Monday, 19 September 2016

A Philosophy of the Environment

Posted by Thomas Scarborough
In spite of its crucial importance today, in practice we have little operational guidance for defining policies, strategies, and outcome targets with respect to the natural environment. Above all, there are no agreed philosophical grounds for its preservation. Reactions to its destruction are fragmentary.
In times past, it was possible for every individual, or every family group, to be self-sustaining through all the cycles of nature. Today, we have advanced beyond all possibility of such a lifestyle, although pockets of our planet retain such ways of life. Today, the whole of nature needs to sustain the whole of humankind. This requires more than a parochial approach to the environment. It requires a global environmental ethics, and global environmental principles.

There is a pressing need today for a rational basis for a healthy, balanced relationship with the natural environment – for 'a broadly-based philosophy', in the words of the Scottish theologian and philosopher John MacQuarrie. While one cannot underestimate the effectiveness of reactive measures to protect or to heal the environment – on all levels, individual, organisational, and governmental – the philosophical underpinnings are sorely missed. Any substantial philosophy today should be able to present definitive criteria for dealing with the environment.

Various 'base principles' have been suggested:
• that nature enjoys a sacred status,
• that every life form has a special goal,
• that the natural environment is vital to our human flourishing,
• that it is essential for our economic progress.
Yet beyond all such considerations, it may be the very complexity of nature which promises a solution.

There is something which sets the environment apart, which requires a different treatment to all other ethical issues. There is no system (insofar as we may speak of a system at all) which is more complex than our natural environment. The environment presents us with an infinity of relations. We would need a mind (or a computer) larger than nature itself to understand it. We may say therefore that it is 'beyond the condition of things'. It is beyond reducing, controlling, or bringing into the condition of things. It is unconditional.

The natural environment is the ultimate zone, in which a vast tissue of influences cannot be reduced. It is so much more than a sphere which merely should be 'protected'. It is sacred. It is tabu. A reductionistic approach to nature does not apply.

Not only this. For want of a concept as to how nature ought to be – since we cannot possibly possess such knowledge – we cannot say that it should be this way or that. 'Is' and 'ought' vanish here. It is in a sacred space even beyond the realm of ethics. With respect to nature, we cannot give and we cannot take, we can only receive. In fact nature stands as a vast and all-encompassing symbol to teach us the limitations of human reason.

On the basis of a belief in a sacred environment there is a principled way forward. The environment – both animate and inanimate – is not merely an object of wonder and awe, nor is it sentimentally sacred. Its sacredness is of biblical proportions: a sacredness which means that it stands under 'the ban'. Whatever the value of nature may be – whatever its stores, whatever its appeal – it must not be touched. The only way forward is to treat it on the basis that it is both off-limits and hands-off, and this is unconditional. It is non-negotiable.

Our own simple, built environment is of course ensconced in the natural environment. Of necessity, we disturb the environment, because we are a part of it. How then should it be possible for nature to be off-limits today, in our (post) modern world?

The notion of such separation is not merely a wistful one. There are large areas today which we do keep off-limits: contaminated areas, for instance, military zones, and diamond areas. These are as good as sacrosanct – and yet the environment seems by comparison to be treated with ambivalence. In fact in times past, the natural environment was indeed thought to be sacred – in some cases more valuable than the life of one who desecrated it.

Just a hundred years ago, nature did not need any assistance from humanity. That is, in our very recent past, we knew a world in which nature was allowed to be nature, and did not need human cosseting or monitoring. The deliberate, nation-wide, even global protection of the natural environment through human custodians is a comparatively recent development.

In short, a separation between the natural and the built environments should be – and has to be – a realistic goal. This goal will be achieved when the equilibrium of the environment is maintained in every part without human intervention – or rather, its dynamic equilibrium is maintained over all its various cycles. Since, however, nature is beyond the condition of things, this must be a self-sustaining dynamic equilibrium, without the influence of human custodians.
'Our immediate environment is not nature as formerly, but organisation. But this immunity from nature produces a new crop of dangers, which is the very organisation.' —Dietrich Bonhoeffer.


  1. Thank you, Thomas, for this. I was just reading a book (not the first, one meight say) which identified concern for the environment as a kind of game changer - gestalt shift thingy (when your perception suddenly changes). That said, I row back against the idea that nature used to be 'natural' ("Just a hundred years ago, nature did not need any assistance from humanity") - or that we now control nature - which is it fair todetect as themes here?

    1. Yes, well detected. I think that, by and large, until comparatively recently nature survived in dynamic equilibrium. Now this can no longer be said. It would be hard to set a transition, yet transition I think there has been. It is a post painted with broad strokes. A qualification to your comment: we try to control nature, however we do not. It is a self-defeating control.

  2. A nice cautionary note, Thomas. I agree that nature ‘enjoys a sacred status’; key, however, is interpretation of that status. Let me offer two takes.

    Re: “Whatever the value of nature may be—whatever its stores, whatever its appeal—it must not be touched. The only way forward is to treat it on the basis that it is both off-limits and hands-off, and this is unconditional. It is non-negotiable.”

    The absoluteness of this comment might, for some, raise a flag. Contrary to ‘hands-off’, ‘unconditional’, and ‘nonnegotiable’, people might see benefits when humankind ‘touches’ nature in ways that help less-developed and developed communities alike. I venture that ‘touching’ nature has resulted in many pluses, such as greatly increasing yields and crop hardiness through genetic manipulation and cross-breeding, to produce rice, wheat, sorghum, corn, and soybeans resistant to disease, infestation, and extreme weather. Encouraging biodiversity, including animal sources of food. ‘Touching’ nature has managed to address ‘food insecurity’ head-on, feeding millions more people in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and elsewhere. The alternative would have been more malnutrition (learning disabilities, deformities) and starvation (deaths).

    We also ‘touch’ nature when tackling human diseases, finding preventative and curative treatments—genetic manipulation, nanotechnology, microsurgery, immunotherapy, and others. Helping people in both less-developed and developed countries. Scientists, with governments and NGOs, reduce, contain, and sometimes eliminate illnesses like malaria, tuberculosis, smallpox, diphtheria, dengue, HIV/AIDS, pertussis, Ebola, and polio. Here are few other helpful ways we’ve tinkered with nature: vaccinations, sanitation, contraception, childbirth (mother and infant), organ transplants, internal imaging, joint replacement, anaesthesia, cancer and cardio treatments, life-saving/preserving pharmaceuticals—with longer, healthier lives.

    Re: “Just a hundred years ago, nature did not need any assistance from humanity.”

    I’d suggest that nature did indeed need our ‘assistance’ earlier in history; we just didn’t know it yet. The ‘nasty stuff’ crippling and killing us still existed back then, even if we didn’t yet understand the causes and fixes. The science, the technology, the methods—and the ability to share the benefits across the world’s population, poor and otherwise—remained to be figured out. That cycle—discovery, solutions, application—will continue indefinitely, but even faster!

    1. I was rather at a loss as to how to respond here -- and removed my responses. A reader in Europe encouraged me to return them.

      • My post is titled 'A Philosophy of the Environment', which is to say that it is -- in one definition anyway -- about us 'saving nature'. The comments might suggest that it is about nature saving us.

      • With regard to the behaviours I am said to be 'getting at', this interpretation comes as news to me. The post is intended as epistemological: how may we know, how to save nature? This is summed up by Rolston: 'The epistemic crisis is as troubling as the environmental crisis, and one must be fixed before the other can.'

      • The comments strongly reflect the idea of progress. This is an idea, I think, which deserves to be presented with far greater counterbalance and nuance. The apparent optimism troubles me.

      • The dissection of terms is, I feel, done out of context. My term 'touch' is fairly much done to death, yet the sense is really 'to affect in an adverse way'. The point is that any such touching of the natural environment is beyond our ability to master.

      • The suggestion that we now know what we then did not -- that nature 'did indeed need' our assistance -- is just what my post argues against.

      • I searched for the term 'environment' under the commentator's name. I found that one needs to get a fix on the environment in order to move in military hardware.

  3. Thank you, Thomas, for clarifying how you intend to use the word ‘touch’ in your post. I agree that context matters. If I may peel back a layer or two of that onion of ‘context’, the one obvious thing I’d add is that denotation and connotation—and intent—matter, too, even within context. Expanding out the discussion with those points in mind, I suggest that ‘touching’ nature and ‘destroying’ nature convey, for me anyway, quite different meanings and images of what’s going on with regard to humankind’s interactions with the environment.

    So, for example, ‘touching’ nature may well include positive interventions, along the extensive medical and food-chain lines I listed above, which I don’t need, I think, to repeat—as well many other such positive interventions we don’t have space to enumerate here. Not merely benign, but beneficial. I doubt that anyone would want to turn the clock back to the lifestyle of the first century or Middle Ages, when the worst of nature—the ravages of disease and hunger, among them—ran their course largely unchecked.

    Whereas, on the other hand, ‘destroying’ nature evokes images of pouring carbon dioxide into the air, burning down the rainforest to make way for development, indiscriminate logging, dumping toxic chemicals into lakes and rivers, stripping hills to access coal, causing the extinction of thousands of species and shrinking biodiversity, contributing to the acidification of the oceans, careless handling of waste, contaminating the soil, and so on. Such behaviours pose well-documented existential threats, which, I dare say, is what your essay was getting at.

    I enjoyed your discussion, Thomas, bringing critical issues to the table.

  4. Some of Holmes Rolston’s words that I find particularly germane to the discussion of this topic are these: “[It] is better to build our cultures in intelligent harmony with the way the world is already built, rather than take control and rebuild this promising planet by ourselves and for ourselves.” Suggested here is Rolston’s advocacy of a whole-ecosystem perspective, with humankind bearing a moral responsibility to beware the effects of its actions upon the physical environment—Rolston heavily favoring a hands-off approach, except when it comes to preserving species. Other than the ‘hands-off’ bit, which one may argue goes one bridge too far, I doubt most responsible people would suffer heartburn over Rolston’s advice to “build our cultures in intelligent harmony” with nature. Seems like a commonsense, noble goal subscribed to by most of us, and which only the most scurrilous would scoff at.

    But after all is said and done, the clichéd expression “The devil is in the details” haunts us. That is, humankind will almost never opt to entirely decouple its actions from nature—to take the so-called non-anthropomorphic path—other than perhaps in the (safe) realm of Rolston’s philosophy. Humankind will always favor ‘touching’ nature, at least as far as the eye can shakily project into the future. Critically, the ‘devil in the details’ angle is how mankind discriminates—not to sound too much like a sex-ed teacher—between what’s good touching and bad touching. Like all thorny social issues that have mind-numbingly innumerable moving parts and global impact, it’s a safe bet that mankind will never quite attain that eureka moment of complete understanding and knowledge—notwithstanding the ‘epistemic’ reasons that Christopher Preston presents as morally underpinning the stewardship of a richly diverse physical environment in its natural state.

  5. Dear Gentlemen,

    Thomas, the first impression I received from your article is an underlying symbolic issue. Man versus nature in contrast with man in nature and how our ascribtions have evolved in the position men takes towards, or with nature; rationalism versus symbolism.

    second, (quote) Reactions to its destruction are fragmentary. In a fragmented human world how can a whole be revisited when we do not perceive nature as a mind and men as an ecology of mind? (The latter suggested by G. Bateson).

    third: Nothing exists that does not touch something else (J. Brouwers). Can we be satisfied finding cure meanwhile ignoring the discard that comes along in obtaining a medicine? Where one is healed another is killed. The question is about what is touched and how we are touched.

    To sum: what I understand is how to philosophise about human needs interfering in relations that echo much further away (we might say into the universe) and how to give ourselves a place into such a world. From this point of view the first question is raised about our idea of responsibility that is a mislead idea. When our responsibility is mislead towards nature, we are mislead to human being.

    1. Tessa: Your observation “Man versus nature in contrast with man in nature” is a nice, succinct summary of one of the central challenges mankind faces in defining its place—and responsibilities—on this planet. The deceptively simple words ‘versus’ and ‘in’ are in fact key to driving the ideas embedded in your comment. I reread your words several times, thinking about not just their obvious poignancy, but also and more significantly their meaning and real-world application. Your observation opened up a huge vista of ideas.

    2. The big question Tessa is how we may have some kind of certainty as to how to deal with nature, but it seems to me that we are not finding it. This is an oft expressed concern today -- some say one of the biggest problems of our time. So this is an attempt to find some kind of definitive answer: on what 'rational basis' can we approach nature? Broadly speaking, I propose that the natural environment should be completely separated from the built environment. We cannot afford to do anything else, and the reasons are in my post. But one can press this too far I think, and lose the big picture. The 'built environment' is a vague term perhaps, but broadly I mean a 'human product'. This human product could include tracts of nature -- but there must be a nature besides, which is left alone.

    3. Reading this last comment helps me understand the post better. The "leave untouched" idea is the idea of conservation. It reminds me of this post by E.O. Wilson.
      He argues there (and in his book) that half the earth should be dedicated to conservation, or humans will not survive. Alongside that, Aeon published a dissenting article:
      The authors here advocate an "Anthropocene conservationism" that says that Wilson's extreme vision does injustice to poor people around the world, and that humans should rather occupy the world's territory freely but in a way that harmonizes with and does justice to other species and the natural environment as a whole.
      That's my paraphrase after reading months ago. I remember siding with the Anthropocene people.
      Thanks for initiating this topic!

    4. A philosophy of the environment. Gregory Kyle Klug I think identifies the major options we have if we drive them to their 'pure expressions': (a) separate ourselves from the natural environment, or (b) find a way to integrate the natural environment with the built environment. Perhaps one could add (c): put it all out of our minds, it will self-adjust, even if this should mean our own extinction.

      Various people have thought the preservation of the environment to be a problem of epistemology. That is, how shall we know what to do? This applies very much to option (b) above, and less so to option (a). Option (b) in particular assumes that we are capable of knowing what to do -- and not only of knowing, but of acting on such knowledge. I am basically saying that we are incapable of knowing what to do, for the reason that the natural environment is infinitely complex. It is an in-principle problem. To aspire to 'managing the Earth closely', as Büscher and Fletcher ('Wilson is wrong') describe option (b), is I think arrogant. This then turns us to option (a), which itself is not clear cut, but I think a far surer option.

      One may say that the natural and the built environments co-existed successfully in the past, which is option (b). But in the past, people held tabus with regard to the environment, while today we are reduced to a profusion of reactive measures. This returns us to the question of epistemology. How shall we know what to do? We don't know, and we can't know, in principle. So we need to resign from management, and let it be.

  6. Yes, and of course it is modern technology that has made (b) problematic now, while before but wasn't. We have to learn to cope with all the power we have with technology.
    The most unrealistic option is stop using modern technology.
    I doubt that human management of the environment is impossible. I think of how when humans reintroduced wolves to Yellowstone park in the US, that all manner of imbalances corrected themselves. It was a chain of events. Here is YouTube link w that story:
    Now I want to reread those two articles, cross reference w this post, and see what I think now. But I have candidates for US election to read up on! There's much more on the ballot than president!

    1. The crucial point of my essay is that it offers a philosophical basis for the preservation of the natural environment. Although it looks similar to Wilson, Wilson's concern is 'the level enough' to preserve the natural environment. That is an empirical argument, not a philosophical one.