1 The Need for a Philosophy of Nature

I would have . . . the scholar finely sift all things with discretion, and have him harbor in his head nothing by mere authority. . . .

—Michel de Montaigne (1575)

There are many reasons that I am not an environmentalist, even though I believe it obviously necessary that we, the human species, develop the right relationship with the natural world. Environmentalism is a movement that has sprung up spontaneously from the soil of human concern and conviction, so it suffers from the weaknesses that afflict popular ideologies. It is not a system of thought, but a loose collection of putative facts, questionable creeds, and hastily conceived calls for action—fortified throughout with plain truths, worthy ideals, and sound plans. Because environmentalism contains so much that is right, it must be analyzed and evaluated if we are to have any hope of salvaging what is right and sound, even as what is wrong and unsound heads for its inevitable collision with reality.

I am not an environmentalist, but neither am I an anti-environmentalist. I am a non- environmentalist who would like to help found a philosophy of nature that recognizes environmental facts and values. Among these is the fact that we are entering a crucial century in the history of humankind, one where our own population will peak at about 9 billion (see Figure I.1), while ever larger proportions of us come to enjoy the benefits of modern life. This will be a crucial, epoch-making process, one filled with hazards for the natural world and for us, just as the environmentalists warn—but also one filled with promise. What will the facts be when this century has passed? That is largely up to us. As for values, I think everyone, environmentalist or not, would like to see nature, including humankind, emerge from the century whole, healthy, and flourishing. This is no time to rely on the accidental accumulation of ideas and programs that make up environmentalism. The time has come to resurvey our place in nature, as well as the place of nature in our lives. The time has come to identify the essential facts, to formulate the central values, and to develop a basis for discussing policy.

The time has come, that is, for a philosophy of nature. A philosophy of nature differs from environmental philosophy in that it is not based on the concept of the environment. Every organism is distinct and separate from its environment, and human beings are no exception. So to speak of the environment is to set up a conflict between us and the natural world. It is less divisive and more accurate to begin with nature as a whole, which includes us as an integral part. Nature has given birth to Homo sapiens just as it has given birth to every other organism on Earth, and we cannot exist except within nature.1 Our body chemistry is engaged with the chemistry of the planet. The very air that flows in and out of your body to keep you alive as you read these words is a part of nature that untold billions of plants helped create by breathing out oxygen over millions of years. The fit between hand and glove is crude compared to the fit between us and nature: We are leaves on the tree of life. To speak of the environment is to speak about that tree and everything else that is not us. But we can- not solve “environmental” problems until we recognize human nature within nature, and nature within our human nature. So let us begin with nature, the natural world as a whole, and seek wisdom about it, our role within it, and its role within us. In other words, given that philosophy is the pursuit of wisdom, let us begin the philosophy of nature.

The failings of environmentalism are so numerous and diverse that a complete catalog would be impractical. Instead I have identified, in the following chapters, the main types of mistake. These I will describe starkly, in order to make them clear. There is a danger that this approach will alienate the very people who most need to be aware of what I will portray: namely, environmentalists themselves. If you would describe yourself as an environmentalist, I urge you to keep reading. Remember, I want what you want: that we find the right relationship with the rest of the living world, as well as with the nonliving world that supports it.

I grant—in fact I happily attest—that were it not for environmentalists, we would probably be in the midst of a severe (or more severe) environmental problem at this very moment. We cannot advance toward our common goal—humankind in the right relationship with the natural world in which and through which it finds its existence—unless our debt to spontaneous environmentalism is acknowledged. However, we also cannot advance toward our common goal until we also recognize where environmentalist thinking has gone wrong. I assume that everyone who is still reading this book at this page has some sense of concern about the environment. Your concern for the environment is invaluable, but you do not want to waste it on poorly conceived projects, or worse, have it discredited by investing it in ideas that cannot withstand the test of time. Bear with me, and I think you will see the obstacles more clearly—and the way forward.


The ultimate goal of this book is not critical, but constructive: laying foundations for the philosophy of nature. Foundations must begin with clearing the ground. This is a big job in itself, given the large number of environmentalist constructions already in place. In the proper sense of the word, environmentalism is not a philosophy at all, because it is unexamined, unsystematic, and inconsistent—more a matter of practice than of theory. It is not an edifice of ideas, but a rough camp of converging interests, ranging from conservative lovers of wilderness on the right to radical haters of big business on the left. Philosophy is essentially an exploration of ideas, so our investigation of environmentalism will focus on the ideas that sustain it. As a popular movement, and as a collection of overlapping interests, environmentalism involves passion, faith, and history. Philosophy addresses the ideas that incite this passion, express this faith, and motivate this history, critically evaluating them for their logic, their truth, and their coherence. This is not to exclude passion, faith, and history from our investigation, but rather, to consider them from the point of view of the concepts that animate them.


The discussion will proceed along five parallel tracks:

  1. The primary text that you are reading now, which is intended for the nonspecialist.
  2. The footnotes, which will involve scholarly details and scientific technicalities. All scientific references cited as authoritative support in this discussion will be from proper, well-respected, scientific publications, although we will consider a range of important environmental views regardless of their source.
  3. Theses, conclusions that are sufficiently important that they are marked as reference points in the philosophy of nature. These are not presented as proven truths nor as articles of faith, but rather, as focuses for ongoing study and discussion within the philosophy of nature.
  4. Case studies of current issues of special interest within environmentalism or the philosophy of nature. Since the devil is always lurking in the details, in particular the scientific details, we must delve into them. When it comes right down to the real nitty-gritty, we need to know the numbers. But even when the debate seems to come down strongly on one side or the other of the issue in question, we should remember that case studies depend in part upon states of affairs that may change, upon ongoing scientific investigation, or both.
  5. Feature boxes will designate detachable features of the ongoing discussion that are not essential but which fill out the discussion in relevant and valuable ways, in roughly the way that a detachable hood is a feature on a jacket or a detachable basket is a feature on a bicycle.

The advantage of having parallel tracks is that when you find yourself reading a section that has become, perhaps, too technical for your liking, or which is perhaps unappealing to you for other reasons, you can simply skip over it and go on to the next section, case study, box, and so on. Since the tracks are parallel, they all lead to the same destination in the end.


Every day in the news, on television, in the newspapers, and on the World Wide Web, environmentalists criticize people and businesses for their greed and carelessness in harming the environment. Every now and then we also hear from someone who is critical of the environmentalists. When an environmental “watch dog group” puts forward a speaker who condemns the use of genetically modified (GM) crops, predicting the collapse of ecosystems and human agricultural production as a result of their use, we sometimes also hear from a farmer who points out that the GM crop requires less pesticide, less fertilizer, or less water, and so also has an environmental benefit. The very next day, we will again hear from environmentalists who will claim that the farmer was a friend of, or in the pocket of, the seed companies that sell the seed for the GM crop. This is supposed to be damning criticism of what the farmer has said. Similarly, when an environmentalist critic comes forward to chastise people who want to harvest some trees for lumber, we may, although it is not very likely, hear from a logger who points out that the amount of forest in the United States has remained constant since 1920 (USDA 2000, p. 2) and that the amount of forest over the entire Earth has remained constant since 1948 (United Nations’ Food and Agriculture data, 1949–1995), even as the population and agricultural output for both North America and the world have increased dramatically. The next day we will hear from an environmentalist who will criticize what the logger said on the grounds that loggers have vested interests in logging. This is supposed to discredit completely what the logger has said.

Critics of environmentalism are castigated and shunned because they are, supposedly, supported by business, by corporations, by unions, by right-wing organizations, or by other groups that have an interest in resisting some environmental claims and programs. Such people, we are told, are to be ignored because they have anti-environmental interests, and so are biased. Their views, unlike those of the environmentalists, are therefore said to lack credibility. Yet the people who make these claims are representatives of environmental organizations such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, or the Sierra Club, groups that have an obvious and clearly stated interest in the issue—or even executives of these groups who draw their salaries from them. Why is it that the views of environmentalists are not thought to be biased given their obvious anti-GM, antilogging interests and the money they receive from the environmentalist organizations that support them? Apparently, it is assumed immediately that the interests of businesspeople are less trustworthy than those of environmentalists. For the environmentalist that is axiomatic, since business, particularly in the form of the dreaded multinational corporation, is seen as the main enemy of the environment.

Of course, it is just as quickly assumed from the other side, the side of business, that every environmentalist is against business, if not against the material progress of humankind itself.

But a moment’s reflection reveals that both sides of this contest are interested parties who have deeply entrenched views prior to their appearance in the news. Both sides are funded by organizations with deep pockets. Reflection also reveals that attacking the people who make the arguments, instead of criticizing the arguments they make, is illogical. To attack the arguer rather than the argument is to commit the logical fallacy of ad hominem. A dentist can make a perfectly sound argument in favor of dental care—or against it for that matter. A thief can make a perfectly good argument against theft, and an alcoholic can soundly inveigh against the dangers of drink. We are told by pundits to “follow the money,” to find a person’s sources of income in order to see what makes him or her say and think the things that he or she thinks. This is somehow supposed to tell us whether or not to believe or take seriously the things that they say. But truth is not a football in a team sport. Truth is not won by picking a side and then judging whatever anyone says simply by figuring out whether or not they are on your side. Objectivity is the only guide to the truth. Objectivity requires listening to what is said and judging it on the basis of its evidence and logic, not on the basis of whether you are for or against the speaker.

I do not mean to suggest that we should ignore people’s sense of right and wrong, their ethics, personal commitments, intellectual affiliations, political orientations, or to sum it up in a single word, their values. Indeed, I believe that one of the quickest, most efficient routes to discovering a person’s thoughts—one’s own or someone else’s—is by searching out that person’s values. What I am denying is that the soundness of a person’s arguments and therefore the truth of their conclusions can be determined by the identification of their values. Truth and falsehood are determined by the facts, not by the values of the person speaking. To put it another way, I am committed to logic as the means of evaluating the soundness of argument. The fundamental principles of logic will be my guide in what follows, and their canons will sound whenever they must. Logic, the creation of the originators of the philosophical tradition I follow,2 measures the soundness of an argument solely in terms of whether or not it can establish the truth of its conclusion. Nothing else is relevant. There are only two relevant issues logically speaking: (1) Would the premises of an argument entail the conclusion if they were true? and (2) Are the premises true?3

My intention is to evaluate all claims solely on the basis of the arguments that support them and to evaluate all arguments solely on the basis of logic. Of course, arguments that people put forward are a function of their values. Surely we must take an interest—an objective, philosophical interest—in the values that motivate arguments, including our own. Sometimes it is very difficult, if not actually impossible, to really understand an argument without understanding what motivates it. The motivations of an argument are completely irrelevant to the soundness of the argument from a logical point of view, but they are not irrelevant to understanding a person’s views, values, system of thought: in a word, a person’s philosophy. But where the objective spirit reigns, no one should be embarrassed to admit their views, their commitments, their affiliations. We should take it as a mundane matter of fact that people do have views, do have strong likes and dislikes, do have passionately held values. There is nothing wrong with that. There is nothing wrong with professional environmentalists drawing their living from the billions of dollars raised by environmentalist groups, just as there is nothing wrong with their critics finding their source of income elsewhere. In this spirit of objectivity, we should have nothing to hide.

I have been cheered by what appears to be the gradual opening of minds on all sides. Perhaps this is more illusory than real—it is difficult to say. The mere fact that my research has found a publisher—to whom I am extremely grateful—is a bit of evidence of this gradual broadening of the discussion surrounding our relationship with the rest of nature. I welcome any move toward openness and objectivity when it comes to any issues, including those identified and popularized by environmentalism. The questions should not be closed, and those who want to have a look at them should not be branded as deniers or tree-huggers or enemies of the planet or superannuated hippies. Both sides need to be heard in any serious decision, no matter how obvious things may look at the outset. That’s the only fair and impartial procedure. If truth and falsehood really are obvious when it comes to nature, this will still be the case after we have had a closer look. We take a second look before we cross the street. It cannot hurt to have a second look before we transform our values, policies, and economics to meet environmentalist objectives.


Objectivity, impartiality, fairness, freedom from prejudice, an open mind, value-neutrality—by whatever name you call it, this is the first necessity of philosophy. Unfortunately, there are so many unsound ideas circulating within popular environmentalism that at this time, objectivity can only be achieved by revealing their flaws. So I may give the impression of bias as I criticize one popular environmentalist conviction after another. If I do, however, it is merely an impression created by our place in the history of humankind’s environmental thinking, where further progress demands that we set aside old ideas to make room for the new.4 These new ideas will themselves be subjected to the same relentless criticism as their predecessors. Some of them will be identified explicitly and numbered for easy reference. Their sole claim on our assent is their ability to withstand this criticism. No doubt they, too, will eventually be outgrown and swept aside by ideas of greater accuracy and deeper understanding. This is to be welcomed. Philosophers do not expect to find truth descending from the mountain, written in stone, but instead hope to take the first tentative steps toward wisdom.

Philosophy takes both the close view and the long view. Professional philosophers are, on the one hand, trained in the logical details, the hair-splitting minutiae of argument, and on the other, in the grand historical sweep of ideas. When people think of religion, for example, they think of the religions of those they see around themselves. But when philosophers think of religion, they think of the detailed arguments for and against God’s existence, the justification of faith, and so on, on the one hand, and the great religious traditions down through history on the other. When people think of science, they think of the science they were taught in school and hear about in the news, whereas philosophers think about the gradual emergence of the current logic of scientific evidence and theory, alongside the thousands of years of scientific tradition that has gradually led to today’s sophisticated science along what can only be called an indirect route. Philosophers have learned that the way to understand what people agree or disagree about is to reveal its logic and to trace its historical origins. Environmentalism is no exception: It will be understood, if it is to be understood at all, by attending to its logic and its historical development.

The philosopher’s dual focus on argument and the history of ideas can bring some much needed clarity to the current struggles between environmentalists and their opponents, even if this does not automatically provide solutions. Because of its long historical perspective and focus on logic, the philosophical point of view is a bit above the fray. The idea is to shine a well-focused light on the subject, one that might even be called harsh, in order to get the clearest, most detailed view of it. Philosophy has its own project, one that is now well into its third millennium, a project to bring reason and light into people’s lives. Presuppositions and assumptions that are seldom if ever stated explicitly act as unquestioned and invisible rulers of our thoughts, and thereby of our lives themselves. Philosophy’s first task is not programming but deprogramming. Its goal is to free our thoughts and lives of these unacknowledged rulers. The rulers of our thoughts, like the rulers of our countries, should be chosen freely, with open eyes.

A philosophical work asks its readers to ask themselves why they do what they do, why they say what they say, and why they think what they think. Meanwhile, the philosophical writer must be asking these questions of himself or herself. The task is a communal one, taking the form of a discussion. So, I will be using the word “we” to refer to this philosophical grouping consisting of you, dear reader, and me. I expect that you will be asking questions about what I am saying as you read along. That is a good thing. I do not by any means expect that you will agree with me at every step—indeed, I expect that you will disagree at many points. I do not even expect that everything I am about to assert is indeed true, since I, like any human being, make mistakes. Happily, the real gold in philosophy is not the assertions, but the questions. I will have done my job as a philosopher if I have provided you with good questions—ones that must be addressed to the unacknowledged rulers of your thought and life. Our aim is to open a discussion, not close it, a discussion about nature and our lives and thoughts insofar as they have to do with nature.


We are animals of the species Homo sapiens, a type of large ape that arose by the process of natural selection. That process is, in fact, nothing other than the struggle for existence, a struggle that every organism wages with its natural competitors. Nature giveth, and nature also taketh away. Although we revere nature for giving us life, we must also fear it as the inevitable destroyer of life. In our struggle for existence we came to have a few features not available to our evolutionary ancestors: notably, a bigger brain, craftier hands, and a highly communicative tongue. These features permitted us to become involved in an enhanced form of cultural evolution not available to other organisms, and our cultural evolution in turn begat agriculture, civilization, science, and technology. This gave us a unique tactical advantage in our struggle within the natural domain. To an extent unprecedented in the biological world, we have begun, occasionally, to get the upper hand in this struggle. In fact, we have begun to enjoy the first beginnings of liberation from the struggle itself. Liberation is a good thing—if we realize that we are liberated only to the extent that we reject the struggle itself.

Unfortunately, our partial liberation from the struggle is all too easily confused with absolute victory and the unconditional surrender of nature to us. Our historical struggle with nature is not one that we can actually win, for if we were to defeat nature itself, we would defeat the very source of our own existence. We are animals, and we therefore depend on nature for our existence. Unfortunately, in our battles we have in too many cases overshot the mark: like the Romans, who were not content with merely defeating their historical enemy, the Carthaginians, but went on to erase Carthage itself from the face of the Earth. But even the Romans would never have dreamed of defeating the Earth itself—that would only be self-defeating in the end.

Our natural instinct for survival has often carried our struggle for existence too far. Although we romanticize our hunter-gatherer ancestors, they were the first to go too far in this way. As the renowned environmental scientist Niles Eldredge notes (1998, p. 35): “We modern humans were clearly like bulls in a china shop, disrupting ecosystems wherever we went.” Eldredge attributes the extinction of huge numbers of species of larger mammals, birds, and reptiles to our hunter-gatherer forefathers, including our cousins, the Neanderthals.5 We also romanticize the pastoral life of small-scale agriculture long before tractors, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and genetically modified crops, but primitive agriculture only intensified our assault on the environment. All through Asia Minor, Greece, the Balkans, we repeatedly cleared the valleys and hillsides for pasture and crops, and then abandoned them when the soil washed away. It was only with the rise of our scientific–technological civilization that we began to notice the harm we were doing.

Fortunately, a crisis of extinction and habitat loss was only narrowly avoided by a sudden growth spurt in environmental consciousness spurred on by the activism of environmentalists—for which we owe them a debt of gratitude. It was as if the human race were in a gigantic airliner that was screaming down toward an inevitable crash with the natural world below. My experience of those days was much like that of people who lived in other American or European cities at the time. Although I grew up near the edge of the civilized world (there were endless miles of wilderness to the north and the west of my small city), under my feet there was concrete and in my nostrils there was the reek of automobile exhaust and the sulfur released by the cheap and plentiful natural gas that heated our houses. I played on the banks of a river into which raw sewage poured from numerous outlets of the city sewage system, where it blended with the effluent from numerous refineries and chemical plants that was launched into the faster-moving waters farther from shore by huge overhanging pipes. A few miles downstream the tea-dark waters flowed dank and foul-smelling over the gray mud and odious slime of the river bottom.

We children were told in school that rivers naturally cleansed themselves in about 10 miles. This magical self-cleansing property didn’t seem plausible to me, or borne out by the evidence I could see with my own eyes. To top it all off, clouds of radioactive fallout released by aboveground nuclear weapons tests (particularly from the huge USSR devices) would sometimes swirl about us for weeks, with radiation levels so high they caused babies to be born prematurely. Even as children we suspected that the airliner of human civilization was screaming toward the Earth. Our generation grew up with the imminent possibility of the end of the world itself by nuclear holocaust. The idea that humankind was not quite sane, or possible suicidal, was ingrained in us every time we ducked under our desks when the nuclear air raid sirens sounded. The founding and now senior members of the environmentalist community come from this nightmarish background.

Fortunately, the airliner of human civilization pulled up at the last minute, engines howling, and collision with the Earth was narrowly avoided. By the time I was a young man, the false reassurances of my childhood that the environment would clean itself up were replaced by stern scientific warnings that it would not, and the process of cleaning up pollution began in earnest. Not only the rivers, but all the waters, the land, and the air as well became focal points of a general spring cleaning. The word pollution, which was scarcely heard in the days of Elvis Presley, became the universally recognized name of the curse of the modern world by the time of the Beatles. “Pollution” became the environmental imperative, the sharp ad- ministrative prod that spurred us to clean up the mess we had been making. The airliner gradually gained altitude and began to cruise at a safer distance from the ground. Today, the waters of the river of my childhood flow through the city nearly unblemished. The fish have returned, and people catch and eat them without hazard. The animals of the countryside have begun to reclaim their former territories in what is now urban territory. Deer graze in the parks and gardens, pursued by coyotes and, once again, the odd mountain lion.

Now the newly industrializing countries of the world are repeating the same mistakes that led to the environmental problems I witnessed when young. Once again they are determined to gain the advantages of industrialization, mindless of the pollution it creates. Once again the air, the waterways, and the soil are being used as dumping grounds. Once again the level of toxins in the air, drinking water, and foods is rising. They seem to be at the first stage of a pattern that is repeating itself.

  1. In the first stage, nature is seen as both friend and as adversary.6 The first imperative of all organisms is the struggle to survive, a battle that is waged with other agents and elements within the natural world itself. We struggle with disease, pestilence, famine, predators, wind, rain, and storm. The beauty of nature is recognized, especially in terms of the abundance of game or the fertility of the ground, but so is the destructiveness and fearsomeness of nature. Nature is both loved and hated. It is in the first stage that agriculture, civilization, and industrialization are eventually attained. In this first stage, environmentalism does not exist.
  2. In the second stage the by-products of agriculture, civilization, and industrialization, such as deforestation, depleted soil, and pollution, begin to harm people, and nature is seen as vengeful. This seems to be the stage at which many industrializing peoples find themselves today. When we in the industrialized world found ourselves in this second stage, we took the steps necessary to clean up the mess we had made. We hope—and even with some confidence expect—that industrializing peoples will see their way of life, their economy, screaming toward Earth, and that they also will pull up before they crash. In the second stage, environmentalists reverse the received system of values in which humans were placed above the environment (i.e., nonhuman nature) and, instead, place the environment above humans.7
  3. If we look carefully, we can see a third stage emerging in which nature is no longer seen as the adversary, but as our partner. Nature has taken a bit of a beating in the last century of our struggle with it, and we have begun to realize that it is no longer quite the fearsome adversary that has struck us down with disease, famine, and pestilence so many times in the past. We and nature are now seen as more evenly matched. So we now do not need to view nature as the adversary in our historical struggle for survival. Even while the struggle goes on, we can recognize that nature is our ally—indeed, the source of our existence—in this struggle. Our struggle is not merely with the other agents and elements within nature, but for nature as a whole as well.

For the last few decades we have been cast by environmentalists as the aggressor, and the environment has been cast as the victim. This is the second stage, in which our relationship to nature is still conceived as a struggle in which we and the environment are opposed. Environmentalism reverses the attitudes of the first stage by siding with the environment (i.e., nonhuman nature) instead of with humankind. In the environmentalist campaign for the triumph of nature over humankind, “environments” are viewed as sensitive, species are thought of as endangered, and nature is portrayed as weak and wounded. In the industrialized world, at least, we no longer fear that nature will strike us down with disease or famine. Instead, we fear that we may strike down nature itself. Environmentalists cry out that we must save the planet—from ourselves. Instead of viewing the environment with fear and awe, we view it with guilt and self-constraint.

As I show more clearly in the rest of the book, this is an overreaction to the pollution crisis of the mid-twentieth century. In fact, nature still holds the upper hand. Sure, over the last few centuries we have had a series of victories in our struggle to survive, but we are still just a tiny event against the background of cosmic changes that have brought the world to the present moment. So far we have been lucky. The plagues have been relatively mild, the famines relatively short, and the meteorites relatively small. But nature, the Earth, has not been subdued. There is another ice age coming, and there is, so far as we know, nothing we can do about it. Eventually, the sun will expand into a red giant and swallow up the Earth in its nuclear fire. It is only arrogance on our part to view ourselves as giants who will bring nature itself—the universe by another name—to its knees if we do not control ourselves. Worse, to take this view maintains the outdated emotional dynamic of our struggle with nature—it is to remain at the second stage. We have an opportunity now to move on to the third stage, where we see ourselves as partners with nature—junior partners, to be sure, but partners nevertheless. Diagramming the basis of this new relationship, this new environmental philosophy, is the final goal of this book.

We have just recently avoided a collision between humankind and the Earth itself and should not be surprised that a chorus of warning voices has been raised. Since the near-collision was unexpected and terrifying, our emotional response to it has been protracted and exaggerated. Our sense of alarm verges on panic even though the crisis has passed in the industrialized world and looks like it will be avoided in the industrializing world as well. It is not surprising that an unforeseen brush with disaster has created a compensating overcorrection in the direction of caution. But it is time to calm down, catch our collective breath, and take stock of the situation. If we do, perhaps we can develop a sound philosophy of nature that will enable it, including us as an essential part, to flourish. We should not fool ourselves: Nature will always have the upper hand and the last word. This is not a partnership of equals. Eventually, our species will be gone and nature will still be here. In the meantime, we can achieve a bit of freedom from the age old struggle for existence by working with nature instead of against it.


In our search for wisdom about nature we must be guided—and cheered—by a sense of shared purpose. I share with environmentalists the deep conviction that human beings must radically reconceive their relationship with nature if they are ever to make that relationship truly healthy and beneficial for all involved. This relationship can only be achieved if we are just as ready to reject unsound ideas as to welcome the sound. Environmentalism has done the world a great favor by bringing the natural world into our thinking and our day-to-day business. Unfortunately, given the urgency of environmental problems that the world faced in the midst of the twentieth century, when environmentalism was born as a powerful social force, our consciousness was raised not by calm thought and discussion, but by relentless environmentalist advocacy. Perhaps that was the strategy that the times dictated—it seemed crucial to get results right away—but nevertheless, it brought in its wake the one-sidedness that advocacy entails.

And so it was that environmentalism simplified complex issues. It exaggerated one side of them at the expense of the other. It focused on the dark clouds and ignored the silver linings. It created ringing campaign slogans: Recycle! Protect the wilderness! Save the planet! It grabbed media attention. Who hasn’t seen the images of baby seals about to be clubbed to death for their fur? Or belching smokestacks? Or tiny rubber boats challenging huge tankers? Or people chaining themselves to trees? In this way, popular environmentalism was able to emerge from backstage to take a starring role in our daily lives. The danger is that the starring actor has begun to believe that her advertising copy is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Now that nature has gained the attention it so clearly deserves, we have to move beyond slogans to a deeper, truer understanding of our relationship to nature.

A philosophy is not the sort of thing that can be built in a single season, under the direction of a single architect. The goal of this book is to start a discussion—not end one—about “environmental” facts, values, and action, a discussion based on the traditional philosophical principles of logic, evidence, and fair-mindedness. Achieving a fair beginning is ambition enough. When it comes to many-splendored nature, thorough study and complete arguments are out of the reach of a single book. The huge scope and massive complexity of the topic, along with its multifaceted importance to us, defy any attempt at completeness in so short a span. All we can hope to do is present a clear vision of the fundamental facts and arguments, and then trust that people’s good sense will guide them to see their way to the truth.

  1. Some humans have left the Earth on relatively brief trips into outer space, which has been accomplished by storing oxygen, water, and food for use during the trip. Conceivably, we could live for longer periods away from Earth, so this is a qualification to the claim that we cannot exist except within nature. Interestingly enough, however, all engineering visions of human colonies or multigenerational travel far from Earth involve bringing sufficiently many plants and animals along to provide the needed food and oxygen by biological processes—so it is a qualified qualification, so to speak. In any case, at the present time the truth is that virtually every one of us cannot exist anywhere but within the natural world here on Earth.
  2. My training and expertise is in (and limited to) the Western philosophical tradition that is commonly thought to begin with the so-called pre-Socratic philosophers (Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes, Her- aclitus, etc.,) and has developed into today’s Continental and analytic traditions. The study of logic itself is present in this tradition from the beginning, very obviously in the works of Heraclitus and Parmenides, and as a specifically identified philosophical subdiscipline by the time of Aristotle.
  3. Those with training in logic will recognize that the first issue concerns the validity of the argument, and the second, the soundness of the argument, assuming that it is valid.
  4. Professional philosophers, at least, will not have to be reminded how typical it is for works in philosophy to begin with criticism of extant doctrine. Perhaps the most famous example in the modern era is Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy (1641), which begins, in the first meditation, with “I was convinced of the necessity of undertaking once in my life to rid myself of all the opinions I had adopted, and of commencing anew the work of building from the foundation.” While I intend nothing as radical here as wholesale rejection of all environmentalist opinion, I do share Descartes’ conviction that we must at least clear sufficient space to begin from new foundations.
  5. This is the start of the famous “sixth extinction” that he, Paul Ehrlich, E. O. Wilson, and other environ- mental scientists describe. In Eldredge’s words, “Modern humans . . . reached Australia about 40,000 years ago, triggering a die-off of the larger native species of Australian mammals and lizards. . . . Just a little over 12,000 years ago, humans first crossed the Bering Land Bridge…. Immediately the big hairies—the woolly mammoth, the mastodon, the giant bison, the woolly rhinoceros—became extinct.” Species vanished in droves in South America, the Caribbean, Madagascar, in short, wherever we went (Eldredge 1998, p. 35).
  6. In the Old Testament, which is shared by at least three great religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), humankind is instructed by God to “subdue the earth.” This expression of the first stage of environmental attitudes is by no means unique to this text and these religions. Indeed, it is a virtually universal aspect of cultures that live close to the Earth, as hunter-gatherers or low-technology agriculturists.
  7. In the terminology of environmentalist ethics, the second stage of environmental awareness adopted by people in general corresponds to “shallow ecology,” in which the environment is valued but only in terms of its relevance to human beings. In this stage, the environmentalist instead adopts “deep ecology,” in which the environment is viewed as intrinsically valuable (valuable in itself, regardless of human values). We return to these topics in later chapters.