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Environmental Values

Contents of Volume 15

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Environmental Values

Editorial, Vol.15 No.1

The articles published in this issue reflect the possibility of fruitful conversations between the humanities and the sciences for understanding environment and nature. They show critical sensitivity toward the problem of taking a hard-line approach to grasping and articulating diverse environmental values. In a discussion of naturalism in sociobiology, Brian Baxter mediates between science and humanism to enrich environmental ethics. Marianne O'Brien brings aesthetics and scientific knowledge together to give content to the notion of valuing nature's otherness, while Simon James argues for the relevance of Buddhist ethics to species conservation. The papers by Katrine Soma and Ronald Sandler and Judith Crane illustrate the benefits to persuasive argument of drawing on disciplines as diverse as economics, psychology, philosophy and biology. Sarah Fleisher Trainor kicks off this issue with a discussion of the difficulties involved in collaboration and reaching consensus in the face of conflict between the many different realms of value: aesthetic, cultural, economic, ecosystem, historical, moral, recreational, spiritual, scientific and social.

The cross-disciplinary spirit underpinning these papers is not unusual in the pages of Environmental Values, or in other journals and publications. Many scholars seek knowledge from other disciplines regularly to supplement and enhance understanding within their own discipline, and to enable them to find a fresh perspective or to shed new light on concepts, theories and practices. I want to urge, though, that an openness to knowledge from other disciplines than one's own is not only useful from time to time, but essential for achieving the highest standards of scholarship.

Being inter-disciplinary, multi-disciplinary, trans-disciplinary and now post-disciplinary, doesn't require becoming expert in other fields. That would be a Herculean task, although there are some who have managed it, and I applaud them. What is needed is a willingness to enter into conversations with other fields and approaches in ways that may enhance the ability to critically handle a problem or issue and to derive a richness of perspective from different voices. I am not suggesting that interdisciplinarity is a good in itself, since attempts to draw on various disciplines can have the weakening effect of dilution or even messiness and lack of direction.

Perhaps, though, this is just preaching to the converted. The readers, contributors and editors of this journal know well the appeal of diverse disciplines when confronted with the complexity of environments and the relationship between the natural world and humans. One might even claim at this stage that the disciplines we have today, e.g., philosophy, politics, economics, literature, sociology, history, are not narrow or closed. In settling into my new academic home of geography, I assumed I would find myself a philosopher among geographers. It turns out I am a philosopher-cultural geographer among ecologist-physical geographers, physical geographer-geologists, geographer-historians of science, feminist geographers and political ecologists, all who have found a niche within a disciplinary umbrella. And we talk to each other! Yet, sadly, probably this isn't that common. The divide between art and science, imagination and truth, the 'two cultures' as C.P. Snow so famously described it, certainly continues, and it is perhaps this that underlies grudgingness rather than openness towards other disciplines. I doubt I am alone in observing the grudgingness which often surfaces at conferences that optimistically attempt conversations across diverse approaches. Ironically, the UK's national Research Assessment Exercise has been blamed for having a narrowing effect on disciplines while at the same time major research councils increasingly encourage and support interdisciplinary research.

What can we do to bridge the divide, or the narrowness that may accompany strict adherence to one's discipline? Openness, as suggested above, might serve as a prudent guiding virtue. This requires moving beyond paying lip service and making a commitment to listening sympathetically to what others have to say. In practice it means having the imagination to engage with debates beyond the bounds of one's own discipline. This is not to say we stop arguing or holding firm, but that we uphold the same careful work already expected of the best scholarship, e.g., avoiding the caricature of other subjects and theories and avoiding the fallacy of setting up straw positions.

In making these remarks, I might be accused of sitting on the fence. Sometimes attempts at finding middle ground or remaining less committed to one hard line or the other, one stance or the other, leave one in between. The expression 'sitting on the fence' is defined as taking a neutral or uncommitted position and derives, apparently, from the position of spectators watching a fight. I would like to think that the fight is rather a discussion, and that I (or we) may be found climbing up from one side of the fence over to the other side, getting a sense of both sides, and then jumping back on the fence to appreciate the view in several directions.


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