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Toward a Communitarian Ecology (Mark Wegierski)

Toward a Communitarian Ecology

Mark Wegierski


The environmental movement today calls for strict limits on consumption, limits on economic growth, and limits on the exploitation of the planet. However, it urges such sacrifices for the sake of an abstract ecological principle. The movement would surely have more success if it argued that these sacrifices are needed in order to preserve and enhance something more tangible, local, and particular.

A central premise of the critique of late modernity is that the economies of First World countries today are based on endlessly promoting consumption, so that enormous amounts of energy and resources are wasted in the creation of advertising to inflame appetites for largely unnecessary products, and obsolescence is “planned-in” to most products in order to keep consumption at a high rate.

The critics of modernity argue that all that consumption and investment in technology has negative as well as positive effects on people’s quality of life. The late ecologist Ivan Illich, for instance, estimated that the actual cumulative speed of commuting to and from work by car, in the very largest urban centers, is slower than that of walking by foot, because of the state of terminal gridlock.

Thus, one stated aim of many in the environmental movement coincides with a primary aim of various communitarian movements-to improve the general quality of life by replacing consumption with time for reflection and participation in one’s community.

Both groups believe that the alternative path for humanity-call it hypermodernity-will lead to a bleak future for humanity. As technology increasingly masters the natural world, many people share the fears of these groups. One such fear is that the human spirit may be diminished as a result of technology’s ability to “solve” all of our problems, as people will have fewer reasons to turn to spirituality or higher meaning. Another fear is what one author has called the Brazilification of the West: extreme contrasts of wealth and poverty; attenuation of the public-political realm and endemic crime, violence, and corruption everywhere; burgeoning overpopulation; and ongoing environmental degradation.

Here is where an effective argument could be made for the need to preserve this land, this countryside, and this country. A communitarian ecology of this type would urge the careful shepherding of resources and the custodianship of nature for the sake of a particular community, which must derive its sustenance from these resources.

Such an idea put into practice might result in comparatively slow economic growth, but would not be designed for that purpose, as so many of the current environmental movement’s ideas seem to be. The improvements in community life would compensate for the slower economy. For that reason, it would almost certainly be more appealing to the vast majority of people who sympathize with the desire to protect the environment but do not see any local benefits in doing it. Realistically speaking, no ecological program can be based on utopian ideas of wholesale de-urbanization or ruralization and expect to win popular support. Rather, the movement would do better to emphasize a saner and more ecological management of the situation as it currently is—with a view toward local preservation.


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