A Disputational Dialogical Path to an [Im]possible Democratic Environmentalism

Gallatin National Forest – Public Domain

So. This presentation will not be about why one view of environmentalism is superior to another, or why one’s opponent is simply wrong, or unrealistic, or unethical – all accusations that have been hurled at each other. Nor will the message here attempt to convey the merits of wild places, as these are assumed to be fully grasped by this audience (or readership).

Instead, it is about what I will call “democratic environmentalism.” Not the “collaboration and compromise” claim of mainstream groups, a practice that is not democratic at all, but instead excludes real opponents and omits crucial information in its promotional efforts. That is, omitted are both ecological scientific opposition as well as the groundswell of opposition coming from grassroots groups.

Conversely though, there are crucial missteps committed by the grassroots environmental movement as well. For special example, the grassroots has neglected any sufficient effort to engage publicly with mainstream, or to address its proposals’ various disrupting effects on its opponents.

Together, these groups can be thought of as oppressor and oppressed, as David and Goliath. Or, maybe more accurately, they can be thought of as two sides of the same coin, each claiming a correct position without grasping the destructivity of what is left out of each of its stories.

Before entering into a more on-the-ground look at things, here’s a final Introductory and subtending idea. In order to ever escape our intergroup destructive impasses, three inseparable ecologies will have to be attended to. These are societal ecology and individual human ecology, along with the already embattled environmental ecology. The future of Yellowstone, and of the Earth, depends on it.  What kind of society could be environmentally wise?  Can there be an emergence of human beings en masse who are able to think for themselves – what we might call autonomous humans, who would not be susceptible to either witty sales campaigns, or to sanctimony and self-righteousness?

Now, an on-the-ground picture of the mainstream and grassroots antagonisms.

Mainstreams, the environmental groups leading the suggestively but deceptively named Gallatin Forest Partnership, have presented themselves as having found a collaborative and compromise gathering of historically opposing interest groups.  But in truth, they excluded grassroots environmental groups from their institution.  This is the most obvious reason that its allusions to democracy are disingenuous.

Yet, and as I said before and deserving appreciation, they did foster the idea that we need to attempt a democratic solution to our environmental impasses.

Still, another and vital point also should not be overlooked, and ideally would be prominently considered by advocates of the Partnership’s collaborative claims. That is, it is the grassroots groups who have ceaselessly given uncompromised voice to the needs of flora and fauna in the face of innumerable societal incursions of countless forms.

Now, although the grassroots are outgunned monetarily by the mainstreams, and outgunned in terms of all the public opinion advantage that money gives the mainstreams, there is no reason that David here cannot stand up to Goliath in a public arena, and tirelessly insist upon a fully democratic undertaking.

The metaphorical David has, right in front of its eyes, the reality that individual and societal transformations will be necessary to turn the tide; not fully seeing and simultaneously taking full activist account of it has yielded a mounting depression in its membership. While they so often keep the marauders at the gates, winning battle after battle, they are losing the war.

Now, one might overcome a knee-jerk rejection, a claim that it is impossible, and consider the following. We find tremendous antagonism born of each group’s disdain for the other, a passionate dismissal that even could be our major obstacle to advancing. That is, each group experiences a certain type of enjoyment in their self-righteousness and their contempt, an enjoyment that Freud called the death drive.  Its repression is what causes destructive individual symptoms in psychotherapy patients, and it is also what causes destructive symptoms in social groups. For opposing environmental groups to remain in such respective silos might be comforting in some ways, but the repression of that comfort, its not being seen but nonetheless enacted, is not worth the cost.

If pressed, what might be each person’s capacity to think outside the sheltering ideational demands of the groups to which we belong. When constrained by bearable facing up to pain, what might be the effects of uncensoredly and respectfully debating each other in a truly democratic practice of dialogical disputation? Might a democratic environmentalism have a chance of occurring?

So, what is this dialogical disputation? Well, let me first say that it seems all but impossible. Yet, there are isolated instances of its occurrence. It is a still relatively unique practice of all disputant parties speaking fully, listening fully, debating fully. It is no more and yet no less than that. That is democracy. Its outcomes cannot be predicted. Its experience is often emotionally intense, and strongly pulls its participants to fall back into familiar blamings, sanctimonies, posturing of I am right and you are wrong. Containing those impulses in favor of mutual humanization and its possibilities for creative and unforeseen effects is actually an enormous psychological, group and intergroup process. But it is politics. And while politics is rare, as rare as is psychoanalysis, they are the only paths to a cure instead of merely a lessening of tensions.

While its hope seems such a far reach, it is the only hope that is not compromising. It is our only hope for an embraceable survival.

Joseph Scalia III, Psya.D. is a psychoanalyst, environmental and social critic, living in the northern reaches of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. His environmental writings and interviews have appeared in numerous journals and podcasts in recent years. He is the author of Intimate Violence: Attacks Upon Psychic Interiority and numerous psychoanalytic journal articles. Scalia is in private practice in Livingston, Montana, and is President of Gallatin Yellowstone Wilderness Alliance, as well as a past President and current critic of Wild Montana (né Montana Wilderness Association).