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Action, Inaction, and Environmental Ethics

October 18, 2009

“Evidently, to do nothing is not an option.”

I have been pondering this line from Terry Tempest Williams’ Refuge (A memoir? A history? An environmental critique?) and speculating in just what sort of tone she was writing this thought, and what perspective on the ethics of agency she might be presenting.   On the one hand, there is the circumstance of Williams’ mother’s battle with cancer.  After years of remission, Diane (Williams’ mother) discovers that cancer is again growing in her body and her initial reaction is “to do nothing”: “She then asked that we respect her decisions, that this was her body and her life, not ours, and that if the tumor was malignant, she would choose not to have chemotherapy.” However, Diane changes her mind about chemotherapy when she is confronted with the very real possibility of death: “I told myself I would not let them poison me.  But now I am afraid not to.  I want to live.”

Juxtaposed to Diane’s action dilemma is that of Salt Lake City as it confronts an ever-rising Great Salt Lake.  As the city evaluates a series of plans to reign in the lake, Williams asks, “What would happen if the governor said, ‘I’ve decided to do nothing. Great Salt Lake is cyclic.  This is a natural phenomenon.  Our roads are built on a flood plain.  We will move them.’” The simple answer is that the governor would lose his job, and ultimately the local government chooses to put into action systems to divert water from the lake into the desert and away from the city.

My question arises when I attempt to interpret Williams’ tone in each of these circumstances, and determine what, if any, environmental ethic she is trying to convey.  In each situation there is a threat to human life, created, it is implied, by human manipulation of the natural environment.  In the case of Diane’s cancer, the testing of nuclear bombs; in the case of the Lake, the creation of a city near its shores.  Now that these environmental risks have become substantiated as actual catastrophes (to refer to Ulrich Beck’s conception risk), what are we to do?

Williams seems to suggest that leaving the lake to its own devices may be the best plan, that the “land, the water, the air, all have minds of their own” as her father puts it, minds that care nothing for humans, but presumably are concerned with their own interests and will fend for themselves.  However, in Diane’s case, intervention in the form of chemotherapy is presented as ultimately beneficial, though initially difficult and painful.  In the case of cancer, action is quietly advocated.  That is, until death proves immanent. Then, it is acceptance that we see advocated, and the “do nothing” ethos is finally embraced.

Ulrich Beck suggests that when confronted with risk there are only three possible reactions: denial, apathy, or transformation.  Williams makes it clear in her final chapter that she is neither apathetic, nor in denial about her environment being negatively impacted by human activity, revealing that she has taken on an outspoken activist role against nuclear testing.  Given the options, her “doing something” can only be interpreted as a transformation due to her personal experience.  So what of the “do nothing” option?  Has it been proven to be indicative of denial or apathy?  Or can it, too, serve as a form of transformation?  Williams leaves us with a vivid picture of activism, yet, to me, the most transformational events in Refuge are those when the possibility (or risk) of death is accepted and embraced, and nothing is done.

While it is clear that Williams as an environmental activist has taken the “do something” option herself, perhaps the tension between doing something and doing nothing in Refuge is not presented in order to advocate either approach as a basis for an environmental ethos, but instead to reveal the tenuous position that humanity finds itself in when it begins to manipulate its environment on a grand scale and catastrophe requires us to ask ourselves “How do I best redress a previous action?  Through action, or inaction?”

One Comment leave one →
  1. October 19, 2009 6:46 pm

    Your post -– and the provocative questions you raise about the ethics of environmental inaction –– seems equally germane to this week’s dramas: Todd Haynes’ “Safe” and Cherríe Moraga’s “Heroes and Saints.” In tandem, your post helps me to see, the film and play stage a conflict over passivity and activism, inertia and action, uncertainty/doubt and proof/faith. I would encourage others to weigh in on this question, one that we will pick up in person this afternoon

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