Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Give and take

A philosopher with a special interest in the American pragmatist movement (a friend of a friend) had some very eye-opening and thoughtful comments regarding my draft letter on pragmatism and conservation biology. After spending some time with his comments, I have tentatively concluded that my initial qualms about the pragmatist movement are mostly unfounded. I am still reading Bryan Norton’s work, “Searching for Sustainability: An Interdisciplinary Philosophy of Conservation Biology”, so I will hold off on a further discussion of environmental pragmatism for now. This post is an attempt to reconcile my own personal beliefs and experiences with something (perhaps?) akin to Rorty’s (neo?)pragmatism.

This philosopher made the claim that “Philosophy cannot vouchsafe the norms inherent in any practice outside of philosophy”, which was startling and somewhat upsetting to me- which makes it a great starting point for a conversation! I will try to lay out my current understanding of this statement, which comes after some email exchanges with another friend (check out her blog!). Conservation biologists do conservation biology, philosophers do philosophy. Not to say that we can only live and behave as part of one group/community- it’s just that our own particular community of inquirers plays its own language-games which define our goals and give meaning/affirmation to our actions. The way in which we perceive ourselves as conscious acting beings in the world- our own ethical or moral truths- are created as some amalgam of our human intelligence, our environment, and our social milieu. In some very real way, our own personal beliefs and convictions are “gifted” to us in large part by our social environment- our parents, colleagues, mentors and friends. Our sense of place and belonging is rooted in our sense of community as well as our perception of the physical world in which we live. In my draft letter on environmental pragmatism, I voiced an idea (which, looking back, I believe I came from my reading of Ayn Rand) that ethical “truth” only exists or has meaning at a personal, individual level. I am forced to concede that this idea may be pretty flimsy, if we recognize that our ideas of meaning and self worth are built through community and socialization. I can hold deep personal convictions and I can be willing to die for a cause, but my life’s work, the goals towards which all of my actions are directed, does not necessarily have meaning outside my environment, my society and my peers- the people who affirm my existence. Without social affirmation of my existence and my convictions, I am an outcast, a lunatic, a sociopath. The idea of complete isolation from human contact- or worse, complete detachment and inability to connect with those in our society – is profoundly distressing to a human being. So, conservation biologists can flourish by doing work that is valued by conservation biologists, by bringing others into the conservation fold, and by having new ideas or theories affirmed and respected by the conservation community. Philosophy cannot tell the conservation biologist how to act specifically, but perhaps can only ground the conservation biologist in some ideas about the larger limitations and possibilities of being human.

Somehow I still have a 20th century mindset, in that my litmus test for every ethic and philosophy is to question whether it may lead logically to fascism. And I feel like every philosophy that does not acknowledge Lockean natural rights can be used to justify fascism at least in some special cases. But perhaps we can affirm our socially-created nature and still affirm the importance of individualism. At least we can (weakly) state that rigid fascism tends to limit the power of the individual to participate in the creation of meaning for ourselves and others, which may represent our only means of flourishing as human beings.  Even as we acknowledge our debt to our parents and forefathers and friends, we should be free to participate and care for our family/community, to participate in creating teleological frameworks. Once we acknowledge that we are not born fully-formed but are pieces of work forged over years by our environmental and social and historical contingencies, we may also affirm that we are an important part of a living, evolving project that is larger than ourselves. We exercise power by acting upon our convictions and influencing the convictions of others. We exercise power by influencing the evolution of social structures, guiding the progress of our children as they become functional adults. I wonder if this is really what Aristotle was talking about in his “Rhetoric”. We will be successful human beings if we can, within our society or group of peers, influence their actions and convictions.  Perhaps flourishing as a human being means exerting our power of creation- of influencing the social structures that in turn create people. Life is a big, grand, give and take.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Environmental pragmatism

Note: This draft letter is in response to a recent article in Conservation Biology, and I'm debating whether to submit it to the editor...

Title: Environmental pragmatism: a useful philosophical paradigm for conservation biology?

In an essay in the most recent edition of Conservation Biology, Maris and Bechet (2010) suggest that conservation biologists might profitably adopt the philosophical framework of “environmental pragmatism”. Originating with the works of early 20th century American thinkers William James, John Dewey, and Charles Sanders Peirce, the philosophical school of pragmatism teaches that the set of theories and knowledge we call “truth” is fallible and context-specific (Norton 2003). According to the pragmatist school, there are no inherent truths or intrinsic values; those theories and ideas which are most useful and time-tested for collectively solving our problems or dilemmas are the closest approximations we have to the “truth”. Borrowing from Darwin, pragmatists hold that the “fittest” scientific and normative theories in a given social and historical context thrive at the expense of less-useful theories (Norton 2003). Whereas scientific theories rise and fall based on a transparent process of collecting and interpreting available data, normative theories rise and fall based on transparent and democratic discussion of what serves a useful purpose and what doesn’t. The influential neo-pragmatist Richard Rorty once claimed that “the ultimate good is continued conversation”, implying that our context-specific ethical “truths” can only be uncovered through democratic, town-meeting-style social interchange. Maris and Bechet (2010) seem to echo Rorty’s sentiment by proposing a framework (“adjustive management”) in which the ethical foundations of management plans as well as the management strategies themselves would be adjusted over time via transparent, objective, and democratic social interchange. As Norton (2003) and others such as Maris and Bechet (2010) have noted, the pluralist and practical focus of environmental pragmatism is well-suited for bringing diverse stakeholders together to focus on real environmental issues. These authors have made a compelling case for environmental pragmatism as a useful philosophical framework for conservation biology. My intention is not to promote an alternative to pragmatism as a philosophical foundation for conservation biology, but rather to explore the broader implications of pragmatism for conservation biology and to catalyze further discussion of the ethical underpinnings of our field.

First of all, denial of a priori normative truth or intrinsic value may be problematic in a field dedicated “to advance[ing] the science and practice of conserving the Earth’s biological diversity” (exerpted from the Society for Conservation Biology code of ethics). To many conservation biologists, the normative conviction that conservation of biological diversity is a meaningful and worthwhile human activity may seem inherent and beyond dispute. By adopting pragmatist notions of truth, conservation biologists must re-evaluate the centrality of our conservation ethic and adjust our worldview to accommodate shifting sociopolitical structures, changing scientific paradigms, and altered physical realities (e.g., the end of cheap oil). To circumvent this problem, Norton (2003) reinterpreted classical pragmatism to suggest that normative truth must favor sustainability. Under Norton’s environmental pragmatism, “truth is that which prevails in the long run” (as Aldo Leopold quoted from pragmatist Arthur Twining Hadley), which can be interpreted to mean that truth is that which is sustainable. This is a compelling notion, but other philosophical pragmatists might question whether we can ever predict the future well enough to define what practices are sustainable and to know how future humans may define sustainability (exactly what must be sustained? 20th century prosperity? Human life?). To continue the evolutionary metaphor, our power to predict future normative values and scientific theories and paradigms mirrors our ability to predict what life forms will inhabit the earth ten million years from now. I question whether it is possible to adopt environmental pragmatism as a foundational framework for conservation practice while ensuring that conservation of biodiversity retains its normative potency. If deliberate, transparent, and democratic social interchange were to indicate that biodiversity loss is not a primary collective concern, would it be acceptable to marginalize the field of conservation biology?

On the other hand, the pluralist nature of philosophical pragmatism is surely a necessity in our globalized world. As novelist Chinua Achebe poignantly stated, “Diversity is not an abnormality but the very reality of our planet. The human world manifests the same reality ... Civility is a sensible attribute in this kind of world we have; narrowness of heart and mind is not”. A pragmatist concept of science and ethics may help us find solutions for specific conservation problems (e.g., Maris and Bechet’s example of managing populations of sacred ibis in England), and this would be no small achievement. However, even as conservation biologists make fruitful use of pragmatic concepts such as Maris and Bechet’s “adjustive management”, we may choose not to wholeheartedly accept the pragmatist worldview.

Anthropologist Margaret Mead famously exclaimed, "Never underestimate that a small group of dedicated people can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." Emphasizing the power of strong personal conviction to effect social change, Mead’s sentiment gives hope to those idealists among us who dream of a better world. To successfully participate in a social transformation, Mead’s quotation suggests, one must hold deep convictions, rooted in personal experience, inspiration and individual creativity. Unfortunately, the pragmatist “ideal” of context-specific, democratically-derived collective values seems to be in direct conflict with those who holddeep personal convictions as “truth”. Although “true belief” (especially “fundamentalist” religious belief) properly has been criticized for justifying violence, segregation and intolerance (see Dawkins 2006), I think many would agree that life would be much less interesting without people with strong beliefs. Many conservation biologists are particularly moved by the writings of men and women of strong conviction such as Edward Abbey, Garrett Hardin, Roderick Nash, Wendell Berry and modern-day thinkers like David Ehrenfeld and John Terborgh. What is most dangerous about strong conviction is not the belief itself but the chauvinistic conceit that other beliefs or values are necessarily wrong. As novelist Salman Rushdie said, “… when there is conflict between the liberty of speech and the beliefs of private individuals, the liberty of speech must always take precedence. Because otherwise every other liberty, including freedom of religious observance, is put into question …The world should be a place in which people debate fiercely from well-argued and thought-out but different positions." The pluralism espoused by pragmatists may coexist with strong personal convictions, but I question whether men and women with strong convictions can accept that truth exists at the societal level rather than at the personal level. And, if they cannot accept this fundamental pragmatist notion -- if the thinkers with the most power to turn hearts and minds in favor of wildlife conservation are inherently unable to fully adopt the pragmatist worldview -- is environmental pragmatism a tenable philosophy for conservation biology?

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Thoughts on Pantheism

Libertarian pantheist philosopher Tony Flood (check out his blog) thinks that God is real, but that s/he is completely feckless, a blob of intense compassion and nothing more. Flood has said,

“I have come to accept that the all-knowing and all-loving lure of the cosmos lacks any coercive physical power. For me, asking why God couldn't prevent an earthquake is almost like asking why you couldn't. (Almost, because you at least have some coercive physical power [albeit insufficient for preventing tectonic shift], but God has none [not even enough to lift a pebble].) If mainstream theists cannot imagine worshiping such a deity, that says more about them than it does about what it takes for something to be God.”
This is an interesting notion, but to me this perspective on God and pantheism is simply too abstract to be compelling. I am not a pantheist, as I seem to more identify with philosopher Slavoj Zizek’s notion that the “universe is stupid”. In a sense, this view could be considered the exact opposite of pantheism, as the pantheist’s central claim is that the universe and God are one and the same. But I cannot believe the universe is all-knowing and all-loving, an infinite sink of love and mercy. The universe is not compassionate, nature is not merciful. Like Bertrand Russell said, the earth will one day be engulfed by the sun, and every human endeavor will be wiped away without a trace. Forever gone, and the universe will care not a whit. Pantheism, said Dawkins, is a “sexed-up atheism”. And in a way I see his point. The modern liberal, positivist (pantheist?) project wishes for people to place their faith and good works into solving global warming and reversing environmental destruction, erasing cultural identity and superstition so that people may worship the scientific truth of nature, restoring the external, non-human world to its natural state, unmarred by grubby human hands.

How can Tony Flood consider himself both as Rothbardian anarcho-libertarian and pantheist? Doesn’t the pantheist worldview require one to give up his individualism for the good of the universe? If the universe is God, are you not beholden to protect her? Do not the ends (protecting God) justify the means, even if the means involve crushing human individuality? Or is God so feckless and abstract that any amount of ecological destruction and warfare is beyond his purview? In which case, I don’t really see the point of even believing or caring about this God.

On the other hand, if the universe is stupid as philosopher Slavoj Zizek claims, and all human works will one day be destroyed for all eternity, all memories wiped clean, what is the point of living? I take comfort in Arisotle's notion that we are put on earth for the purpose of fulfilling our human potential.  We must live to our potential, flourish as best we can, live out our lives as it must be lived according to the rules we accept for ourselves. Whatever God is, his spirit lives inside each one of us. When the human story is over, when vertical cultural exchange is no more, then God is dead. But we would do well to cherish every moment that God is with us. We would do well to fight for our own ability to flourish as human beings: to have relationships, conversations, raise children, choose our own irrational loves.

Many tea-partiers tend to favor a reduction in the power of government because they would rather obey their God (in the form of organized churches and parishes) instead. I do not belong to any organized religious group, yet I strongly subscribe to this same argument. If God is just an abstract notion of the aggregate of individual human spirits, coercive bureaucracies are in direct opposition to God.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Return to the Garden

I can't seem to shake the idea, voiced by philosopher Slavoj Zizek, that the "universe is stupid".  Somehow it rings true.  The universe is cruel and harsh and unloving. If any of us really walked in truth, lived in the universe as it really is, we would probably go insane. Truth is no place for human beings. We feed on stories, myths, and traditions that create meaning from the barrage of symbols and raw data we glean from our environment, our culture, and the architecture of our impossibly complex brains. Our stories require that other human beings love us, not for who we really are (reality, after all, is stupid), but for our shared stories (you are my wife, I am your husband/lover). Like any story, we need a central cast of characters, a main purpose, side-stories, adventures, dramas, villains and heroes. The wonderful part of living is that we have some control over our own story. We can create ourselves from meaningless ashes out of the mysteries of our imagination. All of this isn't to say that reality doesn’t matter, exactly. We need to eat real food with real calories. We need to excrete waste matter, we need to keep ourselves warm and dry. Sure we all live in reality, and to this extent we are machines that consume energy and release waste energy. To the extent that we are base and uninteresting, we live in reality. But to the extent that we are more than base machines, we must go beyond simple reality.

As conservationists, what are we really saving then? If the universe is uninteresting with a heart that is incomprehensible and unloving, why do we care about Mother Nature at all? Why do we care, besides the role she plays in providing land and climate to grow food, materials with which to build, processes to clean and rid our wastes? Why do we care about wilderness, besides the base “ecological service” roles it may play in cleaning our own industrial pollutants etc.? The only reason that I can come up with, the only reason that rings true for me right now, is that Mother Nature and her wilderness matter to the extent that we make wilderness and non-human nature a part of our own private narratives. If we care about places that are landscaped by the life-giving force of planet earth, then these places matter. Really we are no different than gardeners, tending to our little pieces of the Earth. We conservationist-gardeners don’t often plant our gardens (although mangement plans may include translocation or introduction of desirable species), but we tend them just the same- by protecting them, by managing them, by eradicating alien invasive species (weeding), or just by imparting our own irrational love upon them (love is irrational, by definition).

Does this mean that industrial miners, farmers, and foresters are fundamentally no different from conservationists? I have a hard time calling an industrial farm or forestry/mining operation a garden, even though these operations represent plots of land that give humans something in return. There is a world of difference between "extracting" and "tending-to".  Gardens must be tended-to, watered with loving intent by human hands. Gardens are plots that give us something beautiful in return for our love: color, light, places of reflection, a sense of purpose, a sense of self. With a garden, it's the totality of place that is the object of love -- the air, the sky, the smells, the sounds -- and not just the resource that is extracted.  Everyone that holds a plot of land in his heart is a gardener.

University a-la-carte

I am not a fan of public education, which just seems to institutionalize mediocrity. Young men and women have awesome natural energy that can and should be funneled into extra-ordinary learning. As others have noted, children are learning machines by default, and we are doing just about everything we can to extinguish their inherent willingness to engage in the world of their fathers and mothers and heroes and mentors. To learn, children must want to become a functional contributing adult, and public education has successfully managed to turn coming-of-age into a dull and thankless chore. I think there is a great need for a free market in education. It seems to me that undergraduate education, and perhaps even high school education, is best left decentralized. David Ricardo theorized that free trade allows for greater overall cost-efficiency and quality of goods because –to take a minor example -- some places are more fit for growing flour and other places are more fit for making bagels (for example). Similarly, why require that each university is a jack-of-all-trades, master of none, offering courses they may not be well-equipped to offer.

Why not change the educational paradigm and tear down the institutional boundaries that hold students as captive wards. Under the new paradigm universities, rather than holding students (wards) captive on campus for four years, will serve as home to professional mentors and “accreditors” who network with educational programs all around the world to give each student a personalized, high-quality education. Universities will continue to serve as home to scholar/teachers who conduct research and actively advance their fields. But students at each home university will travel all around the country, around the world even, taking classes or participating in apprenticeships that are first vetted by the university. All the while, the professional mentors and accreditors at the student’s home university will work to ensure that they are granting credits for valid programs- even to the point of traveling around to see these programs in action much like a professional scout in major league baseball. Each course or apprenticeship will have a price tag of course, but home universities will work with their partner organizations to facilitate payments and make sure that they are getting their money’s worth. Scholarships in this framework will consist of special accounts set up at the student’s home university, which they and their mentors must determine how to spend.

Highly-specialized institutions will spring up – institutions that are superb at meeting their stated educational mission, and do so at great value. For instance: institutions that specialize in introductory biology laboratories, to which students are shipped from all over the country (and even all around the world) for a semester or so of top-notch biological laboratory experience. Or, students might spend a year at a top-notch language institution in which they are immersed in language and culture for a year (such programs already exist and tend to be very effective). And although this paradigm seems most suited to vocational training and specialized coursework, I think it could even benefit students interested in a solid liberal-arts education.  Students could choose to remain at a single institution for four years if they and their mentors agreed, but they may also choose to spend "a la carte" semesters studying civil war history in Virginia, another studying philosophy at a mountain retreat in Colorado. Under this paradigm, motivated college students will become more immediately immersed in the world, and college itself will be more supple and individualized.  College will be about growing up and learning to thrive as an adult.  
One problem I can see with this new educational paradigm would be that students would constantly be applying for programs, sending resumes out, etc. In fact, I think the paradigm that I am describing resembles the “study abroad” paradigm of many universities. Top schools are more likely to send their students to the top study abroad programs all around the country, but all students have a shot, and may be able to convince their academic institution to grant credit for a particular program of interest. The home university is involved in easing the process, vetting acceptable study abroad programs, ensuring that a certain number of students from the home university are accepted into that program. The home university advocates for their students, and that is one of the great reasons to wish to attend a renowned university as a home university. In a way, this new paradigm amounts to a permanent study abroad program. Students should not be forced to stay within the same institutional walls for four years. That is a fate best left to prisoners, not the bright minds and skilled hands of the future.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Of wilderness and warriors

Belyaev’s experiments on Russian silver foxes showed that when the foxes were selected for “tameness” they lost their wild type coat with their rich sheen and complex color (check out the video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2t74B6S1kzc). The foxes became mottled, ugly shadows of their flourishing wild type ancestors. They lost their adrenaline – the wildness hormone that fueled their beauty and vigor. And we humans may be in a similar situation. We have domesticated ourselves through our own ingenuity and our own institutions, and we have become ugly, overweight, tamed animals. And now we pine for lack of wilderness, the old growth forests and the expansive skies dotted with buffalo shadows. But perhaps we pine for lack of our own wildness. This is the power of movies like “Fight Club”. This is why many prefer the World of Warcraft to their own humdrum lives. We need more adrenaline, more danger and more excitement in our world. We want to be beautiful warriors once again. We environmentalists and wilderness activists might do well to understand that the outer world is just a reflection of our inner world. We humans are creators in so many ways. We dream our own world into existence- individually and at the community and cultural levels. Sure, we have gained so much by our own self-domestication. Before we dreamed agriculture into existence, villages, communities, laws and universities- before all of this where were we? But if there is no wilderness left within us, there will be no place for wilderness outside of us. We must preserve wilderness, but we must also preserve some of the wilderness within ourselves. We can dream wilderness back into existence. Not that we should join some sort of environmentalist fight club, but maybe we need to walk out into the fire more often, engage ourselves in a frontier where we must fight to protect ourselves and the people and places we love.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Our Little Blue Planet

The symbol for the environmental movement has long been our blue planet Earth as seen from outer space- and I think it's a damn shame. It seems to me the Earth is too large and abstract, too big and impersonal, too dis-embodied, to really love. Not that people can't develop a strong personal connection with a large and abstract entity- take God for example. In religion, love is awe: the love of God is big and mysterious and unknowable- and we must return that love based on faith rather than anything we might receive through our senses. To me, that’s the opposite of what love of nature really is. In love of nature, we come to love through our senses- through our experience of our bodies touching the world around us. Sure, the Earth is a powerful symbol, but disturbing as well. It symbolizes of the meaninglessness of our little lives. It sums up all the great patchwork mess, the geological and biological diversity of the planet, in a single one-ness. But environmentalism to me is expressing a love for a little piece of the Earth, not the planet as a whole. I’d prefer a smaller, more human-scale symbol for my environmental movement. Maybe a child growing a seed in a Dixie cup. Or an old man sitting on a tree stump, deep in thought. Or a kid catching a frog. The Earth-symbol somehow represents to me the environmentalism that treats science as a religion, that treats the word of James Hansen as the word of God. Let’s move towards a more populist environmentalism, and embrace the multitude of environmentalists. The farmers, the gardeners, the landscapers, the hunters, the trappers, the fishermen, the naturalists, the pigeon-fanciers, the ghost dancers, the spirit healers, the shamans, the holy men.