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April 15   Environmental Philosophy  - Hazel Popp

In light of the major environmental issues facing the world, particularly global warming,  does environmental philosophy make a valid contribution?


Tonight I would like to dedicate my talk to my late husband, Thomas Popp.  Tonight would have been his birthday, and as he was a great environmentalist he would be delighted that I am here tonight talking about the environment. Environmental philosophy is a big, somewhat loose topic.  The difficulty with this has been to bring out some of the philosophy and ignore other areas which are perhaps a little less structured.  Because of this the talk is selective, and for those of you who come with strong environmental positions you will have to forgive me if I have totally bypassed the area of your concerns.   

The talk is broken into two parts:

I am going to commence this talk by looking at some of the definitions, history and theories behind environmental philosophy and in the second part I hope that we can see if this in any way relates to today's environmental crisis.

So just what is environmental philosophy?

Historically it is a new branch of philosophy;  and it is generally considered that environmental philosophy grew out of the earth movement that emerged following the publication of Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring in 1962.   Rachel Carson was a biologist who became concerned about the use of pesticides - these were the days of profligate use of accumulative chemicals such as DDT and dieldrin after the second world war.  She observed its effect on wild life, how the birds were no longer breeding, how the buildup of chemicals in their blood stream was damaging the eggs, which came from the insects, to the birds, the flow-on effect to small animals and up to the human population.  Responses to her book were very polarizing - support from many scientists and conservation organizations, but massive criticism from chemical companies and the conservative side of politics.   The title of the book was chosen as a metaphor for the future of the natural world, and highlighted the potentially negative effect of human intervention on the environment.     Its publication was a seminal event for a fledgling environmental movement emerging along with the societal changes of the late 60s and early 70s.  She has been called the mother of the environmental movement.

The book was also a strong influence on Arne Naess.  He is Norway's best known philosopher and founder of the "Deep Ecology" theory, the term being coined in 1973, and gave a philosophical perspective to one side, albeit the more radical side, of the emerging green movement.

"Deep ecology" is concerned with the perceived problem about the impact of human populations and technology on the natural environment.  Going further than other green movements (for instance in countries like Germany, the green movement became a more pragmatic, political movement),  it places greater value on the intrinsic value of all sentient beings and the living environment, and advocates a massive reduction in human population, and moderation in our consumption and use of resources.  Naess saw the situation even then as unsustainable. This goes much further than the consequentialist approach of much environmental ethical theory.   Deep ecology also takes a longer temporal view.

Aldo Leopold, on the other side of the Atlantic had predated Naess by three decades with his book "A Sand Almanac" and argued that whilst we have a well-developed human-human ethic we have failed to develop a human-land ethic, saying that: "A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise".    I would actually refute that we have well-developed human-human ethic, or if we do it has failed to respond to the gross inequalities in the world, and this has been highlighted in the current global warming debate. 

In 1970, James Lovelock, a UK chemist came up with the Gaia theory.  This theory is basically that all life forms on a planet create a homeostatic condition in that they moderate the environment to make it more suitable for life.  In a sense equilibrium is reached by this regulation of the biosphere.   There is a full spectrum of beliefs - from simple homeostasis to the idea (not supported by science) that the earth is actually a conscious sentient being.    I see some resonance in Gaia with the Australian aboriginal dreamtime or dreaming, the interconnectedness with the land with a spiritual context.   

Taking a step back let's consider the influence that is derived from our western tradition.  In the past the western world had been profoundly anthropocentric or human centred.  Much of this has been put down to Judeo/Christian religious traditions where in Genesis it is stated:  And God said,

"Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.  These thoughts were reiterated by religious philosophers such as Aquinas through the centuries.  Similarly, Aristotle maintained that "nature has made all things specifically for the sake of man".

This philosophy gives non-human species an instrumental value, in that their value is only what we as human beings can derive from them, as opposed to having an intrinsic value.  That is, they have no value in their own right.  I would point out that this is quite different to the eastern philosophies which are less human centred.  

In 1973 an Australian philosopher Richard Routley (now Sylvan) used a clever hypothetical question to illustrate the intrinsic value of non-human objects.    He  hypothesised the simplistic situation that there is only one person left of earth.  Now what if this one person decided to remove all other living creatures, and even obliterate the entire landscape.  Now to most of us this would sound as if it was morally wrong.  Our reaction to this shows that that which was left still has an intrinsic value, a value in its own right ..... independent of humankind.   He went on to argue that this shows the fallacy of the main thrust of traditional western moral thinking which failed to recognised that natural things have intrinsic value.

Valuing species from a human perspective gives only a human reality.  If we still place humans at the centre of all environmental deliberations then we are still in some way bound to the anthropocentric position.  Our view is generally subjective, rather than broad and objective.   It is only now that we are only now coming to fully realise the interdependence of biological entities, the symbiosis between species, and the need to take a broad view when evaluating decisions.  Much of this perspective has come from biological sciences and even failed experiments over the last one hundred or fewer years. 

Moral philosophy is all about how we can evaluate and justify the principles by which men and women should conduct their lives, and one part of environmental philosophy is essentially applying these same philosophical principles to environmental action and evaluation.    As with moral ethics the question arises as to what tools we use to weigh up an environmental question.  Most environmental philosophy takes a consequential or deontological approach.    But how do we work out all the consequences of our actions when the complexity of the biosphere is being judged, when we need to look past effect on individual species and evaluate whole ecosystems, and over what time frame.    The deontological approach suggests that we have an obligation to do the right thing, perhaps the rule could be to "look after the environment"  but we need to look past our intrinsic obligation in all but the most simple cases and there is no prescription to follow in complex cases.  Consequentialism goes a little further.  It helps us to weigh up the merits of differing courses of action.  Is it appropriate to clear fell the Amazon if it enables the lives of a million more Brazilians to flourish?  Here I am using the word flourish advisedly, as the third conventional philosophy school to be applied to environmental philosophy is Virtue Ethics.  Both the motivation and justification of environmental behaviour is what will lead to a flourishing life - a decidedly anthropocentric approach.  

And it is not just the living environment, what about out non-living heritage. The Grand Canyon, the Franklin River or Kakadu National Park are given world heritage listings.  They are seen as having at least an instrumental value based on their beauty, a scarcity value, and even a temporal value based on the time that would be required for them to regenerate if destroyed, and the hypothetical situation of Routledge applies equally well here.

Our current position within a historical context is well described by William Grey, another Australian philosopher when he says:

"Human activity, particularly when amplified by sophisticated science-based technologies, now extends far beyond the stone age boundaries which constrained our actions for most of human history. The chain saw and the drift net have transformed biological systems far more rapidly and violently than the neolithic axe and spear. The rapid and accelerating technologically-driven modification of our natural surroundings has changed them beyond the wildest neolithic dreams. It is these changes which have prompted the question whether constraints on human conduct should take into consideration more than purely human interests."


I would then take this one step further.  We need to realise that continuing these rapid, unregulated changes are no longer in the interests of humans of future generations.   In the last 50 years there has been a burgeoning of consumerism in western society.  The economic driver has been growth, and consumers have benefited by increased employment opportunities, the capacity to purchases and upgrade goods, many of which were not thought of the imagination of our grandparents, travel.   This has been not just the providence of the elite, instead it has stretched down to the masses.  But is it right that we now say to the next generation well we had it all, now you clean up the mess?    

The problem is of course that we all now know that Naess was right.  Current growth and consumption, particularly if the western modelling is projected onto developing countries is simply not sustainable. 

The United Nations has declared 2008 the International year of Planet Earth.   The Catholic Church has made climate change a moral obligation, support for the environment has come in from other main stream churches, from Trade union movements.  The topic is sexy, and except for very few groups such as the Southern Baptist Convention, everyone is jumping on the environmental / climate change bandwagon.   

 Does philosophy have any contribution to make?  Will it help with the hard decisions?

Ethically we can see that we have a moral responsibility to the small Pacific nations whose very home is under threat by global warming.  But when we look at how governments have responded to refugees we must have real fears as to whether a human-human ethic will be invoked to assist.  How much are we prepared to give up in order to assist the nations who are being destroyed by our greed?  By the same token how do we deny people jobs in the interest of the environment?   Placing curbs on growth will mean that some members of society are going to be further marginalised as they no longer have opportunities for meaningful employment.  

The world recognises that we cannot afford for China and India to develop to the same level of consumption as the west, but there is some truth in the Indian writer Ramachandra Guha who sees some aspects of the western environmental movement, or the western response to placing restrictions of carbon emissions on developing countries as a modern form of cultural imperialism, or eco-imperialism.   That is understandable, we have had generations of profligate energy use, and now want to control other countries use.

Environmental philosophy has so far failed to come up with the answers for global climate change.  The problems are both of scale and temporal.  Most environmental philosophers have been concerned with biotic communities or ecosystems, it is difficult to scale up from this level of concern to the larger picture of global warming.   They are looking at a relatively short time span.  The major sciences in the climate change debate are not ecology and conservation, instead they are in atmospheric physics, climate sciences and earth-system science.   It is politics and economics that will drive the changes that need to be made, because the hard decisions will be political.  

Yet although we recognise that the important, hard decisions are going to come from government and industry,  there are still moral reasons why we as individuals need to also take individual action.     We need to focus on the small changes that we can make do, that slowly accumulate and can impact on either the worsening or mitigation of today's ecological problems. The problem for us all is that our comfortable life style is challenged by the major adjustments that need to be made.  Four weeks ago Sam talked about values, ethics and morals.  Our moral behaviour does not really fit with the ethical belief.  We drive high energy cars, at the same time as we espouse concern for the state of the planet; we buy appliances with high star ratings that we don't really need.   We do not see the value of small grass root actions when the problem is so immense.     I suspect that the western anthropocentric modelling though has fuelled consumption, competition and greed and it will not be easy to draw back from that.  It is a challenge for the coming generations, but also for the older generations who will also need to come to terms with a new ethic. Answers are only possible if we are prepared to be better human beings. 

 Another worry is the extremely short-term view which people commonly take about the consequences of their actions.  Some of this is due to the short term/electoral cycle view of politicians.    I have often marvelled at the forward thinking of our fore-fathers who bequeathed us large tracts of public space and decent sized municipal parks. They were prepared to think of future generations.  The Iroquois Indians have the practice of anticipating the impact of a decision, seven generations ahead - that is thinking of consequences out over 250 years.    It is this kind of approach, the ability to realise the impact of current decisions on future generations, and our responsibility to these generations that is now needed and act accordingly.  We must at least recognise that we have a moral obligation to future generations to leave a world at least as full of possibilities as the world that was left to us.

We might hope that human moral thought could be used to assist in addressing the interrelated environmental issues, however looking at the discussions in Bali with the United States, there has been little evidence so far.   Resolving value conflicts for governments cannot be an individual endeavour, all we can do is reflect on the situation and start demanding some fundamental transformation of traditional values, and to construct new values with global values.   We westerners are conditioned to be competitive, striving and acquisitive.   It is what has brought us to this state of affairs.   But the situation is now so far outside anything that the world has previously had to deal with and along with reform of values and new ethical responses, we need a new behaviour.  Because without action there is actually no point of any theorising. 

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