2 Conversation: a metaphor for what matters
2.1 Conversing with environment
Consider a situation involving what might be regarded as eco-social collapse. For example, the trigger of global warming (caused primarily by use of fossil fuels in developed countries) has encouraged the rapid development of biofuel agriculture through grants from rich countries in the global North to Brazil and other tropical countries in the global South. This has generated both ecological problems (deforestation, pesticide pollution, etc.) and socio-economic problems – particularly with concentration of land tenure, very poor working conditions for those forced to provide cheap labour for biofuel plantations, and increasing food prices for the population (Sawyer, 2008). Such a complex situation involves many different interactions amongst many different entities, human and non-human. To what extent might such a situation arise from breakdowns in the quality of communications? Apart from the importance of inter-human communication, there might also be important factors associated with the quality of our ‘communication’ with the natural world. But in what sense might we converse with the environment?
Steve Talbott, a US environmentalist, writer and researcher, picks up the idea of communication with non-human life worlds by drawing on the metaphor of conversation. Talbott regards the quality of communication, particularly between human and non-human nature, as being fundamental to the kinds of problems associated with eco-social collapse described above. In making the case for a different type of relationship with nature, he explores ‘conversation’ as a means of revealing what might constitute a more constructive and respectful relationship.
In his essay ‘Toward an ecological conversation’ (2004), Talbott’s principal subject to converse with is the chickadee, a species of small North American bird that he helps to feed along with other wildlife through a special feeder device at a time in winter when food for birds is very scarce. Talbott clearly expresses an intuitive care for such non-human nature, but he is also concerned about contributing towards a more formal endeavour of responsibility. He brings out the tensions between two perspectives on ecological issues: the more ecocentric ‘radical preservationist’ tradition, and the more anthropocentric ‘scientific management’ tradition. The essay explores what it means to undertake an ecological conversation, using this as a metaphor to overcome the sometimes intransigent positioning of each tradition. I shall refer back to Talbott’s ideas in subsequent sections, but for now make some general notes on what he has to say.
Activity 3 An ecological conversation
Read ‘Toward an ecological conversation’ by Steve Talbott (2004).
SAQ 1 How conversation aids environmental responsibility
Describe three ways in which Talbott regards the metaphor of conversation as helpful for appreciating environmental responsibility.
Three attributes of conversation as a metaphor can be listed:
In human conversation we inevitably make mistakes in what we say, but have opportunities to apologise and to correct ourselves.
Words used in conversation can change in their meaning, acquiring new and different meanings as the conversation continues; there are always opportunities for building upon past inadequacies and going through some ‘healing’ process.
In conversation there is never a single right or wrong response; rather, a conversation is a continually experimental exchange, allowing for a sense of creativity.
The idea of conversing with nature is not particularly new, though more often it is associated with endeavours of the ‘arts’ (poetry, prose, music, performance arts, etc.) rather than scientific pursuits, where the notion is traditionally derided as being ‘irrational’. But what is it that we are supposed to be conversing with? To what extent can we make sense of the idea of a conversation with Nature and Environment, as described by Soper and Cooper respectively?
The Other that Talbott refers to is not something completely detached from humanness – and when it is detached, opportunities for conversation are lost. Talbott claims, for example, that an extreme preservationist position denies human presence and contrives ‘nature’ as something that ought to be untouched, often stated with extreme worldly reverence – what Talbott calls the hypostatization of nature (2004, pp. 43– 4):
There is no such thing as a nature wholly independent of our various acts to preserve (or destroy) it. You cannot define any ecological context over against one of its creatures – least of all over against the human being. If it is true that the creature becomes what it is only by virtue of the context, it is also true that the context becomes what it is only by virtue of the creature.
This can be a hard truth for environmental activists to accept, campaigning as we usually are to save ‘it’, whatever ‘it’ may be. In conversational terms, the Other does not exist independently of the conversation. We cannot seek to preserve ‘it’, because there is no ‘it’ there; we can only seek to preserve the integrity and coherence of the conversation through which both it and we are continually transforming ourselves. Hypostatization is always an insult because it removes the Other from the conversation, making an object of it and denying the living, shape-changing, conversing power within it.
The challenge set by Talbott is how to converse meaningfully with the environment from a perspective of caring and accountability. Talbott’s distinction between ‘radical preservationist’ and ‘scientific management’ signals what he describes as ‘two very different conversations’ (p. 55). I shall refer to these as an informal and a more formal conversation respectively. They resonate with the two domains of responsibility – caring and accountability. For now, I shall examine what these conversations might look like in relation to environmental responsibility.