Technology, Conservation, and Other Ways to Spell Exploitation

An integral function of transnational corporations is the acquisition, expansion and exploitation of capital. In relation to the natural environment, many organizations advertise themselves as ‘environmental’ or ‘eco-friendly.’ However, their main aim is to find ways to attain wealth and ownership through supposedly ‘environmental’ practices. The following passages explore the ways in which environmental organizations exploit the natural environment for economic gain. In Darier’s Discourses of the Environment, Isabelle Lanthier and Lawrence Olivier examine the historical precedents of scientific environmentalism, as well as the social conditions that led to the popularity of mutual interest and cooperation for the benefit of the environment. James Igoe, in Carl Death’s Critical Environmental Politics, investigates the methods that transnational corporations utilize to increase profits and ownership of capital under the guise of conservation and environmental awareness. In Chapter Seven of Anthropocene Alerts, Timothy Luke explores critiques towards society’s reliance on technology in the manifesto of Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski. Furthermore, they will explain the ways in which such organizations present their economic motives to the public in such a way that avoids any attention that might challenge their acquisition and ownership of the natural environment.

Sam: Lanthier and Olivier “The Construction of Environmental Awareness’”

In “The Construction of Environmental ‘Awareness’,” Lanthier and Olivier argue that the explanation for environmental awareness as a product of exploitation with consequences for life needs to be altered.  They aim to identify the conditions in which “environmental awareness” and the scientific thought of “environmentalism” became possible.  For these conditions to exist, they find that a system of societal values had to first be present (65).   Using an “archeo-genealogical” approach, Lanthier and Olivier connect the development of medical discourse to the formation of these values that made individuals more concerned over the health of the environment (65).  Namely, medicine’s shift to the “lifestyle” as a part of health made the human a subject in their environment.  This change in ideas resulted in the current environmental awareness brought to the forefront in political and public discourse.   

The authors first point to the study of cosmology as an origin of this environmental discourse.  The field was the first to “call for the reintroduction of humans within nature as full-fledged members,” (65).  In viewing the world this way, cosmology gave each aspect of the environment equal weight of importance.  These values served to decrease human concepts of self-superiority and domination over their environments.  

Rather, more modern concepts portray the environment as an equal that humanity is obligated to respect (66).  Many prior concepts of the environment —Descartes’s view for instance— saw the external world as mechanistic and defined systematically by sets of laws. The environment then, “is without movement, deprived of everything: life or soul” (67).  In order to promote human welfare, Descartes contends that humanity must know these laws in order to exploit them to their advantage. 

Environmental discourse began to take root when environmental disasters illustrated the possible negative consequence of this environmental manipulation (67).  This discourse gained global attention in the early 20th century, events and developments like the World Wars and the atomic bomb illuminated the human and environmental destruction that scientific advancement could leave in its wake (68).  This destruction would lead to the “militant environmentalist movement” with the goal of eliminating the “death culture” of environmental domination (69).   The new concept of environmentalism is not a separate entity from science, but it is a part of science that asks other fields to look at their work more holistically, taking into account its macro ramifications for environmental systems both in the present and future (70).  

The shift in perspective to environmental awareness also came about as a result of the end of Colonialism.  An increased emphasis on forming contracts that protect human rights also brought about agreements to treat nature with rights rather than an “object of appropriation” (70).  Another historical condition that Lanthier and Olivier identify that advanced this shift was genetic research.  This development made it possible to quantify the effects of environmental conditions on human health and the health of other organisms (71).  Medical science’s value on bettering the quality of life encourages an ethical and responsible relationship with the environment. Medicine’s construct of humans being responsible for their health also necessarily changes the perception of the environment (72).

This responsibility for our health arose from medicine’s new notion of the “lifestyle”.  Lifestyle refers to the change in behavior so that the individual is, “acting according to one’s values” (75).  The term makes medical discourse itself more holistic in that it looks at a multitude of factors to analyze health.  This holistic approach balances the need for good internal factors of health, as well as a healthy environment.  In this respect, the needs of humans and nature are no longer viewed as opposing one another (76).  Instead, mutual cooperation and respect for the environment become intertwined with our other ethical values.  Further, the individual’s place in medical discourse as having agency over their lifestyle makes one turn attention to the external parts of their environment.  This change in thinking forces society to look inward and examine how they relate to that environment.  Medical discourse, then, served to open up more public and political discourse on responsible human interaction with the environment.

Nick: Igoe, in Death, ed. “Chapter 7: Conservation”

In Chapter Seven of Critical Environmental Politics, James Igoe explores Western notions of ‘conservation,’ and how such notions are often subtle attempts to expand ownership, commodification, and economic control over the natural environment. Although Western conservationist organizations often advertise themselves as ‘eco-friendly’ or ‘environmental,’ they typically prioritize the establishment of productive economic relations between the transnational corporate economy and the local natural environments they exploit before establishing alternative ways of ownership and replenishment of nature that benefit the Earth. Furthermore, neoliberal conservation, which consists of privatized, exploitative ventures disguised as ‘eco-friendly’ initiatives, often disables diverse conservation techniques practiced by indigenous populations that offer unique perspectives to contemporary environmental problems. Neoliberal conservation was one result of free-market economic policies of the late twentieth century that prioritized privatization, efficient business models, and capital ownership. As a result, some organizations began to secure ownership of the natural environment in the name of ‘conservation,’ so long as the business entities can make profitable margins off of such conservation efforts. 

Comics Kingdom - Eco Tourism in the Arctic Cartoons - 2012-11-15

Since the second half of the 20th century, conservation politics has seen the expansion of neoliberal conservation, which seeks to utilize the natural environment as a means to earn profit and expand economic influence through commodification. Neoliberal conservation groups like The Conservation Fund and Conservation International view the environment as a stock reserve of potential capital that is to be commodified and sold; However, many efforts by such organizations consist of the privatization, commodification, and “exclusive enjoyment,” of nature (Igoe, 63). Consider NGOs, or non-governmental organizations, which often seek contracts with governments and corporations for supposedly environment-friendly business ventures like hydroelectric dams in Laos or oil pipelines in Chad and Cameroon (Igoe 67). Even if such entities do not literally construct material products with the nature they control, they may utilize the spectacle of nature to raise funds or manufacture consent for their exploitative natural ventures, despite the possibility of tremendous harm to local or regional environs or contribution to global pollution. Neoliberal conservationists fail to bring about truly beneficial environmental change because they exist within a capitalist economy that prioritizes making profit over the welfare of nature; such organizations will not pursue initiatives that will not bring about economic growth. Therefore, many tactics that exist outside of the Western capitalist perspective of ‘conservation’ that could have a greater, more beneficial impact on the natural environment fail to be considered.

The consolidation of power to a few ultra-rich conservation groups has led to the lack of diverse conservatory practices. Often, when neoliberal conservationists venture to foreign lands, they disregard the conservation practices of the indigenous people of that land. In the 21st century, conservation politics saw an increasing amount of conflict between indigenous groups and capitalist conservationist groups about the efficacy of neoliberal conservation practices, as well as the divestment away from traditional conservatory practices by indigenous people. Western notions of conservation typically fail to acknowledge or utilize non-Western practices, which has resulted in an adverse effect on Earth, both locally and globally.

Although neoliberal conservation organizations such as the Environmental Defense Fund or the Wildlife Conservation Society facilitate most of the world’s conservationist activities, they will fail to disrupt the primary polluters of the natural environment because they exist within the same economic framework as them. Therefore, any alternatives to the harmful modes of economic production would be harming the economic wellbeing of those neoliberal conservationist groups. Furthermore, such techniques disable the diversity of conservatory practices on a large scale. The Earth’s natural environment will continue to deteriorate unless a de-commodified, democratized critique of environmental politics gains popularity.

James: Luke, Chapter 7: “Re-Reading the Unabomber Manifesto”

In the reading “Chapter 7: Re-Reading the Unabomber Manifesto,” Ted Kaczynski had been arrested for a string of sixteen bombings from 1978 to 1995 that wounded 23 and killed 3. In the series of the bombings, Kaczynski was thought of as a “rational and serious man, deeply committed to his cause, who has given a great deal of time to his expression of it.” (142). However, he had claimed he was sorely depleted of his self-esteem, with painful feelings of emptiness, unworthiness, despair and desolation, which made the relations between his life, his reputed manifesto and the cultural context that emerged from the bombing significant (142). The violent nature of the Unabomber tried to explain how the “workings of the industrial system” have “destabilized society, made life unfulfilling, subjected human beings to indignities, led to widespread psychological suffering and inflicted severe damage on the natural world, which is an indication of the constraint categorical imperatives of technology have on true freedom (143). The Unabomber concedes that the manifesto is not comprehensive: it examines “only some of the negative developments that have grown out of the industrial system”, which explains why his belief that technology increases life expectancy and everyday ease as it decreases life enjoyment and freedom parallels Herbert Marcuse’s reading of technology (144).  

Capital, research and technology in market-mediated choices, with an allegedly emancipatory technology can result in rational, totalitarian order without capitalist liberal-democratic regimes being imposed on ill-minded individuals (144). Technology is being examined as a force itself; it follows its own logical interpretations rather than desire for human needs, but if technology were to fail, a social collapse would be in the making and that’s why Unabomber hints that Technology is the true “environment” of modern man. The Unabomber believed that the social machine had certain flaws that limited individuals of their true freedom and what repercussions had come with it. The “freedom to choose,” as celebrated in advertising, is merely “an element of a social machine and has only a certain set of prescribed and delimited freedoms; freedoms that are designed to serve the needs of the social machine more than those of the individual” (157). The Unabomber states that “the effort needed to satisfy biological needs does not occur AUTONOMOUSLY, but by functioning as parts of an immense social machine.” (145).

Unabomber embeds his critique by labeling two kinds of technology: “small-scale technology” and “organization-dependent technology.”(148). Small-scale technologies can thrive in small-scale communities without outside assistance, but organization-dependent technologies are thought of to be an approach in creating a social system. This thought supported by his conjecture that “modern INDIVIDUALS and SMALL GROUPS OF INDIVIDUALS have far less power than primitive man ever did, “ because “the vast power of ‘modern man’ over nature is exercised not by individuals or small groups but by large organizations (149). For individuals to wield the true power of technology would require “a license for everything and with the license comes rules and regulations,” meaning that individuals would only possess “the technological powers with which the system chooses to provide him.”(149). 

Radical interpretations of nature are no less artificial and no more certain than the positive ideologies of technology that the Unabomber opposes (151). Luke explains that he conventionalizes a series of fashionable ecocentric assumptions about nature and transforms them into timeless truths conjoined into the roots of “deep ecology.”  The Unabomber draws his certitudes for a new social order constrained materially by this prime directive: nature’s attributes make it necessary to destroy Technology so that small groups of autonomous individuals can coexist with it in ways that do not devastate nature and thereby let it take care of itself (152). The Unabomber’s ideal technologies that he believes to be more successful are small-scale technologies. The Unabomber explains that the colonization of everyday life by industrial society is becoming virtually irresistible and irreversible as New Class symbolic analysts rob , assimilating them through organizational technologies whether or not they have a choice, of their autonomous power potential (153). Luke believes that new associations of autonomous individuals on a more local but less than national level can work as viable alternatives to the surrogacies of industrial democracy, militarized nationalism, and personal consumption within the industrial system of developed nation-states. Populists – old and new – advance their visions for alternative conditions of associating ordinary people with new arrangements of machines, which would accentuate personal competencies, familial cohesion, and communal ecologies (155). 

Nick Anthony is a junior at Virginia Tech with majors in History and P.P.E. (Philosophy, Politics, and Economics). His undergraduate research on the illegal eradication of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense by the American government highlights parallels in contemporary perceptions of armed self-defense among African Americans.

James Peed is a junior at Virginia Tech with a major in Environmental Science and graduated with an associate’s degree in Science, with a specialization in chemistry, from Germanna Community College in Fredericksburg, VA. He had a capstone project utilizing UV Spectroscopy on the Chesapeake Bay to identify light patterns that can measure pollutant content.

Sam Kemp is a Junior with majors in Economics and PPE.  He hopes to attend law school in Virginia and practice law after graduation.  He has worked at a workers compensation law firm for the past two summers and he is interested in pursuing that area of legal practice.  He is currently researching a project comparing state systems of Judge selection and their effect on case rulings in 2020.