Skeptical Environmentalism

Wilson Quarterly, Autumn 2002, pp. 243-46.

Denis Dutton

Skeptical Environmentalism: The Limits of Philosophy and Science, by Robert Kirkman. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002, xii & 212 pages.  $19.95.

The Green Movement requires two legs of support. First, it needs empirical evidence about environmental problems and potential solutions. From Rachel Carson on, it has been heavy with facts, often alarmist facts. But some environmentalists feel that it also needs a general philosophical foundation: a large view of nature and our place in it.

Bjorn Lomborg’s best-selling The Skeptical Environmentalist is a recent challenge to the statistical and empirical basis for Green ideology. Now philosopher Robert Kirkman offers a critical account of the philosophical foundations of the ideology.

He begins with the idea of nature, which in Cartesian metaphysics is matter, brute stuff in space, the cosmos seen as a vast machine. Against this stands organicism and holism, which see the universe as a unified whole of which life is also a part. This is the style of Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac and Arne Naess’s “deep ecology.” Hegel is discussed by Kirkman at length, and Kant’s notion of teleology in nature gets a few paragraphs. It all moves to the conclusion that speculative philosophy is powerless to give us a basis for environmental thinking about nature.

Kirkman is polite about every thinker he analyzes – too polite. He mentions, for example, the ecofeminists, who see the universe as a system of “web-like relations” – a feminine worldview, apparently – and finds this idea useful to further both feminism and the Green cause. Why ecofeminism is worth any attention at all is unexplained by Kirkman. From the fact that we may like both poetry and fine porcelain it does not follow that a plate with a poem on it would be better than either alone. And so in general with putting “eco” in front of feminism, postcolonialism, Catholicism, socialism, or any other belief system you care to name.

Kirkman’s bland agreeableness continues though chapters on environmentalism and value theory. Here he concludes that neither science nor philosophical speculation can give us a picture of the place of human existence in the universe, and are hence cannot be used for establishing value.

Heidegger, incidentally, makes an appearance here, with his devotion to “dwelling poetically,” as he liked to put it, on “the earth.” No mention of Heidegger’s relevant connections with the Nazis, who were pioneers with many eco-friendly policies, including their invention of smoke-free restaurants and waiting rooms.

Occasionally Kirkman’s discussion comes briefly to life, as when he rejects as “nostalgia” the ecologists’ widespread repudiation of modern, urbanized, technology-intensive life as somehow less authentic than living on the land. But rather than pursue such ideas, which might prove contentious and require being rude, Kirkman drops the subjects in favor further abstractions.

Toward the end of his book, Kirkman cites the example of the managers of Tsavo National Park in Kenya. They decided to stop culling to let nature take its course with elephant populations. This policy in favor of a “natural” process made for a catastrophic increase in elephant numbers followed by large-scale starvation, with the landscape denuded of vegetation in the process. The Tsavo incident is not analyzed, but it serves as a reminder how much more engaging the book might have been had it examined environmentalism in terms of the results of applying abstractions, for instance definitions of “natural,” in practice.

Environmentalism attracts people who offer the world salvation. Green believers often see nature as mystically animate, and they are frequently obsessed by catastrophe scenarios. In short, Green thinking can resemble religion. Kirkman has made an analytical start at debunking such pretensions, but a field as rife with moralizing nonsense as environmentalism needs a more robust critique.

Nevertheless, Robert Kirkman’s Skeptical Environmentalism has confirmed for me a long-standing suspicion: there are no special philosophical principles to under gird environmentalism beyond (1) the general biophilic and humanist idea that we should care for living things, particularly if they are sentient and can feel pain, and (2) we ought to leave to our descendents a world that makes lives of fulfillment and pleasure possible for them. Not all good ideas are grand abstractions.