Welcome to Steve Coutinho’s website for PHL246 Environmental Philosophy (just beginning, and still under construction). Here, I shall be sharing links to resources–videos, articles, reports, charts, podcasts, magazines, and organizations–to enable you to investigate several empirical aspects of environmental concern from environmental justice to animal ethics and sustainability. In the class, we address the following questions:
What, if any, moral obligations do we have to others, to fellow humans in other parts of the globe, to future generations, to other animals, to non-sentient living things, to species, and to ecosystems? Under what circumstances do our actions result in unjust or inequitable treatment of others? Whose responsibility is it to remedy injustice and inequity, both on a local scale and on a global scale?
These are philosophical questions and cannot be addressed by environmental science alone. We need to understand both the philosophical concepts and theories and the empirical facts in order to apply the former to the latter. So, the primary purpose of this website is to help you to be able to investigate the problems we face, so that you can apply the philosophical concepts and theories we study in the classroom as you work on your end of semester paper and presentation.
But the ultimate goal is far more important: it is to help you make informed and wise decisions outside of the classroom, and after college, about what to believe and how to take effective action, both on an individual level and collectively.
After decades of denial, it appears that we are finally collectively waking up to the urgency of the crisis that has been worsening for decades. And not a moment too soon. But, learning about the continuously exponential rise in human-caused environmental catastrophes, across the world on our doorstep, can be overwhelming. My goal in the class and on this site is to inspire you think positively and creatively, considering some rather radical challenges to the status quo.
Many of the resources here provide information and analyses, or suggest courses of action. Since the goal of this class is to reflect philosophically, we will be paying special attention to proposals that challenge our deepest presuppositions. We all know about switching to renewables like solar and wind energy, and driving hybrid or electric vehicles. These are indeed important interim actions that we must take in order to slow down the damage caused by climate change. But, philosophically speaking, they are not sufficient to address the real problem. I believe the real problem, from a philosophical point of view, is that the deepest cause of our predicament is our underlying philosophical worldview: how we see ourselves and our relationship to the rest of nature. The real solution, I believe, lies in changing our ‘ontology’, our very understanding of what it means to exist. What does it mean to be human? What is Nature? What is or should be our relationship to the rest of the natural world? Do we exist as separate individuals or as evolving interrelationships? What are our measures of success and value?
If we are to be able to act effectively, we must be able to correctly identify the causes of our current predicament. Once we have correctly identified the causes, we can then reason more wisely about the most promising courses of action. The question is then: What kind of changes are necessary to remove those causes? But we must also think carefully about how to minimize any further problems created in the process of removing those causes. And we must be able to distinguish which solutions are likely to be more effective. Some proposed solutions turn out to be greenwashing, others turn out to be insufficiently effective; still others may initially be effective but may not address the heart of the problem.
While these are complex and tricky questions, with more than one plausible answer, the good news is that we do not have to feel helpless or paralyzed. There are some relatively clear and justifiable sets of answers to these problems, and all of them are worth pursuing. It is true that they will be ‘costly’ to implement, but we have to weigh the costs of taking action against the costs of failing to act, to determine if the cost of action is justified.
You will notice that some of the solutions proposed involve quite radical changes to our worldviews and our lifestyles. You should not assume that I necessarily agree with the analyses or courses of action. Instead, I want us to take these radical suggestions seriously. If these more radical critiques and suggestions are right, we do not have long to act. Simply trusting the status quo, or the current solutions being promoted may not be enough.
Think of this as your opportunity to ask yourself what you really value in life. If you could construct a whole new society, a whole new philosophy, a whole new set of values, a whole new economy, a whole new relationship to the natural world, what might it look like? And then ask, how would you translate those ideals into practice? How might you act to bring about that new world?