In a New Light

Edge of urban area and forest seen from the air
By Kardelen Koldas ’15Portrait by Heather Perry ’93
October 8, 2020

Environmental Philosophy

Keith Peterson Associate Professor of Philosophy
Keith Peterson
Associate Professor of Philosophy

Associate Professor of Philosophy Keith Peterson recently published a new book, A World Not Made for Us: Topics in Critical Environmental Philosophy (SUNY Press), which provides much-needed historical and conceptual context for addressing the environmental challenges faced today and raises the central question of our place in this world.

Peterson holds interests in philosophies of nature and environment and in philosophical anthropology. He fielded questions from Colby Magazine Staff Writer Kardelen Koldas ’15.

A World Not Made for Us—that’s a thought-provoking title and statement. Why is it important for us, and especially for environmental philosophers, to understand this?

In one way, the title simply brings to mind the traditional environmentalist critique of anthropocentrism—or human-centeredness—in order to help reinforce it. While some environmental philosophy has found its way outside the bubble of academic discourse due to its inherently interdisciplinary nature, interest in these critiques needs to be rekindled.

In another way, the title contains a more subtle message aimed at steering humanistic environmentalists away from an unfortunate pitfall. Some environmentalists are, as I see it, inconsistently committed to the popular humanistic view that the world, including the “environment” they care so deeply about, is “socially constructed.” This popular idea implies that humans make the world in some significant way, which then entails a denial of the basic tenet of environmentalism—that human existence depends asymmetrically on a real nonhuman world not made for us (which I call the “principle of dependence”). In some traditional western worldviews, the idea that humans are the crown of creation and that the world was made for them is popular. While this explicitly anthropocentric view might not be accepted by most people any longer, it still reappears in subtle forms, even among environmentalists.

What’s a current issue that we can learn to look at differently through your book?

The issue on everyone’s mind currently is the pandemic. Most people probably don’t think of this as an environmental issue at all. It only takes a few seconds to realize that it is. We know that the virus is zoonotic—it jumped from non-human animals to humans. The conditions under which this happens involve prolonged human-animal contact, as we find with most of the infectious diseases humans have encountered. So, how are these conditions produced? One route might be that animals like bats, civets, and pangolins are crowded together in wild animal food markets, creating stressful conditions under which a virus can mutate in weakened animals and jump species. In other words, human encroachment on wild-animal habitat and habitat destruction leads to the increase of human-animal interactions that otherwise wouldn’t take place, providing opportunities for such spread. We don’t need exotic animal markets to do this—industrial animal farming operations in the U.S. are the perfect breeding ground for pathogens like swine flu and bird flu, and, according to infectious disease experts, the mass killings of billions of animals for trivial human purposes is likely to lead to more outbreaks like this in the future. These issues have been discussed from a more limited animal rights perspective, but they also have environmental and public health implications.

“The issue on everyone’s mind currently is the pandemic. Most people probably don’t think of this as an environmental issue at all. It only takes a few seconds to realize that it is.”

How do you discuss it?

I introduce a broadly based theory of value in the book that is meant to include and surpass the one encapsulated by the instrumental-intrinsic value distinction in the literature. This might be considered a clash between the human interest in animal exploitation and the intrinsic value of the animals, with animal liberationists hoping that the latter will win out. But there are many more values in play here than this simple binary: all of the vital values involving animal and human health, vitality, sustainability, robustness of ecological systems, cultural and symbolic values surrounding human-animal relations, moral norms and standards for good behavior toward others, etc., which the terms “instrumental” and “intrinsic” simply do not cover. I won’t get into the whole theory here, but part of it involves recognizing the importance of the practice of implicitly and explicitly prioritizing values. Once we cast environmental conflicts in terms of value priorities they theoretically become more tractable. So, in this case, why eat animals? To reduce the many possible values involved to one: for pleasure. What is more important? The ecological health of functioning ecosystems and the societies that depend on them, or trivial pleasures? I think that these are questions that local communities need to debate and answer for themselves, informed by both the history of ideas and the current science.

I see. Besides the pandemic, then, how can environmental philosophy change the way we think about other environmental problems, maybe like deforestation or air pollution?

It’s not so much specific problems that the book directly addresses, but the ways in which responses to these problems have been and continue to be framed by concerned parties. For example, the discourse of the so-called “Anthropocene” age in which humans are a geological force, an idea which is just a restatement of what was already realized by Vernadsky and others in the 1920s, is somehow meant to motivate environmentalism by encouraging shared concern about climate change and by appeal to “humanity” as a whole. The problem with this way of setting up the problem is that, first, it is dualistic—assuming humans are “against” nature—and secondly, universalist—assuming that all humans are responsible for current conditions. The first point is conceptually confused and the second is just historically false. The philosophical anthropology and political ecological perspective offered by the book help to reveal these shortcomings and correct them.

If deforestation and air pollution can be discussed under the heading of global climate disruption, and Anthropocene techno-fixes for the climate are recognized to be inadequate, then these should be regarded as cultural and not just environmental problems. The entire human-centered conceptual framework that pits rational humans against wild, nonhuman nature—which also implicates the oppositions between masculine and feminine, white and nonwhite, mind and body, human and animal, mental and manual, colonizer and colonized, etc.—forms the cultural context for the shared Western sense of what is valuable. I invite environmentalists to undo this dualistic inferiorization in order to get past ideological barriers and to build an ecological civilization on the basis of a renewed understanding of what is genuinely of value. Obviously, denying and backgrounding—i.e., treating as of minimal value—the nonhuman world, has led current civilization to the brink of collapse.

When it comes to identifying the cause of environmental problems, some would point to human activity. Is that also being too human-centric?

It is not human-centric to say that humans are the chief cause of environmental destruction. That’s just a matter of observation. Problems arise when “human” is taken as a generic term, making the claim that “humans cause environmental destruction” appear to implicate all humans. We know that only certain groups of humans have caused or created conditions for most of the destruction—particularly European and North American capitalist, colonialist/imperialist, masculinist humans, not all humans by any means. Humans are perfectly capable of living ecologically sustainable lives, as has been demonstrated by many groups around the globe.

Group of deer walking in front of Shell gas station.
Associate Professor of Philosophy Keith Peterson argues that the environment’s human and nonhuman parts are inseparable. Giving minimum value to the nonhuman world, he said, “has led current civilization to the brink of collapse.”

“Why would anyone ever think that humans are somehow separate from nature unless they had been taught that humans are things with natural bodies and souls, the latter part not being ‘natural’?”

So what’s the problem?

The problem is that the groups who occupy positions of power in the world are those who are most indifferent to ecological problems and the problems of other humans and have an interest in maintaining the status quo of exploitation of both. Environmentalists have traditionally lacked the kind of differentiated political ecology that specifies which groups are more blameworthy than others, and claims to the effect that all humans are to blame have remained ineffective as a result. A differentiated approach points out that environmentalists can be in solidarity with other social movements that fight for liberation of the oppressed.

You write that for environmentalists to achieve social change, they need to think more deeply about their stance on environmental problems. What are some of the issues you see in the environmental movement that could benefit from your work?

Stances are often shaped by dualisms in our conceptual framework that people would otherwise reject if they were aware of them. I try to show students the ways in which ideas have a history, that the concepts and categories they use on a daily basis are not unique to them, to their generation, or to this era—they carry around and use ideas that have their roots in ancient Greece and the Near East. These concepts continue to shape the way that everyday problems are dealt with. These include concepts of “human being” and of “nature.” The environmental movement needs to be more circumspect about its basic concepts. Why would anyone ever think that humans are somehow separate from nature unless they had been taught that humans are things with natural bodies and souls, the latter part not being “natural”? Why would it be so difficult to motivate masses of people to care for the environment if they were not constrained by the ideologies of domination and control that have become sedimented historically? Environmentalists generally remain fuzzy about the various forms of conceptual, historical, and social determinants that condition their thinking and approaches to environmental issues.

What’s one thing that you hope people will take away from your book?

The one takeaway would be the same one that many environmental philosophers hope for: to encourage people to see that environmentalism is not a matter of tweaking some already-existing theories and practices to make them environmentally friendly. It means completely transforming the way that the dominant ecocidal culture shapes every human interaction with nonhumans and human others, and to embrace the need to collectively generate an “environmental culture” or “ecological civilization,” as two important Australian philosophers have called it.

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