To think or not to think sustainably

Posted by Sustainable OKC | Posted in Education, Environment, John Cheek, Nature, Philosophy, Sustainability | Posted on 08-09-2009

0

by John Cheek

Starting a graduate degree in philosophy invites a number of blunt questions, some from close family and friends uncertain of the plan’s wisdom, others from relative strangers snatching a bit more familiarity than seems entirely appropriate to my reclusive disposition. While my reasons for taking this path are incomprehensible to some, philosophy does offer some unique approaches to thinking about sustainability (and a host of other topics, of course). Philosophers have spent the last two millennia and change trying to convince the rest of you that we’re useful for something. There’s the tale Aristotle relates of the early philosopher Thales who, goaded for his “head-in-the-clouds” philosophical outlook, managed to corner the market on olive presses in his region and make a killing come harvest.

It’s a witty tale philosophers enjoy telling amongst themselves, (possibly to nurture the faint hope that any of them will ever make any money) but dark humor aside, there is one skill philosophers in general possess to a greater degree than any other profession. We can ask some tough questions. Socrates, perhaps the most famous of philosophers, was known for Socratic method (see, philosophy must be important if they named a method after one) in which he stripped away unsatisfactory explanations for common ideas by relentless asking pointed questions. Now depending on your disposition towards our subject, you may or may not have a very high opinion of the answers philosophers give to their own questions, but I’ll pose a couple of questions here and even risk an answer or two that I’d be quite delighted for you to criticize in the comments.

1. Is nature’s value intrinsic or extrinsic? In sustainably minded communities, we take for granted that our environment has value, but where is that value rooted? Is it intrinsic to the natural world, or is the natural world simply valuable in its usefulness to us? I’m fairly sure I know what trees would say if we could hear them talking, but it’s a good question to ask both of yourself and of others. If you are trying to enlist someone into a sustainable cause who believes the latter, then you’ll have a good idea of what arguments to pose and which statements to avoid.

2. How can we balance the needs of people with care for the natural world? It’s not uncommon to hear pie-in-the-sky statements from environmentalists, (I know, pots and kettles and all that) and that’s a good thing. Our goals should be ambitious as the stakes are quite high, but at the same time, it’s important that we consider the consequences different actions will have on the welfare of people in the short term. I don’t really have a great answer to how we balance these two aims, but perhaps some of you could help me suss one out in the comments.

Those are just two of the important questions that we face as a movement, and admittedly the answers can’t be handled completely in 500 words. So what do you think the answers might be, or am I even asking the right questions? Let us know what you’re thinking, and let me know if you’d like to help pay my tuition by renting an olive press …

Comments are closed.