Commonplace - Week Beginning 6 October 2019

Environmental Playacting

At City Journal, Heather Mac Donald writes about the hypocrisy and “play-acting” of a certain kind of youth that has made environmentalism their cause. The problem is not unique to youth, but given the attention that has surrounded the potential contribution of the younger generation to meeting the environmental crisis, it is worth considering where even this generation falls short.

The cardinal rule when it comes to environmental virtue-signaling is that people give up what they’re willing to give up. Young people are no different. If being environmentally sound required sacrificing anything that a self-described environmental warrior actually valued, the conversation would quickly change to a different topic. One’s own habits are necessary; it’s everyone else’s that need to change.

But beyond that, there is something even more insidious about the younger generation’s attention to environmentalism. I think Mac Donald raises a good point when she points out that much of this environmentalism is not driven by a serious and attentive love for the environment itself:

If the younger generations have any nonpolitical interest in nature, they keep it well hidden. Instagram holds more fascination than forest mosses and lichens; like most air travelers today, the young fly with their seat windows down to reduce the glare on their screens, indifferent to the startling revelations below about geology and topology that John Ruskin and Leonardo da Vinci would have killed to observe.

The perspective that she takes is a fair one. It does not denigrate efforts at protecting the environment, but seeks to deflate any pretensions:

An awareness of one’s own consumption and an attempt to conserve and to eliminate waste are worthy practices. But so is a zeal-tempering humility that should deflate any moral righteousness around such marginal efforts and that recognizes the fantastically un-natural prosperity—the product of Western capitalist enterprise and the rule of law—that underwrites environmental playacting.

This, in most if not all situations, is a good thing to do.

Heidegger the Homesick Philosopher

Samuel Earle provides a helpful summary of Heidegger’s thought and the contests that have raged over his legacy in The New Statesman:

The book [Being and Time] was a refutation of the distinction between mind and body, and all the fallacies that follow. “I think, therefore I am” was, in Heidegger’s reckoning, a “naive supposition”, an anthropocentric conceit that went all the way back to Plato. Humans cannot be imagined either outside or prior to the world into which they are “thrown” – a bed of land, language, tradition, history and more. Heidegger believed that only once this embeddedness, this “Being-there” (Dasein) in the world, is recognised can it be restored to its fullest, most authentic form, and the “forgetfulness of Being”, “the homelessness of man” and “the Fallenness of the world” overcome.

John Paul II’s philosophy of labour

At Church Life Journal, Angela Franks contrasts St. John Paul II’s philosophy of labour with Karl Marx’s. The entire thing is worth reading in full as it explicates both philosophies in detail. Putting both thinkers side by side is particularly insightful. One key contrast lies in each thinker’s perspective on necessary work – Marx clearly rails against any work that is “necessary”, labour is merely good for what it allows the worker to exchange for it, but:

In contrast to this, Wojtyła does not divide work into what is necessary to meet basic needs, on the one hand, and what is free and fulfilling, on the other. As the encyclical Laborem Exercens says, Even though it bears the mark of a bonum arduum, in the terminology of Saint Thomas, this does not take away the fact that, as such, it is a good thing for man. It is not only good in the sense that it is useful or something to enjoy; it is also good as being something worthy, that is to say, something that corresponds to man’s dignity, that expresses this dignity and increases it. John Paul II continues, “Work is a good thing for man—a good thing for his humanity—because through work man not only transforms nature, adapting it to his own needs, but he also achieves fulfilment as a human being and indeed, in a sense, becomes ‘more a human being’” (LE, §9). To utilize the Marxist language: Wojtyła believes all labor has “use value.”

Franks links this philosophy of labour to a deeper metaphysical claim about the human person:

The personally expressive function of labor ultimately derives from the primordial reality of the body as a quasi-sacrament, which is capable of expressing the triune God: his body “has been created to transfer into the visible reality of the world the mystery hidden from eternity in God, and thus to be a sign of it.”