Two Images

November 12, 2009

I had occasion this morning to have breakfast with Bron Taylor (Religious Studies, University of Florida), author of Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future. As one might expect, the question about environmentalism as a religion (here and here) came up. I asked specifically whether we can’t distinguish between presumed appeals to the supernatural and actual appeals to the supernatural — in other words, whether it is important to distinguish between those who make explicit (or “perceived”) appeals to supernatural forces, and those who, in claiming to be making naturalistic appeals, nevertheless make supernatural appeals. (I might believe that my dead cousin Charlie is all around me, for instance, and in believing this, believe myself to hold a naturalistic view. Charlie’s spirit is just there, a part of nature. But my holding this naturalistic belief about Charlie isn’t what establishes my appeal as supernatural. My appeal is supernatural even though I believe it to be natural. There ain’t no way to establish using naturalistic methodology whether Charlie is or isn’t all around.) Unfortunately, our eggs came too early and I wasn’t able to get an answer. Maybe I’ll be able to get something out of him tonight over beers.

As breakfast continued, we got on the topic of environmental roadshows, and Bron noted that one common method of inspiring people to take interest in environmental issues is by showing before and after photos. I’m sure you’re familiar with the technique, but you can see instances of it here (or by going to a roadshow). Sometimes they don’t employ a before-and-after format, but just show how scarred the earth can be. It doesn’t take much creativity to imagine what the earth would be like without the scar. The idea, of course, is to demonstrate desecration.

This technique is a political reality. It’s a very common way of demonstrating the desecration of nature; and it is supposed to get people to recognize, or appreciate, or find value in, untrammeled nature. But I think there’s a lot more going on in these sorts of events than simply identifying the better and worse states of nature. What these before-and-after pictures do is tweak our reactive attitudes, our quasi-natural reactions to incidents that we take to have certain causes. (‘Reactive attitudes’ are generally used differently in philosophy, but I think they play an important role here insofar as they point us to incidents in which a supposedly “free will” has intervened.)

To see this, now look at the following photographs: herehere, and here. Depending on your view about global climate change, your attitude about the desecration of nature may change. That is, you may not feel the kind of disapprobation that you feel when you look at pictures of clearcuts; or you may just see the melting of the glaciers as a natural process.

Consider further that if I show you pictures of this devastation or this devastation, it seems reasonable that you won’t feel the same level of disapprobation. You may feel sadness, or despair, or pity; but these are likely not identical with the attitudes that you might have if these were the results of multiple intermingling wills.

Also interesting is that if I show you an image of a beautiful building — say, the Helix Hotel — you may think very positively about this construction, even though from one perspective it rests on desecrated soil.

What this points to, at least for me, is not so much the view that one natural condition is preferable to another condition of the world, but rather that when we are culpable for bringing about a bad state of affairs, this is where are moral disapprobation gets tweaked.

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