Journal of Political Ecology:
Case Studies in History and Society
VOLUME 9 (2002)
Being Human: Ethics, Environment, and Our Place in the World, by Anna L. Peterson. Berkeley: University of California Press (2001), x, 289 pp.
Peterson identifies several elements
that contribute to the power of religious ethics. One such element is
narrative. What distinguishes religious narrative is the presence of the
sacred: forces, ideas and events with meaning beyond the human. Peterson
is interested in narratives that are not only lived but also have
the potential to challenge, rather than reinforce, dominant worldviews
(p. 20). Future visions, ideal-setting, is essential if a
narrative is to lead to significant social change (p. 22).
Peterson provides chapters on human
nature in the Western tradition, the relational self of Buddhism and Taoism,
person and nature in Native American world-views, feminist ethics, the
social construction of nature and human nature, and recent studies of
animal behavior. The book concludes with two chapters which examine the
potential for revision in mainstream ethics (p. 26). Each
chapter is prefaced with a summary of its contents.
In her discussion of the Western
tradition, Peterson points out that while Protestantism has often seen
human life on earth as radically separated from the spiritual realm, Catholicism
has perceived greater continuity between the human and the divine. But
both forms of Christianity have generally stressed human superiority and
the view that the only internal relationship for rational man
is with God or universal reason.
Social constructionism asserts that
there is no original or universal self: a subject can have meaning
only in and through particular cultural, social, or linguistic conditions
(p. 54). While social constructionism offers a welcome humility
about our own ways of seeing and being in the world (p. 76), it
also harbors a number of harmful assumptions. For example, while all forms
of social constructionism deny that there is a single way of being human,
most social constructionists affirm a generic humanness, which
is radically superior to the non-human in that human signification creates
the world (p. 58). Extreme social constructionism thus actually denies
natures independent existence. In addition, since according to constructionism
ideas and interpretation are all we have, this approach does not seriously
consider alternative worldviews as sources of actual knowledge about the
world. Further, extreme constructionism can undermine arguments for protection
of nonhuman species or wilderness areas on the grounds that it is all
about ideas anyway. Peterson affirms Kate Sopers and Katherine Hayless
calls for a productive tension between realism and construction
(p. 74), a position that combines the constructionist insight that we
can have no unmediated apprehension of nature with the realist claim that
the world consists of more than human mediations.
Peterson begins her chapter on Asian
perspectives with a sophisticated discussion of the risks in comparative
ethics. Peterson admits that we may be wrong about what ideas mean to
different groups, and that comparative ethics does risk overestimating
the causal importance of ideas (p. 97). But she does not agree that
comparative ethics is an immoral venture in cultural imperalism. She affirms
that while comparative ethics is an inherently messy and risky project,
it is worth examining other ethical traditions for the light shed on our
own as contingent and perhaps in need of revision.
The outcome of her venture in comparative
ethics is her assertion that certain world-views have a greater affinity
for environmental care or harm than others. Despite the difficulties in
ascertaining the effective histories of Buddhism and Taoism,
a task complicated by post-Buddhist and post-Taoist innovations,
she does believe that the ideas of the relational self in Buddhism and
Taoism do provide a basis for greater awareness of human dependence
on the natural world and concomitant behavior (p. 99).
Peterson approaches the question
of Native American world-views with an admirable awareness of the diversity
of Amerindian traditions of thought as well as the long history of oppression
and genocide by colonial and post-colonial governments in the Americas.
In acknowledgment of the distinctiveness of each group, she discusses
only two traditions: those of the Koyukon of interior Alaska and the Navajo.
She adopts the approach of identifying common themes which contrasted
with the beliefs of the European invaders. One such theme is a view of
a world peopled with other-than-human persons, which are not only persons
but kin. In addition, Amerindians viewed their world as relational. Restraint,
humility, and respect toward the natural world result from such relationships.
Peterson introduces her discussion
of feminist ethics by noting that critiques coming from within a culture
may be more likely to generate changes in attitudes and behavior. Internal
challenges also underline the fact that not all members of a group
are equally responsible for dominant attitudes and institutions
(p. 128). Peterson discusses feminist critiques as perhaps the most
powerful internal challenges to dominant Western ideas (p. 126).
Feminist world-views, like religious ones, seek and often achieve
a link between ethical ideas and real life (p. 129). Peterson wants
to be clear that she does not think that feminism is itself a religion,
but that it offers a fuller vision of the role of moral ideas
than do many other philosophies. Feminism emphasizes relationality between
persons, feelings, embodiment, and context. In contrast to many Asian
traditions, moreover, feminism usually attributes a degree of individual
autonomy and stability to selves. Peterson goes on to discuss ecofeminism
as not simply a hybrid but as a distinctive approach, offering a new conceptual
framework. Ecofeminism expands moral relationships to encompass those
with nonhuman animals, natural objects, landscapes, and nature in general.
Peterson then turns to Western science,
a challenge from within the heart of reason itself (p. 153).
She focuses on evolutionary theory and in particular on studies of animal
behavior. Peterson marshals evidence indicating that the emergence
of distinctively human qualities was gradual, nonlinear, and certainly
not inevitable (p. 160). She accepts the core thesis of sociobiology:
that many human behaviors have evolutionary, thus biological, roots
(p. 168). Peterson cites ethological studies to illustrate that animals
have thoughts, purposes, beliefs, and desires. Thus, for Peterson, the
human/nonhuman difference is a continuum with fuzzy boundaries and
innumerable areas of overlap (p. 171).
A number of environmental philosophers
argue that ecology has specific implications for models of human nature,
some emphasizing the internal relatedness of all organisms in a way that
makes the individual only a part of the system. Human social life, however,
is usually exempted from this analysis. She finds this exemption unsatisfactory
and rejects attempts, such as found in the writings of Holmes Rolston,
to split culture from nature. She also rejects Callicotts urging
that we extend holistic naturalism to the human sphere by accepting life
as it is [biologically] given (p. 182).
Petersons chapter In
and Of the World provides what she terms chastened constructionist
anthropology as the best answer to the question of the relationship
of human beings to the natural world. In developing this approach, Peterson
relies on E.O. Wilsons notion of gene-culture coevolution,
operating by means of epigenetic rules: regularities of sensory
perception and mental development which channel how culture
is acquired (p. 189). Human beings are both natural and cultural, just
as other species are both biological and environmental. Both human beings
and other animals shape their environments, though human beings do this
to a greater extent than other animals (p. 196).
Peterson emphasizes that we need
to take such differences between human beings and nature seriously, without
using those differences to justify domination. Following Plumwood, Thompson
rejects the expanded self of deep ecology as inadequate and
commends the Buddhist idea of the importance of practices such as meditation
and vegetarianism as productive of relational visions of the self. She
discusses forms of Christian eco-theology that are not based on claims
of human superiority, such as Philip Hefners notion of Gods
created cocreators and affirms Sallie McFagues conception
of the earth as the body of God, a God who is incarnated in all matter.
According to this perspective, as Sallie McFague asserts, human beings
should be recentered as Gods partners in helping creation
to grow and prosper in our tiny part of Gods body (p. 216).
While some Christian environmentalists
reject the stewardship ethic as anthropocentric, Peterson argues that
such models have the merit of addressing the human-nature relationship
directly and in addition acknowledge human weakness and ambivalence (p.
218). According to the stewardship ethic, God is the ground of intrinsic
value, preventing the triumph of human instrumental values as the last
word in our dealings with the natural world. Peterson rejects J. Baird
Callicotts effort to eliminate God from stewardship ethics on the
grounds that such a revised ethic will not function the same in providing
motivation. She maintains that religious ethics are not simply literal
elements which can and should be discarded from philosophy: religious
ethics are integrated into a complex cultural whole (p. 220).
Nevertheless stewardship ethics
are not fully adequate to the task. We need new, powerful stories in order
to generate different ideas and different ways of living in the world.
One very compelling story is that of evolution. However, Peterson notes
that the evolutionary story lacks a vision of the future. While she is
fully aware of the dangers of utopian dreams, she defends religious ideals
as having ethical and political force. Thus the question becomes one of
finding narratives that incorporate future visions as well as make sense
in the context of contemporary Western cultures. Peterson finds hints
of a new moralscape in both bioregionalism and in Rolstons
concept of storied residence. Understanding community as based
on contiguity as well as similarity broadens community to include nonhuman
residents of a place. While such ecological awareness is painful due to
the human-inflicted damage to the world, Peterson concludes by assuring
the reader that we are not alone because we are connected to the nonhuman
world and to the many people who also love that world.
Now, as is traditional at the end
of a book review, for the critique. Overall the book is a well-written,
comprehensive review of the literature rather than a presentation of a
distinctive position. The comprehensiveness is at times superficial, in
that Peterson mentions a number of ideas which are not developed: e.g.,
we are urged several times to take indigenous constructions of nonhuman
nature seriously, but we are given no suggestions as to how to go about
doing so. The book is somewhat repetitious and would have benefited from
Petersons emphasis on Protestant
and Roman Catholic thought could usefully be complemented by an examination
of the rather different assumptions concerning the human/nature relationship
found in Eastern Christianity, as well as in the rich history of Celtic
Christianity in the British Isles. Her characterization of William Cronons
views concerning wilderness as one in which anything goes
is inaccurate (p. 65), since in the same essay from which she draws her
criticism, Cronin stresses that our tasks are to make sense of the inscrutable
autonomy of the natural world and of our obligations to that world. Her
discussion of holism in environmental philosophy would benefit from Don
Marriettas analysis of types of deontic and ontological holism (p.
Ethical Holism and Individuals in For People and the Planet
(Temple, l995). And finally, Peterson makes no mention of the highly germane
process theology tradition and the several applications of process philosophy
to environmental ethics which have been published in the last twenty years.
Despite these weaknesses and omissions, Being Human is an admirable achievement which by its thoughtful assessment of disparate ideas and traditions furthers our understanding of our relationship to ourselves and to the nonhuman world.