Leftist Criticism of ‘Nature’

Leftist Criticism of ‘Nature’

Environmental Protection in a Postmodern Age

“[C]ertain contemporary forms of intellectual and social relativism can be just as destructive to nature as bulldozers and chain saws.”
-Michael Soule and Gary Lease

Most of us are familiar with rightist attacks on environmentalism. For a long time, many people on the right have faulted environmentalists for wanting to curtail free enterprise, limit private property, and abridge individual freedom in the service of environmental well-being. We are less familiar with leftist criticism. Over the past decade or so, however, some parts of the left have launched their own attacks on environmentalism, and, although these are more philosophical in character, they threaten the movement every bit as much as those coming from the right.

Leftist environmental criticism is the work of a group of postmodern intellectuals and professors. Postmodernists expose the constructed quality of those things we take for granted. They unmask the given and show that “what is” is not necessarily “meant to be,” but rather is a consequence of particular decisions and socio-historical conditions. Postmodernism is a natural ally of the left in that it deconstructs existing conditions and shows that, although they may appear natural or necessary, they are really contingent; they can be changed. This is a doctrine that has helped people look critically at their society and consider the possibility of other arrangements.

Leftist critiques of environmentalism start from this same premise. They point out that our notions of nature-the nonhuman world that environmentalists care so much about-are themselves social constructions and thus subject to various interpretations, none of which can provide absolute guidance for environmental policy. We never experience nature directly but always through the lenses of our own values and assumptions. “Nature” is thus not simply a physical entity that is “out there” or given; it is an idea that takes on different meanings in different cultural contexts, a social construction that directs us to see mountains, rivers, trees, and deserts in particular ways. Raymond Williams expressed this understanding when he wrote, “The idea of nature contains, though often unnoticed, an extraordinary amount of human history.” To postmodernists, “nature” is not something the mind discovers but something that it makes.


Paul Wapner is associate professor and director of the Global Environmental Policy Program at American University.

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