The role of listening in the environmental ethics

Travis Wright (*) and Alejandra Tauro

With this post we want to introduce some key issues about environmental ethics and we want to reflect about the importance of relationships in the context of the ongoing homogenization phenomenon of the planet. We understand homogenization to be a contemporary process by which diverse lifeways and worldviews are systematically replaced by globally uniform, neoliberal habits and habitats. For example, even in the cities and towns of the Sub-Antarctic Magellanic ecoregion (Chile), which represents one of the few remaining wildernesses on Earth, little of the lush and vibrant native flora grows. Instead, the landscaped cities contain tree and flower species from Europe, North America, and Asia [1].

But homogenization is not inevitable; it is a cultural and historical consequence of particular human actions resulting from a narrow, economic-only value system. Despite the fact that not all humanity bears responsibility for homogenization, as more and more societies are pushed into globally homogenous lifeways, more and more human societies must address their differing responsibilities towards engagement with solutions. Diversity of life is the norm for the planet, and although tendencies towards destroying that diversity seem to be rising around the world, it is within our power to stop it. But to talk about responsibilities, we need to talk about ethic and values.

Currently, in the Anthropocene, we predominately live under an economic-only, neoliberal value system. Unfortunately, the economic-only value system lacks the necessary conceptual elements for an effective environmental ethic, since it cannot understand the value of diverse flourishing ecosystems and their embedded human communities. Indeed, the economic-only system’s failure to value a plurality of viewpoints means—among other things— that homogenized thinkers cannot recognize the plurality of environmental ethics already present in cultures around the world. These local environmental ethics alive around the world have prevented in many cultures the kind of globally destructive biocultural homogenization apparent today. Consequently, it can only value ecosystems and most humans as resources, thus ensuring erasure of respect and dignity.

According Ricardo Rozzi, 90 percent of languages spoken in CE 2010 may go extinct by CE 2100 [2]. Meanwhile, this loss of language diversity stems from the same agents, actions, and ideologies that drive biodiversity loss. In light of this interlocking destruction of communities —both ecological and human— and their lifeways, homogenization gives conceptual form and real world relevance to the moral deficiencies and domination of the economic-only value system.

In light of this problem and with awareness of the exclusion of diverse worldviews from ethical discourse, J. Baird Callicott offers a contribution to a solution for our worsening environmental crisis in his book Earth’s Insights: A Multicultural Survey of Ecological Ethics from the Mediterranean Basin to the Australian Outback. Callicott’s book searches the globe’s cultural traditions for what is missing in the conceptual and moral foundations of the dominant economic-only value system/homogenization phenomenon. By incorporating worldviews from six continents, Callicott hopes to open the door to truly global, cross-cultural ethical dialogue that will benefit everyone by addressing flaws in what he calls the Western worldview [3]. Callicott wants to amplify diverse local voices while also recognizing that our global community can communicate clearly in a global language: the language of science [4].

J. Baird Callicot. Tomado de Wikimedia Commons

We follow Callicott in reflecting on one core concept relevant to biocultural conservation: dualism. Callicott shows the hard dualism in the utilitarian values of the economic science and compares it to the holistic, integral intrinsic values of the biological science. In the context of economic-only ethics, dualism refers to the rigid person/non-person distinction, which is central to the economic-only model’s core concept of instrumental value. In this dualism, some entities —which the theory refers to as resources— have value only in as much as they provide something for other entities, referred to as people. Meanwhile, inspired in the biological science, Callicott features Darwinian ethics as integrative rather than dualistic. For Darwin, ethical behavior arose as a naturalistic part of our evolutionary process: a process which re-places humanity inside of the natural world. Thus, the Darwinian framework offers an ethics of inclusion rather than separation.

In this way, Callicott takes on core aspects of biological evolution to respond to the dualism embedded in the current globally dominant ethic. He recognizes traditional non-Western worldviews can play an important role [by providing] a multiplicity of critical perspectives. At the time of it’s publishing, Callicott’s book broke new and important ground for environmental ethics by making a serious, good-faith effort at respectfully acknowledging the valuable conceptual work from a variety of cultures [5].

Although Callicott made an important stride with his book towards a globally harmonious environmental ethic, he missed the point of doing ethics cross-culturally and in so doing preserved some of the modern structure that he hoped to eliminate and which indirectly drives the ecosystem change he hoped to solve. In particular, Callicott when tries to impose a universal ethical structure on top of a plurality of ethical systems, he preserves a modern, homogenizing force in his reconstruction of postmodern ethics. This mistake results from his version of Aldo Leopold’s land ethic, in which he argues that the self and ecosystem are identical [6]. Although this stance does allow him to escape the economic-only dualism, it also permits him to over-focus on the whole Earth to the exclusion and detriment of its parts. Because Callicott’s method for overcoming the economic-only value system’s inherent dualism still lacks nuance enough to account for a true plurality of voices, we suggest an alternative theory that does not rely on his metaphysics.

Towards an active listening for plural values

Up to here you have read a critical review of Callicott’s ethical vision presented in Earth’s Insights. These ideas are central to the discussion of values (intrinsic, instrumental and relational) within the field of biodiversity conservation [7, 8, 9] and in the IPBES context [10]. We complement these reflections with another alternative to the economic-only dualism, this time proposed by Edgar Morin to overcome the prevalent nature-culture dualism. From this alternative we propose an ethical position based on “listening”. Listening would contribute to plurality through the “recognition” of the other, that is, opening the space to the other as a unique and different being.

Morin’s alternative indicates a need to understand the self through understanding the “meshing of continuities and discontinuities between nature and culture” [11]. Morin cautions that attempts to explain humanity in purely natural terms fail, since purely naturalistic conceptions of humanity ignore the felt discontinuity between natural and cultural artifacts [12]. Simultaneously however, humans are embodied beings living in ecological reality. Therefore, Morin insists we must “recognize [a human] as a living being while distinguishing [that human] from other life forms [. Humans] transcend the ontological alternative nature/culture” [13]. In other words, when we realize the many ways in which it makes sense to think that humans are one with their ecosystems, and also simultaneously realize the good reasons to think of ourselves as separate individuals, then we are left facing the fact that we are truly neither dualistic nor holistic beings, but that we transcend both categories. This understanding allows us to operate both as diverse, unique, and dignified agents and as members of the global community without contradiction. Additionally, it implies the importance of reciprocity in relations for human moral development; if our moral systems —like our selves— arise from the interaction among ecosystems and their constituents, then Darwinian meta-ethics imply that value arises not from the dictates of markets only, but by manifold living relations.

With this in mind, we suggest an ethic of listening will serve to disrupt globally homogenized narrow ethical discourse. On this view, the primary job of the Western ethicist would be to listen to specific complaints of injustice and alternative value systems from colonized or marginalized people and try to reconceptualize the Western system in the light of these voices. We contend that this will help move the Western system from an unjust economic-only model to a model more capable of avoiding injustice and recognizing and correcting injustice when it arises.

References and notes

[1] Ricardo Rozzi, “Biocultural ethics: from biocultural homogenization to biocultural conservation,” in  Linking ecology and ethics for a changing world: values, philosophy, and action, eds. Rozzi R, Pickett STA, Palmer C, Armesto JJ, Callicott JB (Dordrecht: Springer, 2013), 9

[2] Rozzi, Ricardo. “Introduction”. In Multi-Ethnic Bird Guide of the Sub-Antarctic Forests of South America. (University of North Texas Press-Ediciones Universidad de Magallanes, Denton, Texas, and Punta Arenas, Chile, 2010.) 29.

[3] “Western,” in this case, describes a tradition of philosophy which traces its lineage through Descartes, Newton, the early Christian church, and Plato from which the economic-only value system originates.

[4] Callicott, J. Baird. Earth’s Insights: A Multicultural Survey of Ecological Ethics from the Mediterranean Basin to the Australian Outback. (Berkley: University of California Press 1994.) 12.

[5] Tucker, Mary Evelyn. Book Reviews — Earth’s Insights: A Survey of Ecological Ethics from the Mediterranean Basin to the Australian Outback by J. Baird Callicott. (Denton: Environmental Philosophy, Inc, 1995.) 321.

[6] Callicott, “Earth’s Insights: A Survey of Ecological Ethics from the Mediterranean Basin to the Australian Outback,” 206.

[7] Tallis, H., & Lubchenco, J. (2014). Working together: a call for inclusive conservation. Nature News, 515(7525), 27.

[8] Chan, K. M., Balvanera, P., Benessaiah, K., Chapman, M., Díaz, S., Gómez-Baggethun, E., … & Luck, G. W. (2016). Opinion: Why protect nature? Rethinking values and the environment. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(6), 1462-1465.

[9] Chan, K. M., Gould, R. K., & Pascual, U. (2018). Editorial overview: Relational values: what are they, and what’s the fuss about?.

[10] https://www.ipbes.net/diverse-values-valuation

[11] Morin, Edgar. “L’Homme et la mort”. In Beyond The Nature–Culture Dualism: The Ecology Of Earth-Homeland. (World Futures 60, no. 5-6, 2004.) 359.

[12] Whiteside, Kerry. Beyond The Nature–Culture Dualism: The Ecology Of Earth- Homeland. (World Futures 60, no. 5-6 2004.) 359.

[13] Morin, Edgar. “Le Paradigme perdu: la nature humaine” In Beyond The Nature–Culture Dualism: The Ecology Of Earth-Homeland. (World Futures 60, no. 5-6, 2004.) 359.

(*) Travis is a PhD student in philosophy at the University of North Texas. His research focuses on the role of emotion and sentiment in moral development, especially in the context of environmental ethics. Currently, Travis is co-facilitating environmental philosophy with children aged five through ten. Travis seeks to incorporate direct encounters with the natural world as stimuli for students’ creative, critical, and caring questioning. You can find more of his thoughts at https://simplicity.game.blog/



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