Archive for the ‘environment’ Category

Planet walkers

June 5, 2013

Searchers are optimists, and walkers are searchers. Are walkers optimists?

Well, I am. I wouldn’t say I was born that way. I recall a pessimistic teenage phase, coincident (or not?) with pounding headaches and an infatuation with William F. Buckley’s Firing Line. I walked away from it, and them, and from my initially-declared Poli Sci major, after my sophomore year in college. Thank goodness.

I know, there are and always have been pessimists who also walked. Schopenhauer springs instantly to mind. Nonetheless, every walk is an optimistic undertaking. And, I suspect, every self-avowed pessimistic walker is a closet optimist. Can’t prove it, but to paraphrase Camus: one must imagine daily walkers happy. More on that anon.

I discovered Walker Percy and his character Binx Bolling’s “search” in college. Percy saw the search as looking ultimately for a way out of this world, which he and his religious confreres viewed as “fallen” in its natural state. But reading his books, and then standing in his gazebo and surveying his “lost cove,” convinced me that his search was really for a way to love living.

I discovered a happy documentary worth sharing, last night:

Philosophical walkers are like John Francis: planet walkers. That’s another name for cosmopolitans, citizens of the globe and the universe who choose to accept responsibility for the whole. Every step symbolizes that choice, and that sense of a shared and universal identification with the natural world and all its lifeforms. In one of the stranger TED Talks on record, Francis declares “we are the environment, and how we treat each other is really how we’re going to treat the environment.” Similarly, he told  the Atlantic,

The environment is therefore also about human rights, civil rights, gender equality, economic and education equity. It is about all the ways we relate to one another because how we relate to each other manifests itself in the physical environment around us.

That’s a way, Walker.

Sustainable places

March 23, 2013

Our friend Kelly Parker came down from Grand Rapids and gave us a very nice Lyceum talk yesterday on sustainability, an environmental buzz-word so much in vogue lately that it threatens to swamp our language.

That was his opening laugh line, as Kelly showed us a graph trending literally in that direction. But it carries the serious implication that our response to the environmental crisis would then be all talk and no action. That’s not a sustainable human future.


“Sustainability” is clearly easier said than done.

So, what ought we to sustain? A reasonable story with wide popular appeal, about why the way we’re living (consumptively, fossil-foolishly, short-sightedly, unjustly) cannot continue. How do we write that story? By re-connecting with the places we call home, cherishing them, defending them against the “developers” who would pave and parcel them into private gain. Kelly the transplanted Kansan (Texan, Tennessean, Michigander) turned to the French vintner’s concept of “terroir” to elucidate this proposal, but he could as effectively have turned to Kentucky’s Wendell Berry.

  • The care of the Earth is our most ancient and most worthy, and after all our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it and to foster its renewal is our only hope.
  • A community is the mental and spiritual condition of knowing that the place is shared, and that the people who share the place define and limit the possibilities of each other’s lives. It is the knowledge that people have of each other, their concern for each other, their trust in each other, the freedom with which they come and go among themselves.
  • There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places.
  • What I stand for is what I stand on.
The big question is how to turn such attitudes to effective action. How does a sense of place become an effective reform movement?
We need to script shared stories rooted in our shared places, Kelly was saying, so we may better “occupy” them and give a winning public account of why the developers, desecrators and destroyers have no moral leg to stand on when they try to lay claim to our communities. Then our occupation might stand a chance of becoming an effective agency for sustainable social action, not  just inarticulate public talk or ineffectual classroom eloquence.
Postscript. One inescapable irony must be noted: the place where we have been holding these bi-annual Lyceum lectures for twenty-odd years is about to be developed into office space. James Union Building room 304 is not sustainable. Sigh.

“A greener future?”

September 28, 2012

It’s been awhile since I’ve checked in with TED. Thought I’d see what’s new, beginning with the “Greener Future” theme. 119 talks?! Where to begin?

Julianne mentioned food waste in Environmental Ethics class the other day…

Western countries throw out nearly half of their food, not because it’s inedible — but because it doesn’t look appealing. Tristram Stuart delves into the shocking data of wasted food, calling for a more responsible use of global resources. “We, the people, do have the power to stop [the] tragic waste of resources if we regard it as socially unacceptable to waste food.”

Same goes for fossil fuel waste, climate change, you name it. It begins down here in the grass, with the people.

“What to watch next” – We read Michael Pollan‘s Botany of Desire in an earlier version of our course, and he’s a terrific TEDster.  Mark Bittman, Pam Warhurst… And if you thought food and climate were unrelated issues, consider:

@GOOD: Eight foods you should stock up on before climate change takes them away ”-Bourbon, coffee, chocolate…No!

 This is getting serious.
When you’re full & sated with food, go back and see Al & Ed et al. Or one of the 99 bioethics talks, 125 on medicine & health, 35 on living long, 28 on God, 74 on collaboration, 87 on happiness, … TED beats anything on “reality” TV, including the NFL.

Environmental Ethics bibliography

August 11, 2012

I’ve just spent an hour reconstructing a bibliography of some of the texts I’ve used in the Environmental Ethics course in the past, appending it to the texts we’re about to use this semester, sticking it in a sidebar on our open-access course site. It’s a pretty good list. Seems like I’d be an expert by now.


August 7, 2012

“It is good to renew one’s wonder, said the philosopher. Space travel has again made children of us all.”

It’s not your grandpa’s Mission Control, unless your grandpa was Ray Bradbury.

Of all the many wonderful results of the space program so far, this picture may be the most important one. It opened our eyes to the fact that our Earth is a beautiful and most precious island in an unlimited void, and that there is no other place for us to live but the thin surface layer of our planet, bordered by the bleak nothingness of space. Never before did so many people recognize how limited our Earth really is, and how perilous it would be to tamper with its ecological balance.

The space age not only holds out a mirror in which we can see ourselves, it also provides us with the technologies, the challenge, the motivation, and even with the optimism to attack these tasks with confidence. What we learn in our space program, I believe, is fully supporting what Albert Schweitzer had in mind when he said: “I am looking at the future with concern, but with good hope.” Ernst Stuhlinger

Carl Sagan said it before, Neil Tyson‘s been saying it lately: our curious and exploring nature is the most hopeful and most promising thing about us. Mars is still just a beginning.

An earthbound philosophy

June 28, 2012

It’s a cool 63 degrees out here on the porch this morning, sun already hanging high. Hard to believe the triple-digit forecast. Hard not to believe this is more than just extreme weather we’re having. Hard to stay away from the reality-denying cool of the pool.

Floated with Songlines yesterday, pondering native Aussie wisdom with Bruce Chatwin:

The Aboriginals had an earthbound philosophy. The earth gave life to a man; gave him food, language, and intelligence; and the earth took him back when he died… To wound the earth is to wound yourself, and if others wound the earth, they are wounding you. The land should be left untouched: as it was in the Dreamtime when the Ancestors sang the world into existence.

So, they’re a hybrid of Berkeleyan idealism and indigenous pagan naturalism. Esse ist percipi, to be is to be perceived. And honor thy mother.

There are worse things to be, worse perceptions to sing. As Carl Safina pointed out, most western philosophy (David Hume a notable exception) “hasn’t had the world in mind,” hasn’t appreciated the natural sympathy, the “feeling for the other” that is fundamental to our humanity.

It’s really too late now for us to leave the land untouched, though. We need to retouch and restore it to as much aboriginal health as can be reclaimed. We need to sing our own song, and to remember that we’re somebody’s ancestors too.

Chatwin was already very sick when Songlines was published a quarter century ago, and probably knew he had just a couple years left to the rare bone marrow disease that would take his life at age 48. ”Hazards of travel – rather an alarming one.” Didn’t keep him from traveling and singing, right to the end. His books are still singing,  still shaping perceptions of a healthier planet. The aboriginal truth: we’re not dead yet, it’s not either.

Ecotopia emerging in the back yard

June 18, 2012

My new porch was a perfect Fathers Day gift for me, I’ve enjoyed a week’s worth of level syncopated gliding already and here I am again.

Then yesterday they topped it all off with a Brueggers breakfast, a Boscos group-on, lovely cards, a FaceTime call from Memphis, and permission to veto the multiplex in favor of more reading time in the aquatic hammock. Nice call from Sis too. Why can’t every day be like that? Oh yeah, suffering’s standard excuse: too many perfect days spoil us for proper appreciation. Well anyway, that was a very good day. Thanks, family.

So what did I do with my time in the aquatic hammock (i.e., the yellow float with the cupholders just the right size for those new Michelob Ultra cans) yesterday?

Finished the late Ernest Callenbach‘s 1981 fantasy Ecotopia Emerging, the prequel to his earlier Ecotopia and a perfect beach (or redneck pool) read. It’s an amusing page-turner with a dramatically fanciful story of secession in the Pacific Northwest that inspires as much as it entertains, and fuels summery visions of an alternative world not flummoxed by the petro-based codependencies of ours.

It’s satisfying in the same way that Edward Bellamy’s 19th century socialist-utopian classic Looking Backward was: for the briefest tantalizing moment it allows readers like me to believe we could get there from here, and may even  constructively motivate some of us to positive action. “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.” It’s a nice tune to hum on a summer’s day, at least.

How realistic is it to suppose that such a world might actually be achieved? Probably not very, in the foreseeable future. But it’s still a profoundly pleasing revery, and it’s important to visualize powerful practical changes that are well within our ability to achieve if we want it enough: dedicated bike-lanes, open-source solar & wind (etc.) technology to get people off the grid in large numbers, a less manically-driven consumer culture, and many other possibilities worth working for.

Sometimes literary merit is less important than catalysis: chemical transformation plays a crucial role in Callenbach’s story, as his 18-year old scientific whiz Lou Swift figures out how to make an efficient DIY solar cell. A metamorphosis of mind and perception is precisely what it’s going to take, to push us toward Ecotopia… or at least away from the eco-political dystopia this book was so prescient about in 1981.

Next on my summer reading list: Carl Safina’s The View from Lazy Point. (Perfect title, and a much better name for my back yard setup!) It should be good in the pool too, dreamy like Ecotopia but (as an award-winner already) almost entirely exempt from literary disdain. It too looks like a bet on the sun.

Then, it may be time to pick up a monkey wrench.

Pursuing progress

May 29, 2012

For the record: our freshly unveiled low-rent pool was a big Memorial Day hit. The little blue float’s gonna be my new summer hammock. Felt like Benjamin Braddock, happily adrift and pondering the future of plastics. Who needs the beach when you’ve got the Redneck Riviera!


But, back to what passes for work here in the sunny season of my greatest content. I love it out here in the warming world, always have. Get out of the stuffy hothouse and embrace the real heat, I told my brother-in-law at the birthday party. He doesn’t get why anyone would ever walk away from air conditioned comfort if they didn’t have to.

Of course my infatuation with summertime needs to be rethunk, in the sobering sweltering light of catastrophic climate change. Anthropogenic natural heat is something I’d never seriously considered. Had any of us, really? But if the planet’s crossed a line and is soon to become uninhabitable at this latitude, I intend to be among the last to enjoy it anyway.

So, to work: I’m juggling two new projects & seeking to integrate them: Philosophy Walks, a rumination on all the ways philosophy and philosophers get around in space, time, imagination, and possibility. This includes the literal forms of motion dearest to me, perambulation mainly, but increasingly also cycling. Philosophy rolls, too. And climbs. And floats. Maybe Philosophy Moves is a better working title.

And the second project needs a working title. It’s a fact-based fiction starring William James, ambling towards a heart-taxing climax on Mt. Marcy.

WJ is practically my alter ego already. I relay his tweets, for instance. The environmental writer Andrew Revkin spotted this recent one…

To be happy most of us need some austerity and wintry negativity, some roughness, danger, stringency, and effort, some “no! No!”

And said in response

I’m likning the evidently posthumous tweets from the philosopher/psychologist @WillmJames

Thanks, Andy. He’d be liking your work “pursuing progress on a finite planet” too. That pursuit was in fact his philosophical quest also, and the best reason I can think of to pursue my 2d summer project.

And there, I think, is my working title: Progress.

Re-greening America

April 28, 2012

An errand pulled me away from grading and into the vicinity of the huge new McKay’s used book & music emporium yesterday. Of course I had to go in. “Free will”? Ha!

And look what I found for a nickel.

 This will be the place to begin Environmental Ethics in the Fall, with our focus on what ever happened to the activist passion of the first Earth Day. Yale law prof Reich’s bestseller was the hippy-trippy manifesto that launched a thousand protest demonstrations on behalf of Mother Earth over forty years ago, and raised the consciousness of a fraction of a generation for at least a short while. Reich, looking back recently, explained its improbable impact this way:

It gave people a great leap of hope, made people feel good. This was a world that could get better, a whole lot better. I might say to those who stuck with it in some way or other they will still swear by the values of the ’60s.

And what’s changed?

What is lacking today is that people are not in any way experimenting with a different way to live, a different way to feel, a different way to be.

I think he’s right. We need to experiment with alternative energy, alternative transportation, alternative jobs, and especially an alternative sensibility about how it might be possible to live sustainably for a long time on a crowded but healthily bio-diverse planet.

Will we ever get back to the giddy greenery of the ’60s? Not sure we want to. But books like Blessed Unrest and Rebuild the Dream point an experimental way forward, possibly even a “movement.” We’ll be reading and discussing (and acting on?) them both in our course. And other things too. Stay tuned.

“Social Conquest of Earth”

April 27, 2012

Listened yesterday to the podcast of E.O. Wilson’s recent SALT (“Long term thinking”) talk about his new book, which I’ve started reading.

First the social insects ruled, from 60 million years ago. Then a species of social mammals took over, from 10 thousand years ago. Both sets of “eusocial” animals mastered the supremely delicate art of encouraging altruism, so that individuals in the groups would act as if they value the goal of the group over their own goals. They would specialize for the group and die for the group. In recent decades the idea of “kin selection” seemed to explain how such an astonishing phenomenon could evolve. Wilson replaces kin selection with “multi-level selection,” which incorporates both individual selection (long well understood) and group selection (long considered taboo). Every human and every human society has to learn how to manage adroitly the perpetual ambiguity and conflict between individual needs and group needs. SB

He may or may not be right about “multi-level selection” and our intrinsically conflicted human nature, torn between self, kin, and larger group identities; but the man himself is a marvel, still producing important and controversial scholarship at age 82. His advice for how the most reckless and self-centered group on earth should manage its ecosystem: “leave it alone.” His advice to individuals: don’t retire.

I intend to follow his advice, the man clearly knows something about managing over the long haul. If he’s right, there’s still hope that our species is becoming and will continue to become gradually more cooperative and less selfish over time. And isn’t this just the sort of prophecy that can be self-fulfilling? I’m rooting for him to be right, and for “What I need” eventually to converge with “what we need.” And then we’ll all live happily ever after. Right?