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Thinking with Heidegger: Rethinking Environmental Theory and Practice

From: Ethics & the Environment
Volume 10, Number 1, Spring 2005
pp. 67-87 | 10.1353/een.2005.0013

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Ethics & the Environment 10.1 (2005) 67-87

Rethinking Environmental Theory and Practice

Kevin Michael DeLuca

Environmentalism is tired. It is a movement both institutionalized and insipid. The vast majority of Americans claim to be environmentalists while buying ever more SUVs, leaf-blowers, and uncountable plastic consumer goods. Indeed, environmentalism itself has become just another practice of consumerism, a matter of buying Audubon memberships, Ansel Adams calendars, and 'biodegradable' plastic bags with one's Sierra Club credit card. As a practice of everyday life, environmentalism has devolved into another lifestyle choice.

On the political front, carbon-copy blow-dried presidential candidates proclaim their allegiance to the environment, an allegiance that is more a sign of fealty to opinion polls than a concern with environmental issues. In the world of real-politic, environmental regulations are gutted as corporations write legislation for the politicians they have bought. Outspent and outmaneuvered, mainstream environmental groups preach at the altar of broken promises about the potential of lobbying and insider access while awaiting the blandishments of the next candidate. As a political practice, mainstream environmentalism has degenerated into a marginal special-interest group.

On the intellectual front, a confusing array of reform environmentalists, deep ecologists, social ecologists, ecofeminists, wilderness advocates, social justice activists, social constructionists, and Christian ecologists offer a cacophony of competing paradigms and programs while exchanging charges and countercharges of wrong-headedness and infidelity. If on the level of practice an exhausted environmentalism has achieved both institutionalism and irrelevance, intellectually environmentalism has reached several stasis points. This is crucial, for at a level that is unusual for social movements, environmentalism has always highlighted the importance of how we think about the environment, that ideas of nature are powerful because practices follow from ideas. In other words, how we think about nature guides how we act toward nature. In the midst of this melee I want to suggest we reconsider the work of Martin Heidegger.

I want to think Heidegger in distress: in the distress of machination; in the distress of the technological enframing of the earth; in the distress of the environmental crisis. In rejecting a Heideggerian hermeneutics, a piety to textual exegesis, I hope to stress Heidegger in order to stress environmental theory. With few exceptions, two insufficient responses typify the reception of Heidegger in environmental thinking. One is to champion Heidegger as some proto-environmentalist. Certainly, quotes from such works as Being and Time, Contributions to Philosophy: From Enowning, "The Question Concerning Technology," "Building Dwelling Thinking," and "The Age of the World Picture" inspire such a reading. Such readings, however, present a simplified Heidegger. For example, a poor reading of an essay such as "The Question Concerning Technology" produces the conclusion that Heidegger was anti-technology. These misreadings are not merely accidental but a result of the goal of the citation. The challenge of Heidegger is not engaged to develop environmental theory; rather, Heidegger is cited to lend some borrowed legitimacy to the fledgling enterprise. The most prominent example of this move occurs in Devall and Sessions' Deep Ecology, wherein Heidegger joins a potpourri of thinkers, including Dogen, Job, St. Francis of Assisi, Giordano Bruno, Spinoza, Thoreau, Chief Seattle, Herman Melville, John Muir, Aldous Huxley, Gandhi, Rainer Maria Rilke, Aldo Leopold, Robinson Jeffers, Mary Austin, Rachel Carson, Barry Commoner, Stanley Diamond, and David Brower from a host of traditions, including Taoism, Hinduism, Zen Buddhism, Christianity, Native American thought, Romanticism, and ecological science (1985, 79–108). The result is confusion, at best.

On the other hand, in a second response Heidegger serves as a kind of bogeyman, a Nazi used to tar the more radical environmental groups. The syllogism is simple and simplistic: Deep Ecologists are bio/ecocentric; Deep Ecologists quote Heidegger; Heidegger was a Nazi; Therefore, Deep Ecologists are Nazis/fascists. (To push this thinking to its logical extreme, then, all nonanthropocentric thinking is fascist.) Both responses may be useful for polemics but serve to prevent a possibly productive exploration of Heidegger for the engagement of the difficult problems that have stumped environmentalism on multiple levels.

Violating Heidegger

As a prefatory word, even a cursory glance at Heidegger's work reveals him to be a thinker who deeply ponders humanity-nature...



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