01.06.2012 - Social and Human Sciences Sector

The road to harmony between humans and Nature lies in a philosophical revolution - Interview with Pr. J. Baird Callicott

Pr. J. Baird Callicott © All Rights Reserved

The American environmental philosopher J. Baird Callicott replies to questions of the Global Environmental Team of UNESCO's Social and Human Sciences Sector in light of his conference “Narratives and Building Environmental Responsibility” which took place at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris on 4 June 2012.

…in the 1960s, we became aware that Nature was being tyrannized and abused by an oppressive class—“man” or humankind.  So was it possible coherently and persuasively to include some non-human natural entities and/or Nature as a whole—which had historically been wholly and absolutely excluded—in the moral circle or the ethical base class?  That question had never been posed in the entire history of Western philosophy. So here was a genuine challenge for a creative philosopher—the possibility of an “environmental ethic.”  But now, a half-century later, environmental philosophy is flourishing and its importance has been grudgingly acknowledged by the mandarins of the discipline. Heck, it has even established a beachhead on the intellectual Normandy coast of France.

…the only way to protect the environment or make sustainable use of natural resources is an essentially philosophical revolution, a shift in our ideas of Nature, of human nature, and the relationship between humans and Nature, naturally accompanied by a shift in our values from a narrow anthropocentrism to a wider circle of concern.

We humans are intimately connected—with every breath we take, every sip of liquid we drink, and every morsel of food we eat—to the surrounding bio-chemico-physical world.  We are as vortices in a flux of energy and materials, distinguishable only as ephemeral structures in that flux.  We cannot—that is, we should not—conceive of ourselves as in any way independent of the natural environment.  Rather we are continuous with it.  The protection of human health and wellbeing is indistinguishable from the protection of environmental health and wellbeing.

The ideal environmental scenario is a human society and economy coexisting in symbiotic harmony with Nature.  How is that to be understood more concretely?  A human harmony with Nature is being more specifically and concretely expressed in such things as: industrial ecology, in which the waste of one industrial process (say, spent cooking oil for fried food) is the resource for another industrial process (say, the production bio diesel fuel); biomimicry, in which naturally evolved biological processes serve as the template for artificially created industrial processes; “green” architectural design in which each structure produces more energy—from sun, wind, and other sources—than it consumes.  All this is achievable.  But note well, that the first step is philosophical, the re-conception of what Nature is (a congeries of dynamic biogeochemical ecosystems) and what human nature is (a congeries microcosmic biogeochemical ecosystems, including both individual organisms and various socio-economic wholes) embedded in the whole-Earth macrocosm.

I am not an environmental activist in the conventional sense.  I do not instigate or even participate in street demonstrations; I am not the creator of an organization to litigate on behalf of the environment; I do not even advocate any particular environmental politics or ideology in the university classes I teach.  I do however consider just what I do, what I have dedicated my entire life to doing—environmental philosophy—to be a form of environmental activism, indeed the most radical and ultimately effective kind of environmental activism.  I am motivated by the conviction that our actions are conditioned by the “world” we believe ourselves to live in and that that world is composed (as Bruno Latour might say) by the ideas, the concepts which we bring to our sensory experience that give that world structure, coherence and meaning.  Ultimately the only effective way to change what we do in regard to the non-human environment is to change the way we think about it.  And that is my business as a philosopher—critical worldview remediation.  A revolution of thought, of consciousness is the only path to a revolution of politics, economics, commerce and industry.

Only coordinated, concerted, collective action can be effective in mitigating global climate change.  And that means a complicated dialectic of socio-economic-technical evolution—that is, material-cultural evolution—and political action.  So one can and should take personal responsibility for global climate change, after all: responsibility for political action—at a minimum voting for green candidates, beyond that, engaging in other political activities with the ultimate goal of changing laws and policies that will effectively limit and eventually curtail the emissions of greenhouse gases.  Nor, despite my extreme way of putting it, is personal lifestyle change altogether ineffective.  Such changes are contagious.  Others will join in by, say bicycling, home to office and back, rather than driving; eating slow and local foods; and the like.  That in turn will be an impetus and constituency for political action and ultimately effective changes both in material culture and in policy and law.

We are right to be suspicious of imagined catastrophic future scenarios resulting from climate change.  No one really knows what will happen.  Maybe increased moisture in the warmer atmosphere capable of holding more gaseous water will cause an increase in cloud formation and an increase in the Earth’s albedo and thus the reflection of more solar radiation—all in all causing no further rise in temperature and no further increase in the energy that foments extreme weather… Another possibility is that no monumental catastrophic event will occur on the scale of the biblical flood… Rather, sea levels may creep up millimeter by millimeter, weather may be gradually characterized by more and more extreme local floods and droughts, to all of which we humans will gradually adapt and learn to live in a world increasingly unlike the one to which we are adapted and which we love and cherish.  But, c’est la vie.

One thing that we can be sure of is that things will change.  What was the world like in 1912, in 1812?  In 1812 there were no automobiles and steam-powered railroad locomotives were in the experimental stage.  In 1912 there was no commercial air travel and there were no personal computers. I think that any positive change in the human relationship with the natural environment will happen by a process of material cultural evolution—from the bottom up, not the top down—and then will be “ratified and institutionalized,” so to speak, and thus normalized, through governmental policy and law.

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