Andrew Light, an enviro-academic, answers questions
What work do you do?
I’m a philosopher specializing mostly in environmental ethics and am currently Assistant Professor of Environmental Philosophy and director of the graduate program in Environmental Conservation Education at New York University in Manhattan.
How does it relate to the environment?
Let me give you some background on the field and then tell you a bit about how I go about my own work in this area. (Bear with me, this answer will be a bit long but I promise the ones that follow will be shorter and hopefully funnier.)
Environmental ethics has been a formal sub-field of philosophy since the early 1970s. While its historical roots are certainly older, that’s when classes were first taught in the U.S. in environmental ethics in philosophy departments and articles and books on the topic written by professional philosophers in this area began appearing. Most work in the field has focused on the question of whether or not “nature,” with a focus on species and ecosystems (as opposed to individual animals), has intrinsic value — as opposed to only being instrumentally valuable for the use humans can get out of it. Narrow instrumental values would include the mere resource value of natural entities (e.g., the board feet of timber or wood pulp that we can get out of a forest); broader instrumental values might include aesthetic value or the potential of the environment to provide a heretofore undiscovered cure for what ails us (e.g., the possibility of an undiscovered cure for cancer in the Brazilian rainforest).
Early environmental ethicists often opposed themselves to a caricature of economists, claiming that economics can only value the environment by pricing natural systems or entities. The upshot of providing an account of the intrinsic value of nature is to try to give a set of reasons why we should protect nature writ large, or some bit of it, regardless of the use it can provide to us. If nature has intrinsic value, then we are morally obligated to protect or restore it. Trying to work out such a view is akin to previous attempts in Western ethics to claim that all humans (regardless of race, gender, class, etc.) have intrinsic value and so are deserving of direct moral consideration and respect regardless of whether or not they produce value directly for us. So, to take an extreme example, if some smart-ass economist were to argue that we should bring back some kinder, gentler form of human slavery because it would provide economic benefits, then ethicists would have reason to object that no amount of instrumental value produced by such a system justified such a violation of the moral obligations owed to all humans. By extension, if we had an account of the intrinsic value of nature — so most of my colleagues in the field would argue — we would have a moral basis for a stronger set of environmental laws for the protection of nature against claims, for example, that development increases our economic welfare.
My own work in this area started off by formulating a view I called “environmental pragmatism,” which essentially argued that the question of whether or not nature has intrinsic value is a non-starter. For various reasons, I don’t think it’s possible to definitively prove that nature has such value, and even if we could I think that most people wouldn’t believe it or be willing to support a set of laws similar to those protecting humans. Environmental ethicists began by claiming that one problem with Western ethics is that it is too “anthropocentric,” meaning that it only recognized humans as entities to whom we owed moral obligations. A theory of the intrinsic value of nature was supposed to push us toward a more enlightened “non-anthropocentrism,” where we recognized the moral worth of all living things. But I can’t imagine that a theory of the intrinsic value of nature will produce a big enough shift in “consciousness” (for lack of a better word) in the foreseeable future sufficient to change laws or policy. Environmental problems are very pressing and all environmental professionals ought to at least be able to make some kind of contribution to solutions now. It took centuries of argument to come to the conclusion that something like slavery was morally wrong and we don’t have that kind of time frame when confronting today’s environmental problems.
My version of environmental pragmatism argues that philosophers would do better to spend their time on the more enlightened accounts of why nature has instrumental value — aesthetic value, or for the welfare of future generations — to bolster the intuitions that most people have on behalf of a more benign, environmentally friendly version of anthropocentrism. For example, it can be empirically shown that most people think we should have stronger sets of laws to protect the environment because we have moral obligations to our kids, grandkids, and so on to protect the environment for them. To me, the ethical challenge is not to find the single holy grail of a theory of the intrinsic value of nature but to articulate as many sound reasons as possible for why people ought to value the environment.
A better focus of environmental ethics on this view is one that doesn’t seek to describe the kind of obligation-generating value that nature has in the abstract, but rather tries to tease out the many and various ways that people already value nature, which could be extended and strengthened. So, the next stage of my work has been to investigate what kinds of experiences help generate these expanded values, especially experiences that could morally motivate people to take an active interest in their local environment. My last book made a moral argument for creating more opportunities for public participation in projects like restoration ecology (the practice of recreating ecosystems that have been previously damaged by humans, like tallgrass prairies in the Midwest or wetlands) as a way of creating a more active and engaged environmental public sphere. Restoration ecology, community gardening, and other related projects are the sorts of things that ordinary folks can engage in on the ground, and participation in them arguably generates a strong attachment to local environmental issues through a process of community building.
But we can’t expect everyone to participate in these kinds of activities. Many people won’t have the time, interest, or inclination to become better ecological citizens in this sense, and others will want to focus their energies on other social issues. We can’t expect as many people as we would need to effect serious environmental change to alter their lifestyles so that our communities are more sustainable overall. The next stage of my work has therefore been focused on the kinds of sustainable forms of constructing human communities that could help people to live more responsibly without actually requiring them to think about it. The focus of my next book will be on environmental architecture and planning as a way of building communities that are more sustainable by virtue of the lifestyles they help to engender for everyone, regardless of their environmental predilections.
I’m also increasingly interested in agricultural issues, especially involving animal welfare and genetically modified foods, but I’m only starting to write on these topics.
What do you really do, on a day-to-day basis?
No, really, what I really do is sit around and think about stuff like this and then write it down. When I’m not doing that I’m teaching classes on the same topics, organizing conferences on these and related subjects, and running the Environmental Conservation Education program at NYU. This is the only program in environmental studies at NYU (we’ll soon change the name to reflect that) and offers a terminal M.A. degree to people seeking careers in government agencies, nonprofits, or schools, focusing on the human dimensions of environmental change. As distinct from most other graduate programs in environmental studies, ours is based in ethics and philosophy rather than science. The advantage is that people who want a graduate degree in environmental studies can get into our program without a science background and then develop the skills they will need to do the community outreach side of environmental planning, management, advocacy, and education. There are about 40 students in the program and I’m responsible for the bulk of the admission, advising, guidance, and graduation planning for them. I really love this part of my job since it gives me the opportunity to work with people who are going to go out into the field, rather than only grow up to be academic environmental philosophers. Since my take on environmental ethics is that it should have something concrete to offer to other environmental professionals, these students really keep me honest and tell me when I get too ethereal. Fortunately, too, I get to travel a lot and frequently go to Europe and Australia to work with other academics on environmental issues and advise a variety of nonprofits and government agencies.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
I see my trajectory as one that involved a series of fortuitous accidents. I was always interested in the environment as a kid, subscribing as a 10-year-old to Audubon and spending just about every afternoon at a place called Flat Rock Creek in the little town that I grew up in outside of Atlanta. I had thought that maybe I would be a scientist, but two struggling semesters in organic chemistry in high school cured me of that. When I started at a small liberal arts college in Georgia, I had planned to go into international law even though I had absolutely no idea what that meant. It sounded sexy, though, and I thought that it would be cool to travel a lot and work using my wits.
After a stint the summer after my junior year interning for a U.S. senator in Washington, I came back to finish college and had some kind of conversion experience, though to this day I don’t have any idea what brought it on. One day I just decided to stay a fifth year in college, change my major to philosophy, and go to graduate school rather than law school. My last year in college I was going through the remaindered books in the campus book store and stumbled across Bill Devall and George Sessions’ Deep Ecology: Living as if Nature Mattered. Many people will recognize this as one of the first books introducing “deep ecology,” one of the first more or less complete forms of environmental philosophy championed by the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess, to a North American audience. After reading it I asked my advisor if I could write my honor’s thesis comparing the work of Naess to the Jewish philosopher and theologian Martin Buber and thankfully he let me do it. In the meantime, I was applying to and getting ready to go to graduate school in philosophy with no plans at all to continue to work on environmental issues.
After I was admitted to the graduate philosophy program at the University of California at Riverside, I stumbled across a call for papers for a student conference on ethics and science that was being held in the summer of 1989 in Boulder, Colo. I sent them part of my honors thesis and it got accepted, providing a nice halfway point on my move from Georgia to California. While there I was again lucky to meet David Orr, now the director of the Environmental Studies program at Oberlin and a leading figure in environmental education. After I presented my paper, we had what in hindsight was a very significant conversation. It went something like this:
Orr: I really liked your paper. So, you’re on your way to graduate school in philosophy, right?
Orr: What are you going to study there?
Me: The history of German philosophy.
Orr: Huh. That’s weird, I thought you would be doing environmental ethics.
Me: What’s environmental ethics?
And it kind of went on from there. Orr explained that environmental philosophy was a lot broader than deep ecology and that there were journals and books on the subject that I should be reading. After I got to grad school, it took me a year to give up my plans to work in German philosophy, another year to start doing analytic ethics, and then a few more years to finally embrace environmental ethics as my thing. When I finished school, I did a three-year post-doctoral fellowship in the Environmental Health Program at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, where I was fortunate to have some funding that enabled me to learn some actual environmental science. I went from Edmonton to the philosophy department at the University of Montana in Missoula where I had my first tenure-track job, and from there to NYU. Coming back full circle, I suppose that I wound up in this field mostly because it enabled me to connect three things: my childhood love for nature, my college romance with philosophy, and my desire to travel and use my wits for a living.
How many emails are currently in your inbox?
15 right now. I’m better at responding to people in the summer than I am during the academic year. Everything answered gets saved in folders organized on projects and conferences that I’m working on or planning at the moment.
With whom do you interact regularly as part of your job?
In addition to my academic contacts and students, I’ve been doing a lot of work with GreenHomeNYC, which is a small nonprofit that works mostly on sustainable design and architecture. Together we sponsor a public green-building forum every month through my program at NYU. I also work with a number of people in the U.S. Forest Service and the National Parks Service, especially those working on restoration ecology.
Who’s the biggest pain in the ass you have to deal with?
I won’t name any people or organizations in particular, but my biggest pains in the ass are anti-urban environmentalists. When I told friends in the environmental community in Missoula that I was moving to New York, they responded as if I had told them that I had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Upon hearing that I got this job at NYU, one very prestigious figure in environmental ethics wrote me a message that said, “Congratulations, I guess.” The assumption seemed to be that either I was unlucky to be moving here, or, worse, that I’m a bad environmentalist for choosing to live here.
I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, though, since there is a long-standing anti-urban bias if not hostility toward cities by many in the environmental movement. This is especially found in communities of the most passionate wilderness advocates. Unfortunately, this attitude has also engendered the all-too-common belief that urbanites can’t possibly be good environmentalists. And while it is surely true that most cities in North America are unsustainable in terms of their growth patterns, consumption, and planning (like Atlanta, Houston, and Los Angeles), other cities like New York may be one of our last, best hopes for a sustainable future.
The fact is that residents of New York consume less energy per capita than any other Americans and so make less of a contribution to some of our most critical problems, such as the production of greenhouse gases. The reason is that most New Yorkers don’t own cars (and if we own them don’t drive them as much as other Americans) and virtually all of us share walls and so share heating costs. Because the transportation cost of bringing in produce and goods throughout the country is roughly the same (face it, most of us are eating hothouse tomatoes from California now), and because New Yorkers don’t consume on average more than other Americans, the energy savings created by the way the city makes us live is critically important.
Urban density is a key to sustainability, since it’s impossible to live in a densely populated urban environment any other way. I don’t own a car in New York first and foremost because it’s stupid to own a car here and I don’t need one, not because I’m green. So, while the ecological footprint of a city like New York is quite large, it is collectively smaller than if the 8 million-plus people here were living the suburban and exurban dream that most Americans aspire to. If we take population growth and average consumption as a constant, then we do better in environmental terms when populations are concentrated rather than spread out. Some will demur that large cities are encroaching on protected lands, and while true in many states it is impossible to imagine New York state protecting an area as large as the Adirondacks (which is the largest park in the lower 48) if people in NYC were more spread out. This isn’t a reason why everyone should live in megacities like New York, but why all communities should be encouraged (through some optimal combination of zoning, regulation of city services, and incentives) to live as close to their neighbors as possible. It’s also a reason why friends of the wild shouldn’t dump on those of us in densely populated cities and should support our efforts to bolster the environmental amenities we do have, like public parks and community gardens. My backyard is Washington Square Park and to me it is as valuable as Yosemite.
Who’s nicer than you would expect?
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
Born in Atlanta, grew up in rural Georgia, and now live in Greenwich Village in NYU faculty housing (thankfully — it’s quite a deal).
What do you consider your environmental coming-of-age moment or experience?
My experiences playing in Flat Rock Creek as a kid were invaluable, but it was far from the sort of experience of wilderness that most environmentalists worship. It was one of those little bits of nature in a suburban neighborhood that can inspire people — the sort of thing the late William H. Whyte called “tremendous trifles” in his book The Last Landscape, and which inspired him to make the first proposals for conservation easements.
After that, I think my intuition that environmentalism had a necessary and vital role in a city came together in the winter of 2000 when I watched the City of New York (under the direction of Rudy Giuliani) tear down a small community garden on the Lower East Side called the Esperanza Garden. This may seem trivial to some, but to me and many people here it was a watershed event. Some may remember that at the end of the ’90s, Giuliani got it into his head that he needed to sell off as many of the 700-plus community gardens in the city that he could legally get away with to developers to help solve our housing crisis. The story is a longer one than I have time for here (though my account of it is posted on terrain.org), but in the midst of all this the local environmental community, led by the group More Gardens!, drew the line at the Esperanza Garden, which had been a mainstay of the Puerto Rican community for over 30 years. I watched as 40 or so protesters used the same tactics I had seen used in tree sits in western Montana and northern Idaho years before to defend a 500-square-foot plot of urban land. Mass arrests were made and by the end of the day the garden was destroyed. Thankfully, though, the gardens had a champion in Eliot Spitzer, the New York State attorney general, who defended them against the city and eventually struck a deal with our new mayor, Michael Bloomberg, to save most of them.
I came up in the same environmental movement that many of your readers probably did and had been struggling for some time with the tacit assumption that issues of human welfare and environmental protection were separate — that there is a realm of culture and a realm of nature and though overlapping, these different arenas present us with different sets of priorities and preferred geographies. This event was crucial to me because it finally and irrevocably shattered that understanding of the world. It brought home an oft-overlooked passage in Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac which I think sums up things nicely: “The weeds in a city lot convey the same lesson as the redwoods. … Perception … cannot be purchased with either learned degrees or dollars; it grows at home as well as abroad, and he who has a little may use it to as good advantage as he who has much.”
What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?
Probably attending a conference at the FDR library in Hyde Park, New York, in 2002 and hearing former environmental leaders of the Clinton administration explain how effective the Bush administration has been at using the law to dismantle many of the gains that they worked so hard for. Hearing the inside scoop on this was incredibly demoralizing.
What’s been the best?
Seeing several of my Ph.D. and M.A. students graduate and get great jobs either in the academy or with a nonprofit and then seeing them make a real difference for their local environment.
What’s on your desk right now?
A manuscript from an academic press on ethics and science that I’m reviewing for publication, a draft of a paper of my own on ethical theory that’s been commissioned for the Blackwell Companion to Pragmatism, and a job offer for a position as Associate Professor of Philosophy and Public Affairs at the University of Washington in Seattle. I’m going to take a leave from NYU in January for a semester to check it out. It’s mighty tempting. The UW philosophy department is building what is sure to be the strongest concentration of scholars in applied ethics in the country and the Evans School of Public Affairs is one of the best programs in environmental public policy.
What environmental offense has infuriated you the most?
The continued claims by the Bush administration that there is too much scientific uncertainty over global warming to do anything more than enact a set of lame voluntary incentives to industry to cut back on carbon emissions. I don’t think that signing the Kyoto accord will actually solve this problem, but it is a critical first step. Bush, Cheney, Rove, and the rest are being about as morally irresponsible on this issue as I can imagine and it seems that the only reason they are stonewalling doing anything is that almost any response to the problem will hurt their friends.
Who is your environmental hero?
Peter Singer, for showing that an academic philosopher can actually contribute to and influence popular discussion of important environmental and animal-welfare issues rather than only debating his or her colleagues. I don’t agree with everything he says, but I admire him for sticking to his positions consistently even though their logical extension gets him in lots of trouble.
Who is your environmental nightmare?
What’s your environmental vice?
How do you get around?
Walk, subway, bike, and the occasional cab.
What are you reading these days?
Robert Sullivan’s Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants. Bob is a keen environmental writer and very funny. Any New Yorkers out there should also get a copy of his The Meadowlands: Wilderness Adventures on the Edge of a City. Also, Onora O’Neill’s Autonomy and Trust in Bioethics. I just finished Philip Roth’s The Human Stain and found it totally satisfying. I’m looking around now for the next bit of summer fiction.
What’s your favorite meal?
The soft shell crabs at Mary’s Fish Camp in the West Village.
Are you a news junkie? Where do you get your news?
Absolutely. I read the New York Times every day and listen to NPR. Friends and students of mine send me links to interesting stories in the alternative press. Then there’s The Onion, of course, and whenever I want to catch up on the Fox News view of the world I call my father.
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
I wear sandals, sometimes.
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
The sunken forest on Fire Island. My best friends, Eric Katz and Susan Barbash, have a house out there. Two-hundred-fifty-year-old holly trees in a climax coastal forest an hour and a half from New York by train and ferry.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
Only one? Damn. Today I’d repeal Bush’s rollback of the Clinton administration’s roadless rule.
Who do you think (not hope) is going to be elected president in November?
If there is no terrorist attack between now and November, then I think Kerry might win. This is a big “if,” of course. I lived in Tel Aviv in 1996 teaching in the environmental studies program at Tel Aviv University as a visitor and saw a succession of bus explosions effectively push lots of my moderate students from Labor to Likud. People get scared when these things happen and this fear is very effective in forcing them to the right. Bush et al. know this and they’ve given enough warnings that something will happen so that when and if it does, regardless of whether or not they actually predicted it, they can claim that they were more prepared this time than they were for 9/11. My view of Israel is that the most radical elements among Israelis and Palestinians wanted the right to stay in power in part because they don’t want peace. Peace would eventually make them irrelevant. I think the same is true in our current situation. The sad thing is that if there is a terrorist attack, and Bush wins for that reason, then the terrorists really do win.
To do my bit I’ve joined Environment2004, a political action committee that is raising money to do voter-education projects in swing states, focusing on those who could be persuaded to vote for Kerry or against Bush on environmental issues. I’d encourage everyone to check out their website.
Would you label yourself an environmentalist?
Sure. The only problem is that I’m not at all sure what it means to be an environmentalist. I’ve struggled with this problem and to my mind there is no clear litmus test. I’m obviously going to object to any required geographical criteria or set of experiences in nature. I’d also object to any claim that there is a certain legal or policy litmus test. After all, those of us who call ourselves environmentalists have and should disagree on things. That leaves calling yourself an environmentalist only if you are a member of a particular environmental group, and that is also clearly false. So, right now I’m stuck with the unsatisfying conclusion that one is an environmentalist if one claims to be an environmentalist.
All that said, I actually prefer the term “ecological citizen” over environmentalist, though I have no hope that it will ever be a commonly used self-description. (It would also sound a bit dorky.) Environmentalism can mean that one feels a close personal connection with the non-human environment itself. I have argued that, in contrast, an ecological citizen would be someone who sees working for protection or restoration of the environment as an extension of their more robust duties as a citizen, in the same way that many people see being a member of the PTA as a way of fulfilling their civic obligations. Ecological citizens, as I imagine it, don’t separate humans from some external conception of nature (as some kind of “other” to humans) but rather see protection of nature as a way of connecting with a larger human community, which is inextricably bound up with the non-human world. Also, ecological citizenship is more resistant to claims that the duties associated with it can’t be fulfilled in cities.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing particularly well?
Opposing some of the most egregious forms of “patriotic” anti-environmentalism, such as drilling in the Arctic wildlife refuge to free up minuscule oil reserves.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing badly, and how could they do it better?
Admitting when we’ve actually won or when a problem isn’t as bad as we once thought. I think this problem accounts for part of the response to Bjorn Lomborg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist. Though I think that Lomborg does get a lot of things wrong in that book, he by no means gets everything wrong. Many of his conclusions, especially about population and waste management, are arguably correct. The denial of some of Lomborg’s most reasonable conclusions reflected a crisis mentality on all environmental fronts. This is indicative of a larger mistake. If we don’t show people that we can make progress on environmental issues, that actual changes in policy can lead to success, then we will condemn environmentalism to association with a culture of despair rather than one of hope.
What important environmental issue is frequently overlooked?
You name it.
What was your favorite band when you were 18? How about now?
Neil Young, and Neil Young.
What’s your favorite TV show? Movie?
The West Wing is my favorite TV show, though the last season reeked once Aaron Sorkin stopped writing it. In the past my favorite show was Homicide. Favorite movies include John Sayles’ Matewan, Errol Morris’ Mr. Death, and Zoolander (come on, it’s hilarious …).
Mac or PC?
What are you happy about right now?
My new bike, and the fact that the Hudson bike path is finished. I’m also happy that I’m going to my 20-year high school reunion at the end of this week with most of my hair.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Get your hands dirty in an environmental project in your neighborhood or city. Volunteer to help with a park cleanup, restoration project, community garden, or anything like that. Then get someone to come along with you who wouldn’t normally describe themselves as an environmentalist. If they get into it and keep coming back either for the sense of community participation, connection with nature, or just because they’re having fun, then you’ve helped to increase the number of potential ecological citizens in the world. That kind of community participation, rather than a more amorphous form of environmentalism, may go far in helping us see a sustainable future.