A COMPLETE COURSE IN ENVIRONMENTAL PHILOSOPHY SHOULDN’T TAKE MORE THAN TWENTY-THREE MINUTES. TIME ME.

LESSON #1: DEFINING ONE’S TERMS

Environmental Philosophy (henceforth EP) is that series of phonemes and/or chicken scratches that sustains itself by assiduously refusing to define any of the dozen or so terms which can then be randomized to form sentences which sound deep but say absolutely nothing. Unfortunately this same definition also applies to Continental Philosophy, so what distinguishes the two are their constituent defining undefined terms. Whereas Continental Philosophy drones on about things like – as if there are things like – being, nothingness, authenticity, in short all the brooding words, EP plays its game of jacks with environment, biosphere, sustainability, all the warm fuzzy ones.

“What’s the environment?” you ask?

You’ve just failed the first quiz. What did I just say? You don’t ask. Got it?

“Got it!”

LESSON #2: ITS SCOPE

The word universe means all that is. At one time we thought that wasn’t much. Now we know it’s a helluva lot more. More specifically the universe consists of a whole bunch of worlds, one here, one there, and so on, and a whole bunch more nothing – or maybe something, who knows? – in between. But EP isn’t concerned with any of that. It’s concerned only with those worlds which are life-sustaining, and of those only the ones that are anthropic.

Well no, that’s too quick. Most environmentalists – remember: don’t ask! – hug trees, but not rocks. But there’s nothing in environmentalism per se that rules out concern for the integrity of rocks. That said, we’re going to stick here with the tradition, if the fifty years since EP became a thing can be called a tradition. Traditional EP takes no interest in worlds without a biosphere. And since the only biosphere we know of, at least for sure, is our own, that’s where the scope of EP’s inquiry stops.

For some it would stop at the top of the biosphere – that’s about 200 kilometres, right? – even if our planet was not anthropic, or anthropic but as yet uninhabited by humans, or anthropic but no longer inhabited by humans. These are the crazies. They’re the people who’d mourn the extinction of the human race only because then trees would have no one to hug them. These are the dangerous people. They’re dangerous because if they thought the trees would be better off without us – and let’s face it, they probably would – these people would wipe us out without a second thought the moment they found the wherewithal.

LESSION #3: ITS ETHOS

 Fortunately – not for the trees obviously, but for the rest of us – the crazies are few and far between. Most EPers confine their interests to the one world we know is inhabited by humans, and because it’s inhabited by humans. But even here there’s a palpable split between those who think of us as being merely on the world, and those who think of us being of it. On the former view we’re alien invaders. Even if technically native to the planet, we’re like the Morlock, having recently crawled up from some cavern deep under the earth’s crust.

On this view our task is plunder, albeit plunder constrained by principles of husbandry. And it’s that constraint which, as we’re about to see, renders this first view indistinguishable from the second. But only from the outside. From the inside, that’s to say phenomenologically, the two are as night and day, because they have completely different vocabularies by which to say the same thing.

For example, only on the second view are we as much a natural part of our biosphere as the trees, the frogs, and the lichen. As we’re assured by the “Desiderata”, “[we] have a right to be here.” And so on this view EP is the study of our rightful place in the natural order. Here there can be no suggestion that we’re acting contra natura, because nothing can act contrary to its nature; otherwise it wouldn’t have been its nature.

There’s no fact of the matter as to which of these two conceptions is correct. But there is a fact of the matter about which is the more useful perspective to adopt. If I’m an SS officer in Warsaw, or an IDF soldier in the West Bank, it would be unseemly to expect a great deal of cooperation from the people over whose lives I’m running roughshod. But if I shed the uniform and my sidearm, apologize for my past intrusions, and ask to be accepted, if only provisionally, into the Polish or Palestinian community, I might be pleasantly surprised. And if I cast my lot in with the Poles or Palestinians, even if against my erstwhile own, I might be more pleasantly surprised still.

This is precisely the state of mind that dominates the Sane Wing of the environmentalist movement. It doesn’t naively abandon the view of “nature red in tooth and claw”. It inserts itself into nature, from whence it had always been in the first place. It accepts, as Val Plumwood once remarked, that we too are food. And it doesn’t require, as some have insisted, that we now become submissives. We can still walk upright and tall, but gingerly. Not with mincing steps, but with footfalls carefully placed nonetheless.

LESSION #4: ITS THEOLOGY

 If we have a right to be here, then so does everything else. And this talk of rights is not, for the Sane Wing EPer (or SWEPer), just a facon de parler. She thinks of her world, and of herself, as being governed by laws of nature, laws of physics and chemistry, certainly, but also by some kind of moral natural law. The so-called lower animals follow these laws by instinct, but humans have to discover them. So there’s no contradiction in supposing both that a) we cannot act but according to our nature, and b) we sometimes act contrary to the moral law.

This idea that there are moral laws, and hence duties incumbent upon us independent of having been posited by some sovereign or community of sovereigns, is pulled out of the environmentalist’s ass. How did it get there? you ask? Well, you get pregnant by sitting on a toilet after a man’s peed there. So you must get moral natural law up your ass by sitting on a pew in church. There’s simply no other way it could have got up there. And once you’ve got the moral law in hand – you might want to give it a rinse first – you’ve just assigned purposivity to the cosmos. How so? Because if there’s no answer to the question, “What do we want the law to do for us?”, there’s no answer to the question, “Why should we obey it?”

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that at the very core of the SWEPer’s weltanschauung is an oft unrecognized but ineluctable theological commitment. She may not believe in God, but she sure as hell believes in teleology, and in herself being duty bound to fulfill that telos. She is, in short, a Thomist. And from her Thomism we get the predictable litany of stupidities philosophers qua philosophers have always railed against.

Why, then, do they suddenly get stupid when teaching a course in EP? I think it has something to do with what makes them volunteer to teach EP in the first place. Analytic philosophy is a blood sport. “If you want to bleat about ‘justice as fairness’,” we tell them – well, okay, I tell them – “or about a learning environment safe from feeling offended, take it outside!” In short, analytic philosophers come across as assholes, because, well, we are. But EP, not unlike Women’s Studies or Feminist Ethics, is this outside invited back in. It’s a time out. It’s an opportunity to show the kinder side of philosophy, and so to be thought more kindly of. It’s self-promotion. Speaking of which, this is why it takes them a full semester to teach what I can in twenty-three minutes. You are timing me, right?

But I digress. We’re talking about stupidities. Let’s start with …

LESSON #5: NATURAL KINDS

 Here’s the argument that’s driving our intuitions:

  1. A turkey is best carved at the joints.
  2. If it didn’t by its nature have joints, it couldn’t be best carved at them. So
  3. turkeys have natural joints.
  4. Turkeys are part of the world. Therefore
  5. the world has natural joints. That is, even if turkeys were the only constituents of the world that had natural joints, the distinction between things that do and do not have natural joints would itself be a natural joint. So since, cf. (5) the world has joints,
  6. the world can be carved at its joints.

Now it might be supposed there’s some equivocation here, and there is. But only because it’s trying to be pithy. That pithiness is not enough to undermine the soundness of the argument were it more carefully formulated. So yes, the world has joints. If you bend it it’ll break at some places but not others. And that’s just what we mean by having joints. Now let’s see about kinds.

The world is not an amorphous mass of atoms in the void. There are regularities in the configurations of these atoms. Were this not so, then save by the perpetual grace of some mother hen God, we couldn’t live in this world. But we do. We survive, in fact flourish, by noting these regularities in our environment and exploiting them. And these regularities are what we call natural kinds. So, for example, a turkey is a token of one natural kind, a stick a token of another. What makes us think so? Because tokens of the type turkey can be used for one thing, tokens of the type stick for something else.

Some discussants get hung up on the word ‘natural’, which they rightly take to be distinguishing natural regularities from artificed ones. A toaster performs as reliable a function for us as a tree, but whereas “only God can make a tree”, only Tim Horton’s can toast the perfect bagel. So a toaster is a token of a kind, though not a natural one. Now we just need to know whether a regularity that is of no use to us can be, though natural, not a token of a kind. And the answer is clearly yes.

Think of all the things that are artificed and yet not tokens of a kind. This pen is a token of a kind, as is this sock. But this-pen-and-this-sock is not a token of a kind. If it were then the kind of which it is a token would have a name, because the regularity it betokens would have a function for us which would have behooved us to give it one.

All the more so, then, must this be so of natural useless regularities. If we want to say that every useless natural regularity is also a natural kind, then we have to find a way to define a regularity independent of its possible use. But that, as any information theorist will tell you, can’t be done. And because it can’t be done, and yet we want to be realists about natural kinds, every configuration of atoms in the void will count as a token of a natural kind, and then the concept of a natural kind will cease to do any work. So it follows as a matter of logic, never mind of metaphysics, that there are no natural natural kinds, and any non-natural natural kinds there might be owe their being a natural kind exclusively to us.

Or, to put the case another way, if there are x atomics, there are a set number of ways those x atomics can be configured. If, over the course of their existence, a small subset of those atomics are configured the same way twice, that configuration is a regularity. Given the number of atomics, and the sheer size of the universe, that’s likely to be a helluva lot of regularities. In fact what would astonish would be if there were a subset of those atomics that didn’t configure the same way twice in the course of their existence. So there might not be anything left that isn’t a token of a natural kind. But if there’s nothing that isn’t a token of some kind, it’s being what it is isn’t very interesting.

Hence natural kinds, if they’re anything at all, are just one of those meaningless dozen or so postulates I referred to in Lesson #1. Call me Torquemada if you will, but I say consign that kind of patter to the flames!

LESSON SIX: REVIEW

Since I promised twenty-thee minutes, let’s save ourselves some time. Without natural kinds we can’t get the concept of life, without the concept of life we can’t get the concept of species, and without the concept of species we can’t get notions like equilibrium, sustainability, extinction … the list goes on and on and on. In other words, EP can’t have a domain of discourse. And if it can’t have a domain of discourse, there’s nothing for it to talk about.

How do we salvage it? By dropping all pretense at realism and acknowledging that all these terms – animate versus inanimate, speciation, equilibrium, sustainability – they’re all about us, about our needs and druthers, about the way we need to carve up the world and manipulate it, given our aspirations to survive and flourish in it.

But in the service of these ends we already have carved these concerns up into their various disciplines: the natural sciences, ethics, economics, political sciences, and so on. So by all means keep EP, but keep it as one of those fluffy liberal education interdisciplinary touchstone courses. You know, like Lib Ed 1000. What’s it called again? Ah yes, “Getting in Touch with Yourself”.

Good grief! Or in the words of Ebenezer Scrooge, “I shall retire to Bedlam!”

Okay, time! I make it twenty-two minutes, eighteen seconds. Forty-two seconds to spare. I feel like I’m on a roll. Phil of Science? Phil of Mind? Bring ‘em on! Bring ‘em all on!

Or maybe not. What if T.S. Eliot was wrong? What if the world doesn’t end with a whimper, but with brevity?

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