Retrieved from Philosophicalquest.org
Ontology, Ethics and Epistemology in the Nexus
by Miles Ten Brinke
Miles, Peak Water columnist and avowed Hydrophilic energy-head, has found his way to Britain where he’s lost his California perma-tan and is studying an Energy Policy MSc at the University of Exeter on a Fulbright.
Today I’ve been thinking a lot about philosophy. In part I’ve been doing this as I figure out my next steps (dissertation, summer job and possible PhD) and sort out my research ontology and epistemology. Then, earlier a friend sent a youtube video on Kantian ethics. Now I’ve got to thinking back to my class at Berkeley on Environmental Philosophy and Ethics and all my other Humanities courses at Mount San Jacinto College. Now I’m not just going to be ruminating over some obscure thinker or abstract theses, philosophy is something we live everyday. Whether challenged or unchallenged as an actor in the Nexus you and I have been fundamentally shaped by our individual and collective ontologies, ethics and epistemologies.
Before going into the meat of this it’ll be valuable to give a quick rundown of what I mean. First the jargon. We’ve all probably heard these terms before but its useful to revisit them, at least in the context of this column.
Ethics, an organised system of moral principles- paradigms of the good life. There are two main categories here, categorical and consequential. In the formal what is ethical is determined by the ends (think cost-benefit analysis), while for the former its more a right vs. wrong approach (ends can never justify the means). A further distinction comes where u centre moral value- between the rational actor of egocentrism, the greater good of homocentrism and the holism of ecocentrism.
Next we have ontology- a kind of theory of reality (being is used formally in philosophy, but not so helpful here). For our purposes that’s limited to applied ontology- the understanding of how the world works in science. In social science for instance you have about four different approaches used. They all differ on what is objective and how we might come to understand the world.
Finally, there’s epistemology- the study of knowledge. Every field of inquiry and practice has its own epistemology, shaping practitioners pursuit of data and analysis. We use it figure out what to use as evidence, how it may analysed and different types of causation determined.
How we all understand socio-environmental forces and natural resource management is entirely dependent upon the philosophy underpinning each position. Lets start by examining the historical status quo- resource policy on energy and water. Whether with a command economy or command and control approach on the one hand or laissez-faire or neoliberal market mechanism approach natural systems are valuable only insofar as their use as economic inputs. The former is often informed by a utilitarian (branch of consequentialism that is the basis of cost-benefit analysis) homocentrism, focused on delivering the greatest benefit to the greatest number of people. The later is dominated by an atomistic egocentrism focus on the individual whose pursuit of personal gain not only right categorically but will produce the best results for society. Whether through direct regulation or markets the negative impacts of natural resource exploitation are externalised, with the long term impacts and on human beings and socio-environmental interconnections understudied or ignored.
To extend that point further, you can compare mainstream social science as it informs policy and more critical, environmental and interdisciplinary approaches. Mainstream economics applies the logic of the physical and biological sciences to social forces- it treats people as rational actors acting in predictable patterns which can be modelled and maximised. The problem is that human beings aren’t limited to individual rationality but are subject to societal, cultural, religious, and normative forces external to them. Furthermore, no one has access to perfect information and in every situation there is an unequal distribution of power (be it in knowledge, strength, wealth or otherwise) between actors. Just as important is that the full life-cycle cost of exploiting natural resources has not historically been accounted for.
Other fields such as Anthropology, Environmental Economics, Science and Technology Studies, Global Environmental Governance, Political Ecology and Sociotechnical Transitions Theory all address these issues. Without rejecting the idea of an objective reality, and therefore empirical study and evidence-based policymaking, these disciplines bring to bear a much more complicated ontology and understanding of both human behaviour and socio-natural processes. They provide new methods of study such as ethnography and discourse analysis. They provide a new avenue for more effectively accounting for environmental costs in policymaking such as with payments for ecosystem services. Mainly however, they broaden our understanding and our set of tools for effective action.
Nexus thinking unto itself is a product of this evolution, of an expanding interdisciplinary approach to environmental problem solving. Cost-benefit approaches and economics will continue to dominate policy debates, we need be aware of that and the limitations of approaches that would simply improve this (such as insuring environmental damage is quantified and included as commensurable to profit in project costs) rather induce systemic change. The solution isn’t in attacking the status quo for its deficiencies, but in providing a viable alternative pathway for the future.
All of it starts with what we think we know.
~Miles On Water