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Should Environmentalists Reject the Enlightenment?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 August 2009


Among environmentalists today, there is a widespread opposition to the “Enlightenment project.” Deep ecologists, in particular, aspire to ground environmental ethics and politics in premodern modes of life and thought. This move fails to account for the myriad important connections between Enlightenment themes and those of contemporary ecophilosophy. Notions of a public sphere, cosmopolitanism, multiculturalism, and deep time, as well as new approaches to the self and doubts about the market, persist from the Enlightenment into current environmental theory and practice. The essay warns against severing environmentalism from its Enlightenment antecedents and urges instead an ethic drawn from the revered nature writer and ecologist Aldo Leopold, who was profoundly indebted to Enlightenment ideals.

In recent years a rift has opened up between some currents of environmental philosophy and the legacy of the Enlightenment. Prominent eco-philosophers have blamed the latter for our contemporary environmental crisis. William Ophuls, for example, describes the Enlightenment as a desperate attempt to defy the ecological implications of the laws of thermodynamics by erecting a political order based on untrammeled growth rather than selflimiting virtue. One of the reviewers of Ophuls's book regards this indictment as “old news”; he criticizes Ophuls, in fact, for clinging to the Enlightenment paradigm in seeking to derive environmental ethics from natural laws. It would be fair to say that many, if not most, green intellectuals have come to define their enterprise as a counter-Enlightenment.

Research Article
Copyright © University of Notre Dame 2001

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