Looking back on “Linking Ecology and Ethics for a Changing World: Values, Philosophy, and Action” (the 14th Cary Conference), I wondered what might have happened if ecological science rather than ethics took the lead. Let me explain.
The scientists and philosophers (and some hybrids) who gathered all accepted that we shared a concern with environmental degradation. What to do to stem that degradation? One model is that people need to have a different ethic about non-human nature to govern their actions (which assumes that a person’s ethics governs their actions and not vice versa or some contingent, inconsistent interplay). This model was evident in the reference early and often to Aldo Leopold’s land ethic, but also in reference to animal rights. A variant of this model is to pay attention to religious views about nature, highlighting the ones that seem to be pro conservation and/or stewardship and downplaying the views that favor exploitation of resources. Religions promote ethical frameworks and they have the authority and numbers to make their views count—to effect actions.
A second model is that economics governs people’s actions, collectively as well as individually, so push for an economics based on a different set of values, namely factoring in the benefits of “services” provided by non-human nature—by ecosystems—rather than taking them for granted and placing costs to the environment outside economic calculations.
Neither of these models stem from any theory about ecology (even though the argument for ecosystem services involves ecologists doing research to explore how they might be measured). One of the organizers of the meetings, the ecologist Steward Pickett, spoke about paradigms in ecology leading up the current situation, which he calls a dynamic flux view. In brief (as I describe elsewhere):
Since the 1980s ecologists in general have become increasingly aware that situations may vary according to historical trajectories that have led to them; that particularities of place and connections among places matter; that time and place is a matter of scales that differ among co-occurring species; that variation among individuals can qualitatively alter the ecological process; that this variation is a result of ongoing differentiation occurring within populations—which are specifically located and inter-connected—and that interactions among the species under study can be artifacts of the indirect effects of other “hidden” species.
The thought experiment I am proposing then is to translate this picture to consideration of how humans in their contingent, changing social organizations, are able to direct and redirect their actions. This might go like:
We become increasingly aware that situations—social organization/s—may vary according to historical trajectories that have led to them; that particularities of place and connections among places matter; that time and place is a matter of scales that differ among co-occurring social groups and institutions; that variation among individuals can qualitatively alter the social and environmental process; that this variation is a result of ongoing differentiation occurring within populations—which are specifically located and inter-connected—and that interactions among the groups and institutions under study can be artifacts of the indirect effects of other “hidden” groups and institutions.
Ethics then becomes a contingent snapshot of what appears to be directing an individual or group, something that the people may or may not make explicit, discuss, debate, and use to negotiate their actions. Even if this is a radical recasting of how ethics is theorized, the experience of ecologists as scientists—as against their concerns as environmentalists—could have informed the substance of discussions at the conference. (We would also have been more likely to have addressed the four challenges I identified before arriving at the conference.)