Why did the philosopher speak at an ecology conference?

Though that sounds like the beginning of a joke, the answer is: To help ecologists understand and manage the environment.

“What that means is really not clear at all,” said Stuart Glennan, associate dean of Butler’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and professor of philosophy, who spent a week in July at an ecology conference in Salvador Brazil. “For instance, do fishing and hunting undermine protecting the environment? Does protecting the environment mean saving every species we can? And also, there is an inevitable tradeoff – in Brazil and elsewhere – between the needs of human beings and the need to protect the environment. So how do you think about that? That’s a huge question.”

Glennan was one of five international experts invited to the Institute of Biology, Federal University of Bahia, to review the work of the Institute’s faculty and students and to present lectures on philosophical and theoretical issues in ecology. In his lecture, he discussed how mathematical models could be integrated with field research on ecological mechanisms to help understand and even make predictions about ecological phenomena.

Several of the speakers talked about ethical issues faced by ecologists and environmental managers.

Brazil is the most biodiverse country on the planet, Glennan said. But at the same time, it’s a developing country, so there’s pressure on the rain forest as well as the savannas near the university. Brazilians also are concerned about urban growth.

He asked them to think about the nature of our obligations to the environment and how environmental issues feed into human ethics.

“One of the fundamental questions is that what’s good for people now might not be good for future generations,” he said. “Brazil is a land of enormous income inequality. There are a lot of impoverished people who are trying to figure out how to live, and one of the ways they can live is by exploiting the natural resources of Brazil. They’re not the only ones doing it; very wealthy people are doing it too. But there’s a tradeoff between what’s good for the environment and good for future generations and what’s good for us now. That’s a major question for environmental ethics.”

The philosophy of ecology, he said, is more focused on understanding the concepts of ecology. The questions he focused on were things like: What is the ecological model? What is the relationship between a model and a system in nature?

We have to know what we can use models for, he said. The conceptual questions in ecology are connected with ethical ones.
Glennan said he was gratified to see the ecologists considering the issues from multiple points of view. And he thinks there are numerous possibilities for Butler and the Federal University of Bahia to work together, since Butler has a well-established Center for Urban Ecology.

“We’re facing a lot of the same issues,” Glennan said.

Media contact:
Marc Allan
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