CONFERENCE REPORT – 2nd Annual Joint Meeting on Environmental Philosophy (May 31-June 3, 2005)

Submitted by Amy Knisley, Colby-Sawyer College

The University of North Texas joined the ISEE and the International Association for Environmental Philosophy (IAEP) to sponsor this second comprehensive forum for environmental philosophers, May 31-June 3 in Allenspark, Colorado. For the program and papers, go to: The conference began with Holmes Rolston asking whether virtue-based environmental ethics was more like half a loaf (better than none) or half a horse (worse), ended with debates about the aesthetic quality of nature’s disorderly tendencies (tornadoes anyone?), and in between explored issues ranging from the usefulness of Merleau-Ponty’s metaphysics for environmental philosophy to alternative myths and metaphors for property rights and how environmental philosophy might make use of them. And interlaced with the theoretical and metatheoretical inquiry was reflection on environmental philosophy itself—its past, present and future.

Gene Hargrove, in the second evening’s plenary session on environmental philosophy and public policy, recalled that in the early days of the journal Environmental Ethics doing “applied” rather than “pure” philosophy was generally considered a tenure risk. Articles by philosophers often dealt heavily with the history of philosophy, and many articles in the journal were written by activists rather than academics. Ensuing decades have seen an explosion of environmental philosophy’s academic literature, conferences and curricular presence, strengths which Dale Jamieson (President, ISEE) highlighted in his comments. The glass is nonetheless only half (perhaps as much as two-thirds) full according to Jamieson, and environmental philosophy suffers from several significant weaknesses. One is its fragmentation, both geographic and philosophic. This conference, jointly sponsored by the two predominant organizations for environmental philosophy in North America, was developed in part as a response to that fragmentation. Jamieson also noted a lack of generally accepted standards for being a well-trained environmental philosopher, which he thinks is associated with another central concern: environmental philosophy’s “voluntary marginalization” from mainstream philosophy. We tend to publish in and read a small circle of journals, which has tended to insulate us from mainstream philosophy and erode our standards of scholarship. Among other remedies, Jamieson urged programs specializing in environmental philosophy to ground their curricula in philosophy’s core traditions, and urged the assembled to read and write for more mainstream journals in addition to our “own” journals.

Jamieson’s recommendation that we cultivate disciplinary credibility was complemented by Robert Frodeman’s (Director of Interdisciplinary Activities, IAEP) focus, in his comments, on the need for a theory of interdisciplinarity and for active engagement with public policy as critical to the future of environmental philosophy—a future about which he feels some urgency. The contraction of another academic discipline, geology, in the wake of an inability on the part of its proponents and practitioners to translate it effectively to the public, provided the backdrop for Frodeman’s recommendations to environmental philosophy. Environmental philosophy needs to make a “policy turn” according to Frodeman, informed by interdisciplinary thinking, communicated through accessible language, and unencumbered by the false dichotomy between theory and application. We need to include internships in our environmental philosophy curricula, and to replace the “philosopher king” with a “philosopher bureaucrat” who can work with policy makers as a problem-solving peer, rather than an agenda-setting theoretician. Frodeman’s own scholarly work, liberally sprinkled with National Science Foundation-funded projects to integrate the work of philosophy, such as values analysis, with the work of public policy, such as prioritizing uses of parks, is a good model of the philosopherbureaucrat at work. One might expect that as chair of Philosophy and Religious Studies at UNT, which is about to roll out a new PhD in Philosophy, he will advocate for internships and other curricular innovations in keeping with his prescription for our field.

This session crystallized questions that arose in variant forms throughout this engaging, well-organized 4-night, 3-day conference. Do philosophical debates about personhood influence law and policy concerning treatment of animals? Should they? Can effective dialog with the current exponents of the “Wise Use” view of public lands be facilitated by studying and responding their understanding of property rights? Do philosophers have anything important and, moreover, persuasive to say about the difference between human dams and beaver dams, and whether either should be included in wilderness? Will environmental ethics grounded in the ideas and rhetoric of virtue have a stronger foothold with public land managers contemplating ecological restoration in wilderness, than arguments from intrinsic value? Besides each other, who should we be writing for and talking to? Should academic philosophy “subordinate” its efforts to the concerns and aims of public policy? Is environmental philosophy rising to the occasion of the profound and momentous questions it considers? I attended all 11 sessions of the conference as well as their informal continuations at the Aspen Lodge after hours, and have arrived at this preliminary summation: this conference is vital to future of the field, that future about which Frodeman is anxious. It is vital in several ways. First, it refreshes our minds about what have become environmental philosophy’s core theoretical questions, encouraging us to take them up again and more effectively. Second, the conference organizers have committed to the participation of graduate students, and so are seeding the field’s future. Third, the conference invites a perception of environmental philosophy as “problematized,” that is, as less cohesive than it might appear and less effective than it might like to believe. This demands engagement, not only with the questions and theories raised in the sessions, but also with the academic, ecologic and public contexts from which those questions have emerged. The kind of formal and informal work accomplished at this joint meeting, in both its first and second years, has encouraged me about the future of our field. Look for announcements of next year’s conference in this newsletter’s spring edition.