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Glossary of Terms in Environmental Philosophy

by Barnhill, David L. last modified Sep 20, 2010 07:21 PM

Here are important terms for thinking about the natural world and our relationship to it.

Anthropocentrism: In an anthropocentric view, the focusis primarily or exclusively on humans, with the natural world ignored or merely a background. (Most branches of learning – e.g., psychology or philosophy – are anthropocentric in this sense.) Value is placed primarily on humans, with the natural world having lesser or (usually) only instrumental value. In this perspective, humans are usually seen as separate from and even transcendent to the natural world, with nature as an object of study and use. There are various types and degrees of anthropocentrism, from extreme to more modified types in which nature does have some intrinsic value. {See Biocentrism & ecocentrism.}

Biocentrism & ecocentrism: Both biocentrism and ecocentrism oppose anthropocentric views. Both focus on the natural world (with humans considered an integrated part of it or as an unnatural and destructive rogue) and accord it high degrees of intrinsic value. The term biocentrism is sometimes used to indicate views in which focus and value are placed on living organisms (animals and perhaps plants), while ecocentric views tend to include abiotic factors such as rivers and systems that include abiotic elements, such as ecosystems and watersheds. Biocentric thinkers often emphasize the value of individual organisms, while ecocentric thinkers tend to be characterized by a more holistic approach, giving value to species, ecosystems, or the earth as a whole. However, “biocentrism” is sometimes used in a broad sense to include ecocentrism, especially if rivers and ecosystems are considered to have “life.” {See Anthropocentrism.}

Bioregionalism: a contemporary ecosocial movement that emphasizes the importance of the local geographic area (bioregion) rather than abstract notions of nature or nation. On the personal level, the movement encourages intimate knowledge of and identity with the bioregion so that we “reinhabit” our place. On the social level, the movement emphasizes decentralized economics, agriculture, and politics that reflect the uniqueness of the bioregion, while social structures tend to be simple and egalitarian. {See nature and the sacred.}

Conservationism: Conservationism in a technical sense refers to an anthropocentric view of nature as a resource for our use. It opposes, however, mere exploitation of natural resources for short-term gain that exhausts or degrades them. Economic prosperity and moral obligation to future generations requires careful management of resources to ensure sustainability. In fact, rational management of resources can make nature more efficient and productive, and thus more valuable. The first great proponent of this view was Gifford Pinchot (1865-1946), the nation’s first Chief Forester from 1898-1910. {See Preservationism}

Deep ecology: Contemporary radical school of environmental philosophy that is ecocentric. It focuses on the intrinsic value of nature and takes a holistic approach that emphasizes ecosystems, species, and the planet as a whole. It claims that the primary cause of the problem is anthropocentrism, which it opposes by asserting that humans are fully a part of the natural world and of equal value with all other species. The personal ideal is Self-realization, in which one realizes one’s identification with all of nature. Wilderness untrammeled by humans has special value, as do hunter-gatherer societies living in harmony with nature. {See ecofeminism.}

Ecocriticism: Ecocriticism is literary “criticism that arises from and is oriented toward a concern with human and nonhuman interaction and interrelationship” (Patrick D. Murphy ). It is "the study of nature writing by way of any scholarly approach or, conversely, the scrutiny of ecological implications and human-nature relationships in any literary text” (Scott Slovic ). Like much contemporary criticism, it is a form of cultural critique, interdisciplinary in its tools, and its intentions (Michael P. Cohen ). {See nature writing.}

Ecofeminism: A contemporary radical school of environmental philosophy. It emphasizes the similar ways nature and women have been conceptualized, devalued, and oppressed. It also asserts the close interrelationship between environmental and social issues. Androcentrism (male-centeredness, masculinism) is a fundamental problem that must be addressed if we are to end the subjugation of nature and women. The ideal involves a recognition of the value of the individual as part of a community, in which great value is placed on diversity, equality, and interrelatedness. The self is seen as embedded in a community, place, and the body. Cultural ecofeminism prizes the special, essential relationship between women and nature. Radical ecofeminism rejects any essentialist tie between women and nature as a social construction. Instead it deconstructs any transcendental dualism in which one gender, race, or class is considered closest to nature and of highest value. {See deep ecology.}

Enlightenment, mechanism, humanism: Enlightenment was a movement in Europe starting in the 18 th century in response to the “darkness” of medieval religion. It considered reason and science to be the most reliable means of knowledge and action. This approach was thought to be objective and abstract, and thus provided universal truths. It was developed in contrast to knowledge and action based on subjective emotions and religions, which tended to justify irrational actions, intolerance, superstition, and violent claims of one group versus another. It was a humanist approach, focusing on humans and their welfare in this life rather than simply devotion to God or concern for the afterlife. It also was a progressive social movement, seeking to improve material welfare and the freedom and equality of all people. It tended to desacralize the material universe, seeing it as inert matter, without spiritual vitality or intrinsic value. It was related to the mechanism involved in the scientific revolution, in which nature was considered orderly, understandable, and controllable for human benefit, the cosmos and even animals considered to be machine-like. Nature could be found wild or “in liberty,” “in error” (unusual events), but ideally it was put into “bondage” by humans in order to wrest secrets from “her.” All of these have been the foundation for modern anthropocentrism and the belief that “progress” is good and even inevitable. {See ideology of progress, romanticism.}

Frontier spirit. The frontier spirit is an American ideology that shaped and supported expanding European settlement into the Great Plains and the West. It is based in qualities necessary for the homesteading new land, such as courage and perseverance, but more importantly it is grounded in a view of human society and nature. The frontier spirit fosters extreme individualism, resistant to restrictions imposed by a community (and thus government). It also strongly holds the anthropocentric view of nature as mere resource to be controlled, manipulated, and exploited. In addition, it assumes that nature is an endless supply of resources, so conservation is not necessary. It usually involved the ethnocentric view that indigenous peoples (Native Americans) are obstacles without rights to the land. The ideology of the frontier spirit is linked to other ideologies, including “manifest destiny” and “progress.” It continues today, especially in the West, in a strong sense of individualism, resistance to society establishing codes of community behavior, distrust of communal organizations (e.g., co-ops and unions), a distrust of public land and commons, unqualified value put on private property, with property owners having the right to exploit their land in whatever way they see fit.

Ideology of progress: A way of thinking that supports the expansion of Western civilization (as found primarily in cities and the nation-state). It is particularly associated with the Enlightenment, which expressed optimism about the ability of humans, through reason, science, technology, and freedom, to transcend religious wars and superstition, bring material well-being to the poor, bring equality and liberty to the oppressed. Such progress was considered to be an unquestioned right, a moral duty, and an inherent direction of history. In the United States the ideology of progress took the form of Manifest Destiny, which stated that European Americans have a right and even duty to “win the West” – in fact, it is their historical destiny. Today it is seen in arguments that expansion of urban industrial society is inherently good and inevitable “development” and “progress.” Critics point to the linkage between that ideology with colonialism, the genocide of Native Americans, the destruction of the family farm, and the degradation of the environment.

Individualism versus holism: Individualism sees the world as made of distinct individuals, and they are what have value. Holism sees the world as an integrated whole, and places more or all value in wholes such as species, ecosystems, or the planet. Mutually exclusive extreme forms of individualism (atomism) and holism (monism, fascism) are possible, as are views that value both individuals and wholes (e.g., communalism).

Instrumental Value: Something has instrumental value if it is valuable for something else. A deer, for instance, could be considered to have instrumental value as an object of sport hunting or a source of food. Similarly, a forest can be considered to have value only as a resource for creating lumber and paper (two examples of anthropocentric instrumental value). Or an individual organism can be given value only insofar as it contributes to the health of a species or vitality of an ecosystem (ecocentric or holistic instrumental value). Anthropocentrism usually sees nature as having only instrumental value. {See intrinsic value.}

Intrinsic (Inherent) Value: Something has intrinsic value if its value is “for itself” and independent of its value for something else. A deer, for instance, can be considered to have value in and for itself, whether or not it has value for humans or for species or ecosystem. Biocentrism and ecocentrism see nature as having intrinsic value. There can be disagreements, however. One biocentric philosopher, Thomas Regan, argues that only individual organisms have intrinsic value; species or ecosystems have no value in themselves. And he argues that only adult mammals have moral considerability; other animals are not “subjects of a life” in a philosophical sense. For some ecocentric thinkers, it is species or ecosystems that have the primary intrinsic value; an individual deer doesn’t matter nearly as much as the health of the species or the ecosystem it inhabits. {See instrumental value.}

Natural history: information about the natural world (e.g., geological structures of an area, the predation habits of hawks, or the succession of forests) that (1) is put into an interpretive framework that gives meaning beyond mere facts and (2) is presented in a literary style for the general public – as opposed to scholarly treatises or field guides. Note that “history” is not necessarily a significant factor in “natural history.” {See nature writing.}

Nature: There are two main definitions of nature. The first is dualistic, in which n ature is limited to what is not human or cultural, or not disturbed by humanity and society. Thus plastic is not part of nature. To be natural is to be free of human imprint. The second is comprehensive, used by the natural sciences, in which nature includes everything in the phenomenal world. Only the supernatural is excluded from the natural. In this case, plastic is part of nature. In each case, nature could be seen as having instrumental value only, or as having intrinsic (moral, aesthetic, spiritual) value. {See nature and the sacred, wild, wilderness.}

Nature and the sacred: Nature has been presented as sacred in several ways in nature writing. In some writings nature is a “sacred other.” In this case nature is sacred because it is extra-ordinary & pristine. These are places not to live in but journey to and return from. Thus it is related to the traditions of pilgrimage and wilderness. In other writings it is nature that one is intimate with and committed to that is sacred. The ideal is a deep sense of “place” and being “at home” on the earth. Bioregionalism is an expression of this view. Still other writings are monistic and inclusive: everywhere is sacred, even environmentally degraded areas. Some writers combine more than one notion of sacred nature. A number of themes are common in spiritual nature writing. Nature is often seen as characterized by interrelatedness, vitalism, ongoing creation, vastness, and mystery. Spiritual awareness of nature is often characterized by focused attention and energy, open receptivity, loss of distinction between subject/object, direct perception, and a focus on the present. In addition, nature spirituality often exhibits social and political dimensions. {See bioregionalism, nature, wild, and wilderness.}

Nature as chaotic “wilderness”: One of the most negative Western views of the natural world. It is associated particularly with the early period of Puritanism. It combines the transcendental dualism of Platonism with a biblical sense of the Fall from Garden of Eden. The expulsion of Adam and Eve was not simply their individual fall from grace; all of Creation fell with them. In this view, nature is a dangerous and even demonic wasteland, antithetical to what is properly human and spiritual. The American Pilgrim William Bradford saw nothing “but a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men” and the Puritan John Cotton spoke of nature as “a wild field where all manner of unclean and wild beasts live and feed.” This wilderness is wild, in the sense of lacking order, stability, or control. It is also unintelligible because we cannot understand any structure or pattern or design. Given this view of nature as wilderness, the ideal became a garden. Wilderness needed to be conquered and transformed into a human constructed and ordered realm of nature, a new Eden. Such a garden would have both rational and spiritual order, and thus is understandable, controllable, and has religious value. {See nature, nature and the sacred, wild, wilderness.}

Nature writing. Simply put, nature writing is any written work that deals significantly with nature and the human-nature relationship. It usually combines scientific attention to nature, aesthetic sensitivity, spiritual feeling, and literary appeal. There are seven main elements of nature writing: accounts of nature, personal experience of nature, philosophy of nature, ecological psychology, the social experience of nature, ecosocial politics, and spirituality. Some texts may focus on one or two of these elements; complex texts may include most or all of these elements. Nonfiction personal essay has been the most common form, but poetry, fiction, letters, and even testimony before Congress may be considered nature writing. {See ecocriticism, natural history.}

Otherness: A term for the way people tend to view others (people or nature) that are dissimilar and separated. In some cases the term is used in a general and neutral way to signify that which is fundamental different. In other cases it implies a complex system of devaluation. In this sense, conceiving of something else as an “Other” involves objectification, failure to see one’s similarity to them, a failure to recognize their distinctiveness, a failure to recognize their complexity and ability to change, an assumption that the Other is passive, the invisibility of the Other, a refusal to recognize their voice, conceiving of the Other abstractly, and in all these ways, devaluing them.

Patriarchy: An ideological system that devalues women and the feminine along masculine lines. It is based in transcendental dualism and the logic of domination: transcendental reality over the natural world, humans over animals & plants, culture over nature, mind over body, reason over emotions, men over women. The supposedly objective and universal knowledge of reason and science are believed to have supreme authority, while emotions and the body are suspect as sources of knowledge and hindrances to reason, and consideration of one’s subjective situation results in partial and biased views. The goal is a single perspective that is comprehensive; a belief in the validity of multiple perspectives can only undercut truth and agreement. People are considered essentially individuals, discrete and independent beings. The ideal is autonomy, whereas membership in a group and dependence on others threaten our integrity. Ethics begins with the affirmation of our autonomy and seeks to rationally determine justice. Governments need to have hierarchical and authoritarian power over people and other countries in order to bring to them the single, true perspective, which serves to justify the Ideology of Progress. {See ecofeminism, enlightenment, ideology of progress.}

Preservationism: Preservationism refers to a biocentric view in which nature, having intrinsic value, should be preserved rather than treated as a resource. This view was originally championed by John Muir (1838-1914), a “mountain man,” environmental author, and founder of the Sierra Club. Preservationism has been particularly influential in the wilderness movement and the goal of limiting or excluding human impact on nature. The goal is not mere resource sustainability but the preservation of the integrity of nature for its own sake. Preservation has recently been criticized by some environmental thinkers (including radical ones) for seeing nature as static (and thus capable of being “preserved”) and seeing humans as separate from nature. {See conservationism.}

Puritans: A dissenting movement within British Protestantism that developed in the late 1500s. Puritans settled in the New England area in the early 1600s. Characterized by strict focus on the Bible and the authority of God, both personally and socially, severe restraint in behavior, and hard work. Early American Puritans saw nature as “a hideous and desolate wilderness” to be walled off or controlled and tamed. Later Puritans, such as Jonathan Edwards, began to see beauty in nature as a manifestation of God.

Romanticism: A movement that began around 1750 and is still significant today. It was in part a reaction to the rationalism and mechanism of the Enlightenment. Nature and humans have a close correspondence, and nature is seen to have high value, either as a direct manifestation of spiritual reality, or having its own spiritual value. Reason is suspect; instead intuition, imagination, emotions, and contemplation of nature are prized. Cities, industrialization, and technology are also suspect: the social ideal is found not in cities but in simpler, pastoral lifestyles close to nature and the political ideal centers on individual liberty. Aesthetically, the “Sublime” is prized, the awe-inspiring majesty of nature that suggests a spiritual dimension and our smallness compared to it. {See Enlightenment, mechanism, humanism.}

Sacred place: A particular place that is considered to have special sacred power which results from the place being “storied” with human meaning. Implicit is that notion that space is not continuous -- some places are sacred and others are not -- but even ordinary places can be considered sacred, and this experience may be unique to one individual or shared by an entire religion. It is a quality of the place itself, and humans cannot willfully create it, and its presence is realized when we are passively open to it rather than when we try to consciously seek it out.

Transcendentalism: An early 19 th century American school of philosophy, lead by Ralph Waldo Emerson. It saw an essential unity of all creation and a deep continuity between nature and humans. Nature is an emblem of spiritual reality, through which one can gain access to transcendental truth, which has highest value. T o understand spiritual truths, you need to develop sensitivity to and communion with nature. It was an emancipatory philosophy, which argued for liberation from tradition and convention and was associated with progressive social movements such as abolition of slavery and new forms of education.

Wild: A quality or condition. Something wild is spontaneously self-generating, self-regulating, and freely living according to its inner nature and aimed at its natural fulfillment, uncontrolled by outside force such as human will. Wilderness areas are by definition wild, but the wild can be found anywhere, e.g., cities or the human body. Humans have the potential to be wild if they act not by their rational will but by their true inner nature. Traditionally the wild has been seen as inherently disorderly and chaotic, because it lacks any externally imposed control or design. In this view, what is wild needs to be tamed and controlled. But for many nature writers, because the wild exists according to its own inner nature, it exhibits a spontaneous, emergent order. As such it has intrinsic value. {see nature, nature and sacred, wilderness}

Wilderness: A specific location, separate from and unaffected by humans. As such it usually involves a dualistic view of nature. These are places you visit (without the aid of human machinery), rather than a place you live in as home. Puritans thought of wilderness as a chaotic and dangerous wasteland, which needed to be walled off or turned into a human-designed garden. In nature writing, environmental philosophy, and environmental protection legislation, wilderness is usually considered to have intrinsic aesthetic, moral, and spiritual value which should be preserved. {See nature, nature and the sacred, wild.}

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by Barnhill, David L. last modified Sep 20, 2010 07:21 PM