How Ecology and Skepticism Define Sustainable Development

Social ecologists hold that the problems of environmentalism are due to an authoritarian hierarchy that is also responsible for such ills as racism, sexism, and classism. They argue that problems such as global warming or species extinction are caused in the same way as social problems such as poverty and crime and can all be attributed to a social structure in which only some enjoy real power, while the majority remain powerless. They claim that environmental degradation will continue until such social conditions are addressed.1 On the other hand, agents of neoliberalism have reworked, and are now championing the discourse on sustainability. This discourse has resulted in the development of market-based options, and politicians around the world have settled on two solutions: (i) carbon trading, (ii) carbon tax, as actions to adopt to ‘regulate’ greenhouse gas emissions. Skepticism that we can maintain sustainability without integrating economic decisions with ecology continues to grow .

Throughout history skepticism developed with regard to various disciplines in which people claimed to have knowledge. It was questioned, for example, whether one could gain any certain knowledge in metaphysics (the philosophical study of the basic nature, structure, or elements of reality) or in the sciences. In ancient times a chief form of skepticism was medical skepticism, which questioned whether one could know with certainty either the causes or cures of diseases. In the area of ethics, doubts were raised about accepting various mores and customs and about claiming any objective basis for making judgments of value. A dominant form of skepticism concerns knowledge in general, questioning whether anything actually can be known with complete or adequate certainty. According to skeptics, the limits of what you know are narrower than you would like to think. There are many things that you think you know, but actually fail to know.2 

Anti-skeptical thinkers, such as A.J. Ayer and John Austin, contended that skepticism is simply unnecessary. If knowledge is defined in terms of criteria that are truly meaningful, reflecting how knowledge claims are actually advanced, challenged, and justified, then knowledge is open to all. The skeptics raise false problems, since there are, as a matter of fact, criteria for distinguishing illusory experiences from veridical ones. Doubts are resolved and knowledge attained through these procedures, after which further doubt is simply meaningless. However, Arne Naess (1912-2009), in his book Scepticism (1969), sought to show that, on the standards offered by Ayer and Austin, it is still possible to ask whether a given knowledge claim may turn out to be false; hence skepticism has yet to be overcome. Næss averred that while western environmental groups of the early post-war period had raised public awareness of the environmental issues of the time, they had largely failed to have insight into and address what he argued were the underlying cultural and philosophical background to these problems.

Rumi observes, “Don’t be satisfied with stories, how things have gone with others. Unfold your own myth.” During the early 1970s, Arne Naess suggested that the environmentalist movement needed to do much more than conserve and protect the environment. He held that a radical reevaluation of the understanding of human nature was needed. In particular, he claimed that environmental degradation was likely due to a conception of the human self that had been ill defined in the past. Naess argued that the individual is cut off from others and their surrounding world when the self is seen as a solitary and independent ego among other solitary and independent egos. That separation leads to the pitfalls of anthropocentrism and environmental degradation. He believed that a new understanding of the self (called “self-realization”) was needed.” After self-realization you reach a new vision and understanding – you will experience you are doing something different with your life than you did before self-realization.

Deep ecology is an ecological and environmental philosophy promoting the inherent worth of living beings regardless of their instrumental utility to human needs, plus a restructuring of modern human societies in accordance with such ideas. Deep ecologists often contrast their own position with what they refer to as the “shallow ecology” of other environmentalists. They contend that the mainstream ecological movement is concerned with various environmental issues (such as pollution, overpopulation, and conservation) only to the extent that those issues have a negative effect on an area’s ecology and disrupt human interests. They argue that anthropocentrism, a worldview that contains an instrumentalist view of nature and a view of humanity as the conqueror of nature, has led to environmental degradation throughout the world, and thus it should be replaced with ecocentric (ecology-centered) or biocentric (life-centered) worldviews, where the biosphere becomes the main focus of concern.

According to deep ecology, the self should be understood as deeply connected with and as part of nature, not disassociated from it. Deep ecologists often call that conception of human nature the “ecological self,” and it represents humans acting and being in harmony with nature, not in opposition to it. According to Naess, when the ecological self is realized, it will recognize and abide by the norms of an environmental ethic that will end the abuses of nature that typify the traditional self, which is trapped in anthropocentric attitudes. Moreover, the ecological self will practice a “biocentric egalitarianism,” in which each natural entity is held as being inherently equal to every other entity. Deep ecology requires us to ask deep questions about our personal lifestyle society and experience. By probing deeper, we can discover our true place in nature. Naess wants each individual to think through their beliefs and construct their own philosophy.

In 1984 Naess and Sessions devised an eight-point statement, or platform, for deep ecology. The statement was offered not as a rigid or dogmatic manifesto but rather as a set of fairly general principles that could help people articulate their own deep ecological positions. It was also meant to serve as a guide toward the establishment of a deep ecology movement. Two points that today’s decision makers must focus on are: (i) “Significant change of life conditions for the better requires change in policies. These affect basic economic, technological, and ideological structures. The resulting state of affairs will be deeply different from the present.” and (ii) “The ideological change is mainly that of appreciating life quality (dwelling in situations of intrinsic value) rather than adhering to a high standard of living…” For Naess, deep ecology involves the fight against pollution and resource depletion, along with the health and affluence of people in developed countries.3

Neoliberal globalization is a system of smoke and mirrors where the basic instability and unsustainability of the whole system leaves a financial elite who hold governments to ransom. In public discourse, neoliberal think tanks hijacked environmental politics, reworking and the championing the discourse of ‘sustainability’. This includes reconfiguring and depoliticizing the relation (central to all discourses of sustainability) between ecology and economy. Rather than the discourse being capitalism as seen as a threat to threaten ecology and sustainability, it becomes the universal pre-condition of all economic activities. This shift in terms of the relationship ensures that economy and ecology become equally important, and thus mutually constraining components of sustainability. This new important messaging concept allows neoliberalism to ‘defend itself against critique” and bolsters its moral legitimacy. This allows neoliberals to marginalize the social ecologists, the so-called radical ecological movement, who support deep ecology.4

Social ecologists trace the causes of environmental degradation to the existence of unjust, hierarchical relationships in human society, which they see as endemic to the large-scale social structures of modern capitalist states. Accordingly, they argue, the most environmentally sympathetic form of political and social organization is one based on decentralized small-scale communities and systems of production. Sustainable development provides a powerful and realistic basis to be hopeful about the future. It is not primarily about economic growth, social well-being, environmental protection, or security; it is not about one objective at the expense of others; it is about achieving all of them. It is the possibility of sustainable development, not blind faith in the virtues of economic growth or underestimation of our environmental problems, that provides humanity’s real hope in the years ahead. This isn’t about whether we should be hopeful; this is about the basis for our hope.

Skepticism and critical thinking is not panacea, but can help to understand the world better. What neoliberalism misses or ignores is that a world of apparently neutral rules is still a world of power inequalities. The antipathy of neoliberal hegemony towards environmental regulation has set it in opposition to environmental movements. The process of corporate expansion across borders creates rapid change in many communities with subsequent negative consequences for workers. The fact that there is little international regulation has dire consequences for the safety of the people and the environment. Slow economic growth, rising inequality, financial instability, and environmental degradation are problems born of the market, and thus cannot and will not be overcome by the market on its own. Governments have a duty to limit and shape markets through environmental, health, occupational-safety, and other types of regulation. Deep ecology requires a comprehensive agenda to protect the environment and fight climate change.

1 Social Ecology

2 Terry L. Anderson and Lea-Rachel Kosnik. (2002) Sustainable Skepticism and Sustainable Development

3 Deep Ecology

4 Lynley Tullock and David Neilson (2014) The Neoliberalisation of Sustainability

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