“Why ‘Nature’ Has No Place in Environmental Philosophy”

CITATION:
 Steven Vogel. 2011. In The Ideal of Nature: Debates About Biotechnology and the Environment, ed. Gregory E. Kaebnick, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
ON-LINE AVAILABILITY:
ABSTRACT:
Vogel holds it is essential to develop a “postnaturalist” environmental philosophy—an environmental philosophy afterthe end of nature. He argues that, not only might (as Bill McKibbin has claimed) nature the thing have ended, but the concept of “nature” might be such an ambiguous and problematic one, so prone to misunderstanding and so riddled with pitfalls, that its usefulness for a coherent environmental philosophy will turn out to be small indeed. He points to difficulties in the concept, especially when it is employed dualistically to mean something like “that which is independent of the human;” it seems to require continual modification, it frequently issues in antinomies, it produces a series of paradoxes, and most of all its employment seems to commit one to an essentially Cartesian anthropocentrism that fits uncomfortably with the other theoretical commitments most environmental philosophers typically defend. If we find ourselves unable even to define what we mean by the term “nature,” and if our attempts to define it involve us in unacceptable metaphysical thickets, then it might be worthwhile for environmental philosophy to drop the concept altogether. [adapted from concluding paragraph]

A deep aspiration within moral thinking is to ground moral norms in some fixed order beyond the “mere” human realm. Plato’s effort to theorize a transcendent realm of “forms” is a paradigm of the view that morality is a matter or physis, or nature, rather than nomos, or convention (i.e. culture). From his time forward a strand in moral philosophy has similarly taken nature, the way things are, to be normative, i.e. to impose a set of obligations on our actions. Environmentalists would obviously be extremely attracted to this kind of moral view. Even environmentalists who argue in terms of nature’s “instrumental value,” i.e. its usefulness for humans’ own purposes, are keen on pointing to the limits it imposes: they find a natural source of moral restraint in nature’s finitude. And obviously environmentalists who attribute “intrinsic value” to nature appeal directly to this platonic kind of view: nature is normative in the sense that we have a moral obligation to respect it for what it is in itself. But the idea that nature is normative rests on our ability to sustain (if I can use the word) a fairly strong conceptual dichotomy between nature and the human realm.
 
The Anthropocene idea makes that dichotomy look pretty brittle. It is not merely that the idea suggests that the distinction between natural and artificial has recently broken down—for while nature may have ended due to recent human activities, that possibility seems to reaffirm that it existed as a distinct realm prior to, say, 1950 (or whenever the Anthropocene is determined to have begun). More fundamentally, as Erle Ellis’ work suggests (and the work of others on the “Paleoanthropocene”), pervasive human transformation of the landscape dates back to the earliest humans—calling the strict dichotomy between humanity and nature into question.
 
Vogel’s essay helps articulate the questions that arise when we start to apply pressure on the dichotomy—in particular, by considering the implications of the idea that, after all, human beings are themselves natural beings. He provides a philosophical analysis of the idea of nature, and shows that the effort to maintain the distinction between nature and humanity cannot avoid a vision of human beings as, in some way, outside of nature—a legacy of Cartesian dualism (traceable in turn at least to Plato, by way of Christianity), which sees the person as metaphysically divided between body and soul. This result will be implausible to many environmentalists who want to think of humans as firmly part of the natural world.
 
Vogel’s purpose is, frankly, negative: he seeks to persuade environmentalists to abandon any appeal to nature. His strategy is to demonstrate that the conceptual distinction between nature and humanity is, finally, conceptually unsustainable: thinking through it leads to fruitless contradictions. I find his argument valuable precisely because of what he shows about the distinction. For, from an Hegelian point of view, Vogel provides the first stage of a dialectical evolution, in which a conceptual opposition proves untenable. This first stage prompts a second: the development of a broader outlook which supersedes (“aufheben’s”) the earlier concepts by incorporating them within a more comprehensive conceptual system. Vogel does not undertake that second project here, but accomplishes much by showing that and how the distinction is ripe for superseding. In my view, the second step—the development of the wider outlook—must be informed by Niche Construction Theory (NCT). As I note in my post on Odling-Smee et al., NCT has an explicitly dialectical inspiration. Though as a scientific theory it has a narrower and more specific focus than the broad conceptual issues Vogel discusses, I have a strong intuition that NCT is a source for characterizing the middle dialectical realm between nature and humanity—especially through the anthropological application of NCT to the study of human niche construction. I will try to substantiate that intuition in future posts.


FURTHER READING:
Mark A. Michael. 2005. “Is It Natural to Drive Species to Extinction?”  Ethics & the Environment, Vol. 10, No. 1, pp. 49-66. Michael reaches a similar conclusion about the concept of nature, but via a different (though related) argument.
Erle C. Ellis et al. 2013. “Used Planet: A Global History.” PNAS, Vol. 110, No. 20, pp. 7978–7985. DOI:10.1073/pnas.1217241110. This article reviews the long-standing and pervasive human transformations of landscapes across the planet.
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