SKEPTICAL ENVIRONMENTALISM: The Limits of PhiIosophy and Science.

SKEPTICAL ENVIRONMENTALISM: The Limits of PhiIosophy and Science.

By Rovert Kirkman. Indiana Univ. Press. 212 pp. $1 9.95

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Linklater somewhat overpraises the sophistication of Gunter’s chain—it is, in the end, a pretty odd standard of length—but he is right to observe how much it remains with us. Penn Square in Philadelphia is 10 chains on a side; the streets of Salt Lake City are two chains wide; across the country, city blocks and suburban plats hide neat multiples of the old feudal measure. The abrupt right-angled jogs encountered on otherwise straight midwestern roads are a consequence of trying to fit a plane grid onto a curved surface.

The core of Linklater’s book is a compelling account of the surveying of the Ohio Territory in the years after independence. The distribution of this rich tract of land among pioneers offers a model for the physical, legal, and economic development of American society. A subtheme on the consistently thwarted attempts, beginning with Thomas Jefferson’s, to introduce metric measurements to the United States distracts more than it illuminates, but Linklater has nevertheless produced a charming introduction to a subject one would hardly have imagined could be so engaging.

—David Lindley

SKEPTICAL ENVIRONMENTALISM: The Limits of Philosophy and Science.

By Robert Kirkman. Indiana Univ. Press. 212 pp. $19.95

From Rachel Carson on, the Green movement has been heavy with facts, often alarmist ones. To underpin that empirical evidence, some environmentalists have sketched a general philosophical foundation: a large view of nature and our place in it. Bjørn Lomborg’s bestselling The Skeptical Environmentalist (2001) challenged the empirical basis of Green ideology. Now Kirkman offers a critical account of the philosophical foundations of the ideology.

A professor of science and technology at Michigan State University, Kirkman begins with the idea of nature, which in Cartesian metaphysics is matter, brute stuff in space, the cosmos as vast machine. Against this view stand organicism and holism, which see the universe and the life within it as a unified whole. After discussing Hegel and Kant, Kirkman concludes that speculative philosophy is a poor guide for environmental thinking about nature. The meanings of nature are too varied and contradictory, and, adding to the ambiguity, nature and environment often are used interchangeably. Where some analysts might try to stipulate strict new meanings for these confusing terms, Kirkman, with commendable honesty, gives up on them altogether.

Kirkman is polite about every thinker he analyzes—too polite. He mentions, for example, the ecofeminists, who see the universe as a system of "weblike relations"—a feminine worldview, apparently—and find this idea useful in furthering both feminism and the Green cause. Kirkman doesn’t explain why ecofeminism deserves even a mention. We may like both poetry and fine porcelain, but it does not follow that a plate with a poem on it is better than either alone. The same holds true of putting "eco-" in front of feminism, postcolonialism, Catholicism, socialism, or any other belief system.

Kirkman’s bland agreeableness continues though chapters on environmentalism and value theory. Here he concludes that neither science nor philosophical speculation can give us a picture of the place of human beings in the universe, and hence neither can be used to establish value. Martin Heidegger makes an appearance, with his devotion to "dwelling poetically" on "the earth." No mention of his connections to the Nazis, who were pioneers in many eco-friendly policies, including smoke-free restaurants.

Toward the end of the book, Kirkman notes that the managers of Tsavo National Park in Kenya decided to stop culling and let nature take its course with elephant populations. This "natural" process made for a catastrophic increase in elephant numbers followed by large-scale starvation, with the landscape denuded of vegetation in the process. The Tsavo incident is not analyzed, but it serves as a reminder of how much more engaging the book might have been had it examined environmentalism in terms of the results of applying abstractions—for instance, definitions of "natural."

With its warnings of catastrophe and promises of salvation, Green thinking can resemble religion. Kirkman has made a start at debunking such pretensions, but a field so rife with moralizing nonsense needs a more robust

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critique. Nevertheless, Skeptical Environmentalism confirms a long-standing suspicion of mine: No special philosophical principles undergird environmentalism beyond (1) the general biophilic and humanist idea that we should care for living things, particularly if they are sentient and can feel pain; and (2) the principle that we ought to leave to our descendants a world that makes lives of fulfillment and pleasure possible. Not all good ideas are grand abstractions.

—Denis Dutton


Ken Adelman, an ambassador to the United Nations and arms control director in the Reagan administration, conducts executive training nationwide with his wife, Carol, in their company, Movers and Shakespeares. Jorge I. Domínguez is the Clarence Dillon Professor of International Affairs and the director of the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University. Denis Dutton teaches philosophy at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. David J. Garrow, Presidential Distinguished Professor at Emory University Law School, is the author of Bearing the Cross (1986), a biography of Martin Luther King, Jr., which won a Pulitzer Prize. A. J. Hewat is a writer and editor living in Connecticut. Mark Kingwell, a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto, is the author of The World We Want: Restoring Citizenship in a Fractured Age (2001) and Practical Judgments: Essays in Culture, Politics, and Interpretation (2002). David Lindley, the author of Boltzmann’s Atom: The Great Debate That Launched a Revolution in Physics (2001) and the coeditor of Webster’s New World Dictionary of Science (1998), is writing a biography of the Victorian scientist and entrepreneur Lord Kelvin. Max McCoy is the author of nine books, including Jesse: A Novel of the Outlaw Jesse James (1999). Robert J. Samuelson, a columnist for Newsweek and The Washington Post, is the author of Untruth: Why the Conventional Wisdom Is (Almost Always) Wrong (2001). Matthew Scully, a former special assistant and senior speechwriter to President George W. Bush, and a former literary editor of National Review, is the author of the newly published Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy. Ben Yagoda, a professor of journalism at the University of Delaware, is the author of About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made (2000).

Credits: Cover, Schalkwijk/Art Resource, N.Y., Reproduced by permission of the Banco de México Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Avenue Cinco de Mayo No. 2, Col. Centro, Del. Cuauhtémoc 06059, México D. F.; p. 9, © Jon Feingersh/CORBIS; p. 11, Reprinted with permission from Why Paint Cats: The Ethics of Feline Aesthetics, Copyright © 2002 by Burton Silver and Heather Busch, Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, Calif., Photo: Heather Busch; pp. 13, 45, 119, Reproduced from the Collections of the Library of Congress; p. 15, © CORBIS; p. 19, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; p. 23, Bill Gaddis (1987), by Julian Schnabel, oil, plates and bondo on wood, 72" x 60", Photograph by Ellen Page Wilson, Courtesy of PaceWildenstein Gallery, New York, N.Y.; p. 27, From the Department of Special Collections, Washington University Libraries, © 2002 The Gaddis Estate, Reprinted with permission of The Wylie Agency, Inc.; p. 31, Artville/; p. 37, Courtesy of Neo Rauch and David Zwirner, New York; p. 41, © Ian Berry/Magnum Photos; p. 47, © Wess Brown/; p. 53, © 2000 Peter Menzel/; p. 55, Courtesy of Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt, Germany; p. 61, Paul Wessel/Geoware; p. 63, © CORBIS/SYGMA; p. 67, © 2002 Jean-Marie Simon; p. 71, © Paul Lowe/Magnum Photos; p. 79, AP Photo/Melbourne Age; pp. 82–83, Marche, by Rousseau Denis, Oil on canvas, 15" x 30", Courtesy of Gallery C, Raleigh, N.C.,; p. 88, AP Photo/Denis Paquin; pp. 105, 125, © Bettmann/CORBIS; p. 107, AP Photo/Claude Paris; p. 111, © David Levine/New York Review of Books; p. 115, © Richard Payne; p. 121, Photograph by Alberto Korda, Courtesy of the Couturier Gallery, Los Angeles, Calif.; p. 128, Gjon Mili/Timepix.

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