Environmentalism Is Another Flawed Ideology

By Vaclav Havel
941 words
25 October 1995
The Asian Wall Street Journal
(Copyright (c) 1995, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)

The following is an open letter from Vaclav Havel, president of the Czech Republic. The remarks were prepared to coincide with this week's environmental conference, attended by official representatives of 57 countries, in Sofia, Bulgaria.

I come from a country where forests are dying, where rivers look like sewers, and where in some places the citizens are sometimes recommended not to open their windows. I come from a country where the boundaries between fields were abolished, causing landslides, soil erosion and degradation, and where this soil is then poisoned by chemical fertilizers which go on to poison the groundwater. Field birds have nowhere to build their nests and die, and then farmers have to use more chemicals to kill the pests. I come from a country which for a long time has been supplying the whole of Europe with a very odd export commodity -- sulphur dioxide.

When I think about what has caused these frightening conditions and when each day I encounter the barriers that make any quick improvement impossible, again and again I have to conclude that the root causes of these conditions are neither technical nor economic, but are philosophical in nature. In my view, Marxist ideology and the communist style of rule reflect an extreme and threatening culmination of arrogance of new age human beings who enthroned themselves as lords of all nature and of all the world. This human being is the only one who understands them, who is to be served by them, and who is the only reason for the existence of this planet. Intoxicated by the performance of the human mind, by new age science and technology, this human being totally forgets that there are limits to human learning, that there is a deep and extensive secret beyond these limits, and that there is something higher and endlessly more sophisticated than human reason.

I feel more and more intensely that even the term "environment" which is inscribed on the banners of many philanthropic citizen initiatives is, in a way, perverted. It is an unintentional product of the same anthropocentrism which also produced extensive devastation of the globe. Actually, the term environment silently assumes that everything that is not a human being is only the human being's environment, that is, is some sort of less valuable surroundings that we should grow and maintain for our own sake. I do not think this is really so. The world is not divided into two kinds of entities of which one is essential and the other is only the first one's environment. The Universe, Nature and all existence is one endlessly complex and imponderable meta-organism, and the human being is only a part of it even though this part is undoubtedly very specific.

Each of us is a crossroads of thousands of relations, bonds, influences and communications of all kinds: physical, chemical, biological and other that we do not know anything about. On the one hand, there would be no Challenger space shuttle without a human being, but on the other hand there would be no human being without air, water, soil and thousands of incidents which cannot be incidental and which give existence to this planet which gives existence to life. Each of us is truly a very specific and complex conjuncture of time, space, matter and energy, but we are also nothing more than that, thus being unthinkable without them and without a universal structure whose dimensions they constitute.

I am afraid that people can hardly divert the threat of environmental disaster if they do not understand that a human being is not the lord of all existence but only a part of it. The fact that we are the only part of existence so far which is known to be conscious of its existence does not make any difference. And we even know that there is an end to our existence.

Once you have said A, you also have to say B. One who has realized that she or he is only a spot in a huge physical structure will inevitably sooner or later also realize that they are not only related to this very moment of place, but that they are related to the world as a whole and to eternity. This human being will have to realize that they will do a disservice to their immediate, local, temporary or individual interest if they do not at the same time also reflect the universal, higher than individual and timeless interest. Only the individual who feels responsible for the world, to the world and before the world is really responsible for and to himself or herself.

I think that the environmental desolation created by the communist regimes is a warning for the whole of civilization today. I think that the message that is coming from this part of the world should be read as a challenge to defend ourselves against all those who despise the secret of being, might they either be cynical business people pursuing nothing but the profits of their business or left wing saviours who have succumbed to the drug of cheap ideological utopias. Both of these lack what I would call a metaphysical anchor. I mean, a humble respect for the whole of creation and awareness of our obligations to it.

Should I in conclusion put this contemplation into a very simple sentence, then I would say something like this: If the parents believe in God, their children will not have to wear gas masks on their way to school and their eyes will not be blinded with pus.