MARCH 21, 2017
HOW BEST TO LIVE, and specifically, how best to live among other people, is an evergreen question. It occupies so much of our time and energy that we sometimes forget we share the planet with even more other others: our fellow species. This may explain why so-called environmental issues are easily subsumed under the distancing rubric of climate change. In fact, the truly pressing question is how best to live with other species, a.k.a. nature. Managing human others is the subsidiary question, which may be rephrased thus: how do we manage human others long enough to actually address the problem of living with other-others in a sustained way?
Philosopher Ben Hale, a professor at the University of Colorado, weighs in on both questions with his first book, The Wild and the Wicked. (This book should not be confused with the 1956 film The Wild and the Wicked. Nor should this Benjamin Hale be confused with the Benjamin Hale who wrote The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore , a fine novel narrated by a chimpanzee.)
Hale begins his book inauspiciously — with tofu. He relates a culinary misadventure he allegedly had with the “raw” version. Alas, the anecdote is not nearly as funny as he thinks. It is also erroneous: soybeans that become tofu are subjected to heat and minerals to eliminate toxic phytochemicals; we can thus never eat it raw, just “unrecooked.” Never mind veracity. Tofu of any kind, like Birkenstocks and love beads, provide an easy target for pundits eager to resort to environmental stereotypes — to trot out the stock character who puts principles before pleasure or fashion. In Hale’s hands, the image falls flat as synecdoche, yet accurately portends the rest of his book — his love-hate descriptions of the natural world and his un-nuanced scorn for “tree huggers.”
The point of the tofu anecdote for Hale is encapsulated in this assertion: “I’ve sharpened my game considerably.” Presumably, he gave up trying to “help” the planet through a meat-free diet because it would be an exercise in futility. It would be about performing virtue (that is, feeling good about himself) rather than making a real difference. He’s after bigger game, as it were. He continues:
Indeed, as an environmental ethicist at one of the premier environmental research universities in the United States, I’ve focused my research on arguments that aim to justify environmentalism — why we should preserve, defend, or protect nature in the face of so many other challenges like poverty, hunger, injustice, disease, and so on.
False dichotomy aside (fighting poverty does not preclude preserving wild habitats and species; in fact, it is often contingent upon doing so), Hale believes that eco-advocates’ all too familiar appeal to emotions, via photographs of sweeping vistas or poignant pleas by celebrities, is wrongheaded. We have a moral obligation to protect nature, he asserts, and it exists outside of how we feel about it. “We don’t need to love nature to be green,” he proclaims. To be sure, the right thing does not have to feel good. In fact, paying taxes or voting on a rainy day often feels bad. But surely allowing people to feel love or awe or even guilt about our planet and other species is a good enough start, right? Feeling good does not preclude doing “the right thing,” and can be one incentive among others.
He strongly disagrees, however. Reason, he insists, not emotion, will lead to appropriate moral action. And yet, as so much recent research suggests, a lot of intellectualizing (what Hale is doing) comes down to rationalizing our gut responses. Once again, why can’t some of us capitalize on our feelings of awe or even empathy?
Insofar as it challenges widely held assumptions about the right way to live with others, his book treads some of the same ground as Paul Bloom’s recent Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion. Hale wonders why tree-hugging, tofu-eating Greenies — who, in his view, aren’t engaged in “the right way” — don’t see the whole truth with respect to “nature.” “Nature is a bitch,” he tells us, without apparent irony (and definitely without originality). Feeling undiluted awe or empathy toward nature is fundamentally naïve, in his opinion. He then proceeds to illustrate nature’s dark side with a list of select atrocities, from malaria to tsunamis. Apparently, some of us innocents tend to forget these realities in our slack-jawed awe at mountains and stuff.
He’s not entirely wrong, of course. But it’s hardly a groundbreaking insight. Nature does indeed include bunnies and Ebola, blazing sunsets and blistering droughts, leaping dolphins and lunging sharks. Awe alone doesn’t help if it doesn’t lead to reasoned action. And we should never view nature as an either/or proposition: something either to revere or to revile. Unfortunately, this mode of perception is increasingly common. As more and more of the world’s population lives in cities, and becomes disconnected from nature, mythology (positive as well as negative) may well distract us from facts.
But this fails to justify Hale’s fondness for repeatedly dramatizing nature’s wickedness. After a while, it sounds like “zealotry of the convert” in reverse — which is odd, coming from someone who teaches environmental subjects.
Here is his proposal for what we are to do about a “harsh planet” and our own “squishy emotional commitments”:
[W]e must strive for a comprehensive strategy that impacts the decisions of all people, so that the particular concerns of private individuals are not weighed down with considerations about what is tastiest, easiest, and most convenient. This means that environmental problems must be answered with a renewed call to think, to justify our actions.
We humans are in a unique position to be better and less destructive than nature. We can do so, I argue, if we take our job as reasoning, essentially philosophical, beings seriously. This book presents an argument based not on squishy emotional commitments but rather on the moral demands of being a vulnerable human on a harsh planet.
Later, he sizes up the conundrum, the challenge of getting enough of us to do “the right thing,” which, in philosophical terms, can be distinct from “the good”:
Being environmentally responsible sometimes involves […] a clash between determining our life trajectory (employing our steering capacity, our will) by appealing to the right (the justified, the most reasonable) principles and doing what is most comfortable for us […] The trick to doing the right/justified/most reasonable environmental thing is (1) to figure out what sorts of principles, attitudes, values, rules, and commitments we ought to endorse, and (2) to get our wants in line with our wills so that it is no more a chore to be environmentally responsible than it is to respect other people.
By the end of the book, it is hard to say if his attempt at presenting a clear solution along these lines, or any other, succeeds. That’s a problem in itself, but at least we get to read a lot of philosophy in the process.
“I’m here to report,” Hale says in a typically dense passage,
that the reasons you should be green cannot be found simply by extracting the normative valence from our scientific reports. […] What has to be in place is a moral reason — something telling you what you should do, despite your motivations, despite the politics, despite your unique and momentary desires. [His italics.]
In short, culture must triumph over nature. If nature is a bitch, then our inner bitch is the overly emotional (and selfish) drive to survive. At the same time, somewhat confusingly, we must never allow selfishness (i.e., nature’s dark side) to overrule the responsibility we all have to step lightly on the Earth.
Besides too many facile allusions to nature’s vileness, and injunctions not to act like it/her, The Wild and the Wicked is marred by the fact that the author does not assume the very detachedness he espouses. Hale himself is too much of a muchness, too present on the page. Is it necessary to call some environmental activists a “laggard and dirty group of hippies” (is “hippies” still in use?), or to tell us how he once “felt a little uneasy getting doe-eyed over deer or orgasmic about rainbows”? To say this book could have done with some nips and tucks is an understatement.
It doesn’t mean a book like this is better off being dry. The odd anecdote about his family is permissible. Jokes are welcome diversions. Frequent appearances of flip lingo, however, are disruptive, often silly. I was seriously tempted to shut the book for good when he summed up Rachel Carson’s work in the early 1960s as her “much ballyhooed fire-ant and songbird cataclysm.” This cheap shot at an iconic environmental writer certainly doesn’t help his thesis, and it is only one of many such uncool “cool” remarks in the book. The cumulative effect of all this smirk and swagger is to undermine the seriousness of the subject matter and diminish the credibility of the authorial voice.
Also, Hale limits the timelessness of his work by plucking names from contemporary pop culture, as if only undergrads between now and 2020 will read it. Lots of people don’t watch cable TV series like Game of Thrones, let alone follow all the characters. The uninformed reader should not have to Google “Ramsay Bolton” in order to understand why Hale inserted him as an example of sadism.
A final, relatively minor, quibble is the way Hale prefaces each chapter: with a numbered outline of what’s to come. Not only is this inelegant — far more useful would be a short summary at the end of each chapter, to touch upon some of the admittedly complex issues and proposals covered and separate them from the stylistic dross.
One of the few salvageable messages arrives near the end. Hale wraps everything up by exhorting us to subject our plans and behaviors to constant revision. We must seek justification for our actions, and never rest in that search. Frequent bouts of reason-based scrutiny will help minimize complacency, a common human folly, and allow flaws (in facts or perceptions) to surface. Ordinary citizens, not to mention those in power, would certainly be well served by following this prescription. There is no such thing as a perfect grasp of the truth, and certainly not the last word on anything — only the best approximation under the circumstances. Most of us readers realize this, and we all know by now what happens when someone pretends otherwise.