Jon in His Own Words

The following is an excerpt from an untitled paper written by Jon for a course in environmental ethics. It concerns the issue of sustainability.

What does an American typically mean today when she says that a course of action with respect to the environment is sustainable? Who should decide if any conduct will lead to long-term environmental balance which seems to be implied by notions of sustainability -- politicians, scientists, philosophers? The difficulty in determining an "acceptable" notion of sustainability lies principally in a nature\culture division which has not only caused a radical separation between the two so that we cannot determine (scientifically, politically, etc.) what is "good" for the environment or for ourselves, but has also caused us to develop an uncompromising economy of desires which would influence actions taken on any plausible proposals of sustainability in any case. What was once an undefiled continent, secure in a balance developed by natural laws, evolution, and chance, is presently a land under attack on all fronts, a land which now seems to require constant monitoring and control -- which we do not have the knowledge or desire to nurture (this goes also for areas such as Antarctica, which is threatened by the deterioration of the ozone layer even though direct human pressure is absent from it).

Thus, the term "sustainability" itself is ambiguous, for on the one hand the environment is our sustain, having ultimate potential to withhold or allow life, depending on conditions which seem to follow specific rules (although conditions are subject to chance events). And on the other hand, we are now compelled to maintain some sort of balance (sustain an environment without satisfactory knowledge of it, formulate our own rules for it), to try and prevent unacceptable (for us) degradation while maintaining some sort of "developing" economy, which is our desire. Any argument for the proposed sustainability of a given course of action bears within it this double entendre. Yet there will be a balance. Barring some type of global catastrophe which would destroy all life on earth, there will always be environmental balance -- even a desert is sustainable. . . .

I. The inability of Americans to definitely determine and\or implement proper notions of environmental sustainability (or to desire such implementation) in the face of what appears to be certain global catastrophe is due in part to a nature\culture breach which seems to be an inevitable consequence of culture formation itself. This imposed separation of "civilized" from "wild" has only guaranteed that wherever we turn today the land itself will rise up in protest against the constant and injurious assertion of human desires (as evidenced by actual or impending catastrophes such as the Love Canal, global warming, and the depletion of the ozone layer). Physical boundaries have served as reminders of this abstract border in North America since the beginning of colonization. The differences between European and Native American approaches to living on the land during the 17th century illustrate this constructed boundary. On a vast and sparsely populated continent, the colonists constructed fences almost immediately to separate "civilization" from "wilderness" (perhaps motivated by the Lockean notion that the land was not valuable until it had been "developed" by humans). This practice was impossible for the natives to understand since they believed themselves an integral part of the environment. Not to say they didn't shape the land at times to their desires or would have been able to define sustainability irrefutably, but they wished to act in certain ways which would allow for their continued existence and the continuation of the creatures who shared the land with them (a philosophy some would typically call sustainable today). This existence was more than merely a calculation of how many trees could be cut down or how much game should be killed. The wolf was respected for his wisdom, the bear worshiped for his strength, and the people often took their names from the various creatures of the land: Ten Bears, Lone Wolf, Crazy Horse, Big Eagle. The beings utilized for sustenance and shelter were used respectfully, with an economy of desire which allowed for the continued existence of an ecological balance that it was obvious the Europeans were incapable of permitting (desiring). The nature\culture border which had been constructed so solidly by Europeans appeared to be almost nonexistent for some tribes. Human interaction with the environment for them was more than simply a matter of holding the land as something sacred or living in an environment without inflexible borders; it was a condition of immersion rather than detachment, as evidenced by a statement made by Parra-Wa-Samen (Ten Bears) of the Yamparika Comanches just prior to the tribe's incarceration on a reservation:

I was born on the prairie, where the wind blew free and there was nothing to break the light of the sun. I was born where there were no enclosures and where everything drew a free breath....I know every stream and every wood between the Rio Grand and the Arkansas....So, why do you ask us to leave the rivers, and the sun, and the wind, and live in houses?.

If the native link to the creatures of the land was often one of kinship, an acceptance of things which were seen as having the same type of value and telos as humans, for Americans the beings living on the land and the very land itself have always been radically "other". This other, as far as we regard it, must be viewed as being independent, sovereign, completely differentiated from those humans who often perceive themselves as the only creatures that have moral standing (Baudr.). Human desire has replaced natural balance, so that we are not only pursuing our "goods" when it comes to the environment, but are now in a position where we must decide in every case what the proper course of action will be for it (not deciding being a decision as well). Since there is a deficiency of both knowledge and desire with respect to the "needs" of the land, it is hardly surprising that the other which is the environment is habitually regarded as merely an object which exists for assimilation into human culture. As a result, as far as theories and practices are concerned, there has either been an attempt to preserve, set aside, sections of wilderness which it is hoped will not be subject to adverse human interference (a "preservation" of only about five percent of all land in America which is today subject to inevitable pressures from humans in any case), or a kind of "cashing in" (often under the guise of theories of conservation), not only of the natural beings which reside on the land, but a degeneration, through soil erosion and non-redeemable pollution, of the very ground upon which these beings are engendered. Is it even possible, given this radical psychological separation which has been created between Americans and their environment, given contemporary desires which seem to run contrary to sustainable interaction with the land, to determine what is sustainable behavior with respect to the earth? Certainly science, being so often practiced in isolation from the wild environment, needing to achieve so much in order to enable us to be creators (nurturers), can give us no certainty that any proposed action will be "good" for this unknowable other which has evolved for thousands of years independently of our full attention.

Nevertheless, many proposals which might solve the problem of sustainability have been advanced since the 19th century, including the ideas of people such as Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and more recently Wendell Berry, who urge a complete transformation of American values and actions in order to maintain ecological integrity. However, these recommendations of a sustainable lifestyle seem to be deficient in one or both of the following elements: 1) a conclusively supportable and unambiguous definition of sustainability, 2) an explanation of the psychological conditions which would be necessary, given any sort of theoretical assertion of the human psyche, to allow one to surrender old values (desires) to such a degree. Thus, what would be "good" for both humans and the land over the long run has often merely been assumed as something already recognizable and attainable by those proposing radical value transformation, or has been neglected in favor of almost completely anthropocentric contemporary value systems by those who wish to sustain present ways of living. The question of what would be the best for the land over the long run, no matter what table of values is proposed, is not simply a matter of accomplishing a paradigm shift in the West as some would assert (even a shift augmented by things such as scientific research, industrial prudence, and economic streamlining). It is a matter also of deciding: firstly, how to define what sustainability is and secondly, how it would be psychologically possible to make such a shift in desires -- sound theories and appropriate cultural examples notwithstanding. R. Edward Grumbine, although perhaps unintentionally, illustrates the problem suitably: "to paraphrase Wendell Berry, our comprehension of sustainable landscapes will become more specific to the degree that we begin to live fully in them."

II. What Americans desire with respect to the environment is the principal determiner of actions effecting sustainability. Thus the problem of defining sustainability seemingly becomes an impossibility, except through chance circumstances, if we must submit ourselves to this paradox and "begin to live fully" in sustainable systems before having a fitting comprehension of them. To a great degree, our problems with defining the borders of sustainability have to do with the notion of development in the West. For example, even though human population and consumption remain at irredeemable high levels, we wish the economy to be in a perpetual state of expansion in order to consider it healthy -- despite the obvious problems with maintaining an infinite expansion with finite resources. Grumbine believes that to define the "limits" of sustainable development we must ask ourselves three questions: What do we desire to sustain? What do we wish to develop? "Who will benefit from these actions?" I believe that we must ask ourselves an additional question which is already assumed within Grumbine's framework: who or what is doing the sustaining\desiring?

The multiple meanings of the verb "to sustain", combined with the questions Grumbine poses, provide a suitable framework upon which to construct the problem. In the first case: Who is doing the sustaining? To sustain 1) a) to endure without failing or giving way or; b) to hold up, bear the weight of; keep from falling by support from below; c) to have to submit to (evil, hardship, or damage); to have inflicted on one; d) to furnish with the necessaries of life. Perhaps a more sustainable way of viewing the environment is to see the land as that which must in all cases be in a certain sense willing or able to bear the pressure of humans (which has become a hardship for it), to support them without its present state of equilibrium failing. There will always be some sort of environmental balance. What we fear is that a given set of conditions will not be favorable to humans and their desires, that this unknowable other will somehow rise up and destroy modern civilization. On the other hand, to talk of sustaining the earth implies a radical deviation from a "state of nature" or from a condition in which everyday environmental pressures are considered to be central to life. It already seems to suggest not only a shaping of the land by humans and an inability or unwillingness to recognize environmental pressures (for humans), but the necessity to determine the fate of a natural system which, unfortunately, we are not in a position (scientifically, politically, etc.) to properly furnish with the "necessaries of life". It is quite simple to shape the land in almost any way whatsoever, and to determine from that what is going to be dangerously unsuitable for the land -- but it is quite another thing to actually have the knowledge to create the land, to understand all of the complexity and subtlety which comprises that creation and thus understand sustainability fully.

Secondly: what do we desire to sustain? What do we wish to develop? Who will benefit from such actions? To sustain 2) a) to uphold, back up, give support to ( a persons' conduct, a cause, a course of action); also, to stand by one's own action or conduct; b) to keep (a person or community, the mind, spirit, ect.) from failing or giving way; c) to keep in being, to keep or maintain at the proper level or standard. This sense of the term bears within it a normative claim about what should be maintained, despite the fact that there is constant tension between "natural" evolutionary development which seems to be "best" for the land, and human development of the same. It holds as premise that what should be conserved or preserved is that which the human community argues for -- especially considering, as Wendell Berry asserts, that we have no conception of what that voiceless land once was in a pristine state:

The pristine America that the first white man saw is a lost continent, sunk like Atlantis in the sea. The thought of what was here once and is gone forever will not leave me as long as I live. It is as though I walk knee-deep in its absence.

What has been sustained and developed is merely a human economy of desires which seem to benefit humans -- the needs (desires) of the environment being unknowable. Thus we are left with a choice in every instance between such things as wolves or moose hunting in Canada, bass or chemical farming techniques and industry in the Maumee River Basin.

Updated: 06/18/2020 12:23PM