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.