Environmental Activism

Kate Rawles "The Missing Shade of Green"

In “The Missing Shade of Green” Rawles addresses the complaint that the field of philosophy is based solely on thinking and the abstract without a focus on action. She attempts to bridge philosophy and activism by showing that one should not exist without considering the other.

Rawles begins by detailing common-place views of activism and philosophy. She states that activism is perceived as being focused on action and philosophy on thinking. However, she challenges this by proposing that philosophy can affect action or even create the need for action. And she proceeds to detail the ways in which philosophy can affect activism.

  1. Philosophy can “draw attention to these values and assumptions and subject them to a critical scrutiny” (537). In this way Philosophy can cause us to question the values we hold and the way we act thereby changing the way we act. Or can cause us to examine the principles upon which our actions are based.
  2. Philosophy can startle someone long enough to cause them to re-evaluate the way they view a situation and lead them to questions their values or their actions
  3. “activists are often called upon to justify their actions, and to do this convincingly presumably requires a certain amount of philosophical skill” (358)
  4. Additionally, action is based upon a set of values and principles. Philosophy examines and evaluates values and can help in determining the best course of action.

These are all essential, Rawles states because activism cannot be uninformed action. Activists have to consider their actions and the effect such actions will have as well as be able to defend those actions.
Rawles also argues that philosophy is an indirect form of activism as “constructive activism is not possible without a certain amount of reflection on what constitutes valuable change or conservation” (539). Therefore, action must consider the animal and not make assumptions about the animals or its situation. Philosophy can help by “changing the general way in which we perceive animals and the environment…” (540).

She also tries to show how Philosophy cannot exist independent of facts. Environmental philosophy has to consider the impact of our actions upon the natural world. Additionally, support for environmental philosophy will have to be informed by natural science. However, she does caution that philosophy is not dependent upon science; but environmental philosophy cannot ignore the science.

Rawles, however, considers drawbacks and admits that “…there may be ways in which the philosophy proves to be more of a hindrance than a help” (542). By its nature philosophy is concerned with details and complexities and “one often ends up following the problem wherever it goes and for the sake of the problem rather than for the light it might shed on external issues” (542). It is possible that philosophy about the environment may never yield a didactic solution; it may instead never get passed the question(s) what is environment? or what is activism? (542). She also concedes that philosophy as an academic branch can be slow and exist in a time sphere outside of the issues and the action (i.e. philosophical study of an issue does not take into account how pressing the issue may be) and philosophy can fail to recognize the necessity of immediate action. However, on the other hand, Rawles cautions that activists must resist the desire to act first and think later.

Rawles attempts to connect philosophy and action and ground a discipline which is frequently criticized for not being based in the “real world.” However, I remain skeptical as to the connection. I feel this a large gap to bridge as most environmental ethics theories are based upon a set of “what if” seeming values and morals instead of the anthropocentric ones on which most of the world basis their actual actions. It is not practical to assume that everyone is going to alter their entire believe system simply because it is better than the current mode of thought.

Additionally, most environmental activists would benefit more from scientific training to understand the effect of their actions on the ecosystem than a philosophical training to understand how their values affect the way they are acting.

Original Claim, intro:
Rawles claims that pure facts don’t motivate, rather people are motivated to be environmental activists by garnering information through a filter of beliefs, values and assumptions that we may or may not be aware of. Philosophy can bring attention to environmental activism by:
a) viewing the facts in a new way
b) by leading to a change in values
c) can open new ways for facts to get in
People’s backgrounds impact their views on many things including environmental activism. We are usually raised with a set of values and ethics that are inherent to who we are. Our parents, school, religion and society influence us in what we think and believe, but there is also our own doubts which can lead us to critical reflection if what we were raised believing changes when we explore other areas of interest.

Philosophy as guiding development:
To be an activist, you must have a “what” and “why” established.
Philosophy plays the role as a guide to ensure that the actions an activist might take are thoughtful and skillful. Philosophy can help define the problem and offer an answer to the issue. Facts do influence actions which therefore leads to certain levels of activism with a base of knowledge. Another question raised involves animal activism. We can not talk to animals so how do we know what they like and don’t like? We need to have some ecological understand of it or have experienced it according to Hume.

Kate Rawles, “The Missing Shade of Green,” in Environmental Philosophy and Environmental Activism, ed. D. Marieta and L. Embree (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1995), 149-67.
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