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.
Light One Up, Pass It Around
What do you recommend I read to get up to date on the subjects of environmental philosophy and ethics? What is the web address of your own work? — Taro Keefe, Lismore, Australia
How nice of you to ask! My website is here. You can find links there for my books and download some of my recent papers and forthcoming work. I co-edited a college textbook on the subject that has some good introductory essays in it called Environmental Ethics: An Anthology. There are also references there for other general books in the field as well as a healthy sampling of some of the original and latest work from the various schools of environmental philosophy.
Will your concept of “ecological citizen” lead to broader awareness of our culture’s car addiction, which most environmentalists seem to ignore? Is it possible to live a “sustainable” lifestyle and drive an SUV? — Kathy Durham, Palo Alto, Calif.
A robust account of ecological citizenship would include attention to transportation choices. I certainly agree that our daily commutes are one of the most important environmental choices that we make. We are being more environmentally virtuous when we choose to decrease our personal ecological footprint by driving less or not at all. I would disagree, though, that most environmentalists aren’t interested in these questions. Many are, and I’ve been quite happy to see traditional environmental groups take it up in recent years. The Sierra Club’s ambitious anti-sprawl campaign is a good case in point. (It’s also true that the early history of wilderness preservation in our country was intimately connected to concerns over automobile access to preserved lands. See Paul Sutter’s excellent history, Driven Wild, for the full story.)
Given the fact that the U.S. is the biggest contributor to global warming through the production of greenhouse gases, and given the fact that the single biggest source of greenhouse gases in the U.S. is transportation, then it follows that anyone wanting to live a more environmentally sustainable and responsible lifestyle should not drive an SUV. We can’t and shouldn’t lay the blame solely at the feet of consumers, though. As my colleague Dale Jamieson likes to point out, we don’t reward politicians in this country who propose doing even the minimum to encourage better transportation choices, such as raising taxes on gas. If the price of gas were higher, then fewer of us would be attracted to the idea of driving a Hummer, possibly with the notable exception of the current governor of California.
One caveat though: The reason that good ecological citizens should be concerned with such issues is not only because of the environmental damage that our transportation choices can engender but also because of the ways that our sprawled cities, made possible in part because of out attachment to the automobile, threaten community cohesion. Encountering our neighbors only through a thick layer of aluminum and steel has consequences on the maintenance and degradation of what Robert Putman (author of Bowling Alone) and other sociologists and political theorists call “social capital,” essentially the building blocks of a robust public sphere through even the simplest forms of public and private association — everything from PTAs to bowling leagues. I believe that stronger, more robust democracies require active citizen engagement in public life in order to produce more social capital. I also believe that there is a strong correlation between sprawled cities and the decline of these more active forms of civic responsibility. So, unsustainable forms of transportation infrastructure jointly threaten both the environment and more democratically engaged human communities and therefore require a response by ecological citizens on both counts. Again, though, we can’t expect everyone to take up such issues and so better transportation choices need to be encouraged through better planning.
What are your reflections regarding the impact of vegetarianism upon alleviation of world hunger and the well-being of the environment? — Marylou Noble, Portland, Ore.
I don’t think that vegetarianism, even if adopted on a massive scale, would make much of an impact on world hunger since now, at least, we don’t have a food shortage problem as much as a food availability problem. We’ve been overproducing many basic foodstuffs for years without being able to get it to places where it is needed.
I do, however, agree that becoming a vegetarian is more morally responsible in relation to other animals and a very important component of a more environmentally responsible lifestyle. Even if one disagrees with arguments concerning direct duties owed to animals, offered by figures such as Peter Singer and Tom Regan, there are ample reasons not to participate in our rather atrocious forms of animal agriculture, given the environmental consequences of confined animal feeding operations. Still, I do not believe that eating meat is always and in every case unjustifiable, nor do I believe that we ought to take a person’s dietary preferences as a single, all-things-considered barometer of their moral character. These things are a matter of context. When I lived in Edmonton I bought into a flock of free-range chickens and turkeys and participated directly in their humane raising and harvesting. Not being able to do this in New York, I don’t eat chicken or turkey here.
All of these claims are the subject of lively and spirited debates among environmental philosophers and people who work on animal-welfare and -rights issues. I take my own cue on how to assess what is better or worse in terms of dietary choices from Gary Varner’s fine book In Nature’s Interests? You can find a short summary of how he understands the differences between eating mammals, birds, fish, and shellfish here. When I said that one of my environmental vices was eating fish, I understand this to primarily involve the consequences of overfishing some species and the pollution produced by some forms of aquaculture. In the absence of more aggressive legislation prohibiting some of the more egregious forms of animal agriculture, the best thing that any of us can do once we have come to see the ethical consequences of our dietary choices is to become as well informed as we can reasonably be about what we are eating and then act accordingly.
When the environment is such a huge, complex system, what large-scale hope of reversing human-caused damage to the natural world can we expect from such small-scale projects encouraging public participation as restoring prairies or gardens? — Jim Powell, Facilitator, Northside Planning Council, and Editor, Northside News, Madison, Wis.
Good point, but I think that the dichotomy between building connections between human communities and their local environments and working on larger, global environmental issues is false. Here are three reasons.
First, many people don’t appreciate or understand some of the bigger global environmental problems, in part because the consequences of these problems are distant in either time or space. In this sense, they challenge our ability to reasonably imagine their consequences as something that we should respond to either out of moral obligation or even more simply out of prudential necessity. Take global warming for example. The worst consequences of global warming (despite the titillating picture painted in The Day After Tomorrow) will likely emerge several generations into the future. It’s difficult for many of us to imagine this as anything other than an amorphous uncertainty at the moment and hard to conceive that our own individual or collective choices on such a large problem have any ethical consequences. Taking on such hurdles is a huge task and many will respond that what is needed is more “education,” without being specific at all about what form it should take or how providing education is supposed to get us anywhere. My claim is that public participation in restoration ecology, community gardening, and the like, in addition to their intrinsic benefits, also can serve as a gateway to get people interested in these larger issues. If participating in these activities helps people to take an active interest in the welfare of their local environment — and it is very clear from the studies that have been done on volunteers that this is exactly what happens — then this interest can be used as an opportunity to not only get them interested in larger environmental problems but also to see that the welfare of their local ecosystem is materially dependent in some ways on the outcome of these larger issues. As a consequence, these hard-to-fathom larger problems that seem out of our moral range are brought conceptually closer to home.
Second, even though I think that regulations, laws, international conventions, and the like are extremely important in confronting some of our most pressing environmental problems, in the end they cannot do all the work for us. We don’t just want people to do the right thing because they are forced to, or told to by scientific experts, but to also believe that what they are doing is right. For one thing, laws come and go as political fortunes bend and shift. As I said previously, our current administration has been extraordinarily effective in turning the tide of the advances made previously in environmental law and policy. Imagine the case, though, where public money has been set aside for a restoration project and community volunteers — rather than paid laborers from a landscape architecture firm — are engaged to do most of the work. Then imagine that once the project is complete, a new administration comes into office that does not want to provide money to maintain the restored system. In such a case it seems plausible that at least some of the voluntary restorationists would have such an invested interest built up in the health of the ecosystem they worked to restore that they would actively lobby for its maintenance, and failing that find some other way to finance the continuation of the project. This is one reason why I think that when we fail to engage local communities in such projects we miss an opportunity to create an active community of interest between a place and a group of people.
Third, I wouldn’t want to be interpreted as saying that only small-scale projects should be opened up for public participation or that restoration ecology in particular is only a small-scale phenomenon. The Clinton administration, in conjunction with the Bush administration in Florida, rallied bipartisan support for an allocation of close to $7 billion to restore the various systems comprising the Florida Everglades. This represents both an enormous appropriation of public revenue as well as an opportunity for a more concrete form of public engagement with the local environment or at least public education about the importance of this ecosystem. While much of the work — such as de-channelizing rivers which were banked with concrete to provide farmland — won’t be appropriate for a local cub scout troop, other aspects of this project could be opened to public participation.
You have said that it’s wise for writers in the field to abandon the notion of intrinsic value and instead “bolster the intuitions that most people have” about the instrumental value of nature. I think you’re exactly right about that, but my question is: Where’s the philosophy? Why should the field of environmental philosophy not just disband and reform as a lobbying organization or something? — Sam Greenberg, Toronto, Canada
I’ve received a question like this from budding young philosophers more often than I’d like to admit. The shortest way of answering is to suggest that you read some of my work on my website and then let me know if you still think what I’m doing isn’t philosophy. Essentially, though, I don’t think it’s terribly difficult to find some engaging philosophical work to do along these lines. For philosophers, the point, after all, is not just to articulate what we think are any old expanded instrumental reasons for protecting the environment but also the ones that are sound, valid, and hopefully true.
Here’s just one example. One thing that philosophical training is very good at is to teach us how to understand what logically follows from a given set of views. So, if I was asked to go to a Christian church to discuss environmental issues, then, as an environmental philosopher, I’d want to encourage people to think about the ethical implications of our individual and collective choices concerning the environment. But as a pragmatist environmental philosopher I’d also recognize that this group of people (as I think is true of most Americans) understand morality as something they engage with primarily through the language of religion and their spiritual beliefs. As a pragmatist, I’d try to work within their religious framework to encourage them to be more environmentally responsible.
Now, since I don’t share the religious or metaphysical views which would ground this community’s moral beliefs, I’d be doing this more as an exercise of first, understanding the nature of their beliefs, and second, trying to figure out if the environmental goals which I think are important follow from the premises which ground their moral beliefs. Since I’m not a propagandist or rhetorician I couldn’t go to this community and say something like, “Jesus sent me here today to tell you that you should oppose George W. Bush’s rollback of the Clinton administration’s roadless rule for the national forests.” This would be a corruption of philosophical labor as well as dishonest and, well, false. But I could say that as far as I understand a book that they take to be sacred text — the Christian Bible — there is a strong case to be made for an ethic of stewardship toward the environment that follows from that text and a good application of being a good Christian steward would be to think hard about this policy. This may seem obvious to some but certainly many could dispute me on the interpretation of this text or the application of it in this instance. We philosophers can make a valuable contribution to such disagreements commensurate with the particular skills valued by our discipline.
I don’t think that in this instance or in other cases philosophers can do this alone. It’s an old wag now in the enviro-academic community that our response to environmental problems will require interdisciplinary answers. The challenge is to figure out the best contribution that philosophers can make to forming those answers. I agree that theorizing in the abstract has limited potential, but there is something between that and only becoming an advocate or propagandist. I work with empirical social scientists in my own research in order to figure out what kinds of claims will be sufficiently morally motivating to change behavior, or what kinds of changes in policy would be consistent with other democratic values that we profess as important to our culture. This leaves me with a lot of work to do that respects the talents of these colleagues but also adds an important dimension to their own research.
I’m glad you think that when it comes to the environment the important questions have obvious answers. If you really think this, then you ought to consider doing environmental philosophy or developing it as a secondary interest. We need the help. But forewarned is forearmed: Environmental ethics can’t simply be about our duties to or for the non-human natural world. Due to resources, competing ethical obligations to humans, etc., our intuitions that we should protect or restore the environment often come in conflict with other competing ethical considerations. A complete environmental ethic either also has to give us some insight into how we should act toward each other as well, or at least be compatible with larger, more well-established ethical traditions. Once we integrate a more morally responsible framework into environmental decision-making then we will be faced with many tragic choices that I hope smart philosophers can contribute to solving.
The earth cycles through hot and cold periods. Why demonize people in this country? — Scott Crawford, Virginia Beach, Va.
It’s absolutely true that the earth cycles through hot and cold periods. No climatologist would dispute you on that point. I’m no atmospheric scientist, but the evidence is overwhelming now that the average mean temperature of the earth is increasing through anthropomorphic causes and the fear is that we may not cycle back into another cold period because of it. Given the impacts that we are already seeing from these warming trends and the projected impacts that we can model with some degree of certainty, I don’t think that criticizing the lack of response from the current administration to this threat counts as demonizing Americans. We produce more of the greenhouse gases that are producing these effects than other people in the world and so a fairly simple understanding of distributive justice suggests that we have an obligation to address this problem. Whether or not other countries are or are not doing their part is beside the point. Even if they are doing nothing (which I assure you they are not) then we are still obligated to do something.
It may very well be the case, though, that stemming the tide of global warming through abatement efforts may never be sufficient to solve the problem. At the start of the last U.N. summit on the environment in South Africa, Bjorn Lomborg published an editorial in the New York Times arguing that the best response would be to use the resources that would be invested in a comprehensive Kyoto-type structure instead in a global project to secure clean water for everyone, since we know that shrinking water supplies will be one of the first effects of global warming. Unfortunately, even if Lomborg is right about this, I don’t see the current administration proposing a comprehensive form of mitigation of the effects of global warming as an alternative to something like Kyoto. Instead, they are bucking the received wisdom of the scientific community and claiming that nothing is happening. Future generations will look back aghast at us if we let them get away with it.
What is your opinion on so-called “clean” nuclear energy, and what about the transportation and storage of the waste in Yucca Mountain? — Carrie Lucas, Georgetown, S.C.
Though I don’t think that the construction of nuclear power plants is on the rise, our aging nuclear infrastructure and the legacy of decades of nuclear weapons production have left us with a problem that is extraordinarily difficult to solve. I seriously doubt that finding a permanent repository at Yucca Mountain, or anywhere else, will lead to much of an increase in nuclear power, due to the continued uncertainty that most Americans have over the safety of nuclear power following from our experiences with Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. This legacy presents a public relations problem that couldn’t easily be solved by an army of MBAs.
From an ethical perspective, though, I’m fascinated by the recent federal court decision that halted the plans to open the Yucca repository. Part of the decision was based on a claim that the risk models used to design the facility needed to provide for a reasonable margin of safety for future generations for 10,000 years! While this argument turned on the half-life of the materials that would be deposited at Yucca Mountain, imagine the startling impacts this could have on environmental decision-making if it became some kind of precedent in other areas. Underlying the court’s ruling was not only a recognition of the moral obligations we have to future generations (which is well established in much U.S. regulatory law) but implicitly that these obligations extend beyond any reasonable expectation of the longevity of our country. We’re hard pressed to recognize our obligations to people in distant lands, but in this decision we see an acknowledgement of obligations to people we will never know, who will live in a community that may only be tangentially related to our own. If the decision holds then we will have surpassed the oft-cited precedent of the dictum that Native Americans planned for seven generations into the future!
Do you think we can develop a sound land ethic without first making animal rights primary to our thinking? Do you think “rights” is an appropriate term considering that neither the environment nor non-human animals have any obligations to us (all rights entail accompanying obligations)? — Adam Gottschalk, Portland, Ore.
This is a great question and one that I’ve given a lot of thought to of late. You might be interested in my contributions to my next edited book, Animal Pragmatism: Rethinking Human-Nonhuman Relationships, which is due out in August. Briefly, though, the early history of environmental ethics was rife with a split between “individualists” and “holists.” Most individualists think that when we extend moral consideration beyond the traditional realm of our obligations to other humans it can only coherently provide us with grounds to recognize our obligations to other individual animals. This depends, though, on the kind of ethical framework with which one starts. Take for example the basic utilitarian claim that determining the permissibility of an action should be based on the consequences of the action, and that the consequences that matter in a moral sense are the increase of pleasure or the decrease of pain. An individualist might argue that such a rationale for moral obligation can only be applied to individuals with the capacity to have certain kinds of experiences (here, pleasure and pain) or could be identified as having some range of relevant preferences. So, if we are morally obligated not to cause pain to other humans then we could extend that framework to argue that we are also morally obligated not to cause pain in other beings that can experience pain. We know that other sentient animals experience pain in some kind of comparable sense to how we do but, so far as we know, collective entities, such as species, ecosystems, or the earth itself, do not experience pain or have preferences. (We could of course be wrong about this but I doubt it.) Most individualists argue that as a result, we have direct moral obligations to other animals but only indirect moral obligations to “nature.”
On the other hand, holists argue that if we are going to extend moral obligations to the non-human natural world then we can’t stop at other individual critters. The reason in part is that the science that informs us about how the natural world works, ecology, is not a science of the welfare of individuals but of collective entities like species and ecosystems. A healthy ecosystem in ecological terms, for example, is not one where every hoppy, jumpy thing in the forest lives out its life in some Disneyfied fantasy. For ecosystems to be healthy, things have to die. And so a true ethic of the environment that took its cues from the best ecological science would have to focus on the obligations we have to larger systems, not to the individuals that make them up.
For various reasons I’ve come to loathe this distinction and think that it is entirely unhelpful. I get increasingly frustrated with holist environmental ethicists who reject the arguments of individualists that we have moral obligations not to eat animals if we can avoid it without seriously considering these arguments. For instance, some environmental ethicists will argue that agricultural animals are not really part of “nature,” since we have manipulated them through centuries of breeding and the like, and hence aren’t the kinds of things that we owe any form of moral recognition. This simply avoids the issue. Humans are arguably unnatural in this sense as well. But these same ethicists seem to have no problem granting humans moral recognition even at the expense of larger systems. How can we then say that we owe moral obligations to individual humans and ecosystems and species but not to other individual animals? I won’t go into all the reasons here but I think that proponents of both views often misunderstand their opponents and that, at the end of the day, there is very little that they disagree on when it comes to larger environmental policies.
Considering that the natural number of people on earth (“natural” meaning before the discovery of agriculture, which is unnatural) is around 10 million, how can you claim that Bjorn Lomborg’s conclusions about population are correct? — Jeff Hoffman, San Francisco, Calif.
The implied misanthropy of a question like this is shocking, and it stands as a good example of the kind of comment that gives people good reason to worry about environmentalists. I won’t try to answer all of the assumptions in these questions that I have problems with, but basically I follow Lomborg, and many others, including the U.N. Population Division, in coming to the conclusion that the predicted “population bomb” and “population explosion” never materialized. In fact, the U.N. has had to revise its population projections significantly downwards since the 1990s. According to the AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment, the latest medium projection expects world population to reach 8.9 billion in 2050. This is 1.1 billion less than was expected in the projection made in 1990. The most recent long-range projection has world population rising to 10.4 billion in 2100 and leveling out at just under 11 billion around 2200. Even our rate of population growth has slowed. We reached our first billion in 1804 and the second billion took only 123 years. The third billion was reached in 1960, 33 years later. Since then we’ve been adding a billion every 13 or 14 years, passing 6 billion in late 1999. Since 1965-70 this rate has slowed considerably, though with varying rates of growth in different countries. Is this too much? We can’t be sure right now but we do know that population most likely won’t increase indefinitely. Remember that “overpopulation” is a normative category, not a descriptive one. Whether a given population of anything is “over” what it should be is a function of at least three important components: Population x Affluence x Technology. That is, how many people are there, what are the implications of their consumption rates, and what technologies have been developed to mitigate the impact of their collective consumption. I would agree that the developed world is curr
Finally, I’m not sure how we could possibly ever claim that there was a “natural” human population unless we took a very odd view of what “nature” required. Even if we accepted your stipulated definition that what was natural was the state of affairs prior to the development of agriculture, what reason do we have to assume that the human population would have stabilized at 10 million without the development of agriculture? On top of that, why is it that the development of agriculture was somehow unnatural? If one had the view that there were natural limits such as these, and that we were obligated to follow them, then there are over 6 billion good reasons that we might worry about the implications of readjusting to those limits.
What approach do you have for bridging the work of academia and the environmental movement? — David Zaks, Madison, Wis.
A great question and a much-neglected topic. As I said in the interview, most of my work at NYU is with students who are engaged in public education projects, broadly construed, on the environment. To my mind, any academic working in this field ought to try to “field test” their ideas or at least figure out whether their research is helpful to environmental advocates, both in and outside of government agencies. For my own part, in addition to the work that I do at NYU, I co-hosted a Faculty Development Workshop with the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs and the Center for Humans and Nature here in the city specifically on the question of how to integrate ethics into environmental studies toward the goal of creating better links between the academy and the larger environmental community. Materials from the workshop are available at the Carnegie Council website. I take a lot of my own inspiration on these questions from Bill Shutkin’s fine study of civic environmentalism, The Land That Could Be.
Given the dazzling constellation of multiple, rapidly evolving changes to both social and natural systems (climate change, potential tipping points of biodiversity loss, ongoing escalation of exotics, introduction of ecological biotechnologies, etc.), what do you predict will happen to the field of environmental ethics over the next few decades? — J. V. Wells, Berkeley, Calif.
Great question and one that I’ve been thinking about for some time now. Five years ago I would have predicted that because of various institutional and disciplinary pressures, environmental ethics would never have much of a home or much acceptance in the top philosophy departments in the country. Thankfully, there are lots of encouraging reasons to think that this is finally changing — in part, I think, because the field is getting better and better and because student demand for these classes is enormous right now.
I would argue, though, that the most successful field of applied ethics in terms of having an impact on actual professional practice is medical ethics. Practically every major research university and teaching hospital now has a significant program in medical ethics or bioethics, such as the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Bioethics, directed by Art Caplan. There