Environmental Under-determinism, Part 1

A few weeks ago I mentioned my interest in what I think of as “environmental under-determinism;” in this post I’ll explore the idea a bit further. It is an attempt to frame a broad understanding of the relationship between human societies and their environmental settings. In this post I will suggest a motivation for this understanding: it is a response to a kind of paradox that results from the denial of dualistic ways of thinking about nature and society. Next week I’ll suggest a mechanism that explains why human beings are environmentally underdetermined, drawing on ideas from Adam Smith.

As I noted in the previous post (referring to an earlier one by Noah) a recurring theme in discussions of the Anthropocene is that a strict conceptual dichotomy between nature and society is no longer tenable—indeed, was perhaps always misleading. The profound entanglement between social systems and the physical (“natural”) systems on which they depend has so thoroughly transformed those physical systems that they seem barely to be natural any longer—where “natural” is conceived as non-artificial, i.e. unaffected by human influence. In a strictly pragmatic sense the distinction between society and nature no longer seems useful as a tool to identify relevant features of the world. In particular, as Environmental Historians and Anthropologists have been reminding us for years now, many landscapes we call “natural” turn out to have been importantly shaped by human activity … so that that term is not actually helping us sort landscapes according the processes that created them.

But not only the distinction itself seems inapposite to the conditions we seek to understand by applying it. More fundamentally, the very conceptual activity of making distinctions, of seeing things as distinct, might impede a more accurate knowledge of the interconnected continuum that is the reality of things. Where conditions are marked more by hybridity than purity, conceptual dualisms will fail to yield the relational understanding required to fully grasp the interactions between human societies and the physical settings they inhabit. Further, as critics of dualistic thinking have argued, dualism is tightly linked to hierarchy—of values, and in practice; to distinguish between (say) male and female, mind and body, society and nature shades inevitably into a system of prioritizing one over the other.

Thus, dualisms are to be overcome (a big theme in the tradition of Philosophy anchored in Hegel), and one of the intellectual challenges of the Anthropocene is to revise our concepts so that we do not hold nature and society apart, as two putatively separate entities, but instead find ways of making it easier to think in terms of relationships among elements that can be characterized by either concept, or both of them. From a moral point of view, recognizing the interdependence foregrounded by focusing on relationships can delegitimize the hierarchies and critique the domination dualisms all too easily promote.

However, to deny dualism is to say that nature and society are not two distinct entities; it is to suggest, in effect, that “nature” and “society” are different names applied to the same thing, more precisely to different aspects of the same system. Consider an analogy to the denial of another (no doubt related) dualism, between mind and body.

Cartesian dualism has been pretty thoroughly repudiated; instead most philosophers who think about these things are “monists”—they think that there is just one thing that we talk about when we talk about mind and body. But, note, they think that that single entity is physical—that is, that statements about the mind are statements about the body. (To be precise, statements about a particular mind, e.g. “I am interested in the Anthropocene” refer to a particular brain.) This raises the issue of reductionism—the idea that statements about the mind are really about the brain, and thus we can ultimately explain what is happening in our minds by reference to the physical processes in our brains. And this leads to the issue of determinism—the contents of our mental lives are determined by the (obviously highly complex) chains of physical cause and effect in our brains (and bodies as wholes), some of which we happen to experience as thoughts and feelings.

The lesson of this analogy to the denial of mind/body dualism is that the denial of society/nature dualism can be linked to environmental determinism. The “monist” view that there is a unitary subject rather than society and nature can easily raise (by way of a general preference for materialist explanations) the reductionist idea that that unitary subject is, at bottom, material. In turn, this can lead to the determinist view that societies have the characteristics, cultures, and histories that they do in virtue of the chains of physical influence exerted on them by their environments.

Now I take it that few people are persuaded by the crude form of environmental determinism I just sketched. (Even thinkers who are convinced that environmental factors play a role, among other factors: see, e.g., this post from The Center for Climate and Security). This is why I spoke of a paradox that results from the denial of dualism: dualism seems incorrect, so we are right to deny it—but denying it seems to lead to an implausible determinism. Avoiding this paradox is the motivation for exploring the implications of nature/society monism differently than I suggested above. In my next post I will turn to Adam Smith to examine a way of understanding human beings as fully embedded in nature, and yet not determined by it.

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3 thoughts on “Environmental Under-determinism, Part 1

  1. This is an interesting train of thought, but as an environmental historian I think we need to be aware that the environment has influenced and constrained human actions in the past in ways that might be thought of as approaching determinism. I say approaching determinism because, just as I don’t believe anyone is really 100% dualist or 100% monist (these are ways of thinking that we can use when they’re appropriate, recognizing their limitations, aren’t they?), I don’t believe there’s ever a single straightforward cause in history.

    But even though I’ll be the first to agree that “history” is the product of minds in the present thinking about the past, it’s still traditionally based on things that happened in the past. Environmental events such as the Columbian Exchange, when disease eliminated 90% or more of the American population on contact with Europeans, are huge causes (if not determining factors) of what happened when Europeans discovered the Americas. But they’ve only been recognized quite recently. Alfred Crosby had a heck of a time getting his book published — in the 70s! So it would be a mistake to confuse an effort to include the influence of the environment where it has traditionally been ignored with over-determinism.

  2. Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment, Dan–I’m really glad to have your voice on this blog!

    So let me make clear, first of all, that I’m not a dualist–though there are people who stake out pretty pure views at least in regard to the mind/body issue (Descartes on the one hand, the Churchland’s on the other). Regarding the environment I am much more in line with the idea that it is, to paraphrase you, a huge causal influence, though not a determining factor, of events/phenomena in the social/historical world. As, broadly speaking, a materialist, to me the mystery is more in why the environment is not a complete causal influence that totally determines things!

    This is, I guess, the mystery of human freedom in some sense . . . something we’re obliged to believe in, but can’t fully understand. So I’m trying to explore that gap, to grasp why there’s any autonomy here at all, in light of the need to acknowledge our materiality. The post I’m planning as a follow up will tease out a suggestion I find in some comments from Adam Smith . . . I hope it’s not too obnoxious for me to say I hope you’ll come back next week to say what you think about that one!

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