Briefly Noted (Vol. 1.1)

Recognizing the Autonomy of Nature: Theory and Practice by Thomas Heyd (ed.). Columbia University Press (2005), 232pp. $39. ISBN 9780231136068.

This collection of essays investigates the ethical concept of “recognizing and respecting the autonomy of nature,” and is an important read for any wildist. Some of the essays are interesting only because of how well they represent the usual voices in the debate, so are not strictly necessary to read. However, the essays by Eric Katz, Ned Hettinger, Bill Throop & Beth Vickers, and the introduction by Thomas Heyd are all well worth reading. Katz’ addition was by far the most interesting, as he argued for the strict interpretation of “autonomy of nature” that is espoused by wildists.

Keeping the Wild: Against the Domestication of Earth by George Wuerthner, Eileen Crist, Tom Butler (eds.). Island Press (2014), 248pp. $24.95. ISBN 9781610915588.

This collection is the response of the wilderness conservationists to the Anthropocene boosters like Peter Kareiva and Stewart Brand, who advocate turning the earth into a garden, or, in their words, embracing the fact that humans already are gardeners. It is a good book on many counts. The additions by David Ehrenfeld, Ned Hettinger, Dave Foreman, and Howie Wolke are the best, especially Ehrenfeld’s, which eviscerates the notion that new technology can live up to the promises of the boosters. Still, the book suffers from some severe weaknesses, especially the motif of conservation being the next step on the ladder of social progress. This no doubt was a response to Kareiva’s charge of misanthropy and call for humanitarianism at the expense of wilderness, but such a response is unprincipled. At some point the wilderness conservationists are going to have to admit that restoring wildness is at odds with humanitarianism, social progressivism, and left humanism. Finally, the book is fairly repetitive, so readers shouldn’t feel guilty about skimming large portions of the less well-written essays.

The Science of Morality by Joseph L. Daleiden. Prometheus Books (1998), 460pp. $39.98. ISBN 1573922250.

Most people are only familiar with Sam Harris’ argument for a science of morality in The Moral Landscape. This book is quite a bit better than Harris’. Daleiden writes in a more enjoyable tone, interacts with relevant philosophical literature, and displays a wide range of knowledge that he synthesizes skillfully. The particularly relevant parts of the book for wildists are part one, chapter thirteen, the appendices, and many of the works in the selected bibliography. The chapters on policy are also good, but conservationists with a tight schedule can probably get away with reading his analysis on just one of the issues.

The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature by Steven Pinker. Penguin Books (2003), 525pp. $20. ISBN 9780142003343.

Pinker’s book is the best one yet on the new sciences of human nature, even better than E.O. Wilson’s On Human Nature. Pinker addresses much of the science, but his main goal is to quell the knee-jerk reactions and philosophical conundrums incited by it. He organizes the book into two parts, the first addressing “received dogmas” of the “ghost in the machine,” the noble savage, and the blank slate, and the second addressing the ostensible threats of determinism, nihilism, imperfectability, and inequality. Pinker is obviously a humanist and does not argue in favor of wild nature, but his erudition lays the philosophical foundations for dealing with the problems of human nature, whether those problems are being sorted out by humanists, wildists, or others.

Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them by Joshua Greene. Penguin Books (2014), 432pp. $18. ISBN 9780143126058.

This book is Dr. Greene’s proposal for a universal morality. Like The Science of Morality by Joseph Daleiden and The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris, two other prominent books on this topic, Greene advocates a version of utilitarianism as a “metamorality” that can unite the world’s “moral tribes.” Readers already familiar with sociobiological explanations of human nature and morality can mostly skip ahead to part three. (And those who aren’t should try reading Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate and, again, skipping ahead to part three.) It is there that Greene offers his most interesting and original ideas, and offers a very good explanation of utilitarianism and rebuttals of common objections to it. Arguably the ideas are more thorough than even Daleiden’s. Ultimately, Greene fails at his attempt for a universal morality, unable to sufficiently jump over the hurdles noted in the wildist critique of reason and progress, but as a forced universal morality becomes more important for an interconnected world, some version of Greene’s proposal is likely to be the chosen and dominant one, so his ideas are well worth reading. Not only that, much of Greene’s ideas are highly relevant to wildism. Note especially his “modular myopia hypothesis,” and pay attention to his analysis of the different versions of the trolley problem. The latter may be useful in finding a possible moral distinction (or lack of one) between collapse happening and aiding collapse.

Earth First!: Environmental Apocalypse by Martha Lee. Syracuse University Press (1995), 298pp. $29.95. ISBN 9780815626770.

In lieu of our own review, we suggest reading the following one, available online for free: Sessions, G. (1996). Martha Lee, Earth First!. The Trumpeter 13(4).

The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values by Sam Harris. Free Press (2010), 322pp. $16. ISBN 9781439171226.

Compared to other books on the topic, this one only deserves a quick skim. It is useful for people being introduced to the arguments, but it largely ignores the problems inherent in any endeavor toward moral universalism, and it doesn’t properly interact with even the most relevant philosophical literature. I also recommend Thomas Nagel’s review. It doesn’t line up with the foundational ideas of wildism, but it is worth chewing on. See Nagel, T. (2010). The facts fetish. The New Republic.

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