What Exactly Do You Do?October 3, 2009
UPDATE: I’ve written a follow-up post. Better to read the below first for context.
Joe Romm offers up a pretty nasty award to environmental ethicist David Henderson, who has just written this opinion piece for the Washington Post. First, I’d like to offer props to David (whom I’m never met), a recent PhD from Texas A&M, for getting out of the academy and putting a bit of the ethics discussion to wider application. I’m pleased to see that my colleagues are bringing their work to a broader audience. I disagree with David, but that’s a mild point that I’m happy to take up with him later. It does, however, bear on my thinking about Romm’s award.
I think Romm is way over the top here, but first let me dispense with the obvious: I’ve read many, many worse pieces of environmental ethics. I think Romm is flat wrong about who should win this award. Nevermind. That’s an ugly gripe I’ll take up over beers with those who’ve read the same pointless drivel that I have.
More than that, however, I find Romm’s assumptions about my discipline somewhat disheartening. Check out this gem:
But a true environmental ethicist would be shouting from the mountaintop — or at least from his blog — that we have grievously violated every principle of intergenerational ethics in creating this global Ponzi scheme, whereby current generations have figured out how to live off the wealth of future generations. We have been stealing from our children and grandchildren an ever greater fraction of nonrenewable energy resources (especially hydrocarbons) and natural capital (fresh water, arable land, forests, fisheries), and, the most important nonrenewable natural capital of all — a livable climate.
I teach environmental ethics. I write environmental ethics. I’m also co-editor of a journal in environmental ethics: Ethics, Place & Environment. I do environmental ethics all day long, every day of the year, and I speak to several hundred students per year about many complex theoretical issues.
What do environmental ethicists do?
We disagree, just as I might disagree with Henderson.
That sounds mighty empty, unless you consider that philosophy is a discipline centered around argumentation. Philosophers argue like bitchy little banshees. We raise problems. We note difficulties. We present new arguments. We construct hypotheticals, run cockamamie counterfactuals, tell stories about zombies and robots, and lean heavily on things that have little connection to the real world at all. Our faculty meetings are hell. But we love this. We value disagreement. It makes us stronger. We try to inculcate such a love of argumentation in our students too.
Henderson is doing exactly this in his piece. He’s using an argument about CFLs to explore a question about proportionality (see the McMahan piece below re: war). He’s also offering a pragmatic political argument that, effectively, this ban may result in an ugly political backlash, thereby undermining further environmental efforts. So Henderson is actually doing more than philosophers often do (by delving into the political), and he is in fact doing what Romm wants him to do above (by suggesting that a ban on incandescents may be counterproductive to environmental progress).
All this disagreement means that there’s plenty of room for us to disagree about what it is to be an environmentalist, for us to disagree about what is environmentally right or good.
Which raises a second point.
Another thing we don’t all do is focus on questions of a “livable climate.” Until recently, most of us didn’t focus on climate at all. We have people working on questions of wilderness, restoration, pollution, animals, endangered species, natural value, definitions of nature, future generations, and on and on. We have people working on the very principles of intergenerational justice that Romm seems to think are so well established. It’s a pretty wide field.
Further, let’s attend to Romm’s argument. Romm says this:
His muddled piece, “Let There Be (Incandescent) Light,” perpetuates one enormous myth — that somehow clean energy generation alone without energy efficiency can solve our energy and environmental problems — and a bunch of smaller ones.
Henderson’s claim isn’t this at all, and it’s not clear to me how it perpetuates this myth. If I argue that one shouldn’t tax transfats, I’m not at all saying that people shouldn’t cut transfats out of their diets. That’s silly. I’m just saying that a tax is maybe not the best way to get people to cut transfats out of their diets. Henderson’s argument works like this.
I really, really want to respond to more of Romm’s argument, but I can’t do so until later this evening. (Sigh. I have a three year old. He wants to color.)