Losing Our Concepts, Reclaiming Ourselves

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Let me begin with two propositions, which form a backdrop to the rich and probing articles in this issue of Minding Nature. The first is generally true of the human condition as such; the second has not always been true, but it is true of the situation of humans and nature at the opening of the twenty-first century—urgently true.

First, how we understand ourselves as human beings and our place in the web of life shapes what we do, not only to each other, but also to the natural environment as a whole. Second, the reality of ecological limits and bio-physical planetary boundaries will transform major forms of human activity—especially the intense resource and energy utilization and waste generation that passes through an economic system—and will turn upside down core concepts with which we now define meaning and purpose in our lives.

Environmental philosophers and conservationists have long stressed this first insight. Aldo Leopold, for instance, maintained that “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” From this point of view, then, there is an essential link between conceptions of humanness and economic activity. Broadly defined, economics concerns how we produce and reproduce the material requirements of our life over time. An economy is an institutional structure combining human creativity and labor with natural resources in the production and exchange of goods and services. Economics never forgets what philosophy sometimes does—namely, that human beings exist in a material world and are mortal, vulnerable, embodied creatures of need and want.

Yet this connection between the idea of humanness and economic activity, while found in all cultures and in all periods of human history, is never merely abstract but always takes on concrete conceptual and institutional forms. Leopold’s observation, made in the context of America in the mid-twentieth century, was grounded in a capitalistic market society in which the connection between ideas of humanness and economic practices pivoted around notions of commodity, private property, and ownership. When people understand who they are and what they can and should do through the lens of such categories, they tend to overlook the interconnected properties of living systems. They cannot see the land. Instead they dissociate natural reality into discrete resources and raw materials that have no value in and of themselves but are solely the potential instruments of fulfilling human needs and wants. This is one example of how humanness and economics may be connected, but it is not the only one. (Leopold evokes a vivid alternative conception: another humanness of membership and interdependence and another economics of caring, careful, frugal, and respectful use.) Yet it is the one that dominated Western society in Leopold’s day, and it continues to dominate, not only America, but much of the world today.

If how we understand our humanity shapes how we behave toward and use nature and how we meet our needs and wants through economic activity, is the converse also true? If our economic patterns of behavior and institutional practices were to be significantly transformed, would we be forced to rethink the fundamentals of our humanness?

I think the answer is yes, and this brings us to the second proposition above. Consider how many of our contemporary economic beliefs and behaviors are the foundations for our sense of a meaningful life, self-identity, and self-esteem, and then consider the proposition that those beliefs and behaviors are rapidly becoming ecologically untenable and unsustainable. Environmental science and testable modeling related to climate change and the thresholds of bio-physical systems all offer a warning about a way of living that is too much about power and control and too little about boundaries and patience. This warning calls our attention to a life that is too much about the bottom line and too little about moral lines that should not be crossed.

Such warnings seem to gain little traction. In large part this is because our societies are enthralled by a historical transformation, underway at least since the 1970s, that is restructuring economic systems and reinforcing a philosophy of humanness associated with the notion of homo economicus. This viewpoint takes humans as creatures of want and as rationally competitive and aggressive beings, strategically self-interested and oriented almost exclusively to extracting value from natural sources and from exchange with other individuals or groups. With a rapid pace and a global sweep, human institutions and relationships are being reconstructed on the basis of competitive advantage—making more. The goal of all this is essentially power, that is to say, the satisfaction of expanding wants and desires—having more.

The medium of these transactions is the market: the system of buying and selling. And currency—money—is the universal, fungible instrument of those market transactions. In the worldview to which I refer, now often called “neoliberalism,” market exchange is the paradigm of all human activities. Aristotle believed that human beings were political animals, most fully at home in political community deliberating about the common good. Stoics, like Seneca and Cicero, sought to achieve individual happiness by freeing oneself of the unnecessary fears and desires that tether one’s sense of self-worth to market-defined success or status. Neoliberalism roots the humanness of homo economicus in entrepreneurial discipline, precisely what Aristotle considered of secondary human importance and the Stoics sought to transcend altogether. For the great modern thinkers who helped to construct the “spirit of capitalism,” such as John Locke and Benjamin Franklin, this discipline is the vocation or calling given to humankind to transform natural creation into useful property. For post-religious and postmodern thinkers, this discipline has morphed into a kind of game, liquid and fluid, subject to essentially arbitrary combinations and significations. For those inclined to apply economic theory to social and legal studies, there is no area of human life that is not essentially economic. There is nothing that money cannot buy, nothing that more effective strategic decision-making cannot improve.

And there is a (sometimes suppressed) value judgment at the heart of this symbiosis between neoliberal capitalism and homo economicus. It is the idea that more is better. Economic life is always and everywhere in quest of more, and its (universal, no longer exclusively Protestant) ethic is pervasive and multidimensional.

The market economy is a powerful mechanism for channeling energy, skills, and creativity efficiently toward innovation and productivity. Yet the market mentality is not limited to one sphere or set of institutions, not something that we leave at the office or that stays in Las Vegas. Its logic and ethic are evangelical. The market economy is fast becoming—may already have become—the market society. Its metaphors and its dispositions are colonizing virtually all aspects of daily life. The single-minded pursuit of economic advantage and wealth can erode other valuable goods in our lives and debilitate them. In this way, wealth can become “illth,” as John Ruskin so nicely put it. The market takes natural and human capacities, uses them selectively and makes some of them grow, but discards the rest. The material waste products of this way of life are ecologically destructive. No less morally destructive is the discarding of people as so much waste—a growing population of marginalized men, women, and children, quite literally without market value, which is to say, without any value.[1]

The dominant cultural force of our time is an unsustainable form of living and its correlative conception of humanness—a “restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death,” as Hobbes said, not putting too fine a point on it. What then if we take seriously the possibility that it is so deeply ingrained in our sense of meaning that we will lose our concepts without it? If this way of life cannot continue unchecked much longer—a generation or two at most—what new synthesis can emerge between our self-understanding and our mode of making a living?

When a society loses the concepts through which it has traditionally made sense of itself, it experiences a debilitating disorientation. In his book Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation, Jonathan Lear presents a remarkable study of the experience of cultural devastation among the Crow people from the late nineteenth century. It provides a cautionary tale for any society facing a fundamental shift from one way of life to another in the span of one or two generations. Lear anticipates what could well be our coming situation:

. . . if a people genuinely are at the historical limit of their way of life, there is precious little they can do to “peek over to the other side.” Precisely because they are about to endure a historical rupture, the detailed texture of life on the other side has to be beyond their ken. In the face of such a cultural challenge, . . .there is ever more pressure to explain things in the traditional ways, yet there is an inchoate sense that the old ways of explaining are leaving something unsaid. And yet one doesn’t yet have the concepts with which to say it.

If we lose our capitalistic and entrepreneurial concepts of humanness and economy, what conceptions can take their place? What kind of person would be called forth in an ecological economy? How can selves be nurtured so as to become respectful householders and trustees of the natural world and the common good? How can the current neoliberal world of extractive liberty and possessive individualism be restored to a world of caring relationships, respectful of human dignity and the integrity of the land?

In this issue we present four articles by authors currently working with the Center for Humans and Nature as Senior Scholars for 2012. Earlier this year, Mary Midgley and David Sloan Wilson orchestrated an important series of commentaries on the question, “What does it mean to be human?” on the Center Web site, and Peter Victor and Richard Howarth did the same with the question, “How can we create a successful economy without continuous economic growth?” These discussions can be found at www.humansandnature.org. Here, their essays provide more in-depth and comprehensive discussions of these respective large questions.

Mary Midgley critically explores the link between attempts to define humanness and attempts to separate human beings from other species and to give humans greater ontological value or ethical superiority. As sources and examples of this, she alludes to religious traditions such as Christianity that offer hierarchical images of divine creation, with humans above other levels of mortal being. She also points out, however, that modern evolutionary biology and sociology, as developed by thinkers such as Spenser, Comte, and Julian Huxley, reinforced in a secular way the superiority of Homo sapiens and the subject/object dualism of humans-above-the-rest-of-nature. As an antidote to this, she argues that we have to “get ourselves in proportion—to see though our current absurd over-estimate of human separateness and superiority.”

David Sloan Wilson provides a perspective on evolutionary theory that can avoid the pitfalls and blind spots of the earlier thinkers Midgley discusses. An evolutionary perspective on the questions of humanness involves understanding how species develop through various mechanisms of inheritance. Especially for human beings, the answer to this cannot be found in genetic inheritance alone but requires consideration of social learning and symbolic thought. Wilson brings together an evolutionary perspective on the phenotype of species, the diversity of individuals, and the functional capacities of groups and larger corporate units in adapting to their environments. Contained within the functional requirements of this account of adaptation and evolution are behaviors such as cooperation and caring. These ideas point the way beyond the falsely aggrandizing and destructive attitudes that, as Midgley notes, are proving to be ecologically and humanly self-destructive.

The articles by Victor and Howarth turn us to the problem of reorienting economic theory and practice. The market value of goods and services produced in an economy, gross domestic product (GDP), has long been a measure of economic success used by policymakers, businesses, lenders, and investors. But economic growth in this sense has many shortcomings and arguably does not do a good job of measuring either human well-being or of promoting ecological integrity. Developing better models and approaches has been the goal of ecological economics.

Peter Victor notes that contemporary economies increasingly depend on human land use, the consumption of materials and energy, and the production of waste. The volume, pace, and scale of this kind of economic activity is threatening planetary systems. Can a greater degree of economic stability, less economic growth, be achieved while still extending the benefits of economic prosperity? His answer is yes. His work has involved developing model simulations of an economy and analyzing the results of a reduction in growth on other factors and outcomes. In his article he describes the findings of the macroeconomic model LowGrow that he and his collaborators have developed and refined over the past several years to simulate the Canadian economy. He finds that ecologically beneficial lower growth is possible without unduly affecting employment or other essential aspects of human economic well-being. However, in order to achieve this result, new public policies and social practices will be necessary in many areas of life, including consumption, investment, employment patterns (an emphasis on services and higher productivity, more shared work and leisure time), population stability, greater equality and the reduction of poverty, and the like. This is not exactly the social and public policy agenda that is currently being promoted by neoliberalism.

Looking historically at the debates over the limits to growth, Richard Howarth contrasts the limits to growth approach of the Club of Rome with the sustainable development approach of the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED). He points out that both these perspectives have changed over time, but both continue to inform social debates and policy discussions on many fronts, including climate change. The empirical connection between economic growth and environmental effects is a complex problem, as are the value judgments involved in making trade-offs between different goals, properly gauging the social interests at stake, and dealing with intergenerational consequences. The benefits of growth in developing parts of the world are different from what they are in developed countries, where the social effects may be undesirable from the point of view of health and well-being. As far as climate change is concerned, it would be possible to reduce GHG emissions substantially without having much of an impact at all on overall economic growth in the developed nations or worldwide. Indeed, it may not be only the natural limits of growth that should most concern us, but rather its social limits. Howarth concludes that a draconian narrative concerning the limits to growth may actually reinforce the neoliberal denial of environmental values.

“In the pursuit of growth,” Howarth forcefully reminds us, “our society has told itself that our social and environmental values are too expensive to afford. The result is . . . an overemphasis on growth, markets, and our identities as consumers that has crowded out our human roles as citizens, community members, caretakers, and friends. . . . A sustainable future will emerge if we build institutions that, on a practical level, sustain the natural environment and the social and technological conditions that will empower future generations to define and pursue their own conception of the good life.”

Citizens, community members, caretakers, and friends. Today the chasm is growing between the vision of ecological economics and the everyday lifeworld of individuals. The terms that people use to define a self-identity and to comprehend their situation are growing increasingly thin and impoverished from both an ecological and a humanistic point of view. People with a consumer’s sense of relationship and a tourist’s sense of place cannot grasp that our well-being depends on healthy natural and social systems. We shall have to lose our concepts in order to reclaim our genuine selves. Somehow, the experience of relationship and place must be altered and enriched—from consumers to trustees; from tourists to householders and citizens. But the alteration of that ordinary experience—a transformation of the sense of self and the motivational bases of moral imagination—is not something that can be socially engineered or taken lightly, much less something that will emerge spontaneously from the invisible hand of the marketplace or the free play of signifiers in a liquid society.

At the close of his great work, Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville expressed intellectual and moral awe in the face of an old world dying and a new world gradually being born. We need not feel that our lifeworld of meaningful agency has disappeared or that we are wandering in darkness, however, for there is much constructive intellectual (and political) work to do. The most urgent need, no doubt, is to stem the tide of the bio-physical degrading of our natural world. A second imperative task, related and also urgent, is to reclaim, restore, or reconstruct anew our conceptual world. We have lived for some time now with a conceptual vocabulary for describing our moral lives that is much sparser and less articulate than our actual lives themselves. Despite expressing ourselves for the most part individualistically, we nonetheless manage to tap into an underlying moral resiliency and thereby preserve pockets—no, actually rather expansive landscapes—of life lived caringly and communally. There are signs, however, that this fund of moral resiliency is becoming depleted, even as its natural counterpart of ecological resiliency is also being stressed beyond its tolerances.

Ecological economics and our philosophical understanding of the relationship between the human and the natural are symbiotic, and both need to articulate a sense of equal civic respect, parity of power and position, and a developmental, open-textured type of personal agency and identity formation. This is a recipe for rich lives in a socially and naturally thick and relational interdependent world. This sense has not been extinguished. This meaning has not been lost. It remains the perennial possibility of human life, even if historically fugitive and fleeting.

[1]. For a humane and refreshingly non-condescending account of people living lives of inequality and injustice, see K. Boo, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity (New York: Random House, 2012), a firsthand account of the lives of slum dwellers in Annawadi, a desperately poor shanty town near the international airport in Mumbai.

  • Bruce Jennings

    Bruce Jennings is Senior Fellow at the Center for Humans and Nature where he engages in research, writing, public speaking, and consulting. He is the editor of the Center’s journal, Minding Nature.
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