Allen Thompson is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Oregon State University. He corresponded with Carly Lettero in August, 2017 about the anthology Oxford Handbook of Environmental Ethics that he co-edited with Stephen M. Gardiner.
In the introduction, you write that you hope this book will help prepare the next generation of scholars to confront radical environmental change. How do you think this book can help new scholars engage in this challenge?
Let me begin by addressing what is meant by "radical environmental change." Doing this will help us to see the nature and scope of the relevant kinds of issues. From the perspective of geologic time, conditions for life on Earth have undergone significant changes before. Measured only by a degree of difference, changes such as those Earth scientists tell us are now underway are not unprecedented. What is unprecedented is the rapidity (rate) of change and the fact that human activity is the primary driver (or cause). This introduces several dimensions that are significant. The first is great uncertainty about the consequences of rapid ecological change. In many ways, we don't really know how complex Earth systems (globally) and particular ecosystems (locally) will respond. This raises philosophical issues about rational choice, collective decision-making, and public policy. Second, and not unrelated, is a set of distinctly moral and ethical issues including (I) what we value about humanity and the non-human world and why, (ii) how to understand individual and collective moral responsibility for environmental change, (iii) recognizing various issues of environmental, ecological, and intergenerational justice, and (iv) understanding different ways of answering normative questions about what we should do or how we ought to behave, given the social and ecological circumstances. Finally, grappling with such questions brings us to consider deeply our own sense of identity and ideas about our place in nature. Who are we, ultimately, and what are we doing? These are core philosophical questions.
In short, the collection of forty-six new essays in this book cover a lot of ground and, consequently, cannot provide much more than an entry point for interested parties into germane but complex questions and theoretical perspectives. In this way, we intend the collection to provide a kind of enticing taxonomy of the many topics central to environmental ethics today.
This book is a deep dive into the discipline of environmental ethics, but of course finding solutions to the environmental issues the book addresses (e.g., mass extinction, climate change, pollution, among many others) will require interdisciplinary approaches. How can environmental ethics contribute to interdisciplinary solutions to the most pressing environmental problems?
You are right that, just as there is no one "silver bullet" to solving, say, the climate crises, it is also not the case that one disciplinary approach alone will be sufficient for understanding and appropriately addressing contemporary environmental problems. Technically, there is no one thing called "the environment" and there is not just one set of "problems" with it. Instead, there are many ways of seeing problematic circumstances with a wide variety of different places on the planet. So, in the first place, environmental ethics can help us give a good account of exactly how and why one set of environmental conditions, rather than another, could count as problem to begin with. Is the worry only about human well being? Or do other animals matter in their own right as well? What about species of plants or animals, or ecosystems themselves, or future generations of human beings? Or should we worry about Gaia as a whole, our Mother Earth? Looking for and maybe finding solutions depends first on being clear about just what the problem is. In this way environmental ethics can help and, I may say further, is actually indispensible.
Different disciplinary frameworks are important but can also function as blinders; if you have a hammer, every problem starts to look like a nail. Science alerts us to environmental circumstances that we may or may not find troubling. Then if we think that environmental problems arise as unforeseen consequences of some 20th Century technologies (internal combustion automobiles, nuclear power, plastics, etc.), we might think that more technological developments and newer technologies are the key to solving the problems. And certainly new technologies will play an important role in responding appropriately. On the other hand, if one sees environmental problems arising from the perspective of an economist (say, because pollution from a factory is treated as an "externality" - a cost distributed broadly across the population and not born by the polluting industry and their customers alone), then solutions to environmental problems will appear in economic terms (internalizing all costs of production and subsequent market behaviors). Philosophers have tended to think ideology has a central role. For example, the developed, western world has largely been formed under a Christian worldview and historian Lynn White Jr. has famously argued that Christianity is the world's most anthropocentric (or, human-centered) religion. Early environmental ethics was motivated by this diagnosis and consequently sought to articulate and defend some non-anthropocentric value ideology. Whether or not this is the right or a useful ideological diagnosis, many people today believe that environmental problems arise ultimately from some kind of problem with an ideological, or philosophical, worldview, which, in turn, would be underpinning our economic, scientific, and technological institutions. In this way, the environmental crisis can be framed ultimately as ethical problem connected with dominant ideologies about the place and purpose of humans in nature.
Finally, I would say that philosophy is not really one among diverse disciplines, although the existence of philosophy departments in a university along side history, biology, mathematics, and business may lead one to think it is. If it were, we might think adding philosophy to a set of other disciplinary perspectives thus contributes to taking an inter-disciplinary approach to our problems. Instead, I tend to think of philosophy as trans-disciplinary; there are philosophical issues embedded in any and all specific disciplinary practices. Philosophy is taking seriously the most difficult questions and hidden assumptions operating at the basis of any human endeavor. Because there is a good case to be made that the climate and environmental crises we face today pose existential threats to human civilization, there is a good reason to believe we need to think philosophically about them.
This is an ambitious anthology. What did you learn from working on this project, and what advice do you have for students and scholars who are interested in editing an anthology?
First, I'll say I learned a lot about environmental ethics and who is doing it. Beyond finding a publisher and then seeing the volume through copyediting and completion, carrying out a project like this involves basically three steps: (i) conceiving the order and structure of the collection as a whole, (ii) identifying who should, who can, and who will contribute a chapter, and (iii) working closely with each author as an editor, to ensure that his or her essay contributes well to the aims of the collection as a whole. This is a lot of work that puts you in touch with a lot of people in your field.
So in light of all this work I learned, second, that it is essential to have a good working relation with a co-editor. From start to finish, it took Steve Gardiner and myself about five years to produce this volume and I think it's safe to say that neither of us could have produced something as good working alone. If your aim is to do work like this, find a partner whose talents compliment your own, who thinks like you but still differently, so you can each bring something valuable and unique to the table. Working well together involves a basic agreement, eventually, on which ideas are good ones and which ideas are bad ones.
You contributed the paper “Anthropocentrism: Humanity as Peril and Promise” to this project. Humans have caused so much environmental devastation. What about humanity do you see as promising?
That's a good question that takes some time to answer well and I do my best, with a limited amount of space, to address this kind of question in my chapter. But I'll try to say something brief to the point here. First, some environmentalists - including, once, a founder of the field, Homes Rolston III - have compared decisions to prioritize feeding people over the promotion of nature conservation to feeding a kind of cancer. In this way, some views of "deep ecology" (which value parts of nature for its own sake, as opposed to "shallow" ecological views, which protect nature only to serve humanity), are misanthropic and this problematic on several grounds. For one, it seems to depend on an objectionable form of dualism that metaphysically separates humanity from the rest of nature: if nature per se is good but human beings are bad, then human beings must somehow not be part of nature. Correcting this, we can see that human animalsare as natural as anything else and so share in any value attributed to nature itself. What the problem is, then, are certain human behaviors (perhaps of cultural origin) but not human beings per se. A second reason misanthropy is problematic is straight forwardly pragmatic: it is politically untenable. Advocacy for protective environmental policies or legislation that is openly misanthropic will be dead on arrival.
But by this I don't mean that an environmentalist should simply, as a matter of strategy, hide their hatred of humanity! Instead, I think it's easy to see we are a fantastic species, a true wonder with an unparalleled set of powers and capacities. The approach I take in my chapter is to argue that if we find value in the flourishing of life on Earth, taking the individuals of each species to be striving for their own good, in their own way, and we attribute an inherent worth to this flourishing, then we must recognize that there is a species-specific form of human flourishing that manifests inherent worth in exactly the same way. The kind of ethical theory that gives priority to human moral excellence, or the flourishing of human beings as human beings is called virtue ethics. One emerging growth area in environmental ethics has been environmental virtue ethics. I think one way forward, as we enter a new geological era called the Anthropocene (or, the age of humanity, in which collective human activities impact the functioning of Earth systems at or beyond the scale of any other "natural" phenomena) is to build an environmental ethic based on something other than, or in addition to, conceptions of intrinsic value in non-human nature. And one place to begin is thinking about human environmental goodness, in its own terms, that is, a kind of natural human goodness.
For example, what would it be for human beings to be good in themselves as planetary stewards? Or, how should we understand ourselves, both individually and collectively, to be responsible for the conditions of life on Earth? That is, what would a human virtue of environmental responsibility look like in the Anthropocene? If we are capable of planetary stewardship, and perhaps we as a species by happenstance alone bear a responsibility to serve in the role of planetary stewards (and thus largely charged with managing ourselves), then there is a way for us to do this well, to perform our species-specific role well, and thus to manifest a certain kind of uniquely human excellence. This is a hopeful vision of human environmental virtue and I think developing this vision can offer some promise in these otherwise environmentally treacherous and desperate times.