Some propositions on ecology and philosophy

For the past several years I have (very slowly) worked on a manuscript on ecology, its major scientific principles and discoveries, and their implications for philosophy, politics, economics, religion, and culture. It’s been such slow going that I wrote, and completed two entire novels at the same time. Part of the reason it’s been slow going is because: every time I come up with what I think is a really good idea, I do me due diligence research and discover someone else thought it up already. (Which, sub specie aeternitatis, is a good thing: it means the idea is already out there, inspiring people hopefully for the better.) Also, the state of the science is moving very quickly: I started the work before the discovery of mother trees and mycorrizal networks in forests, and before the discovery of a giant and ancient ecosystem dwelling five kilometers below the surface of the earth and as large as the oceans. So I end up starting all over again.

Panorama from a lookout on King Mountain trail, Gatineau Park, August 2018.

Here are a few of the notes I’ve made in the last few weeks. I post them here in the hope that some of you might see something in them that I haven’t seen, and that you might point me in new directions.

Ecology against fascism.

  1. Ecology is the science of living relationships.
  2. As a science of living relationships, its principles and aims are fundamentally contrary to the principles and aims of fascism – as fascism is the assertion, in the political arena, of fictitious essences (ie. of human nature, of human races, of genders, of cultural purity, of national destiny, etc), and the assertion of the necessity of separation, subordination, and conquest of the bearers of one essence by the bearers of another.

Ecology and the Design Argument.

  1. A conclusive finding made by the science of ecology: there is no such thing as (long term consistent) stability, balance, or harmony in the world of nature. Everything in nature is in transition.
  2. Given the truth of (1), it follows that the Design argument for the existence of God, insofar as it depends on the findings of the science of ecology, is unsound.
  3. From (2) it could follow that there is no God.
  4. Or, it could follow that most of us have profoundly wrong ideas about the divine. For example, God might not be the omniscient, omnipotent, monotheistic God presupposed (sought? affirmed?) in the Design argument. God might be many (polytheism), or immanent (panentheism), or a changing thing (process theology), or something else. What, if anything, does ecology teach about the divine?

Six propositions from a purely utilitarian and anthropocentric view.

The field of environmental philosophy provides some obvious answers to one of the root questions of philosophy: ‘what is good?’. To make things simple, let’s set aside, for the moment, any discussion about how landscapes may have intrinsic value, or how animals and plants might have rights, or how an expanded concept of the self could include our surrounding landscapes and ecologies. Let’s look at only the answers that come from a purely utilitarian, purely anthropocentric view, of environmental ethics.

With that in mind, it should be clear that things like:

1. clean air to breathe,

and

2. clean water for drinking, cleaning, and cooking,

are objectively good. I’m following philosopher John McMurtry’s conception of ‘objective good’ here, in which something is good insofar as deprivation of that thing leads to loss of life-capacities for thinking, feeling, and acting, up to and including loss of life itself. There might be more things to go on that list, but I’m keeping it simple for now.

Given the objective goodness of air and water, we can draw the conclusion that:

3. An ecology and biome surrounding one’s community, of sufficient stability and biodiversity to provide a reliable supply of clean air and water,

and

4. A system of economics and politics which regulates the community’s extractions from and impacts upon those ecologies and biomes, to keep them within local and global carrying capacities,

are, at the very least, instrumentally good. They are necessary for our continued possession of the objective goods of air and water, without which we are all dead.

But most people don’t draw that conclusion. Or, it might be more accurate to say that our politics and economics, and indeed our culture, on the whole, behaves as if:

5. Those goods described in 3 and 4 are merely nice things to have, and that no serious consequences follow from harming them.

The evidence for 5 can be seen in, for example, the way that international climate protection agreements, such as the Paris Agreement (2016), are unenforceable: there are no legally prescribed penalties for parties who violate its aims. And in the time since international agreements like it have been drafted and signed to much media fanfare, the global climate instability-disaster has continued, leading to the destabilization and destruction of human-life-supporting ecosystems and landscapes all over the earth.

Now, as far as I’m concerned, the logic in all that discussion is impeccable. There could be more to say to strengthen it, but I think the point is clear enough. It leads me to the following questions: Why does that happen? Why does culture, economics, and politics, on the whole, behave as if 5 is a truth so obvious it does not require serious examination?

It might be that people believe:

6. There will always be enough air and water. Ecologies and biomes are always robust and complex enough to survive whatever extractions and impacts we impose on them.

And that therefore, principle 4 is not necessary.

But as anyone who has studied ecology will know, principle 6 is false. We can run out of clean air and clean water. And we can, in fact, die, if we do not acknowledge that fact.

But what should we do about the widespread non-acknowledgement of that fact? That’s the question that has been nagging me for pretty much all my adult life.

Green Selves, Green Social Contracts

As a matter of practical and observable reality: the ‘greening of the self’, promoted and promised by the environmentalist movement, has not in fact occurred. For the reason that: despite widespread and popular environmental initiatives such as civic recycling programs, renewable energy developments, environmental education in schools, etc., the climate of the earth is more unstable now than it was 30 years ago, and the climate is shifting toward instability with increasing momentum, to the point that large regions of Earth will very likely be uninhabitable for human and animal life by the year 2100.

That proposition gives me no pleasure. I can clearly see how the idea of the green self inspires artistic creativity, ethical changes in economic and interpersonal behavior, ethical virtues like cooperation, compassion, empathy, frugality, temperance (sophrosyne), global vision, and political action, in those who have accepted it. It is a beautiful idea. Were I to reject this idea, I might hamper the environmental movement, and I might unnecessarily distress people who are committed to it. A revision or replacement of the green self has to be just as beautiful.

Instead of a green self: a green social contract? Along the lines proposed by Naomi Klein’s Leap Manifesto, or by Polly Higgins’ Mission Life Force, or Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal. I wish I had thought of ideas like these. Sometimes I feel like I’m being left behind.

And another thing!

What does ‘stability’ mean? In the second argument above, I said it doesn’t exist in nature, yet in the fourth argument I framed it as an instrumental good, and in the fifth argument I implied that its opposite, instability, is bad. This might be inconsistent. Lots to think about here.


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