Approaching nature and our neighbors with humility – why this fundamental virtue is necessary for positive environmental change (tipping point 1 of 3)

“It is a wholesome and necessary thing for us to turn again to the earth and in the contemplation of her beauties to know the sense of wonder and humility” – Rachel Carson

I recently traveled to Auckland for the Environmental Defense Society’s (EDS) conference Tipping Points.  The presentations and discussions at the conference focused on various ecosystem tipping points associated with the cumulative degradation of terrestrial and aquatic habitats. I was appreciative that I was amongst people that were having these discussions and it gave me hope for positive environmental change. The conference invigorated my passion for environmental advocacy and my empathy for people impacted by a history of ineffective decisions about the environment. Something I didn’t see, which I think will be a valuable addition in future discussions, is the inclusion of systems thinking (feedback loops) and ecosystem function and structure. I will write more about these in later posts.

I waited to write a piece about the conference to provide time to process the information and to understand what continued to consume my thoughts for the days that followed.   There were three very clear topics that stuck with me 1) the call for humility in collaborative approaches towards environmental change 2) the growth of the cellular agriculture industry 3) a question from my former coworker about what knowledge from this conference can landscape planners take back with them. Obviously, way too much to cover in a single post, so a three-part series will ensue.

I am starting with 1) the notion of humility, as this is nearest and dearest to my heart and perhaps, the cardinal environmental virtue. Peter Hardstaff, a campaign manager for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) had delivered a stimulating talk about the need for humility in environmental discussions involving multiple stakeholders. Although his talk focused on marine protection, his message was transferable to other environmental issues and habitats. He suggested that humility, when combined with curiosity, were foundational to collaborative discussions to reveal opportunities for positive environmental change. Without the presence of humility, discussions would not focus on shared values, but rather threats, immobilized by blame and finger-pointing.  For those more graphically minded people, maybe my notes can provide greater insight.

graphic note taking is a doodlers dream

Ok, well that was probably wishful thinking, but I felt inclined to include a picture so this blog post was not too dry.  Honestly, his message seemed quite simple to me.  I interpreted it as; we do not know everything, we have made some very bad decisions (often led by singular motivations), and it is time to come together as a community to learn from each other and our shared environment, to do better and make more appropriate decisions to improve the health and wellbeing of the collective.

Peter never directly tied humility to wilderness, but instead to collaboration. However, the use of the word brought my mind immediately to environmental ethicists, Rachel Carson and Aldo Leopold. Although these scholars wrote of humility differently, they are both resolutely non-anthropocentric with shared ideas grounded in the notion that people were ‘of nature’ and that repeated attention to the nonhuman world was necessary.  Leopold suggests that raw wilderness gives definition and meaning to humans and Carson extends this idea to emphasize our existence as part of a system much larger than ourselves, with ‘us’ existing as a tiny blip in time of this system’s cyclical turnings. In her work she writes about the role that wilderness plays in teaching us this humility and the need to focus on and learn from its wonder so that we have less appetite for its destruction. The following clip provides a glimpse into Carson’s work with the acknowledgement of her attempts to humble us.

In her call for humility, Carson enhances environmental ethics with the inclusion of environmental virtue ethics.  The difference between these concepts is that one is an ethic of action and the other an ethic of character. Environmental ethics attempts to understand the human relationship with the environment (ecosystems and nonhuman individuals that populate and constitute these systems) to determine the norms that govern human interactions with it. Environmental virtue ethics refers to the character disposition that one ought to have regarding the environment, one that includes virtue. Essentially Carson’s complete environmental ethic includes not only how one ought to interact with the environment, but also one’s character disposition in doing so. According to Carson, in order for a person to discover intrinsically valuable nonhuman elements to reflect a meaningful respect for the environment, they have to possess the virtue of humility.

As we include collaboration as a part of our legislative process regarding social and environmental decisions, it seems that we are no longer simply dealing with behavior and actions, but character and attitudes as well.  Might the virtue of humility be applied to human relationships to help foster the same altruistic focus in collaborative discussions as Carson suggests it should for the environment?  Just as environmental ethics recognizes that human interests do not always coincide with the interests of nonhuman elements, this same conflict can be expected amongst a diverse group of stakeholders. It is was clear to me that this call for humility, so simple, is yet so necessary. It was such an important intention to hold close when moving forward.

Apparently, not everyone was as enthusiastic about this idea as I was. In fact, most of the speakers that followed argued against it, as did some of the audience members taking to the microphone with questions, suggesting that pride in what New Zealand has accomplished is most important and it will distinguish the nation as leaders toward effective outcomes. Volker Kuntzsch, the CEO of Sanford Limited, a commercial fishing company, was quite outspoken about the need for pride. In his presentation addressing marine protection in New Zealand, he urged the nation to look at themselves in this field the same way they do their rugby team, the All Blacks; a leader and dominator of their sport. He advocated for pride, rather than humility to lead conversations moving forward.

Before sharing my thoughts on Volker’s promotion of pride over humility,  I should note that right now less than 0.5% of Aotearoa New Zealand’s marine environment is ‘full no-take’ protection. This is far below their international commitments (and international leaders) of 10% by 2020 and 30% as the ultimate goal.  However, the country is in the process of trying to create a massive marine reserve near the Kermade Islands, north of the mainland.  If this passes parliament, it will increase the ‘full no-take’ area to a whopping 15.5%. Sweet as!

Returning to notion of pride, regardless of Aotearoa New Zealand’s leadership status, this was intuitively very unsettling to me and I wanted to understand why. Being a person that possesses a limited vocabulary palette, I began as I typically do, by interrogating the definition of each word, pride and humility.   I offer two simply for variety.

Pride definitions:

  1. the quality or state of being proud: such asa : inordinate self-esteem : conceitb : a reasonable or justifiable self-respectc : delight or elation arising from some act, possession, or relationship parental.
  2. A feeling of deep pleasure or satisfaction derived from one’s own achievements, the achievements of one’s close associates, or from qualities or possessions that are widely admired.

Humility definitions:

  1. freedom from pride or arrogance :  the quality or state of being humble.
  2. the quality of having a modest or low view of one’s importance.

These definitions solidified my initial displeasure for two reasons; 1) a focus on achievements (particularly in conflicting value discussions) can often inhibit change, discourage collaboration, and can render one ‘unteachable’ 2) lowering one’s view of self-importance can open minds to other people’s views and enable one to share mistakes and learning outcomes, which can in turn improve transparency, build trust and invite honest dialogue. I should also note, that humility is often tied to self-reflection and empathy, which are both important attributes that encourage movement from experiencing to understanding. Finally,  it has also been suggested that altruistic behavior promotes problem solving and leads to innovation.

As someone whose environmental education and view of the world is so heavily influenced by the works of Carson and Leopold and their call to be humble in order to recognize our place within nature, it seems that extending this humility to the foundation for collaborative environmental discussions is worth serious consideration.   Humility, empathy and self-awareness appear to be in short supply today.  However, a conscious effort to embrace these attributes has great potential to lead to immense learning, understanding, and ultimately meaningful rewards.  It is time to view collaboration and our environment in accordance with Aldo Leopold “when we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect”  Isn’t it time we see our neighbors in the same way?


Categories: Environmental PhilosophyTags: , , , ,

angie campbell

I am an expat from the United States living in Wellington, New Zealand. My love affair with landscape, culture, and learning has led to a life filled with travel and academic institutions. Endowed with endless curiosity, I spend a great deal of time philosophizing about anything and everything, but very often pertaining to environmental issues. I should note that I am not formally trained in environmental philosophy, nor do I have the vocabulary competency to pass for someone who has. My writing is a somewhat tongue and cheek.

I am using this blog as a means to work through some of this thinking and to follow my own pathway of inquiry, while providing (hopefully) some meaningful insight of what it is like to live as an American in Aotearoa New Zealand. I am sure at some point there will be some interesting travel photos once I make the leap from iphone to fancy camera.

There is a secondary tab to the this blog spot. Reflections of the Watering Hole is an old blog I started during one of my academic stints studying the social and environmental impacts of oil and natural gas development in the Denver Julesburg Basin in the United States. While some of the information is a bit 'dated' (I started it in 2013), many of the conundrums remain relevant today.

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