Declension Narratives and the Ecological Crisis

It is interesting that both theological and philosophical ethics concerned with the environment trade in declension narratives. The end result of that narrative is typically a kind of thick moralizing, one where the reader is shown how pathetically unimpressive the thinker is who is uninterested or even critical of “tradition”. But the narrative can really go both ways: “Traditionalists hold that everything new is devoid of meaning and that there is no value to be found in the new. The myth of tradition has led to the deaths of millions who, if tradition had not stood in the way, could have been saved by the progress and advance of Enlightenment scientific reason.” The text would usually go the other way, replacing new with old, tradition with progress, but is there any necessary reason it should not go this way? The “findings of historians” are varied with regard to these narratives and deciding which historical narrative to follow is often based on a crude, commonsense historico-empiricism. Regardless, whichever way the narrative goes it is useless for ecological thought and practice and yet, despite that, this is probably the most common trope paraded about in the writings of environmental thinkers (we will say environmental, for they have not yet been ecological).

All work in ecological thought must bracket the veracity of whatever declension narrative, for it is a matter that is largely undecidable and overwhelmingly uninteresting for dealing with the actual problems facing us. Besides, how could we choose between two “what if” stories? They are always attractive, sure, and a staple of contemporary mtyhs, but they are ultimately still caught up in the mixed reality of both the past and the present with its mix of tradition and progress. Would you choose that a local community decide your future, both through unconscious and conscious means, giving you no real freedom to change your life, if it meant there was never a Hiroshima? Would you choose nomadic, sustainable small-scale farming, if it menat that millions of people who have lived and are living never could? Who can decide between such options? And why, in their comic book form of what if, would you give attention to them anyway? So, yes, bracket the veracity of the declension narrative. What then do we do with it? What then can we ask?

Why do environmental thinkers care about the declension narrative? This should be an ecological question, one related to the human question I’ve spoken of before. That is, the declension narrative should be treated as a symptom of some particular way of unconscious thinking. A symptom that will help us to understand why environmental thought is so plagued by unecological forms of thought. Ultimately, it seems to me, and in a manner that is evident, it points to a form of thinking that gives attention to itself against its enemy (tradition against progress, etc.) and not to ecological thinking as such. It is a symptom of a way of thinking which directs energy to its way of thinking for its own sake. What is important is that Christian theology win or localism win or so on and so forth, not that ecological thinking begins.

One thought on “Declension Narratives and the Ecological Crisis

  1. I see a lot of this happening, too, in how people define “argumentative rigor” in general. If you do not have an obvious or strong “thesis,” or if your work cannot be more-or-less easily used in the service of another project, as a tool, then you’re somehow doing things incorrectly. It’s difficult articulating what is wrong w/ this line of thinking w/out succumbing to what you’re critiquing. But, at the end of the day, more of often than not, people who point to that as “proof” that your argument is faulty, merely illustrate your point: i.e., that no thought is actually occurring, in the sense of new syntheses and creations of concepts; and, moreover, nobody is winning.

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