What is Ecocide?


Consider that we will be reduced to living in high-rises and eating seaweed if even a tenth of the ecosystems on Earth fail, and even more, how much we will hate ourselves for having destroyed something beautiful. Ecocide occurs when we have too many humans and not enough land set aside for nature:

Human thinking resembles a cartoon: the sentient ape walks across a stage, picks up an object and does something to it, then goes on. No consequences accrue to the human being other than the immediate slapstick, like stepping on marbles or a banana peel. If nothing happens immediately, this human assumes that nothing will happen.

Life turns out to be more complex than that. Not only do our actions have consequences which take decades or centuries to reveal, but unlike the cartoon, time and interconnectivity apply to our actions. Even the smallest act has vast consequences in this complex world, which works more like an ecosystem than a cartoon.

Not surprisingly, humans have no understanding of the environmental issue. It took fifty years for popular environmentalism to show us that it would never make any headway in solving our environmental problem because it saw “issues,” not the single issue of finding a way for humanity and nature to coexist without breaking each other.

This divides the environmental issue into two groups: mainstream environmentalism wants to keep our modern lifestyles but make us buy EnergyStar products, while deep ecology and conservationism want to set aside enough land, air, and sea for nature that its ecosystems can survive intact and in fact, thrive. This means fewer humans, but happier and healthier humans, as well.

We get to understanding this phase by looking through human learning, and seeing a few nodal points where all forms of thinking converge; these are basic archetypes, or patterns, that govern human behavior.

The tragedy of the commons serves as the first of these by describing how human interest in nature if unchecked is exploitative:

The tragedy of the commons develops in this way. Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. Such an arrangement may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries because tribal wars, poaching, and disease keep the numbers of both man and beast well below the carrying capacity of the land. Finally, however, comes the day of reckoning, that is, the day when the long-desired goal of social stability becomes a reality. At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy.

As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain. Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously, he asks, “What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?” This utility has one negative and one positive component.

1) The positive component is a function of the increment of one animal. Since the herdsman receives all the proceeds from the sale of the additional animal, the positive utility is nearly +1.

2) The negative component is a function of the additional overgrazing created by one more animal. Since, however, the effects of overgrazing are shared by all the herdsmen, the negative utility for any particular decision-making herdsman is only a fraction of -1.

Adding together the component partial utilities, the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another; and another…. But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit–in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.

In other words, if someone does not own or control a shared resource, each person will take as much as they can because there is no penalty for doing so. This applies not only to nature, but to society itself: if we allow it, people will change this society so that it allows them to take all they can, and give nothing back.

Aldous Huxley expanded on this in his seminal Brave New World, which described how positive motivations — the chance to gain something at no real cost — drove people so thoroughly that they could be easily manipulated into overlooking the negatives of their acts, which would be passed on to civilization at large or “socialized,” such that the commons could be consumed and each person suffer only a slow, steady degradation of the society around them for it.

Some years later, B.F. Skinner elaborated on this with his study of positive reinforcement, or how the pursuit of positive feelings would eclipse any notice of ambient negatives. Writing in Walden Two, he described the process:

Frazier took time to reorganize his behavior. He looked steadily toward the window, against which the rain was beating heavily. “Now that we know how positive reinforcement works and why negative doesn’t,” he said at last, “we can be more deliberate, and hence more successful, in our cultural design. We can achieve a sortof control under which the controlled, though they are following a code much more scrupulously than was ever the case under the old system, nevertheless feel free. They are doing what they want to do, not what they are forced to do. That’s the source of the tremendous power of positive reinforcement – there’s no restraint and no revolt. By a careful cultural design, we control not the final behavior, but the inclination to behave – the motives, the desires, the wishes.” – pp. 215-216

Like the socialist who wrote a counterpoint to Huxley, Eric Arthur Blair as “George Orwell,” Skinner focused mostly on civilization controlling its citizens, missing the case of the mob misleading itself, something that was only diagnosed in my writings as Crowdism:

No human organization in history has been so well-managed that it could pull off a conspiracy of this nature without revealing itself or collapsing in infighting. Whatever engendered this particular mess did not have a leader, or a central organizing principle, although it has manifested itself in centralized authority. A systematic change to this kind of order comes through a shared assumption, much like when a group of friends, upon perceiving their favorite bar is closed, meet at the next most likely place without having to communicate the name amongst themselves. More than a leaderless revolution, it was an unconscious one: those who brought it about had no idea they shared an ideology, or no idea what its name might be, or even why they did it. They simply did it because it was natural to do, and because nothing has since opposed it, it continues to this day in grossly simplified form.

Another way to look at it is from this angle: imagine that something needs to be done for the good an entire community. Healthy people are willing to make sacrifices for this. But some would prefer to rigidly negate that proposal because it interferes with their personal fortunes or convenience. By doing this, they are dooming the community in the long run, even if it means they get to keep whatever it was they desired in the short term. These people need some kind of protection that, no matter what the overall goal is, justifies their selfishness. Even better, it should eliminate the concept of overall goal, and focus only on the individual. To do that, a morality was created which banned actions and not goals, effectively hobbling any goal-setting because any real change will always infringe upon someone’s little world.

What makes crowds strong is an inability of any to criticize their members, or to suggest any kind of goal that unites people, because what makes for the best crowds is a lack of goal. Without a higher vision or ideal, crowds rapidly degenerate into raiding parties, although of a passive nature. They argue for greater “freedom.” They want more wealth. Anything they see they feel should be divided up among the crowd.

This means that the human mass is a self-interested crowd of individualists which confirms its own biases by demonizing any methods or actions which do not keep the crowd together. Defectors are punished; loyalty is enforced through constant examples of those who deviated and must be destroyed. Driven by the pursuit of material pleasure, this crowd will consume anything it touches, since each individual is rewarded for taking as much as they can and suffers no immediate consequences. Delayed consequences are beyond the attention span of most people, so are ignored because they are not a shared experience of the crowd.

Even worse, this crowd hides its selfishness behind altruism because altruism generates feelings of social/material pleasure:

The underlying neural circuitry differs between psychopaths and altruists with emotional processing being profoundly muted in psychopaths and significantly enhanced in altruists. But both groups are characterized by the reward system of the brain shaping behavior.

This means that until society is restructed around providing the same feelings of pleasure as altruism and acquisition give, it will forever be destructive and ecocidal. Recognizing this, deep ecologists recommended changing lifestyles instead of ideologies, providing for a society which implements consideration of the needs of nature as part of a folkway, or the intersection between lifestyle, habits, culture, calendar, customs, cuisine, and aesthetics that is lived, not prescribed.

Arne Naess founded the deep ecology movement based on the idea of transitioning from materialism to a folkway that sacralizes nature:

Nature can no longer be viewed merely as a commodity—a storehouse of “resources” for human use and profit. It must be seen as a partner and model in all human enterprise.

We begin with the premise that life on Earth has entered its most precarious phase in history. We speak of threats not only to human life, but to the lives of all species of plants and animals, of the entire ecosphere in all its beauty and complexity including the natural processes that create and shape life’s diversity. It is the grave and growing threats to the health of the ecosphere that motivates our activities.

We believe that current problems are largely rooted in the following circumstances:

  • The loss of traditional knowledge, values, and ethics of behavior that celebrate the intrinsic value and sacredness of the natural world and that give the preservation of Nature prime importance. Correspondingly, the assumption of human superiority to other life forms, as if we were granted royalty status over Nature; the idea that Nature is mainly here to serve human will and purpose.
  • The prevailing economic and development paradigms of the modern world, which place primary importance on the values of the market, not on Nature. The conversion of Nature to commodity form, the emphasis upon economic growth as a panacea, the industrialization of all activity, from forestry to farming to fishing, even to education and culture; the rush to economic globalization, cultural homogenization, commodity accumulation, urbanization, and human alienation. All of these are fundamentally incompatible with ecological sustainability on a finite Earth.
  • Technology worship and an unlimited faith in the virtues of science; the modern paradigm that technological development is inevitable, invariably good, and to be equated with progress and human destiny. From this, we are left dangerously uncritical, blind to profound problems that technology has wrought, and in a state of passivity that confounds democracy.
  • Overpopulation, in both the overdeveloped and the underdeveloped worlds, placing unsustainable burdens upon biodiversity and the human condition.

We believe that values other than market values must be recognized and given importance, and that Nature provides the ultimate measure by which to judge human endeavors.

In other words, we must make a life in balance with nature part of what we consider pleasure, or the herd will simply devour the ecosystems of Earth and live in a future of tidily planted parks with no more biodiversity than squirrels and sparrows. Unless we live for a traditional, and the accompanying goal of achieving excellence in that regard, we default to materialism including lust and greed, and become the all-consuming herd through our pursuit of pleasure.

The essence of this tradition is that it sacralizes, or idealizes as sacred with a sense of reverence, the health and growth of nature as a parallel force to humanity, or part of a natural order in which humanity plays a part that includes stewardship or care for nature. In this view, the path to avoiding ecocide is to first fix ourselves, and then find a goal — even one we can never fully achieve, but only partially fulfill, like an athlete always trying to beat his best time — other than ourselves.

This fits with what we know of traditionalism:

Tyr defines Radical Traditionalism by the following ideals:

  1. Resacralization of the world versus materialism.
  2. Natural social hierarchy versus an artificial hierarchy based on wealth.
  3. The tribal community versus the nation-state.
  4. Stewardship of the earth versus the “maximization of resources.”
  5. A harmonious relationship between men and women versus the “war between the sexes.”
  6. Handicraft and artisanship versus industrial mass-production.

All of the above emphasize connection, where human perspectives highlight disconnection, such as an act being mentally separated from its consequences. In this view, humanity forms part of the ecosystem, connected to local community and land by interaction which is both give and take, instead of the raw materialism of the tragedy of the commons.

Discovering tradition requires that we stop living in the moment for the self alone, and think of ways in which we can connect to others and nature that are consistent with the archetype that nature gives us, the ecosystem. As Paul Woodruff says in an interview with Bill Moyers:

When people are powerful, they tend to fall into habits of acting as if they were divine. The cliché, of course, is power corrupts. But what the Greeks are noticing is that it corrupts in a very particular way. You think that you can’t go wrong. You think that you can’t be mistaken. You think that because you are not likely to be mistaken, you don’t have to listen to other people. And those are all signs of tyranny and they’re all signs of hubris.

This mindset sees us geared toward participation in an order inherent to life itself, instead of pursuing an order of ourselves alone. In this way, we form connections and overcome our tendency to desire power, which makes us unwilling to see the needs of anyone or anything else as real or important.

When we translate this into policy, we see a need to give nature space of its own. This separates “pop environmentalism” from conservationism, or the desire to set aside land for nature which will be mostly untouched by humans, so that nature can manage itself and we can appreciate it. This also spares us the guilt, self-hatred, and paranoia of knowing that we are agents of destruction.

Conservationism in the deep ecological sense finds its fullest expression in Half Earth, the philosophy of E.O. Wilson:

As defined by the theory of island biogeography, a change in area of a habitat results in a change in the sustainable number of species by approximately the fourth root. As reserves grow in size, the diversity of life surviving within them also grows. As reserves are reduced in area, the diversity within them declines to a mathematically predictable degree swiftly – often immediately and, for a large fraction, forever.

When 90% of habitat is removed, the number of species that can persist sustainably will descend to about a half. Such is the actual condition of many of the most species-rich localities around the world. In these places, if 10% of the remaining natural habitat were then also removed, most or all of the surviving resident species would disappear.

If, on the other hand, we protect half the global surface, the fraction of species protected will be 85%, or more. At one-half and above, life on Earth enters the safe zone.

Deep ecology means that we reset human thinking, and make it focused on the patterns of reality instead of our own desires, and Half Earth makes this manifest by leaving large tracts of natural land so that we can know what nature is, and allow it to exist and inspire us without our intervention.

Hubris — the primacy of the human ego above all else, similar to individualism, solipsism, and narcissism — denies that humans fit into an invisible order which pervades all life, comprised of the patterns that allowed nature to create and refine life to a point where we can be awestruck by its parallel beauty and function. Nature is supremely logical, and once we understand that logic, we cannot go back to our disconnected mode of thought.

Human thinking resembles a cartoon: the sentient ape walks across a stage, picks up an object and does something to it, then goes on. No consequences accrue to the human being other than the immediate slapstick, like stepping on marbles or a banana peel. That is, until the human realizes that his actions have consequences, and starts to contemplate how those consequences come about.

People by nature look for ways to patch “The System” by which we live, not re-arrange its core (even if in a small way!) to avoid the crisis. We like applying band-aids to gaping wounds, because these are easiest for us and carry the least risk for us, even if they do not solve the problem.

Instead of a System, deep ecology urges that we find an Order in which we and nature both exist for the same purpose, and through the upkeep of that order, avoid ecocide or marginalizing ourselves. We can live full, happy and prosperous lives with half of the land on Earth, but we cannot be happy with ecocide on our conscience.

In this way, deep ecology does more than counter popular environmentalism; it reinvents the human being as someone we are more likely to be proud of.

We are going to need fewer humans. Most people would say that the “fair” way to do this is to treat everyone as equal and have a lottery. The sane way to do it means that we keep the good and lose the bad, since they serve no purpose and create vast damage.

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