Saturday, December 4, 2010

the L word


If I could meet any person, dead or alive, real or fiction, I think one of my top choices would be Steve Irwin. I'd want to meet him out in the bush, maybe in Australia, maybe help him re-locate a croc. Afterwards, we might talk about conservation and peace and wilderness. Or, more accurately, he'd talk, and I'd just nod vigorously in agreement while reveling in his radiance.

Steve Irwin is famously known for his larger-than-life television series Crocodile Hunter. It's a misnomer because the show isn't about hunting crocodiles. What actually happens on the show is: Steve goes into the bush; he meets wildlife; we, in turn, meet wildlife. Steve's excitement is contagious, his animal senses obvious, and his huge heart very genuine. When asked why he decided to create a TV show, he said he wanted to bring these wild animals into people's living rooms. He wanted people to get to know these wild animals, one-on-one, face-to-face. If people get to know them, they will start to care about them. If they care about them, they will start to love them. And "people save what they love".

(We can discuss the connotations of the word "save" as it relates to the environment, but that is for another post.)

An activist and self-described "Wildlife Warrior", Steve believed wholeheartedly in the fight for nature. But rather than handing out moral prescriptions about the changes humans need to make, he strove simply to breed compassion for wildlife, believing that this is key to positive action. Steve travelled to all corners of the earth with a camera crew, meeting animals, falling in love with them, ultimately wanting us to do the same. His motive was to inspire people to act out of love.

Love. This word doesn't get used a lot by scientists and ecologists. When it appears in a science context, it is usually being dissected into its chemical components. Detected by electrodes and measured with machines, this is a very different sort of love than Steve's.

Nor does it get used a lot by environmental ethicists. When it appears in an environmental ethics context, it is usually being denied. Like scientists, ethicists and philosophers use reason and logic to work through a problem and draw conclusions. Love, being soft and subjective, would taint a convincing philosophical argument. So mainstream environmental ethicists (such as Peter Singer, Tom Regan, and Paul Taylor) are careful to present themselves as unattached, objective philosophers. Adamantly, they are not animal lovers, but rational beings, using sound, unbiased logic to moralize about the proper treatment of nature.

There is a sense that activists are allowed to be overt in their emotional attachment to nature, but academics aren't. It is moving and inspirational when Steve Irwin announces his love for nature and invites us to love with him; it is naive and almost laughable when academics do it. There is a sense that love confounds intelligence, so the likes of Peter Singer steer clear of love professionally. Ecologists, too.

Arne Naess

But, environmental philosopher Arne Naess speaks up for love. He draws on Kant's contrast of "moral acts" and "beautiful acts". A moral act is something we do because moral law dictates that it is the right thing. A beautiful act is something we do that is congruent with moral law, but mostly we do it because we want to. Put simply, both are right acts, but a moral act is done out of duty, while a beautiful act is done out of love. Arne Naess further explains:

If we do what is right because of positive inclination, then, according to Kant, we perform a beautiful act. My point is that in environmental affairs we should primarily try to influence people toward beautiful acts by finding ways to work on their inclinations rather than their morals. Unhappily, the extensive moralizing within the ecological movement has given the public the false impression that they are primarily asked to sacrifice, to show more responsibility, more concern, and better morals. As I see it we need the immense variety of sources of joy opened through increased sensitivity toward the richness and diversity of life, through the profound cherishing of free natural landscapes.

Arne Naess wants people to treat nature better because they want to, and not because they are obliged to. When we do things out of obligation, there is an attached sentiment of guilt and anxiety. When we do things out of love, there is beauty. Mainstream environmental ethics appeals to people's sense of duty, and Arne Naess questions the sustainability of this tactic. Duty on its own is not enough. People need to experience the thing that they are being dutiful towards, to feel love and joy for it.

Mainstream environmental ethics has made much headway in rationalising the ethical treatment of nature, and this work is necessary. But if we are to follow Arne Naess' advice, then perhaps we need to relax the tradition that emotion negates the credibility of an academic. If academics want to take part in creating an environmentally ethical world of beautiful acts, then we have to make our love for nature more obvious. We have to take it out of the closet and share it with the world.

While it may be true that love befuddles logic, love is also one of the greatest motivators of personal change. Furthermore, as my professor Bob Jickling writes, "Love is not soft, it is honest." Love needn't detract from credibility, and in fact, credibility grows with the honesty in admitting love. It seems to me that ecologists and environmental philosophers do share an immense love of nature. It seems to me that we all have a little Steve Irwin inside of us. Maybe it is time to let ourselves let that shine.

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