Next Tuesday our Environmental Theory class is considering the realm of ethics—not strictly environmental ethics, but the normative realm more broadly. Having embarked on our systematic journey by discussing big word binaries related to reality (nature/culture) and knowledge (science/humanities), we enter the realm of ethics by reflecting on the fact/value binary. To most people facts and values are as real, and as different from each other, as the nature/culture and science/humanities big words. But what this means when we make a moral judgment—that something is right/wrong or good/bad—becomes quickly entangled in all sorts of baggage accompanying facts and values, baggage inherited from reality and knowledge. Thus, nature’s two-headed children have invaded, and divided, this realm as well.
The case we’ll consider involves ecological utopias and dystopias—dream worlds and nightmare worlds, if you will, or to use a popular intellectual phrase, imaginaries. The classic is, of course, Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia (1975), a fictional account of the Pacific Northwest following its secession from the U.S. to live out its ecological values. Callenbach’s dream world has proved enduringly inspirational to many readers, but in a rather different way so have ecodystopian novels such as Oryx and Crake (Atwood 2010) and A Friend of the Earth (Boyle 2011). Whether utopian or dystopian, these admixtures of facts and values—facts to ring true, values to move people—may tell us a great deal about ourselves, and more broadly about environmental theory.
We’ll explore the interwoven facts and values that define this realm via five readings (including two of mine…sorry, students!):
- Proctor (1999) lays out how facts and values interweave in the context of global environmental change discourse, and recommends that we cautiously conjoin them in a moral earth. This paper reminds us that the realm of ethics cannot so easily be separated from the realm of knowledge, and that understanding and successfully addressing environmental issues requires analytical sophistication in not just facts, nor values alone, but the two as they interrelate on this moral earth.
- Albanese (1993) builds on her groundbreaking work on nature religion in America to consider new age spirituality, which is clearly evident in certain strands of popular environmentalism. Albanese has long argued that values, specifically religion and spirituality, are as deeply embedded in our environmental consciousness and practice as are facts—say, as pronounced by scientists. Her work suggests the deep historical roots, and possible ambiguities and contradictions, inherent in ecospiritualist movements.
- David Pepper (2005) explicitly addresses the influence of utopianism in various forms of environmental movements. Pepper is a committed materialist, but recognizes the power and persuasiveness, as well as the pitfalls, of these idealist tendencies in environmentalism. Ultimately he critiques them in terms of their politics—a connection we shall explore in more detail in our next class session.
- Swyngedouw (2013) examines ecological dystopias and our continued fascination with them. Swyngedouw, like Pepper, is on the left of the political spectrum, and considers what a proper leftist response could be to this continued popular fascination with the realm of ecoapocalypse, given their thoroughly mainstream incarnation set against their understandable concerns.
- Finally, Proctor (2009) provides a case study of old-growth forests as a cautionary tale toward how facts and values, in the form of science and spirituality, inform environmental concern. Many people believe that ecospirituality is an unmitigated good thing—that values are central to solving environmental problems, and that people motivated by spiritual values are thus nourished and sustained in their efforts on behalf of environment. But maybe this understanding derives from more basic assumptions about facts and values—science and religion—and maybe there is a weakness to values we must admit.
As you can surmise, we may not resolve the issues of facts and values raised by considering ecological utopias (and dystopias) in just one class session, but one may get a sense of how our better big words so far—place and its derivative, situated knowledge—may lead to more grounded utopias that honor the important realm of ethics and values, but engage these utopias with place-based, situated realities that offer us both perspective and substantive hope.
Let’s thus see if we emerge from this class session more mindful of additional big words to watch out for—in this case, facts and values—while carefully embracing, perhaps transforming, the worlds so commonly offered to us, now as grounded utopias.
- Albanese, Catherine L. 1993. “Fisher Kings and Public Places: The Old New Age in the 1990s.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 527: 131–43. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1048681.
- Atwood, Margaret. 2010. Oryx and Crake. Random House Digital, Inc.
- Boyle, T.C. 2011. A Friend of the Earth. Bloomsbury.
- Callenbach, Ernest. 1975. Ecotopia: The Notebooks and Reports of William Weston. Berkeley, CA: Banyan Tree Books.
- Pepper, David. 2005. “Utopianism and Environmentalism.” Environmental Politics 14 (1): 3–22. https://doi.org/10.1080/0964401042000310150.
- Proctor, James D. 1999. “A Moral Earth: Facts and Values in Global Environmental Change.” In Geography and Ethics: Journeys in a Moral Terrain, edited by James D. Proctor and David M. (David Marshall) Smith, 149–62. London: Routledge.
- ———. 2009. “Old Growth and a New Nature: The Ambivalence of Science and Religion.” In Old Growth in a New World: A Pacific Northwest Icon Reexamined, edited by Thomas Allen Spies and Sally L. Duncan, 104–15. Island Press.
- Swyngedouw, Erik. 2013. “Apocalypse Now! Fear and Doomsday Pleasures.” Capitalism Nature Socialism 24 (1): 9–18. https://doi.org/10.1080/10455752.2012.759252.
—Featured image courtesy Backbone Campaign.