Avner de-Shalit in his paper criticises environmental philosophy for displaying ‘a conceptual instrumentalism’ in its use of the concept ‘the environment’. What kind of criticism is Avner de-Shalit offering in making this charge? While Avner de-Shalit points to the parallels with the use of the concepts of instrumentalism as in environmental philosophy, the term instrumentalism in that context and instrumentalism as used in the term ‘conceptual instrumentalism’ do very different kinds of normative work. The concept of instrumentalism in environmental philosophy concerns issues about who or what has ethical standing. It plays on the Kantian idea that some beings are ends in themselves such that to treat them merely as a means is to fail to accord them proper respect. The environmental philosopher of a deep variety basically aims to extend the range of subjects to which such respect is appropriate beyond that which Kantians or utilitarians ordinarily allow. Instrumentalism in the sense ‘conceptual instrumentalism’ does different work. It is to use a concept with one meaning to say something else. Tony Blair’s use of the term socialism provides a good example. Now here the charge is not one of having failed to give a concept it’s proper moral due – concepts have no ethical standing, they are not ends in themselves. Rather, the charge is one of something like dishonesty or deception – both to others and on occasions to oneself. The concept is mis-used so that one kind of claim is disguised as another. Is the charge one that is justified against environmental philosophers?
Avner de-Shalit’s central charge is that much in modern environmentalism, and specifically deep ecology and eco-feminism, is politics that ought to recognise itself as such. Much of the argument about the environment is sublimated politics. There is I think some substance to those specific charges against deep ecology and eco-feminism and the argument specifically aimed against those positions I will not dispute in this paper. Rather I want to question Avner de-Shalit’s route to that conclusion. I think the argument he presents for it is flawed and importantly so. Environmental problems are of their nature necessarily political. What worries me about Avner de-Shalit’s arguments is an implicit scientism that suggests that they might not be.
The argument Avner de-Shalit presents in broad outline runs thus:
1. The environment in its basic scientifically neutral sense refers to ‘a system of ecosystems’;
2. The environment in that sense is not the object of deep green’s concern.
3. Deep greens use the concept to make different political claims that are disguised as claims about ‘the environment’.
4. Hence, deep greens are guilty of conceptual instrumentalism.
I think this argument fails because the first premise that Avner de-Shalit asserts right at the start of the paper is false: I don’t think we should accept that “the environment is a system of ecosystems”. That identity claim is false. More generally, I do not think there is any reason to assume that science could provide us with a neutral proper definition of ‘the environment’. Finally, I think there is a sense in which environmental problems are necessarily ethical and political, and not problematically so. There are a number of points to be made here – and I’ll start from the more narrow and work out to some more general objections to Avner de-Shalit’s position.
The identity claim is false. The concept of an ‘ecosystem’ is a theoretical concept within ecology that has its origins in the work of Clements and Tansley: to say that there are ecosystems is to say that groups of organism form relatively persistent self-regulating systems. It is associated with the language of the balance of nature to which Avner de-Shalit makes reference in his paper: “In text-books, ecologists define their science as ‘the research of the forms of balance in nature’… The ‘balance’ here is defined in terms of persistence (existence over a long period of time), stability (ability to return to a regular pattern of existence after a change caused by a disturbance or interference) and robustness (continuous stability).” While that textbook account maybe one that some ecologists hold, it is as I understand it, no longer the mainstream view in ecology which typically denies that groups of organisms form any such persistent stable self-regulating systems. They rather come together in fortuitous assemblages that are constantly changing and do not persist in any stable “balances”. In place of the language of ecosystems we have the language of “patches” of organisms enter into a series of accidental relations with each other. It is then not just possible, but quite likely, that ecologists will conclude that there are no ecosystems in nature and hence no system of ecosystems. However, if scientific ecology does come to that conclusion it would not follow that ecologists would have discovered that after all there is no environment and no environmental problems. I see no reason to tie the concept of the environment to the particular theoretical concept of ecosystem. And whatever everyone is talking about when they are talking about “the environment”, it is not something that can be identified with ecosystems. Indeed some perfectly good uses of the term ‘environment’ would not make sense given that identification. Consider the debates about the quality of urban environments. I take it they are not are not normally about urban ecosystems, but rather the features of the physical surroundings of persons in cities, levels of noise, levels of pollution, the patterns of road and housing development, the state of public spaces and so on.
More generally I do not think there is any reason to assume that science could provide us with a neutral definition of “the environment”. The concept of the environment is pre-scientific, pre-theoretical and not one of the kind that one might expect science to offer a privileged characterisation. To make this point is not to question the objectivity of science nor to deny realism about science. What I have said about ecosystems presupposes a commitment to scientific realism. Neither is it to deny that there are concepts whose reference is fixed by science: I am happy to concede that there are some concepts, those used to refer to natural kinds – water, copper, and the like – that science does offer a privileged characterisation. However, the environment is not a concept of that sort. In its basic sense to talk of the environment is to talk of the environs or surroundings of some creature, some community or something. While I think there is plenty that science can tell us about the surroundings of different living and non-living things, and the ways that they interact with them, I don’t believe there could be a science of surroundings as such. The term ‘environment’ does not name a natural kind.
What then is everyone talking about when they talk of “the environment”? An initial point I think is that strictly speaking there is no such thing as the environment, singular. First, and this follows from points just made, to talk of environments is always elliptical: it is always possible to ask “whose environment?” “The environment of which individual or community?” Second there are a variety of different scales on which we can refer to the environments of some individual or community – from the particular locality in which they live, with their distinctive landmarks, through to the global surroundings which are a condition for there existence, the earth with its soils, waters, atmosphere and living organisms – the biosphere. Third, there are a variety of different relations that individuals and communities stand to their surroundings and correspondingly a variety of different ways of characterising those surroundings depending on which kind of relation concerns us. One and the same locality can be characterised under different descriptions: as a particular kind of habitat for some set of organism, for example as a wetland of a certain variety; as a landscape that has certain aesthetic qualities; as a place that is inhabited by some particular community; as a particular area of land that is a productive resource, say as a pasture with its grass types; and so on. Talk of ‘the environment’ is at best shorthand for talk of a variety of different surroundings of different individuals and communities on different scales that can be described by a variety of terms, such as habitat, landscape, place, land, and which matter to those who inhabit them in a number of very different ways. It is under different descriptions that the appraisal of environments takes place. A particular environment is not evaluated as good or bad as such, beautiful or ugly as such, but, rather, as good, bad, beautiful or ugly under different descriptions. It can be at one and the same time a ‘good A’ and a ‘bad B’, a ‘beautiful C’ and an ‘ugly D’. A location, say a quarry, may have considerable worth as a place – it may embody in a particularly powerful way the work of a community – but little worth as a habitat, or as a landscape. A wetland might be of considerable worth as a habitat, but at the same time have little value as a landscape. Relatedly, one often employs more specific evaluative terms that do not transfer across descriptions. It makes sense for example to talk of an ‘evocative place’ or an ‘evocative landscape’; one would be less likely to talk of an ‘evocative habitat’ or an ‘evocative ecosystem’. Correspondingly changes to environments cannot be characterised as better or worse as such, but better or worse under different descriptions for different individuals. How one evaluates an environment can vary depending upon which aspect one is talking of.
Consider for example the following descriptions of the same location by three visitors to the Yorkshire Dales and in particular the Three Peaks area the Dales. First, Daniel Defoe’s description of the Three Peaks area in his A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain.
Nor were these hills high and formidable only, but they had a kind of an inhospitable terror in them. Here were no rich pleasant valleys between them, as among the Alps; no lead mines and veins of rich ore, as in the Peak; no coal pits as in the hills about Halifax, much less gold as in the Andes, but all barren and wild, of no use or advantage either to man or beast..
The second contrasting description is that of a more recent visitor, the late Richard Sylvan, an Australian environmental philosopher who visited the dales for a conference:
By contrast with Defoe’s impressions, the Three Peaks district is now prized for its recreational values, it is prized for its comparative remoteness and wilderness, its fewness of people and absence of industry, for the walks and wild meadows it offers. But it is a landscape far removed from its pre-agricultural original. It has been almost totally stripped of its native vegetation, and most habitats and much of its ecology destroyed, the remainder substantially modified, in the former quest…for agricultural advantage and optimal, or often excessive, grazing usage… Remarkably, however, there appears little pressure for economic adjustment and ecological restoration, for removal of some sheep and return of more woods. Many recreationalist appear to prefer impoverished grasslands, treelessness. Even environmental organisations like English Nature own sheep and lease out lands for sheep grazing.
Third a description by some human geographers:
The particular quality of the Dales’ landscape is the integration of the physical and the human. The bedrock provides the materials for the stone wall and the field barns that still grace all the Dales. The valley side are gashed by fast flowing streams (gills, becks) whose harsh craggy features are softened by woodlands of hazel, oak, ash and birch. The moor tops and harsher fells are grazed by sheep and provide cover for grouse. Heather moors are prized their sporting habitat, a source of income that is now greater than the agricultural subsidies in many upland estates. This is a tough land shaped by tough people. It is unique to the British rural scene, and impressively distinctive.
We have here three very different descriptions of an environment. Part of the shift from Defoe to Sylvan represents a shift in its physical nature – I’m sure, given the agricultural improvements, the dales of today much more to Defoe’s liking than that of the 18th century. But each is also offering contrasting evaluations under different descriptions of the environment: roughly as productive land (Defoe), as habitat (Sylvan) and as place (O’Riordan et al). Features of the landscape that are central under one disappear under others, or appear as in a different normative light. Features of the landscape that are central to the description of O’Riordan et al most notably the way that the character of the local people is expressed in the landscape, “a tough land shaped by tough people”, in so far as they appear at all in Sylvan’s description do so negatively: landscapes are judged in terms of the absence of a human face, by their distance from a “pre-agricultural original”. Both of these differ from the productivity based observations of Defoe.
These kinds of dispute are not abstract arguments. They are arguments that can have implications for choices about the future of the environments like the Yorkshire Dales and for the various individuals and communities whose environment it is. The dales are under the environmental tutelage of a number of governmental agencies – English Nature, the Countryside Commission and the National Parks Authority – each pursuing particular policies to “sustain” and “improve” the dales as landscapes of “outstanding natural beauty” (Countryside Commission) and as special habitats (English Nature). Thus there exist a variety of schemes that pay farmers to conserve both the built landscape, especially the dry stone walls and barns, and the traditional habitats, the flower rich hay meadows, the heather and so on. These are significant for all those for whom it is a place of visitation. For those who work there they can have different significance. Consider the comments of local farmers when asked to define their own approach to landscape and it distinctiveness from that of visitors. The farmers often define their approach to landscapes in opposition to such purely pictorial and conservation approaches:
[Visitors] look at it [the landscape] like a pretty postcard sort of thing, we’re looking at it in a different way…’
We had a chap, the fella who are in charge of that [barn conservation], came and talked to the North Craven Heritage Trust with a slide show and kept putting these pictures up and saying well, we don’t want to lose that barn because see how beautifully it’s placed in my photograph and he was saving barns because they made his photograph look pretty, as far as you’d understand. Now the field barns are there because of a specific kind of farming…
..it’s taken a long time to get that land into the condition it’s in now, really. They come along and say they want – to conserve it…saying we’d like these little pictures – it looks so nice – so please keep it like that. Oh I don’t agree with that at all…
In contrast to those conservation and pictorial approaches, the farmers present themselves as having a much more husbandry based approach to landscape.
F. A farmer will look at someone else’s farm and could tell whether it was well farmed or not. They wouldn’t look at the view and think – what a good view – they look and see whether it had been well farmed. Yes, they’ve a different way of looking at it.
M. What would they look for?
F. Tidiness, walls are up, general upkeep of the land. It would look green.
Plenty of weeds in the fields – that looks a mess, doesn’t it…A field full of thistles looks a mess. Well it looks nice when it’s in flower – a fortnight later when it hoes to seed it is a mess then. And well maintained walls and hedges are better to look at than a wall that’s full of holes…
Barns, dry stone walls, fields and so on matter in virtue of their role in farming. To say this is not to say that farmers are blind to the pictorial or ecological features of the landscape: having talked of weeds they will also talk of going to visit hay meadows to look at the flowers, or the tranquillity of the scenes they observe. The farmers are not immune to the aesthetic values of the scenes in which they live, nor the organisms that have inhabited the area. However, their husbandry based presentation of their experience of the landscape matters because the characterisation of the landscape as a worked landscape is central to their identity as members of an ongoing working community, and in particular their identity as farmers, not park-keepers, curators or custodians. Their opposition to the controls exerted upon them by the variety of authorities in the Dales is one that often appeals to community and working identity:
National Parks, English Nature, they’ll finish up with all the farmers running around in smocks, like museum and curators. That is not a community. We have a community which is a working community…
Now they’re trying to make them [farmers] park keepers.
There is a danger of people becoming non-farmers. Custodians.
From that perspectives items that are often taken from the ‘pictorial’ perspective to be blights – such as quarries – have a different significance:
…we don’t want to lose the quarry, we’re not anti-quarry. Because it is, this is a living, working village because it has got the quarries and we’ve got kids in the school and we’ve got two pubs and a church and shop and the rest of it, largely because the quarries are still going. You go up Wharfedale and it’s all as dead as anything.
The significance of the environment in this context is not as a landscape with certain pictorial features nor as a habitat which can be protected and enhanced in various marginal ways. Rather is it is a place that is in part constitutive of a certain identity and community, both of which are perceived to be threatened. What is at stake in the conflicts about the landscape is not an external object that could be demarcated and given a price, but rather a place that is constitutive of community. Hence the remark of another farmer:
This is my community if you like. It may sound a strange thing to say, this is my valley. But this is where I am, where I come from. It’s what makes me tick if you will…
What is at stake here is not just, landscapes understood in the pictorial sense, vistas that might be captured on a painting or photograph, or habitats in the sense of assemblages of particular organism, but rather a landscape that embodies a way of life and community. The fear is that the attempt to create a particular kind of conserved landscape is a threat to both a kind of community whose life depends on a particular mix of working activities – including quarrying and farming – and identity as farmers.
I’ve gone at length about the farmers’ perspectives not to endorse them, but rather to illustrate the different kinds of relations communities have to their environments and the different kinds of practical appraisal they involve. I want to bring out two central points here. The first is that environments are at the centre of value conflicts that needs to be recognised as such. The fact that the same environment is at one and the same time an aesthetic landscape, a number of habitats and a place in which a community lives entails that changes are always potentially in conflict with each other. What the farmers comments highlight is that the changes that under some descriptions count as ‘improvements’, those of habitat for particular flowers and insect, or as aesthetically pleasing landscape, may not improvements at all under another description, that of the landscape as lived place. We might end up with well tended Romantic gardens on a large scale that are inhabited by no community and in which on one dimension of environmental goods is simply lost. One of the problems with much environmental philosophy – and I think that Avner de-Shalit and the deep ecologists are on the same side – is that just one description of the environment is recognised, that of offered by ecology, and a particular version of that theory in which nature is characterised as a system of natural ecosystems and communities whose integrity has to be protected from human disturbance. The picture runs through the Sylvan passage quoted above. I think that this kind of understanding of “natural” habitats is mistaken as an account of habitats: most habitats, including those misleadingly characterised as wilderness in the Australia and the US bear the imprint of human activity. However, I think more generally the restriction of the proper description of environments to just one of the kind Avner de-Shalit offers is to fail to recognise environmental values of other kinds. The idea that we could appeal to the state of nature as a standard to judge how good “the environment” is involves a blindness to the variety of ways environments can be characterised and matter. Hence my resistance to Avner de-Shalit’s appeal to ecological science to give us our neutral characterisation of ‘the environment’. For all that I think ecology has a role in educating us to features of landscapes we might miss, there is more to environments than any science could offer us.
Second, given the existence of such value conflicts, some environmental questions are of there nature political. Given that individuals and communities share the same public spaces, the same environments, but under different characterisations and evaluations, all the standard problems of politics arise. Those of equity in the distribution of goods and harms, the fairness of decision making procedures, legitimacy of the authorities that make and enforce policies, conflicting claims to rights in environments and to entitlements for a say in their future. Those conflicts are often underpinned by issues of the identity and community of the kind illustrated in the comments from the farmers that are also political. I think in that sense that the political character of the talk about the environment is not a sublimated version of a different debate. It is political in virtue of the nature of the environment problems. My basic worry about Avner de-Shalit’s appeal to a scientific concept of the environment to circumscribe what is properly “environmental” is that it involves a kind of scientism that precisely depoliticises what is essentially a political issue, and hands over to experts the definition of problems that properly belong to democratic debate. It gives succour to the idea that particular policy experts, conservation scientists, environmental economists and landscape planners, are able to provide a politically neutral characterisation of what a good environment should be like. There is no such characterisation. Environmental decisions are of their nature political.