Literature, Philosophy, Politics, Religion, Science

Wendell Berry, Deep Ecology, and Hermit Studies

Free Photo: Posing Lumberjacks

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been reading some writing on the environment recently. It’s my first significant exposure to the field of environmental studies, and I’m still sorting out some of the basic categories. The term “environmental studies” seems to refer to the interdisciplinary study of the environment not only through natural science but through the social sciences and the humanities. It’s a major or concentration in some colleges. But if you read an anthology of “environmental writing” in America, it will probably have few contributions by natural scientists. Most of the writings will take a more or less humanistic (philosophical, historical, literary, journalistic) approach, in the tradition of Thoreau, although these writings will often make reference to or draw upon the writings of natural scientists in a non-technical way.

Then there’s the term “ecology,” which seems to be used by many different people to mean many very different things. (The unusually disorganized entry on “ecology” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy may reflect this confusion.) On the one hand, ecology might simply refer to the work of natural scientists — such as biologists — who study ecosystems. On the other hand, ecology might refer to a philosophy of the interconnectedness of all things in nature, sometimes accompanied by a commitment to the inherent value of all living things: biocentrism, as opposed to anthropocentrism or (what I called in the last post) animacentrism. This biocentric commitment is sometimes associated with the term “deep ecology.” There also appear to be a number of uses of the term ecology that aren’t primarily focused on the study of the natural environment as we usually think of it — urban ecology, social ecology, molecular ecology, and so on.

I’ve mostly been reading the non-technical, humanistic variety of environmental writing — especially by American writers like Thoreau, Aldo Leopold, and Wendell Berry. In the last post, I mentioned my concern that ecology in the second sense above appears so dominant in environmental studies that competing perspectives may be excluded. Now I’m less concerned. Ecology in the sense of the scientific study of ecosystems appears to be no different than any other natural science, and does not appear to be dominated by any problematic methodological orthodoxy. Ecology in the philosophical sense of “deep ecology” may represent a problematic orthodoxy in humanistic environmental studies — but the orthodoxy doesn’t appear to be enforced in a problematic way. In fact, nearly all of the key figures in American environmental writing have worked outside the academy, with very few tools to enforce orthodoxy.

Oddly, I couldn’t help but noticing that a surprisingly large number of these figures also lived at various times in isolated wilderness cabins as hermits: Thoreau, Leopold, Annie Dillard… The rumor is that even Robert Pogue Harrison, author of the classic literary study Forests (1992), lives in a cabin in someone’s back yard in the Stanford area. Then, of course, there’s Heidegger, whose later writings have profoundly influenced deep ecology and green parties in Europe, and who sometimes lived in a cabin in the Black Forest. And any list of environmentalists living in cabins would not be complete without mention of the Unabomber.

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Literature, Politics

STEM education, imagination, and political failures

One reader responds to my recent attempts to defend the humanities in terms that those with power over universities might find persuasive:

One thing that strikes me [about arguments to promote STEM education] is that we’ve fallen into the trap of promoting one story so hard that we’ve become blind to its limitations.  What do I mean?  STEM education is valuable to our economy–it promises to develop the technical skill that our workers need to be competitive when unskilled labor is increasingly automated.  But everyone got so caught up in promoting that story that we lost sight of its limits–that the greatest problems facing us today are not engineering problems.

Yes, it’s true that breakthroughs in science and engineering will be required if we’re going to mitigate (forget stopping) the effects of global climate change.  But we wouldn’t need those breakthroughs (at least, not as much as we do now) if we’d been able to reach the political agreement that would have been required to implement a policy solution years ago. I hate to repeat a cliche, but the problems of the last thirty years have been failures of the imagination, rather than failures of engineering and implementation–e.g., the slow reaction to the HIV outbreak in the gay community, the consequences of deregulation, the reaction to 9/11, the challenges of creating a social safety net in an increasingly tribal society…

So if the humanities require a defense, part of that defense is certainly that a democracy is not sustained on STEM alone–that a competitive economy on a warming planet makes us nothing more than the tribe that’s putting up the most moai on Easter Island.  … [T]he very imagination that a democracy needs to survive is what a liberal education–a critical component of which is the humanities–is supposed to foster.