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?


  1. Hi Kevin and thank you for such an interesting letter and for allowing me to contribute a few thoughts. I’m doing so in two comment submissions – as per my usual I’ve gone on too long … I hear you acknowledging the value of a participatory approach generally before questioning not whether pragmatism might be a functional tool, but whether pragmatism might not be a functional tool for conservation biologists. I hear you questioning whether the kind of shift from scientific "fact finding" (forgive my lay-woman’s term) to truth seeking in a discursive forum, as a pragmatic model would require, is the right path for science to take. Ultimately, I think the authors Maris and Bechet make a series of assumptions that they lay out in the phase description beginning on p. 971 that undermine their project and confirm your skepticism.

    But first, to the question of whether a philosophical approach is right for science is in my mind, the primary resistance and the understandable tension between science and philosophy (especially postmodern philosophy). The notion that truth is, as our mutual colleague noted, made and not located shifts the definition of truth to something that is in conflict with the scientific project. Put another way, in the postmodern philosophical context truth is a concept with no center - it is an idea subject to constant shift and its myriad definitions along with it, which means it is no "Truth" at all. I also hear your exasperation when – again our mutual colleague – writes "Philosophy cannot vouchsafe the norms inherent in any practice outside of philosophy" as you wonder then what the hell is the use of philosophy at all? Yeah, fair point and one that has plagued philosophy and philosophers since ideas split into disciplines and science adopted a method of its own. The primary way that philosophy has maintained some purchase in the scientific discourse is due to the idea that the scientific method is bookended by the philosophical method.

    Heresy! Oh hells yes...

    Empirical data collection doesn't emerge in a vacuum but first a mind (not exhumed from, but as one part of the sensual human condition) has to be drawn to an inquiry, has to draw the parameters of that inquiry based on the desire to discover one thing or another about the physical world. These elements of drawing towards, of desire have no relationship to the type of objectivity that science is premised upon. But going past that there is as you point out, "the mechanism of DNA replication." But here again, this event (is that the right way to think of it?) has to be interpreted, given meaning and brought about in language. All of which brings us again into the philosophical domain including perspective, ethics, emphasis, coercion, manipulation, bias and on and on. So while philosophy, particularly the discursive method of pragmatism, can't/won't protect the truth or process of any other discipline, it seems always to have a seat at the table because every other discipline including science which understands truth and fact as discoverable aspects of the world through its method, is a discipline brought about in the context of the human condition and the human condition is the concern of philosophers, whatever their area of emphasis.

  2. Cont … You ask whether, "the only valid project for philosophy is to undermine philosophy's traditional claims of metaphysical or ethical truth" and you go on to wonder whether if society became enamored with dictatorships and fascism then is it still true that, "philosophy would not have much to say?” So to your first question, the postmodern project does work towards destabilizing truth, even metaphysical and ethical truth insofar as it/ (I'll go ahead and throw myself under the bus here and say) we understand truth to be something that is emergent and as Rorty suggests, it is created in the swamp of the human condition or in the lifework of a people rather than discovered whole in an objective state. As soon as we begin pointing out truth with certainty and locating it in certain communities, within particular disciplinary or societal boundaries, then we invoke a universal style of truth that can't be extracted from dynamics of power and ultimately (at least ultimately as history shows us) hegemony. What philosophy doesn't propose to do (at least not since the Enlightenment) is to export its truths, its ethical certainties etc. Rather, with an eye towards the type of imperialistic and colonialist legacy that this kind of exportation implies, philosophy (or at least some of its more recent work) has more recently become about recognizing the amorphous nature of nature and navigating it for - as you so beautifully state, "meaning and purpose" rather than mining it for truth and certainty.

    To your comment that, it is a "tough pill" and it leaves us on very unstable ground. This is, of course the point, that postmodern philosophy understands all of these issues (including scientific issues) to be endlessly unstable. It is not, some believe, a matter of firming up the ground but rather of entering the world differently, recognizing that stability is (as Foucault would say) a chimera and the only truth that we can hope to achieve is subject to culture.

    Our colleague noted that the only thing conservation biology can do to insure its "normative potency" is to solve the problems of concern to conservation biology but to think that pragmatism can be used as a method to do this work is in conflict with a philosophical refusal to colonize other fields with its methods. And this was where I read the authors of the original paper to be thinking of pragmatism as more of a back-end style than a method to be integrated into the scientific process. I think you were going towards this when in your letter you wrote, "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." I think the authors agree without saying so insofar as they are proposing that conservation biology, once it identifies a course of action that it collectively determines to be right (and this determination is more of an empirical alignment of a series of discovered truths towards an objective common to the community of conservation biologists, than it is a deliberative resolution) then the community of conservation biology would put this determination out for discussion as a means of illuminating for the broader (lay) community how conservation biologists have come to their decision. They do this also in order to get buy-in and consensus not about what scientists should do but to get consensus that what scientists have already determined to do deserves broad community support. To imagine that scientists are going to integrate the full measure of a pragmatic approach including all this business of truth as a fallacy is unreasonable. No, I see them wanting to demonstrate that they're using "philosophy" to give the appearance of democratizing their process.

    Your thoughts, my friend?