The Pragmatist’s View: A Conversation with Bryan Norton

4,977 total words    

20 minutes of reading

Curt Meine (CM): In July 2016 the third Biennial North American Congress for Conservation Biology convened in Madison, Wisconsin. In anticipation of Bryan Norton coming to Madison to present at the conference, I asked him if he would make time for an interview for the Center for Humans and Nature. Bryan graciously agreed and, in an hour-and-a-half conversation stretching across two sessions, we were able to explore at least a portion of his background, career, influences, and ideas. I have edited this excerpt of our conversation for clarity and have also provided references. The full interview is included in A Sustainable Philosophy—The Work of Bryan Norton, Sahotra Sarkar and Ben A. Minteer, eds. (New York: Springer, 2018). Bryan opened our conversation with an introduction to his academic interests and career.

Bryan Norton (BN): I have been associated with the School of Public Policy at the Georgia Institute of Technology since 1988, and I remain associated with them. I’m an emeritus professor at this point, but I still work with graduate students. I grew up in Michigan and went to the University of Michigan where I studied first political science and then philosophy, and I have a degree in philosophy, working mainly in the philosophy of language and the philosophy of science.

My main concern became: how do concepts change through time? This was back when Thomas Kuhn’s work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was first published, and it was all about these shifting paradigms.[1] What I noticed was that you could play this paradigm game historically as he did or play it simultaneously and say that each field has its own paradigm. I started to say, “Okay, what Kuhn says about paradigms is pretty applicable to conservation and environmental ethics”—the field that I gradually got into. Because what we must do in conservation is bring together insights from many different disciplines, and that means you are sort of trying to hop from one paradigm to another.

I see a certain unity to all of that in my history, which started with the philosophy of language and how we learn and how science changes, but that provided the underpinnings of my work in conservation.

CM: You did not start out as an environmental ethicist. In fact, the field of environmental ethics and philosophy had not yet fully emerged at the beginning of your career. So how did you make that transition—from a more traditional academic career in philosophy to environmental ethics?

BN: Well, I had a long-standing interest in the environment, so that was always there. When I got my degree in philosophy, I studied the formal aspects of philosophy, logic, semantics, and so forth. I wrote my dissertation on a positivist named Rudolf Carnap.[2]

I finished my degree in 1970 at the University of Michigan and got my first job teaching philosophy at a small college, New College, in Sarasota, Florida. We had three philosophers. I was responsible for analytic philosophy. That turned out to be an excellent laboratory. We had excellent students in small classes, and I had the chance to really gradually develop my ideas. And then, just as a stroke of luck, I received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to develop a curriculum in ethics and the environment. I joined a biologist and a literature professor, and we taught these classes jointly on humanities and the environment.

And just as that was happening, as we were working on that grant, I found an opportunity through Mark Sagoff of the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at the University of Maryland. Mark had applied for multiple grants and got two at the same time. For one of them he said, “Well, we’ll hire somebody to do the second one.” That second grant was a terrific opportunity for me. It was a project funded by the National Science Foundation to ask two questions: What is the strongest rationale for the Endangered Species Act? And, secondly, given the understanding of the rationale, how should we prioritize our efforts in order to protect species?

I started working on that grant and the result was two books on what we today call “biological diversity”—that term came into use right after I had published my own monograph on the subject, Why Preserve Natural Variety?.[3] That became the foundation on which I built my career.

At that point I was at the University of Maryland doing this research, but I did not want to give up tenure. So, I went back to New College for another two or three years, then moved on to Georgia Tech. When I arrived there, I was to be a member of the school’s social sciences program, which was mainly a service teaching unit. But then, another stroke of luck: the entire non-engineering part of Georgia Tech was reorganized to create, among other things, the School of Public Policy. That was just right down my alley. I was now able to do philosophy in the context of public policy. I retired several years ago, but I’m still active with students. I can’t give up! I’m working now with two graduate students and continue to write and attend conferences and so forth.

CM: Help us understand what that moment was like for that first wave of environmental ethicists. What was the atmosphere of the time? And how did traditional philosophy handle this upstart new field and people like you?

BN: Well, we should distinguish the field and me. I think people who started contributing to this field were either historians of philosophy, or they were either historians or ethicists, and that’s one of the reasons they started calling the field environmental ethics. I would prefer to call it environmental philosophy. The reason is that I come at it from the philosophy of science, and I’m interested in all the philosophical issues that get involved in, first of all, making judgments about what’s right and wrong in a society, but also putting something into policy form.

I joined groups and spent a lot of time talking with people who were actually doing conservation. For example, I joined a group that was interested in strengthening plant conservation. Back then we were mainly looking at big animals. So I met that group. And through those conversations we talked about a lot of stuff that was interesting and important policy. But the concept of intrinsic value and that kind of argument—[that] never came up. These people knew what they had to do [for plant conservation]—they were doing excellent work—but they weren’t asking why. They thought it was just obvious that we should save plants from extinction.

So that set me apart in two ways. First, I came more from a scientific point of view, and less from the ethicist’s point of view. And, second, as soon as I started doing this I was thrown into the middle of policy. I was on several policy boards. For example, I was one of the original members of the EPA’s Environmental Economics Advisory Committee. That was just one of the things I did, and other philosophers sort of looked at me and said, “Is Norton still a philosopher?” And I said, “Yes, I am! I’m a practical philosopher.” People took quite a while to come around to that.

CM: That brings us to our own point of connection, and that is the influence of Aldo Leopold on you, your writing, your thought, and your work. Leopold has always been, at least in my reading of your work, a touchstone for you. Help us understand what Leopold’s value has been for you as you were working through these ideas—how his tradition, his contribution as a “proto-environmentalist” (if you will), comes in.

BN: Well, I became friends with Baird Callicott. A lot of people can’t believe that when they see how we write about each other, but we became friends. And, of course, around that time he was working on his book, In Defense of the Land Ethic.[4] He was publishing papers in environmental ethics on that subject, most of which ended up, I guess, in that anthology.

And so I found it necessary to bounce my ideas—which are very different ideas—off Baird. I was introduced to Leopold by reading A Sand County Almanac because Baird said I must do so, and I did.[5] And then I read Baird’s interpretation of this and I said, “But this is all wrong!” And why? Well, I think I reacted against Baird’s approach of treating Leopold as the first and foremost defender of intrinsic value in nature. I realized that I looked at it more from the point of view of Leopold as a scientist—a scientist who was trying to do something; but who also, when he realized how difficult what he was trying to do was, could step up to the more philosophical level and think philosophically.

Leopold had more training in philosophy than we think. We know, for example, that he and Estella used to read William James to each other. But the fact is that he was bringing scientific concepts into the fold. At first, I was just sort of reacting, saying, “I don’t think this intrinsic value thing is as important to Leopold as most people are saying.” That was my first step. But then a second step was to notice Leopold’s way of thinking in two very short little essays in A Sand County Almanac: first, “Marshland Elegy,” and later, “Thinking Like a Mountain.”

What Leopold came to see in thinking about cranes was that they are, as he said, “the trumpets in the orchestra of evolution.” Consequently, he saw them as having great value; they have a right to exist because of their long tenure. That seems to me be Leopold’s core idea in “Marshland Elegy.” And I thought, “Yeah, he’s onto something there.” In that essay he talks about how the cranes were integrated into an ecological system since the Ice Age. He also noted that their evolutionary history went way past the Ice Age, and that these “trumpets” are still with us, telling us something. And what they’re telling us in that essay, I think, is that humans have to live in three different scales of time. We live in human time, which Leopold introduced at the beginning of that essay, being impatient as he heard cranes coming toward the marsh. He introduces the passage of time as humans experience it. Then he pointed out that we also live in ecological time and, more deeply, in evolutionary time. And these different processes all “condition the daily affairs of birds and men,” to quote one of the passages.

Cranes in flight

CM: What you just explained to us, Bryan, was how Leopold anticipated the importance of understanding time scales and the temporal dimension in thinking about how the world around us works and how our decisions within it have to fit that. How about the spatial scale?

BN: Well, what hierarchy theory does for us is to relate time and space. As large systems change slowly, they become sort of the background for what we do. Smaller systems—like our yard, for example—change much more rapidly. I noticed that Leopold had this very sophisticated conception of time and space, even though he introduced it metaphorically. And then I read Thinking Like a Mountain,” in which Leopold described how he had destroyed the wolf populations [in the American Southwest] and how he later came to regret that after the deer population he was trying to increase started to actually decrease from overpopulation and over-browsing of the mountainside. Leopold wrote about the famous incident where, having killed an old wolf, he watched the green fire die in her eyes. What he learned there, I think, was that wolves function in a larger and slower system than humans do.

Escudilla Mt. in Arizona

Consequently, we can come to hate something like the wolf, even though, once you start to see the wolf’s role in longer-term developments, the wolf becomes almost like a savior, right? Having destroyed the wolves and changed the ecological system, he then regretted it. He fell back on that hierarchical framework to say, “I was thinking only like a human. I was only thinking in terms of increasing the deer herd for hunters. But then I realized that my activities on that level spilled over to affect the usually slower-scale changes.” In fact, he saw the impacts on the ecological scale, the scale at which deer and wolves interact. The deer populations growing out of control were a result of his removing the wolves. So his human thinking destroyed a very complex system.

So what’s interesting about that is that Leopold starts to see the world on three different levels: the human, the ecological, and the evolutionary. And he felt that we can see positive values on each of those three levels. The positive level for humans is generally economic and developmental. The level of interactions among species (wolves and deer, in particular) would be the ecological scale. And what he realized was that, however important our economics are, if we destroy the ecological system, it’s going to come back and bite us even at the human level. So his explanation of why he went wrong was very much based in a scientific model, which he showed through the metaphor of “thinking like a mountain.”

CM: As you’re explaining it now, Bryan, this gives me some new insight into one of the important themes in all of your work. In the early years of environmental ethics, a lot of the debate in the field involved anthropocentric and non-anthropocentric perspectives, and instrumental and intrinsic values. I’m making the connection now perhaps that I hadn’t made quite as explicitly before: that it’s not one or the other, it’s about contextualizing these views. Can you say more about your efforts to work through that debate, to try to reconcile those perspectives? Help us understand how you have tried to work through that classic dualism in environmental ethics.

BN: Having come at it from a science point of view, I realized the relevance of Leopold’s very sophisticated scientific model. And I realized that, yeah, that can make a contribution to policy. But I couldn’t simply take the writings of someone like Baird Callicott, as much as I respect his work, and drop them into a conversation about supply and demand curves. It doesn’t work for those people, because their whole model involves trying to solve every problem on the first level, the human interaction level. I think I was able, at points along the way, to say, “Well, listen, you have to pay attention to scale here.” You don’t have to invoke the whole structure in order to recognize the importance of scale issues.

That became my theme and maybe my distinctive contribution (or one of my contributions): that, coming at it from a scientific point of view, but trying to deal with public policy people, I had to come up with somewhat different approaches than were typical in environmental ethics. Because I didn’t follow the same ethical conversation that they were engaged in, I was considered an outsider. Well, I think today I’m no longer thought to be an outsider. In fact, there are a lot of people who would love to claim that they were the ones who originated this sort of perspective from within public policy. And now we have people setting up centers that are designed to increase our impact in public policy. For me, that was never in doubt. That was more important to me than whether it was useful to talk about intrinsic value or not. But of course I got branded an anthropocentrist. And so I played the game.

I’m really a pluralist. I’m willing to let people have the values they feel and express them. But I thought that somebody needs to stand up for the point of view of anthropocentrism. Even though I have some non-anthropocentric leanings, it just seems more important to me that we see the world from a human perspective because we’re the ones who are making the decisions, right? Even if I think that nature has great value, I’d rather come at public policy problems from a point of view that asks how humans have gotten into this big problem, and how are they going to get out of it? I tended to look at the problem from a policy point of view, as essentially a set of problems about human values.

In Why Preserve Natural Variety? I argued that nature has value to humans because we can learn from it. And I’ve cited people like Thoreau and Muir and Leopold, all of whom have somewhere in their writings a sort of conversion experience, right? Leopold had it with the wolves. Muir had it when he was wandering in Canada, avoiding fighting in the Civil War. Muir found a tiny, a beautiful orchid and fell down and wept. And Thoreau, of course, is all about transformation.

So what I saw there was a sort of trope, shared by these three great conservationists. There was value involved, and it wasn’t economic value, but a kind of human value in increasing our understanding, finding a better place for ourselves. And I think that the process of learning, the process of doing biology and doing ecology, is one that transforms people. I tried to find a position that wasn’t all the way committed to intrinsic value, but that introduced values which could not be fully explained within an economic system.

In the paper that I published in 1984, “Environmental Ethics and Weak Anthropocentrism,” I tried to show that the people who are arguing against anthropocentrism are actually arguing against a very narrow approach to anthropocentrism—that is, the view that all values are economic.[6] What I was pointing out was that there are human reasons that are not economic reasons. These involve human values that are of great importance in terms of human maturing, growing up, learning who we are, and stop thinking of ourselves as God’s children and start thinking of ourselves as developing better understanding and becoming more human by understanding our real role in these systems.

Clouds over Animas Mountains in New Mexico

CM: Let’s think about where we are at this moment. Now you’re not the only philosopher on the block thinking about the philosophy of sustainability. You’ve taught the other kids on the block, and they’re taking it in new directions with new realities. We have climate change coming at us. We have problems of justice and equity, globally now, and awareness of this in a way we didn’t have maybe twenty-five years ago, when you were first helping us to think through this. Give us a sense of where you think we are now and where this is going to take environmental ethics as a field.

BN: Where we are now, I think, is that two important things are going on in philosophy and at the edges of philosophy, and in the intellectual world generally. One of them is that philosophy needs to make a contribution to policy. The second one is that when we’re talking about policy, we’re talking about very long-term problems. Those two things are bedeviling us at this point. We’ve had quite a few discussions about how conservation biologists can have an impact on policy makers. Those same conversations go on in environmental ethics.

We’re at a point where the difficulty of the problems we face and the bifurcation of our population into the people who are pro-environment and anti-environment have brought us into a new era. In this era, what’s going to be really important is that we expand our conception of time and not think of ourselves in terms of what can we accomplish in the short run. We really need to be able to accomplish things that have long-term impacts. And you and I are probably equally confused and concerned: it’s not easy to see how that goes forward.

What I am saying, though, is that I think it has a better chance of going forward if we start from the problems, try to develop processes where people address problems in fruitful ways. That means developing more a procedural understanding of how we make environmental decisions, which is really the focus of my most recent book. That’s what I think the future holds.

CM: We’ve been tracking the development of your ideas and thought through your writing and career. When did you start thinking about the theme of convergence in your work?

BN: As I mentioned earlier, I met up with some groups in Washington and began to have conversations with them. Interestingly, I was sort of a naive environmental ethicist. I guess everybody was at that point. We’re talking about 1979 and ’80. When I was meeting with these people (who were, again, for the most part doing plant conservation), there would be a lull in the conversation at lunch sometimes and I would try out the idea of intrinsic value. And I got dead silence. What I surmised from that was that these people are committed to a relatively clear objective, which is to save plant species.

As a pragmatist, I started thinking, “Well, you know, who’s wrong here? And maybe I, as an outsider to this kind of thing, am making assumptions that really don’t hold.” What I realized was that we’re all doing the same thing. We were all concerned about achieving the same goals. I thought, “Well, you know, if you think about it, in the very long run, humans can be damaged by species loss. The longer we stretch our timeframe, the more we start to emphasize protecting plants as a foundation of ecosystems.” On the other side of that, I started to realize that the humanists, the anthropocentrists, were as committed to the same goals as the non-anthropocentrists. That practical experience led me eventually to say, “Well, you know, we should choose those problems that are so important to humans and so important to endangered species that we should be able to find policies that will serve both of those ends.”

I came up with this idea as I was writing the book Why Preserve Natural Variety?. I first proposed this in the last few paragraphs of a paper in Environmental Ethics called “Conservation and Preservation: A Conceptual Rehabilitation.”[7] And then I developed it in Why Preserve Natural Variety?, which had a whole chapter devoted to what I called “the convergence hypothesis.” Again, if we look at the broadest human values, the most long-range human values, and compare them with the values of ecological systems, these are really headed in the same direction. If we damage nature, we damage ourselves in the long run.

What’s interesting is that when Ben Minteer published the book Nature in Common, which was really focused on the convergence hypothesis, you could go through its table of contents and sort the people into anthropocentrists and non-anthropocentrists, into policy people and philosophers.[8] What we find is that all the policy people said, “This is obvious.” And all of the philosophers like Laura Westra and Baird Callicott got furious at the idea, because it debunked their claim that they were real radicals.

So I have thought of the convergence hypothesis as sort of the keystone of my pragmatism. I feel like the convergence hypothesis helps us to get things done and to work together without a lot of extraneous argumentation about what our motivations are. And since I’ve published that, I feel that, to my way of thinking, it pretty much resolves the anthropocentrism/non-anthropocentrism debate in favor of what I today would call maybe “administrative anthropocentrism.” That is, when we’re trying to decide on policy, and we’re relying on values, they’re going to be human values. It’s going to be humans expressing those values. In that sense, humans administer the world, but for a variety of values.

CM: As you discussed earlier, Bryan, one of the key themes in your work over the years has involved the challenge of translating philosophical values into the economic values that get traction in the policy arena and in the “real world.” You’ve written extensively about the different ways we need to think about economic valuation. And you have seen, over the course of your career, the crystallization of this under the rubric of ecosystem services. How does this fit together? How does the ecosystem services approach help or hinder progress on these issues that you have raised over the years?

BN: I think what happened with the initial introduction of ecosystem services was that quite a few people saw it as a patch on cost-benefit analysis; that is, there’s this missing part of cost-benefit analysis, and if we start talking about ecosystem services and start putting dollar values on that, we can bring the cost-benefit analysis to a better conclusion. But I think that’s just a category mistake, you might say, in that the methods that you use in economics—measuring preferences and so forth—are just different methodologies than people are using with ecosystem services. Economic values are marginal values, values at the margin. Ecosystem service concepts are totalistic values. You add them together and you get mush; nothing. And so people who have tried to reduce environmental values problems to ecosystem services are, I think, doing a real disservice. Values are diverse and you’re never going to make them fit into one mold.

So do I throw the concept out? No. Because, in my philosophy, there’s a crucial point at which humans have to recognize how the things that they care for and value are worth saving, but people don’t understand how to connect their values back to the physical system. And so I introduced what I think can be a useful term, “opportunity.” Opportunity is a hybrid concept. On the one hand, it requires certain kinds of ecological functioning or natural functioning. It also implies that there’s a good thing you can do with it, right? So I’ve found that if ecosystem services is properly used, it can show people how changes to the ecological systems can really matter to them.

Here’s a simple example: skiing. There are a lot of people who love to ski; it’s an excellent sport, etc. But you can’t ski without snow. So if somebody is saying, “Basically what we’re concerned about is if snow goes away in New England, the slopes will no longer be very attractive. They’ll still be making snow, but they’ll not have real snow.” And so, this is a value that is really quite selfish in a sense (“I love skiing”). So skiing has a great appeal to human beings, but global climate change could totally wipe out that whole option, that opportunity. There’s an example, I think, where opportunity requires a certain physical system, one that’s cold enough to foster snow. And that connects to a real human value, recreation.

Cranes etc. at Las Vegas National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico

CM: Bryan, when I think of your work, the image of a stream comes to me, and I see channels braiding. You start out working on endangered species, which flows into scale issues, which flows in and out of sustainability philosophy and pragmatism. And looking forward, now that you’ve earned your retirement, I know that you’re not going to stop, and the river will keep flowing. And your students and those who’ve read and found value in your work will continue to develop your ideas as we face new circumstances and develop new concepts. I’d like to conclude with an open-ended question about the next generation of philosophers who want to contribute to environmental sustainability discussions. What will our next generation, our next wave of thinkers and doers, need to help us sort through these challenges going forward?

BN: To comment, first, on all of the different threads that have, in some ways, come together and gone apart—the core of that is pragmatism. Pragmatism is a forward-looking philosophy. The truth is that which emerges over time. We’re always going to make mistakes, but science, through many, many iterations, gradually gets further away from error and maybe even a little closer to the truth. So that’s the pragmatist view—that we’ll never have complete knowledge, because it’s constantly changing.

Looking forward, and putting all those things together, I think the most important thing that we face today is the need to make better decisions. In Sustainable Values, Sustainable Change, I shift away from what most philosophers seek, which is substantive rationality (where a decision is defined as rational if it aids us in getting to a stated objective).[9] But we can contrast that with the view of Herbert Simon, the artificial intelligence genius. He pointed out that it’s probably more interesting in most circumstances to talk about procedural rationality, which says that a decision is rational if it was arrived at by an appropriate method or process.[10] So I hope that the people who have read my work, including especially this most recent book, will see the opportunity here to shift away from many of their arguments about who’s right about what values and so forth, and toward a position that says: “Let’s allow diversity. Let’s encourage some people to defend intrinsic value, other people to defend transformative value, and others instrumental value. Let’s be sure that they’re interacting in a way that’s fair, where all the voices are being heard, and where rationality is based on appropriateness.”

CM: Bryan, obviously we can’t cover all your work, which is vast—

BN: The secret to that is that I’ve been at it a long time!

CN:—but thank you for all you’ve done. Thanks so much for sitting down with us, and for what you’ll continue to do, because I know that you are hardly done. We’ll look forward to continuing the conversation.

BN: Okay, great. And I enjoyed it also.

Image credits
Photo Credits: Curt Meine

[1] T. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1962).

[2] B.G. Norton, “Linguistic Frameworks and Ontology: A Study in the Meta-ontology of Rudolf Carnap” (Ph.D. diss., University of Michigan, 1970).

[3] B.G. Norton, Why Preserve Natural Variety? (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987).

[4] J.B. Callicott, In Defense of the Land Ethic: Essays in Environmental Philosophy (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989).

[5] A. Leopold, A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There (New York: Oxford University Press, 1949).

[6] B.G. Norton, “Environmental Ethics and Weak Anthropocentrism,” Environmental Ethics 6, no. 2 (1984): 131-48

[7] B.G. Norton, “Conservation and Preservation: A Conceptual Rehabilitation,” Environmental Ethics 8, no. 3 (1986): 195-220.

[8] B. Minteer, Nature in Common? (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2009).

[9] B.G. Norton, Sustainable Values, Sustainable Change: A Guide to Environmental Decision Making (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2015).

[10] H.A. Simon, “From Substantive to Procedural Rationality,” in T.J. Kastelein, S.K. Kuipers, W.A. Nijenhuis, and R.G. Wagenaar, eds., Twenty-Five Years of Economic Theory: Retrospect and Prospect (Leiden, NE: Martinus Nijhoff Social Sciences Division, 1976), 65-86.



  • Curt Meine

    Curt Meine is a conservation biologist, historian, and writer who serves as a senior fellow with both the Aldo Leopold Foundation and the Center for Humans and Nature, and as associate adjunct professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has written several books, including Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work (University of Wisconsin Press, 1988).
Scroll to Top