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December 7, 2017

Philosophy Of The Environment 

A conversation with Prof. Casey Haskins, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Purchase College, State University of New York and Stefan Zawistowski, CEO of Mundimex, Inc.

by Mundi

SZ: Prof. Haskins, thank you for accepting our request for an interview that will appear on a Blog at www.mundi.com.

CH: My pleasure. I enjoyed your website very much and think it contributes to the kinds of conversations and changes in energy practices we all need now. 

SZ: Why thank you. This website has been designed in an effort to educate and inform the Green Generation about an effective environmental solution that is available to everyone now and works out of the box. It is ready to be used by those who would like to ‘seize the day’ and be involved in a green initiative of environmental sustainability.

One area of convergence between your professional interests as a practicing philosopher and mine as a practicing environmentalist is our passionate wish to achieve a clean and ecologically wholesome Earth.

Could you tell our readers about the Environmental Philosophy course that you teach at Purchase College?

CH: My course, which I’ve taught for a number of years to students of diverse majors, is called “Philosophy of the Environment.” 

It’s designed to provide intellectual tools for thinking in fresh and potentially transformative ways about the twenty-first-century implications of a  perennial question: What is the relationship of the human species to the rest of nature? 

Or put in more personal terms: What’s the relationship between the whole of nature and me? 

Many world philosophical and spiritual traditions have offered teachings on this subject since ancient times. It’s not just an academics’ question, and it speaks to experiences that all kinds of people have even if they don’t think of themselves as environmentalists or ecologists. 

Suppose you love the beauty of the outdoors even while you also love all the high-tech comforts of being indoors and wonder about whether these values are compatible. 

Or maybe you worry about the rise in our planet’s temperature in light of the solid scientific evidence that it’s caused at least in part by human activities. 

Or what if you can’t fully process how it is that many humans who care about their own species’ rights to decent life and also love certain selected animals as if they were a family while passively accepting the slaughter of other nonhumans who are no less capable of pleasure or pain, for food and other uses.  

We all grow up with certain (usually unexamined) beliefs about these relationships. Not everybody in private and government life today, unfortunately, has had an opportunity to examine those beliefs and their consequences. 

But I’ve found that once you give anybody a space—whether in a classroom, in an old-fashioned face to face conversation or a Post like this one—in which to do that, it’s a reflective process that can make a real difference in what they think feel, and do as people seeking rich and good lives as citizens, and also as consumers.

SZ: What does being a consumer has to do with a person’s relationship to the environment?

CH: Well, we need to remember that being a consumer isn’t a “natural fact” about us. 

The powers that created this planet—whether conceptualized as God, or evolution, or whatever—didn’t ordain in the beginning that the purpose of natural history is to allow everyone to believe they can’t be happy unless they own large gas-guzzling cars, along with all sorts of gadgets powered by fuel resources whose depletion is choking the planet! 

As we hear every day, lots of people who get the full consumer-society upbringing have all of that stuff and still say they aren’t happy. At the same time, there have always been people in the world who as we say “have less” in terms of commodities, while having more in terms of felt connections to human and natural communities, and who report greater life satisfaction. 

This is called the “Easterlin paradox”1. Of course, most of us who have grown up in urban, First World environments (including myself) will never re-invent ourselves as tribespeople or back-to-Earthers. Some self-reinvention projects are psychologically impossible. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t change some of our habits of desiring and buying and living. 

It’s a fascinating fact about human nature that our brains and bodies are compatible with a dramatic variety of scenarios of happiness-pursuit that we owe it to ourselves to learn more about and experiment with. I also have another course on philosophies of happiness from different world traditions that explore this issue.

SZ: Who are some authors or books that address these subjects in ways that your students connect with?

CH: Well, there’s a great book called “The End of Growth: Adapting to our New Economic Reality” by Richard Heinberg that I use in my course. Heinberg is a passionate progressive about environmental politics. 

But regardless of one’s own political views, this book provides a clear framework for the kinds of sober, scientifically informed conversations we urgently need to have and be able to follow now. The book is interesting in the way it derives some good news from the familiar environmentalist theme that the concept of “growth” that has guided our civilization in recent centuries—the idea that growth is primarily economic growth, working hand in hand with the promotion and marketing of technologies that are depleting planetary resources essential for our longer-term survival—is now turning into an instrument of decline. What used to be called progress is now, in one of modern techno-industrial life’s great paradoxes, regress unless some major changes take place.

SZ: Where’s the good news? That sounds like a pretty pessimistic vision of our social and economic world.

CH: But wait– there’s more. Heinberg goes on to suggest that increased public awareness of this “bad news” is forcing an evolution both in our technologies and in our beliefs about how and why to use technology. 

This evolution is providing the basis for a new philosophical concept of growth. 

Growth is now re-envisioned as a complex phenomenon that includes economic development, but it doesn’t, unlike on the older consumeristic model, make such development more central than the life of our organic environment and its under-appreciated influence on human psychology and well-being. 

Growth in this sense is also about human learning. It’s a process in which human beings whose habits of belief and desire have been shaped by a consumeristic worldview learn to find value and beauty in more real-time, natural environment-connected, and local community-based images of what it takes to make a person happy. 

SZ: This sounds like an anti-technological vision of our global future. But is that realistic?

Actually, Heinberg’s argument isn’t a Luddite diatribe against all technology. It aims rather at refining our twenty-first-century vision of which kinds of technology are most worthy of keeping and developing, and which not. 

This is another of those areas where our default mode of thinking is an all-or-nothing, black-or-white terms but where the smart money, so to speak, is on out-of-the-box, third-alternative kinds of solutions. 

If we can’t re-teach ourselves as a species to conceptualize growth and progress and happiness in this way,  we’re  setting ourselves up for a future in which successive generations of consumers remain passively accepting of their dependence on practices that neither make them as happy as they hope nor leave a clean footprint on the planet. 

Another recent book—The Hacking of the American Mind by Robert Lustig—offers an interesting update to this discussion. Lustig argues that we have created a consumeristic system that harnesses the power of certain technologies (including virtually all popular screen devices like televisions and smartphones) to get our brains to crave regular dopamine hits from activities—compulsive texting, email checking, “liking” on Facebook, and so on—that are slowly making it harder for us to care about activities and realities outside this system. 

These technologies, of course, are not all bad  (at this point I, like everyone else I know, have a hard time imagining life without my smartphone and computer). 

But as the ancient myth of Prometheus reminds us, any technology—whether it’s fire or smartphones—can be a force of growth or destruction, depending on how it’s used and on whether the users have the foresight to consider a technology’s impact on the future. And our technologies that have mind-hacking applications in Lustig’s sense are not harmless practices if they form the core of how this species of supposedly advanced primates chooses to spend its time as it moves into the future.           

Speaking of the future, another thing we do in my class is to interpret this discussion through the lens of dystopian science fiction stories about what our planet might be like a few decades or centuries from now if we don’t collectively do some fresh thinking on all the above subjects. One thinks here, for example, of films like Wall-e or The Matrix or the new sequel to  Blade Runner. Certain parts of these stories are all too believable in their depiction of how ecologically exhausted our planet may be soon if we don’t change some of our most cherished consumeristic beliefs now. 

SZ: If that’s a vision of ecological exhaustion, what are some other philosophical ideas that can help us achieve ecological renewal? You’ve emphasized not only our ability to affect the ecological balance in the planet as a whole but also to change our beliefs and ideas. Doesn’t outward change in our ecological practices, then, presuppose a certain ecology within the human mind also?

CH  Absolutely. “The ecology of mind” was, in fact, a favorite phrase of Gregory Bateson, a major 20th-century thinker whose ideas about the interconnectedness of human beings and the rest of the planet are very much in the spirit of where many of our most important multidisciplinary conversations are heading now. 

Bateson’s groundbreaking book “Steps to An Ecology of Mind” had just been published when I had the good luck to take the last class he taught at the University of California-Santa Cruz in the 70’s.

Bateson was a radically holistic thinker about all kinds of things. He contributed to the CoEvolution Quarterly, a pioneering publication produced by the editors of the Whole Earth Catalog. I found particularly fascinating his vision of how the internal dynamics of healthy and pathological processes in human minds (in the 50’s he authored the famous “double bind” theory of schizophrenia) participate in various causal feedback loops with healthy and pathological processes in the larger cultural and natural environment. Here he synthesized ideas drawn from such diverse sources as psychiatry, evolutionary theory, and cybernetics.  

The basic thought here is that how we behave affects how the environment—understood as a cybernetic system– behaves, and vice versa. And just as we use words like “sane” and “insane” to describe persons whose inner cybernetic systems are either in or out of balance, we can, Bateson argued, speak similarly about our many local environments or about the planet as a whole.  One of my favorite quotes from him is a question: 

“What is the pattern that connects the crab to the lobster and the primrose to the orchid, and all of them to me, and me to you?”

SZ: Thank you for the reference, which I am sure is worth checking for further reading.

Speaking of the behavioral pattern, at the super-macro level, human life represents the highest developmental form of life on Earth. The innate Intelligence of Evolution has expended the greatest effort and the longest period of time to arrive at this most elaborate and advanced form of Creation.

For ontological simplicity, I am choosing to leave God out of it here, although a “third vector”, situated between atheism and religion, the spiritual cognizance of the archetypal Man Psyche, or what some prominent philosophers call “panpsychism”2 could be another great subject of discussion for a philosophy buff like me.

When we examine the evidence related to Man’s origin at the cradle of Evolution, we learn that we began humbly from a microbe at the bottom of an Ocean and developed through other (not all) forms of life. This can be simply proven by examining the genes we share with every other living organism.

Interestingly enough, karmic belief warns us that this is exactly what will become of us if we do not practice good intent and deed whilst alive, should we believe in the sustenance of the Law Of Conservation of Energy after our physical disparition.3

This ‘genetic legacy’, if nothing else, should make us co-responsible for those “inferior” forms of life and motivate us to a better husbandry of those other species which have become our global inheritance. Contrary to our present mission of destruction, it is our responsibility to become their best friend and protector.

CH: I agree. But suppose we take that point even a step further. We absolutely must be the best friend and protector of other species, but there’s still an interesting ambiguity in this idea.

Viewed one way, our responsibility to care for the rest of nature might simply be interpreted to mean that there are human beings over here, and something called “nature” or “the environment” over there, and we’d better take care of this other thing if we want to have clean air and water and not screw up the planet for our children.

But we could also interpret this connectedness in a more radically holistic way. This would be to say that any such neat separation between human beings and the rest of nature is ultimately a fiction and that in an important sense we ARE our environment.

In other words, to be human just is—contrary to the isolationist, non-holistic view preferred by anti-conservationist elements in our culture now—to be part of a larger organic natural entity. 

Being human is to be able to think and feel that whatever happens to this larger thing is also happening to me personally, and to us collectively even if we aren’t always conscious that this is what’s happening. Put more poetically, the world has something like a soul, and perhaps even an unconscious, which is my soul and unconscious too. That’s a version of the Panpsychism you mention. On this way of viewing who we are, our local human forms of mental ecology—to go back to Bateson—are continually influencing, and is in turn influenced by, the larger ecology of nature as a whole. 

This is a key theme of the “deep ecology” movement, pioneered by writers like Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, and Arne Naess, whom we also read in my class. This theme is also suggested in our popular culture too, in films like Avatar.

SZ: “Whatever happens to this larger thing is also happening to me personally” is a beautiful statement and immediately invokes in me the Golden Rule. Also a nascent new technology, and you have mentioned this, may have a Jekyll and Hyde dual edge to it – it can be a glory, praise and a tribute to the human mind on the one hand and the curse of humanity on the other. It is always great to have philosophers and ethicists, as well as great technologists like, say, Musk to ponder about it and give us their warning.

At this time, scientific research into the anthropogenic causes of Global Climate Change is being jeered and dismissed by an earth-is-flat crowd of literalists and deniers. Since support of maximized corporate profits and shareholders wealth motivates this wealth of misinformation I think a change in the focus of public discourse is called for.

These deniers with false resources of information point to solar activity: sunspots and solar wind plasma released from the Sun’s corona. They claim that these elements greatly affect life and climate on distant Earth, and may result in the dramatic environmental changes we are experiencing. Changes that gradually lead to global warming.

However, the fact is that the heaviest impact on the destruction of the terrestrial life has been created by the hand of Man and the proof of this environmental damage is everywhere, and totally obvious.

A list of those factors, undeniably responsible for the spread of the devastation to the environment includes:

  • Mining4, and its impact on biodiversity,

  • Deforestation not only of Amazonia but in 2017 also of the oldest forest in Europe and Poland,

  • Phosphate rock mining,

  • Hydrofracking5 in lieu of already developed alternative energy sources,

  • Pipeline permits, whenever corporate protectionism trumps [pun intended] the environmental stewardship, and the pipeline’s ensuing inevitable leakages,

  • Poison and Chemicals released into soil and waterbed,

  • Air pollution affecting all,

  • Plastic garbage in the middle of the Ocean6,

  • The annihilation of hundreds if not thousands of species of birds, insects, fish, and animals.

The list goes on and on.

Therefore instead of putting so much emphasis on Global Warming, a term jeered on national t.v. in times of acutely cold and unusual winter times, or on Global Climate Change, a better phrase, there is a much simpler and more reasonable approach to this debate.

Practical evidence apparent everywhere should lead us to focus on the environmental destruction caused by human activity.

Human activity that has nothing to do with the Sun and its geomagnetic storms.

CH: Yes, it’s true that the phrases “global warming” and “climate change” have unfortunately become such hot-button terms in some circles. But I  share your sense that all of us who are concerned about these issues can still have a productive conversation without such language. There are opportunities for anyone, whatever their political affiliations, to keep developing their understanding of what ethically responsible environmental practices entail. The most important thing is not that they wind up, in the end, sharing precisely the same scientific analysis of the facts but that they can share common practical goals in terms sound social policies and individual lifestyle values. This is analogous to the point sometimes made about people who have different religious faiths: Let them believe what they want about God or the origins of the universe as long as they interpret those beliefs in ways that allow for harmonious living here on earth. 

SZ: Prof. Haskins, thank you very much for this conversation. It gave me a lot to think about and hopefully, it will be equally valuable to the readers of this Post. Also, any comment is welcome in order to keep this dialog alive.

As an added bonus to those who have been interested in this subject enclosed is Prof. Haskin’s Philosophy Of The Environment Syllabus at Purchase College.


1 https://www.tutor2u.net/economics/blog/qa-what-is-the-easterlin-paradox
2 Karl Popper and John C. Eccles “The Self and Its Brain. An Argument for Interactionism.”
3 Barry Long “The Origins of Man and the Universe. The myth that came to life.”
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Environmental_impact_of_mining
5 See the Academy Nominated documentary “Gasland” by Josh Fox – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gasland | http://one.gaslandthemovie.com/whats-fracking
6 http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5203824/

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