An interview with Akeel Bilgrami on environmental ethics
Clifford Armion: You came to the Villa Gillet to address the issue of environmental ethics. How did you come to work on this notion of environmental ethics and on man's moral responsibility towards nature?
Akeel Bilgrami: I began to think about this after reading Ghandi's philosophy. I'm from India. Some years ago I began to think about Ghandi and I began to ask the question how and where did the concept of nature get transformed into the concept of natural resources and when did that transformation take place? That's when my interest for environmental issues came, with that question. I think it is very important to have some historical understanding about how these ecological issues emerged. So I am very interested in that question because even though for centuries people took from nature, they didn't make it into some very systematic extraction; that only began to happen at a certain period of history. My primary interest in it was genealogical or historical. When did this happen? What sort of attitude made it happen? What sort of view of the world made it happen? What sort of institutions made it happen?
C.A.: At what time in history did the two notions of nature and natural resources start to diverge?
A.B.: I think the notion of natural resources didn't really emerge till the late 17th century. The reason for that is extremely interesting. For centuries, popular religions assumed that God was everywhere. It was in nature. It was in one's body. Something happened with scientific changes in the seventeenth century, with the great scientific revolutions. In Newton, matter and nature were inert: motion came by a push from the outside and that push came from God. So God had to be removed from nature and put in an external or Archimedean position to provide for this notion of movement, because otherwise the universe is inert. This overturned a lot of popular understanding which was that it came from an inner source of dynamism in matter, in nature. It is called deus abscondetus: God was put outside of the Universe. As a result, nature and matter became brute material. Before Newton, people like Bacon or Descartes believed this but with Newton there began to be institutions like the Royal Society which made a systematic set of alliances between this metaphysics I've just been describing to you and mercantile interest or Anglican interest for whom it was very important to put God outside. Nature came to be seen as completely desacralised so that one could take from nature's bounty with impunity, without any anxiety about coming up against something sacred. People always took from nature, but for centuries there were rituals of reciprocation, social and cultural rituals. But after the seventeenth century all this disappeared. Nature was desacralised. The enclosure system appeared and all the forms that we today call agro-business, that is agriculture for profit. Mining, deforestation, all these things began: that's the beginning of the notion of natural resources.
C.A.: Did you develop an interest in Emerson, because after all he reintroduces the link between nature and God.
A.B.: You are absolutely right to say that people like Whitman, Emerson or Thoreau, some of the transcendentalists as they are called, resacralised nature. Transcendentalism is actually a misleading term because in a way this point you are making is about imminence rather than transcendence.
C.A.: Stanley Cavell came to Lyon a few month ago and he said he regretted that American people should pay so little interest to Emerson and Thoreau. Do you agree with him? Do you think that people in America are not aware of their own intellectual heritage?
A.B.: Yes, absolutely. There is a lot of religiosity in America as you know, but it is not this kind of religiosity. It is a very modernised form of religiosity. It is very much tied to consumerism: it is the religion of deracinated people, people who have been uprooted from nature. What Cavell is talking about is absolutely true. It is a very different kind of understanding of nature that Thoreau and Emerson have. Thoreau was a great influence on Ghandi.
C.A.: Do you mean through his Essay on Civil Disobedience?
A.B.: Yes, he was influenced primarily by Civil Disobedience. But Ghandi was also influenced by Thoreau's other writings as well as by Tolstoy and Ruskin.
C.A.: One last question about the notions of environment and ecology. The first one suggests that nature revolves around man when the second comes from the Greek oïkos, meaning 'the house'. Is it possible to rethink man's relation to nature today by using such anthropocentric concepts?
A.B.: My own view comes from a certain reading of Aristotle. I have no phobia against sciences. I think that science is a noble enterprise. What I do have something against is the idea that natural science has a full and comprehensive coverage of nature, that there is nothing in nature that natural science cannot study. That I think is false and I believe it is a superstition of modernity. It is a superstition of philosophical outlook: no scientist believes that. My view is a view that you find in Thoreau, in Emerson and in many German, British and American romantics. I am an atheist, so I cannot believe in a sacralised nature, but I do think that nature contains properties that natural sciences cannot study. There is no reason to think that the death of God, or the decline of magic, means that we cannot have a secular form of enchantment.
C.A.: I think that Thoreau wrote about a 'dull, blundering purpose of nature' in Walden, which is quite dissociated from God compared to Emerson.
A.B.: True. Even in Spinoza, when he equated God with nature, he didn't think of it as particularly sacralised. It is a rather abstract equation for him. There were lots of people who thought nature was sacralised obviously. If you look at British history, some of the greatest radicals like the Levellers in the seventeenth century developed metaphysics of a sacralised nature and it gave them a way of understanding how one should live in nature and not want to conquer and control it. That was very much Ghandi's talk too.
Cet entretien a été réalisé dans le cadre d'une rencontre organisée par la Villa Gillet avec Akeel Bilgrami, philosophe américain, et des spécialistes français de l'écologie : l'économiste et homme politique Alain Lipietz, le philosophe Hicham-Stéphane Afeissa et l'économiste Éloi Laurent. La rencontre a eu lieu à l'université Lyon II, le 13 décembre 2010.
Pour citer cette ressource :
Akeel Bilgrami, Clifford Armion, "An interview with Akeel Bilgrami on environmental ethics", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), janvier 2011. Consulté le 01/12/2023. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/civilisation/les-dossiers-transversaux/developpement-durable/an-interview-with-akeel-bilgrami-on-environmental-ethics