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Philosophy and the Environment

On the Concept of Ecological Optimism

Irina Shirkova-Tuuli
Massachusetts State College at Framingham

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ABSTRACT: In this paper I want to discuss some problematic issues in contemporary philosophical thought concerning the environment that I consider to be "pessimistic." I state the necessity of finding a new, active and stimulating position regarding the ecological situation that will help to initiate and support a positive outcome. I call such a position Ecological Optimism. I also discuss the scientific and philosophical groundwork underlying this position and develop a brief plan for its implementation.

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Optimism as a term was introduced to the philosophical world by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz in his Theodicee (1710). According to Leibniz, the actual world must be "the best of all possible worlds," having been chosen by Creator out of all possible worlds which were present in his thoughts as that world in which the most good could be obtained at the cost of the least evil. Even if Leibniz uses optimum as a technical term, on the model of maximum and minimum, optimism after him became a philosophical perspective applied to any concept, which supposes the ultimate predominance of good over evil in the universe.

Good and Evil in an optimistic philosophical viewpoint possess ontological qualities. The metaphysical principle of optimism examines the world and the future with positive expectations. It accepts the idea of progress and the notion of unlimited human evolution. Optimism declares that defeat is a temporary setback or a challenge, and that a better future is predisposed since there is always a possibility to bring reality to its ideal state. Although optimism is a relatively recent philosophical abstraction, it has passed through many generations in the form of myths, proverbs and fairy tales where Good always overcomes Evil (e.g., the clouds always "have silver linings").

At times in the lives of individuals and throughout history optimism has often appeared in unrealistic, utopian or naive forms. However, optimism can also be realistic and mature. Historically, optimism has most often existed as a complex of beliefs; in this case, optimism is primarily a matter of faith. It is also possible to achieve optimism by training habits of thought, according to the psychologist and clinical researcher, Martin Seligman, who has studied pessimism and optimism for 25 years. In his new book Learned Optimism (1998), he describes how a new, optimistic set of cognitive skills may be learned.

I assert that optimism, as the tendency to take a favorable view of circumstances and prospects, is essential to human nature. People tend to adopt optimistic positions when they are in the greatest need of help, usually in the transitional periods of their personal or social lives. Optimism exists as an emotional prediction, as a sunny perception of reality, which might be based on intuition or on ignorance (or both), but is also nurtured in childhood through the wisdom of generations.

Optimism itself is a method of practical orientation since it gives hope and promises a brighter future. It anticipates a better condition of the human situation and plans practical steps for its actualization. Optimism encourages people, activates their individual and social creativity, and enables them to take charge, resist depression, and make themselves accomplish more. Thus, optimism is very productive.

Ecological optimism is a part of the optimistic philosophical tradition. It accepts the concept of progress and recognizes progressive stages in evolution; it reflects a positive side of the complex and difficult relationship between man and nature, stating that a harmonious relationship with nature is possible, and it confirms that there always is a way out of any hopeless, desperate situation. One must just look for it. Through cultures and times, ecological optimism has manifested itself in different forms, growing from utopos (seeking a return to Eden) to topos (seeking an achievable state of harmony with nature in the actual world).

Unrealistic ecological optimism is based on the position that a fatalistic environmental prognosis is a mistake, a wrong estimation, an incomplete or deficient evaluation. An interesting example of unrealistic optimism is described in the very provocative book A Moment on the Earth: The Coming Age of Environmental Optimism by Gregg Easterbrook (Viking, 1995), a founder of new environmental approach called ecorealism. In his book, which has generated energetic debates, he searches for the missing link in modern environmental philosophy, discussing with unabashed optimism virtually every environmental issue, from water pollution to the World Bank. His conclusion is: Things are getting better, not worse. According to Easterbrook, technology, or nature itself (given sufficient time) will negate any environmental calamity to the ultimate benefit of the human condition. Even the extinction of species, commonly viewed as man-made environmental tragedies, must be recognized a part of nature's design.

However, this position is unrealistic because it does not account for the roots of the ecological crisis and therefore predicts its spontaneous, "automatic" resolution. The relationship between mankind and nature cannot be harmonized unintentionally or inadvertently because the origin of the current ecological tension is not natural. Nature has two types of relationship on different levels: antagonism and cooperation, imbalance and harmony. On the local level everything and everybody struggles with everything and everybody for individual survival. War and instability, with "survival of the fittest" characterize the local level. On the global level all these individual conflicts interconnect and develop into a mosaic of self-balanced, harmonious and stable relationships. Throughout history, mankind has evolved toward a global level of interaction with nature. In our technological age mankind has the power to act on a global scale, but still lacks a global mentality in managing the consequences of its actions (this point will be discussed further below). Nature cannot balance the activity of mankind because its growth and power have been achieved through unnatural, "artificial" means. Only mankind can add the intellectual power required for harmonization of the human-nature relationship, which he himself has brought into disharmony.

Realistic ecological optimism, on the other hand, represents the practical embodiment of a long-term harmony between man and nature on a global level. For example, in the Tibetan approach to ecology, exploitation of the environment is taboo in everyday life because of the Buddhist belief that all parts of nature (living and non-living) are inter-related. This approach demonstrates how a philosophical position can blend with a cultural mode to form a great environmental tradition. In this tradition, an archaic style of action is made current and productive for the specific condition of the region. So also, the goal of a mature ecological optimism is a goal suitable for the specific condition of the industrialized world because it is a goal, which accounts for modern realities.

For most of human history, mankind was unable to separate itself from nature (as Ralph Linton puts it, "The last creature in the world to discover water would be the fish, precisely because he is always immersed in it"). Nature was once a reality inseparable from daily life; it was given and indestructible. Any destruction resulting from the actual utilization of natural sources was local or temporary; any imbalance was restored by nature itself. Nature completely determined the man-nature relationship and, through the mechanism of self-regulation perfected over millions years, the balance of the natural world was successfully maintained. The foundation of an optimistic view of nature was formed as nature consistently demonstrated its powers of restoration and renewal.

In addition to the natural ability of self-regulation, the environmental wisdom of traditional societies acted in a practical way to maintain the relationship between man and nature in visible harmony. In the earliest concepts, ecological concerns were inherently linked to a philosophical position that shows a mature respect for the Universe and for outside forces. Later concepts recognized a more practical structural and functional unity with nature. Our deep understanding of unity with nature has evolved during human history but has never disappeared.

The earliest known philosophical foundations for ecological optimism exist within the systems of beliefs of Native Americans, in Shamanism, Taoism and Buddhism. Collectively, according to their positions, harmony with the Universe (nature) is possible. The way (and the only way) to restore and to maintain a balance with nature is to adjust and adapt oneself to any changes which occur in nature. All the work must be done inside the subject of action – paralleling how it happens in nature itself and in every living organism. The desire to acknowledge the power of the natural world and to live in harmony with it forms the recent optimistic ecological teaching of the Dalai Lama. The compatibility of the objective and subjective worlds, and creative corrections of the living space in accordance to surroundings, are at the heart of the past and modern use of Feng Shui, the ancient Chinese art of conforming life style and environment.

By enriching biological structure with artificial additions (tools), mankind (Homo Faber) initiated a new Era in the man-nature relationship. As technology advanced, humans increasingly separated themselves from nature. Scientific inquiry posited the uniqueness of the human species from any other living thing. The means of production were placed between humans and nature and gave people the illusion of security and independence from natural disasters. At the same time, the means of production were based on a limited understanding of reality which failed to fully recognize natural connections, imposing a sort of artificial selection where ability to earn profits replaced ability to survive in nature as the selection criteria. Artificial selection, motivated by human demands, played a dual role in human evolution: it sped up technological progress and, at the same time, created the instability of the man-nature connection and of the natural world itself.

Until relatively recent times, human influence was local and destructive actions could not have a dangerous effect on nature as a whole. The global balance was not rearranged because nature itself was playing the primary role in "self-repair." But with the victory of the industrial revolution, mankind became a global component of the Earth. The role of humanity in nature has changed – from local to global, from partial to systemic, from receptive to mastering. But human attitudes have remained largely unchanged.

A mechanistic and anthropocentric approach to nature prevailed at the time when mankind first became capable of a global exploitation of nature. The connection between the equally valuable "microcosm" (mankind) and "macrocosm" (the Universe) was not yet recognized. This practical and philosophical position was reflected in literature and even in music, affecting (actually, forming) human thought and feelings. Here are a few powerful examples: a piano concerto originated in the middle of the last century represents the struggle and triumph of human over natural chaos. "Nature is not a temple, but a workshop,"- this statement, from Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev, is given as a motto for the position of a new scientific positivism in the debates over life and nature. "We cannot wait for nature's favor, we have to grab it - that is a goal!" - was the credo of the Soviet selector and biologist Ivan Michurin, who tried to prove man's power over nature practically. The entire story of the struggle and destruction of genetics as a "false science" in Stalin's Russia was based on the position that nothing can negate human will. Lisenko's academic experiments to "educate" wheat seeds to be more productive were among the most tragic and absurd instances of the attitude of that time.

The global environment, however, has come to a new stage in its existence: nature has lost its ability to maintain self-restoration because artificial factors now act on a global level without taking into consideration the global balance. Humans do not know how to function as global regulators, do not yet have the ability to support the global balance, and do not accept responsibility for the whole ecosystem or for themselves. As a wake-up call for humanity, a pessimistic stage of environmental understanding has appeared together with, and in response to, a qualitative change in the man-nature relationship. Ecological pessimism was a concept recognizing human limitations and pointing to the reasons for the environmental tension. A first wave of ecological pessimism was manifested in the conservationist movement of the late 1800s and early 1900s. This was followed by a second wave of environmentalism in the post-World War II period – a wave highly influenced by the doomsday scenarios of the Cold War. We are currently in the third wave of environmental pessimism, which had its roots in the early 1960s. The current wave has many branches including deep ecology, ecofeminism, ecocentrism, political ecology, social ecology, eco-anarchism, and primitivism.

While an analysis and comparison of each of these concepts with ecological optimism is outside the scope of the current paper, suffice it to say that the principal difference between them and their antecedents may be found in a shift from the negative to the positive. While ecological pessimism today still persists in the collection of endless data detailing the catastrophic environmental conditions in every region on Earth, the choir of pessimistic voices calling us "back to nature," "to destroy technological monster," "to condemn humanity as a negative experiment of nature, as a cancer on the body of life," has become counterproductive. Instead of playing a positive role, this stance has paralyzed human activity and contributed to the scale of imbalance by overplaying the value of nature "in itself" and downplaying significance of humanity.

The pessimistic position may prevail, but it is no longer the only voice. Some positive ideas have appeared - mostly in natural science. In these positive views, mankind is seen as a logical and inevitable result of natural evolution, and the man-nature relationship is seen as a long and dramatic synchronization. To support of the concept of ecological optimism I will briefly attempt to reconstruct Vladimir Vernadsky's concept of the transition of a Biosphere into the Noosphere, which parallels the concept of Noosphere in Teilhard de Chardin, and also has certain parallels with Gaia Hypothesis in James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis.

Vladimir Vernadsky (12.03,1863 - 06. 01,1945) was a Russian, Soviet scientist. He was a founder of genetic mineralogy, geochemistry, biogeochemistry, the theory of the living substance, the theory of the biosphere, radiogeology, hydrogeology, hydrochemistry, hydrogeochemistry, crystallogeology, cosmochemistry, and he worked in the areas of geology, geography, crystallography, crystallogy, soil science, ecology, meteorology, philosophy, and history of science. He became the Active Member of Russian Academy of Science in 1912 and the Ukrainian Academy of Science in 1919. He probably is the last encyclopedist of our century and definitely a giant in science. Widely known as a natural scientist, Verdnasky also worked in the humanities all his life. While the concept of a transition of a biosphere into the noosphere is not explicitly described in Vernadsky's works, it is present implicitly throughout his research and it influences his entire life.

According to Vernadsky, the biosphere is an integral geological reality surrounding the Earth, colonized by living substance and its qualitative transformation into a system whose ability to support life is constantly increasing. The Noosphere is the geological formation where the biosphere and the sociosphere exist as a harmonious unity that has been built by the work and the intellect of socially united humans. Hence, the Noosphere is the ideal state, the abstract idea that orients mankind in his search for the most optimal way of human evolution and co-evolution with nature. At the same time, the Noosphere is the actual process of an evolutionary transformation of the biosphere that is going on continuously.

The term "noosphere" (Ionian Greek "noos" = mind) was suggested by Eduourd Le Roy (1870-1954) in collaboration with Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955). Vernadsky eventuated to know them personally. In 1922 he gave a course of lectures in geochemistry at the Sorbonne, which Le Roy and Teilhard attended. Vernadsky always pointed that he has accepted their understanding of the term.

Both Vernadsky and Teilhard were seeking, each in his own way, to develop the concept of Noosphere into systematic teaching, but neither of them managed to publish a final synthesis in their lifetime. Vernadsky's work, Naturalist's Meditation, v.2: the Scientific Though as a Planetary Phenomenon (1937-1938), was completed and nearly the same time as Teilhard de Chardin's Phenomenon of Man (1938-1940).

Vernadsky's argument is as follows: All organisms are connected with the Earth's geological foundation by non-stop processes of atomic migration and energy exchange. Mountains, air, land, and water have obtained new characteristics, new chemical content, and new laws of evolution and development from their interactions with living things. Organisms shape the environment at the same time the environment shapes organisms.

The cumulative effect of the changes in organisms themselves and in the environment is possible because of the self-supportive, self-regenerative and self-renewing nature of life. The synthesis and decomposition of organic substances reposition the same elements from non-living matter to living matter and vice versa. The biogenic migration of substance and energy has become a leading force in all the changes in a biosphere. The processes of interchange between non-living and living matter in a biosphere are exceptionally intensive, massive, and global. Actually, all non-living matter in a biosphere eventually passes through an organic substance. Therefore, living substance has become a geological factor in the evolution of the biosphere.

It is only possible to understand the integral unity of living and non-living matter in a biosphere by recognizing that it exists as a complex and interconnected system. The major characteristics of a biosphere as a system are organization (coordination, correlation and subordination), stability, resistance, integrity and periodicity. The mechanism of self-regulation in a biosphere is based on a progressive differentiation of substance. The differentiation of the parts and elements in a biosphere cause their exceptional interdependence. The stabilizing differentiation of animal and plant populations is a result of the extremely high reactivity of the living substance. An organism is very active in adaptation through external changes of behavior and through internal changes of structure. Any changes in any component of a biosphere sooner or later modify the entire system. Any change in an organism is reflected in the environment (and vice versa) and supports the dynamic balance in a biosphere.

And so Homo Faber has introduced a new geological force in a biosphere, and its production has changed the quality of atomic migration. Now a portion of non-living matter comes through a chain of production that disrupts its usual migration through living substance. The use of nature for profit stimulates the reduction and simplification of the food chains and causes the degeneration of biocenosis. Potentialities of biospheric self-regulation become undermined and an artificial additional intellectual regulation is demanded. Science, according to Vernadsky, is the critical, essential and imperative intellectual component of humanity that harmonizes all imbalance processes in the biosphere.

Teilhard de Chardin's understanding of the Noosphere is different. His philosophy of evolution was born out of his duality as both a Jesuit father ordained in 1911 and a paleontologist whose career began in the early 1920s. As a scientist, Teilhard realized that everything around him was connected in one vast, pulsating web of life. As a Jesuit, Teilhard de Chardin felt deeply that this connection is divine and beautiful, that the whole Universe is sacred, even the pain and imperfection in it. He developed a philosophy that combined science and religion. But his writings were scorned by scientists and were seen heretical by the church. Even today, Teilhard seems once again to be out of favor among theologists, evolutionary biologists, and scientists, who view his work with certain derision. The reason for this is his understanding of evolution.

Evolution is the central part of Teilhard's teaching: "A light illuminating all facts, a curve that all lines must follow." According to Teilhard, evolution is a mix of guided chance and necessity is being led. But what is doing the leading? And where is it going? In Teilhard's understanding there are two fundamental types of energy. On the one hand there is "radial" energy (he called it the energy of "without"), the energy of Newtonian physics that obeyed mechanistic laws, such as cause and effect, that could be quantified; on the other hand, there is "tangential" energy (he called it the energy of "within"), the energy of the divine spark.

Evolution passes three stages: "pre-life", "life" and "super-life" characterized the different proportion of radial and tangential energies. In "pre-life" (Lithosphere) radial energy is dominant and tangential energy is barely visible in inanimate objects. In "life" (Biosphere), where tangential energy exists in beings that are not self-reflective, the laws of physics, characterized by the traditional understanding of necessity and chance, are lead by the forces of life and consciousness. As the balance of tangential energy in any given entity increases, it develops naturally in the direction of consciousness that accompanies an increase in the overall complexity of the organism. Teilhard call this the "law of complexity consciousness". "The living world is constituted by consciousness clothed in flesh and bone" with the informational wiring of a being (whether of nervous system or electronics) viewed as a primary vehicle for increasing complexity consciousness toward greater consciousness. This new stage ("super-life" or "consciousness" understood as the human phenomenon) is characterized by a complex membrane of information enveloping the globe and is fueled by human consciousness. [In retrospect, one might ask whether this is a prediction of satellite-based transmissions, computer circuits, and the World Wide Web?]

Thus there have been three major phases in the evolutionary process, according to Teilhard, the first significant phase commencing when life was born from the development of the biosphere. The second began at the end of the Tertiary period, when humans emerged along with self-reflective thinking. And once thinking humans began to communicate around the world, the third phase began: appearance of the "thinking layer" of the biosphere, called him the noosphere. Therefore, all evolution up to its modern stage is the creation of a collective organism of Mind.

The nooshpere consists of the "combined action of two curvatures - the roundness of the earth and the cosmic convergence of the mind." He believed that vast thinking membrane would ultimately combine into "the living unity of a single tissue" containing our collective thoughts and experiences. He wrote: "Is this not like some great body which is being born - with its limbs, its nerve system, its perceptive organs, its memory - the body in fact of that great living Things which had to come to fulfill the ambitions aroused in the reflective being by the newly acquired consciousness?" At this point the earth needs humanity to assist in building the noosphere. As we become conscious of our group mind, new relationships with the earth emerge and "we have the beginning of a new age. The earth 'gets a new skin.' Better still, it finds its soul."

Teilhard and his "Russian counterpart" Vernadsky definitely inspired James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis for their Gaia hypothesis based on the idea that the global ecosystem is a "superorganism" with a whole much greater than the sum of its parts. The basic features of the Gaia hypothesis (Gaia: a New Look on Earth, 1979) are as follows: The planet is a "super organismic system". Evolution is the result of cooperative, not competitive, processes. In the evolution of life, two steps enormously accelerated the evolutionary process and produced an abundance of new forms. The first step was the development of sexual reproduction, which introduced extraordinary genetic variety. The second step was the emergence of consciousness, which made it possible to replace the genetic mechanism of evolution with more sufficient social mechanisms based upon conceptual thought and symbolic language.

Another parallelism with the previous positions is the notion that "The most remarkable characteristic of living matter is that it is self-organizing. In contrast with the overall trend toward disorder or entropy evident in the universe, life creates order from the materials around it, exploring waste in the process. Thus life has the capacity to influence its environment" (Gaia, an Atlas of Planet, 1984, p.13). In sum, "the evolution of Homo sapiens has produced a being that can think: a being that is aware, that can speculate about tomorrow. Evolution has also equipped us to create our own form of planetary ecosystem. Whereas natural selection works through a trial-and-error process, undirected and unhurried, we can choose a preferred form of evolution (Ibid., p.16)."

As in the case of Teilhard's Divine Milieu, the Gaia hypothesis has alerted us that we might inhabit a "living" or "alive" planet with the mystical potential of forming a new religion. The theological aspect, where everything, from rocks to people, take on a holistic importance, forms the basis of Teilhard's thesis – a globe is clothing itself with a brain. The Gaia hypothesis also is optimistic while also containing a warning: "We might look upon our global crises as a challenge as well as a threat – we are sitting our final evolutionary examination for our viability as a species. Unfortunately, the time is rapidly approaching..." (Ibid., p. 19).

Humanity, I argue, must begin to play an active role in order to provide and to maintain the man-nature balance. In addition to the theoretical that might be provided by science and philosophy, we also need to take a new and positive look at our ecological situation. We need to work, to be inspired and to be positive in our actions. We have to realize how critical our ecological situation is and how urgent it is that we unite our desires and actions. The prevailing pessimistic position is very destructive, leaving us powerless in a face of the global ecological crisis. We need a mature ecological optimism, founded on a clear understanding of our current condition. Ecological optimism will give us hope to solve our complex problems, will energize our work for survival, and will provide the wisdom to understand what should be done. It will help us to search for the possible tools for a positive solution and to recognize the constructive potential that we have. Ecological optimism will give us a powerful abstract idea to organize and integrate our actions, and it will create the necessary positive mental attitude toward our ecological situation.

The general idea of ecological optimism is in the air. It exists as an uncertain, vague feeling, as a provocative question. As Holmes Rolston III puts it, "Does the formation of humanized nature mean the end of nature?" At the same time the optimistic idea is coming from the practice of environmental restoration. For example, Don Waxman conceives "Restoration Ecology" as an enterprise with optimistic potential, an essential ongoing learning process, an educational tool and practical projects, forming the work of natural scientists. So also Gene Likens believes that environmental optimism is the key to the future, that ecology holds the key to understanding the world's complex environmental problems. "It seems to me that we are an intelligent species and that we have the options to manage our way out of the environmental problems we have gotten ourselves into...[and] we have no option but to make our future into a dawn, not a sunset... The only option we have is to stay positive, find the right solutions, and pursue them as aggressively as we can" (from his lecture at Murdoch University, August 1998). Likens hopes that individual optimism will provide the motivation for change.

I think the idea of ecological optimism is especially well suited to American society because the American mentality is oriented to problem solving. The application of ecological optimism will rely also on a positive mental attitude, as with the self-hypnotic repetition "I am OK, I am fine. It will be fine" mantra, in even the most critical situations. It also involves "I am a special, I am the only one, there is no one like me" – incantation that encourages the development self-respect and self-esteem from early childhood. Conversely, and somewhat strangely, the Russian mentality might also provide a ground for optimism, for out of the total darkness and uncertainty of its social life, and a deep, almost inner-childish subjectivity, hope for improvement seems to rise as a last resort.

But there are also objective grounds for this optimism. The potential instruments for positive changes in our environment include material production, globalization of the market economy, the globalization of communication, democracy, science and even philosophy. The dual character of labor in material production forms a key opportunity to manage material exchanges between society and nature. Karl Marx understood this also: Through labor, people not only produce different goods, but also reproduce social relationships. The advent of a global market economy improves and promotes this opportunity for the whole world. The globalization of information processes provides the opportunity for increasingly open communications; and democracy as a political structure provides the opportunity to increase the role of each and every person to form an individual ecological culture. Science, as a human adaptive mechanism, has the ability to foresee and predict the future and provides opportunities to correct human activity. The approaching goal for science must be to comprehend the global laws of man-nature relationships. Philosophy, as a special exercise in understanding the relationships between the Universe and human beings, can provides the scale and measure to correlate man and nature as equal partners. Aesthetics might be considered as the first historical appearance of an ecological culture in philosophy because of its unique ability to see and to comprehend the world's harmony. In ethics the question of moral obligations toward the natural world reexamines critically the notions of "nature", "progress", "value", "humanity" and gives a new set of moral standards.

In conclusion, Leibniz was right! The time for choosing the concept of ecological optimism and commencing the active work for its realization is right now. We have to assure ourselves that human evolution is a natural process, that our problems arise from "the confusion of immaturity," as Kant once observed, and that we are powerful enough to solve any problem. We have to search for the philosophical foundation upon which the concept of ecological optimism can be critically based so that it does not seem naive and unrealistic, but mature and well grounded. We must develop and critically examine the different levels of eco-optimism, collective and individual, in order to understand its implication at each level; we must develop the proper "tools" to influence and intensify this process in order to transform theory into practice through political actions, education and public activity. To use the language of computer technology, we must reprogram ourselves as a society on the global level for survival on this planet, and this reprogramming must begin as soon as possible. Far from being pessimistic, the necessity of reevaluation and continuous reprogramming is at the very essence of ecological optimism.

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