to human subjects. The environment exists for us.
The environment is a way for us to talk about ourselves indirectly. Every time we talk about the environment, we talk about us, about the way the world appears to human subjects as something that is separate from them, outside of them, around them. The environment is conceptually anchored in and centered around human life and human subjectivity. The environment is ours. It has no significance to anyone or anything but humans. Without us, there would be no environment.
The environment is not ours. The voice that harshly belts out advice on how to protect vocal chords, as if they were something separate from it, is only one out of many voices. The human subject that looks at the environment as if it were a plant that may be in need of our care is not a unified, collective subject. It is many, but not all, individual subjects acting in synchrony, together pulsating in an emerging heartbeat that is so loud, so powerful and overbearing that it drowns out dissonances, alternative ways of seeing. The environment belongs to the loudest roar.
I am roaring, too, and I don’t know yet how to stop. And even if we did stop, how would we continue after that? Shouldn’t we figure out the way forward before giving up prematurely on what we have, on something that is stable enough, at least for the moment? Can we still turn the ship around or do we need to abandon it? What would abandoning it even mean? I don’t know. But I believe that every choice, every action that is not just a continuation of a familiar melody, starts with a moment of instability, of uncertainty. It starts with an uncomfortable enounter with the terrifying prospect of freedom.