Nature matters: Systems thinking and experts
Nature matters: Systems thinking and experts

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Nature matters: Systems thinking and experts

2.2 Environmental pragmatism: positioning expert support

I believe that the principal task for an environmental pragmatism is not to reengage the … debates in environmental ethics but rather to impress upon environmental philosophers the need to take up the largely empirical question of what morally motivates humans to change their attitudes, behaviours, and policy preferences toward those more supportive of long-term environmental sustainability.

(Light, 2002, p. 446)

This is a quotation from a part of Light's ‘Contemporary environmental ethics’ that is not included in the Course Reader. Here Light is suggesting a focus on policy design, wanting to move beyond the four philosophical debates that have dominated environmental ethics – anthropocentrism versus ecocentrism, individual versus holistic ecocentrism, subjective versus objective holism, and moral monism versus moral pluralism. This is an example of environmental pragmatism.

The tradition of environmental pragmatism was briefly discussed in Part 1. Within the heuristic of ethical traditions informing environmental responsibility introduced in that part (consequentialist, deontological and virtue-based ethics), environmental pragmatism represents one of the more contemporary expressions of consequentialism. Its point of departure from more traditional expressions of consequentialist thinking is the real-world,‘empirical’ experiences of action in the environment.

Robyn Eckersley provides a helpful summary of environmental pragmatism juxtaposed with ecocentrism. In effect, she focuses on the last of the debates identified by Light, that between moral monism and moral pluralism, and identifies environmental pragmatism as being an exemplar of moral pluralism – that is, an ‘ecumenical’ endeavour to embrace different perspectives, but with the prime intent of addressing the issue at hand. In contrast, ecocentrism is an exemplar of moral monism – that is, a firm, unassailable belief in the oneness of the human–nature relationship. Eckersley calls the pragmatists ‘mediators’ and the ecocentric theorists and activists ‘advocates’. She sees a value in both types of contribution to the process of drawing out what matters in deliberative democracy.

Activity 11 Mediators and advocates

Read ‘Environmental pragmatism, ecocentrism and deliberative democracy’ by Robyn Eckersley (2002).

Eckersley identifies three limitations of environmental pragmatism, which might be paraphrased as follows.

  1. A narrow focus on the ‘problem-solving’ context means that there is a risk of being too accommodating to views and prejudices that are the root cause of environmental problems. So, for example, a pragmatic discussion of the merits of biofuels as an alternative to fossil fuels may distract attention from a deeper-rooted problem concerning the general over-consumption of fuels.

  2. Environmental pragmatism is too ‘instrumentalist’ and utilitarian, denying the value of non-instrumentalist ‘dialogue for dialogue's sake’, which can sometimes of itself generate respect and trust (as much as conflict). The ‘action’ of dialogue can itself have great intrinsic value.

  3. While professing pluralism, environmental pragmatism is not pluralist enough since it is essentially anthropocentric, based on a tradition of ‘liberal humanism’. This inherently alienates extreme forms of ecocentric representation, which see such traditions as being anthropocentric and therefore inappropriate to engage with.

The criticisms offered by Eckersley are gentle, in that she acknowledges the wide and fruitful range of expression amongst pragmatists, and the attempts by many to redress such concerns. The philosophical tradition of pragmatism, for example – as rooted in the works of Charles Peirce (1839–1914), William James (1842–1910) and John Dewey (1859–1952) – would suggest that environmental pragmatism can accommodate wider critical reflection on problem structuring, as well as problem solving. Many environmental pragmatists would also recognise the value of deliberation in itself as a means of enabling trust. Crucially, though, environmental pragmatism must acknowledge its own limitations in its capacity to frame nature.

In this respect, Eckersley's concerns mirror those of Werner Ulrich (Reading 12c). But such concerns, as Ulrich himself points out (2006), are again shared by the authentic tradition of philosophical pragmatism. Pragmatism is critical. But what, then, is the role of the monist? If pragmatists are self-critical, should they be the only contributors to environmental policy design? In response, Eckersley borrows Kate Soper's distinction between ‘nature’ and Nature, asking ‘are we seeking to liberate the “nature” we have constructed, or Nature as extra-discursive reality?’ (p. 30). She continues (ibid.):

Indeed, the acknowledgment that the only Nature we know is a provisional, socially constructed ‘map’ that is at best an approximation of the ‘real territory’ provides the basis of a number of cautionary tales as to how the ‘emancipatory project’ might be pursued. Such an argument might run as follows: if we want to enable nonhuman nature to flourish and if it is acknowledged that our understanding of nature is incomplete, culturally filtered and provisional then we ought to proceed with care, caution and humility rather than with recklessness and arrogance in our interactions with ‘nature’. In short, we must acknowledge that our knowledge of Nature and its limits is itself limited (and contested). Practically, these arguments provide support for a risk averse posture in environmental and technology impact assessment and in environmental policy making generally.

Accordingly, there is an underlying respect for environmental pragmatism and other instrumental ideas as a legitimate exercise in using a range of different values for mapping or framing policy design with the intent of changing values, but there is an important acknowledgement that Nature cannot be completely assimilated. Hence there must be room for a continual creative tension between ‘mediators’ and ‘advocates’.

Question 1 Mediators and advocates amongst systems thinkers

Drawing on your studies in Section 1, state in what ways the tension between mediators and advocates is implicitly expressed amongst systems thinkers in the field of environmental responsibility.


Answer 1

Fritjof Capra is much more an advocate than, say, Werner Ulrich. Capra promotes systems thinking as the new paradigm – one particular perspective, based on a set of fundamental principles derived from living systems. Deep ecology is an example of such a perspective, and so it is ironic that while Capra advocates tolerance as being one of the fundamental principles, it is amongst deep ecologists that a sense of intolerance is often expressed.

Ulrich, on the other hand, is more a mediator, calling for a deeper sense of complementarity between different viewpoints. However, he might also veer towards being a monist, and therefore an advocate, in relation to promoting a particular theoretical standpoint on practical philosophy.

Activity 12 Mediators and advocates in the studio discussion?

Think back to the studio discussion that you listened to in Activity 10. Describe each of the four participants (including the person chairing the discussion) in terms of whether and when they took the role of a mediator and/or an advocate.

Eckersley's reflection on the dangers of environmental pragmatism becoming too complacent echoes a similar critique of science in the tradition of writings associated with science and technology studies. Here, science might be regarded as the dominating ‘mediator’ of environmental issues, particularly in terms of framing issues of risk, whereas lay citizens represent an enduring, sustained source of ‘advocacy’ for changes to the way in which the natural world is framed. This suggested divide between science and citizens mirrors a wider supposed expert– lay knowledge divide (Wynne, 1996). So how might citizens together with scientists frame what matters for environmental policy and action?


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