Four Paradigms Hindering a Sustainable Future

There are many issues and hurdles that environmentalists face in today’s day and age. Beyond and beneath the concrete issues of climbing global greenhouse gas emissions, growing amounts of plastic in the seas and habitat destruction, there are issues in the way people think and live that contribute to greater global environmental threats and make finding solutions even more challenging. I would argue that these issues are ethical issues, issues based in the way we see ourselves and the world around us. These issues stem from four major concepts. Firstly, many people see nature as apart from themselves, as an organism or “society” that humans are either spectators to or enemies of, rather than an integral part of. Secondly, the global economy is an economy based off of greed that teaches people to prioritize the accumulation of material wealth over all other things and which manifests itself in unregulated “free-markets” in which externalities are unaccounted for. Thirdly, a patriarchal frame of thought that encourages “domination” and a mechanized world view has led to the exploitation of people and natural resources. Finally, massive globalization in the last hundred years has led to a loss of “sense of place” and native mindset. If we are to really address the issue of environmental degradation (and the social justice issues which come along with it) we must develop, as Aldo Leopold put it, a “land ethic” (Leopold, Week 1, course site, pg. 1). That is, we must develop a global ethic that comes as a result of a radical overhauling of our current paradigms which addresses the four previously stated concepts which hinder progress to a more sustainable future.

   The first major mindset shift that must occur in order to develop a successful environmental ethic is to confront the issue of our separation from nature. In his article “The Trouble With the Wilderness”, William Cronon explains how a romanticized idea of wild places has led to a dichotomy between the places in which humans live and the “natural world” (Cronon, Week 2, course site). Cronon focuses on the issues that arise when people have unrealistic understandings of nature as places “untouched by man” and completely uninhabited. While a romanticized view of nature may help people to recognize it’s innate worth and beauty, it sets unrealistic standards and assumptions about what is “beautiful wilderness” and consequently, what is worth preserving. Most importantly, one of these assumptions about the “wilderness” is that mankind is separate from it. The wilderness is implicitly understood to be a place apart from man, or civilization, where only animals live and where humankind has not altered anything. A simple understanding of ecology and global systems quickly proves that for a long time all ecosystems on earth have been in some way affected by man. Additionally, native peoples have lived in what has long been regarded as “wild places” for millennia, in some cases dramatically altering the ecosystems they live in through practices like controlled burning and small scale agriculture. However, the difference lies in an understanding that many native people have which prohibited them from destroying habitats or setting apart lands that were only “wild”. This understanding, as Callicott explains in Chapter six of his book, Earth’s Insights, is that people are not apart from the land, but in fact, deeply connected to it (Calliott, pg 109-133). Native Americans have many diverse stories and ideologies concerning the natural world but they share several common understandings, including the idea that people are citizens of nature’s society, and some go so far as to believe animals and landforms are the siblings and elders of humankind. This mindset lends itself to the development of an ethic centered around a connection to nature, which both acknowledges our interaction with and required respect for the land and other living things which depend on it. This is not only pertaining to “wild areas” but the soil, landscapes, and biota in and around the places in which people live. Cronon comes to a similar conclusion, that if we are to move forward successfully we must start to see the value and importance of the nature in our communities; the nature that has been drastically altered by our existence in a given place. Only when we recognize that we are a part of nature and that nature occurs in all places, not exclusively wild places, will we be able to save habitats and protect the natural world.

   The second problematic mindset which we must address is the mindset that results from an economy based on greed. In their article, “Unearthing the Capitalence”, Moore and Patel explain how capitalism has lead to the creation of seven “cheap” things; cheap food, cheap nature, cheap money, cheap lives, cheap work, cheap care and cheap energy (Moore and Patel, Week 4, course site). What they mean is that, as a result of cost-cutting prompted by an economy that favors profit above all else,  the monetary value assigned to the seven aforementioned “things” has dropped far below their actual value. This has allowed for externalities like pollution, exploitation of vulnerable communities and environmental degradation and destruction to occur at no cost to those who are directly responsible. Companies have been allowed to freely wreak havoc on the planet and its inhabitants at literally no cost to them. All the while, citizens in the countries in which they operate and even across the globe experience poorer living conditions as a result of pollution, smog and global warming that are a direct result of the actions of companies that are financially thriving. Entire species are at risk and ecosystems hanging by threads as a result of an economy that prides itself on growth and wealth accumulation for only 1% of the population. To find both a possible cause and solution for this issue we can look to the Biblical book of Genesis. As Callicott explains, there are numerous interpretations of the bible verse, Genesis 1:26-28. Those who are proponents of a free for all market would support the interpretation that people were created to dominate nature, and to use it to whatever ends suit our greatest desires. This interpretation put in the context of the modern world would not only condone the actions that have led to the cheapening of Moore and Patel’s “seven cheap things”, but support it. However, there is another interpretation that warrants careful attention. This interpretation explains that mankind was created to be stewards of God’s creation. As man was created in God’s image with special abilities, he is also entrusted with special responsibilities. As Callicott explains, “ To abuse, degrade, or to destroy the earth is to violate the trust that the regent (God) placed in His viceroy (man). Far from being warranted by God’s injunction to have dominion over the earth and subdue it, environmental degradation and destruction in pursuit of putative human interests is a direct violation, or more precisely a perversion, of that unnumbered “first commandment”- a perversion stemming from the subsequent fall of man” (Callicott, pg 16).  If we can draw a lesson from the Christian's stewardship ethic, it is that the value of nature trumps the importance of our own personal greed. As a good steward sacrifices his own needs for that which he stewards, we must learn to recognize the true value of nature and all other living creatures and place that leagues above our own personal greed. This will result in the absorption of externalities by corporations and the acceptance of our responsibility to carry the weight of our own actions which run in opposition to our greater goal of stewardship.

   The third toxic paradigm which must change stems from the patriarchal mindset and it’s resulting views of domination and mechanization. During the late 1500s to early 1600s scientists like Francis Bacon began to write a new story about the nature of nature. Up until that point, according to Carolyn Merchant in her book Radical Ecology, most societies had viewed nature as a complex and living organism, some even assigning the earth feminine characteristics and believing the planet to be a female being with intricate systems and mystic workings. Francis Bacon and other founders of Experimental Science brought forth a new narrative that, as Merchant explains, “saw nature not as an organism but as a machine- dead, inert, and insensitive to human action”. Bacon believed nature should be “forced out of her natural state and squeezed and molded”, while his followers echoed similar sentiments like “for some men care only to know nature, others desire to command her”. Merchant explains clearly that Bacon and his followers “in bold sexual imagery, outline the key features of the modern experimental method- constraint of nature in the laboratory, dissection by hand and mind, and the penetration of nature’s hidden secrets- language still used today in praising a scientist's ‘hard facts,’ ‘penetrating mind,’ or ‘seminal’ argument” (Merchant, pgs 46-45). The mechanization of nature condoned the idea that nature was a simple machine, whose parts could easily be taken away, manipulated and returned with little to no effect on the working ability of the machine itself. It also supported the exploitation of nature for mankind's ends that was addressed above and proven to be dangerously detrimental to the development of a sustainable future. Humility and wonder died away to arrogance and domination as this mindset, and it’s patriarchal ideals, permeated culture. It is also important to take note of the aggressive sexual messages of domination directed at nature, which is still conceived of as a “her” in the mind of Bacon and his followers. Merchant explains “The ontology and epistemology of mechanism are ……. deeply masculinist and exploitative of a nature historically depicted in the female gender” (Merchant pg 202). The patriarchal mindset which prizes domination and brute force above compassion and nurturing and which has subjugated women and all mankind to horrendous atrocities since it’s conception is also largely responsible for the exploitation and oversimplification of nature and it’s systems. To find a solution we turn to the Tao Te Ching which, as William Uzgalis explains, in his paper “Why Can’t a Man Be More Like a Woman?”, has a simple answer. In Chapter XXVIII of the Tao Te Ching, we find our solution in the clear instructions “Know the Male, but keep to the role of the Female” (Uzgalis, Week 7, course site, pg 2). Uzgalis goes on to explain that because the male strategy is focused on wealth accumulation and domination “in pursuing the male strategy one does not know where to stop, in pursuing the female strategy one does”. Uzgalis suggests that the Taoists see a “female strategy” as being one in greater alignment with the act of wu-wei (active non-action) while the “male strategy” is yu-wei (the way of action). Whether one adheres to the ideology of Taoism or not, it is clear to see that they are onto something. The “male strategy” and the patriarchal mindset with it’s resulting views must be overwritten and a new mindset based in compassion, humility and wonder must replace it.

   The final issue that must change if we are to succeed in building a sustainable future is the loss of sense of place. In his book This Place on Earth, Alex Thein Durning explains how in America, and arguably much of the modern world, “we have careers, not places” (Durning, Week 9, course site, pg 2). What Durning means is that we have lost our native mindset or our ties to the particular lands, soils or regions where we live. The ease of long-distance transportation that has come with modern technology has resulted in the ability to move frequently and often. This movement from place to place makes it challenging to really, truly know any one location with its complex patterns and biota, and one might argue, even more, challenging to become emotionally invested in any given place. As Durning explains “Natural units of place such as this have always mattered more to people than has humanity in general or the planet in its entirety. Indeed, history is unequivocal: people will sacrifice for villages, homelands, or nations, even giving their lives.” However, Durning argues that people struggle to find a similar connection (and the resulting motivation to protect) the entire planet because it is simply too big and complex to form such close attachment to. Durning goes on to explain that “The only cures possible may be local and motivated by a sentiment- the love of home” (Durning, Week 9, pg 3). Advocates for bioregionalism would agree, as they believe that having a deeper understanding of the watershed in which a person lives allows one to be more in tune with their environment and helps to form a stronger sense of place (Merchant, pgs. 237-245). Callicott finds a perfect example of a culture deeply tied to their place in Australian Aboriginal communities, whose religion, songs and land management practices are deeply tied to their surrounding landscape (Callicott, pgs 172-184). Australian environmental philosopher, Val Plumwood explains, “Aboriginal culture [is] a model of bioregionalism. Identity is not connected to nature as a general abstract category ….. but to particular areas of land, just as the connection one has to close relatives is highly particularistic and involves special attachments and obligations not held to humankind in general” (Callicott, pg 184) If we can foster a return to a “sense of place”, similar in some ways to that of the Australian Aboriginal people or even the native peoples of North America,  people may be more motivated to save their places and to care for the land and habitats surrounding the places in which they live.

   There are many challenges that face environmentalists and the planet in general. However, many, if not all of them, come as a result of the aforementioned pervasive mindsets which make fighting for a sustainable future an almost impossible task. In order to make our way to a healthier planet and a more sustainable future, we must acknowledge our connection with nature, switch the greed-based economy to an economy that recognizes the value of life above profit, break away from the patriarchal patterns of domination and mechanization and foster a greater sense of place. If we can successfully do these things we will have established and put into practice a healthy environmental ethic that will support more concrete efforts of environmentalists into the future.