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Greening the Gadfly

Paul Keeling on why we need environmental philosophy now.

Suppose that every time you turned on a light in your house five people in Bangladesh were instantly vaporized. Throwing your light switch would suddenly become a moral issue,wouldn’t it – a matter of life and death? Now, suppose flipping the switch made the death of five people in Bangladesh very likely, sometime in the next ten years. You’d probably still hesitate. Suppose, yet again, that instead of human deaths, flipping the light switch meant the extinction of a rare butterfly species on a distant continent. How much damage are you willing to accept for your home lighting?

The question generalizes. It isn’t just home lighting that’s potentially damaging, it’s almost everything we touch in the modern world, because virtually everything we do, from the moment we put on the coffee in the morning to the moment we turn off the bedside lamp, involves burning fossil fuels. We know this contributes to global warming.

The logic seems inescapable: if virtually every aspect of modern life involves the burning of fossil fuels, and fossil-fuel-burning causes global warming, and global warming harms human beings and other species, then there is, to some degree, a moral liability to virtually every aspect of modern life. “Climate change is a moral issue!” declared Al Gore during his Oscar acceptance speech for his film An Inconvenient Truth in 2007, without elaborating further. George Monbiot was more blunt in 2006: “Flying kills!” he said. The Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, agreed. So holiday jet-travel, gas-guzzling cars, and energy inefficient homes, are officially sins.

Are these pronouncements correct? The question of who is obligated to do what about climate change, and why, has generated a lot of rancorous discussion. All kinds of experts have weighed in publicly: scientists, economists, business leaders, urban planners, leaders of environmental organizations. But there is a conspicuous lack of professional philosophers among them. Conspicuous, because, if our environmental problems are at their root not just scientific or technical in nature, but a problem of human attitudes, beliefs and values, then philosophers are probably among the best equipped to bring light rather than heat to such discussions. And I mean public input, not intramural arguments in academic philosophy journals and symposia.

The problem isn’t a lack of talent. There are excellent environmental philosophers and ethicists out there. Or, rather, in there, because you rarely encounter their work outside the ivory tower. Go into any popular bookstore like Chapters or Barnes and Noble, and you will find fairly sizable philosophy sections, with books from Aristotle to Zizek; but you will very rarely find a book by Baird Callicott, Holmes Rolston, or Arne Naess, or a compendium of environmental philosophy. Environmental philosophy and environmental ethics are virtually completely absent. Even your typical New Age bookstores, which often have sections devoted to Nature or Environment, rarely carry books by academic environmental philosophers, although they often have academic books on Buddhism and other eastern philosophies. Thus there is obviously a market for books on environmental issues, on the one hand, and a market for a wide range of philosophy books on the other; but apparently little or no market for philosophy books on the environment. This state of affairs suggests either that people who otherwise consume philosophy aren’t very interested in the philosophical treatment of environmental issues, or that people interested in environmental issues don’t believe, or aren’t aware, that philosophers have anything to contribute, or both.

The latter of the two possibilities has been addressed, at least in part, by Bryan Norton – an environmental philosopher who has written about the lamentable lack of public input by environmental philosophers. Norton claims that in policy discussions environmental agencies “desperately need the kinds of conceptual and normative analysis that philosophers can provide.” He draws a contrast with medical ethics. Philosophers have responded to medical issues by engaging with medical practitioners, liaising with medical schools and research institutions, and providing philosophical and ethical advice to policy makers. The medical profession, in turn, has recognized the need for more ethical discourse about medical decisions, and has actively sought out philosophers to comment on medical controversies. Nothing like this has happened with environmental philosophy. It’s quite common on the news to hear medical ethicists being asked to opine on some new medical technology or a procedural dilemma. But when was the last time you heard an environmental ethicist on a newscast or talk show being consulted about oil drilling in the Arctic or global climate justice?

The other possibility, that philosophisticates aren’t very interested in philosophising about environmental issues, also needs addressing. If philosophy is devoted to confronting life’s most profound questions, including how to live, then our current environmental predicament is a philosophical problem par excellence. It ought to be getting a lot of attention from the philosophically inclined.

But it isn’t. Other topics in philosophy get a lot more attention outside the ivory tower. For example, on YouTube you will find numerous popular videos of David Chalmers discussing the ‘hard problem of consciousness’ and other perplexities in the philosophy of mind [see this issue]. It’s a deep subject, and it’s definitely stimulating. Yet there’s nothing particularly pressing about these questions. Answers to them can wait. Environmental issues, though, are pressing. In 2005, a massive Millenium Ecosystem Assessment, involving over 1,300 experts from almost 100 nations, warned starkly: “Human activity is putting such strain on the natural functions of the Earth that the ability of the planet’s ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted.” Writing about the staggering loss of global biodiversity (in 1994!), renowned Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson declared: “A real problem exists, and it is worthy of your serious attention.” A real, earthly problem of rather epic proportions, not a stimulating intellectual exercise. Philosophy, it is often said, deals with timeless questions; but we may not have much time to safeguard a stable, hospitable planet like the one we’ve had for the last ten thousand years.

Right now, the possibility that we are killing the planet would seem to be pretty important philosophical subject matter compared to wondering whether the guy across from you on the bus has a mind. But who has heard of Holmes Rolston, called by many the ‘father of environmental ethics?’ Younger stars in the field of environmental philosophy, such as Andrew Light and Dale Jamieson, are almost completely ignored as well – in striking disproportion to the timeliness and importance of their discipline. This problem, I suspect, stems from a view of philosophy that still largely predominates – Bertrand Russell’s view that the primary value of philosophy consists in expanding the mind, that philosophy is to be studied “for the sake of the questions themselves… to enrich our intellectual imagination.” (The Problems of Philosophy, p.161). Are the pragmatics of figuring out how to live sustainably on this earth too down to earth for fans of the contemplative philosophical tradition?

Certainly we need philosophers thinking about all kinds of things. But some things are more pressing than others. Where I live in British Columbia, a largely forested area nearly four times the size of the United Kingdom, more than a billion trees are now dead, because the winters are too mild to kill off the mountain pine beetle. If there’s no forest, it doesn’t make a sound, whether there’s anyone there to hear it or not.

Maybe then it’s time to prioritize: abstract philosophical problems, while universal in scope, are not pressing; but our environmental problems, which cry out for philosophical treatment, are. Medical issues, such as fertility treatment and stem cell research, are also important, and indeed pressing to a lot of people, and it is good that philosophers are applying their skills to these issues. But unlike medical matters, our environmental predicament affects every human being, in fact every living thing on the planet. It is both pressing and universal. You would think the streets would be filled with green Socratic gadflies, interrogating the public at every turn.

Philosophy has never been in a hurry. It’s not used to pressure. But that’s because, despite a valuable tradition of challenging the taken-for-granted, it has always taken for granted a healthy, stable planet. But it’s a new world now, where the timeless questions may have a time limit. At this moment in history we need more philosophers applying their insights and expertise to environmental issues and we need their input in the public square. Environmental philosophy is a discipline whose time is now.

© Paul M. Keeling 2011

Paul M. Keeling has an MSc in Philosophy from the University of Edinburgh and is an environmental writer living in Vancouver.

• For a good general introduction to environmental philosophy, see Environmental Ethics: An Anthology (Blackwell, 2003), edited by Andrew Light & Holmes Rolston III. For a look at what philosophers are saying about climate change, see Climate Ethics: Essential Readings, Oxford University Press, 2010; edited by Stephan Gardiner, Simon Caney, Dale Jamieson & Henry Shue. The theme of Philosophy Now Issue 88 will be Sustainability.

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