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Virtualism and the logic of environmentalism

Argyrou, Vassos


Vassos Argyrou


This chapter is concerned with the apparent reversal of the modernist ‘physics’ and ‘anthropology’ in environmentalism; the reversal, that is, of the modernist perception of the physical world and definition of humanity and culture. 1 The central question it raises is whether this reversal signifies rupture with Modernism, as environmentalists and, for different reasons, their Modernist critics claim, or whether, rhetoric and common sense notwithstanding, it reflects some sort of continuity. Addressing this question not only helps illuminate the relationship between environmentalism and Modernity; it also shows how environmentalism, much like Modernity, can lapse into what Carrier (1998) calls ‘virtualism’; how, that is, it constructs a vision of the world, which it takes to be reality itself, and attempts to make the world conform to it. The idea that there is continuity between environmentalism and Modernity, rather than rupture, is not new. There is an argument from sociology according to which the core characteristic of Modernity is not rationality and science or whatever else has historically been used to isolate and define the Modern but something else. It is reflexivity, which is the practice of questioning and doubting everything, including the means by which one questions and doubts. As Giddens (1991) says, unlike the reflexivity of ‘traditional’ societies, which ceases its questioning when it reaches the authority of tradition, Modernity’s reflexivity is wholesale and makes no exceptions. On the basis of this argument, postmodernism emerges as reflexive Modernisation rather than something that takes us beyond the Modern. This is because it does precisely what Modernism is supposed to do: question and doubt everything, including itself. In a similar vein, environmentalism emerges as ‘ecological enlightenment’ (Beck 1992), a radical questioning of the received wisdom about the nature of the physical world akin to the enlightened questioning of tradition and religion in the eighteenth century. As I have argued elsewhere (Argyrou 2003), there are good grounds for refusing to take reflexive Modernisation seriously as either a theory or a myth. 2 But perhaps there is something to be said about the argument for continuity, provided that Giddens’s and Beck’s voluntarism is set aside and Modernism is posited in its full cultural density. The argument developed in this chapter is that environmentalism operates with an inherited cultural logic, which appears in the Modernist proclivity to imagine the social as a unity. This image of unity leads the Modernist to strive either to change society to fit this image or, since these are no longer revolutionary times, to reinterpret social divisions in such a way that the image’s integrity and persuasive force remain intact. 3 Environmentalism operates with this logic, but does more than simply reproduce it: it takes it to its logical and ontological conclusion. Over and above the unity of the social, it imagines and propagates the unity of the social and the physical. As one might expect, and as will become apparent in the course of this essay, this vision of unity is most clearly articulated by the more radical environmentalist factions. It remains implicit, which is to say unthought, in mainstream environmentalism, as, for instance, in the often-heard but rarely clarified statement, ‘we are part of nature and nature is part of us’.


Argyrou, V. (2009). Virtualism and the logic of environmentalism. Virtualism, governance and practice: vision and execution in environmental conservation, 24-44. Berghahn Books

Acceptance Date Nov 1, 2009
Publication Date Nov 15, 2009
Volume 13
Pages 24-44
Series Number 13
Book Title Virtualism, governance and practice: vision and execution in environmental conservation
ISBN 9781845459604
Public URL