Philosophy professor Celia Bardwell-Jones discusses ethics of environmental conservation

Professor Celia Bardwell-Jones stresses the need for “a paradigm shift in how we see, view, and talk about nature.”

By Emily Burkhart.

Celia Bardwell-Jones
Celia Bardwell-Jones

Professor of Philosophy Celia Bardwell-Jones led an online discussion last week on the role of humanities in scientific discourse. About 60 participants took part in the virtual seminar titled, “Environmental and Conservation Ethics,” part of a weekly series sponsored by the tropical conservation biology and environmental science graduate program at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo.

Bardwell-Jones, who researches feminist philosophy, American philosophy, and philosophy of race and cultural diversity, says a background in ethics is an essential component for students in the graduate program, many of whom will go on to careers in conservation management and other environmental science-related fields.

At first glance, she says, philosophy and science seem to be worlds apart. The two disciplines take on different issues, so why is it necessary to understand philosophical topics, like morality and ethics, for the objective practices of scientific inquiry and data collection?

Drawing upon Baird Callicott’s work in environmental philosophy, Bardwell-Jones explains that what we know today as the natural sciences used to be known by another name: natural philosophy. Prior to the time of Socrates, 6th century pre-Socratic natural philosophers considered inquiry about the natural world to go hand in hand with its social, moral, and ethical implications.

It wasn’t until the 17th century that a split was created, and according to Bardwell-Jones, this split created a harmful “void between science and humanities” that carried over into the 20th century. Under this system, “humanistic discourse vanishes,” and science’s assumed objectivity exempts it and its practitioners from ethical and social concerns.

To better understand the ethical implications of conservation policies, Bardwell-Jones presents two real-world examples meant to “unsettle previously held assumptions” about current conservation practices. Both examples chart the problematic assumption that nature is separate to that of culture.

National parks

The first example is national parks and the concept of preservation. One of the long held conservation assumptions about national parks is the ethic of preservation. The logic of preservation can be expressed by The Wilderness Act of 1964, which Bardwell-Jones says “emerged to address our [United States] responsibility to nature.”

The national park as conservation policy emerged to safeguard nature’s “intrinsic” value, the idea that “nature has value and of itself—as a being that ought to be respected.” This isn’t necessarily a hard concept to get behind—national parks are loved and the public wants to preserve their beauty for enjoyment and relaxation. However, Bardwell-Jones points out some value-laden assumptions behind this way of thinking.

According to The Wilderness Act, wilderness was first defined “in contrast to those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

This definition of conservation notably operates on the assumption that the natural world is a space in contrast to the world of humans. This distinction of nature versus culture defines nature based on a logic of purity. Popularized by American philosopher Henry David Thoreau in the 19th century and politicized by the environmentalist John Muir in the 20th, the logic of purity highlights a pure, romanticized view of nature—foundational to The Wilderness Act—where parks and primitive forests are not to be used by humans for purposes other than recreation.

“The concept of the national park entails removal of indigenous peoples and indigenous practices of conservation,” says Bardwell-Jones. “Preservation alienates indigenous peoples whose task it is to have knowledge of place and how to care for it.” She calls the conception of “pristine nature” under a logic of purity an “oppressive framework” that highlights “racist, colonialist, and classist” conceptions of nature, hardly universal to all peoples. “The task of philosophy is for to us reflect on these issues,” she explains.

Preservationism, she says, privileges people over nature, as nature is “resourcized, otherized, and objectified,” showcasing the problem of Western ethics: that it ignores the non-human by separating humans from nature. Nature becomes a collection of resources rather than relations. The decision of what is made into a resource and what is not comes under the purview of moral considerability. “Who has moral considerability?” asks Bardwell-Jones. “Does a mountain have moral considerability [under a Western ethical paradigm]?”

Though “these are difficult questions to address through scientific perspectives,” she says, they are nonetheless important, and possible, if scientists can see themselves not as objective data collectors but as natural philosophers who incorporate ethical values into scientific work.

Enriching the discussion, graduate student Darrian Muraoka suggested that in a context of Hawaiian conservation policies, morality must be “measured by mo‘olelo” because it enables Hawaiians to “take care of [their] ʻāina” through the blueprint of “historical and scientific storytelling.” Perspectives like hers are those of a natural philosopher, considering both context and ethics in composing conservation policy.

Invasive species

Bardwell-Jones did not shy away from another real-world example, admittedly controversial: the discourse around invasive species, especially prevalent here in Hawaiʻi. The fight to eradicate “invasive species” in favor of “native ones,” she says, produces the dualism of “pests” versus “natives.” It requires a military-style response, she says, that mimics colonization and immigration policies which render certain bodies killable.

This framework is potentially regressive and those involved with conservation must find a better way to talk about invasivity, she says. Robin Wall Kimmerer, a Citizen of the Potawatami Nation and plant ecologist, discusses in her book, Braiding Sweetgrass, the possibility of the non-native to coexist with its neighbors, thereby changing the way unwanted plants are viewed.

Bardwell-Jones stresses the need for “a paradigm shift in how we see, view, and talk about nature.” By acknowledging the origins of scientists in natural philosophy, she says, students in the tropical conservation biology and environmental science program will be inspired to interrogate how oppressive frameworks shape how we make meaning in the world. She tells of her hopes to open up a sense of wonder, in students, “such that these ideas will marinate in your thoughts through and after your program.”

“It’s deep,” she admits, “but I think it’s important.”


Story by Emily Burkhart, a senior double majoring in English, and Gender and Women’s Studies, at UH Hilo. 

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