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Perspectives on the Environment

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Nature. Environment. Earth. Each of these words points to a particular physical phenomena, but their meanings are different. And people’s perspectives of them are different.

From left, David H. Grinspoon, Jean-Francois Mouhot and Matthias Klestil discuss the environment during a Kluge Center panel discussion. Photo by Abby Brack Lewis.

On Feb. 28, the John W. Kluge Center brought together three of its scholars to discuss these perspectives and their moral implications in a panel titled “The Evolving Moral Landscape: Perspectives on the Environment, Literary, Historical and Interplanetary.” And, what better time then Earth Day today to take a look at perceptions of human’s relationship to our planet and its environs.

According to American astrobiologist David H. Grinspoon, the first Baruch S. Blumberg NASA/Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology at the Kluge Center, humans are now changing the earth “as a kind of new type of geological force.” We are in what he calls the Anthropocene, a phrase that scientists and others are increasingly using to describe the current phase of earth history.

“The Anthropocene is focusing these questions of the relationship between humanity and nature in a new way,” said Grinspoon. “Should we be pragmatic?  There’s ecopragmatism where you recognize we live on a planet that’s permanently altered by humanity, and rather than seek to return to or preserve pure wilderness, we recognize that’s an illusion and we proceed under the new knowledge that we live, in fact, in a human-dominated planet.

“Then there are these more purist movements within environmentalism that say that’s surrender. We should seek to protect wilderness and not give up and admit that we live in a human-dominated planet.  So as we go forward into the future the Anthropocene serves as a sort of locus for some of these questions – is nature something that we can even think of meaningfully anymore as separate from humanity, or do we acknowledge that now having arisen from nature we are actually running this place?”

Environmental historian Jean-Francois Mouhot, a Marie Curie Fellow from Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (Paris), presented his take on climate change, using slavery as an example, and the underlying moral issues. Mouhot believes that at some point in the future, we may be held accountable for reparation to other countries and people for things that we do today, in terms of our impact on the environment. He used the Haitian Revolution as an example. The slaves revolted in the country that became Haiti and became dependent. Years later, France forced Haiti to essentially pay them for that loss of property in order to give them diplomatic recognition. According to Mouhot, that was normal at that time.

“Driving cars or taking planes or drying your clothes in the dryer … activities that we all do on a regular basis that we find normal and nobody really finds morally appalling or anything like that,” he said.  “Now, if you think about the implications of the use of these machines that all rely on fossil fuels … in the light of the Anthropocene about the fact that we are now altering especially the climate of the earth but also that we are disrupting a lot of other things through our activities, this might in the future be regarded as activities that are not morally neutral.”

Bavarian Fellow Matthias Klestil from the University of Bayreuth in Germany, who is researching the development of environmental consciousness in African-American literature, discussed how the African American community is perceived in regards to its relationship with nature and the environment. Citing an August 2009 trip taken by President Barack Obama to Yellowstone, the media exchange that followed really triggered the perception of how deeply unfamiliar the image of not only Obama but of an African-American in general enjoying a frontier setting seemed to be, he said.

“You know, we might not find much if we think about African-American literature in terms of having an explicit activist or conservationist/preservationist ethics underlying,” Mouhout said.  “So instead I’m implying the wider definition of environmental knowledge. I’m looking at the ways in which there are specific attachments or identifications with nature in African-American literature.”

Using slavery as a case in point, he talked about three aspects to this environmental consciousness.

“First, there is the aspect of vision. So I look at how, for example, the fugitive slave narrative has a different mode of visually relating and perceiving nature than, you know, mainstream transcendentalists have,” he said. “The second aspect would be that of labor.  So what does it mean to actually work with environments under slavery but also more general terms? How does that shape the human’s relation to natural environments, having actually to do work but not just going there in their free time?”

The third aspect, he said, revolves around the abolitionist debate versus the pro-slavery debate of nature.

“Basically both sides are in a sense drawing on nature,” Klestil said. “One side is saying slavery is unnatural, and the other side is saying slavery is totally natural because that’s how they [slaves] were made, what they were made for.”

The John W. Kluge Center brings scholars and best thinkers to the nation’s capital to utilize the Library’s collections, to energize and inspire one another and to engage in dialogue with leaders in Washington and the public.

You can watch the panel discussion in full here.

Grinspoon summed up the discussion: “We have to learn to become a new kind of entity on this world that has the maturity and the awareness to handle being a global species with the power to change our planet and use that power in a way that is conducive to the kind of global society we want to have.”


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