This Is a Showdown, Composing 09/05/2016

At the end of the month, I’ve going to host a book panel at the Canadian Philosophical Association about Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity. So I thought I’d post the proposal itself that I sent to the CPA back in Fall 2015. The prose is a little more academic than I usually post on the blog, but I think it expresses well the ideas that I want to bring to the conference.

As I prepare the slides that I’ll include in my panel (and coordinate soon with my co-presenters), I’m going back through the text of my own book, looking for the best things to emphasize in the discussion. 

Basically, what I want is to mount a two-pronged challenge. As a book of ecological philosophy, it’s a challenge to the entire shape of modern industry. It’s a challenge to industrial capitalism, to the globalization that pollutes so much and fragments so many communities. 

But it’s also a book that lays out how environmental philosophy inspired political activism, and how activism can now inspire philosophy. I’ve been writing lately about a crisis point in modern academia – as labour gets cheaper and the pool of jobs shrinks, the best researchers are being driven out of the sector. 

And the book argues that philosophers can do more good for the world outside of the academy. I’m not sure how many people at this conference would like to hear that.
• • •
My proposed panel addresses the central topics of Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity, and multiple contemporary issues in academic philosophy in doing so. So the panel will discuss my book itself, its arguments, central principles, and in the words of perhaps some critics, conceits. 

But we will also explore its implications beyond the walls of the academy: Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity offers a framework for engaging philosophical discourse with the gritty reality of political activism, and a future program for philosophy’s development outside the walls of the university system. The panel will consist of four discussions, following each other in series. 

Early chapters of Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity examine the strengths and weaknesses of the common approach of examining environmental philosophical problems as searching for moral principles: the rights of nature and human responsibilities toward nature. 

But this framework faces a double bind. Granting non-human bodies and systems human-style rights treats animals, plants, bacteria, and ecosystems too much like humans, papering over real differences. Conceiving of human responsibilities toward or for nature alienates humanity from nature, which most environmentalist moral philosophers agree is the exact attitude at the heart of the global ecological crisis. At worst, this alienation draws accusations from liberal humanist critics that environmentalism is essentially misanthropic.

In Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity, a philosophical analysis of the central concepts and principles of ecological science provides the framework for an environmentalist philosophy that avoids the problems of discussion (1). 

Gilles Deleuze is one of the central influences
on my first major book of philosophy.
The book’s analysis of ecological principles implies that the best grounding for environmentalist moral and political principles is a conception of everything in the world as fundamentally interdependent and integrated. Interdependence can only make sense if we accept a process-based ontology. 

Thinking in processual frameworks lets us easily understand human existence from ecological (and even cosmological) processes, foregrounding the self-destructiveness of environmentally destructive activity. The practical result of this ontological conclusion is a moral imperative to change human society along environmentally sustainable lines to prevent our own destruction and that of many other unique creatures and ecologies. 

This discussion will confront the challenge of the naturalistic fallacy: the objection that practical moral conclusions about what right action is, cannot follow from ontological principles about the nature of existence.

The central influence in the major argument of discussion (2) is Gilles Deleuze’s model for how philosophy can engage with scientific principles. In the North American academy, the more prevalent view is that Continental philosophy offers the completely wrong path to engage with the philosophy of science. 

I take the contrary argument that the Deleuzian approach probes scientific methods, ideas, and frameworks to understand what universal ontological principles they can imply. Though its experimental writing style often belied its innovations, A Thousand Plateaus was the paradigm-setting work in applying this approach to ecological science. Successors include his collaborator Félix Guattari’s The Three Ecologies and Chaosmosis, as well as Isabelle Stengers’ Cosmopolitics series, and Deleuze-inspired approaches to media theory in the works of Brian Massumi and Gary Genosko.

The last discussion of the panel is an institutional critique, examining the ultimate conclusions of Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity. The book’s last chapter examines how philosophy can rebuild its relationship with transformative political activism. 

So is Félix Guattari, a writer who I always thought never
gets the kind of recognition he deserves for the originality
of his own ideas, since he's often overshadowed by his
collaborator Deleuze.
This relationship has frayed thanks to two main causes: a) the increasing specialization and fragmentation of the academic discipline of philosophy, and b) the acceleration of neoliberal governance and human resources policies in universities that discourage researchers from devoting energy to public activities that rarely count toward tenure and promotion criteria. 

I argue at the end of Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity that philosophy can best aid progressive social movements – for environmental causes as well as others – by developing concepts that people can use to build a complete, comprehensive world-view. Philosophy supplies the conceptual building blocks of a model to inspire new approaches to daily life, which proliferate throughout social networks. 

This requires stepping outside the institutions of the university system. Many philosophers are doing so anyway, simply in reaction to the growing precarity of labour as a university instructor. Since universal security in the academy for philosophy doctoral graduates now seems an impossible goal, this closing discussion will explore whether philosophers should develop ways to work in the tradition so that it can thrive outside. 

Myself, I contend that, in the face of philosophy’s fragility in the neoliberal university system, philosophy should seek to become a broad-based intellectual tradition: a progressive discourse among industry, government, the academy, activism, and popular culture.

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