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Education for Environmental Protection: The Story and Resources (July 2016): Deep Ecology

By Joseph Watras

Deep Ecology

In the United States, agricultural and urban development has taken most of the land, so efforts to defend the remaining wilderness are site specific.  Some of the current battles recall John Muir and Gifford Pinchot’s fight over the Hetch Hetchy, discussed at the beginning of this essay.  In A Symbol of Wilderness: Echo Park and the American Conservation Movement, Mark Harvey notes that the controversy over the building of a dam in Echo Park, part of the Dinosaur National Monument, in the 1950s reinforced the conservationist effort known as the “wilderness movement.”  Echo Park spanned the border between Utah and Colorado, and activists from various organizations joined forces to protect Echo Park from the destruction that would follow the construction of the proposed dam.  Two decades after the publication of A Symbol of Wilderness, Mark Harvey published an edited volume of the writings of Howard Zahniser, The Wilderness Writings of Howard Zahniser.  As executive secretary of the Wilderness Society, Zahniser turned this nonprofit society into an organization that could lobby members of Congress to preserve wilderness in the United States.  In fact, Zahniser drafted the legislation that became the Wilderness Act of 1964, and this collection of his writings is a valuable resource.

Although advocates for preservation in the United States argued for putting aside especially beautiful land as parks, arguments for using natural resources to improve the economy were more successful than were those for preserving natural forests, rivers, or animals.  Alfred Runte shows in National Parks: The American Experience that business leaders who wanted to turn the land to profitable uses had more success in lobbying Congress than did the activists who wanted to expand the national park system.  Accordingly, the federal government set aside a relatively small amount of unusable land as national parks.  At present, the park system overseen by the United States National Park Service (NPS) includes some 84 million acres of park, only about 3.4 percent of the total amount of land in the country.  The NPS’s website is informative and revealing.  It explains the NPS mission as providing housing, food, and transportation for visitors who wish to spend time in natural surroundings.  Use of some, though not all, parks extends to hunters, snowmobilers, and motorcyclists.  Many conservationists complain that development projects, roads, and vehicle use harm the natural fauna the parks should protect.  In 1967, Congress established the National Park Foundation (NPF) to act as a defender of the parks.  A “nonprofit partner” of the NPS, the NPF solicits resources from private citizens to support the park system and encourage people to protect and care for the natural spaces.

Involving private citizens in efforts to advance conservation is a long-standing tradition in the United States.  Several books examine the ways citizens, politicians, and court officials have joined together in addressing environmental issues.  Douglas Brinkley’s The Quiet World: Saving Alaska’s Wilderness Kingdom, 18791960 describes conflicts from several different perspectives.  Brinkley takes the reader through Muir’s visits to Alaska in 1879, the tribulations of development of Alaska in the 1920s, and the creation of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the late 1950s.  Throughout, the author praises what he calls a noble band of conservationist revolutionaries who stood up to exploiters and protected Alaska’s wilderness kingdom.  In a similar way, David Gessner offers biographical sketches of two writer activists in his All the Wild That Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and the American West.  Stegner was Abbey’s teacher at Stanford University, and the men had in common an enthusiasm for western lands.  In shedding light on these men, Gessner hoped to inspire readers to recognize the gifts of nature that surround them.  Bernard De Voto was a well-known 1950s conservationist and author.  Edward Muller collects De Voto’s writings in De Voto’s West: History, Conservation, and the Public Good.  In the introduction, Muller describes De Voto as an advocate for keeping public lands out of the hands of wealthy citizens during the post-World War II years.  From 1935 until his death in 1955, De Voto wrote a monthly column for Harper’s Magazine.  He used that column as a pulpit to rally former New Dealers against what he deemed land grab on the part of westerners.  De Voto’s arguments about how federal protection saves land from private exploitation remain important today.

Some politicians in the United States have made compromises in order to save natural settings.  Daniel Nelson’s A Passion for the Land: John F. Seiberling and the Environmental Movement tells the story of one such man.  A native of Akron, Ohio, Seiberling was active in politics in the 1960s, with opposition to the Vietnam War.  He was elected to Congress in 1970 and began working to create new national parks near urban centers.  As a member of the United States House Committee on Insular Affairs, Seiberling worked with industrialists to form compromise agreements that permitted the preservation of various lands known for their scenery or wildlife.  In The Political Economy of the Environment, James Boyce offers a philosophical discussion of the economics of the environment, suggesting that deep ecology would lead to a broad view of the economy.  Boyce argues that humans affect themselves when they degrade nature (for example, by improper disposal of waste) or make surroundings more hospitable (e.g., by domesticating crops and animals that use nature responsibly).

Boyce also notes that economists who focus on humans against nature ignore social class conflicts.  For example, he contends that, in the United States, areas with tax equity and high voter participation have stronger environmental policies and the residents have better health outcomes than people living in areas where the population has less political and economic power.  In a subsequent book, Economics, the Environment, and Our Common Wealth, Boyce suggests ways to reduce the problems—for example, policy options that governments could follow to reduce destruction of nature.

Taking a broader stance, Richard Kahn suggests in Critical Pedagogy, Ecoliteracy, and Planetary Crisis: The Ecopedagogy Movement that an international ecopedagogy movement could bring together scientists and political activists who work for social and ecological transformation.  Among the injustices that he notes is the tendency of US policy to tolerate environmental destruction by enacting weak deterrents.  Kahn points out that on its website the Environmental Education division of the Environmental Protection Agency defines the goal of environmental education as “not advocat[ing] a particular viewpoint or course of action.  Rather, environmental education teaches individuals how to weigh various sides of an issue through critical thinking and it enhances their own problem-solving and decision-making skills.”  This position, Kahn contends, avoids the critical and ethical focus necessary to save the environment from destruction and to improve the lives of people with lower incomes.  In Why Conservation Is Failing and How It Can Regain Ground, Eric Freyfogle contends that the battle for the environment has been between two groups.  On one side, conservationists seek to respect nature’s processes.  On the other side, their critics want to protect individual liberty, keep the government at bay, and advance entrepreneurial efforts.  In this culture war, the critics of conservation have had the simpler ideas—property rights, economic growth—and, accordingly, their position has been the stronger of the two.  For this reason, Freyfogle urges conservationists to create expansive ethical foundations for their cause.

In fairness, philosophers have long included concern for the environment in their works.  As Hugh McDonald shows in John Dewey and Environmental Philosophy, Dewey espoused a notion of transactionalism toward the end of his life.  This perspective provided a means of incorporating a radical interpretation that included the environment within human behavior.  In this way, Dewey connected humans to their natural surroundings, ending the dualism that allowed humans to dominate the environment.  In his Philosophies of Environmental Education and Democracy: Harris, Dewey, and Bateson on Human Freedoms in Nature, Joseph Watras shows that these traditional philosophers sought to change the image of dominance over nature that prevailed in the United States.  Each philosopher offered ways to offset the distortions of individualism, materialism, and conformity that Alexis de Tocqueville found to be present in ideas of democracy in the United States.  Gregory Bateson’s Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity takes an anthropological approach in creating an epistemology that unites human thought and natural occurrences.  Bateson urges scientists to recognize the wider problems that could result from any proposed solution.  For example, medical science extended human life, but the increased population growth created many unforeseen difficulties.  Bateson’s book is unique in that the author points out how the scientific method causes researchers to limit their attention to specific problems.  He suggests that other systems of thought, such as the use of metaphors, would provide a necessary antidote.

In developing his ideas, Bateson referred to the work of iconic marine biologist and ecologist Rachel Carson, one the most compelling nature writers of the twentieth century.  Rachel Carson: Legacy and Challenge, a collection of essays edited by Lisa Sideris and Kathleen Dean Moore, suggests that the ideas of deep ecology became popular as a result of Carson’s work.  In their introduction, Sideris and Moore argue that the inspiration of the first Earth Day in 1970 was Carson’s disclosure of the effects of indiscriminate use of pesticides.  Carson, they write, raised moral questions about the limits to which human beings could go to make the world conform to their needs by showing that the effects of toxic chemicals extend throughout the interdependent ecosystem and return to harm the people who used them.  Carson encouraged coming to know and love nature.  As Sideris and Moore show, Carson was not an outraged critic: when she wrote about the dangers of pesticides, she merged the voices of scientists and devotees of nature.  At the same time that chemical firms fought against Carson, she developed the cancer that would ultimately kill her.  In his biography of Carson, The Gentle Subversive: Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, and the Rise of the Environmental Movement, Mark Hamilton Lytle examines Carson’s extensive battles with chemical companies and her efforts to preserve her own health.  Lytle describes Carson’s efforts in writing Silent Spring (1962),which one of Carson’s friends called the “poison book.”  According to Lytle, Carson persisted because she was outraged by the popular paradigm of science as producing unending progress for humanity—whereas in fact scientists were using powerful chemicals to destroy insects with little concern for the dangerous side effects that resulted.

Religion and Ecology

Advocates of deep ecology point out that the movement requires converting people to the view that humanity does not dominate nature but is in fact part of nature.  This suggests that religion should play a role in education for deep ecology, but in fact that does not necessarily follow.  Deep Ecology and World Religions: New Essays on Sacred Ground, edited by David Landis Barnhill and Roger Gottlieb, provides an overview of the ways religious leaders have thought about the environmental crisis and reveals how religious sensitivity can address the destruction human beings have caused on Earth.  The editors identify the volume’s particular benefits: it offers a method to approach environmental philosophy; it serves as a platform other environmentalists can share; and it raises serious questions about the values that make up that platform.  Among the interesting offerings is John Carroll’s “Catholicism and Deep Ecology,” which predates by more than a decade Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’ (published in English as Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’ of the Holy Father Francis: On Care for Our Common Home).  Carroll writes that though official Catholic social teachings had not (at that point) embraced deep ecology, unofficial but serious Catholic thought on deep ecology reflected that of ecotheologian Thomas Berry.  Berry’s views on religion and ecology are outlined in Evening Thoughts: Reflecting on Earth as Sacred Community; Berry published this collection, edited by Mary Evelyn Tucker, in 2006, when he was ninety.  Like Rachel Carson, he recommended that people keep alive a sense of alarm over what they had done, but he wanted people to respond in ways that could lead to a new sense of communion with everything in the universe.  This would require dispensing with the English common-law tradition that nonhumans were property for human beings to use.  Berry suggested people think of the Earth with them in it as a text without a context, a self-referent mode of being.

In response to Berry, Francisco Benzoni wrote Ecological Ethics and the Human Soul: Aquinas, Whitehead, and the Metaphysics of Value to suggest that Berry contradicted the ideas of Saint Thomas Aquinas.  Benzoni agreed that it was essential that people hold to what he called an ethic of life: they should consider themselves united with other creatures, and they should recognize the moral responsibility they bear for actions that harmed those creatures.  Benzoni added, though, that the problem stemmed from Saint Thomas Aquinas’s claim that the rational capacity of human beings makes them morally superior to other creatures.  According to Benzoni, this separation of human qualities from animal natures allows people to consider animals and other forms of life to be instruments people could use for their own purposes.  Interestingly, two popes seemed to step around the problems Benzoni raised.  In Following St. Francis, a summary of John Paul II’s call for ecological action, Marybeth Lorbiecki argues that John Paul II saw science as complementary to religious faith.  Accordingly, she claims, he argued against industrialists and government officials who promoted ecological destruction for profit, believing that willingness to abuse the environment led people to tolerate the many injustices people suffered from a culture of waste.

Although Carroll wrote in 2001 and Berry wrote the essays quoted above a little later, they presaged the Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’ of the Holy Father Francis.  Francis called on every person living on Earth to recognize and acknowledge individual complicity in the degradation of the world.  He called attention to the pollution and waste derived from a throwaway culture; he decried the lack of safe drinking water in parts of the world; he noted the extensive loss of biodiversity; and he recognized the deterioration of the quality of human life.  In noting the extensive poverty that caused poor people to suffer the most from environmental destruction, Francis complained that the only solutions people in developed countries offered was birth control to reduce the population.  In the end, Pope Francis called on all people to take charge of the planet and, in union with all creatures, seek ways to rectify the wrongs they committed.

Since the presence or absence of rational thought can affect whether people view animals as deserving moral concern, resources on nonhuman animals’ potential for thinking and feeling are an important component of the literature on environmental education.  Carl Safina’s Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel is an account of Safina’s travels around the world to observe animals in different places.  Safina found that the animals he watched lived their lives, shared their concerns with each other, and met the challenges in the same ways that humans do.  He concluded that all life is one.

Works Cited: Deep Ecology