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Skeptical Environmentalism
     

Skeptical Environmentalism

by Robert Joseph Kirkman
 

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In Skeptical Environmentalism, Robert Kirkman raises doubts about the speculative tendencies elaborated in environmental ethics, deep ecology, social ecology, postmodern ecology, ecofeminism, and environmental pragmatism. Drawing on skeptical principles introduced by David Hume, Kirkman takes issue with key tenets of speculative environmentalism, namely that the

Overview

In Skeptical Environmentalism, Robert Kirkman raises doubts about the speculative tendencies elaborated in environmental ethics, deep ecology, social ecology, postmodern ecology, ecofeminism, and environmental pragmatism. Drawing on skeptical principles introduced by David Hume, Kirkman takes issue with key tenets of speculative environmentalism, namely that the natural world is fundamentally relational, that humans have a moral obligation to protect the order of nature, and that understanding the relationship between nature and humankind holds the key to solving the environmental crisis. Engaging the work of Kant, Hegel, Descartes, Rousseau, and Heidegger, among others, Kirkman reveals the relational worldview as an unreliable basis for knowledge and truth claims, and, more dangerously, as harmful to the intellectual sources from which it takes inspiration. Exploring such themes as the way knowledge about nature is formulated, what characterizes an ecological worldview, how environmental worldviews become established, and how we find our place in nature, Skeptical Environmentalism advocates a shift away from the philosopher’s privileged position as truth seeker toward a more practical thinking that balances conflicts between values and worldviews.

Editorial Reviews

Choice

"Unlike many environmental philosophy books, which are not easily accessible to lay people, this one is. It is engagingly written, and the philosophical arguments are laid out clearly and crisply. Kirkman addresses the basic question, Can philosophical understanding of the natural world contribute in a practical way to the public's discourse about environmental issues? He claims that it can and must.... A very useful primer about skeptical environmentalism. General readers; lower-division undergraduates through graduate students; two-year technical program students." —Choice, September 2002

From the Publisher
"Unlike many environmental philosophy books, which are not easily accessible to lay people, this one is. It is engagingly written, and the philosophical arguments are laid out clearly and crisply. Kirkman addresses the basic question, Can philosophical understanding of the natural world contribute in a practical way to the public's discourse about environmental issues? He claims that it can and must.... A very useful primer about skeptical environmentalism. General readers; lower-division undergraduates through graduate students; two-year technical program students." —Choice, September 2002

In this small book, Kirkman (Michigan State Univ.) struggles to reconcile his philosophical skepticism with his environmental ideals. Unlike many environmental philosophy books, which are not easily accessible to lay people, this one is. It is engagingly written, and the philosophical arguments are laid out clearly and crisply. Kirkman addresses the basic question, Can philosophical understanding of the natural world contribute in a practical way to the public's discourse about environmental issues? He claims that it can and must. Part 1, Knowledge, consists of two chapters: The Nature of Nature and Organism and Mechanism. Part 2, Obligation, has two chapters as well: A Place on Earth and The Moral Compass. The final part 3, Hope, contains a single chapter, Environmentalism without Illusions. Kirkman's coverage of philosophies that bear on environmentalism is necessarily brief and to the point. The bibliography contains more than 170 pertinent citations, including references to recent and classical papers and books. A very useful primer about skeptical environmentalism. General readers; lower—division undergraduates through graduate students; two—year technical program students.P. R. Pinet, Colgate University, 2002sep CHOICE

P. R. Pinet

In this small book, Kirkman (Michigan State Univ.) struggles to reconcile his philosophical skepticism with his environmental ideals. Unlike many environmental philosophy books, which are not easily accessible to lay people, this one is. It is engagingly written, and the philosophical arguments are laid out clearly and crisply. Kirkman addresses the basic question, Can philosophical understanding of the natural world contribute in a practical way to the public's discourse about environmental issues? He claims that it can and must. Part 1, Knowledge, consists of two chapters: The Nature of Nature and Organism and Mechanism. Part 2, Obligation, has two chapters as well: A Place on Earth and The Moral Compass. The final part 3, Hope, contains a single chapter, Environmentalism without Illusions. Kirkman's coverage of philosophies that bear on environmentalism is necessarily brief and to the point. The bibliography contains more than 170 pertinent citations, including references to recent and classical papers and books. A very useful primer about skeptical environmentalism. General readers; lower—division undergraduates through graduate students; two—year technical program students.P. R. Pinet, Colgate University, 2002sep CHOICE

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780253214973
Publisher:
Indiana University Press
Publication date:
05/01/2002
Pages:
224
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.70(d)

Read an Excerpt

Skeptical Environmentalism

The Limits of Philosophy and Science


By Robert Kirkman

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2002 Robert Kirkman
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-34037-5



CHAPTER 1

The Nature of Nature


Environmentalism will succeed only if its advocates can bring about a change in the way people behave. How can environmentalists do this? Answers come from all sides: regulate, legislate, litigate, negotiate, innovate, and educate; restructure the marketplace to create new incentives; restructure the schools to create a new kind of citizen; restructure civilization itself. In the midst of all these possibilities, environmental philosophy began with the belief that the best way to change the way people behave is to change the way they think. Not just any change would do. By and large, environmental philosophers have not been content to tinker with momentary opinions on matters of politics and economics. Instead, they have insisted that people rethink their answers to the most fundamental questions of human life in the world: What is the nature of nature, and what is my place within it? What is of value, and what are my obligations? For what may I hope?

So the search is on for a way of thinking about nature, about the cosmos, about reality itself that might fundamentally alter the ethical and political life of modern civilization. Many of those engaged in the search think of themselves as constituting a minority tradition, swimming against the intellectual current of modernity: in opposition to the fractured metaphysics of René Descartes, which they see as having set humans at odds with nature and with themselves, they propose an ecological worldview informed by a vision of relatedness. If nature is fundamentally relational, and if humans are caught up in those relations, then there may be some metaphysical leverage for ethical obligations toward nature. If humans have obligations toward nature, then there may be some ethical leverage for better public policies regarding environmental change. This, at least, is the hope of speculative environmentalists.

Descartes is important because he established the major problems of modern philosophy, contributed to the development of the modern sciences, and generally set the tone for the modern era. Critics charge that his doctrine of dualism introduced a schism into human thought, a wound that has not yet healed. Cartesian dualism holds that the world consists of two kinds of substance: mental substance, which thinks but takes up no space, and material substance, which takes up space and does not think. If Descartes is correct that material substance does nothing but take up space, it follows that material bodies can relate to each other only spatially. Suppose a number of billiard balls are resting on a pool table and that the cue ball is two feet away from the eight ball (proximity). I roll the cue ball toward the eight ball (relative motion), the cue ball strikes the eight ball (direct contact), and the two balls move off in different directions (relative motion again). Once these spatial relations — proximity, relative motion, and contact — have been measured and catalogued, there is nothing more to be learned about the situation on the pool table. In the Cartesian universe, the same applies to stars and planets, rocks and rivers, plants and animals, and even the human body.

For complex material objects such as animals, though, another feature of the dualistic conception of material substance comes into play. Matter is divisible, and so reduction becomes the proper method for studying complex systems. If I want to understand a clock, I need to disassemble it, study all of the parts, and account for their relationships to one another — in spatial terms, of course. The same holds if I want to understand a maple tree, a domestic cat, the workings of the human brain, or the cosmos as a whole. In effect, the Cartesian cosmos can be thought of as a great machine, designed and set in motion by a very powerful — and very clever — mechanic. Parts may come into contact with one another, and they may move relative to one another, but each can be understood in isolation from the others and each can be replaced if necessary.

A number of metaphysical and epistemological problems are associated with dualism, not least the problem of where to put the mind. If the mind takes up no space, how can it be located in space, in relation to a material body? This is an interesting puzzle, but many critics are more concerned with what they see as the pernicious ethical and political consequences of dualism — especially from an environmentalist point of view. When people see the natural world as a collection of material bodies, these critics charge, they come to treat the collection as nothing more than a stockpile of resources for human consumption. At the same time, reductionism and mechanism have allowed modern science to discover some of the inner workings of phenomena, adding to the variety of spatial and material relations to be catalogued and making possible more and more extensive and intrusive alterations of natural systems. Over all of this is spread an abiding modernist faith in the ability of humanity to solve its problems by rational, especially technological, means, which ensures the unending progress of human civilization as it conquers brute nature and secures its own future. Critics fear that this dominant paradigm (as some call it) of the modern era is a recipe for environmental disaster: civilization advances under Descartes' banner, blind to the destruction it leaves in its wake.

Those who call themselves deep ecologists are among the most strident critics of the dominant paradigm. Deep ecology is a political and philosophical movement first introduced into English-language philosophy by Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess in 1973. Naess distinguishes two different kinds of "ecology," two branches of the environmental movement: the shallow and the deep. Shallow ecology remains within the limits of the dominant paradigm; it simply adds some recognition that resources are not inexhaustible and that the continuing progress of civilization may require a good deal of prudence. The goal of shallow ecology, as Naess portrays it, is to fight pollution and resource depletion in order to ensure "the health and affluence of people in developed countries." It is "shallow" because it seeks to reform the system without challenging the dominant paradigm or the social and economic system to which it has given rise. Naess singles out the "man-in-environment image" as central to the worldview of the shallow ecologist: humans live out their lives against a neutral backdrop of material resources. He rejected this image in favor of a "relational, total-field image." The foremost American interpreters of Naess's ideas, Bill Devall and George Sessions, argue that the task of deep ecology is to reverse what sociologist Max Weber called the "disenchantment of the world" which was brought about by the rise of "instrumental rationality."

The way to reverse the destructive tendencies of modern civilization, according to many environmental philosophers, is to view nature instead as a kind of organism. Unlike machines, organic systems are so tightly integrated that to remove one part from its context is to render both the part and the system incomprehensible. The organism metaphor implies that the proper method for studying nature is not reduction but holistic synthesis: the goals of the investigator are to integrate and synthesize the scattered details of experience into a whole and to give some account of the unifying principles that connect everything together. The method tends to be speculative, on the assumption that the unifying principles in question can only be grasped by reason. The natural world as experienced through the senses and as studied by the natural sciences is a chaos of distracting details; the mind can only bring this chaos to order by the firm and consistent application of rational principles.

Advocates of the organicist worldview consider it to be more "ecological" than the alternative because it provides a more coherent — and more limiting — context for human activity. One feature that distinguishes life from non-life is that living things engage in goal-directed activity. Because organisms have goals and interests of their own, they can be harmed. If nature as a whole is really a kind of organic unity, then it has ends and interests of its own; nature can be harmed. Many environmental philosophers pick up on this implication, hoping that it might serve as a guide for human behavior. If human desires and projects can be brought into accord with nature's interests or nature's demands, they believe, then we may find a way out of the environmental crisis.

These advocates do not always make it clear whether the organicist worldview is supposed to be taken literally. There are at least a few environmental thinkers, Aldo Leopold among them, who openly acknowledge that arguments on behalf of organicism and holism are not so much true as useful. They maintain, in effect, that an ecological worldview should be embraced if and only if it supports the values and objectives of the environmental movement. On the other hand, a number of environmental philosophers do seem genuinely convinced that the usefulness of organicism must reside in its literal truth. I will consider this problem in some detail in Chapter 5; for the time being, I will assume that claims on behalf of organicism are meant to be taken at face value.

There are several variations on the organicist theme. A number of environmental philosophers, including some deep ecologists, environmental ethicists, bioregionalists, and others, focus in particular on the balance of natural systems and the interdependence of their component parts. Aldo Leopold's land ethic, published in 1949 as the conclusion to A Sand County Almanac, is the archetype for much of the philosophical work that has been done along these lines. The ethic was based on Leopold's understanding that energy and matter flow through natural systems, much like electricity flows through a circuit. The circuitry of nature, he believed, displays an orderliness and a balance that ought to be respected and preserved. In particular, Leopold valorized the complexity, integrity, stability, and beauty of biotic communities. This is a relatively static view of ecological systems: energy flows, but the circuits themselves do not change unless humans change them — usually for the worse.

Others have developed a more dynamic organicism, drawing on their own interpretations of modern scientific cosmology and evolutionary theory. These include some deep ecologists, some social ecologists, and a few scientific and religious mystics who tell what they call "the universe story." Dynamic organicism portrays nature as an unfolding reality, perhaps guided by a single, fundamental creative impulse; it places emphasis not so much on the stability of nature as on the broader movement of cosmic evolution. Advocates of the dynamic view might agree with Leopold that natural entities and systems are interdependent, bound together by a harmonious living circuitry. However, they would insist that the apparent equilibrium of the present moment takes its place within a much larger story in which the universe becomes more differentiated over time, like the branching of a great tree. Everything in the universe is connected to everything else by common ancestry.

Some environmental thinkers, ecofeminists in particular, have objected to the tenor of both variants of what might be called "strong" organicism, at least in part because of what are taken to be its unsavory political consequences. In effect, these critics accuse deep ecologists and their kin of presenting a false dilemma: either nature is a collection of resources or else it is a monolithic integrated whole in which the individual is to immerse herself or himself. The "oceanic" feeling of fusion overwhelms and threatens to obliterate the individual in what at least one critic calls an "androgynous" natural unity. The alternative to this heavy-handed metaphysics is a more modest sort of organicism, one characterized by a "feminine" emphasis on the web-like relations in which the individual is personally involved and which are "definitive of self."

The question remains of how this ecological worldview is to be established. Broadly speaking, there are two options. Environmental philosophers could follow the pattern of speculative philosophy and attempt to gain a direct intellectual grasp of the unity of nature or they could search for the unity of nature in the results of scientific research, especially research in ecology and evolutionary biology.

The core of the speculative approach is the belief, or the hope, that the basic principles underlying the order of nature are simply self-evident. Plato believed that mind and nature are united by a common rationality, so that clear thinking must necessarily cut nature at its joints. Descartes called upon God to assure that his clear and distinct ideas corresponded to external reality, while John Locke and his fellow empiricists turned to the senses as the foundation for a coherent picture of the world. However philosophers try to attain certainty, their efforts are subject to the same basic requirements: if speculative philosophy is to work, there must be some sort of bridge between mind and nature so that one may be brought into conformity with the other.

Deep ecologists use a method of identification, which begins with the experience of having something in common with other people. When I identify with other people, when I recognize all that I have in common with them as experiencing subjects, the boundaries between my Self and their Selves are weakened to the point that I can no longer conceive of myself apart from my relationships with them. Devall and Sessions extend the same kind of identification to the natural world in a process they call "Self-realization." The individual Self identifies not only with other people but also with natural entities and systems, until the individual self ultimately identifies itself with the all-encompassing Self of "organic wholeness." The Self is nothing other than the relational field, in which everything is connected with everything else. From this higher perspective, it is no longer possible to regard a tree, for example, simply as potential firewood. Because the tree participates in the relational field, each individual Self is bound together with the tree by an internal relationship, and neither can be conceived of as separate from the other.

Another deep ecologist, Warwick Fox, has made this account more complex by distinguishing three varieties of identification. In addition to personal experiences of affinity with other beings, on which Naess, Devall, and Sessions rely, there are also what he calls ontological and cosmological forms of identification. In other words, experiences of commonality are also brought about through a "deep-seated realization," first, of "the fact that things are," and second, of "the fact that we and all other entities are aspects of a single unfolding reality." Cosmological identification is made possible by any cosmology "that sees the world as a single unfolding process," that calls for "the empathic incorporation of mythological, religious, speculative, philosophical or scientific cosmologies." Science is the only source of cosmology in the modern world, and it provides insight into the broader context of human life: scientific inquiry can be interpreted as producing "an account of creation that is the equal of any mythological, religious, or speculative philosophical account in terms of scale, grandeur, and richness of detail."

A further variation seeks a basis for identification in the structures of perception itself, drawing from the tradition of phenomenology established in the early twentieth century by Edmund Husserl and developed most prominently by Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. The impetus for phenomenology is a critique of scientism or objectivism, the belief that the world of the sciences is the only true world. From the scientific point of view, reality consists of discrete, measurable physical objects moving about in absolute space; anything else is held to be merely subjective. Phenomenologists argue that scientism comes about when people forget that the scientific world has been abstracted from the far richer lifeworld that is the locus of human interests and human activity. To adopt scientism is to impoverish the world and to bring about a crisis of culture, whereby the sciences lose their meaning for human life. The basic point of the phenomenological method is to set aside or "bracket off" all presuppositions about what is real and to restore the richness, variety, and meaning of the world as it is encountered in lived experience.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Skeptical Environmentalism by Robert Kirkman. Copyright © 2002 Robert Kirkman. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Robert Kirkman received his Ph.D. in philosophy from SUNY, Stony Brook. He is currently Assistant Professor of Science and Technology at the Lyman Briggs School at Michigan State University. His research interests encompass environmental philosophy, the history and philosophy of science, the history of philosophy, and suburban environments.

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