The Rights of Nature: Has Deep Ecology Gone Too Far?
A specter is haunting the French humanist mind these days-a radical ecology movement that threatens to replace the idealization of humanity with an idealization of nature. Already we see “the passing of the humanist era,” writes Luc Ferry, a philosopher at the Sorbonne and the University of Caen, in this prize-winning critique of that movement, a book all environmentalists ought to read. It is by turn witty and sneering, brilliant and disturbing, wildly alarmist and, in the end, surprisingly conciliatory. Ferry recognizes that we need a new relationship with nature but hopes we can get there without sweeping changes in Western humanism and liberal society. Yet he exaggerates the danger radical environmentalists pose and resists the changes that are needed.
In 1587 the village of Saint-Julien brought suit against a colony of weevils attacking the vineyards. The villagers lost in court, the judge declaring that the insects, being creatures of God, possessed the same rights as people to live in the place. Ferry is amused that such a trial could ever have occurred, but he is not amused by today’s animal liberationists, deep ecologists, greens of the left or right, or ecofeminists, all of whom seem to have too tender a regard for weevils, even to the point of preferring them over humans. Ferry calls this brigade the “ecologists,” a term that refers not to the quantitative science of ecology, with its computer models of plant and animal dynamics, but to a moral philosophy that would give rights to the whole ecosphere, the entire natural environment.
The origins of this specter lie in “the Anglo-Saxon world,” a quaintly out-of-date phrase used by French politicians as well as intellectuals to refer to England, Canada, and the United States (though mainly the latter, an irrational country prone to sudden strange enthusiasms), which together constantly challenge France’s cultural hegemony, and in Germany, the old nemesis, the dark home of anti-modern romantics. Ferry acknowledges that these foreigners have their French counterparts in writers like Michel Serres; nonetheless, he fears that it is France itself, the great font of modern humanism, that is under attack by the eco-revolutionaries.