On Two Concepts of Environmental Instrumentalism: John Dewey and Aldo Leopold in Conversation

Southwest Philosophy Review 27 (1):225-234 (2011)
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Through a close reading of the works of John Dewey and Aldo Leopold, I demonstrate that it is possible to reframe debates about the environment in language better suited to robust and inclusive public discourse. There are at least two ways of framing the instrumental relationship between human and environmental health: (i) in terms of control and (ii) in terms of restraint. On the one hand, means of control are associated with an anthropocentric view of environmental value: the environment has worth only insofar as it provides resources for human benefit. On the other hand, means of restraint reflect greater concern for environmental health, sustainable living, non-anthropocentric (whether eco- or bio-centric) environmental value and lifestyles in harmony with nature, similar to the rhythmic relationship between human and environment captured in the writings of Henry David Thoreau and John Muir. While John Dewey defends an instrumentalism of control, Aldo Leopold supports an opposing instrumentalism of restraint. At first blush, these two concepts appear to form a dualism, as incompatible dyads in a permanently bifurcated relationship. However, the matter is not quite so simple--or so I argue. Dewey and Leopold's concepts of environmental instrumentalism prove more compatible than this simple control/restraint dichotomy suggests. Nevertheless, it is helpful to frame environmental issues in terms of these two competing instrumentalism. To test the distinction's usefulness, I examine the wilderness debate, the global warming controversy and a more local matter, attempting to frame these environmental discourses in terms of an instrumentalism of control and an instrumentalism of restraint.

Author's Profile

Shane Ralston
University of Ottawa (PhD)


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