The Reverse Metamorphosis of Sustainability: Nature

William H. Young

This is the second commentary in support of Stephen Balch’s insightful article on why colleges and universities should once more offer courses on Western civilization. Dr. Balch highlights the metamorphosis in human knowledge and achievement that occurred uniquely within the modern West over the last three hundred years. The sustainability ideology proposes a “reverse metamorphosis,” to turn America and the world back to pre-modern ideas about science, nature, the economy, and governance. I address nature herein.

With the ancient Greeks, mankind became the center of the universe, beginning Western civilization. Greek thought sought to overcome the terrors and uncertainties of nature. Yet two thousand years later, nature was still seen as a terrifying master and humanity the helpless victim of forces it could not comprehend. Mysterious supernatural beings intervened miraculously in the lives and events of man as well as nature. The scholasticism of the Roman Catholic Church came to see nature as a rational whole. The Church took the fateful step that Islam would reject in the same time frame; it committed the West to an ethic of rational inquiry. Shortly thereafter the Western Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century emerged. This would be a metamorphosis that Dr. Balch calls Promethean, “intensifying creative powers rather than simply concentrating lucre.”

America was founded upon the Greek and Roman rural or georgic ideal—the moral rightness of creating human order to control and improve nature. Georgic thought sees nature as a congeries of forces threatening humanity’s means of living, necessitating labor to keep the forces of disorder at bay. Ever since the thirteenth century, when the West first began the long process of improving lives through uses of technology, excesses in its applications have created environmental impacts, which have been mitigated by reinvention, reform, and regulation.

Pastoral thought views the natural world from a sophisticated urban perspective, as a pleasant landscape of natural beauty, fit for harmony with humans and leisure. Reacting to the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution, nineteenth-century Romanticism turned to pastoral worship rather than understanding of nature. In twentieth-century environmentalism, the romantic aversion not just to technology but to natural science as alienating man from nature was reborn.

In A Moment on the Earth (1995), Gregg Easterbrook observed about environmentalism:

Until recent decades, most of the world of letters maintained guarded optimism about the human prospect. Today that optimism is gone. The shift to environmental pessimism has come at a time when shifts to pessimism are the vogue in all quarters of academia and the arts.

  Easterbrook showed —as did a remarkable five-part series in March 1993 by The New York Times—that virtually all our current environmental laws were inspired by hype, alarmism, and often-faulty data. He observed that such alarmism continues, noting:

Environmental commentary is so fog-bound in woe that few people realize measurable improvements have already been made in almost every area….Polls show that people [especially our brainwashed younger citizens] believe the environment is getting worse. Instead, the Western World today is on the verge of the greatest ecological renewal that humankind has known.

 Seizing upon global climate change as its raison d’etre, the sustainability ideology turned such pessimism into a secular religion.

In ancient Greek mythology, Prometheus took fire and the mechanical arts from the gods, giving mankind the ability to remake nature to suit his own needs. He was crucified by Zeus for doing so. The “back to nature” movement of that time was the Cynic philosophy espoused by Diogenes, who condemned materialism, considered that civilization was a mistake, and felt that Prometheus deserved his crucifixion for bringing it to mankind. In the Cynic philosophy, man without property was the ideal, poverty and hardship were the way of virtue, pleasure from satisfying one’s needs in the simplest way was acceptable, but the accumulation of luxury and wealth was not. When asked about his citizenship, Diogenes answered that he was kosmopolites, “a citizen of the world.” And our cynical pessimists of sustainability think their beliefs are something new!

Those who would reverse the metamorphosis of the Promethean Scientific Revolution condemn Francis Bacon for his statement that “knowledge and human power are synonymous…for nature is only to be commanded by obeying her.” But science—based on evidence, reason, and mathematics—only approximates how nature works in the physical world, by understanding and obeying her laws. Man can apply his moral beliefs or aesthetic values in making decisions about whether and how to apply technologies, but with the best available objective knowledge from science of potential effects on man and nature. The sustainability ideology would enervate that.

In the article Enchanting Sustainability, Peter Wood reported on an effort by sustainability advocates within academia to include “enchantment” in the scientific paradigm of an objective relationship with the natural world to include “a more personal connection with the living earth.” This way of knowing would add “a sensory, affective engagement that includes dimensions of wonder and delight and embraces an identity that includes connections to other species and the earth’s living systems.” What have been called the sustainatopians would instill in students “an emotional way of knowing the world that is separate from the rational,” to “move beyond reason and science in favor of a combination of intuition and empathy.” The sustainability ideology would turn America back to the belief systems about nature from which Western civilization progressed—reverse metamorphosis.

Over the past few centuries, the unique ability of the West to deal with nature’s forces and improve man’s material condition has been based upon actualities about nature provided by science, different from verities accessible through religious revelation, mystical insight, and secular reason. This relationship is distinctive to the character of Western civilization and has energized its greatest achievements, both material and spiritual. Our colleges and universities urgently need to return to teaching those Western distinctions so that in our decisions about interacting with nature, we can continue to get it right.


The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).

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