Ethics & the Enviornment 6.2 (2001) 119-124
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Eugene Odum: Ecosystem Ecologist and Environmentalis
Eugene Odum: Ecosystem Ecologist and Environmentalist. Betty Jean Craige. The University of Georgia Press, Athens, 2001, pp. 226. $34.95. ISBN 0-8203-2281-4 (Hardback)
A serendipity initiated this review. A half hour before checking my voice mail and receiving the invitation to write this review, I stood at the University of Georgia Press table at the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment (ASLE) conference in Flagstaff, Arizona. Picking up Betty Jean Craige's new text, I thought to myself, "This book looks interesting! I'm going to have to read it!" Not only did that wish come true; now I have the opportunity to share my thoughts.
Prima facie, it may seem odd to print a review on a biography of a scientific ecologist in an environmental ethics journal. In fact, however, nothing could be more appropriate. The science of ecology is directly relevant--even essential--to the ethics of the environment: the human/nonhuman dynamic is contingent upon the identity of human beings, the essence of natural systems, and the interactive relationship between the two. As an environmental philosopher, it was this realization which directed me to the life sciences. [End Page 119]
I recommend that environmental philosophers read Craige's book for at least three reasons. First, as just mentioned, the science of ecology addresses some of the necessary conditions for developing an environmental ethic--the ontology of natural systems and the relationship of biota (including Homo sapiens) with the abiotic environment.
Second, and more specifically, Odum is a scientist of special concern to environmental philosophers--not to mention moral philosophers and philosophers of science--with his reticence to take seriously the is/ought (or fact/value) gap first identified by the great David Hume. As is widely known, philosophers and scientists who maintain the existence of such a gap contend that it is logically impossible to derive value-laden statements, such as ethical statements, from value-free statements, such as factual statements. According to this line of reasoning, the only way to move from the observation that human activity is causing species extinction to the imperative PRESERVE SPECIES! is another normative assumption that anthropogenic species extinction is bad. Thus Odum is at loggerheads with Bertrand Russell when the philosopher writes: " . . . questions as to 'values' lie wholly outside the domain of knowledge. That is to say, when we assert that this or that has 'value,' we are giving expression to our own emotions, not to a fact[.]" Siding with Russell against Odum, many ecologists refrain from making ethical (and hence environmentalist) injunctions.
What makes Odum especially fascinating is that he recovered from the hangover of Modernity which numerous scientists and philosophers still suffer from: the inability of moving from descriptive science to prescriptive ethics. As Craige remarks over and over again, Odum moves easi-ly between ecology and environmentalism (p. 64): "His inclusion of human beings in ecosystems turned ecosystem ecologists into environmentalists--that is, advocates of policies and social behaviors protective to the natural environment--erasing the line traditional to Western thought between science and politics" (p. 45. See also p. xvii, p. 41). Odum's attitude marks a major breakthrough for the project of grounding environmental ethics in ecological science.
Third, Odum is a great scientist whose work is relevant to a host of other philosophical issues. In our recent book, The Philosophy of Ecology: From Science to Synthesis (University of Georgia Press, 2000), Frank Golley and I struggled not to include a piece by Odum in every section of the book. Odum's work has implications for every area in the philosophy of ecology: the ontology of the ecological entity, the reductionism/holism [End Page 120] debate, the rationalism/empiricism debate, evolutionary ecology, and the relationship of ecology to ethics. In light of my work in the philosophy of ecology and familiarity with Odum's research--not to mention meeting him personally several times--I find several of Craige's statements perplexing. When she writes...