2.4 Summarising conversation as what matters
Brian Wynne suggests that fundamental dichotomies associated with environmental matters underpin modern society – society versus nature, the social versus the natural, social knowledge versus natural knowledge, expert knowledge versus lay knowledge (1996, p. 45). The metaphor of conversation helps to move us beyond these dichotomous constructs and allows us to focus more on the integral relationships enmeshed in nature matters, relationships that I would argue are central to environmental responsibility.
The terms ‘nature’ and ‘environment’ are conceptual constructs that provide important language tools for mediating a conversation. They are concepts that are sometimes used interchangeably. Often they can be used to reinforce a sense of detachment – and in that sense, nature and environment can be regarded as that which is not human – but they might each also be used to express more integral relationships. Whatever the construct used, it is sometimes helpful to appreciate the existence of an extra-discursive reality – what Talbott calls the Other and what Soper calls Nature. As in human conversation, acknowledging the existence of this Other provides grounds for respect and the possibilities of meaningful engagement.
The ideas put forward by Cooper, of The Environment as a globalised arena and ‘environment’ as a more localised arena of significance, are different from the extra-discursive realm of Nature suggested by Soper. The Environment and ‘environment’ are conceptual constructs representing an abstraction of Nature. Again, they are language tools to help with the conversation rather than actual entities.
These language tools can help us appreciate more the three views of environment (externality, managerial and integral). Two views – externality and managerial – correspond to Talbott’s descriptions of a radical preservationist viewpoint and a more scientific, resource-based viewpoint respectively. The third, integral view of nature constitutes a focal point for environmental responsibility and is one that might be expressed in terms of forging an ecological conversation.
Using an integral view helps in understanding responsibility. It involves perceiving environment in terms of both the ‘natural’ and the ‘human’ worlds, deeply interlocked.
Though interlocked, the two worlds can be helpfully viewed through the lens of (i) caring for and (ii) ensuring accountability for harm and wrongdoing respectively. These two senses of environmental responsibility appear also to have resonance amongst the wider public. For example, van den Born (2008) identifies two dominant images of nature amongst the representative group of lay people in the Netherlands: ‘(1) that humans are part of nature, but (2) that they are responsible for nature as well … [R]esponsibility means to give space to flourish and respect nature’s autonomy. Humans feel that natural beings are dependent on them, and therefore humans are responsible for their well-being’ (pp. 83 and 104). If conversation is the focal point of ‘what matters’ in environmental responsibility, in what sense might we appreciate matters of responsibility as an ongoing conversation in both dimensions?
Another OpenLearn unit examines the two features of environmental responsibility as developmental attributes: firstly, developing care – that is, examining what matters from a caring perspective – and secondly, developing accountability – examining what matters from an accountability perspective. Both might be considered as expressions of an ongoing ecological conversation.