Environmental crisis highlights the west's culture of denial
By Yusuf Progler
The recent protests at the World Trade Organization (WTO) meetings in Seattle have pushed environmental concerns into the
public eye. US president Clinton and other members of the Úlite cadres of the WTO were forced to defend western economic
practices and policies in ways that had not been planned. One issue that received a great deal of attention, from protesters and
officials alike, was the impact of western economic policies on natural ecosystems. But most of the ensuing discussion treated
environmental concerns in their political and economic dimensions, and in this sense both sides of the debate share a common
set of core assumptions.
In the rarefied milieu of political and economic wrangling, with public relations and image-making concerns defining the terms of
debate, deeper problems were obscured or distorted. But, proceeding from the assumption that the ecological crisis is at
bottom a cultural crisis, some environmentalists and activists have challenged the very terms of the debate. In The Culture of
Denial, C. A. Bowers asks hard questions about the nature of culture, and asserts that people living the modernist western
lifestyle, and Americans in particular, are participating in a culture that is in denial about serious environmental issues. Bowers
takes this argument even further by insisting that schools and universities perpetuate this culture of denial, and that implicitly "all
education is environmental education."
Public schools and universities have not recognized that, by advancing a particular knowledge-system, they are actually sorting
various bodies of knowledge into different qualitative categories. High status knowledge, according to Bowers, is that which is
favored by the modernist educational system and is primarily concerned with technological progress and economic growth.
Low status knowledge, on the other hand, is generally excluded from view because it refers things that do not promote the
modernist system. Many still-vibrant revealed religions and non-western traditional cultures, especially those that teach material
constraint and living harmoniously within an ecosystem, are by definition low status in the modernist educational scheme.
Educational institutions reinforce the behavior that is pervasive in consumer society. Bowers discusses how the American
corporate media also promote a message that equates 'modern' and 'progressive' with a consumer lifestyle and technological
advancement. Media coverage of local knowledge schemes, especially those that have coherent and workable visions of
ecologically sound living, is virtually non-existent. Bowers argues that many western-oriented societies share a conceptual
matrix that denies the ecological impact of their cultural beliefs and practices, irrespective of the surface political debates that
busy them. He argues that it is not only toxins and pollutants that destroy living ecosystems; the real culprits are western and
modern values, beliefs and modes of behaviors.
With the advent of satellite television, western corporations and their local proxies are now able to advertise the modernist way
of life to the whole world, or to those parts that can afford the equipment. This makes sense because western civilization has
largely lost sight of its identity, and has come to rely on advertisement and fantasy-fulfilment to define what is important, and to
create a sense of self and society. To the extent that people take this lifestyle for granted, corporate media images distort
concepts of what is needed for a wholesome and fulfilling lifestyle.
At bottom, people need fresh air, clean water and healthy food, yet on the surface they think that they also need computers and
automobiles. Bowers shows that this puts people into a 'double-bind' in which one set of needs causes problems with another
set. Western consumer-culture is obsessed with fulfilling its glittering desires and wants, but disregards the ecological
implications of its lifestyle. The necessary connections are obscured by western educational systems, which generally promote
the assumptions and values of consumerism.
Bowers tries to show that western educational systems reinforce the cultural beliefs that contribute to environmental destruction.
American public schools, for example, provide students with only the "romantic aspects of the ideology of modernism." Bowers
shows that universities provide students with a narrow view of life, compartmentalized into various disciplines, that creates a
sort of mythic ambiguity around modernist culture.
High-school students are primed to enter the world of high status knowledge because they receive a very limited knowledge
base with which to make meaningful decisions. This creates a sort of class system that is less economic and more conceptual in
nature, yet which keeps people focused on their own narrow economic interests by way of competitive job markets for high
status knowledge. Someone receiving a university education is usually provided with nothing more than the tools and ideology
to develop more efficient means with which to destroy the natural world, in the guise of economic progress and technological
Bowers challenges the high status, low content version of education promoted by western university systems, since they ignore
the broader ecological implications of the knowledge-systems and cultural practices they promote. He argues instead for a
more balanced approach to education, which would produce a culture of awareness about how society is dependent upon
nature. In fact, Bowers seems to be calling for an overall more balanced way of life for westerners, and advocates a society in
which people are aware of how they are affecting their environment and how their present practices restrict their options for the
Following discussions of technologies, in which he develops their cultural embeddedness, Bowers turns his attention to the role
of language in reinforcing the culture of denial. He believes that language encodes reality into cultural beliefs, and that culture
shapes every aspect of a people's thought and behavior. Accordingly, education can either reinforce or dismantle a cultural
system by the language it uses. Western educational systems lack any sort of awareness of the cultural and linguistic basis of the
ecological crisis, and promote instead a haphazard and absent-minded relationship with the environment. For Bowers, the key
to solving the ecological crisis lies in reforming education, so he next turns his attention to the present day environmental
movements in the west, focusing on what they can do about educational reform.
Reform efforts advanced by environmental groups have fallen short in understanding the total scope of the problems they claim
to address. One difficulty, as Bowers points out, is in their tendency to fragment ecological diversity into specific political
causes. While the environmental movement is made up of a wide range of interest groups, many of them deal only with specific
environmental problems, and fail to consider how broader cultural assumptions are causal factors, and how these assumptions
are perpetuated by education. Bowers believes that a major cause of this dysfunction is that environmentalists rely on many of
the same modernist assumptions as those they claim to be fighting, especially regarding uses of science and technology. He
insists that environmentalists develop broader, more coherent strategies for educating people on the implications of the
To advocate environmental awareness seems passÚ nowadays. Even Al Gore, the American vice president, claims to be an
environmentalist. Many corporations claim to have environmental policies, and advocate a program of 'wise use'. But these are
nothing more than hegemonic co-optations of a problem that is ill-understood. Bowers goes a long way toward unpacking the
problems with pseudo-environmental awareness; by identifying the ecological crisis as a cultural crisis, he challenges all those
who claim to be environmentalists to rethink their basic cultural assumptions. For others, the book should be a wake-up call, a
warning that western civilization is no longer viable; it ought also to give pause for reflection on tenable and sustainable
Reviewed for H-Teachpol by Eric Shibuya, [email protected]
Colorado State University
Published by H-Teachpol (June, 1998).
Chet Bowers puts forth a powerful argument. His critique extends not only to society's preoccupation with technology,
"progress," and economic "growth," but also points to how our educational system has aided in instilling and reinforcing these
values, from primary education to university levels. Bowers argues that the educational system needs to be completely
restructured to instill values and teach practices that lead to ecologically sustainable forms of living. Along the way, Bowers
points to how even thinkers considered "reformists" contribute to ecologically unsustainable ways of thinking. What is being
called for here is not simply the addition of environmental studies programs, or the add-on of "green" courses into the
curriculum, but rather a fundamental change in the foundations, the very values, that our educational system strives to
Bowers first discusses what he calls the "culture of denial," the refusal to examine the possibility that how we live our lives now
may not be environmentally sustainable. The continuing obsession of consumerism and commercialism, the unquestioning faith
in technological "fixes," and escapist practices via television or (more insidiously) the Internet; these practices all insure that the
bulk of the population will not stop to question where we are going, what road we are traveling on. Rather than leading to
questions of current practices, Bowers argues that our educational system has reinforced this culture of denial. It has done this
by its presentation of history as linear, "progress" from traditional (bad) to "modern." Further, the educational system has
focused upon the individual as an autonomous unit, and its insistence that knowledge and discovery comes from within the
individual misses the point that every individual is in fact culturally, socially grounded. Finally, (and this is especially true at the
higher levels of education), Bowers notes that "higher-level" knowledge is privileged, meaning that type of knowledge based
on "rational" principles (e.g., the scientific method). Forms of knowledge that harken back to "tradition" are labeled as
backward and not useful to our discussion; they do not "further knowledge." As such, even reform movements such as those
advocated by Paulo Friere or the postmodern movement do not give us avenues of action that are environmentally sustainable.
Postmodernism, for instance, while claiming to be a break from modernity, actually extends the modernity project in that
postmodernism continues to view the individual as the basic unit of analysis, and to view past traditions and ways of life as
backward. All of these values are so taken for granted that even these so-called reform movements are based somewhat on
these foundations. Bowers' work seeks to undermine these values, to question their authority. Quite literally, a paradigm shift
is in order.
All that being said, there are some shortcomings. First, and this is a minor quibble, Bowers notes that the modern mindset is
instilled within children and a deeply unconscious level, and yet his focus here is to confront these values later in life, notably at
the university level, at which point it may be too late. (Bowers does later discuss primary socialization, but this only briefly, and
much later in the work). Also, Bowers notes that the cultural elite come from similar educational backgrounds, yet his focus
here is on our public school system, then our universities. It may do well to point to how our elites are trained in our private
school system, where certainly a different kind of socialization--that of class--is going on as well. There is also some cynicism
as to how effective our basic educational system really is. Bowers notes, "most students graduate from high school with such a
limited knowledge base that they are able to do little more than be compliant consumers and work in low-status jobs" (p. 38).
This may be the case, but it is exactly at this level that the ecologically unsustainable practices have already been instilled within
the individual. Also, while Bowers' criticism of emancipatory writers such as Paulo Friere does point to Friere's
conceptualization of the individual as atomistic, it should be noted that Friere's work isn't focused upon the ecological ties
between the individual and society, but rather the break from what Friere argues are constraints that are unnecessary. (And
even Bowers notes [p. 10] that some traditional forms of living should be put aside.) In contrast, Bowers' work here focuses
upon the ecological limits that need to be placed on any form of human emancipation. To therefore argue that Friere and
others that follow him miss the point that emancipation does have its limits may go too far.
Next, Bowers often uses the term "tradition" rather loosely. At times it means those patterns of thinking which lead to
environmentally sustainable ways of life, but at others Bowers discusses the modern mindset as being instilled as "traditional,"
and also points out that there are some traditions which are not ecologically friendly. (This is an ironic point: Bowers argues,
quite rightly, that those traditions which are not ecologically friendly need to be discarded. But, isn't the discarding of
"nonuseful" traditions symbolic of modernity?) Also, part of Bowers' discussion of tradition seems to place tradition as
something that isn't fluid, when in fact his conceptualization of the modern mindset and its extension into postmodernism shows
very well how "traditions" can change and metamorphisize. It is only much later in the work (p. 168 ff.) that Bowers
acknowledges the fluidity of tradition, at which point the reader may be somewhat frustrated by the term.
The final shortcoming is that while Bowers touches upon the internationalization of the mindset of modernity, there is very little
discussion as to the power and influence of the international system, or the power of the state in maintaining the modern
mindset. There is a recognition that those in power, such as university administrators, will feel threatened at a movement that
undermines "high status" knowledge, but this recognition doesn't go further, notably to government officials (who make the
funding decisions for public schools and universities), and multinational capital (who donate huge funds to universities). Bowers
recognizes and accurately points to the individual as being culturally and socially based, but makes little mention until much
later in the book of how the "inertia of history," to borrow from Foucault, makes social change truly difficult.
Culture of Denial is a powerful, controversial book. It will stimulate discussion in a course not only in environmental politics
or environmental education, but would be an effective addition even in a wider course on pedagogy, as it will force both
students and instructors to examine what it is that they are teaching (and learning) beyond what is made explicit. Some final
words of warning, however. This is not an easily accessible book, which is most unfortunate, as this book deserves a wider
audience that it will probably receive. Culture of Denial can be a hard read, and there is little doubt that its content will be
resisted by most students, if not by some academics. Bowers is quite clear in his presentation, that the ecological crisis has
reached a point where it may no longer be viable to consider "academic freedom" as an unqualified good. "The modern
understanding of academic freedom must now be reconstituted in ways that foreground human dependency on increasingly
distressed ecosystems" (p. 202). There will also no doubt come the claim that what Bowers is advocating is not education per
se, but indoctrination. Of this point, the entire argument presented in Culture of Denial is that our educational system as it
stands indoctrinates students into a mindset that is not ecologically viable in the long term. As such, the accusation that this is
an indoctrinating program is only damning if one denies the current indoctrination of taken-for-granted values within our school
system. All in all, this is a powerful work, and if both students and instructors are willing to work through it, it will provide a
strong learning experience and a challenge to previously taken-for-granted understandings.
C. A. Bower's Syllabus
Source: University of Oregon
Computers, Globalization and the Ecological Crisis
Time: UH 14:00-15:20
Instructor: Chet Bowers
Description of Course:
The course will examine a number of questions that arise from the increasing world-wide use of
computers. As many of the beneficial uses of computers are already recognized, the questions are framed
in ways that bring out the cultural mediating characteristics that are not usually considered. the questions
include: What are the differences between the culture of cyberspace and the culture of everyday life?
How do the values, experience of time, and form of individual subjectivity reinforced in cyberspace differ
from the diverse cultural patterns found in more ecologically centered cultures? What are the differences
between local knowledge and computer mediated data and information? What are the implications of
embedding the justification of globalizing computer in the scientific theory of evolution? what are the
differences between an electronic community and real life communities (in the dominant and traditional
cultures)? How do computers contribute to the commodification of knowledge and relationships? do
computers reinforce a particular idological/epistemological orientation? Is data really the basis of thought
or is thought influenced by the metaphorical language of a cultural group?
The readings and class discussions will provide a more complex understanding of the double binds that
surround the use of computers--particularly for people who consider themselves to be environmentalists.
Hopefully, the course will lead to a more critical and culturally sensitive understanding of the role that
computers play in globalizing the patterns of thinking and communicating that are contributing to an
Readings (selections from the following):
Sherry Turkle, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet
Nicholas Negroponte, Being Digital
Hans Moravec, Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence
Kevin Kelly, Out of Control: The Rise of Neo-Biological Civilization
Gregory Stock, Metaman: The Merging of Humans and Machines into a Global Superorganism
Howard Rheingold, Virtual Reality
Theodore Roszak, The Cult of Information
Wolfgang Sachs, The Development Dictionary: A Guide to Knowledge as Power
Frederique A. Marglin and Stephen Marglin (editors), Dominating Knowledge: Development, Culture,
and Resistance and Decolonizing Knowledge: From Development to Dialogue
C.A. bowers, The Culture of Denial: Why the Environmental Movement Needs a Strategy for Reforming
Universities and Public Schools and chapters from book manuscript "Let Them Eat Data: The
Ecological and Educational Consequences of Globalizing Computer Culture"
Keith Basso, Wisdom Sits in Places: Language and Landscape Among the Western Apache
Jerry Mander and Edward Goldsmith, The Case Against the Global Economy and the Local
Sim Van der Ryn and Stuart Cowan, Ecological Design
See Also --> Let Them Eat Data: How Computers Affect Education, Cultural Diversity, and the Prospects of Ecological Sustainability by C. A. Bowers
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