The Colgate Scene
May 2002

Talking shop
Colgate professors and a visitor find food for thought in a roundtable discussion
The more light that is thrown on man, the more other things are in the shadow. -- Wolfgang Sachs

The Scene asked five members of the university's environmental studies faculty to spend an hour together, along with visiting Center for Ethics & World Societies speaker Wolfgang Sachs, talking about the intersection of environmental ethics and world development.

The participants were: Robert Turner (professor of economics, director of the environmental studies program); Paul Pinet (professor of geology); Maureen Hays-Mitchell (associate professor of geography); Peter Klepeis '94 (assistant professor of geography); Robert Figueroa (visiting assistant professor of philosophy and religion); and Wolfgang Sachs (senior research fellow at the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy, in Germany).

(Scene) Paul, if you had 10 minutes with President George Bush and could tell him what you think he should know about environmental ethics and development, what would you say?

(Pinet) I would try to convince President Bush that the way we tend to treat people is the way we tend to treat the environment. We ravage the environment and we tend to ravage people. We don't do it because we're evil, it's just because that's the way we understand ourselves and the world around us.

So I would try to make him understand that he needs to listen to what scientists are saying about the natural world. He needs to listen to social scientists and humanists, what they're saying about the human world. He needs to think about it with feeling and emotion and with a great degree of humility.

I would try to make him understand that our history, human history, begins with the creation of the universe. Our history is not limited to our species; it was predicated on co-evolution. Everything that exists now was dependent on chance circumstances and innumerable random occurrences that had to occur exactly as they did over 3.8 billion years. The net result is, they produced George Bush and Paul Pinet and it's miraculous, but we co-evolve with everything else, and we need to understand that. If we abuse the natural world, and if we abuse other people, we're abusing ourselves.

Wolfgang Sachs
Wolfgang Sachs
Maureen Hays-Mitchell
Maureen Hays-Mitchell
Robert Turner
Robert Turner

(Klepeis) I recently attended a conference of American geographers. At a session about the Kyoto Protocol, much of the discussion surrounded the notion that climate change actually progressed rather rapidly, understanding the degree to which the earth is an integrated system and the effect of humans on it. However, the political system has not evolved as rapidly, and certainly the ability of the public at large to understand the complexity of environmental problems, climate change and so forth, is not where it should be.

So we do need to foster more discourse, more understanding of environmental problems, and understand that we can't just manage a particular issue like climate change -- that this is interconnected.

(Pinet) The issues are very, very complicated. Pollution, exploitation of people, degradation of the environment, is not in the environment. It's an attitude, so relying on science to solve problems that technology and science to a large degree created is not the way we should be talking about it. It really is about the individual person and the attitude you bring to it.

(Klepeis) Sure, and I certainly don't mean to suggest that science has all the answers. It was really about the societal discourse, including science as well as other perspectives.

(Scene) How are people in the North talking to people in the South about sustaining their resources? Is it: we've degraded our own environment and now we are turning to them and saying, "Don't do what we did."

(Hays-Mitchell) In many ways we are encouraging them to degrade their environment, by the tremendous debt burden that they all carry. Brazil's a great case in point. How can it service its debt without chopping down large swaths of its tropical forest to get at the minerals underneath? We speak out of both sides of our mouth. On one hand we say, "Don't do as we have done, your resources are part of the global commons," and on the other hand we say, "Hey, you agreed to [pay back] that debt decades ago." From the North we tend to blame the victim.

(Pinet) I don't think we have the perspective that we should because we've been so successful with this corporate free market system that we somehow think that that's the natural state for human beings. It may not be. All the trends indicate that it's not. You see the irony in all of this. The imagination has been so stifled by this system that we can't even imagine interacting with other people, with the environment, in ways that are different than the ways that we've been inculcated with.

(Figueroa) I want to pick up on the idea of the moral imagination. There's all sorts of knowledge that's available for discussing what [Paul and Peter] have been talking about. It's indigenous knowledge that world leaders don't really include.

Women's indigenous knowledge is being ousted by the insertion and the power of [non-governmental organizations] and things of that sort. There are a lot of different groups, usually the victims of environmental degradation, who have a tremendous amount of knowledge to offer but are not being included in policymaking. If you ask how we should consider this morally or from an ethical point of view, you hear, "That's not reality, so why would we discuss it?"

What someone who says that means is a kind of economic reality in the ways in which people make their decisions. The moral imagination just shuts down, because they can't possibly comprehend the harms that are being assaulted on the earth and being assaulted on people who are being disempowered. But it's not for the people who are doing the harm to have to work it all out. If you listen to the people who are receiving the harms, they might actually have some answers.

You can draw certain conclusions from this dilemma of development, and one of them is that the gap between the richer and the poorer nations expands as global development expands. We're at a point where we've reached the biophysical limits of our earth and we have to break outside of this hegemonic epistemology.

(Sachs) Where my curiosity takes me is to look at the forms, the attractions, the magic of the kind of wealth we have created. I don't give so much a damn about nature, but about people. And what happens to nature is first done through people. So for me, the question to answer immediately is not "What is your attitude toward nature?" but "How can you arrive at a good life that utilizes fewer resources?" What does that mean for your everyday life? What does it mean for the way you build houses, design transport structures? What does it mean for your feeling of comfort, of excellence? An exploitative relationship to nature has become part and parcel of our enjoyment.

We are arrogant in our belief in our system and that there are answers... -- Maureen Hays-Mitchell

(Turner) I think you're still talking about changing individual attitudes. Going back to the question of what would you talk to the president about, or what would you talk to the leaders of the U.N. about, I don't think they're very effective at changing attitudes. I don't think that's what I'd try to talk to them about. I would be more interested in trying to talk to them about policy. Perhaps government and inter-government policy can be effective at changing people's attitudes. But I'd be more interested in talking about really pragmatic stuff, not about finding a policy that does something that we want, but instead getting rid of policies that do things we don't want. If I had 10 minutes with President Bush, I wouldn't try to change the world for the better, I would try to remove the bad stuff.

(Klepeis) In fact, the latest program to boost the amount of U.S. aid to developing countries -- $14 billion, if I remember correctly -- has strings attached. That is, you follow the model of U.S. development and you'll get the money. A lot of work by geographers looks at land managers' decision-making processes, behavior and attitudes at the local and regional levels and underscores the capacity for problem solving by communities and local groups.

So what kind of policy do we need? It seems to me we need a flexible policy, one that allows local communities to request certain kinds of aid, whether it be education about how markets work, or certain technologies, or ideas -- whatever that range of things might be. That's one way to perhaps not have negative environmental policies: build some flexibility in. Allow for more of a multi-layered approach to development, to resource management, as opposed to either a completely bottom-up or completely top-down approach, which both have problems.

(Turner) The bad policies have tended to arise from a perspective that is typical of politicians and maybe of all of us, which is, we think there's got to be an answer and we think that experts can provide it. One of the really important things that Paul brought up right away is the complexity of the world ecosystem and [the danger in thinking] of humans as being outside of that connection between human systems and the ecosystem. There probably are no simple answers and no universal answers, which gets back to leaving things flexible so that the right solution for a particular place and time can be found.

(Sachs) But is science important for guiding policy or not? Science in its core is about critique and not about certainty, and policymaking wants certainty. What you said about complexity, about the fundamental fact of not knowing, should induce you to prudence rather than to look for certainty. And you are looking for certainty if you want to optimize your relationship to a fragile system. Then you want to know exactly what are the critical thresholds, where are the fault lines. And you want to utilize as much as possible the space that is still given to you. So you want to optimize the exploitation of nature.

Politics looks for an approach that attempts to not allow problems to arise. Let me give an example. Let's say you are a mother going in a little boat onto a huge lake with two little children. A storm comes up and the boat is shaking and you say to yourself, "I have to do something. Maybe I have to throw off one child." You can make a cost/benefit analysis as to which child to throw off, and it might be very rational. You can optimize that choice. But the much more rational approach, of course, is not to go on a lake when there is storm with two little children. That is a little metaphor for politics. There is a complexity. Don't trust yourself too much. Get rid of your frontier mentality, which promises that at the end all human action will have a positive outcome.

(Klepeis) In science we have concepts of vulnerability, the identification of sort of hot spots -- that is, places where maybe you do see storm clouds brewing and you shouldn't go out on the lake. That is more and more being incorporated into understanding of environmental problems. So I do see a progression, an incorporation by science of some of the things you're talking about.

(Hays-Mitchell) That brings us back to Paul's point of humility. We are very arrogant in our belief in our system and that there are answers, whether it's science or the market, that can bring a certainty, can bring an answer to us. What we're talking about is that we must be humble, understand that there are unknow-ables, break out of the frontier mentality that says that our knowledge base will always be advancing.

Peter Klepeis
Peter Klepeis
Paul Pinet
Paul Pinet
Robert Figueroa
Robert Figueroa

(Sachs) One of the particular characteristics of our culture is a basic assumption that human action, in the end, will have positive outcomes. That is the fundamental optimism of the Enlightenment, and that has several consequences. One is that you basically say, "First I will do something, and then maybe what I do will be corrected by science." Development is full of that: Sure we might have to sacrifice people, but the next generation will have it much better. It's the same thing with the environment: There are environmental problems, but in the end they will transform themselves into gold and we'll be better off.

The idea that in the long run human action will prevail has not been there in many non-modern countries, or even in European history, where you rather have the assumption that whatever humans do can be very precarious. You don't know if an act will have negative repercussions greater than the positive effects. That is the point of entry for all kinds of religions, that before you do something you have to make sure that those who rule the world are in your favor. And that again brings you into an attitude of care, of self-doubt about the positive effects you're having.

To believe that positive effects will prevail requires that you don't see certain things. And the shadow is on nature. The more light that is thrown on man and his potential, the more other things are in the shadow.

(Figueroa) I think that the picture you [Sachs] paint in your work is not that there's a woman with two children going off the shore. She would never do that, as you have pointed out. She would recognize the weather system as something out of balance to begin with and would make other preparations.

The way that science and policy work on the global level is that the people making the decisions are on a large battleship in the same storm in the same water, and to them it's absolutely rational to be out there and to do their science and to make their models and their government and international decisions. When they look at the woman from that point of view, it makes perfect sense that she gets into that boat with the kids and makes the cost/benefit analysis and throws one over and makes it to the battleship.

But if you look at it from her point of view, the rational thing is to never leave. The global scientists, the people who have global reach, are typically not in the situation to make these deliberations over whether or not to even launch into that weather with her knowledge and her indigenous considerations. And theirs is the lens through which we solve these problems from the North. The North global powers, the World Bank, the IMF, are sitting out there on the battleship saying, "It's absolutely rational to come out in this storm. The storm means nothing. Come on out."

(Turner) You see that played out in interstate negotiations -- nation states negotiating with nation states, which is fraught with all kinds of problems. You don't see this kind of multi-layered approach in the fragile negotiation between states, with all the political consequences. If you were to take that out of the picture, or at least, dampen the influence of that kind of dynamic, then perhaps you would be able to incorporate more ideas, more systems and knowledge, more models of development.

U.S. aid to developing countries has strings attached. You follow the model of U.S. development and you'll get the money. -- Peter Klepeis

(Figueroa) And the notion of humility is very different from the perspective of that ship than it is for a mother caring for her children. The notion of humility that Maureen provided comes from the land.

(Turner) I find it interesting you chose a battleship for your metaphor. How about a cruise ship? It makes sense for the woman to want to get to the cruise ship. There's no reason for her to want to go to the battleship, but she might want to get to the cruise ship.

I think it's absolutely right to be thinking about whether it makes sense for the woman to do this. But the traditional view of the World Bank-type development authorities is, if she doesn't leave the bank in the canoe, the whole family is going to die. So should she risk having to toss one of them overboard and have the rest of them make it to the cruise ship, or should we leave her there, leave the whole family there, leave them in their state of what from the other side looks like poverty? Should we do something that's going to lead to some kid's getting thrown overboard but the next generation being better off? Is it right to impose our view of what's good on them? Is it right to assume that they would like to stay in their current status forever and not develop at all?

(Klepeis) But if the assumption of the North weren't that this model is the right one, that allows for more flexibility, allows for more shades of gray, so that there's not that stark dichotomy.

(Hays-Mitchell) To go back to the battleship metaphor, why are the waters churned up? It might not be a storm system. Maybe that huge battleship is creating the state of underdevelopment -- a process backwards as opposed to a static or pristine state of underdevelopment.

(Scene) Are we at the point where we can no longer ignore the shadow Wolfgang talked about earlier? The shadow that -- if the light is on us -- falls on other people and on the environment?

(Pinet) I just had a student who went to Africa with her parents. They saw some rhinoceros. The student was ecstatic and the parents were totally depressed, because [the parents] had gone when they were younger and seen hundreds of these animals. People born now can't even imagine the way it was 50 years ago. How could they? So they use this as a basis to try to understand their reality, and they think it's not so bad.

There's no doubt in my mind that Homo sapiens is going to go extinct. All species have. We proclaim that we're so magnificent we can beat the odds, but we're not. It's the deep geologic future, and it doesn't involve humans. And so if you start looking at the world that way you realize that, yes, in some geologic sense, cosmic sense, what we're doing now is totally insignificant. But at the same time it's describing what the future potential of the earth is and all its biota.

If we try to optimize human welfare, it's got to be done at the expense of other living things, and the minute we cause those extinctions it's not like I die and a life is gone and the species continues. The species is connected to the very beginning 3.8 billion years ago, and just because I want to glorify myself in comfort, I'm willing to essentially eliminate that potential for the future. So we're determining by our actions now, our thoughts, the status of the earth and its potential for the geologic future. To me, that's what fosters a sense of humility.

I was a mountaineer. A lot of my friends have been killed, and the one thing I learned is that when things are difficult you don't know what the right solutions are, but you know what the bad ones are, and those are the ones you don't make. The trends are wrong now. No matter how we try to tweak them, they're not good trends. I'm not talking for myself or for maybe even my children. I'm talking about people 500 years down the road, a thousand years down the road.

(Sachs) What strikes me is that there is American environmentalism and European environmentalism. European environmentalism focuses on human history rather than natural history -- what we have made out of nature. I and most of my friends would look at the strange phase in human history of the last 300, 400 years and would be very careful accepting [Paul's] claim, which takes a millennial perspective. It might be that humankind the way it lived up until 300, 400 years ago would have been much more durable or sustainable. Let us understand better what makes that modern culture and economics so special that it becomes such an alien species in world history. The entire deep-ecology discussion does not exist in Europe, because there's always something in between -- between nature and myself there's a society and human history.

(Turner) One of the things that has been most interesting to me teaching in the environmental studies program is what I've learned about the different ways that the different disciplines look at these same issues. I come from a background that's very human-oriented. Your description of Europe -- it is not probably coincidence that that's the way I tend to think of things, too, because the development of economics as a discipline was very much driven by Europe and by that view of the relationship between human society and the natural world.

But it's really important to understand some of the fundamental things you just said about the view of humans' place in this story. People from the different disciplines talk past each other a lot because of that issue. They never come to an understanding of where they're really starting in their talk.

(Hays-Mitchell) To take this back to the North-South relationship, we might use the same words but say very different things about relationships, attitudes toward nature, attitudes toward one's environment and one's aspirations, as well as respect for ancestral knowledge, the accumulation of indigenous knowledge and alternative ways of perceiving and solving problems. That's very difficult for us in the North to understand because of the culture base from which we speak -- and don't listen.

(Figueroa) An interdisciplinary approach requires us to go back to the theme of humility. When I hear Bob and Paul talking, the advantage I have is that I'm not coming from either of your brains or your passions, so I hear the relationship of what you're both saying. And although you're using the same words in very different ways, I'm picking up a third meaning.

This is what Aristotle would do. He would walk around asking people, "What is the meaning of justice?" Then he would make a list of the seven different meanings of justice that people use and determine which society was the most just according to those meanings. You're frustrated in the difference between what you're saying, but ultimately, this is symbolic of the relationship that we have with one another, with different cultures, with different knowledges and with different parts of the environment. None of us are coming from just a position or just a discipline. We can convey a history and a reflection, we can change our mind -- we're very nuanced. We're a relationship of meanings, and that's one of the benefits you get with an interdisciplinary program.

(Klepeis) So how do you transfer that kind of dynamic and interdisciplinary discourse to a societal discourse? It seems to me that all of us would like to have that as part of this very messy process of trying to figure out how to manage natural resources, what we want out of development. How do you make this kind of discussion more pragmatic?

(Sachs) What I would like is to be able to argue for environmentalism from a human point of view -- or, more precisely, from a justice point of view. To make an argument that basically says that to envision a viable world order in this century, which has just begun, you need to be an environmentalist. There's no other way of imagining a world order if it's not a world order that is pervaded by environmental ethics, because of the basic finiteness of nature.

But that argument is not so obvious. You have to make it, but why is that?

For many decades now, in particular in this country, people have said you should be an environmentalist for the sake of nature, and you should be an environmentalist for your sake, because as a human, it's good to have a good relationship to nature. You want nature to be there; otherwise you forget what it is to be human. As a complement to that, I would like to see us conceptualize an international society, to look at what the world would be like if all people had some fundamental rights. Then you have to become an environmentalist because it shows you that the world can be hospitable to twice as many people as there are today only if we in the North allow it, if we learn to live in a way that takes away much less from others than we do now. So you would draw on a different set of motivations. Not draw on the motivation of nature loving, but on another motivation, a kind of a social motivation, a kind of pride that wants to shape a world where more people can live in a dignified manner.

(Pinet) The distinctions you make are, to me, part of the problem, in the sense that I don't see any distinctions. When people say, "Let's go to the wilderness," I say, "It's here." It's not as if it's there and we're here. It's all interconnected. Our history is, our future is, and if you're going to develop humility it is important to deal with justice. It's justice with a natural world and with people -- because there is no difference.

Science has told us that we have deep biological roots. Science is telling us that we are going to go extinct. Science is telling us that the world is finite. What we do to people in the South we do to ourselves.

People will accept that the earth is no special place in the universe, but they have not accepted what Darwin proposed back in the middle of the 19th century. They say, "Yes, we have the biological roots, but we're different. We're no longer animals."

We draw the same kind of distinction between North and South. We're here, we're privileged, we're in control, and then there are the others. They're lower than we are because we're empowered and they're not. We somehow feel obligated to them because of a sense of guilt. So we offer them a place in our hierarchy, our cage, separate from other animals. Our moral vision is stunted. We continue to insist that our cage is all-important, that people are all-important and they're different. When you put that emphasis on people, you're damning nature, because it's all intertwined.

(Klepeis) I certainly would reinforce the need for people to understand that there's non-human life that should be valued perhaps as much as human life. However, the problem a lot of social scientists have with the notion of the finite resources of the earth is that humans, unlike other animals, have the capacity to alter environmental conditions so that they benefit society. We might reach a point where we can no longer do that, but we see that capacity to alter human and environment conditions in our past.

So it seems to me that we need to ask what kind of nature we want. Do we want a biodiverse nature? Do we want to think about nature as a part of our communities, as opposed to some biosphere that we set off to the side? It does seem to me that we're at a stage where we can decide what kind of world we want to live in, that humans have the capacity to manage it. That needs to be recognized. I don't know how to unplug that kind of impact.

Top of page
Table of contents
  Next: Behind enemy lines >>