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Environmental Values

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Environmental Values

Editorial, Vol.20 No.4

Building on the Past, Creating a Future

Environmental Values 20 (2011): 453-456
doi: 10.3197/096327111X13150367351177

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This issue begins with a very timely piece by Christopher Preston where he sets out two arguments against the tendency in environmental thinking to presume that geoengineering, as a solution to climate change, will always in principle be wrong (Preston 2011). For me, as a reader who approached the paper with exactly that presumption, it was both a challenging and an enlightening experience.

Graham Long also addresses the pressing problem of climate change, but his focus is the various forms of disagreement that have prevented concerted action. He uses Rawls’s concept of ‘reasonable disagreement’ to shows why climate change, and more specifically what to do about it, is being left unresolved, even though action is urgently needed (Long 2011). He proposes that deliberative democracy is the best approach for: understanding conflicting positions, weeding out unreasonable opposition, and arriving at supported reasoned decisions. He points out that deliberation would not necessarily result in a convergence, e.g., between pragmatic anthropocentric and non-anthropocentric positions, but it would highlight that scientific uncertainty (the current focus of much debate) is not always the issue at play in climate change disagreements.

Focusing on a link between biodiversity and existentialism, Mathew Child continues the deliberative theme. He makes an interesting connection between a scientifically outdated ‘balance of nature’ conception of conservation and an entrenched consumer culture. He then contrasts this with a more up-to-date ‘flux of nature’ conception of conservation which itself finds resonance with a postmodern concept of creating meaningful self-identity (Child 2011). This latter pairing brings together the idea of self-emergence through participation in community, democracy, etc. and the processes of nature as continually in a flux of co-creation. Out of this theoretical pairing he arrives at some relatively concrete recommendations. As he says: ‘If flux metaphors are to provide the intellectual gateway for individual reengagement with the conservation movement we must not patronise the public with Disney-like representations of biodiversity or guilt tripping litanies’. Nor should we ‘underestimate the power of narrative’ and exclude the public from participation in the story of conservation.

On an even more practical note Molly Scott Cato continues the theme of meaningful engagement in discussing the concept of the bioregion as the provisioning base (Cato 2011). She sets out some of the issues involved in making the move from bioregion as a concept to bioregion as workable practice, but also indicates where this is starting to happen in social initiatives that are responding to climate change and the threat of peak oil.

In the final paper of this issue Anh Tuan Nuyen develops an argument for a form of anthropocentric environmental ethic that offers moral protection to nature for reasons of value that go beyond value for human wellbeing. This is achieved by drawing on the socially embedded nature of the self that is part of traditional Confucianism and showing how this can, even keeping faith with the texts as written, be broadened to our embeddeness in nature (Nuyen 2011). Finding resources that could be persuasive to the large and increasingly industrialised population of China is very important and it is interesting to note that 5th-3rd century BCE texts have a role.

Finding new insights in older works that mean they can speak to new problems or new sensibilities has been something of a feature of environmental thinking. I am sure that this interdisciplinary field is not alone in resurrecting, burnishing or rebranding older ideas. It is a striking feature though that, given the problems we face, environmental discourse has not trapped itself in always accusing our cultural inheritance for the problems we face. Of course we do plenty of that as well, but so often the return to earlier sources is to find or reacquaint us with earlier riches to support environmentally enlightened thought; a cultural well that seemed played out or irrelevant is returned to and seen freshly.

As Managing Editor I do get to see all the papers that are submitted to Environmental Values and am struck by the range of historical resources that seem capable of bearing fresh interpretation. I suppose one could argue that we are facing extraordinary challenges and need to place all our hopes on new ideas, but we are the inheritors of great cultural riches. Unique amongst animals we have a seemingly miraculous ability to pass on, collectively retain and build upon complex information. Michael Tomasello refers to this as the ‘ratchet effect’ (Tomasello 2000). Our cultural trails are long and deep so it is no surprise that they can both wreak ecological havoc and provide the possibility of revisiting to find things missed or forgotten or just springboards for what are in fact new ideas.

The prompt to look back takes many forms. Sometimes the death of a contemporary contributor to a field makes us recall their work and look at the way it developed in our time with its current problems. In Nina Witoszek’s obituary for Arne Naess she shows how Naess’s story can also be seen as part of a deeper, older history of Norwegian cultural tradition (Witoszek 2010). The death of Ronald Hepburn inspired us to look back over the last fifty years of environmental aesthetics in a special issue that contained his last paper (Hepburn 2010). The other papers made reference to the importance of his work in beginning this new field. In the editorial I demonstrated how his writings can bring out the inherently ethical in the aesthetic and thus the means to a new approach to environmental problems; one that avoids the claims of the aesthetic as inherently and dangerously anthropocentric (Brook 2010).

Looking back is also prompted by anniversaries of events and in 2009 we joined the general cultural celebration of the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth with three papers on aspects of Darwin’s legacy. Robert Kirkman considered the problem of the fragility of ethics from a Darwinian humanist perspective. In order to show that meaning and a sense of moral human community is not lost he looks back to Hegel and our experience of both sentiment and principle as guides (Kirkman 2009). Invoking our sense of intersubjective sentiment is a strategy that Darwin would probably endorse. Alan Holland returns to Darwinian theory to show how, contrary to many assumptions about Darwinism, it does not need external help to present us with meaning in our lives and the possibility of lives worth living indeed it has furnished us with the ability to create this ourselves (Holland 2009). Ted Benton also returned to Darwin’s own writing to show how it presents nothing of the reductionist picture with which it is so often represented (Benton 2009). Holland’s paper drew comments from both Robin Attfield and John Cottingham: on the question of meaningful life (Cottingham 2011) and the role of value (Attfield 2011).

Events and anniversaries that punctuate time prompt us to look back but so too does the intractability of the problems we encounter. More of the same thinking from our own time bound perspective does not help and thus a voice from another time can offer a new insight, even if it wasn’t crafted for our problems. Christopher Frieman demonstrated this admirably when he pressed into service Aristotle’s notion of ‘goodwill’ as a model for a virtuous relationship to nature (Freiman 2009). Others had already tried this with Aristotle on friendship, but problems remained. Freiman isn’t unearthing evidence that Aristotle was an early environmentalist, he is finding that old ideas can be carried over and usefully applied in way that their originator would never have envisaged. Antonio Casado Da Rocha took an acknowledged environmentalist in his paper on Thoreau, but explored his idea of health to throw into sharp relief, and thus make apparent, the extent of our modern medicalised notion of health (Da Rocha 2009). Kevin Behrens in his exploration of the traditional African concept of Ubuntu (social interconnectedness) finds enough in its traditional meaning to justify a reemphasis on the interconnectedness of humans with all of nature and thereby to develop a form of African holism. Here, in a way similar to Nuyen, old and deeply embedded mores are remembered and refreshed rather than pressed into service for something entirely new.

Thoughtful examination of earlier work, even when it has lain unexamined for generations, can be immensely useful. There is usually more going on in such efforts than a misapplication of the environmental mantras of reuse or recycle. In visiting the past we find out more about ourselves: both the roots of our current thinking and a sense of strangeness wrought by how much we have changed. At the same time the strikingly new is also possible. Both old and new thinking will be needed to understand the issues we face and to wisely make the choices we will need to make.



Attfield, R. 2011. ‘Darwin, meaning and value’. Environmental Values 20: 309-314.
Behrens, K. 2010. ‘Exploring African holism with respect to the environment’. Environmental Values 19: 465-484.
Benton, T. 2009. ‘Darwin and Wallace as environmental philosophers’. Environmental Values 18: 487-502.
Brook, I. 2010. ‘ Ronald Hepburn and the humanising of environmental aesthetics’. Environmental Values 19: 265-271.
Cato, M.S. 2011. ‘Home economics: planting the seeds of a research agenda for the bioregional economy’. Environmental Values 20: 481-501.
Child, M. 2011. ‘Conservation of adaptive self-construction: a flux-centred solution to the paradox of nature preservation’. Environmental Values 20: 527-548.
Cottingham, J. 2011. ‘The meaning of life and Darwinism’. Environmental Values 20: 299-308.
Da Rocha, A.C. 2009. ‘The value of health in the writings of H.D. Thoreau’. Environmental Values 18: 201-216.
Freiman, C. 2009. ‘Goodwill toward nature’. Environmental Values 18: 343-360.
Hepburn, R. 2010. ‘The aesthetics of sky and space’. Environmental Values 19: 273-288.
Holland, A. 2009. ‘Darwin and the meaning of life’. Environmental Values 18: 503-518.
Kirkman, R. 2009. ‘Darwinian humanism and the End of Nature’. Environmental Values 18 217-236.
Long, G. 2011. ‘Disagreement and responses to climate change’. Environmental Values 20: 503-525.
Nuyen, A.T. 2011. ‘Confucian role-based ethics and strong environmental ethics’. Environmental Values 20: 549-566.
Preston, C. 2011. ‘Re-thinking the unthinkable: environmental ethics and the presumptive argument against geoengineering’. Environmental Values 20: 457-479.
Tomasello, M. 2000. The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Witoszek, N. 2010. ‘The death of the philosopher king and the crisis of our time’. Environmental Values 19: 1-6.

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