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?