Lee Van Ham, Blinded by Progress: Breaking Out of the Illusion That Holds Us
Informed Americans know we’re using Earth’s resources faster than Nature can replenish itself. We burn carbon, squander water, generate waste, and denude land at rates unprecedented in natural history. We know we’re doing it, but feel powerless to stop, and don’t know why. Philosopher Lee Van Ham suggests we’re beholden to an ethical edifice we can’t even see.
Van Ham proposes two competing philosophies: MultiEarth thinking, which consumes resources and people like we’ll never run out, and OneEarth thinking, which endeavors to live in harmony with Earth, human nature, and ecology. We cannot live right, he asserts, until we live aware of our moral shackles. We must shatter the illusions concealing our morality from ourselves.
Readers familiar with Bill McKibben, Wendell Berry, or Julia Butterfly Hill will recognize Van Ham’s themes. But they won’t recognize his reasoning, not superficially, anyway. Though much environmentalist and anti-plutocratic writing has an innate spiritual component, Van Ham applies intensive exegetical considerations to the topic, reflective of his prior ministerial career. He particularly finds, in the story of Cain and Abel, a parable of modern society.
Abel, Earth’s roaming steward, and Cain, Earth’s settled owner, could never have lived peaceably. The relationship between those who follow Earth’s ever-changing movements, and those who try to shackle Earth to their whims, will inevitably turn violent, as they forever cross purposes. Van Ham sees a late anti-urban allegory here, much like Jacques Ellul, and his exposition of two ultimately incompatible systems permeates his book.
This moral vision differentiates Van Ham from the numerous voices already propounding similar messages. While Wendell Berry, for instance, shares Van Ham’s faith, Berry frequently avoids current events, focusing on transcendent, almost mystical themes. McKibben, though a professed Christian, prefers scientific arguments, using spirituality sparingly. Van Ham’s moral catholicity claims the broad middle ground between these visions, the domain where most Americans live, but where environmentalists fear to tread.
Van Ham spends the largest part of his book discussing what he terms the “Five Big MultiEarth Practices Holding Us In Illusion.” These practices correspond with important issues I’ve noticed, but haven’t yet voiced as clearly, especially “Giving Primary Religious Devotion to Economics” and “Disguising Corporatocracy as Democracy.” Van Ham’s breakdown alternates between the shock of familiarity and deep, suppressed detail.
Economics’ religious structure, which most capitalists would probably deny, become obvious when considering the rituals attendant to, say, Monday NYSE openings. But Van Ham explores subterranean corners of modern economic practice, demonstrating how business insider liturgies and CNBC hymnody conceal a deeper moral landscape, one most Americans never see, but inevitably share. His discoveries, as current as the morning news, are frequently chilling.
Now, many writers publish many books explicating how society rationalizes damaging humans and the Earth, while mortgaging our own future, for wasteful short-term gains. Van Ham distinguishes his book by mixing objective fact with personal writing. Not just a book of science or morality, Van Ham offers a memoir of his own struggles with eco-unfriendly living, and how he transitioned from short-term profligacy to mindful living.
Much as I appreciate Van Ham’s premises, and mostly support his arguments, his exegesis remains frustratingly one-sided. In discussing MultiEarth philosophy, he characterizes it entirely in his own terms, not terms his opponents would comprehend. Consider this early characterization of his MultiEarth frenemies: “Human species strives for lifestyles that use more resources than available on one planet.”
Does anybody really strive for that? Or do people enamored of earthly wealth simply believe Earth’s resources so vast that we cannot possibly deplete them? When approaching his opposite numbers, Van Ham might consider attempting what rhetorician Gerald Graff calls “the believing game”—attempting to state counterarguments in terms true believers would accept. Because right now, MultiEarth adherents could accuse him of Straw Man arguments, and dismiss him.
Therefore, I recommend this book primarily for people who essentially already support Van Ham’s central thesis. His reasoning will give us tools for debating technocratic zealots, and allows us to bolster our own beliefs with reason and facts. Once we’ve persuaded others to take our positions seriously, and only then, let’s push copies of this book into Old Order followers’ hands.
Van Ham describes this as the first of a trilogy. In this volume, he primarily establishes the moral foundation of MultiEarth and OneEarth philosophies; he promises in future volumes to address actual plans to fix the socioeconomic Frankenstein we’ve created. If he maintains his personal, moral, and dryly humorous tone, I’ll anticipate those coming volumes with giddy fanboy hope.