Part 3 – Environmentalism (as political philosophy)
[This section is also part of: Political Philosophy Part 2 (pp22)]
The Natural Environment – Protecting the Planet
Part 1: The Environment Introduction and overview of the problem and some solutions
Part 2: The Environmental Movement
Part 4: Climate Change.
Topics bookmarked in these notes:
#rights of nature
1 Changing ideas:
1.2 #new ways of thinking
1.4 #new values
2. New Ideas:
3 Ecology linked to other ‘isms’:
4. Deep Green thought:
4.1 #social ecology (M Bookchin)
4.2 #deep ecology (F Capra, A Naess)
5. Conclusion #conclusion
6. Discussion #discussion questions
7. References #references
1. Changing Ideas: how environmentalism has led to new ways of thinking about the relationship between humans and the environment:
1.1 Historical background (for a bit more detail, see: Part 1)
- Concern for the environment is not
new, but goes back several centuries: in the 19th century sewage was
a problem – one that was not dealt with until the smell in
- Crucial more recently was air pollution especially after the ‘smogs’ of the 1950s. The word ‘smog’ was coined to describe what seemed like a combination of fog and smoke – thick, choking fog that caused respiratory illnesses and many deaths. The phenomenon of ‘smog’ shows the importance of interaction in a system: in this case, chemicals and gases in the atmosphere (often harmless on their own) were acted on by sunlight, producing harmful by-products. These smogs led to legislation, in the form of the Clean Air Act of 1956.
- Another key development occurred with the report: “Limits to Growth”, published by the “Club of Rome” (a group of industrialists, scientists and computer experts) in 1972. The study was based on a ‘world model’ – a computer model – showing how five or six apparently separate components: population, resource depletion, production of food and goods, land, and pollution are all connected in a ‘system.’ The model allowed the scientists to input different scenarios (population growth, technology breakthroughs, more pollution etc) and to assess the results of each scenario. The dramatic conclusion arrived at was that whatever was done, a ‘crash’ of some kind (for example, excess population, or life-threatening pollution, or total lack of land for food) would occur at some time in the future, because there are limits to all natural resources. Some critics felt the results were unduly pessimistic, but there were powerful arguments put forward: for example, if you cut down population growth (by birth control etc) then a smaller population naturally expects a higher standard of living – so resources will still be used up, pollution will increase, etc, and all that has happened is that the crisis has been postponed. If you cut down pollution, the population will grow (because less people die from diseases caused by pollution!) – with similar consequences in the long term. Others argued that it showed that we must take a multi-track approach that reflects the way the elements of the system are interconnected.
The real significance of this report, then, is that it argues that the problem of damage to the environment is not one of single separate aspects, but that all are interconnected. To understand this, we have to get to grips with some technical ideas, such as the phenomenon of exponential growth (like compound interest in a bank account): many natural phenomena, especially population growth, occur exponentially, and such growth can get out of control very quickly. For example, unless two parents have only one child, their family numbers will grow with the generations, but we may not realise there is an over-population problem until it is too late…. Another example which I found compelling was to imagine a pond with water-lilies growing on it; if they grow exponentially, doubling the area they cover in a given time period, then the danger point is when they cover half the pond – and this doesn’t look like a problem situation. Feedback loops are also crucial, such as in the example given where less population may mean increased pollution.
There are several instances of positive feedback in relation to global warming:
- oceans, soil and trees absorb half the CO2 that humans produce. As the climate warms (due to more CO2), the sea and the soil may produce more CO2, also tropical forests may die - and there will be less absorption of CO2, à more CO2 and more heat
- the polar ice-sheets reflect nearly 80% of sunlight - if they melt the water reflects less heat à increasing temperature
Soon after the Club of Rome report, people began to talk of ‘spaceship earth.’ This idea - that we are floating in space like a spaceship and have only limited food and air on board - was reinforced when we saw the first pictures of earth from space). Although we tend to think of nature as providing us with plenty, in fact the earth is a closed system (apart from sunlight, nothing new comes into it) and the resources (air, water, land, oil) are limited.
All this goes to demonstrate that we are faced with a group of inter-related problems, and here are a few more examples:
- air pollution in
- acid rain is now known to affect the oceans:
- the pH of the ocean’s open water has been 8.2 for millions of years, now (since burning fossil fuel for couple of centuries) it is down to 8.05 (i.e. more acidic), and this damages coral reefs, & microscopic life that are at the base of the food chain; also plankton makes less calcium in more acidic water – we don’t know what effect this will have, though coral reefs (home to rich diversity of life) are dying
- acidification could lead to mass extinction: the previous
5 such events were all accompanied by acidification (last time 65 m yrs ago,
the dinosaurs died out – probably the gases came from a meteor strike). [Alanna
Mitchell, author: The Hidden Ecological Crisis of the
- in the
1.2 All this led to new ways of thinking about the environment and the impact of human activity, and to some new and very important concepts. This, to me, is why environmentalism should be dealt with under the heading of ‘philosophy’ – and of course since we are dealing with the way we organise our lives and distribute resources, environmentalism is essentially a political philosophy: (see also below, on values)
- Growth at present is not ‘sustainable’
– sustainability is essential to our long-term survival. Paul Ehrlich (The
Population Bomb 1968) wrote about what he called the "Doomsday"
scenario. He saw the central problem as one of population growth, and predicted
millions would die. Although his predictions have proved alarmist, nevertheless
improved birth control and decline in the birth rate in countries such as
- The view that the problem is not simply with "single issues" but with the whole "system" has led to interest in the concept of ‘ecology.’ The word was invented by the biologist Haeckel in 1870. It is derived from the Greek word ‘oikos' meaning ‘home’. Note that the same word is the root of both ecology and economics (the latter meaning, roughly, household management). See 3 below. The Club of Rome report drew attention to the interconnections between resources, pollution, population, food, and land; it showed that all are part of a system, and that use of, or waste from, any one of these, and growth or decline in any part affects every other part.
- ‘Quality of Life.’ Economists and politicians are very keen on measures of ‘Standard of Living.’ But the problem with measurements such as this, especially if they are based on income or wealth, is that they do not measure people’s happiness – or even their health. There have been many voices calling for new measures – ways of including perhaps happiness (though this may be un-measurable…) or aesthetic and spiritual dimensions of people’s lives.
- ‘Zero growth’. A related point is that the constant drive for ‘growth’ should be questioned: after all, as many have pointed out, if a country has more sick people being treated in hospital, then the increased expenditure, on buildings, equipment and staff will go into an increase in the GDP! As Keynes pointed out, government expenditure could be increase, and used to build the economy, simply by having one group of workers make holes in the roads, and another fill them in.
Writing up these notes now (2010), what strikes me most forcefully is that all these ideas were being discussed nearly 40 years ago, in the 1970s, and it is only now, in the first decade of the 21st century, that there is widespread awareness of the issues. I just hope we are not too late.
- As mentioned above, the concept of ecology came originally from biology, and it has been used in physiology and mathematics, before being used to understand the natural environment. It came about as a result of searching for order in the apparent chaos of life forms and their relationships to each other and their environments.
- Ecosystems: when we study the inter-relationship of components in a given environment, that environment when seen as a whole is an ecosystem. These may be large or small, simple or complex. My favourite examples are: a pond – where water, oxygen, CO2, mud or soil, plants, bacteria, micro-organisms, insects, fish, etc may all live in the same environment; they interact in many ways (dead fish feed bacteria; plants provide oxygen; etc). The health of the whole pond (as anyone who has had one knows!) depends on the right balance of the different elements. Too many plants and the pond is smothered; too many fish and some will die, not enough microscopic life and small insects and the fish will starve, and so on.
- The first lesson we should learn from ecology concerns the interconnectedness of all nature (Commoner).
- A further very important point is that complexity and variety are essential for balance and stability: and conversely, a simple ecosystem with a small number of components is vulnerable to changes which could destroy the whole system. A stable ecosystem has:
feedback mechanisms - which are essential for stability, although they can also affect the system in unexpected ways, so we need to understand them
food chains/webs - and provided these are rich and complex they will remain stable: if one part of the chain dies off, the organism higher up the chain can find something else to feed on,
biodiversity: the point just made shows one of the reasons why biodiversity is important – it also provides a rich gene pool so that life can evolve in the most efficient and successful way,
redundancy: this is another way of describing the feature of a stable system – if one part breaks down, another can replace it to perform the same function, a feature of complex electronic devices, and the human brain!
lack of hierarchy: it seems to those who have studied ecology that natural systems differ from the way that humans organise much of their social life, for in an ecosystem even the ‘humblest’ creature or organism may play an essential role; or, conversely, the creature we humans regard as somehow the ‘highest’ form of life is not necessarily essential to the survival of others or of the system. The fish in your pond may die, but the pond will continue to provide a living space for all the other organisms. This point can be linked to the (controversial!) idea of ‘Gaia’ (see below) – the planet as a self-regulating ecosystem; for if humans die off, that may not affect the rest of life on earth in any negative way – it might even allow other life-forms to flourish, since we won’t be killing them off!!
- finally, ecology seems to me to teach us that we should have respect for all the components of our ecosystem, and we should be questioning the role of human activity (economics, industry, science etc) in terms of its ecological effects.
In political philosophy, it seems to me, we often have to choose between alternative values (freedom or equality, individualism or collectivism, the traditional or the new etc).
Environmentalists have pinpointed a number of ‘old’ values, which have at least contributed to our tendency regard the environment as not having much importance, or being there simply for us to exploit:
- the view of man as a superior life-form: for many, this view is Biblical in origin (Adam was formed in the likeness of God) – though some would argue that Adam was given ‘stewardship’ (see next point also) over living things, and this implies caring for them. On the other hand, it seems hard to avoid the implication that living things are designed for us to benefit from. This is ‘anthropocentrism’ – putting humans at the centre. Nowadays Darwinists may be more inclined to argue that we have simply ‘evolved’ as have other living things – but Darwin himself was not innocent of regarding humans as superior (and whites as at the peak, compared to non-whites, and men as compared to women…). It is not easy, in all honesty, to completely avoid being anthropocentric – after all, we have to look at the environment from a human point of view, and we cannot know what other living things feel (see however When Elephants Weep by Jeffrey Masson and Susan McCarthy, Vintage 1996). Nevertheless some environmentalists have explored how we might move in this direction (see below).
- interesting to read that in Islam there is a concept of tayyab – roughly: ‘ethical and wholesome’ (linked to, but going beyond halal). As Shelina Janmohamed says in Generation M: ‘Resources must be properly respected, workers in primary industries must not be exploited. Sustainability and renewability are part of the Islamic idea of ‘stewardship of the Earth’ which generation M eco-Muslims are championing.’
- the problem(s) with economics – (i) if we measure the value of things using only monetary values we are faced with difficult questions such as how to put a price not only on life (which insurers try to do!) but on the quality of life? This is to say nothing of trying to put a value on compassion, love, health, beauty, dignity, freedom, grace, delight… On a more basic level, we have for too long treated the air, the sea, land and rivers, as if they were ‘free’, and any damage done to them has not been counted in our tables of economic costs. In fact economists regard such ‘costs’ as ‘externalities’ or ‘residuals’. (See Part 1). (ii) it seems to many critics, especially after the 2008 ‘credit crunch’ (assuming it’s over!) that the market has serious limitations: the value we put on money has led to speculation (against currencies, nations, as well as companies), risk-taking and short-termism. These are not the values we need if we are to protect our environment. Ecology surely teaches us that it is co-operation and respect for even the weakest life-forms that is needed, not the ‘winner takes all’ outlook of market competition.
- some would say there is a problem with science itself, or with ‘modernity’. After all, many of our problems arose when we industrialised – and some recent technologies (nuclear power, genetic engineering perhaps) appear to bring with them enormous risks. The critique of science and technology can of course lead to accusations of ‘Luddism’ – or impractical romanticism. On the other hand, there is – I believe – a lot to be said for ‘alternative technology’ or ‘appropriate technology’. Perhaps postmodernism could help here – if it is understood to mean a rejection of the ‘grand narratives’ that grew out of the developed west’s colonial and imperial ambitions? (See: Postmodernism). On the other hand, there is an important part of the environmental movement that uses science to criticise an excessive reliance on science: (see Social Movements: the environment). See also the notion of “reflexive modernity” (U. Beck 1992).
Environmentalism suggests, then, that we should base our attitude to the environment on such new values as:
- equality, diversity, interdependence, nurturing (a feminine value?), holism.
The ‘new thinking’ outlined next attempts to incorporate these new values.
2. Some examples of new thinking:
James Lovelock (a scientist who worked for NASA on the question of how to identify life on other planets) came up with the radical observation that the earth is a self-regulating system (see Lovelock 1979, etc). It is amazing that life exists at all, given the very special conditions that it needs; moreover, the earth seems to maintain itself in balance – plants, microbes, water and air all interacting and re-adjusting themselves to keep a steady set of environmental conditions.
Lovelock was not suggesting that there is anything like a god maintaining the earth (even though Gaia was the name of the Greek earth goddess), but some have rejected his theory because it seems metaphysical (see below). Lovelock always maintains that he is giving a scientific description of how the earth system works.
It was also not Lovelock’s intention to suggest that we need not do anything to protect the environment: if we humans do enough damage we could upset the whole system, whereas other living things always seem to keep the balance. The human race, then, surely has a special responsibility to take care!
It is not clear what policies follow from the Gaia idea, and recently Lovelock has combined a sort of pessimism (it is not a problem if human kind is wiped out, so long as nature survives) with controversial views such as support for nuclear power and opposition to wind-farms.
In The Vanishing Face of Gaia: a final warning (
Elkington (1997) writes of (seven?) “sustainability revolutions” that he believes must take place to reach sustainable business. These include changes in the approach to markets, values, transparency, life-cycle technology, and governance. He describes the series of events that have changes our awareness of the environment, identifying (three?) “waves” of sustainability, with peaks and troughs for each:
- the formation of Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace (1970s),
- the disasters at
- public battles over environmental issues such as Brent Spar and Shell in Nigeria (1990s),
- the BSE “mad cow” disease etc, and the current phenomenon of globalisation, have all helped us move towards sustainability by convincing business that it must do something.
Now, he says, business must be aware of the “triple bottom line” – economic, environmental and social, but this will not be really effective until it is “built into” corporate agendas from the moment a new business is set up. (See also CSR 6).
Socialist critics will of course say that this is not enough: the fundamental nature of capitalism (getting things done cheaply, and producing more ‘things’ because of the growth imperative) makes it simply not compatible with environmental protection. (See the notes above on the problem with economics…)
3. Others have connected ecology with existing ‘alternative’ ways of thinking:
Eco-socialism blames the capitalist form of industrial and economic growth – and not
industrialism as such – for environmental damage. See the reference to Barry
Commoner, above. There is a danger that eco-socialists would be less critical
of environmental damage caused by the state presumably? Eco-socialists also
argue that poverty is the root cause of environmental destruction (for example
the burning of dung as fuel for cooking in poor countries...), and if wealth
were better distributed there would be less damage... However, a
counter-argument is that the old
NB: The Soviet
Union and the environment: Steven Rose (G 21.08.10) reviewing Red Plenty by
Points out how the ‘science’ of Marxism (esp. from Engels’s The Dialectics of nature, 1883, rediscovered in 1930s) was combined with ‘cybernetics’ (Norbert Wiener, 1948) – the ‘fourth law of dialectics’. Cybernetics – ‘circular causation’ – showed how systems could exhibit apparently goal-directed behaviour without consciousness.
figures in soviet system: Abel Aganbegyan (economist), Raissa Berg (molecular
geneticist), Leonid Kantorovich (Nobel winner, mathematician – calculated how
to improve plywood production and then this method spread), Sergei Lebedev
(designer of first generation of soviet computers). Example of problem: a
machine breaks down at a viscose plant and it needs to be replaced, but that
means the target for the factory that produces the machine has to be changed,
and that requires re-planning the inputs into the machine tool factory… and so
on, as everything is inter-connected. Only the semi-criminal ‘fixer’ can sort
Feminists, both radical and socialist, look at the possible links between the domination of women and of the environment: is nature feminised, and are women “naturalised”? Or is there any truth in the traditional (male dominated) view that women are closer to nature - either biologically, or socially through their roles...? See notes on The Enlightenment (enl9raceslaverywomen.htm) and on Feminism (pp21feminism.htm).
Val Plumwood from
4. The main schools of ‘deep green’ thought, (i.e. building on ecology), are:
“The very concept of dominating nature stems from the domination of human by human, indeed of women by men, of the young by their elders, of one ethnic group by another, of society by the state, of the individual by bureaucracy, as well as of one economic class by another or a colonised people by a colonising power”
i.e. the source of problem is intra-human domination – an anarchist approach?
Hence social ecology is not criticising science as such, but may in fact use scientific/rational arguments…
Nor does it put the blame on anthropocentrism (see below), nor argue that the environment has an intrinsic value – rather, humans create value, and the issue is why some things and some people are under-valued… as well as raising crucial question about ‘domination’: how widespread is it? Why do some need to dominate others? Etc
How intriguing to find (Weds 11 March 2015) a reference to the Kurds of the PKK following a political system similar to that recommended by Murray Bookchin:
http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/mar/10/revolutionary-kurdish-isis-ivana-hoffman This is very much a women’s revolution as well: Mehmet Aksoy says: ‘the first revolution, the agricultural revolution, was instituted by women, and the first counter-revolution and the first negative hierarchies were created by men.’
Environmental damage results from the human relationship with the environment, (not intra-human issues) – i.e. from anthropocentrism. If we see ourselves as the centre of the universe, or as the most important part of, then we de-value everything else, and then animals, plants, and the environment, only exist for us, and we only care about destruction because (and when) it affects us.
Here, nature is ‘intrinsically’ valuable – i.e. not for what it gives us.
A wonderful development, I think – using native beliefs, and building a law which gives rights to the natural environment…
“She is sacred, fertile and the source of life that feeds and cares for all living beings in her womb. She is in permanent balance, harmony and communication with the cosmos. She is comprised of all ecosystems and living beings, and their self-organisation.”
The 3.5 million-strong CSUTC de Bolivia (Confederacion Sindical Unica de Trabajadores) helped to draft the law – the biggest social movement in the country.
The indigenous Andean spiritual view is that Pachamama (Earth Mother) is at the centre of all life.
However, Vidal comments that the Amazon is still being destroyed by oil companies and others.
Fritjof Capra tries to find links between the very latest scientific theories (20th century particle physics, complexity theory in maths) and mysticism, Taoism etc – see:
http://www.fritjofcapra.net/bibliography.html. (See also: Pepper 1986, and Dobson 1990).
Capra is also involved in the Shumacher Centre, which promotes ‘alternative [or ‘soft’] technology’ etc. Fritz Schumacher advocated ‘Buddhist economics’: suffering in the world is caused by ‘attachment’ (primarily but not only to things...) and as all humans find it difficult to be non-attached, so all suffer, and all deserve compassion. See also Resurgence magazine, edited by Satish Kumar, of the British Wheel of Yoga.
See also Resurgence Magazine, edited by Satish Kumar.
For an obituary and further information on Naess see:
Naess was criticised by Bookchin for his ideas which seemed too “new age.” The proposals here are perhaps the most radical: limits to economic growth, i.e. cuts in consumption, a reassessment of the concept of human need, communal growth, and even restricting population growth...
Note that some ‘deep ecologists’ (e.g. ‘Earth First’) have allegedly put nature before humans – willing to inflict injury on humans to save animals or trees etc. Naess rejected such an idea.
Finally it is worth noting that native/indigenous
‘Begin with Mother Earth:
Mother Earth births everything for us. Father Sky carries the water and oxygen for us to breathe. Grandfather Sun warms the planet, warms our body, gives us light so we can see, raises the food that the Mother births and raises most of our relations, all our plants and trees. Grandmother Moon moves the water and gives us the woman-time and our birthing.’
All ‘deep green’ perspectives share the view that
we need new values, and that existing institutions need to be radically
altered. The theories also go beyond national boundaries, and beyond political
parties - is environmentalism neither right nor left? They all say we need a
new philosophy, and/or set of new values, and to save the environment requires
new forms of action. Some explicitly say we will need a lower Standard of
Living (though a higher Quality of Life). In the
What is the correct way to understand nature – using the precepts of ecology? Or is a Darwinian view (struggle for survival) more accurate? How can we apply the kind of philosophy that Aborigines practice in our modern world?
If it is argued that exploitation of planet and people are linked - how can this be demonstrated?
Is it possible to avoid anthropocentrism? In the end, isn’t our concern to save ourselves (self-interest)? Or is it true that ‘saving ourselves’ is at the root of the problem!
What is an ‘environmental ethic’? We could say there is an ‘intrinsic’ value in nature – but does that mean anything, since we are still the ones deciding on the value of nature? (Hence perhaps the mystical side to much green thinking…?) (*) [Footnote 1]
Similarly, we could say that to preserve the interdependence of nature requires diversity, altruism and tolerance - or is this simply reading on to nature our own preferred values...?
How do we go about changing our involvement with the environment? Will people change their values when they understand the position? (Why should they?)
as for Madeleine Bunting (Guardian
Does this mean there is no need to bother over these philosophical questions?
1. This can become very complex: e.g. McHarg in Disch starts with non-anthropocentric view ... - should see creation as:
negentropy (use of energy to create, vs. entropy: decay of energy),
symbiosis (earth is home to everything, from hydrogen to man),
apperception or consciousness - that which gives higher form to order, with which man is especially endowed (but: evolution of which means man is
prospective steward of the biosphere i.e. man as steward or manager is different to man as dominator..??? i.e. leads back to anthropocentrism...???]
(*) a ‘megalogue’ as Amitai Etzioni puts it…
Bahro, R. 1984: From Red to Green, Blackwell
1986: Building the Green Movement, New Society
Beck, U. 1992: Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, Sage
Bookchin, M. (e.g.) 1997: The Politics of Social Ecology, Black Rose Books
Capra, F. 1982: The Turning Point, Simon & Schuster.
Capra, F. and Spretnak, C. 1984: Green Politics,
Chase, S. (ed) 1991: Defending the Earth: a dialogue between Dave Foreman and Murray Bookchin, South End Press
Davis, J. and Foreman, D. 1991: The Earth First! Reader, Peregrine Smith
Dobson, A. 1991: The Green Reader, Andre Deutsch
1995: Green Political Thought, Routledge
Goodin, D. 1990: Green Political Theory, Polity
Gorz, A. (e.g.) 1979: Ecology as Politics, South End Press
Merchant, C. 1992: Radical Ecology, Routledge
Naess, A. 1989: Ecology, Community and Lifestyle,
Pepper, D. 1984: The Roots of Modern Environmentalism, Croom Helm
1993: Eco-socialism: Routledge
Porritt, J. 1984: Seeing Green, Blackwell.