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  • Morality and the Environmental Crisis by Roger Gottlieb
  • Madronna Holden (bio)
Roger Gottlieb. Morality and the Environmental Crisis New York: Cambridge University Press UK 2019. 240 pages.

Roger Gottlieb's Morality and the Environmental Crisis is a philosophical overview of the choices that will shape our grandchildren's lives, as dramatized in his speculative sketch of two very different futures at the end of this book. Gottlieb more than once notes that he is in his seventh decade of life, appropriately designating this work as that of an elder passing on the knowledge derived from his long career as a scholar, teacher, activist linking environmentalist with spiritual communities, and the father of a daughter with special needs. First on his list of potential actions for addressing the environmental crisis is writing a book such as this to encourage readers to share his conviction of the need for change.

This comprehensive work not only analyzes philosophies of right action, but definitions of nature and human nature and the epistemology that informs our choices. Gottlieb further points out that philosophical analysis does not always elicit care for the environment. Communion with the natural world and gratitude for our natural lives are often more effective. He discusses research that indicates reason and emotion can never be completely separated and gives serious consideration to the grief and despair that arise in the face of our environmental crisis.

This book begins by outlining that environmental crisis. Lest the multiple tragedies of climate change, pollution, species extinction, and environmental racism are so overwhelming as to stymy action in response, Gottlieb proposes hope in the "human universal" of "deeply felt connection to the natural world" (27). He also notes the possibility of successful change is underscored by the history of change in arenas like civil rights.

Gottlieb's assertion of the hope derived from the example of cultures living in harmony with the natural world is supported by research in the field of traditional ecological knowledge, which indicates how particular indigenous peoples improved the fecundity of their habitats in [End Page 85] their longstanding residence in place. I have in mind works like M. Kat Anderson's Tending the Wild (2005) which details the stunning results of the stewardship practices of California's indigenous peoples, and Parvis Koohafkan and Miguel Altieri's Forgotten Agricultural Heritage (2017), which offers a global overview of the program that has located and supported dozens of "Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems" in which long-term human residence in place has resulted in subsistence strategies supporting biodiversity and ecological resiliency. In addition, Gottlieb's observation that nature's own egolessness and interdependency serves as the model of morality to which humans might profitably aspire is supported by the work of anthropologists such as Eugene Hunn (1990) in the US Pacific Northwest and Deborah Rose (1992) in Australia, who elaborate the ways certain cultures modeled their lives on nature's interdependence, generosity, and reciprocity.

Early on, Gottlieb offers a chapter that examines the ways in which the range of Western moral philosophies have or have not attended to the significance of nature and the obligation to care for it. Ultimately, Gottlieb concludes that moral philosophy has failed to deliver a satisfying environmental ethic, both because it arises within the worldview that sets humanity apart from and higher than nature, and because it has so far largely neglected the need to apply moral standards to the treatment of the natural world. He finds virtue ethics, which links the good life with virtues such as compassion, gratitude, awareness, and love, closest to presenting a moral standard for treatment of the environment. Yet he also observes a problematic streak in the contemporary human psyche that causes individuals to work against their own best interests and thus against the values outlined in virtue ethics. He points out, for instance, the cases of those who succumb to addictions in spite of the misery they suffer as a result, and those negatively affected by being in the path of a Dakota pipeline spill who nonetheless continue to support that pipeline's construction.

Indeed, Gottlieb sees all intellectual endeavors, including science and the rationality Gottlieb defines as truth-seeking...


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