Habermasian Studies page
August 2003
Searching for sustainability
gary e. davis

In Searching for Sustainability: interdisciplinary essays in the philosophy of conservation biology (Cambridge Studies in Philosophy and Biology, Cambridge U. Press, 2003; paperback), philosopher Bryan G. Norton shares his extended discursive “experiment” of the 1990s striving to be a bridge in a U.S. school of public policy. His 27 essays published through the 1990s document a “trench level” “evolution of thinking,” which he has compiled into 6 parts: “Pragmatism as an Environmental Philosophy,” “Science, Policy, and Policy Science,” “Economics and Environmental Sustainability,” Scaling Sustainability: Ecology as if Humans Mattered,” “Some Elements of a Philosophy of Sustainable Living,” and finally “Valuing Sustainability: toward a more comprehensive approach to environmental evaluation.” But the environmentalism of all this can be read as possibly exemplary for non-environmental interests (unless you happen to understand humanity as such ecologically—living some kind of philosophical ecology, as I believe I do).

During the 1990s, writes Norton, “I undertook a sort of intellectual experiment....The purpose of my experiment was to determine whether philosopher’s tools can be used to reduce differences among disputing parties. At first, the methods to be used in such an experiment were unclear to me; I only knew that I wanted to experiment with various ways I could use my own philosophical skills—which tend toward semantics and pragmatics of scientific languages, philosophy of science, epistemology, and the philosophy of ecology and nature—to contribute to policy formation” (pp. 1-2). “From my vantage point in a school of public policy....Looking at the situation from the viewpoint of policy and practice, and recognizing the need for a unifying concept to anchor normative theories of environmental protection, it seemed to me that the most promising candidate was the idea of sustainability.... What unifies these papers, then, is that they all stem from this same evolving interdisciplinary experiment....The unifying goal...was my struggle to understand sustainability as a policy goal, independent of the multiple disciplinary perspectives that can be taken on the topic. The complementary goal was to show how philosophical discourse and argumentation, carried on within scientific and management contexts, can result in new insights and in changes in philosophical views. This second goal had to be pursued by showing how my own ideas evolved across time as I tried to justify them using more and more disciplinary vocabularies. Demonstrating this evolution, then, required a temporal dimension, a way to reveal the ways my thinking evolved over a decade of intense interdisciplinary and policy-oriented research” (2-4). Norton renders this by ordering his essays of each part of his book (indicated above) in chronological order, resulting in a sort of chronicle of discursive evolution.

“In part I, ‘Pragmatism as an Environmental Philosophy,’ five papers exhibit my changing approach to philosophical problems....During the late 1980s and early 1990s, I moved further and further from the ideal of environmental philosophy as metaethics and became more and more interested in recasting environmental ethics as a pragmatic philosophy of policy discourse. The goal of this new approach was to forgo general arguments regarding the general nature of environmental value, and to strive to improve communication and cooperation through improved problem formulation in the search for more sustainable policies in particular situations. Accordingly, my philosophical approach became more and more interdisciplinary and more and more pragmatic” (4).

Parts II through IV cover “problems of cross-disciplinary communication,” invalidities of econometrics applied to “the process of environmental evaluation,” a “hierarchy theory” of “multiscaled ecological models,” and proposal of a “demand-driven” approach to “environmental modeling”.

Part V “returns to philosophical themes, examining again—in light of insights from hierarchy theory—what we can say about the environment in which we must define and address environmental problems, and search for sustainable policies. Here, the focus is mainly on how to understand, philosophically, the long-term obligations we feel toward the future. Arguing that these obligations cannot be counted in terms of comparisons of welfare across generations—the usual approach—I insist that ecologically scaled values play an essential role in managing the environment for public goods, especially the public good of protecting the well-being of the future through adoption of sustainable policies. Finally, in part VI,...the various multidisciplinary and multiscalar threads of argument are pulled together in...[a] turn back to a question of action: How should we, in seeking ecological policies for sustainable living, put together what the various disciplines offer us and define a new approach to environmental evaluation?” (5).

So, what Norton offers us may be almost a paradigm of progressive pragmatic thinking applied to real-world policy discourse. Does he draw on Habermas? No. But the Habermasian interest is not basically a matter of applying Habermas particularly, rather of seeing (so to speak) the applicability of his approach to the huma
n interest instantiated (the applicability instantiated, as well as the human interest exemplified), while we are also designing (lamely, so far, perhaps) to apply his specific discourses in such a way that—to my mind, anyway—critical evolutionary studies may be understood as a practice, in light of Habermas’ work, but also practically beyond his work for the sake of, in turn, furthering philosophy itself, in that human interest. (What that human interest is “essentially” is an especially philosophical question).

...Though Norton’s practicality is much more modest—but eminently instructive: “What is needed is a public discourse that is broad and flexible enough to encourage both specialized learning and transdisciplinary integration....People from multiple disciplines [are likely to] talk past each other....If, however, [they] focus their shared attention on a real problem or crisis—how best to characterize it, what causes it, and what they should do about it—the multiple perspectives become multiple resources for envisioning new models and new solutions....” (6). In this spirit, Norton’s environmental interest is an exemplification of a more general approach to philosophical practice on the street, such that the environmental may be considered a placeholder (or exemplar) for discursive practice in general.

“[My] view of environmental policy...opens up a new role for environmental philosophers who, by encouraging the dialogue in the reflective phase, keep pressure on to create and use new concepts to evaluate and integrate new information.... [E]nvironmental ethicists and environmental philosophers do better when they enter public discourse, offering conceptual clarification and value analysis from within ordinary discourse. This allows philosophers to be integrators—learning from other disciplines and thinking hard about how to integrate specialized knowledge into a rational decision process. This task is best undertaken in the ordinary discourse of politics and decision making, not in the specialized language of any particular discipline....This process will involve theory-building, but it is theory-building in the service of developing and broadening consensus, not for the sake of theory itself....[Also], I learned that we need a whole new approach to the philosophy of science....The special disciplines, devoted to truth as they understand it, are not well suited for integration. But public crises and forced action have a way of identifying working hypotheses and actions that have wide support. So, we need a new way to understand science, a way that respects the importance of objectivity and minimizes bias, but a way that addresses these problems through action—what has been called ’mission-oriented’ science. Mission-oriented science...must be at least capable of translation into a public vernacular, because it will ultimately be judged openly, within public discourse, by participants in management discussions and controversies” (6-7).

It seems to me that Norton’s experiment undermines the alienation from strategical action that is common for readers of so-called “Critical Theory,” which is a misreading of Habermas’s differentiation o
f communicative action from strategic action, for the sake of his development of a theory of especially-communicative action governing systems reasonably. Anyway...

“To summarize, what I learned from my experiment is the importance of addressing conceptual and value problems—philosophical problems—within the context of concrete environmental problems faced by real communities. When one does this, disciplinary assumptions, no matter how well hidden, will eventually be identified and called into question, if environmental policy discourse and implementation were thought of as an ongoing iterative process with a reflective phase, in which philosophers can make a case for new goals with new justifications, in alteration with an action phase in which management experiments are undertaken to achieve stated goals and to reduce uncertainty about the impacts of our actions. The common insight here is that it is useful to recognize that our current academic and intellectual practice of forming disciplines and developing distinct paradigms makes sense, ultimately, only if these disciplines are understood as useful and temporary outposts at the frontiers of knowledge and ignorance” (8).

This recalls a comment by the great physicist John Wheeler that we live on an island of knowledge in a sea of ignorance—which easily comes to mind again when you stand in a night sky ouside the haze of city lights—“under” the stars, as they say.

Also: This discussion is associated with the “advancing community” area of gedavis.com.