Student Chapters

Existentialism and the Environment

An Existential Analysis of Environmental Values and the Other

Cael Jones

Hi readers, my name is Cael! I am a recent OSU graduate, and wrote this paper in my senior year. I plan to continue my education through an MA and PhD after a few years off. While philosophy is not my direct field of study, I am especially interested in its implications for the environmental movement, and related policymaking efforts. I believe there are some rich and provocative insights that can come from this intersection. This drove me to explore the subject, including my own introspection and thoughts on the matter. Thus, I hope to further study the interconnection between environmentalism, existentialism and social science in the future.

Foremost, the existential doctrine is one of choice and freedom. This creates an interesting set of implications for the area of environmental ethics, as the existentialists believe we are responsible for everything we do. In fact, we are not only responsible for ourselves, but the world around us and the effects our actions have on it. Likewise, as with environmental issues, existentialism reveals the intimate relationship one has with others. Just as Sartre expresses, we are always with the other. Similarly, our environmental consequences affect every person in the world, in a multitude of ways. Furthermore, nature itself has been treated as an other and I argue that this is coherent with many existentialist notions. In this sense, I believe existentialism and environmental values share some important similarities which could illuminate how one should act. Moreover, the philosophy of existentialism is one that is deeply related to the human condition, especially as it questions the meaning of existence. For this reason, I will devote a brief portion of this endeavor to reflect on my own relationship with existential values and how they have influenced my worldview. Meanwhile, I provide a substantive comparison with David Loy and Buddhist thinking. In order to develop an understanding of existentialism, I will predominantly draw on the works of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Franz Fanon. Finally, I place this existential environmentalism in the context of multiple moral paradigms, including: an existential ethics, virtue ethics and social justice movements. Thus, existentialism provides a unique framework for understanding our relationship with “the other” and nature, by defining the meaning of our actions. Therefore, I intend to show how this philosophy is particularly useful for directing environmental values, especially with the assistance of ethical theories which bridge the gap between reason and action.

A compliation of words that are used throughout the paper (courtesy of wordclouds.com).

Prior to explaining existentialism’s key themes, I must define the authors’ ontological structure. For Sartre and Beauvoir, being is everywhere, as Sartre  calls it the “ever present foundation of the existent,” which endures both in the world and within nothingness (Sartre, 1956, p. 24). Moreover, at the center of their ontology is the fundamental distinction between the for-itself (pour-soi) and the in-itself (en-soi). As such, being-in-itself are the objects of the external world, things that are self-contained and whose being is completely apparent. Being-in-itself has no consciousness and cannot be anything more than what it is. This is in stark contrast to being-for-itself, which is designated to humans, being that is not immediately salient to us  . The for-itself is the contingency of being and resides in a mode of existence of consciousness (1956, p. 127). A key aspect of the for-itself is that it must choose its own activities and purpose, by making decisions about its existence. This is the ontological basis for the existentialist philosophy and underpins much of its themes, namely, the existential freedom of the for-itself.

Thus, this distinction opens the discussion to broader existentialist concepts. More specifically, I want to establish some of the core terms I will be using throughout this paper. At the heart of this doctrine is the phrase “existence precedes essence” (Sartre, 2007). As the wording suggests, one must first exist in order to have an essence. Now, many theologians would disagree  with this fundamental belief, as God has endowed his creations with a nature or spirit. However, existentialism (at least, in the French tradition) is inherently atheist. Moreover, we can look to Sartre for a more concrete definition of this concept: “[Existentialism] states that if God does not exist, there is at least one being in whom existence precedes essence -a being whose existence comes before its essence, a being who exists before he can be defined by any concept of it. That being is man, or, as Heidegger put it, the human reality” (2007, p. 22). This is incredibly important because it establishes Sartre’s concurrent belief; man is condemned to be free. In atheistic existentialism, humans can never explain away their actions with an “immutable human nature” or determinism (Sartre, 2007, p. 29). Rather, we are abandoned without excuses, or as Heidegger would say, humans are “thrown into the world.” Sartre further explains, “That is what I mean when I say that man is condemned to be free: condemned, because he did not create himself, yet nonetheless free, because once cast into the world, he is responsible for everything he does” (2007, p. 29). This inherent freedom creates a heavy sense of responsibility, one that follows you wherever you go. Humans are simultaneously responsible for their own actions as well as the impact it has on the world around them. Sartre provides an excellent example in Existentialism is a Humanism, where a boy must choose between going off to war or caring for his sickly mother (2007, p. 30-32). Regardless of who he may consult, the boy is forced to make this decision as it is his choice, and his alone. This is what creates existentialism’s intense focus on choices, as we will later explore the ethical and environmental consequences this may have.

Meanwhile, this absolute freedom is intimately connected with many other existential themes. Most importantly, this freedom arises out of an absurd existence. The term “absurdity,” (coined by Camus) is used to denote the innate conflict between humans’ tendency to seek meaning and the inability to find it in a chaotic universe. In fact, the absurd is an inescapable aspect of human life. Upon reflection of The Stranger, Sartre writes “The absurd, to be sure, resides neither in man nor in the world, if one considers each separately. But since man’s essential nature is ‘being-in-the-world,’ the absurd is ultimately an inseparable part of the human condition” (2007, p. 76-77). Moreover, this absurdity is coupled with a feeling of anxiety, and anguish or nausea as Sartre calls it. However, just as Heidegger notes, this existential anxiety should not be confused with fear. One is fearful of something, but this anxiety is ever-present, and is never directed at one thing. Rather, anxiety pervades our very existence , just as the absurd does. Likewise, this anxiety creates a feeling of alienation, which separates the individual from the world around them, while discouraging fulfilling actions. Regardless, this paralyzing anxiety is brought on by the meaninglessness   of existence, causing a worry that never really goes away. Similarly, anguish insinuates a similar sense of longing and despair produced by our freedom and responsibility. Sartre offers some clarification to the term: anguish is when “a man who commits himself, and who realizes that he is not only the individual that he chooses to be, but also a legislator choosing at the same time what humanity as a whole should be, cannot help but be aware of his own full and profound responsibility” (2007, p. 25). In this sense, anguish is a natural outcome produced by our responsibility.

Despite this rather nihilistic  outlook, existentialists provide a more optimistic attempt at finding meaning in the face of nothingness. Both Beauvoir and Sartre introduce the concept of transcendence as a way of creating meaning despite our absurd, meaningless existence. Integral to this process is the idea of facticity. Simply put, these are the conditions of one’s existence. More specifically, it is one’s language, environment, previous choices, as well as their time and place of birth. Humans are constantly haunted by their facticity. However, this creates the opportunity for transcendence, an actualization of our freedom by moving beyond our factic conditions. Accordingly, Beauvoir explains, “Indeed, cut off from his transcendence, reduced to the facticity of his presence, an individual is nothing; it is by his project that he fulfills himself, by the end at which he aims that he justifies himself; thus, this justification is always to come” (2006, p. 50). By pursuing projects, creating purpose in existence, we transcend our fundamental conditions and formulate meaning in our lives. For the authors, this is a means of authentic living, a recognition of the self, in its entirety. This is in contrast to the idea of bad faith. For Sartre and Beauvoir, bad faith is a form of self-deception, when one engages in a persona that is not their authentic selves. Likewise, Sartre claims that it is a form of denial, in bad faith “I flee from myself, I escape myself  ” (1956, p. 99). In this sense, bad faith denies any possibility of transcendence while reducing oneself to their mere facticity. Of course, nearly everyone engages in a form of bad faith. However, Sartre and Beauvoir urge their readers to engage in projects that transcend their conditions in order to affirm their being, rather than masking it.

Jean Paul Sartre in Venice, Italy (1951). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons (Source: L’Unità).

Next, I’d like to reflect on how existentialism has impacted my own life. Since reading Albert Camus in high school (namely, The Stranger), my outlook on life has significantly shifted. Existentialism began to grow as a substitute for religious values and deeply influenced my understanding of life. It provides a basis for action that I found lacking in other philosophical beliefs. Moreover, this philosophy naturally fit my evolution towards atheism as I long since doubted Christian teachings and ideology. In this sense, existentialism offered a refuge that explained many of the things I felt as a late teenager. The feelings of alienation and anxiety were at the forefront of my mind as I moved towards college. Yet, existentialism not only provides an explanation for these emotions but a philosophical paradigm for viewing the world. Moreover, this realization that the world was meaningless was not tragic but revitalizing. I recognized my radical freedom in the face of the absurd and understood that I was not simply floating in existence, as I was the one in control  . Furthermore, Camus offered a means of rebellion against this unjust and unfair universe. Perhaps it was the fact that I must discover my own meaning that made me gravitate towards this philosophy. Of course, Sartre and Camus’ eloquent writing only added to this effect. It was as if they understood the world in a way I never thought of. Thus, the existentialist tradition has impacted my life in a plethora of ways, by reshaping my worldview and creating such a relatable perspective on existence.

With this background in mind, we can move on to a more substantive discussion of nature as ‘the other.’ This is perhaps a major point in which Sartre departs from the likes of Beauvoir and Fanon. For Sartre, other people are reminiscent of the Hegelian master-slave relation. It is a constant struggle for recognition, where one must   objectify or alienate the other. In this sense, the individual must treat the other as an object, but the other must do the exact same. Interestingly, this is similar yet different from Loy’s conception. While he believes that modern society influences us by reducing nature and others to simple objects, it is ultimately a product of the self. Loy writes, “The construction of a separate self inside is also the construction of an “other” outside—an objective world that is different from me” (2010, p. 255). I do not think Sartre would disagree on this point; the external world is simply everything that is not me. Yet, Loy argues for a dissolution of the ego  , creating an obligation to protect and help others (people and nature). This is certainly not the case for Sartre, others are a source of shame, alienation, and struggle. He believes that the ego is the source for such conflict, which is precisely why mutual recognition is so difficult. Unlike Loy, Sartre does not believe in Anatta, there is no external world without the self. However, we must look to other existentialists for further clarification.

In the case of Fanon and Beauvoir, the other is not everyone. Rather, others are the marginalized groups who have been oppressed through the socio-political state of affairs. Contrast to Sartre, the other is determined by those with power. In this sense, the dominant authority otherizes those who are not them. This dichotomy pervades our society: men objectify women, the bourgeoisie subjugates the proletariat, the predominant white culture suppresses minority ways of life. For this reason, Simone de Beauvoir argues that a woman “is determined and differentiated in relation to man, while he is not in relation to her; she is the inessential in front of the essential. He is the Subject; he is the Absolute. She is the Other” (2012, p. 26). This subject-object distinction is the root of otherization. Moreover, Beauvoir points out that in each case of objectification, the justification is the same. The dominant group permits the other to think they are equal while ostracizing them. This is the common “separate but equal” argument, which does little to mask the oppressive power dynamic involved. Regardless of the situation, the powerful attempt to explain their actions with a form of egalitarian segregation. The subject and object are of course equal, assuming they reside within their own spheres. Incidentally, Franz Fanon offers a very similar explanation of otherness in the colonial world.

For Fanon, the colonizer deems the colonized the other by virtue of their power. Thus, Fanon characterizes the other as a social and ontological construct, just as Beauvoir does. The author writes, “For not only must the black man be black; he must be black in relation to the white man” (Fanon, 2000, p. 110). In this sense, black people are only otherized because of their relation to white culture. Just as both Sartre and Beauvoir recognized, the other is reduced to an object as their transcendence towards freedom is diminished to a simple dream. The other is reduced to a state of pure facticity because they can no longer become anything more than an object of the subject. This is especially true in the case of the colonized, they have little means to overcome their oppressors. Meanwhile, they are forced into a life of endless labor, subjugated without any means to transcend their conditions. Furthermore, Fanon explains, “The oppressor, in his own sphere, starts the process, a process of domination, of exploitation and of pillage, and in the other sphere the coiled, plundered creature which is the native provides fodder for the process as best he can” (2002, p. 63). In every case, the oppressor is able to create a completely binary relationship, dividing society into two separate spheres.

Moreover, this distinction extends to the natural world as well. Humans are given dominion over nature, allowing them to justify degradation in the name of progress. Thus, people treat the environment as an object, something to take from without any reciprocity. This is especially true in reference to the corporatization of natural resources. Just as Loy duly notes, nature has been commodified in order to support our society’s growing obsession with materialism. Of course, capitalists are increasingly ready to exploit the environment to meet these new demands. Just as with worker relations, the system of capital determines what is and is not of value. In terms of otherization, the subject is able to dictate the societal playing field. Yet, nature differs from these other conceptions in a significant way. The environment has no means of advocating for itself. Unlike people as others, it cannot rise in revolt against the dominant class. This is where humans must intervene on behalf of nature. Individuals need to shift their view of nature in order to treat it as something with value rather than an object meant for exploitation. Therefore, I think existentialism can offer a unique perspective on this matter, which urges people to act in a way that is both authentic and meaningful.

A represetation of envrionemntal protection and nature’s broken barrier due to human impacts (courtesy of pixabay.com).

Thus, the prevailing question is how can existentialism motivate people to act in an environmentally friendly manner? Well, Ogilvy attempts to bridge this gap by extending the aforementioned existential concepts into the natural world. He begins by emphasizing the implications of our radical freedom, or the simple phrase “we become who we are” (2012, p. 464). This indicates that humans have the power to not just change themselves but the world around them. Ogilvy continues, “The import of existentialism for the environmental movement therefore lies in the hope for significant change” (2012, p. 464). You see, many doctrines support the idea that humans are innately gifted with power over nature. Yet, existentialism does not believe in an inherent human nature. This creates an opportunity to transcend our preconceived notions of how humans ought to interact with nature. On the other hand, Ogilvy also references the existential consequences of climate change. There is a real chance that humanity completely blows this, resulting in harm and damage across the world. Interestingly, we as a society are not far from annihilation which only reinforces the import of Heidegger’s “being-towards-death.” Likewise, Ogilvy writes “And our nearness to oblivion adds to the exigency of our choosing. This is not just a game” (2012, p. 465). Thus, existentialism reveals the urgency of our choices and the importance of acting when things are so very dire. Yet, the author is also skeptical and claims that existentialism may be too individualistic or that Sartre’s Marxism is insufficient to solve our climatic problems. However, I argue that an existential ethics, which embraces a form of humanism, does not simply allow a pro-environmental stance but actually demands it.

On the other hand, Tuan offers a unique perspective that can help illuminate the usefulness of existentialism in determining our perception of the environment. He suggests that certain attitudes towards nature may be a product of bad faith. Individuals often disregard environmental problems such as climate change as if their actions will have no impact. Tuan explains how bad faith is a way to “mask his responsibility for choice” and to “avoid the anxiety of freedom” (1972, p. 328). Many take a fatalist position, assuming that there is nothing they can do to change the status quo. This is in effect, an act of bad faith. Furthermore, one may continue to justify this by calling themselves a nature-lover, as though their actions do not make him so. In effect, if one truly calls themselves a nature-lover, then their actions must reflect that. If not, they are only masking their real identity, creating a social label that means absolutely nothing. Contrary to Ogilvy, I believe existentialism produces a philosophy that moves beyond the individual. Its humanism implies an obligation to better the world and to facilitate a collective movement for everyone’s freedom, including nature. This is coupled with existentialists’ support of Marxism, as both demand the transition from individual to collective action to create a better world. On the other hand, Tuan claims that “man’s abuse of nature…is easily understandable from the position of existentialism” (1972, p. 330). Yet, this is in direct contrast to our acute awareness of the contingency and superfluity of the world. This is especially true in the midst of climate change, where the very world around us is deteriorating at an extraordinary rate. Soon enough, there will be no environment to exploit. So, existentialism reveals the drastic need for action, because one cannot transcend their facticity if the world is decaying around them.

Furthermore, I argue that we can look to the ethics of ambiguity and the humanism of existentialism to break down the otherization of nature. Although, Beauvoir specifically discusses the deconstruction of the other in the context of people. However, as we have previously established, nature as the other rests on the same premise of domination that is present in the otherization of social groups. Thus, Beauvoir argues for a recognition of the other as an ontological being. While the environment may not have the same ontological status as a person, it still has its own value and mode of being. Likewise, Beauvoir believes that we can only realize our freedom by creating a brotherhood. Moreover, the author writes, “Since we can conquer our enemies only by acting upon their facticity, by reducing them to things, we have to make ourselves things; in this struggle in which wills are forced to confront each other through their bodies, the bodies of our allies, like those of our opponents are exposed to the same brutal hazard: they will be wounded, killed, or starved” (2006, p. 43). Of course, it is clear that Beauvoir is talking about people (namely, men and women). Yet, this phraseology can be applied to humans’ relationship with nature as well. In effect, we reduce nature to an object, while struggling to sustain power over it. Likewise, our confrontation with nature (in the form of pollution, destruction, etc.) is reciprocated in the form of “brutal hazard” as the author calls it. The most pertinent example is climate change and its devastating impacts across the world, especially the rapid increase in natural disasters. Flooding, wildfires, hurricanes, and other disasters have resulted in thousands of deaths and extensive economic losses. Thus, the first step towards a solution is the recognition and acknowledgment of nature’s value.

Meanwhile, this must be coupled with an ethical paradigm that erodes the binary division between humans and nature. Furthermore, this necessitates a change in actions. As we have explained prior, existentialism demands an adherence to our responsibility. For this reason, I believe existentialism promotes a philosophy that is capable of recognizing nature as not just an object, but as a thing with freedom and value. Of course, few would claim nature itself is a subject (except perhaps Loy), but the existentialist can certainly argue for actions that consider nature’s value. Moreover, in aiding nature, we engage the world itself, promoting actions that attempt to better everyone. If we have a responsibility for our actions and the world around us, then existentialism demands a fight for the environment and marginalized communities alike. This does not simply protect nature but the people who may suffer from our failure to act. Ultimately, existentialism demonstrates how humans have no true nature, which opens the possibility for change. There is not an anonymous force that decides how we act, thus, giving humans the ability to define their nature. In order to actualize our freedom, humanity must engage in a form of humanism that considers the value of nature and others.

Finally, where does this viewpoint leave us in relation to Loy and Buddhism? Well, I think the ethics of existentialism actually share many similarities with Loy’s argument. Despite the more nuanced differences on the topic of selfhood, existentialism, and my analysis of it, shares some important similarities with Loy. This is especially true in the way each characterizes the other and humanities’ disconnection with nature. In fact, his unselfing (Anatta) serves a similar purpose as existentialism’s humanism, as it breaks down the separation between other people, as well as with nature. Of course, getting rid of the self is a much more extreme version. Furthermore, Loy rightly points out that one can change their “way of experiencing the world” to be “more ‘permeable’ and [to] relate to others in a less dualistic fashion” (2010, p. 256). This is akin to how Sartre describes the individual. One always has the ability to transcend their facticity and change. Likewise, Beauvoir takes this further by arguing that we can change how we view the other by recognizing their freedom, breaking down the dualistic nature of otherhood. Thus, both traditions create a similar framework for how the individual operates in a free and changing world. Moreover, Loy finds this binary distinction problematic, just as Fanon and Beauvoir do (2010, p. 257). Meanwhile, I am inclined to agree with his characterization of nature, humanity has always been a part of the environment. Rather, modern-day capitalism (or materialism as Loy would call it) has driven us to exploit nature as a means of profit. Lastly, Loy argues that “realizing that none of those beings is separate from oneself” can lead to pro-environmental behavior which values nature independent of ourselves (2010, p. 267). While existentialism may diverge in numerous (spiritual) ways, Loy has some rather striking similarities to the philosophy’s characterization of the other and the potential to embrace nature through change. With this in mind, I would like to take an additional look at ethics and its implications for existential environmentalism.

The interaction between responsibility, humanity, and the Earth (courtesy of pixabay.com).

Given the complexity of existence, any attempt to provide a moral framework that best suits it is of course a troublesome task. For this reason, I do not think this endeavor requires a final conclusion or an answer to everything. Rather, I implore my readers to consider multiple points of view, and how ethics may play into the relationship between existentialism and environmentalism. Throughout this exploration, I have discussed the potential for existentialism to create a sense of urgency when it comes to the environmental issues. However, I believe there ought to a stronger motivating force that educates or pushes people to pursue better environmental actions. Thus, I consider several ethical frameworks, each offering a variety of viewpoints that may urge changing one’s actions. The first and most ambitious option is a form of existential ethics. By looking to Sartre and Simone de Beauvior’s ethics of recognition, there is significant potential for a coherent moral framework. I further explain the implications this may have for environmental action. Likewise, I hope to show how an existential ethics is distinctly different from ethical subjectivism as people often conflate the traditions. Furthermore, I will then explore virtue ethics, and its relationship with environmentalism. In fact, this is a promising framework, as virtue ethics shares a variety of similarities with existentialism. Meanwhile, it may produce a stronger demand for environmentally friendly actions by treating this behavior as a moral virtue. In this sense, virtue ethics may take some key components from the existentialist doctrine while creating a more coherent argument for action. Finally, I explore the implications of social justice ethics and its relationship to existentialism. For the most part, I think animal ethics and leftist thinking is more consistent with the fight for environmentalism. Likewise, these traditions intersect in very important ways, especially in consideration of racial, economic, and animal justice. Thus, I examine how this philosophy could influence environmental action and the potential relationship it may have with existentialism. Ultimately, each of these moral frameworks provides an exploratory paradigm for understanding the relationship between ethics, existentialism, and nature.

Therefore, I will briefly define each of these philosophies and their implications for this research endeavor, beginning with existential ethics. First, Heter acknowledges how Sartre’s ethics is specifically different from modern moral philosophies. He argues that Kant’s deontology is alienating as it forces people to adhere to a strict moral framework without recognizing the gray area of ethics. While Sartre rejects abstract moral theories, he does support Kant’s idea of universalizing one’s choice (Heter, 2006 p. 22). Likewise, Sartre attempts to pursue a form of authenticity, which “requires respecting and recognizing the freedom of other people” (Heter, 2006, p, 17). This is very similar to Beauvoir’s claim in her Ethics of Ambiguity, the individual cannot live authentically without supporting the freedom of others. We must first acknowledge each other’s facticity in order to transcend our conditions. Moreover, Sartre argues that this intersubjective recognition produces a catalyst for creating change, supporting freedom and fighting oppression (Heter, 2006). Furthermore, Heter says, “‘How can Sartrean ethics ground obligations to others?’ My answer is that obligations to others should be grounded upon the value of mutual recognition” (2006, p. 19). Failing to do so is problematic in Sartre’s eyes. Heter explains, “individuals who oppress others are inauthentic because they deny their own freedom” (2006, p. 26). There is no reason to preclude environmental politics and climate change as a form of oppression. Sartre is specifically referring to the nature of economic, social and political injustice, which pervades the capitalist and post-colonial system. Thus, the injustice and exploitation associated with environmental harms is no different. An ethics of recognition demands that we alleviate others’ suffering and oppression, while fighting for their freedom. Finally, I want to quickly distinguish how Sartre’s view is specifically different from ethical subjectivism. Many scholars may claim that Sartre’s radical freedom produces subjectivism by failing to condemn amoral actions. This philosophy argues that there are no moral facts or rights. However, as Heter points out, Sartre never endorses this. Rather, Sartre pointedly criticizes the oppression of social and economic groups, calling for recognition as a means of reconciliation.

Alternatively, we can look to virtue ethics as a prominent school of thought. At the outset, there is an intimate relationship between virtue and environmentalism. However, prior to this, let’s examine the possible link between this moral framework and existentialism. Theorists such as Grene argue that existentialism creates a unique virtue: authenticity. This virtue is rooted in our freedom, and ability to act authentically given our free will. Grene writes, “In both cases authenticity is a kind of honesty or a kind of courage; the authentic individual faces something which the unauthentic individual is afraid to face” (1952, p. 267). This is very reminiscent of the values portrayed by virtue ethics, which places significance on the ability to act virtuously, which has impacted the world around us. For this reason, I think there is an association between virtue and existentialism, as each creates a framework that is reliant on individual actions, and their ability to shape the world (or environment). In effect, the pursuit for human flourishing differs little from authenticity. To begin, Cafaro explains how there is a deep association between virtuous behavior and support for the environment. The author writes, “Our environmental decisions make us better or worse people and create better or worse societies: healthier or sicker, richer or poorer, more knowledgeable or more ignorant” (Cafaro, 2001, p. 4). He goes on to explain these values in terms of key environmental authors such as Thoreau, Leopold, and Carson, each of which presents an environmental ethics which has ties to virtue. For example, Cafaro points out how Thoreau presents virtues such as freedom, friendship, and health in terms of our relationship with nature. This is most present in Walden, where these values are not treated as strict moral codes but as recommendations for a better life and environment. Likewise, Cafaro identifies similar tropes in Leopold, such as “enlightened self-interest” and naturalist virtues: “patience, eagerness, persistence” etc. (2001, p. 8). Leopold believes that these actions allow us to enrich our experience and connect with nature without harming it. Furthermore, Rachel Carson presents the value of humans preserving nature as a virtue. She presents a clear moral message: humans are a part of nature and ought to avoid harming it. Similarly, Cafaro points out that Silent Spring demonstrates the importance of preserving nature in order to promote human flourishing and happiness (2001, p. 11). In each case, the authors show the virtue in connecting and protecting nature. By doing so, humans can improve their own lives while acting in the interest of the environment. The authors clearly believe that human flourishing is intrinsically tied to the wellbeing of nature. Thus, virtuous behavior must act in accordance with environmental protection.

Finally, moving beyond just the ethical realm, politics have strong implications for environmental action and the importance of individual decision making. Thinking within animal rights, social justice, and climate justice literatures can be very illuminating, and personally, I identify with these views. They focus on moral obligations for fighting against climate change by acknowledging its effects on workers, oppressed social groups, and non-human animals. Environmental harm connects each of these groups under a common enemy. For me and for many scholars, capitalism acts as a root cause of such destruction and oppression. It is a system predicated on limitless growth which ends up disadvantaging everyone except the wealthy who profit from the system. There is a sense in which the entire system is designed to exploit the environment and workers alike, without creating social or ecological safety nets. Economic success in business often masks the damages caused to communities or ecosystems, as the profit motive is privileged in capitalism at the expense of marginalized people or natural systems. I have discovered in my own research that some corporations have very little care for these effects and even attempt to paint such abuses in a positive light (Jones, 2021). This is specifically true for factory farming, as the system treats workers, the environment, and animals as a means towards profit. Industrial animal agriculture is a keen example of the economic and environmental abuse inherent to the system of capital. Thus, social justice efforts attempt to alleviate the inequality produced by the system we live under. By minimizing the harmful effects of environmental exploitation, we can hopefully save individuals from further harm. This literature also demonstrates the interconnectedness of climate change. Personally, the intersection of environmental harm, social injustice and unregulated greed in factory farms motivates me to consider more direct political action in order to regulate these destructive forces. In this sense, politics creates a moral pathway to care for our shared environment and to engage in a more radical protest of an abusive system. I acknowledge that these thoughts may diverge from existentialism and virtue ethics, and may be more politically contentious as well. Nonetheless, these ideas seem consistent to me with the existentialist framework of freedom, and the expression of genuine moral concern for others. In this way, these issues that resonate powerfully for me, are consistent as extensions of an existentialist environmentalism.

An image of freedom, denoting its importance in existential change (courtesy of Unsplash.com).

Ultimately, these schools of thought offer important commentary on how moral thinking can impact the phenomenon of climate change. While I attribute much of these ideas to my own moral and environmental thinking, no one thought is correct. Rather, I have simply presented them as a way to broaden our understanding of environmentalism and ethical action. Foremost, this is an educational endeavor, which seeks to expand upon current research of environmentalism and existentialism. I believe each of us should come to our own conclusions on this matter and I hope that this can act as a resource for future readers. Meanwhile, I have demonstrated how existentialism is a doctrine of change, embracing a mode of being that is authentic and meaningful. To live authentically, one must engage in purposeful choices that embrace one another’s value. Moreover, I extend this to nature as well, as these ethical frameworks provide a basis for valuing the environment for what it is. Regardless of if I have swayed your opinion on existentialism, I hope that we can all recognize the imperative of acting against climate change. Our actions have a significant impact on the world around us, and we should try to create the most positive effects possible. Finally, this is only a preliminary study of the connection between environmentalism, ethics, and existentialism. There is certainly room for future research and philosophical analysis. However, I believe this is a promising emerging literature which has remained largely untapped.

 

Work Cited

Beauvoir, S. de. (2006). The ethics of ambiguity (B. Frechtman, Trans.). Citadel Press. (Original work published 1947)

Beauvoir, S. de. (2012). The second sex (C. Borde, & S. Malovany-Chevallier, Trans.) New York: Vintage Books. Retrieved from http://banq.lib.overdrive.com/ContentDetails.htm?id=00038A93-7B24-4653-94E6-9C4689DA09EA (Original work published 1949).

Cafaro, P. & Center for Environmental Philosophy, The University of North Texas. (2001). Thoreau, Leopold, and Carson: Toward an Environmental Virtue Ethics. Environmental Ethics, 23(1), 3–17. https://doi.org/10.5840/enviroethics200123135

Fanon, F., & (2000). Black skin, white masks (C. Markmann, Trans.). Pluto Press. (Original work published 1952).

Fanon, F. (2002). The wretched of the earth (C. Farrington, Trans.). Grove. (Original work published 1961).

Grene, M. (1952). Authenticity: An Existential Virtue. Ethics, 62(4), 266–274. https://doi.org/10.1086/290847

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