These days if “environment” is in your title, you’re likely a) into sustainability, b) buzzkill at parties, c) pushing radical reform…or d) trying to somewhat-quietly figure the whole thing out

It’s late, late, late in Washington D.C. as I write. Among other important things, tonight I learned from the locals (my cousin, her husband and their friend) that I cannot say I flew into “IAD”…it’s just “Dulles”. Point taken.

So I flew into Dulles, and I’m a day or so away from the Breakthrough Institute’s Ecomodernism 2019 conference. I’m attending in hopes of building out a framework for my environmental studies thesis that will eventually submit a theoretical critique (among others) of ecomodernism.

Being a passer-through over the past day or two, my conversations are with people (even family!) who haven’t been around my ins and outs and daily thoughts. So, I get to bump up against the interpretations of others as they make sense of me/my work via the word “environment”…as the title of this post provocatively suggests, there are a few

When conversation yesterday evening turned toward what I do/am doing here in DC, what emerged from the others was full of classical environmentalist language–and, um, maybe unsurprisingly, it was about then that the laughter left the room. I listened to them lament the disposable plastic products in the house, the recent flurry of news of the Amazon burning, and etc. Meanwhile, my cousin just started a job at an environmental law firm that’s on the cusp of applying legal theory to climate issues, filing suits on behalf of public actors (e.g., States) against corporate exploitations. So the whole darn thing, in terms of the contradictions of our daily lives and work and ideas in the context of environmental rights and wrongs, is not straightforward.

And that brings me back to ecomodernism (why I’m on the other side of the country just now) and a reflection on our past week working with the EcoTypes survey and environmental theory in ENVS 350.

Environmental theory means making sense of environmental ideas with the hopes of providing counterpoints to common environmental narratives, thoughts and stories that compose our discourse–it’s theoretical/scholarly work that in time will continue to help me, and others, respond better to the dismal black-hole conversations that suck out the air in the room at dinner parties, but don’t solve that void, either, by recruiting you to storm the streets and hold fast to convictions that are also rather unhelpful to making sense of things in the long run.

The EcoTypes survey + pedagogical resources help make that possible–giving empirical evidence to deep difference in environmental ideas, and suggesting ways of deliberating across difference. Inspired in large part out of the Breakthrough Institute’s continual evolution and production of ecomodernism a few years ago, I haven’t yet figured out how much I wish to involve/utilize EcoTypes as a methodological support…for now, it is a wonderful informal crutch for beginning to situate myself and others alongside ideas that compose the ecomodernist (and whatever other) project of environmental thought and creation.

I’ve got more work to do this weekend making sense of the concept ecomodernism. As I understand it so far, it’s a motley of gathered convictions (like pro-nuclear, pro-food tech, and pro-“decoupling”)–a means of people organizing themselves around some strong ideals. I have a few gut senses, the biggest of which is that there are underlying inconsistencies/contradictions in terms of leaving behind classical environmentalism but upholding dualistic visions.

Even more important to do a theoretical critique, I think, of theories that organize power for the construction of our common world(s). That’s option d), per my title: if I’m an “environmentalist”, it means I’m somewhat-quietly trying to figure out how we all go about making our worlds and invariably dreaming of better ones.

Themes and content of week one: utilitarianism and other things

…And so begins a gathering of the themes that connect my four courses at LC week by week, because it’s impossible for me not to be thinking about connections and it’s more fulfilling long-term try thinking through them, in writing. Fulfilling in that AGH sort of way, but anyway. I’ll get out to run through the beautifully chilly low Portland fog soon as I’m done here.

The four courses are:

  • Public Discourse (Rhetoric and Media Studies Department, RHMS)
  • Philosophy of Environment (PHIL Department)
  • Environmental Economics (ECON)
  • Medical Anthropology (Sociology/Anthropology Department, SOAN)

Concepts at center:

Utilitarianism – philosophy fundamental to economic theory declaring that an action is right if it yields the greatest expected utility for the greatest number of people

  • in common phrase: “the greatest good for the greatest number”
  • yes, people. traditionally humans. Utilitarianism is aligned with anthropocentrism. Peter Singer, among others, remain sided with utilitarian thinking but extend this to “sentient nonhuman beings”, but this (in a kind of revolting hierarchic philosophizing) seems to mean mostly vertebrates. definitely not microbes, or plants.
  • another alignment is hedonism. the first makes sense when we understand the “utility” of utilitarianism to mean happiness/well-being, and more specifically to economics, consumption of non market and market goods produces wellbeing/happiness/utility (there is, of course, an equation for this called the utility function).
  • yet another alignment, and my last here, is consequentialism. well, utilitarianism is more like a child of consequentialism, inheriting its focus on effects (consequences) of an action rather than, say, intentions motivating the action or the action itself….please go ask dedicated philosophers for help with this one. in short, consequentialism (and so utilitarianism) argue that the moral status of an action is determined by its effects, as far as I’ve seen, mostly along the binary of pleasure (remember hedonism?) or pain, and the philosophized status of the feeler (remember anthropocentrism?)

Utility as foundational to economics — mentioned and elaborated above, but addressed separately because it holds two of the five foundational assumptions of economics I was given (in reading and lecture) this week. Alongside anthropocentrismutilitarianism, and atomism, they are:

  • equal marginal utility of consumption, or, the assumption that one unit of goods/services (say $100 worth) carries the same effect of happiness/well-being, if consumed, for every individual human being. This assumption makes cost-benefit analysis possible, as it would be infeasible to address and calculate every individual’s subjective value differently.
  • the efficiency standard, or, social welfare is equivalent to the sum of individual utilities. It is common practice to assume individuals as atomistic for the purposes of calculating social welfare.
  • These two points especially cause me immense trouble. Can there be an economic equation that adapts to a different view of well-being/happiness, doesn’t focus on the wellbeing/happiness of humans as principal over all else, and has a grip on relationality/interdependence? How in the heck would this sort of economics come forward? Would that be helpful at all

Marketplace of ideas– conceptual legacy of the Enlightenment Age of Reason, the aristocratic beginnings of American democracy. Closely tied with “public forum” and will lead next week, I believe, into more on “public sphere” and “discourse”.  Namely, this matters because people — especially people thinking about/wishing for functional democracy — hitch a lot of hope to the notion of a public forum, and it carries meritocratic tones: the marketplace of ideas is supposed to be a zone of public discourse for the best ideas to organically surface and provide easy course of rule. Not so. But we still hope. What’s next? What could be better?

Questions and loose ends:

  • How do these concepts relate: public discourse/sphere, narrative/story, and mythos?
  • positivism vs. normative theory (starting with economics, said to be positivist but handling/attempting to develop particular answers to normative questions)
  • intrinsic vs. instrumental value (which philosophies bear this, again?)

Trouble situating

As an environmental studies student I’ve struggled time and time again to ‘situate’. In part, it’s due to my avoidance of the fact that, yes, this time around (and every other) some topics and the questions that can touch them will have  to be left out. Perhaps as antidote I should get to work to see for myself how the bounds of limits are the very thing that make research what it is, rigorous and beautiful.