Thu. Jun 13th, 2024

The Modern Era

The era commonly referred to as “modern” in history is marked by the church’s waning influence and the ascendance of scientific authority. The scientific authority sought to reveal everything empirically confirmed during that period. The shared characteristics of modern-era thinking can be discerned through the philosophies of René Descartes, Francis Bacon, and Isaac Newton, all of whom made significant contributions to the mechanistic worldview. From this mechanical perspective, the universe is conceived as a colossal machine comprised of discrete components. In this view, science is a tool that instills a practical orientation in humans, fostering a sense of empowerment. Philosophies inspired by scientific methodologies are often associated with pursuing power, tending to regard everything non-human as mere raw material. Goals lose significance, and the focus shifts solely to the proficiency of the process.

Environmental concerns represent a relatively recent subject within the realm of philosophy. Regarding historical categorization, philosophy is typically divided into four main epochs: Ancient Greek, Medieval, Modern, and Contemporary, each distinguished by its distinctive characteristics. Environmental philosophy emerged in contrast to aspects of modern philosophical thought perceived as inadequate in comprehending and engaging with the holistic relationship between humans and the world, particularly concerning the phenomenological connection between humanity and the environment. A standard critique voiced by ecological philosophers is that the modern era, with its anthropocentric orientation, has severed the bond between humans and nature, viewing nature merely as an inanimate tool utilized exclusively for human ends.

Philosophy’s Branches

Philosophy encompasses several branches, including ontology or metaphysics (concerned with the nature of existence), epistemology (exploring what constitutes proper knowledge), ethics (contemplating how humans should lead their lives), aesthetics (investigating the essence of art and beauty), and logic (establishing principles of reasoning). This categorization is intended to facilitate the study of philosophy. In addition to being organized by branches, philosophy can also be classified based on historical epochs, philosophical schools, and individual philosophers.

The term “philosophy” has its roots in the Greek word “philosophia,” which signifies a love for wisdom or the pursuit of truth. It denotes a profound curiosity acquired through inquiry, skepticism, and the quest for certainty. Philosophy is generally characterized as a comprehensive, foundational, and speculative mode of thought. Frequently posed philosophical inquiries include: What defines our identity? What constitutes human nature? What is the nature of the cosmos? Does the concept of God hold validity? Does life possess purpose, or is it fundamentally absurd? What is the essence of happiness?

Consequently, philosophy represents an ongoing endeavor to unearth truths across all domains. A philosopher typically assumes a humble stance and remains unsatisfied, persistently seeking to quench their thirst for knowledge. This disposition resonates with the words and actions of the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates, who famously proclaimed, “I know nothing,” underscoring his persistent quest for more profound insights beyond his existing knowledge.

Environmental Philosophy

Environmental philosophy is a discussion that revolves around the environment itself, exploring its meaning, essence, and more. Arne Næss, a supporter of “deep ecology,” labels this discussion as ecosophy, highlighting that environmental philosophy encompasses the wisdom of comprehending nature as a dwelling place and, simultaneously, the wisdom of arranging that dwelling to make it suitable for habitation and conducive to the flourishing of life within it. It is not limited to being a science but embodies a form of wisdom.

Before delving into more profound matters, the fundamental question that requires addressing is: What defines the environment? From the perspective of environmental philosophy, the environment is typically understood as oikos, representing the habitat or home in which we reside. Oikos encompasses the universe’s interconnectedness and interdependence, encompassing entities such as humans, non-humans, and their surroundings. Nature is not perceived as lifeless objects akin to mechanical machines, nor is it reduced to a means for achieving human goals (anthropocentrism).

According to Sonny Keraf, the environment signifies an ecosystem, the universe. However, the environment is inherently linked to the life it contains. The environment or ecosystem encapsulates and symbolizes life, or at the very least, that facilitates life to thrive. Consequently, the environment is intertwined with life, with living beings (life), as it sustains and embodies life. Grounded in this premise, we understand that humans and non-humans are intertwined. Therefore, what falls under the category of non-humans? Are they animals and plants? Are they mountains and rivers? Are they bridges and highways? Denis Owen asserts that “ecology concerns the relationships between plants and animals and the environment in which they reside.” Both living organisms and abiotic elements, apart from being influenced, also influence the development of ecosystems.

The Need for a Critical Philosophical Approach

A critical philosophical approach is imperative for pondering the relationship between humans and nature. Especially when faced with the growing threat of environmental degradation, we require a fresh perspective to seek solutions at the core of this crisis.

Anthropocentrism is a prevailing viewpoint in the modern era’s domains of scientists, politicians, and the general public. According to Thomas Kuhn, a paradigm constitutes a cluster of concepts, values, techniques, and analogous elements collectively embraced by a scientific community to comprehend various issues and their solutions. He clarifies that paradigms have the potential to transform, often characterized by a complete shift referred to as “revolutionary breaks,” departing from the prior paradigm. Keraf employs Kuhn’s paradigm concept to examine the development of paradigms in nature and science.

The Organizational Perspective

The initial phase is denoted as the organizational perspective. During this phase, philosophers emerged from ancient Greece, especially during Aristotle’s era, extending into the Middle Ages. They perceived the universe as an inherent unity among its constituent components. Aristotle himself refined the earlier viewpoints of pre-Socratic thinkers. The term “pre-Socratic” is commonly used to distinguish them from philosophical streams that followed Socrates, including Plato, Aristotle, and others such as Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes, Heraclitus, Democritus, etc.

During this phase, particularly in Europe, humans embarked on a quest to comprehend the universe’s significance rationally, moving away from mythological perspectives. Consequently, people lived in small communities and maintained an organic connection with nature. Furthermore, in the Middle Ages, the philosophies of Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, and the Church contributed to a perception of nature grounded in faculties of reason, spirituality, and morality, facilitating an understanding of life and the universe. Notably, a similar paradigm shift occurred in various regions globally during this phase, as seen in the East, where Taoism and Buddhism serve as significant references in contemporary environmental philosophy.

The Anthropocentric Paradigm

The second phase is termed the anthropocentric paradigm, commencing during the Enlightenment era in Europe. Nature was perceived mechanistically, leading to a division between constituent parts and the whole. Both the body and nature were reduced to separate components. Nature became predictable and was expounded solely through the lens of causal laws and cause-and-effect relationships. The ontological consequence involved a shift in perspective concerning nature, transitioning from the prior organic paradigm with spiritual dimensions to a novel viewpoint, assuming that nature was nothing more than an immense machine. Ecological thinkers propose that the origin of this perspective can be traced back to modern philosophers like Descartes, Bacon, and Newton and was subsequently propagated by the Vienna Circle, rooted in positivism.

Bacon aimed to propel human civilization forward through the realm of science. The famous saying associated with Bacon, “ipsa scientia potestas” or “knowledge is power,” underscores his belief that human advancement hinges on comprehending natural laws and exploring their universal attributes. Ethically, this perspective implies that nature is primarily seen as a means to fulfill human needs.

Shifting our focus to Descartes, he employed his method of doubt and the concept of dualism to establish a clear distinction between the body and the soul. According to him, the essence of human existence lies within the soul (reason), signifying their status as rational beings. Hence, his renowned declaration, “I think, therefore I am.” Conversely, the body is regarded as nothing more than material with a lower status than the soul. Likewise, other life forms, including organisms and nature at large, are perceived as material entities understood through the analytical capacity of the human mind. Saras Dewi posits that only humans possess the ability for self-doubt, allowing them to acknowledge their existence. The capacity for cogitation thus becomes a unique privilege for humans. It is upon this rationale that the entire framework of anthropocentrism is constructed.

The Ecocentric Paradigm

In the third phase, ecocentrism is introduced as a paradigm seeking to revive a perspective of nature that may seem dry, vacant, and static compared to the previous organic paradigm. This revival is achieved by infusing aesthetic, ethical, spiritual, qualitative, soulful, and spiritual values into it. This perspective strives to deepen and extend ethical values into the natural world, particularly within the realm of ethics. It generates ethical contemplation that encompasses nature, assigning value to nature by examining the equitable and reciprocal relationships and interactions between nature and humans. This paradigm is recognized as systemic, organic, holistic, and ecological.

Capra asserts that living systems possess flexible and dynamic attributes, granting each organism the capacity for self-organization. These organisms are not rigid and deterministic; they interact, evolve, and adapt to other organisms and their environment. Essentially, nature is both autonomous and dynamic. Autonomy signifies its ability to determine and manifest itself, while dynamism indicates its receptivity to change and interaction. These two facets, autonomy, and dynamism, are interwoven as a unified whole, where nature and organisms mutually influence one another within a living system.

One of the approaches within environmental philosophy is “deep ecology,” as proposed by Næss. According to Næss, nature is seen as a cybernetic unity, indicating that it possesses an autonomous, self-regulating equilibrium system. The Earth is not simply regarded as a passive entity or a mere resource to be exploited by humans for their needs. Instead, the Earth maintains a vital equilibrium system crucial for the sustainability of its various species. Additionally, Næss offers a critique of modern thinking that tends to create a division between humans and nature, as exemplified by Cartesian dualism, which separates the human body and mind in their interpretation of reality.

The Subject-Object Divide

This division often leads humans to develop discriminatory attitudes when they perceive the Earth as something foreign or separate from the realm of humanity. Næss strives to reconcile the subject-object relationship between humans and nature by embracing an emotional approach to our natural surroundings. He believes that emotional capacity allows humans to establish a genuine connection with the external world, transcending mere cognitive understanding.

The concept of the risk society underscores the importance of being aware of disasters that can unpredictably occur at any moment. For example, the risks associated with disasters and environmental crises arise from human actions that lack control and rely persistently on finite natural resources.

The modern era is characterized in part by rapid advancements in technology and industry. While these developments have undoubtedly brought benefits to human civilization, we must not disregard the potential for harm they may also entail. Ulrich Beck describes the contemporary society we are currently experiencing as a “risk society.” This concept refers to the possibilities of physical (including mental and social) harm arising from societal changes driven by the influences of industrialization, modernization, and development. The risk society itself is categorized into four types: health risks, social risks, economic risks, and ecological risks.

The idea of a risk society emphasizes the need for awareness regarding unexpected disasters that can occur at any time. For instance, the risk of disasters and environmental crises arises because human actions, continuously relying on limited natural resources, cannot control themselves.

Balancing Production, Consumption, and Resources

The limits to growth address the increasing levels of production, consumption, and human population that are not balanced by the finite capacity of natural resources. Various viewpoints have emerged in response to these limits, from gentle approaches to more radical ones. Gentle approaches believe that sustainability, particularly in technology, can provide a solution. For example, Donella Meadows is highly optimistic about humanity’s capacity to instigate change. If the trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and depletion of natural resources persist, we will surpass the planet’s growth limitations within the next hundred years. Therefore, it is imperative to change these growth patterns by establishing ecological and economic stability without compromising nature and meeting human needs.

In contrast, radical approaches cast doubts on such sustainability measures. The three core principles proposed by this radical stance are:

  1. That technological solutions (economic, political, social) cannot guarantee a sustainable society,
  2. The rapid growth rate of industrial society has an exponential nature and
  3. These issues must be addressed in their interactions.

An ecological economist, Herman Daly, introduces the “impossibility theorem,” asserting that economic growth cannot infinitely expand within a finite environment. In today’s consumerist society, ecological discourse has not been fully realized.

Fred Magdoff and John Bellamy Foster attempt to provide strong criticism of industrialization under the capitalist system in their book Environment and Capitalism. They express doubts and pessimism regarding various proposals from capitalism concerning environmental matters. Further growth in the capital market, environmentally friendly consumption, and new technology alone may partially solve the global ecological dilemma. Recent findings by leading scientists reveal that our inhabited planet has at least nine “planetary boundaries.” The planetary boundary systems encompass a range of factors, such as climate change, ocean acidification, stratospheric ozone depletion, biogeochemical cycles, worldwide freshwater utilization, alterations to land systems, release of atmospheric aerosols, and chemical pollution. At least three planetary boundaries have been crossed: climate change, biodiversity, and human interference in the nitrogen cycle.

The ruptured bond between humans and nature results from human actions themselves. The relentless desire to continually exploit natural resources never ceases, as indicated by society’s limited collective awareness and capacity for collective action. Ecologism presents a profound transformation for society. Naturally, shifts in awareness take place gradually. We can witness this through diverse research endeavors, environmental movements, and government policies to foster a sustainable society. Moreover, grasping various discussions in environmental philosophy lays the groundwork for slowly cultivating an understanding of the significance of reshaping our perspective on nature, altering our lifestyles, supporting community-led initiatives, critiquing policies that neglect the presence of nature, and taking direct measures.


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