Adapting Environmental Ethics to Rapid, Anthropogenic, and Global Ecological Change
H.J. Andrews Forest Research Station
Blue River, Oregon
JULY 10-13, 2019
Conference report by Emma Marris
This July, environmental ethicists from around the world gathered under 500-year-old Douglas-firs and hemlocks at the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest in Oregon to share their work. The 16th annual ISEE Summer Meeting featured several papers touching on environmental policy, environmental psychology, and the role of the philosopher in the ongoing climate and biodiversity crisis—a practical bent that perhaps reflects an increased sense of urgency and momentum in the world of environmental activism. In that vein, the meeting closed with a strategy session, led by Eugene Chislenko of Temple University, in which the assembled philosophers shared insights on how they could fold climate activism into their work.
Over the course of three days, the group worked through 18 draft papers on topics ranging from bees as symbols of neoliberal environmental thought to the role of gene drives in conservation to legal strategies for holding climate emitters responsible for losses and damages resulting from their actions. The keynote address, by Katie McShane of Colorado State University, took up perhaps the most central of all environmental ethics questions: how are we to value the natural world? McShane argued for a value system that goes beyond welfarism—what is good for an entity—and embraces values derived from appreciative attitudes like “respect, awe, wonder, admiration, interest, attachment, and aesthetics.” She gave as an example the wonder she feels when contemplating a neutron star—the collapsed core of a giant sun—despite the fact that the unimaginably distant object can be of no practical benefit to her.
Between papers, conference-goers chatted over delicious meals cooked up by two chefs who noted that the group had the most vegans they had ever cooked for. The chefs rose to the challenge, and one vegan attendee remarked that he wasn’t used to having so many choices! One evening, conversation continued after dinner at a cheerfully crackling campfire. Two children notably polished off almost an entire bag of marshmallows, with just a little help from the philosophers gathered around the fire.
Attendees were also treated to a personal tour of the experimental forest by the principal investigator, Micheal Nelson of Oregon State University, himself a philosopher, and Fred Swanson, a geologist and ecosystem scientist with the US Forest Service who has studied the forest for decades. Together, the two sketched out the research conducted at the site and the food web of an old-growth forest, highlighting the surprising role of nitrogen-fixing lichen, which make the nutrient available to the trees after they fall from the canopy and rot into the soil. As the philosophers listened, mosquitoes flitted among them, weaving them into the food web by sucking their blood. The circle was completed when the humans nibbled on the red huckleberries that thrive in the understory.
Another highlight was a lecture by owl expert Tim Fox, an archaeologist for the U.S. Forest Service who studied spotted owls earlier in his career. Fox shared stories from his time in the field, owl calls, and his thoughts on the current strategy for protecting the spotted owl, which includes shooting barred owls that have been making their way from the east coast and out-competing the smaller endangered owl for territories. It is the kind of ethical puzzle that cried out for analysis by environmental ethicists—a case study just waiting under the trees for the philosophers to take a crack at.
The ethicists left the meeting with new knowledge, new ideas, new professional relationships, new mosquito bites, and the pleasant odor of campfire-smoke woven into their clothes.