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An Ethical Foundation for Environmentalism

Updated: Apr 17, 2023

Reading the books, Settler Memory by Kevin Bruyneel and Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, has led me to reflect again on the significance of the sub-title of A Climate of Justice: “An Ethical Foundation for Environmentalism.” The following is not a review of their books, but rather reflections on different foundations for an environmental ethic. I highly recommend both books.

Bruyneel defines “settler memory” as the telling of American stories that omit the suffering of Indigenous peoples. Settler memory, in other words, is defined by the stories that settlers do not tell, especially the stories of the commandeering and genocide of Indigenous peoples.

Correcting the failure of settler memory requires that we include the legacy of our nation’s disruption of Indigenous peoples as well as the enslavement of Africans in telling the story of white supremacy, which I see as the barrier to environmental sustainability.

This correction could include such actions as the elimination of “Indian” mascots and names in sports and the switch from Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day, as is already happening in some communities. At a more significant level, the correction would demand that we stand in the way of the continued exploitation of land and people for profit.

I don’t think Bruyneel would have much trouble agreeing with my argument that we live in a climate of injustice, but I am not sure if he would follow me to imagine empowered civilians making claims before government representatives for protection and provisions based on the rule of law. It could be, of course, that the most we can hope for is for vulnerable groups to create solidarity with each other and fight to survive in a climate of injustice. In this case, the basis for an environmental ethic would be resistance to American imperialism.

Robin Wall Kimmerer also writes about memory: the memory of ancestors. The memory of ancestors and their stories guide us to listen and respond to the “teaching of plants.” Instead of an ethic of resistance, Kimmerer invites us to participate in reciprocal relationships with plants.

One of our responsibilities as human people is to find ways to enter into reciprocity with the more than human world. We can do it through gratitude, through ceremony, through land stewardship, science, art, and in very day acts of practical reverence (p.190).

Whether we recognize such an invitation depends on our perspective. Seeing nature as a commodity, of course, prevents us from entering reciprocal relationships. Seeing nature as a gift, on the other hand, sets up the possibility of feeling gratitude for what the Earth has given us. As she says, “reciprocity is a matter of keeping the gift in motion through self-perpetuating cycles of giving and receiving (165).

I also use the ethical principle of reciprocity in A Climate of Justice, but not exactly as Kimmerer does. I also argue that the Earth should not be seen as merely property or a commodity, but I do not have the knowledge she has about the layers of relationships between humans and plants. Perhaps the easiest way to explore these differences is to use the four-fold interpretative framework I provide in the first part of A Climate of Justice: Earth, our humanity, the social, and the civic.

Both works begin with the Earth and relationships with humans, although Kimmerer’s stories are much more profound and revelational than mine. Her stories show the reciprocal relationships between plants and people. I argue that the Earth should be seen as our habitat, or home, which is not contrary to her perspective.

I also see humans as belonging to the Earth, but I do something she does not: I employ the research of neurobiology to locate human dignity in our core awareness of our own purposeful existence. My guess is that Kimmerer would see this as very Western because it locates the origin of dignity in the body rather than in reciprocal relationships. At the same time, we would likely agree that the experience of our dignity occurs in social relations.

If we see our social worlds as constituted by the stories we tell, then I think we would agree on the significance of our social identity. The difference would be the stories we tell. My analysis of the American social includes the stories of the exploitation of both cheap labor and cheap land: enslaved and Indigenous peoples. Here I find myself more in alignment with Bruyneel’s critique of settler memory than Kimmerer’s ancestor memory.

Neither Kimmerer nor Bruyneel say much that parallels the fourth element of my framework: the Civic. I see the civic as the gathering of civilians who press for their rights to protection and provision from those who have the resources and the legal obligations to respond to their requests. I argue that the civic repair of injustices will create a climate of justice, which is based on reciprocal relationships of all inhabitants of the earth.

I learned from Bruyneel that this transformation may not happen. I think I rely more on the thoughts of Martin Luther King Jr., who not only called for resistance to white supremacy, but also called our government to fulfill its promises and obligations to vulnerable civilians.

Reading Kimmerer’s book reminded me of my childhood on a farm in Nebraska. My ancestors did not tell me about reciprocal relationships with plants, and yet I did experience the beauty and the danger of Nebraska weather. The year a hailstorm ruined our crops, I didn’t think of reciprocity. Hailstorms, as they say, fall on the just and the unjust.

It’s clear to me that the “ethical principle of environmentalism” must see the Earth as a limited living system. White supremacy denies limits. Reciprocity imposes limits. I think we encounter the limits not only with the Earth, but also with vulnerable civilians who have a right to protection and provisions. An environmental ethics, in other words, is not only about our relationship with the Earth, but also each other.

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Sharon G. Thornton
Sharon G. Thornton

Nice one! I like the way you engaged in a three-way conversation between you and these two other authors. Thanks!

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