Philosophy of ecological modernization

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The fourth and final panel at the Breakthrough Dialogue, which featured philosopher and novelist Pascal Bruckner, writer Emma Marris, Martin Lewis, professor of geography, and Paul Robbins, professor of environmental studies (left to right), raised some of the most trenchant questions about the future of environmentalism, namely how we are to circumvent the doomsday narratives that characterize discussion of mankind’s impacts on the planet, and how we may formulate an alternative set of ecologically modern ethics that might succeed the “small-is-beautiful, ” anti-consumerist, and technologically skeptical values of traditional environmentalism.

The concluding panel at the Breakthrough Dialogue raised questions about the doomsday narratives embedded in current conversations of mankind’s ecological impacts, and pointed to an alternative set of ecologically modern ethics that might succeed the “small-is-beautiful, ” anti-consumerist, and technologically skeptical values of traditional environmentalism.

Moderator Emma Marris framed the discussion around the ethical challenge of moving away from using natural as the definition of good. “Natural isn’t the good, and going backward isn’t the natural. If you go backward you don’t hit some moral, holy baseline, ” Marris proposed. But how, then, do we know when to take action and what ethics guide this process? Marris pointed to humility as an overarching virtue, not just because we like humble people, she said, but because if we are humble, then we don’t aggressively pursue a single approach to the point that we foreclose future options.

Zealotry was also on the mind of philosopher and novelist Pascal Bruckner, who opened the panel with the provocative argument that traditional environmentalists have become consumed with guilt and fear about the destruction of the Earth, and that contemporary predictions of the (ever-coming) environmental collapse structurally resemble Christian stories of sin, redemption, and the apocalypse.

“In the Western world, progress has become a broken promise that started with the Renaissance and the scientific revolution engineered by Francis Bacon in the 17th century, and has continued until now when we have entered a time of catastrophes, ” said Bruckner.

He continued:

If we ask the question of who is the enemy nowadays, we must consider the answers that have been made since WWII. For the Marxists the enemy was capitalism and bourgeois; for the Third Worldist, the enemy was Western imperialism; radical ecology goes a step further and answers man is to himself his worst enemy. Man’s main flaw is his will to conquer and dominate the world, so we have to redress ourselves and the enemy that lies within.

The primary tool of apocalyptic environmentalism is seeding fear and anticipated remorse, the latter defined as the guilt and sorrow we feel now for the harm we will inevitably commit in the future. But if the end times are nigh, points out Bruckner, two central contradictions upend this outlook. First, if it is already too late, then why should we bother pursuing any solutions? Second, the enormity of the diagnosis does not match the triviality of the remedies. For example, if the world is at the edge of collapse, traditional environmentalists advise simply riding your bike and abstaining from eating meat.


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