Alien Phenomenology vs. Environmental Holism

I’ve been enjoying Ian Bogost’s new book, Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing.  It’s another great contribution to object-oriented ontology.  One of the problems I have with it so far is that it misrepresents holistic approaches to environmental issues.  I generally appreciate the object-oriented critique of holism, but it’s important to accurately specify what holism is involved.  To paraphrase Bogost, all holisms might equally exist, but they do not exist equally.

Bogost says the following:  “In every conception of environmental holism from John Muir to James Lovelock, all beings are given equal absolute value and moral right to the planet–so long as they are indeed living creatures.  One type of existence–life–still comprises the reference point for thought and action” (p. 7).

Every conception?  I don’t think so.  A bunch of conceptions?  Sure.  The majority of conceptions?  Maybe, depending on whose conceptions get counted.  In any case, not every conception of environmental holism in the last hundred years has made life the reference point for thought and action (nor have they all assigned “equal absolute value” to everything).  There are plenty of environmental holists who have arrived at their metaphysics like Bogost arrived at his, “by way of inanimacy rather than life” (p. 9). 

Consider Aldo Leopold or Baird Callicott.  They are most certainly holistic, but their reference point is the land, which includes but is not defined primarily in terms of biota.  Leopold and Callicott have been very influential on a lot of the environmental holism running around these days.  You cannot give a very relevant critique of environmental holism if you don’t critique the land ethic.  Another kind of environmental holism that eludes Bogost’s critique is the ecology and environmental ethics based on Ken Wilber’s Integral theory (of which Michael Zimmerman is a leading proponent).  The holism of Edgar Morin’s complex thought harbors a planetary environmentalism that is also noteworthy here.  My point is simply that some holisms are closer to Bogost than he indicates, and that environmental holism can be a partner in creative dialogue instead of a quickly dismissed straw man.

I’ll have more to say after I finish the book.  Regardless of any shortcomings it might have, it’s a fun and engaging book.  The Latour litanies alone are worth the price of admission.

Environmental Philosophy is Activism

“All environmentalists should be activists, but activism can take a variety of forms.  The way that environmental philosophers can be the most effective environmental activists is by doing environmental philosophy.  Of course, not everyone can be or wants or needs to be an environmental philosopher.  Those who are not can undertake direct environmental action in other ways.  My point is that environmental philosophers should not feel compelled to stop thinking, talking, and writing about environmental ethics, and go do something about it instead—because talk is cheap and action is dear.  In thinking, talking, and writing about environmental ethics, environmental philosophers already have their shoulders to the wheel, helping to reconfigure the prevailing cultural worldview and thus helping to push general practice in the direction of environmental responsibility.”

Baird Callicott, Beyond the Land Ethic: More Essays in Environmental Philosophy (Albany: SUNY Press, 1999), p. 43.