Nature and the Circumstances of Justice

Nature and the Circumstances of Justice

A rose-tinted view of nature? Photograph by Today is a good day

A recent introduction to economic theory tell us that it will assume “a point of view of the circumstances of living that gives prominence to the allocation of scarce resources – among contemporaries and across the generations.”(1)

Neoliberal economists have taken for granted that ours is a world positioned in what the American liberal philosopher John Rawls called “the circumstances of justice” – that is, a world where the majority live in a state somewhere between abundance and shortage of resources, a condition of moderate scarcity “under which human co-operation is both possible and necessary.”(2)

For Rawls, as for many liberals, it follows that competing claims for resources are to be dealt with by erecting western-style judicial institutions capable of tracking universal principles of justice.

In fact, the values that underpin such institutions are not as universal as recent liberal philosophers have claimed. The majority of mankind has lived, and will continue to live, without recognizing principles of justice peculiar to western Europe and America. Many civilizations conceive of the human condition in radically different terms to those of the western world. Why, then, should we expect everybody to comport themselves to the very same set of judicial principles?

The tendency to see nature as first and foremost a resource for human exploitation, for example, will be amplified only in those civilizations possessing some concept of property rights. Further still, the idea of a ‘natural resource’ only makes sense to those living in societies steeped in the highly abstract Lockean notion that mixing one’s labour with one‘s material environment means one has a present claim upon the environment which is transferable to one’s next of kin at the point of death. Resource, utilization, ownership, claim and right are interrelated notions. All are central to liberalism.

Such were the ideas bubbling just below the surface of many a seventeenth-century colonialist. Seeing no indelible marks of labour left upon the rocks, forests and rivers, the first explorers to set foot upon the far-flung isles of the Caribbean and Australia hastily concluded along Lockean lines that these ‘new’ lands had yet to be claimed. Ignoring the trade routes, settlements and agricultural small-holdings of the natives and aborigines, the resource wealth of these ‘unclaimed’ land now would forever belong to them and their offspring. The relative empowerment of Europe and America has in this respect caused a corresponding concentration of ‘need’ for mineral and fossil wealth in these nations. And ‘needs’ must be satiated, come what may.

What these early western colonialists failed to see, and what some strains of racist nationalism today fails to acknowledge, however, were the contours made by another mode of human life upon this environment, one not shaped by self-serving liberal notions. Many Native American tribes developed sophisticated mythical systems which sustained and expressed their interaction with their immediate environment. The land itself was never thought to be their own, for how could anyone own land? Various tribes did, however, claim parts of the land as their territory (a markedly different concept from that of ownership) and guarded it violently against encroachment by enemy tribesmen.

Under the influence of Lockean ideas, instruments that channel labour more efficiently into the environment become highly sought after. For this reason, from the seventeenth-century onwards the development of productive technologies began to play an increasingly central role not merely in the daily maintenance of livelihoods, but in shaping the very contours of collective life. The industrial revolution was merely the first plateau in the narrative of resource utilization. The story continues today with escalating demand for natural resources to fuel the exorbitantly high levels consumption in the western world. This, in turn, is the political driver of the many bitter resource wars of recent years, wars which have generated the scourge of militant Islamism and have engendered a wealth of violent nationalist, sectarian and ethnic conflicts across the developing world.

The issue here is that whilst the ancestors of western man were technological innovative, nowhere did the many tribes whose modes of life they besieged have the technology – and thus did not develop the ‘need’ – to fully exploit their territorial resources.

In fact, such possibilities do not occur for those who think in terms of territory. The ‘primitive’ concept of territory is in many ways similar to the view of traditional ways of life in today’s neoliberal hegemony. But whilst tribal territory was easily lost and gained, we will struggle to regain traditional ways of life in the wake of new tides of human suffering initiated by western governments pursuing the shock-therapy of market and labour force reform.

Furthermore, the abandonment of traditional ways of life means inevitable rises in crime, of incidents of mental illness and depression, as well as an increase in our sense of day-to-day insecurity. But for our current topic, it also means the removal of checks embedded in social relations that once prevented men from blithely fouling their own nests and then claiming they were only feeding ‘genuine’ needs.

Resources and their technological exploitation.

Technological innovation always comes with consequences for wider society. Where they are taken up, new technologies are rarely the beneficent instruments of prosperity their proponents would like to claim. You don’t have to be a hardened Luddite to recognize that significant technological innovations will usually have some effect upon our modes of life, possibly even our psychologies. Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, famously refused to have one himself. The new technology was nothing but a distraction from his scientific investigations.

Owing in part to the rise of science fiction in the twentieth century and the work of people like Marshall McLuhan, it remains fashionable to think that new technologies hold the promethean power to shape the very contours of our subjectivity. In fact, no technology can alter our psycho-physical make up without also sacrificing our basic human qualities. What technology can do, however, is tempt us into seeing the non-human world in technological form. It is no coincidence that Medieval manuscript cultures took the world for a text or that industrial civilizations agree in thinking that it must be a very complex machine. Today, some of the most informed of us conceive of the universe as though it were a giant computer running intricate software. But they are incorrect in allowing dominant technologies to guide their metaphysical speculations. As Alexander Graham Bell recognized, technology can only be a beautiful distraction from the task of getting to grips with the real – radically non-technological – world.

No thinker has understood this as well as did Martin Heidegger. Describing the underlying phenomenology of the human condition, the notorious philosopher and one-time Nazi sympathizer wrote that nature reveals itself to creatures like us as ‘ready-to-hand’ (zuhanden). A country wood is not first and foremost a landscape to be marveled at or to tend to, but “a forest of timber.”(3) Although a rather repulsive view when judged against today’s ecological sentiment, Heidegger’s analysis still resonates profoundly with our present situation, characterized by the ongoing ills of resource wars and ecological catastrophe. As Simon James notes:

Heidegger claims that Being is essentially historical in the sense that different things reveal themselves in different historical epochs (and to different cultures). A witch, for instance, might reveal herself to a medieval but not to a post-Enlightenment European; an individual citizen might reveal themselves to a modern-day American but not to a fourth-century Chinese.

Heidegger contends that in the modern world we are increasingly finding that things come to reveal themselves ‘technologically’. Technological revealing Heidegger associates with a ‘setting upon’ or ‘challenging’ of nature. He tells us that it makes the ‘unreasonable demand’ that all nature submit to human ends, that all things reveal themselves as ‘standing reserve’ (Bestand), as resources for our use.(4)

If our increasing fetishization of technologies fosters a view of nature as nothing more than a resource for our use, its exhaustive utilization comes to be thought of more as a practical necessity than a harmful expedient. Although not by any means liberal, Heidegger’s analysis is a poignant but deeply pessimistic description of the harm wrought on the natural environment as a consequence of the unfurling logic of liberalism. His analysis begs us to consider how, if at all, we can reclaim pre-liberal ways of seeing that new technologies have seemingly eradicated from the field of cultural possibility.

The sort of philosophical contemplation through which Heidegger arrived at his view is one such means, being an instrument that questions life’s ‘necessities’. A moment’s reflection reveals that there is nothing necessary about the human use and trammeling of nature. Nature is only contingently a resource into which liberal men may mix their labour. Who the hell knows what nature is essentially?

In truth, our ascendancy as a species and dominance of much of the wider ecology owes much to the whole-sale exploitation of nature. But the perception of nature as merely a resource – articulated by Heidegger and assumed true by liberal economists – is merely the codification of an exploitative tendency recently nurtured by liberal doctrine. Neither is it the ultimate horizon of human possibility nor does it approach an exhaustive description of the human condition. In leaving out much of what makes us human, the view offers little real protection against the furtherance of our exploitative tendencies.

Of course, liberal doctrine is not the exclusive cause of all the suffering attendant upon the exploitation of nature. It merely lends it a dubious legitimacy. The first homo sapiens to cross the bearing straights and populate North America, for example, did not require the concept of Lockean property rights or Heideggerian phenomenology to drive the countless large land mammals they found there to extinction. And yet, one suspects that they would have done a more thorough and crueler job had they possessed these notions.

It is worth bearing in mind the uncomfortable fact that these first pillagers of the New World were the venerated ancestors of today’s Native Americans.

The beginning of genuine hope is not, therefore, to be found in a retreat into an imagined golden age of ecological harmony. It begins, rather, in a realization that the fact that the human species has flourished up to this date because of exploitation need not entail that exploitation is the only means of human flourishing. The future can be radically different to the past.

On this point, history teaches that such transformations can occur only as a consequence of a wider socio-economic upheaval.

Peak Wood in Tudor England

It was a common belief on the British Isles at the turn of the sixteenth-century that mankind might soon run out of wood. At the time, wood was a primary resource and was used for many things – material for houses and ships, fuel, etc. The Elizabethans feared that the supply of wood close to population centres might not match its increasing demand.

For those eternal pessimists insist in understanding history as none other than a litany of abuse at whose reigns stand the rich, the abandoning of wood in favour of coal as the dominant fuel in Elizabethan England is a clear case of the needs of the poor trumping the fashions of the rich. As Richard Rhode notes:

As [London] grew, a farther and farther area around it became deforested, and as transportation distances increased, wood became more expensive. The poor had to switch to coal; the rich resisted. “Even in late Elizabethan times,” writes a historian, “…it was evident that the nobility still objected strongly to the use of the fuel. Well-bred ladies would not even enter rooms where coal had been burnt, let alone eat meat that had been roasted over a…coal fire, and the Renaissance Englishman was not keen to accept beer tainted with the odor of coal smoke.”(5)

Colin R. McInnes of the University of Strathclyde has a rather interesting perspective on this topic. Speaking in recent BBC debate,(6) McInnes related the case of one Arthur Standish.

Standish was an Elizabethan agricultural writer who proposed that we embark on building a sustainable society based on wood.

The idea of peak wood seems absurd to us from the historical vantage point of the twenty-first-century, McInnes noted. Yet Standish, writing in the seventeenth century, believed it possible that mankind could sustain such a balance and produce just enough wood to keep society ticking over.

Of course, what then happened was that the scarcity of wood lead to the use of coal, and precipitated, along with the Scottish enlightenment and the intellectual freedom of science and invention, the industrial revolution. Here, McInnes thinks it fortunate that nobody in the seventeenth-century paid much attention to Standish’s call for sustainability.

He has a point, for if they had heeded Standish’s message, there might never have resulted the shift onto coal that lead directly to the prosperity we in the modern world have so far enjoyed.

This all raises the question of how far we ought to resist today’s sustainability orthodoxy. Any reason to doubt the doctrines of green politics is happy news for right-wing libertarians bent on everybody consuming beyond their needs. But for those of us who are not comfortable with the accelerating pace and the central role of consumption in today’s world, what other ideas are there? Although seeming to fit with historical examples, the development of new technologies that allow for greater and more efficient utilization of natural resources might very well allow the middle classes of the developed world to continue with its inflated level of consumption. But what we have to remember is that the middle classes cannot expand forever. In the developed world, the middle classes have already entered a period of erosion. The idea of a career, for example, seems by today’s standards a relic of an irrecoverable past.

However powerful, new technologies can never have the power to make of us all the middle class subjects of post-war memory. Even the advocates of new technology recognize that waiting for a series of ‘game-changing’ discoveries is both a dangerous bet (before it arrives) and a quick-fix (once it does). In light of this, thinking that consumption cannot be curbed is reckless, plain and simple. It is a view lacking both in any horizontal regard for people already living and any vertical regard for future generations.

Rather, what we ought to ask is whether we want to foster patterns of behavior that are inscribed with such implicit disregard for others.

The only sensible answer is of course we do not.

Show 6 footnotes

  1. Dasgupta, Partha (2007) Economics: A Very Short Introduction (OUP), pp.12.
  2. John Rawls A Theory of Justice: Revised Edition (1971 / 1999, Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA), pp.109.
  3. in Being and Time, pp.100
  4.  ‘Martin Heidegger’ in Palmer, J.A. (ed.) Fifty Key Thinkers of the Environment (2001, Routledge: London), pp.190.
  5. Richard Rhodes (2007) ‘Energy Transitions: A Curious History’,
  6. ‘The impact of a future energy crisis on our way of life’, November 2011, as part of BBC Radio Three’s Free Thinking Festival at the Sage, Gateshead.