Is there a “nature” to speak of?

The Guelph Conference in Environmental Philosophy, held on 13-14 October 2018, perfectly exemplified the mission of People and Nature to explore relationships between humans and nature (notwithstanding questions raised at the conference about whether there actually is such a thing as “Nature” with which people could have a relationship!)

The conference, organized with both care and flair by a committee of Stefan Linquist, Brady Fullerton and Cameron Fioret, took place at 10 Carden, a community hub in downtown Guelph, with a green roof and a rainwater collection system to flush toilets. This made a striking change from the usual campus venues for conferences.


Nature as the Underpinning of the Urban World

The conference kicked off on Saturday morning with a keynote paper “Let’s look under the city: On the hiddenness of infrastructure,” from Denison University’s Steve Vogel, well known for his provocative 2016 book Thinking like a Mall: Environmental Philosophy after the End of Nature. Vogel’s paper tackled different versions of the widely promoted idea that a frequently forgotten “Nature” is what fundamentally “grounds” us, and, in particular is the fundamental reality that underpins the urban world. In contrast, Vogel argued, the urban has many grounds, including the products of human manufacture (pipes, cables, tunnels) and especially human labour – which all too frequently are also forgotten.


Steve Vogel discussing his favourite kid’s book “Let’s look under the city


Differing Perspectives on Human/Nature Intervention

Vogel’s paper was perfectly timed for the start of the conference. His skeptical approach to the idea of a valuable “Nature” conceived as, in some sense, separate from human beings, and his focus instead on human constructive projects, set the scene for many of the papers that followed. Some papers interrogated the reality or the value of things-in-nature, such as species, ecosystems and biodiversity. Others considered the ethics of human projects in “nature,” such as ecological robots, genetic modification of trees, strategies to assist wild animals in the context of climate change and wildlife management in Africa. Yet others considered the way that human impacts on the “natural” world can lead to harm for people, or considered the relationship between human and non-human interests in the context of ecosystem services.

Illustrating, perhaps, shifts in the focus of environmental philosophy over the past few decades, only Don Maier’s  paper, which immediately followed on from Vogel’s, defended a view directly antagonistic to Vogel’s. Maier argued that “Nature’s goodness” should be understood in terms of processes and places set aside from human activities and projects, and rejected human interventionist conservation projects that fail to “let Nature be.”


Don Maier defending Nature’s goodness (in rather small font!)


Specific Human Interventions into the Non-Human World

Saturday afternoon’s papers all focused on different kinds of human interventions into the non-human world. My paper “Helping wild animals harmed by climate change? Divergence and convergence in animal ethics” opened the session, and was part of a thematic group that explored ethical questions raised by a number of new conservation strategies, from moving wild animals threatened by climate change to new locations, to the genetic modification of trees threatened by forest epidemics, to the use of ecological robots to perform ecological functions such as pollination.


Environmental Displacement

Sunday’s papers focused on engrossing accounts of environmental and social injustice to native and settler communities, from indigenous reserves in Canada to sub-Saharan African national parks. Andrew Gemmel’s paper “What is the Ecoaesthetic?”considered a rather different kind of environmental injustice: not so much the displacement of native people, but the displacement of their ideas, in particular,  the “ecoaesthetic” of indigenous peoples in Canada.



 The last afternoon of the conference focused on philosophical and ethical concerns raised by three key ecological ideas: the idea of biodiversity (and ethical concerns about biodiversity loss); how ecosystem services may or may not take into account the idea of intrinsic value in nature; and the existence and value of species.

While in some senses these have all been long-standing concerns in environmental philosophy, these three papers showed just how much more there yet to say. Mark Velland’s keynote paper “The Trouble with Biodiversity” was wide-ranging, thought provoking and somewhat confounding. Velland argued persuasively that conservationists frequently only take into account what’s perceived as native biodiversity when discussing biodiversity loss in particular places. So, for instance, if in some local habitat non-native species have increased faster than native species have declined, biodiversity is often perceived to have gone down. But, in fact, in such a case, local species biodiversity has actually increased – but the increase has come from the “wrong kind” of species. Conservation arguments based on local declines in species biodiversity, then, frequently don’t reflect empirical data, but the values and preferences of the conservationists themselves about what kind of biodiversity matters. (In making this argument, Velland is contributing to a fascinating discussion of biodiversity made by Stephan Linquist, conference organizer, along with Jonathan Newman and Gary Varner in the recently published book Defending Biodiversity: Environmental Science and Ethics, Cambridge University Press 2017)


Mark Velland presents on biodiversity and conservation values

The conference wrapped up Sunday afternoon with a hyper-stimulated (due to the talks, not the bottomless coffee!) multi-disciplinary audience scattering across North America and beyond. Thanks are due not only to the organizers but also to the many bodies that contributed to the funding of the conference, who are acknowledged on the conference website here.

This was an outstanding conference, with just the right degree of intimacy, controversy and lively debate, and an opportunity to meet colleagues and make friends. I can’t think of a better way to spend a weekend!


Downtown Guelph (Picture from Wikipedia Commons)