By Mercedes Ward
The danger with ranting is that it can give the impression of bias. Both my undergraduate and graduate training have been science-oriented, and in science there is a premium placed on “objectivity.” Of course, scientists recognize that everyone has their biases – and the hope is that the scientific method and emphasis on peer review and replication of results are sufficient to keep personal biases in check. But when 97% of scientists agree that human-caused climate change is occurring, and yet only 54% of the American public thinks so, one has to wonder whether worries about possible perceptions of bias should be of less concern than averting a global crisis. Maybe it is time to rant. And maybe it is time to practice a little cultural relativism.
To practice cultural relativism, one must separate the process of making value judgments from the process of seeking to understand another society’s way of living, thinking, and experiencing the world. The term is an academic one, but most readers have probably learned through experience that often the most effective way to win a debate is to understand the argument, reasoning, and motivation of the “other side.” Cultural relativism takes things a step further because rather than understanding “The Other” as opponent, one seeks understanding for the sake of understanding—and the process generally involves a profound respect and even love for the people and culture being “studied” despite any differences in values and worldview.
So, to the extent that environmental or sustainability ranting is an expression of one’s own values and emotions, it may be more effective at “rallying the base” than engaging people who do not already share one’s values. After all, we each choose to read certain books, listen to certain talk shows, spend time with certain people, and pursue certain jobs and careers. Through these choices we tend to reinforce our own values and practices. For example, last summer I attended the annual meeting of the Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences (AESS) rather than the Heartland Institute’s International Conference on Climate Change (for those who are unfamiliar with the Heartland Institute, they proudly cite a quote from The Economist, May 26, 2012, on their website: “The world’s most prominent think tank promoting skepticism about man-made climate change.”)
Interestingly, and relevant here, one of the keynote speakers at the AESS conference, Michelle Marvier, gave a talk titled, “The Value of Nature: How Do We Reach the Public’s Heart?” I appreciated her frank assessment of the difference between environmentalists’ and the general public’s motives for conserving nature. The difference boils down to whether people think nature should be conserved because of its intrinsic value or because of its instrumental value (i.e. its utility to people). Marvier noted that most environmentalists say the former while most other folks say the latter. Therefore, environmentalists who use an intrinsic value argument to persuade people to get behind environmental efforts are not using the most persuasive argument to get other people on board. During the conference other speakers made similar contentions that it may be time to embrace new tactics in environmentalism, especially since there is evidence that public environmentalism is declining (although recent weather patterns seem to be contributing to an upswing in belief that global warming is happening).
And last March at BYU’s Environmental Ethics Initiative Lecture, Peter Kareiva, chief scientist at The Nature Conserancy (and Marvier’s former postdoctoral advisor), gave a talk titled, “The Decline of Environmentalism and Making Conservation Relevant in the 21st Century.” Although I did not attend the talk, I’ve read about the stir Kareiva has been making in recent years with his argument for shifting conservation approaches away from the old Muir-Thoreau-Abbey view (in which the preservation of nature is motivated in large part by the desire to maintain places where people can escape modern life and find spiritual solitude). Kareiva, Robert Lalasz, and Marvier have argued that a new approach to conservation must be taken. They wrote in “Conservation in the Anthropocene: Beyond Solitude and Fragility:”
“Whether or not the developing world sets aside a large percentage of its landscapes as parks or wilderness over the next hundred years, what is clear is that those protected areas will remain islands of “pristine nature” in a sea of profound human transformations to the landscape through logging, agriculture, mining, damming, and urbanization.
In the face of these realities, 21st century conservation is changing. Conservationists have taken steps to become more “people friendly” and to attend more seriously to working landscapes . . . conservation cannot promise a return to pristine, prehuman landscapes . . . What conservation could promise instead is a new vision of a planet in which nature — forests, wetlands, diverse species, and other ancient ecosystems — exists amid a wide variety of modern, human landscapes.”
This sounds like a shift from a focus on nature preservation to a focus on sustainability (some might say it is a shift from an intrinsic value approach to an instrumental value approach). This more “human-friendly” approach to conservation has surely helped to foster greater cooperation between conservationists and business. Many of the board members of conservation BINGOs (“big international non-governmental organizations”) are current or former CEOs or managing directors of major corporations. Do alliances between big conservation and big business reflect the commodification of nature? Are these alliances the only effective route to sustainability? When should fingers point at culprits rather than handshakes extend in cooperation? What common ground is there, really? If common ground must be found, how best is that done? Through ranting, or something else?
After mulling over all this, I find myself in some gray area. There is nothing inherently wrong with ranting, but it may be less effective at persuading the reluctant environmentalist and it could create barriers to cooperation. It could, however, change behavior through shaming “misbehavers,” and it certainly can inspire action among people who are predisposed toward environmentalism.
I recall very well the only course I am consciously aware of as having profoundly changed my actual behavior. It was an undergraduate seminar titled “Ecology and Ethics” and co-taught by a philosopher and a biologist at The University of the South. We read Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and Wendell Berry’s Home Economics. We also read Affluenza and Fast Food Nation. I was already inclined towards environmentalism (after all, I did choose to take a course on the topic), but the course experience caused me to stop eating fast food and meat. Unfortunately, my changed behavior only lasted about a year and a half. Maybe it’s time I spent more time reading or listening to ranters who might rally me to recommit to a more sustainable way of life.
Mercedes Ward is a PhD student in Anthropology and the Research Assistant for Sustainability Curriculum Development at the University of Utah.