Tag: climate

Ethics and Ideology in thinking about the environment

Another problem for environmental ethics has been its secondment by political ideologists.


Political philosophies have marched hand in hand with the development of environmental ethics: the preservation of private reserves where game flourished had the additional benefit, for those who had access, of allowing them to engage in hunting for leisure, a historically pleasurable pursuit for those with the time and resources to take part1. At the other extreme, those who questioned the entire liberal democratic, capitalist model cite environmental destruction as a key element of the system’s harms, along with social injustice both within the nation in question and beyond its borders (see David Orton:2010). Capitalism, relying as it does on exponential industrial manufacturing and the production of increasing amounts of goods, can only lead to further environmental degradation. A politicised environmental ethic would enforce an egalitarian agenda, reducing material benefits for that minority which has profitted from environmental exploitation, and improving the lot of all those on whose backs capitalism thrived. More extreme still was the point of view of those who argued that land ownership or indeed the ownership of any so-called property was inherently flawed as a basis for a political system. How could nature be owned any more than the air can be said to belong to anyone? These questions still rage amongst environmentalists of various shades of green and red.


Relatedly, less politicised but just as critical, Aldo Leopold questioned the benefits of increased human comfort at the vast cost to the non-human, and particularly to ‘Wild Nature’. What we lost, when we gained material comfort, was of far greater import, than what we gained, since what we lost could never be recovered (the extinction of species) whereas what we had gained was temporary and dependent on continuing unsustainable loss. Asking people to voluntarily reduce their consumption has proven to be one of the chief difficulties in the practical applicability of an environmental ethic and the ‘deep Green’ movement of Arne Naess and others has become critically sidelined by mainstream political agendas in the process.


Political philosophies rely largely on harnessing self-interest. Rachel Carson recognised this when she moved the question from aesthetics to human health: what we were losing, she argued, was not just biodiversity; what we were harming was not just the complex interrelationships of the non-human world (although she argued strongly against the ethics of a programme which allowed that loss). What were were also harming was ourselves. An increasingly aggressive attitude of dominance and exploitation towards the non-human, natural world would only have short-term benefits for its human agents: in the end, even the human populations would find themselves harmed by the process of aggressive pesticide use.


So, the competing political interests have vied with competing economic interests to paint the crisis in shades that flatter them. Businesses and policies which rely on aggressive exploitation, even though this threatens future biodiversity and human health, continue to pedal an accepted myth that economic growth is the only model for social stability. The reality that short-term benefits within this paradigm can only come at the cost of longer-term sufficiency is pushed far enough into the future to merit ignorance. How is it possible that we allow ourselves to be seduced, as a species, into this illusion?


Lynn White’s suggestion that it is our very (Judeo-Christian) belief system which was engendering an attitude of exploitation has been much discussed as one possible explanation for this phenomenon. White’s discussion questions an anthropocentric approach, but also allows for a questioning of the entire dualistic pantheon. John Muir clarified that, contrary to the evidence inherent in human activity, the natural world was not, in fact, made for our use. Yet this belief sustains the activity of a huge percentage of the human population who base their beliefs on Judeo-Christian, Muslim, or even Buddhist or Humanist teachings.


These beliefs argue that the world was created either by God for human use or that humans as the only animals with the ability to value, have an inherent right to control and master the rest of the unchoosing natural environment and all the creatures within it. A philosophical approach like this depends on the notion that humanity operates in a separate sphere from the rest of living existence.


The paradigm is so intrinsic to our thinking that its deconstructon threatens to unravel all we know about how to treat each other, let alone the rest of the world. Can we even contemplate the possibility of considering ourselves as organisms-in-general, nothing special? Would not what we owe others, human or non-human, become so diluted by this transition as to lose all impetus, all strength as motivation for action?


Before approaching that question, it is worth asking what sort of shift White and his ilk are advocating. In order to understand that, we simply have to look again at evolutionary theory. There is much that is controversial about this theory, and yet the broad thrust of the argument is undoubtedly simply the best explanation we have for the way things are. As well as challenging our notions of how we fit in with the rest of the biological world, the theory has had deep implications for how we might respond to the rest of the biological world (and beyond).


Whereas theories in the past depended on concepts to do with God and spiritual laws, and applied exclusively to concepts of standards which apply to our treatment of humans, suddenly the question of what context our actions take place in was brought to the surface. It is now worth demanding whether or not we could be freed, once and for all, from the illusion that we, humans, occupy the top of an apex towards which all creation aspires?


Evolutionary theory lays out a structure for understanding how humanity came about, and in the context of the dynamic process that operates on every ecosystem and species. Through the process of natural selection and chance mutations, as a response to changing (and idiosyncratic) environmental, ecological and climactic conditions, species, including humans, developed different physiological and behavioural characteristics that allowed them to avoid or deal with the different challenges to survival that any living creature faces – starvation, dehydration, freezing, burning, predation, disease and so on.


It is worth remembering, however, that Charles Darwin’s account of evolution by natural selection was itself idiosyncratic, dependent on his own cultural bias (from our perspective, Victorian, heavily Christian, hierarchical and with various tendencies towards prejudice in the context of race and sex). So although Darwin and, indeed, his ‘champion’, T H Huxley , both argued that natural selection is a highly competitive process driven by the (mainly negative) motivations provided by a hostile and threatening environment (‘nature red in tooth and claw’), more recent research indicates that there are strong arguments for a different interpretation. Our own time has brought a perspective which, while still recognising that the forces that shope evolutionary development are largely those that demand avoidance of negative conditions, there are also serious arguments to be made for recognising that some of the processes are for the development of cooperative behaviours. These include the well-known emxaples of cyanobacteria (prokaryotic cells) teaming up with early eukaryotic cells to form energy-capturing chlorophyll cells, the basis of all plant life. Closer to home, as it were, they include the high dependency of the human digestive tract on the presence of micro-organisms. Charles Cockell’s paper outlines this symbiotic relationship in some detail. Lynn Margulis’ work on symbiotic evolutionary developments proved extremely important in respect of changing the way that natural selection was seen as a process. Most recently, Frank Ryan’s work (Virolution) gave a clear indication that the process is not one of cosy harmonies, but a demand-driven systematic response that implicitly recognises the benefits to the organisms involved of mutual, rather than exclusive, survival.


If these processes are natural, and if we are driven by these same processes, what grounds remain for our sense of ourselves as separate from, and undefined by, these motivations? Moreover, while the response to the ecological crisis continues to meet resistance, both in the form of denial, but also in the form of a dualistic, anthropocentric approach to the issue, human groups and institutions whose activity causes the most biodiversity loss, pollution of soil, air and water, erosion, deforestation and desertification, not to mention climate change, are those that honour their commitments to environmental impact policies least. This gives no impetus to groups, institutions or nations with growing (but less) impact to curb their burgeoning problems.


Rather than seeing the issue in terms of ethics, then, it may be more useful to consider the foundations of these views, and areas of potential consideration and reflection within them. The first thing to note, then, is that the prevailing response to environmental issues rests on a view of realism which concludes, effectively, that states, like individuals, act only in their own best interests. Climate change in particular has empirically tested this (see Jamieson). There doesn’t seem to be a global consensus to take action to deal with problems even though the problems at issue are global in nature.


Yet this is the metaphorical equivalent of recognising human response patterns in terms of evolutionary ones: seeing short-term, particulate interests as dominant in demand for attention fails to acknowledge that there are also pressures to cooperate that prevail alongside, and sometimes prior to, the particular insterest of the group, community or state. Recent findings suggest that the self-interest of every holon, whether a cell, a body, a society, a species, an ecosystem, or a whole living planet, must be balanced in the mutual consistency of the whole and all its parts. Self-interest is destructive only when not tempered by the self-interest of the broader community (Hawkins, 2010). It’s not just the short-sightedness of the ‘own best interests’ approach that is the problem. The industrial enterprise which suggests that a piecemeal approach can ever succeed is fueled by the persistence of the (still largely unexamined) set of metaphysical metaphors that accept a Cartesian/Newtonian dualistic account of nature that utterly contradicts the explanations of Evolution. That this persists in the general zeitgeist with such tenacity suggests that there is some interest in the maintenance of this particular delusion.


What we are seeking, then, is not an ethic at all, but simply grounds for a response based on pragmatic concerns. Dissolving the illusion of duality demands much. If we are driven to act in particular ways which increase our chances of survival, how can we argue that this is any better than arbitrary action?


We can reframe the question: does our biological nature give us a clue as to what acts accord with the kinds of beings we are? One thing I will explore in further detail is the notion of our physico-biological nature creating a spectrum of activity that allows energy flows and matter cycles to take place relatively freely. Allowing these flows is neither moral nor immoral: it is simply the openness that is available to us to release so that energy can flow freely. This, then, opens to question whether or not through reflection on what we are, physically and biologically, human survival is enhanced or threatened. Naturally, we are inclined to take the view that enhancing human survival is beneficial, since it is beneficial to ourselves, temporarily, and to our offspring, physical or metaphorical (art, culture, memories, photographs), in the longer term. However, on reflection we are forced to admit that there is no necessary correlation between enhancing human survival and enhancing the survival of the biologically diverse patterns onto which we are, temporarily, mapped. Instead, there may be good reasons to argue that the biologically diverse patterns of living existence upon which we depend would be better served by our demise, as a species. At the very least, a serious reduction in human population would undoubtedly enhance the chances for biodiverse patterns, ecosystems and species to recover and for their evolution to re-establish itself.

1 Claude Evans, J., With Respect for Nature: Living as Part of the Natural World, State University of New York Press, 2005

The problems with taking an ethical approach to the ecological crisis

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. Thus it is concerned both with practical and metaethical frameworks. For instance, de Groot et al in a recent paper in the journal, Environmental Ethics, concerned themselves with the pragmatic issue of actual attitudes to the environment, discoverable through empirical research. These findings, they argued, demonstrated that ‘partnership’ was a common self perception amongst the individuals they interviewed. The traditional anthropocentric (Hegelian) “slave-master” arguments that are put forward by environmental ethicists are straw men, they claim, and don’t represent real positions taken by real people on the ground. So there’s a move in the field towards a more empirically-based approach to finding out about actual attitudes, in order to better come to an understanding of the normative concerns and values behind such descriptions. The arguments suggest that theoretical practice has lost sight of actual attitudinal change, which, in turn, comes about because of current environmental concerns. This itself, in turn, influences which metaethical questions are most relevant. Since the field of environmental ethics is so influenced by contemporaneous events, this three way interchange between description of attitudes, analysis of normative values, and engagement with metaethical concerns is fluid, to say the least.

The second major current concern for environmental ethics is the metaethical reassessment of non-anthropocentric theories. While these theories flourished for a while, up until as recently as two or three years ago, more recent work suggests that there is a return, certainly amongst some of the more established environmental ethicists of the age, to a reinvestigation of the prospects for anthropocentrism. In a sense, this is no more than a reflection of the findings of the likes of de Groot: that a guardianship approach to the environment includes and involves a perception of the combination of human and non-human interests into a common cause. Thus the work of Gary Varner appears to be returning to anthropocentrism. In fact, it has been hard for anyone working in the field to ignore the persuasive arguments for anthropocentrism put forward above all by Stephen J. Gould. And those philosophers whose ethical approaches are coloured by their own belief systems – Robin Attfield and Holmes Rolston III, for instance (both Christians, although Attfield, in a personal communication, claimed, interestingly, that his philosophical stance is not influenced by his Christian beliefs) – are more inclined to see the relationship between the human and the non-human in guardianship terms. Only 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.

Thirdly, the field of environmental ethics has become far more multidisciplinary in recent times. While, in a sense, this has always been true of environmental ethics, and in a sense the field only began to be ploughed, if you’ll excuse the pun, by philosophers, long after there was an established interest amongst biologists and geographers, political scientists and psychologists, more recently there has been a particular focus on the cultural ramifications and indices which give an idea of how the nature/culture boundary is seen, and which is included in which. This focus is evident, to a degree, in the work of Slavoj Žižek (although when he says things like, ‘All my socks are from business-class flights. Here I totally neglect myself,’ – what? You neglect yourself by flying business class? Then it becomes difficult to take him seriously). More obviously, the nature-culture boundary is explored in the work of Timothy Morton, who edits the site, Thinking Nature. In that publication Ross Wolfe wrote a seminal paper on the interplay between nature and culture which I think 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’ (both of which are also true, but this is a topic I will return to, in particular, when talking of Zen).

Fourthly, recent work by Dale Jamieson indicates the politicisation of the issues with which environmental ethics concerns itself, most prominently in the work he has undertaken to understand climate change, and attitudes and resistance found there. 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 and the findings take as an underlying assumption the selfishness of both states and individuals, a finding that is itself open to question in the field of philosophy, and even more so if this is explored from a non-dualistic perspective.

And finally, Paul Taylor, who is the author of the book, Respect for Nature, which led to my own research into shifting perspectives, 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, and so to the kind and extent (if any) of human responsibility. This means including a consideration of the meaning of evolutionary theory and the debates around cooperation and competition, evolution through DNA mutations or evolution through multi-level selection, and other complications that have come about as a result of ongoing research into the process of evolution.

The work I rely on to develop my own ideas comes from a number of sources. 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. This is where I am at the moment, then: attempting to compare in ways that have been unexplored so far, 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 this 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 add 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.