Why YOU are needed to respond to the ecological emergency, wherever you stand
The field of environmental ethics is focused at the moment on an attempt to decipher whether or not pragmatic or conceptual approaches can most usefully develop, engage with or explore the issues surrounding environmental issues.
What the hell does that mean?
It really means that there’s a major debate in the area of environmental philosophy about whether or not empirical research — research into what people really do, and say — is more helpful than developing theories when it comes to describing what is going on. More, it might be that empirical research actually changes how people think and act, because the very act of asking questions creates the conditions for self reflection, and that’s where change really happens. Theories, on the other hand, tend to focus on classical philosophical positions (the traditional anthropocentric (Hegelian) “slave-master” arguments are one example) which don’t really represent how real people think on the ground.
This has implications for university research in the field of philosophy
Focusing on what philosophers have written misses the point if what you want to do is understand, describe — and even shift — how people see their relationship with current environmental concerns. This, in turn, influences which questions are most relevant. (It also raises questions about what philosophy, or, indeed, academia, is for, since if you’re nudging behaviour, or attempting to be explicit about knowledge being ‘for’ something rather than neutral, that’s rather different from the purported aims of academia at the moment — but Nick Maxwell has done a lot of work on this which I will write about in the next post).
Since the ecological emergency is unfolding even as I write, we need to be able to understand how people see things, be able to describe what people do in response to how they understand the situation, and be able to understand what is going on so we can put a finger on what effective action is. (I do, in fact, think that knowledge is always gathered ‘for’ something, whether we are aware of it or not: knowledge for its own sake is still ‘for’ the advancement of human understanding, for instance).
So, what are people thinking?
Well, there’s still a widespread belief (according to de Groot, and others) that we have a stewardship role in relation to the Earth and all its systems. This is probably the most widespread understanding, and it runs the gamut from what’s taught in schools and on meditation apps (‘Protect Our Precious Planet’, ‘Caring for our Beloved Earth’) to how politicians create legislation (‘Accounting for Natural Capital’)
Human and non-human interests are viewed as having a common cause, with humans as the guardians of the place they, and other sentient beings, call home. The problem with this approach is that first, we haven’t been very good at guardianship in the past, and secondly, it’s still a top down, hierarchical approach with humans as the most important species, and all others ranged in roughly the order of closeness of relation to the human. It’s also dualistic: humans on the one hand, as agents, and everything else, on the other, as passive recipient of human concern and action. Not a very good description, then, of what is actually going on, since humans are not, in fact, uniquely agents (and are no different, in some very real senses, from other creatures acting or rather reacting as a result of genetic, environmental, local and ancestral factors, rather than really reflecting on what they’re doing, and thus allowing themselves to step back from the infernal karmic loops of cause and effect).
If you look at any of the big hitters in the Anglo-American, analytical world of environmental philosophy, the prevailing view is that humans are the actors, and everything else is stuff being acted on. Even though Robin Attfield and Holmes Rolston III, for instance, claim that their Christian beliefs don’t influence their philosophical stances, it’s hard to believe that claim given how strongly they hold a stewardships view. And by the way, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with a stewardship view. I think you can come at environmental philosophy from any angle you like, and as long as you’re giving people reasons to act, you’re doing a good job. The problem with philosophy is that it gets caught up on its own determination to be accurate, and that means creating schisms when really what we need is a collective, even if messy, cooperation between different schools of thought.
The nitty gritty
James Sterba and, to a degree, J. Baird Callicott, amongst the ‘heavies’, remain committed to a form of non-anthropocentrism which opens itself up the the possibility of egalitarian valuing of all life. This is not my view, though I’m happy to work with them, just as I’m happy to work with the stewardship crowd, or the crowd who do economic accounting on the value of nature from a fiscal point of view. We really can’t afford to be fussy. We need to see what we have in common, and what works for people, rather than getting the hump because someone’s idea doesn’t fit your world view. That, in fact, is what has got us into this mess in the first place. There’s no need for a war of ideas within environmental philosophy, as long as what’s being proposed are reasons for action.
More. We need to unite with other fields.
Philosophers, sociologists and geographers, political scientists and psychologists, have all focused on the cultural ramifications of how we see the natural/ human/ cultural boundary. Slavoj Žižek (of business-class sock fame — ‘All my socks are from business-class flights. Here I totally neglect myself,’ — ) might seem to be playing with words, but this, too, is important work. We need to understand more about how our language use paints the world into particular shapes for us. Timothy Morton, who edits the site, Thinking Nature, demonstrates the massive disconnect that exists between those who relate to the non-human world with respect or compassion and those who see it as ‘monstrous’ or ‘alien’
Dale Jamieson points out that environmental philosophy is fraught with politicisation, a notion we certainly need to raise awareness around. Understanding climate change is a political act, and meets resistance and all kinds of antagonism in nearly every, but most particularly on the social media sphere. Although Jamieson himself is seen very much as a philosopher, many of those working in association with him on these issues are political thinkers, or specialists from other areas. Their findings are that both states and individuals are fundamentally selfish, a finding that needs more exploration if we are to take the Dalai Lama’s idea that there is ‘good’ selfishness (which is increasingly inclusive) and ‘bad’ selfishness (which shrinks to the individual or a small group).
The late great Paul Taylor, who is the author of the book, Respect for Nature, has opened the way for the development of an intersecting of biological research with philosophical implications. So many of the papers to do with the ethical implications of an increasing understanding of the microbial world, combined with a re-analysis of the work of Lynn Margulis, working in the 1970s and 1980s on symbiogenesis and microbial contributions to evolution, have opened up the possibility of a closer reinvestigation into how we perceive entities and systems. What, then, is the kind and extent (if any) of human responsibility? We need to broaden how we understand cooperation and competition in evolutionary theory. A systems approach can lead to dramatic new understandings of our interdependence, and when combined with research into Zen insights, the idea that we might enrich ourselves by really embodying a sense of interdependence brings philosophy from the abstract mind into the heart of the matter.
Stop worrying. Start realising
I’m interested in pragmatism as an alternative to ethics, for the simple reason that ethics relies on ideologies and ideologies create dualism between ‘there’ and ‘here’. Pragmatism, on the other hand, merely reflects on what is at hand. In this respect, amongst many others, Ernest Partridge’s http://gadfly.igc.org/ work stands out. As far as the Nature/Culture interstice is concerned, I’ve been informed by Morton’s notion of matrices, and by Wolfe’s notion of the acculturation of nature. In terms of multidisciplinarianism, I’ve been informed by recent findings in microbiology and in the recent work taking place on evolutionary theory, particularly as this pertains to relationships between organisms. The notion that issues in environmental ethics have a pragmatic focus which links with political theory has led me to a reexamination of John Rawls, and to looking into the work of Robin Dillon and many others on respect as a concept. Finally, on Paul Taylor’s own recommendation, I’ve been drawn to the literature which relates concepts of respect for nature with an increasing understanding of microbial/ macrobial interrelations. It is this, then, that is the particular area I’ve chosen to use as the prism through which to investigate the prospects of a viable ‘respect for nature’ that correlates with respect for the self and respect for the human other.
Amongst much other work, incidental but connected to the above, which also informs mine, is the work of Wendell Berry, Ronnie Hawkins and Graham Parkes (who also generously agreed to supervise my work after the untimely death of Dr Thomas Duddy, my previous supervisor). Each of these thinkers has published profound insights into an imaginative or transcendent understanding of the relationship of the (human) individual to the (natural, but also often enculturated) environment. This has led me to a deeper investigation of the varying cultural responses to this problem of ‘seeing’ nature, first through Callicott and Ames’ work, Nature in Asian Traditions of Thought, and finally, most significantly, to the work of Master Dōgen Zenji’s Shōbōgenzō.
The potential for Zen
The potential for Zen, and in particular, the practice-enlightenment that Dōgen talks about, to inform how we understand our place and relationship to self, other and the non-human, in the light of more recent evolutionary research into our origins and the systematic processes of which we are a part. The aim of my research is, therefore, a reiteration of the idea that we have an ability to respond to the ecological crisis that we find ourselves in, and that spelling this out is urgent and important. I hope that what I have added to the existing calls for action will be wide-ranging, pragmatic and achievable. None of the ideas are, in themselves, new. I am simply combining ideas in a way that has not yet, I think, been envisaged. This parallels the process of evolution itself, which is simply recombination, but out of recombination emerges new forms, and so what arises from my own research is a new perspective on both a very ancient problem — how to live — in the current context — an ecological crisis.