Help me educate myself in the philosophical side of environmentalism
January 24, 2014 10:34 AM   Subscribe

I'm a grad student in conservation biology who has always had a strong interest in conservation issues. However, I feel like the technical side of my education is much stronger than the philosophical side, and I want to restore that balance. Who should I read, what resources should I look into, what organizations or publications are out there that will help me gain a deeper understanding of the philosophical, historical, and cultural components of environmentalism?

I'm mostly looking for reading material. I'm thinking works by people like Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Muir, Henry David Thoreau, Aldo Leopold (I've read Sand County Almanac), Rachel Carson, and Edward Abbey; people whose thoughts and writings inspired the modern environmentalist movement, and whose names I know but whose works I haven't read. I'd like to know what you consider some of these people's most important works, as well as those of people whose names I haven't heard but should've. I'd like to put together for myself a reading list of what I might call "environmentalist philosophy", the thoughts and ideas that underpin modern environmentalism.

I'd also like some good background material. It would be really good to read a well-written history of the environmentalist movement for instance, taking in the inspirations behind the idea, its rise in the popular consciousness, major milestones in terms of events that occurred within the movement and policies that could be thought of as inspired by it, that kind of thing. Biographies of some of its most notable figures would be good too. Finally, I'd really like some good material on the state of environmentalism as a cultural movement today – what does the playing field look like, who are the major players, what are the major challenges both internal and external, that kind of thing.

Thanks for your advice. I look forward to hearing your suggestions and to broadening my understanding.
posted by Scientist to Education (15 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Scientist: "John Muir"

That was going to be my first suggestion.

But I also may come at this from a different perspective because of my career (contaminant geology). In my opinion some of the awakening that has happened was/has been due to the chemicals we used to spread unchecked in our environment since industrialization began. You've made me realize I've never actually read Silent Spring, but I think it is referenced as the book that made people wake up to the pesticide issue (DDT mainly). Love Canal and Times Beach are responsible for the majority of environmental law (CERCLA/SARA) that we have here in the US. Reading up on those would be good for history of the legal framework.

A few years ago I struggled through Second Nature by Michael Pollan. It's a tough, slow read but was really interesting when it talked about man's desire to control nature through gardening.
posted by Big_B at 10:52 AM on January 24, 2014

For current philosphy that counters the idealization of nature exemplified in many of the books you reference, I suggest Ecology without Nature by Timothy Morton.

One of my favorite overviews of environmentalism within the context of cultural and political life in post-WW2 America is From Apocalypse to Way of Life by Frederick Buell.
posted by perhapses at 11:02 AM on January 24, 2014

On the legal and philosophical side, Should Trees Have Standing?

A Civil Action for a groundbreaking case in public water supply/groundwater contamination issues and epidemiology.

Wendell Berry.

Ecotopia for what environmentalists back in the 1970s thought an ecologically sound future might look like.
posted by pie ninja at 11:05 AM on January 24, 2014

Response by poster: pie ninja: "Ecotopia for what environmentalists back in the 1970s thought an ecologically sound future might look like."

Oh yes, I hadn't even thought about it but I would love to read some ideas about what an ecologically-sound society might look like, and how our current society might transition toward that. The more detailed, realistic, and well-thought-out the better.
posted by Scientist at 11:08 AM on January 24, 2014

If you can find an original copy of The Limits to Growth (1972), I think that was the best in its day. And they did a 30-year follow up.
posted by perhapses at 11:10 AM on January 24, 2014

I read The Philosophy of Sustainable Design a while back and can't recall hating it and think it might be exactly what you're looking for, or at least one form of it.

If you come up short on finding a copy or something let me know and I'll hook you up with mine if you'll pay shipping.
posted by RolandOfEld at 11:14 AM on January 24, 2014

And yes, Wendell Berry.
posted by RolandOfEld at 11:15 AM on January 24, 2014

I have just been reading this book, published last year.
American environmentalism: philosophy, history and public policy.
This book provides readers with a foundation in American environmentalism with complete coverage of philosophical concepts, economics, history of the environmental movement, and modern environmental politics, agencies, stakeholders, and tenets of the sustainability movement. Tracing the environmental American trajectory with this fascinating, holistic, and thoughtful approach, the book concludes with a practical look to the main decision criteria for policy-makers and how to actually “operationalize” sustainability amidst the competing priorities of consumer needs, ethical ideals, lawyers, lobbyists, and politicians.
posted by Kerasia at 11:24 AM on January 24, 2014

Since the baton for much of applied environmentalism was passed to Europe pretty quickly I suggest you consider some of the European environmental philosophers. Arne Naess developed the concept of deep ecology and that might be a good place to jump off from.
posted by biffa at 11:34 AM on January 24, 2014

Thats a good point, biffa. Environmental philosophies differ according to their place of origin and implementation. The thing that the OP needs to be aware of, is that there is not one accepted set of environmental ethics. For example, the base differences between anthropocentric and biocentric ethical and philosophical perspectives can result in vastly different environmental approaches.
posted by Kerasia at 12:05 PM on January 24, 2014

Response by poster: biffa: "Since the baton for much of applied environmentalism was passed to Europe pretty quickly I suggest you consider some of the European environmental philosophers."

Yes, I definitely don't wish to limit myself to American perspectives only, or to that of any one sect of environmentalism. I'm interested in acquiring an understanding of as many perspectives as possible, regardless of the period, culture, or location involved. If the suggestions in my question were US-centric it was out of ignorance, not intent.
posted by Scientist at 12:35 PM on January 24, 2014

For contemporary stuff, Dale Jamieson at NYU is a good starting point. From his website:

Dr. Jamieson is the author of Reason in a Dark Time: Why the Struggle to Stop Climate Change Failed--and Why Our Choices Still Matter (Oxford, 2014), Ethics and the Environment: An Introduction (Cambridge, 2008), and Morality's Progress: Essays on Humans, Other Animals, and the Rest of Nature (Oxford, 2002). He is also the editor or co-editor of nine books, most recently Reflecting on Nature: Readings in Environmental Philosophy, 2nd Edition (Oxford, 2012) with Lori Gruen and Chris Schlottmann. He has published more than one hundred articles and book chapters.

Many of the readings are linked on the site.
posted by kestrel251 at 1:52 PM on January 24, 2014

Wendell Berry, David Suzuki (The Japan we Never Knew), and maybe Fukuoka (eco farming).

Sippewissett by Tim Traver
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
posted by jrobin276 at 2:23 PM on January 24, 2014

I saw this book, Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future by Bron Taylor in a bookstore last summer and it's been on my mind ever since. It looks very fascinating and serious, its subject matter ranging from Thoreau to nature-worshipping surfers. Here's the description on Amazon:

In this innovative and deeply felt work, Bron Taylor examines the evolution of “green religions” in North America and beyond: spiritual practices that hold nature as sacred and have in many cases replaced traditional religions. Tracing a wide range of groups—radical environmental activists, lifestyle-focused bioregionalists, surfers, new-agers involved in “ecopsychology,” and groups that hold scientific narratives as sacred—Taylor addresses a central theoretical question: How can environmentally oriented, spiritually motivated individuals and movements be understood as religious when many of them reject religious and supernatural worldviews? The “dark” of the title further expands this idea by emphasizing the depth of believers' passion and also suggesting a potential shadow side: besides uplifting and inspiring, such religion might mislead, deceive, or in some cases precipitate violence. This book provides a fascinating global tour of the green religious phenomenon, enabling readers to evaluate its worldwide emergence and to assess its role in a critically important religious revolution.
posted by jayder at 4:57 PM on January 24, 2014

Since you mention Edward Abbey but don't mention actually reading his books, I would highly suggest reading Abbey's Road and Desert Solitaire. Those are my favorite of his books and the most focused on environmentalism.
Rick Bass is also an amazing nature writer who focuses more on animals that environmentalism as a whole, but still a great writer and poet.
posted by ruhroh at 9:25 PM on January 24, 2014

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