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Environmental Philosophy

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Grain Vapor Ray

We have entered the Anthropocene era—a geological age of our own making, in which what we have understood to be nature is made by man. We need a new way to understand the dynamics of a new epoch. These volumes offer writings that approach the Anthropocene through the perspectives of grain, vapor, and ray—the particulate, the volatile, and the radiant. The first three volumes—each devoted to one of the three textures—offer a series of paired texts, with contemporary writers responding to historic writings. A fourth volume offers a guide to the project as a whole.

Grain: Granular materials add up to concrete forms; insignificant specks accumulate into complex entities. The texts in this volume narrate some of the fundamental qualities of the granular. In one pairing of texts, Robert Smithson compares the accumulation of thoughts to the aggregation of sediment, and an environmental historian writes about the stakes for earthly knowledge today. Other authors include Alfred Russel Wallace, Denis Diderot, and Georges Bataille.

Vapor: The vaporous represents matter’s transformations. In this volume, a political scientist compares Kafka’s haunting “Odradek” to “vibrant matter”; a media theorist responds to poems and diagrams by Buckminster Fuller; and more, including texts by Hippocrates, Italo Calvino, and James Clerk Maxwell.

Ray: A ray is an act of propagation and diffusion, encompassing a chain of interdependencies between energy and matter. This volume includes texts by Spinoza (with a reconceptualization by a contemporary philosopher), Jacques Lacan (followed by an anthropologist’s reflections on temporality), Thomas Pynchon (accompanied by an interpretation of Pynchon’s “electro-mysticism”), and others.

These volumes constitute a unique experiment in design and composition as well as content. The mingling of texts and the juxtaposition of different areas of knowledge represented in a variety of forms express the dynamics of a world in change.

Environmentalism and the Political Theory Canon

Contemporary environmental political theory considers the implications of the environmental crisis for such political concepts as rights, citizenship, justice, democracy, the state, race, class, and gender. As the field has matured, scholars have begun to explore connections between Green Theory and such canonical political thinkers as Plato, Machiavelli, Locke, and Marx. The essays in this volume put important figures from the political theory canon in dialogue with current environmental political theory. It is the first comprehensive volume to bring the insights of Green Theory to bear in reinterpreting these canonical theorists.

Individual essays cover such classical figures in Western thought as Aristotle, Hume, Rousseau, Mill, and Burke, but they also depart from the traditional canon to consider Mary Wollstonecraft, W. E. B. Du Bois, Hannah Arendt, and Confucius. Engaging and accessible, the essays also offer original and innovative interpretations that often challenge standard readings of these thinkers. In examining and explicating how these great thinkers of the past viewed the natural world and our relationship with nature, the essays also illuminate our current environmental predicament.

Essays on
Plato • Aristotle • Niccolò Machiavelli • Thomas Hobbes • John Locke • David Hume • Jean-Jacques Rousseau • Edmund Burke • Mary Wollstonecraft • John Stuart Mill • Karl Marx • W. E. B. Du Bois • Martin Heidegger • Hannah Arendt • Confucius

Contributors
Sheryl D. Breen, W. Scott Cameron, Peter F. Cannavò, Joel Jay Kassiola, Joseph H. Lane Jr. Timothy W. Luke, John M. Meyer, Özgüç Orhan, Barbara K. Seeber, Francisco Seijo, Kimberly K. Smith, Piers H. G. Stephens, Zev Trachtenberg, Andrew Valls, Harlan Wilson

Politics in the Age of Ecology

In this provocative call for a new ecological politics, William Ophuls starts from a radical premise: “sustainability” is impossible. We are on an industrial Titanic, fueled by rapidly depleting stocks of fossil hydrocarbons. Making the deck chairs from recyclable materials and feeding the boilers with biofuels is futile. In the end, the ship is doomed by the laws of thermodynamics and by the implacable biological and geological limits that are already beginning to pinch. Ophuls warns us that we are headed for a postindustrial future that, however technologically sophisticated, will resemble the preindustrial past in many important respects. With Plato’s Revenge, Ophuls, author of Ecology and the Politics of Scarcity, envisions political and social transformations that will lead to a new natural-law politics based on the realities of ecology, physics, and psychology.

In a discussion that ranges widely—from ecology to quantum physics to Jungian psychology to Eastern religion to Western political philosophy—Ophuls argues for an essentially Platonic politics of consciousness dedicated to inner cultivation rather than outward expansion and the pursuit of perpetual growth. We would then achieve a way of life that is materially and institutionally simple but culturally and spiritually rich, one in which humanity flourishes in harmony with nature.

Living Sustainably in a Connected World

We live today in a global web of interdependence, connected technologically, economically, politically, and socially. As a result of these expanding and deepening interdependencies, it has become impossible fully to control—or foretell—the effects of our actions. The world is rife with unintended consequences. The first law of human ecology—which declares that we can never do merely one thing—is a truth we ignore at our peril. In Indra’s Net and the Midas Touch, Leslie Paul Thiele explores the impact of interdependence and unintended consequences on our pursuit of sustainability.

Unfortunately, good intentions provide no antidote to the law of unintended consequences, and proffered cures often prove worse than the disease. Biofuels developed for the purpose of reducing carbon emissions, for example, have had the unintended effect of cutting off food supplies to the needy and destroying rain forests. We must fundamentally transform our patterns of thinking and behavior. Thiele offers the intellectual and moral foundations for this transformation, drawing from ecology, ethics, technology, economics, politics, psychology, physics, and metaphysics. Awareness of our interconnectedness, he writes, stimulates creativity and community; it is a profound responsibility and a blessing beyond measure.

The Future of American Environmentalism

Environmentalists have always worked to protect the wildness of nature but now must find a new direction. We have so tamed, colonized, and contaminated the natural world that safeguarding it from humans is no longer an option. Humanity’s imprint is now everywhere and all efforts to “preserve” nature require extensive human intervention. At the same time, we are repeatedly told that there is no such thing as nature itself—only our own conceptions of it. One person’s endangered species is another’s dinner or source of income. In Living Through the End of Nature, Paul Wapner probes the meaning of environmentalism in a postnature age.

Wapner argues that we can neither go back to a preindustrial Elysium nor forward to a technological utopia. He proposes a third way that takes seriously the breached boundary between humans and nature and charts a co-evolutionary path in which environmentalists exploit the tension between naturalism and mastery to build a more sustainable, ecologically vibrant, and socially just world.

Beautifully written and thoughtfully argued, Living Through the End of Nature provides a powerful vision for environmentalism’s future

Waste, Material Cultures, Social Justice

Garbage, considered both materially and culturally, elicits mixed responses. Our responsibility toward the objects we love and then discard is entangled with our responsibility toward the systems that make those objects. Histories of the Dustheap uses garbage, waste, and refuse to investigate the relationships between various systems--the local and the global, the economic and the ecological, the historical and the contemporary--and shows how this most democratic reality produces identities, social relations, and policies.

The contributors first consider garbage in subjective terms, examining “toxic autobiography” by residents of Love Canal, the intersection of public health and women’s rights, and enviroblogging. They explore the importance of place, with studies of post-Katrina soil contamination in New Orleans, e-waste disposal in Bloomington, Indiana, and garbage on Mount Everest. And finally, they look at cultural contradictions as objects hover between waste and desirability, examining Milwaukee’s efforts to sell its sludge as fertilizer, the plastics industry’s attempt to wrap plastic bottles and bags in the mantle of freedom of choice, and the idea of obsolescence in the animated film The Brave Little Toaster.

Histories of the Dustheap offers a range of perspectives on a variety of incarnations of garbage, inviting the reader to consider garbage in a way that goes beyond the common “buy green” discourse that empowers individuals while limiting environmental activism to consumerist practices.

Science, Totems, and the Technological Species

We need nature for our physical and psychological well-being. Our actions reflect this when we turn to beloved pets for companionship, vacation in spots of natural splendor, or spend hours working in the garden. Yet we are also a technological species and have been since we fashioned tools out of stone. Thus one of this century's central challenges is to embrace our kinship with a more-than-human world—"our totemic self"—and integrate that kinship with our scientific culture and technological selves.

This book takes on that challenge and proposes a reenvisioned ecopsychology. Contributors consider such topics as the innate tendency for people to bond with local place; a meaningful nature language; the epidemiological evidence for the health benefits of nature interaction; the theory and practice of ecotherapy; Gaia theory; ecovillages; the neuroscience of perceiving natural beauty; and sacred geography. Taken together, the essays offer a vision for human flourishing and for a more grounded and realistic environmental psychology.

Philosophy, Science, and Ethics

Philosophical reflections on the environment began with early philosophers’ invocation of a cosmology that mixed natural and supernatural phenomena. Today, the central philosophical problem posed by the environment involves not what it can teach us about ourselves and our place in the cosmic order but rather how we can understand its workings in order to make better decisions about our own conduct regarding it. The resulting inquiry spans different areas of contemporary philosophy, many of which are represented by the fifteen original essays in this volume.

The contributors first consider conceptual problems generated by rapid advances in biology and ecology, examining such topics as ecological communities, adaptation, and scientific consensus. The contributors then turn to epistemic and axiological issues, first considering philosophical aspects of environmental decision making and then assessing particular environmental policies (largely relating to climate change), including reparations, remediation, and nuclear power, from a normative perspective.

Human Virtues of the Future

Predictions about global climate change have produced both stark scenarios of environmental catastrophe and purportedly pragmatic ideas about adaptation. This book takes a different perspective, exploring the idea that the challenge of adapting to global climate change is fundamentally an ethical one, that it is not simply a matter of adapting our infrastructures and economies to mitigate damage but rather of adapting ourselves to realities of a new global climate. The challenge is to restore our conception of humanity--to understand human flourishing in new ways--in an age in which humanity shapes the basic conditions of the global environment. In the face of what we have unintentionally done to Earth’s ecology, who shall we become?

The contributors examine ways that new realities will require us to revisit and adjust the practice of ecological restoration; the place of ecology in our conception of justice; the form and substance of traditional virtues and vices; and the organizations, scale, and underlying metaphors of important institutions. Topics discussed include historical fidelity in ecological restoration; the application of capability theory to ecology; the questionable ethics of geoengineering; and the cognitive transformation required if we are to “think like a planet.”

Adapting to the Coming Downshift

Energy supplies are tightening. Persistent pollutants are accumulating. Food security is declining. There is no going back to the days of reckless consumption, but there is a possibility--already being realized in communities across North America and around the world--of localizing, of living well as we learn to live well within immutable constraints. This book maps the transition to a more localized world.

Society is shifting from the centrifugal forces of globalization (cheap and abundant raw materials and energy, intensive commercialization, concentrated economic and political power) to the centripetal forces of localization: distributed authority and leadership, sustainable use of nearby natural resources, community self-reliance and cohesion (with crucial regional, national, and international dimensions).

This collection, offering classic texts by such writers as Wendell Berry, M. King Hubbert, and Ernst F. Schumacher, as well as new work by authors including Karen Litfin and David Hess, shows how localization--a process of affirmative social change--can enable psychologically meaningful and fulfilling lives while promoting ecological and social sustainability. Topics range from energy dynamics to philosophies of limits, from the governance of place-based communities to the discovery of positive personal engagement. Together they point the way to a transition that can be peaceful, democratic, just, and environmentally resilient.

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