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Small Humans in a Big World

awkwardturtle's picture

Small Humans in a Big World

Last week, I contrasted the the many references of living organisms in Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction to the lack of any individual characters in Oreskes and Conway’s The Collapse of Western Civilization. This week, I will again focus on the lack of individualism in Collapse, specifically the generalization of humans into the vague label of “western” and everyone else. In addition, I will apply Vásquez’s ideas of Latino representation in environmental studies to further analyze the effects of generalizing individual humans on environmental thought and action.

Oreskes and Conway use “western” as an ideological, rather than geographical label. The most common references to the western world are the United States and Canada, “when disruptive climate change was becoming apparent, wealthy nations dramatically increased their production of fossil fuels. The countries most involved in this enigma were two of the world’s richest: the United States and Canada” (19). The U.S. and Canada are examples of the civilizations in the western hemisphere that will collapse in the future according to Oreskes and Conway. “Western” is associated with wealth rather than geography. Many philosophies are also referenced in relation to the U.S and Western Europe, “Western civilization had the technological know-how and capability to effect an orderly transition to renewable energy, yet the available technologies were not implemented in time...Western civilization became trapped in the grip of two inhibiting ideologies: positivism and market fundamentalism” (35). Here, “western” is associated with two ideologies, positivism being referenced along with its French philosopher Auguste Comte (35), and neoliberalism originating from the European enlightenment movement (38). Despite “western” being an adjective of location, the word is used by Oreskes and Conway more as a descriptor of certain civilizations with little regard to geography.

Furthermore, “western” is also a descriptor of political and economic systems, “Meanwhile communism, which had spread throughout Eurasia and to some parts of Africa and Latin and South America, was revealing even worse failures than capitalism...Perhaps because of the horrible violence in the East, many Western intellectuals came to see everything associated with communism as evil” (41). Despite Latin America’s geographic location in the western hemisphere, it is categorized under communism, which is categorized as “eastern.” This completely goes against geographic implications of “western”. On a similar note, Africa, which in my own life experience is hardly ever referred to as “western” or “eastern” civilization, is also described as “eastern” due to its uptake of communism. Oreskes and Conway create a binary of west vs. east, and capitalism vs. communism, respectively, generalizing and reducing individual human experiences to opposing ideologies.

The lack of individual representation in Collapse contrasts with Vasquez’s focus on specific experiences of people of color, specifically Latino migrant workers. Vasquez’s presentation focused on environmental justice, emphasizing the fact that marginalized populations are the greatest victims of environmental harm, due to their proximity to pollution and diseases. He also emphasized the importance of ethnic studies alongside environmental studies, demonstrating their inseparable link with each other. Both of these points highlight the importance of diverse human experiences within the environment, which is very different from Collapse, which focuses on ideologies and institutions rather than individual human experiences, ignoring the unequal distribution of environmental harm among humans in the process. However, this does not necessarily mean that Oreskes and Conway want to erase individual human and environment experiences, but rather see them as irrelevant in relation to a global scale climate-change crisis. For example, when Vasquez said in his presentation that local environmental struggles often go unnoticed in mainstream environmentalism, Oreskes and Conway might respond by saying that local efforts are too weak when facing the global issue of climate change, which requires the breakdown of ideologies, such as the carbon-combustion complex, that have prevented sufficient human action, “power did not reside in the hands of those who understood the climate system, but rather in political, economic, and social institutions that have strong interest in maintaining the use of fossil fuels” (36). Ultimately, there is a tension between these two views of environmental action, and a question still exists of whether grassroots activism and environmental injustice within larger institutions is still relevant or necessary when attempting to solve environmental issues.

In order to make sense of these opposing ideas, I will analyze the concepts of  “ideologies” and “institutions” in relation to humans. Oreskes and Conway often reference ideologies in relation to the humans that have founded and practiced them, for example, Karl Marx’s communist ideology (39) and Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher’s practice of neoliberalism (42). This raises the question of whether or not we, as in all humans, should see these institutions and ideologies behind environmental harm as being made up of humans like ourselves or if despite their human creation become more powerful than the humans that make up these institutions and ideologies. Is “western” really just the humans that fall under the ideologies defined by Oreskes and Conway? And if so, I may have created a false binary betweenindividual” and “institutional.”

What is the best approach to solving environmental issues?

Oreskes, Naomi and Erik Conway, The Collapse of Civilization: A View from the Future. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014.

Vazquez, David J. "Fueling the Agribusiness Engine: Helena Maria Viramonte’s Under the Feet of Jesus and the Cross-Currents of U.S. Environmentalism" Purdue University. Union Club Hotel, Bryn Mawr, PA. 12 November 2015. Lecture.





Anne Dalke's picture

I think you are going to have to select another username! --since this essay's not @ all slow and lumbering, but rather so very sharp and to the point. I am smiling broadly @ the various turns you take here...

Starting with the observation that "Oreskes and Conway use 'western' as an ideological, rather than geographical label" -- as a description of a certain kind of civilization, one associated with wealth, positivism, market fundamentalism and neoliberalism -- gives you some real traction for attending to their elision of Latino cultures in the western hemisphere. You show that their using "western” as "a descriptor of political and economic systems," rather than of geography, allows Oreskes and Conway to ignore not only all of South America, but also the African continent, in their analysis of the collapse of "western" civilization. You demonstrate how they "create a binary of west vs. east, and capitalism vs. communism," so "generalizing and reducing individual human experiences to opposing ideologies." And you do a very nice job of bringing in David Vázquez's talk as an example of the sort of focused work that Oreskes and Conway ignore.

I'm also really admiring the way you open up the end of your essay, by asking, in turn, whether you yourself have created "a false binary between 'individual' and 'institutional,'" since all institutions are of course human-made. You thereby answer your own question of "whether grassroots activism and environmental injustice is necessary when attempting to solve environmental issues."

Thank you for this fine, nuanced paper!