What Is an Ethics of Nature?

What exactly is environmental ethics? Do we want a shared ethic of the environment? If so, what would it look like? These are the kinds of broad questions the Environments & Societies Mellon Research Initiative expects to address during its weekly colloquium in Winter and Spring quarters.

The questions around environmental ethics were generated by the research of Sarah Jaquette Ray, Assistant Professor of English at University of Alaska Southeast and the inaugural visitor of the Mellon group’s ten-week colloquium. Since the colloquium participants comment on pre-circulated papers, Ray had asked the group, directed by Louis Warren, W. Turrentine Jackson Professor of Western U.S. History, to read and comment on the introduction to her forthcoming book The Ecological Other: Bodies, Nature, and Exclusion (under contract with University of Arizona Press).

To initiate the conversation among the attendees, a mix of faculty and graduate students from history, American studies, English, cultural studies, anthropology, and human ecology, Michael Ziser, Associate Professor of English, began by insisting that the group step back to think about “environmental ethics.”

“If we are going to attempt to get people around the table to talk about environmental issues…we need to have the basic conversation about what our underlying value system is,” Ziser suggested. Both Ziser and Warren agreed that it would help first to consider the past.

Nature has for most of U.S. history been considered a pastoral retreat, a site of organic harmony, and a source of spiritual renewal. This shift is most evident in the terms associated with nature’s biggest advocates: Before World War II, they called themselves conservationists and only later did they become environmentalists. Warren pointed out that this change in vocabulary reflects a change in the value system and ethics of nature.

That historical discussion led the group to the larger questions posed above: what might a new ethics of the environment look like?

Ziser invoked the words of Henry David Thoreau to encapsulize a more modern dilemma about the intersection of environment and health. In 1853, Thoreau wrote: “Nature is but another word for health.” As public health and environmental concerns converge, it is the responsibility of environmental humanities scholars to consider why.

Ray’s work contributes to this conversation by considering how bodies and environments are connected. Ray’s book seeks to “investigate how environmental disgust delineates between good, pure, and corporeally fit ecological subjects and impure, dirty, unnatural ‘ecological others’,” according to her introduction.  Her work continues the work of “putting the body back in nature” begun by ecocritics and environmental justice scholars.

The colloquium format allows UC Davis faculty and students not only to have access to the best work in the environmental humanities, but also to contribute to the newest conversations in the field. 

“We couldn’t have asked for a better presenter and a better paper,” Warren said in his closing remarks. “I am so glad I read this, and so glad you came.” Judging from the convivial conversation that continued after the colloquium, others seemed to share his sentiments.

These cross-disciplinary conversations will continue to bring environmental humanists and humanistic social scientists together to learn from each other in weekly Wednesday colloquiums.

The next colloquium features Valerie Kuletz, who will be presenting on The “Elemental” Problems of Life: Un-Natural Natures in the Age of Fukushima on Wednesday, February 15th. All talks take place in Voorhies Hall 126. Kuletz is an independent scholar with a Ph.D. in Environmental Sociology from UC Santa Cruz and author of The Tainted Desert.

To see the full list of colloquiums and read the pre-circulated papers, visit the Environment and Societies website.