“Whole and Uninjured”
“To be is to do – Socrates.
To do is to be – Sartre.
Do Be Do Be Do – Sinatra.”
The above tripartite from Kurt Vonnegut’s 1982 novel Deadeye Dick, traces originally (in longer form and with different attributions) to graffito in bathroom stalls in the late 1960s. Its modern re-emergence as Facebook meme proves once again—both in content and the similarity of venues—the pleasure of self-acknowledged defeatism that comes from shouting into the void.
But while irreverence may be the only sane riposte to the nullity that bookends life, decency demands wielding it only against oneself—a precept more easily said than followed. For it is the rare individual who has a shrugging contempt for the Fates, but genuine esteem for humanity. Indeed, holding such contradiction in sustained and successful balance culminates in the character of a heroic person: someone who is at once cavalier with their own life, and yet reverent of all others’.
Like sown seeds, the codes we choose to live by contain their own potentials. They influence our limits by circumscribing what is probable within the boundaries of what we care for, and they are realized to the degree we act for what we love. Whatever our calling, our aspirations reduce finally to the perennial choice between doing for others, or doing for oneself. And despite our recurrent wishfulness to accommodate both motives, no code can serve at once the masters of charity and greed. If there is one example of reductionism I am willing to accept as representative of a whole, it is the wager summarized in this bedrock of moral law: Whoever loses his life will save it.
I am also willing to accept, based on universal (though circumstantial) evidence, a divine presence, due to the simple fact that what is morally good is also—invariably—personally hard. The fractals, mathematics and evolutionary imperatives that succeed in accounting for an apparent “intelligent design”, fail to explain the no less exquisite trap of the human condition, and why it is that hardship should test our every inclination to do good. For those who are among the growing number of people incapable of experiencing mystery in the face of the phenomenal world, there exists a reminder of the unexplainable in those forces that moment-by-moment thwart our pretensions to an easy life.
To clarify: I am not speaking of the impulse to do good, which the biologist can demonstrate is an inherited mechanism of cooperative living, but the impediment to do good: Why it appears systemically hard to make the choice for doing for others, over doing for oneself. If nature’s principles of reciprocity extend so far as to contrive moral dilemmas whose peaceable resolution requires the personal sacrifice of comfort, then I am willing—indeed I am compelled—to concede to something holy. Specifically—as denoted in the root of the word—something “whole and uninjured.”
A more succinct definition of the modern conservation movement would be hard to compose. “Whole and uninjured” has been the uncompromising counter-position to the industrial partitioning of landscapes and the corporate prerogatives that accrue private wealth at the expense of indiscriminate public injury. (The rigidness of the conservation movement’s position owing, in part, to the punitive sentiments of populations forced to subsidize corporate wastes with their own health. The corollary to the accumulation of toxins is the accumulation of resentment among the people who suffer their effects. And without the ability to litigate upwardly, because of corporate protections, litigate each other laterally. This retributive atmosphere contributes to inflexibility because of the need to clearly define one’s allegiances.)
But the messianic character of what amounts to an Edenic conservation ethic of idylls, not only serves as a symbolic rival to corporate misconduct, it also defers to the moral imperative of conservation through an implicit belief in a fallen world and a cultural landscape needing to be “saved.” While the aims of the conservation movement are ameliorative, its animating force is redemptive. It perseveres from a fervency driven by the desecration of literal holy lands.
As with any act of piety, the efforts to protect nature are emulative, in as much as they seek the likeness of a greater power. Thus the act of saving nature is an imitation of nature: a divine revelation of what is “whole and uninjured” in the conservationists themselves. The fulfillment of which is evident in the virtual canonization of conservation pioneers like Thoreau, Leopold, and Muir. Something essential to human truth is seen to be revealed in their fealty to nature. They embody a free and fecund life, manifesting nature’s beatitude in their own good works on nature’s behalf. In other words, they have twice realized the tenet “to do is to be.” For not only was their being found in doing, in the literal, physical sense, but their being resolved from what they did.
The various forms of conservation today, of course, do not admit to any kind of metaphysics. Instead, they have been foolishly lured into waging their battles on enemy territory, having abandoned what should be their native language of reverence and absolution for an insipid managerialism. The result is a passionless appeal that emasculates both the project of conservation and its subject by limiting nature to a spiritually inert “resource”—and thereby guaranteeing its continued exploitation.
It is no accident that a mechanical vocabulary of data, measurement, standards, and classification constrains environmental debate. Hyper-rationalism is the psychic component of industry’s effluent, as insidious and contaminating to the imagination as its material wastes are to the body. While it pretends toward a colourless, odourless objectivity, it is in fact lethal to motives of affection, fidelity, aesthetics, community, tradition, wisdom, and restraint. It makes no allowance for human longing or any conception of “rights” (outside of the exploitive variety.) The wide adoption of this technical framework of quantification and categorization, evidences how far industry has penetrated our conceptions of nature and co-opted nature’s defenders. When it is no longer possible to even talk about the emergent properties of nature, we might as well admit to having lost the war before the battle.
The opposition’s tactic is clear: a debate that excludes sentiment is a debate that excludes outrage. Hyper-rationality effectively removes moral shock—a leading source of recruitment for social movements—from “serious” environmental discussion; leaving economic, legal, logistical and technological arguments to justify business as usual. It is hard to imagine how a Muir or Thoreau would participate in such discussions, but it does explain the existence of dissidents, activists, whistleblowers, and prisoners of conscience whose lives encompass the irrational idea that whoever loses his life will save it.