Sunday, November 13, 2011

Radical Hope & Ecological Humility

I've (finally) been reading Jonathan Lear's Radical Hope about the last principal chief of the Crow, Plenty Coups. The main question of the book is roughly: how can one go on with one's way of life in the face of circumstances which basically render that way of life obsolete? One point Lear makes that's worth restating:
...a culture does not tend to train the young to endure its own breakdown....inability to conceive of its own devastation will tend to be the blind spot of any culture. By and large a culture will not teach its young: "These are the ways in which you can succeed, and these are the ways in which you will fail; these are the dangers you might face, and here are opportunities; these acts are shameful, and these are worthy of honor--and, oh yes, one more thing, this entire structure of evaluating the world might cease to make sense." (83)
As Lear goes on to note, that final remark simply undercuts (it seems) everything that precedes it, and even though the remark is true, what can one do about it?

I've been thinking about similar questions about radical moral uncertainty in relation to ecological questions. The breakdown of current ecosystems could conceivably lead to such a point of uncertainty, which leaves old ways of life unsustained (and not simply unsustainable--the crucial point would be, as it were, the point at which things had broken down). And I've been thinking about--in light of an upcoming workshop on this issue (to which, alas, my proposal did not make the cut)--how the virtue of humility might provide some kind of answer, or how cultivating humility might be, as it were, a "preparatory virtue" of sorts (the value of which is not, however, simply limited to preparing for the collapse of one's way of life). This is part of what I said in my proposal (which I think is still worth working on):
The humble person recognizes that not every problem has a technological solution--that sometimes the solution requires changing oneself (or, by the by, one’s community). At the same time, humility does not reject technology as a viable part of our adaptation to changing environments or human needs. (It is not a luddite’s virtue either.) The humble person rather sees that no use of resources is justified if it unnecessarily diminishes diversity--human or non-human--within the world precisely because the humble person acknowledges a plurality of values and goods, and sees each as warranting as much respect as possible. As Keekok Lee points out, the humble person is also mindful of the fact that the natural world as a whole system needs our respect far less than our survival depends upon our respecting the fact of our own dependence upon a natural world that is, and continues to be, hospitable for us.* If we fail to live humbly, “the results could be that the last laugh, so to speak, would be on us, humans.”
The basic idea is that there is a kind of flexibility within humility (in contrast with the rigidity of the arrogant). Notably, Lear alludes to the relevance of humility in his discussion of Plenty Coups' need to reconceive of courage in order to lead his tribe with something recognizable as courage (and honor), when the old ways of acting with courage are no longer available.

(It's worth noting that Allen Thompson has written about applying Lear's notion of "radical hope" to the darker possibilities of climate change (here).)

* Keekok Lee, “Awe and Humility: Intrinsic Value in Nature. Beyond an Earthbound Environmental Ethics,” in Robin Attfield and Andrew Belsey, Philosophy and the Natural Environment (Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement), (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp. 89-101

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