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Monday, April 25, 2022

Saving The Planet–Why And For What? A Tale Of Nihilism In A World Of Romantic Idealism

Billy Baxter was a student at a well-known Washington, DC private school, “The School of Presidents” it called itself, for many children of influential parents of the Washington political elite had gone there.  It was solidly blue, liberal, and in tune with the times progressive to the core.  A black boy or girl inaugurated, addressed, or was feted at every school event; affirmative action persisted long after public sentiment for it waned, and it quickly took up the cudgel of gender equity and the new reality of the gender spectrum.

Perhaps most significantly noted was its aggressive environmentalism.  Every occasion to recognize, promote, and praise the movement was celebrated. “Everyday is Earth Day” was another meme at Blanton and students and teachers alike took it seriously and to heart.  Climate change was at the top of the agenda, but followed quickly by activism to save the Atlantic whale, the striated sea otter, Ornick’s finch, and the Caldera worm, one of the few surviving species in the Mariana Trench, living and breeding near the hot, volcanic undersea spumes of magma gases. 

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Signs of protest were festooned everywhere on campus, groups of students were gathered during every free period and after school to protest the capitalist greed which contributed to global warming, the depletion of oxygen, the disappearances of species, and the befouling of the planet.  If there was ever a hotbed of environmental protest, it was here at Blanton.

Every curriculum had been amended to include references to the despoiling of the planet and pointed fingers at its perpetrators.  Caught up in the revelry of the moment, in the youthful enthusiasm for doing good, and chip-off-the-old block of parental liberalism, the classes limited discussions of literature, art, mathematics, and history to focus on the environment. 

In one class, a lively discussion centered on the fate of the Chesapeake Bay which had suffered worrying declines in oyster, crab, and rockfish populations.  An example of corporate greed, industrial arrogance, and social irresponsibility.  Billy Baxter, the son of a logician with tenure at Hopkins – a man  who never jumped to conclusions, who insisted on proof before judgment, and who had, despite his Libertarian credentials, been accepted into the Blanton community.  The Cato Institute, the premier Libertarian organization in the country was an important brake on the progressive juggernaut.  Countering accusations that it as nothing more than a conservative front, its executives made it clear that they were not against government per se, but only against the received wisdom of public investment which ignored and excluded private enterprise.   They were prepared to believe any of the progressive nostrums about the rightness of environmental action, the absoluteness of the gender spectrum, and the dismissal of white, European civilization if their proponents could prove their case.  Otherwise, everything was nothing more than hoopla and flapdoodle.

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Educated, trained, and experienced in logical analysis Billy Baxter put aside his classmates’ claims of human rapacity, and looked carefully into the Bay’s history and the many endogenous and exogenous factors that could be causing the decline in marine life.  He ignored nothing from commercial chicken farms, to pesticide and fertilizer runoff, to climatic factors, to endemic and epidemic disease.  He found compelling evidence that while pollution was certainly an unpleasant byproduct of the economic activity in the catchment area of the Bay, it was not the primary cause.  The probable cause, he discovered was perkinsus marinus (Dermo disease) a particularly virulent pathogen.

In the Chesapeake Bay, Dermo disease has increased in importance since the mid 1980s. Several consecutive drought years coupled with above average winter temperatures resulted in expansion of the parasite’s range into upper tributary areas and the parasite became established at all public oyster grounds in Virginia. The parasite has persisted in these areas despite a return to normal salinity conditions. In addition to its Bay-wide distribution, Dermo is also present in the embayments along the Atlantic coast of Virginia (Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences)

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“Can’t be”, howled his classmates. “Fake news, conservative blather”; but Billy held his ground.  Blanton environmental hysteria, however, could not be dampened by a single fact, so Billy’s information was ignored.

This episode, however, was just the beginning of Billy’s critical odyssey.  Not only was he offended by the school’s dismissal of his legitimate ideas and angered at what amounted to the abrogation of his right to free expression, he was increasingly surprised at the almost total lack of perspective.    Day after day he heard ‘Man’ lambasted for his environmental ignorance.  Man did this, man did that.  Man is the great despoiler, the environmental rapist, the economic predator, the cause of everything noxious, destructive, and retrograde.  Yet, is not man part of the environment so immortalized by earth activists? So what if man had contributed to the ill health of the Bay?  So what if he is largely responsible for the warming of the climate? 

One cannot ignore what Heidegger called ‘the neutrality of existence’. Heidegger may or may not have been a true nihilist, for in his analysis of fundamental ontology (what does it mean to be a human being?) in Being and Time, he writes that Dasein (human being) is grounded in an physical reality which conditions but does not define him.  His actions are determined, predictable, and unavoidable but without value. Interpreting Heidegger, one can conclude that diseases, parasites, industrial waste, overfishing, suburban growth, increased population, and man himself – all are part of a ‘neutral’, valueless ecosystem.  It is just as unfair to blame perkinsus marinus as it is man.

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The planet is nothing more than a complex system of interrelated factors that rise and fall in importance over time.  Darwin was the first environmental nihilist who understood that evolution had no particular value – no one evolutionary step was of any greater value than any other, the natural world simply acted according to internal laws. 

If man is responsible for the cutting down of the Amazon rainforest, and the extinction of species and the depletion of oxygen is the result, then he will have to either adapt or go extinct.  His need for resources and his historical penchant for expansionism, increased wealth and influence are hardwired, ineluctable, and the stuff of history.

Theologians like Polycarp, Clement, and Augustine gave a Christian, spiritual cast to nihilism, denouncing materialism and the arrogance of human determination, and stating that the human world is valueless, and value can only be added by faith.

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Hinduism is perhaps the most nihilistic of all religions, suggesting that the world does not really exist – it is nothing but illusion, and that human activity is meaningless and valueless.  In the scope of a vast, limitless, timeless universe, the feeble attempts of man to make a difference are vain.

Why, then, given this perspective – the vast, limitless expanding universe and the insignificance of any one physical point or point of time within it – should anyone care about saving the planet?  The planet will simply evolve, influenced by knowable and unknowable factors, and no one will take notice.

Billy tried to explain this to his class, but his proposition was far more indicting than perkinsus marinus.  It suggested that not only was environmentalism little more than a parlor game, given Darwinian, Christian, existential, and nihilistic thought, but the whole progressive principle of ‘progress towards a better world’ only a happy fantasy.

It would be nice to say that Blanton mended its ways, retreated from the avant garde of progressivism and returned to its solid, academic roots; but its clientele – or rather its parent base –  marched in such unison for the cause, that Billy was never more than a blip on the school’s radar.  Never mind, Billy got a good education despite Blanton, left and went on quite happy indeed.

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