Has environmental ethics failed?

For many of us in the environment movement, it has long been clear that the ruthlessly instrumentalist and anthropocentric value-set that has shaped Western civilization and now directs the entire project of modernity around the globe is morally bankrupt, and that a more expansive, bio-inclusive and Earth-friendly moral orientation is urgently needed.

What we have not figured out yet is how to make this large-scale moral reorientation happen.

As a philosophical discipline, environmental ethics has, over the last forty years, played an important role in articulating and defending alternatives to the anthropocentric orientation that places humanity at the centre of the moral universe and makes human interests the yardstick for all moral considerations.

Environmental philosophers have rigorously laid out various versions of biocentrism or bio-inclusiveness in ethics, and the case for these positions has been detailed in a variety of ways - from arguments concerning the intrinsic value of non-human life to Kantian defences of living things as ends in themselves (rather than as mere means to the ends of others), to critiques of the human/nature, mind/matter, culture/nature dualisms that have framed most thinking in the Western tradition.

In addition to formulating new ethical categories such as biocentrism and the intrinsic value of non-human life, environmental philosophers in the 1980s and 1990s posed an array of foundational questions:

  • Who or what is ultimately to qualify as morally significant? Living things?
  • But if so, what counts as a living thing? Do individual organisms alone count as living things, or do larger living systems also count?
  • In which case, how are we to decide who has moral priority when the interests of individual organisms conflict with those of systems - as when feral animals threaten the integrity of ecosystems?
  • Should an environmental ethic cover all living things? Should plants and fungi count as morally considerable in their own right? And if so, how considerable? As considerable as animals?
  • Should a distinction be drawn, morally speaking, between higher and lower animals? But which animals are higher and which lower?
  • What about microbes? Single cells? Viruses? Species? And natural features of the landscape that are not alive, such as rocks and rivers? Should an environmental ethic also cover these?

Philosophers teased out such questions without, of course, reaching final agreement on them.

Meanwhile, the categories and arguments that had been developed in environmental philosophy were taken up across a range of academic disciplines. In the humanities, discourses such as ecocriticism, eco-cultural studies, animal studies, multispecies studies, biosemiotics, cultural geography and the new materialisms emerged, reconfiguring their disciplines-of-origin through the lenses of the new eco-ethical categories.

Social theorists had also, from the start, been working with these categories to develop new detailed blueprints for ecological societies. From Murray Bookchin in the 1970s to bioregionalists and ecosocialists through the 1980s and 90s, to present-day theorists from the Biomimicry Institute and Simplicity Institute, thinkers have been offering detailed scenarios for societies organized around bio-inclusive values. In the sciences, conservation biology has also (until recently) organized its research around this value axis.

But none of this visionary and revisionary thinking has availed. The eminent Jungian psychoanalyst, James Hillman, once remarked of his own discipline, "We've had a hundred years of psychotherapy - and the world's getting worse". We could say the same of environmental ethics. We've had forty years of environmental ethics - and the environment's getting worse. And it is not just getting worse - it is getting catastrophically worse. With climate change, the sixth great extinction event, the Anthropocene - how much worse can it get?

The "Hard Problem" of environmental reform

So why has all this ground-breaking thinking not availed? Why has reason done so little to shift the wider society off its anthropocentric axis? Why have the ecological counter-cultures of decades ago remained just that - counter cultures, despite their demonstrably sound rational credentials?

Thirty years ago, I personally thought that if we could only demonstrate that the anthropocentric bias of the Western tradition was rationally indefensible, a value reorientation would ensue. Environmental philosophers did, in my opinion, demonstrate this - but change on a significant scale has not occurred.

In light of this failure, it seems important to be clear about what is currently not needed. We do not need more pure reason, in the sense of philosophical argument for an alternative, bio-inclusive ethics. Reason has already made as strong a case as reason can and it is clear now that pure reason or argument alone does not mobilize change. Nor do we need more blueprints for an ecological society. Blueprints do not in themselves, as it turns out, bring about change, any more than philosophical arguments do. Nor does science. Existing environmental sciences, incomplete as they admittedly are, are already pointing to a planet ecologically in extremis. Yet this has not triggered a corresponding awakening.

What we do currently need more of, in my opinion, is social thinking about how value transitions occur. We have the philosophy, the science and the social blueprints. But we don't have the uptake. And the reasons for this are not yet understood.

One way of explaining such philosophical recalcitrance is in terms of historical materialism. You don't have to be a Marxist to find historical materialism a compelling explanation for why societies adopt the particular value-sets they do.

For those not au fait with historical materialism (and in these post-Marxist days, fewer of us are), the general idea is that the values that characterize a society - which is to say, the consciousness, culture and identities which prevail in it - are largely an upshot of the underlying "modes of production" in that society: its basic economic modalities - and in particular, the praxes whereby its members act upon nature in their efforts to wrest a livelihood from it. So, for example, hunter gatherers in a rainforest might be expected to hold very different views of self, society and world from, say, industrial workers in a nineteenth century factory town.

All that counts as culture and consciousness in a particular society, and the identities that the members of that society construct for themselves, are basically, from an historical materialist perspective, ideological, in the sense that they reflect and legitimize more basic economic conditions. These ideological structures cannot be changed by argument (philosophy, science, discourse) or exhortation (moral persuasion). They can only change when the underlying praxes of the society in question change.

So, one would not expect to persuade a hunter gatherer to become anthropocentric in outlook just by engaging them in philosophical argument any more than one would expect by the same method to persuade workers in, say, a factory farm or on an assembly line to embrace an ecocentric perspective.

While historical materialism is not a cast-iron or comprehensive explanation of values in society, I do personally find it plausible, as far as it goes. It definitely helps to explain why no amount of wilderness workshops or classroom discussion or even public debate will genuinely induce ecological consciousness or identity in us if we have to return to the shopping malls and mills of industry, commerce and corporatism after leaving our conferences and eco-retreats. And return to these most of us do, since alternative opportunities for making a living are exceedingly thin on the ground in modern societies.

To allow that historical materialism largely explains why particular value-sets prevail in particular societies need not imply that all such value-sets are merely ideological. I think certain value sets can be demonstrated by reason to be sound and others not so, relative to agreed further ends. But what historical materialism does teach us is not to expect societies at large to adopt new value sets, no matter how rationally preferable to the old ones, if the new values are inconsistent with the basic praxis of the societies in question.

However, while historical materialism might go a long way towards explaining why particular value-sets prevail in particular societies, it does not in itself solve the problem of how actually to bring about a new value regime. For to replace the underlying praxes of our present society with praxes that would, according to historical materialism, induce ecological consciousness would require massive economic and political investment in new eco-compatible modes of production. Such investment could presumably not occur unless those very ecological values were already in place.

It is this vexing circularity that makes the problem of moral reform in relation to the environment so intransigent. This is why I call it the "Hard Problem" of environmental reform.

Affiliation, religion and identity

In light of such circularity, and the moral inertia it entails, what can be done? Are there other motivating forces as powerful as materialist or economic ones that might be harnessed to foster value change? Marx would presumably have said no. Materialist or economic forces are determinative, for him, precisely because they ultimately govern our survival, and nothing is more fundamental, in terms of impact on consciousness, than the survival imperative.

But perhaps this presumed priority of material forces is debatable. Perhaps in the human context there are other forces, further to materialist ones, that also determine our survival. The imperative to affiliate, for instance. The need to belong to a community or group or troupe is perhaps as core to our survival, in evolutionary terms, as our need for food and shelter.

This seems to be borne out not only in our own present-day experience of life in society, with its many imperatives to conform, and the frightening mental health and criminality costs of failing to conform, but also when we look to our evolutionary reflection in primate societies. In chimp troupes, affiliation is important both for the purpose of sharing resources and for social legitimacy - misfits and stragglers are policed and killed. In evolutionary terms, affiliation may be as powerful a determinant of identity and consciousness as praxis is.

Perhaps, then, identity - in the sense conferred by affiliation - is a potential site of value change, one that could serve as prelude and impetus to the longer term, ecological "transvaluation of values" that will indeed, I think, as historical materialists insist, require major changes in economic praxis.

How might this strategy work? What loci of affiliation might serve to embed Earth-friendly values in society? One major possibility is religion. For Marx, of course, religion was a prime instance of ideology, different religions serving merely to prop up and legitimate different economic regimes. In an industrial society like ours, characterized by intensely instrumentalist relations with the entire biosphere, only religions that reinforce an anthropocentric orientation might be expected to achieve social traction.

But in a twenty-first century Western context, in which the star of secularism is rising and that of traditional religions appears to be waning, the bedrock formations of belonging and therefore of identity that religions afforded are eroding. Perhaps in this new context, our basic need for affiliation is ceasing to be satisfactorily met. The forms of identity and consciousness that emanate from capitalist-industrial modes of praxis are possessive, individualist and self-centric as well as instrumentalist: they untether the self from any larger - social or environmental - meanings or responsibilities.

Possibilities of affiliation do of course exist, but, arising as they do from contingent interests or causes rather than from the moral or metaphysical core of people's existence, they arguably leave members of modern societies morally and metaphysically marooned and accordingly at existential risk.

A new formation, introduced to take the place of traditional religions but serving Earth-friendly values rather than the anthropocentric ones served, to varying degrees, by present-day major religions, might in this context prove as powerful a determinant of consciousness as are materialist or economic forces.

Of course, a preliminary step in this connection would surely be to attempt to green existing religions. Such efforts may not suffice to turn the moral tide in the modern West, however, for two reasons:

  • Religion in its currently prevailing forms might already be too discredited - as inimical to science, as authoritarian rather than democratic, and latterly as riven with sexual and other scandals.
  • Those world religions with the greatest currency and influence in the West - namely, the Abrahamic faiths - may resist being greened to any significant extent in any case, having arisen as expressions of an agrarianism that set humanity outside and above nature, as domesticator, ruler and engineer of hitherto sovereign (that is, self-ruling) landscapes. So lip service may be paid within those faiths to new ecological values, but whether such values can truly be inhabited consistently with the anthropomorphism that typically underpins theisms, regardless of stripe, may be questioned.

In any case, whatever progress may be made in this matter of greening existing religions - and, admittedly, Pope Francis is currently putting the entire weight of the papacy behind this effort - it may nevertheless be ultimately necessary to introduce an entirely new formation: a formation which creates a new narrative of identity and belonging; a narrative devoid from the start of anthropomorphic undertones.

We might perhaps choose not to call this Earth-friendly formation a "religion" at all, even though it might be socially organized into communities of interest as religions are. For it would differ from theistic traditions inasmuch as it would not feature notions of godhead, popularly construed in highly anthropomorphic forms, but would instead feature science as integral to its notion of the universe. Mind, however, in some larger sense, might be re-construed as immanent in matter, and the universe itself might thus be perceived as intrinsically alive, inherently communicative, and hence as the ultimate wellspring of meaning.

There would be no need, from the point of view of this new formation, for texts or scriptures, or for spiritual interpreters or authorities. Earth, as microcosm of the living universe, would provide the "scripture"; transactions with Earth-mind or mind-in-nature would be a personal affair - a personal locus of revelation. The orientation of this Earth-friendly formation might be described as eco-spiritual - but unlike spirituality more generally, which is often taken to connote value-sets held outside of formal institutions, the Earth-friendly values of the new formation could be held collectively, since the purpose of this formation would be to constitute powerful new loci of affiliation. Members would be allied not only to Earth itself and the larger community of all life, as implied by eco-spirituality, but also to organised local "congregations" comprised of people whose allegiance was likewise to Earth.

Actually, I think it would be important not to call this value-set, and the new narrative of identity attending it, a religion (or faith or credo) because the term, religion, has long been used to disparage environmentalists - to imply they act from irrational motives. But nor would it count merely as philosophy, since it would betoken much more than philosophy does - a whole-hearted commitment to care for Earth-life and identification with the human community sharing that commitment.

Perhaps the term cosmology might serve: cosmologies can be exclusively scientific or exclusively mythopoetic or a combination of both. The very term, cosmos, is after all directly derived from the Greek, kosmos - meaning "order" - and is in this sense inherently normative, implying that the physical universe as we encounter it does not merely hang together contingently but is self-conforming to some kind of inner principle of integrity or goodness. Such a cosmos is immanently lawful in its configuration not merely in a causal but in a normative sense.

An ecological cosmology would thus have much more in common with the Earth-based cosmologies of Aboriginal Australia than with major religions such as the Abrahamic faiths, since it, like Aboriginal cosmologies, would be organized around an immanent, normative axis of ecological Law rather than around the worship of gods.

Communities of conservation

In the absence as yet of widespread economic praxes conducive to an ecological orientation, day-to-day practices that could anchor the Earth-friendly values of the new cosmology in actual experiences of reality could include the practice of conservation. Through in situ activities such as revegetation, restoration and re-wilding, people could gradually begin to decode, and become implicated in, actual ecologies, gaining in ecological literacy and becoming initiated into the intricacies - the myriad minds and mysteries - of actual life communities.

Indeed, I would suggest that hands-on practices of conservation, undertaken not in a purely utilitarian spirit but as devotional service - as the defining telos of one's community and as the perceived end-point of human agency - afford new ways for us to re-enter reality and find our normative direction therein. To practice conservation truly effectively requires the closest attention to the particularities of a given place, to the lie of its land and the patterns of its weather, to the minutiae of the manifold identities and relationships that are forever forming and reforming there.

The practice of conservation also involves push and pull: we make interventions, such as plantings, thinnings, weedings and, perhaps, in some circumstances, baitings and sprayings. We must pay attention to the consequences of those interventions for ecosystems, including all the vertebrate and invertebrate actors therein, rapidly adjusting our actions in light of often unintended outcomes. Our activities may expose us to risk, as we immerse ourselves in life-worlds outside the blind bubble of modern civilization. In these normally overlooked life-worlds, venoms and wild antagonists, hidden perils of many kinds, lie in wait for us.

Such threats, as much as our ministrations, force us to cultivate attentiveness and responsiveness, and little by little this attentiveness, together with the respect that grows from our engagement with a multitude of inscrutable agencies, opens our eyes. It opens our eyes to worlds within worlds within worlds of astonishing embodiments of life, all cohering and conforming to one another - insofar as they are not derailed by the industrial juggernaut of modernity - in accordance with the manifest principles of creation and regeneration that Indigenous peoples signal when they say, "the Law is in the land."

In this way, right under our very noses, the land may begin to open to us, to come alive, and a whole new horizon of relationship, presence, communicativity, enthralment, mystery and indeed revelation may come into view.

Such place-specific conservation activities are in principle available to everyone. Those with disposable capital (attention retiring baby boomers!) might join with friends to purchase an ecologically strategic property, then safeguard it with a conservation covenant, and prepare to embark on what might become, in its quiet way, a depth-initiation that few anticipate. Those without such financial means can still commit to an ecologically strategic place, by volunteering for caring-for-country type programs on public or private estates or creating such programs themselves.

Site specific conservation practices, sustained over the long term, can genuinely induct us into and re-implicate us empirically in the real, rescuing us from the ideality of traditional religion and from the blind bubble of anthropocentrism. By coming to know a particular community of life in this intimate way, and by becoming implicated, through our own sweat and care, in its return-to-life, we become bonded to it, and to our colleagues-in-care who likewise find themselves drawn into its larger significance. Before too long we may start to feel like custodians of the place in question - the particular woodland or mountain, rocky outcrop or arid shrubland - its interests gradually overtaking our own; our allegiance to it, and to our fellow custodians, may gradually outgrow our narrower, more personal perspectives.

While such conservation activity may not in itself be strictly praxical, in the historical materialist sense, in that it does not constitute a mode of production, it is in-service to the praxical, inasmuch as it helps to repair the biospheric fabric that is a condition for any and all ongoing economic activity. At the very least, it represents a purposeful immersion in the real and in this sense may genuinely have the power to actualize new forms of identity and consciousness.

To sum it all up: I think one way for environmentalists to tackle what I've called the "Hard Problem" - the circularity that besets our attempts to shift society towards Earth-centredness and that is so well explained by historical materialism - is to create new formations that answer to the human need for in-depth affiliation, a need arguably as core to our survival as are material needs. An ecological cosmology, socially organized into place-based congregations of commitment, richly informed with natural history and the relevant sciences and anchored in hands-on practices of conservation but also open to larger possibilities of communion, may serve this purpose.

Originally published on ABC Religion & Ethics as 'We've had Forty Years of Environmental Ethics - and the World is Getting Worse: What's to be Done?'