For World Environment Day, we've asked William P. Kabasenche, editor of The Environment: Philosophy, Science, and Ethics to answer some questions about the role of philosophers in environmental issues.
How does the way we interact and think of “the environment” today differ from the teachings of classical philosophers?
Classical philosophers tended to look to nature with an interest in what nature could teach us about our nature and how we could flourish as human beings. And they tended to supplement what they could observe with explanations that appealed to concepts like the natural purpose or function of some natural entity. The contemporary understanding of the natural environment is very much informed by modern science. And we now understand that apart from what nature might teach us about how to live, we certainly need to consider our connections to the environment. Our flourishing depends on ecosystems functioning to provide basic human goods like clean air and water, nutritious food, and so on.
Is our change in thinking about the environment wrong? Should we consider the environment a place to learn about ourselves rather than a place we want to try to understand?
Certainly it is not wrong to have our understanding of the natural world informed by the findings of contemporary science. Should we learn about ourselves from nature? I think so. In fact, trying to understand the natural environment can go hand in hand with a deeper self-understanding. For instance, modern environmental science has helped us to appreciate how fragile our position in the world. All the recent discussion of global climate change and how it might alter our world certainly suggests this. Understanding this can and should shape our perspective on our place in the world and how we ought to conduct ourselves in it. The cavalier attitude of the past—exemplified by the assumptions that natural resources are unlimited, that we can’t do anything that will harm the natural environment, and that our well-being isn’t tied to the health of the environments we live in—is unsustainable in the face of what we know now.
What is your definition of “the environment”?
Strictly speaking, the environment is simply what surrounds us, so that it makes sense to talk about the environment in my department or my city. In many contexts, we now think of the term ‘environment’ as a way of referring to the natural environment. So environmental ethics, for instance, concerns our moral responsibilities to the natural world (eg, what do we owe to non-human animals and their environments?). Or, on a slightly broader usage, this area of ethics investigates our moral responsibilities with respect to the natural world (eg, what do we owe our fellow human beings with respect to maintaining clean air to breathe and water to drink?).
Studying the environment from a philosophical perspective seems to be a recent development. How do you see this discipline expanding?
Because philosophy is a discipline with a very, very long history, environmental philosophy, at least with the focus I described above, is indeed a relatively new area of inquiry for the discipline. Of course, in the 1960s and 1970s, when attention started to turn, increasingly, to the state of our environment, philosophers were among the first to be a part of those conversations. At its best philosophy is always investigating the philosophical aspects of any area of interest or concern to the wider public. And I see that continuing. Global climate change, for example, raises enormous questions about intergenerational and international justice. If the worst effects of what we are doing now will only be felt by those living after us, what do we owe them and why? Climate change will similarly intensify questions about what we owe to the least well-off among us and what we owe to those living in developing nations who might reasonably hope to pursue the quality of life enjoyed by residents of developed nations. Environmental philosophy will have an important role to play in a variety of policy decisions we need to make, particularly where there are trade-offs between different interests. For example, how should we deliberate about the value of preserving certain natural entities (relatively pristine wilderness, species diversity, clean air and water, etc.) when doing so will have economic impacts? Still another place for philosophical reflection is in the concepts that shape and extend ecology, evolutionary biology, and environmental science. Ideally, scientists and philosophers can work together to develop sound concepts of the phenomena that scientists investigate empirically. And if both groups can make meaningful contributions to environmental policies related to such work, better still.