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The Agrarian Vision: Sustainability and Environmental Ethics.

Paul B. Thompson The Agrarian Vision: Sustainability and Environmental Ethics Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2010 ISBN 978-0813125879 (HB) [pounds sterling]35.95. 336pp.

Paul Thompson's book, The Agrarian Vision: Sustainability and Environmental Ethics, is a noble effort to address the wicked problem of sustainability.

Thompson sees this problem as paradoxical because 'the human polity ought to act sustainably, but the human polity cannot mobilize around the goal of sustainability' (p. 253). In order to address this paradox, Thompson offers an argument to bring together the virtues, ideals, and heritage of American agrarianism. He claims that:
The appeal to agrarian ideals can bridge the gap between abstruse
theory and common sense. Agrarianism has taken numerous forms
throughout human history, but agrarian views have always communicated
that a human practice achieves its potential only when it is adaptively
responsive to the broader environment in which it is embedded. As such,
it is more than plausible to suggest that agrarian ideals have the
potential to provide a broad segment of the public with access to the
important themes articulated in functional integrity and resource
sufficiency conceptualizations of sustainability. And they may well
accomplish this more effectively than do the terms functional integrity
and resource sufficiency. (p. 173).


Thompson engages his audience with twelve chapters that unfold this central theme through American agrarian history, the virtues of agrarian ideals in this history, and options these present in dealing with the wicked problems impacting sustainability discourse. Of pivotal significance, Thompson explores the failings in canonical environmental philosophy to effectively engage agriculture as a central concern, but by addressing this gap he inspires discussion on the potential of environmental philosophy to engage productively with agrarian principles that could be welded onto contemporary work on sustainability. Thus, environmental philosophers (in particular), but also the scientific and policy experts, must address agriculture in a manner that is both vital for conceptions of sustainability and operational from theoretical enclaves into the polity's lifeworld of agricultural practice, heritage, and behaviour.

In his prescriptive response, Thompson investigates whether there is a particular version of a lifeworld that already encompasses the motivations, morals and perspectives that would be consistent with technical conceptions of sustainability. Such a version of a lifeworld must be one in which respect for feedback loops and local knowledge are built into the fabric of peoples' conceptions of self, family and society, roles and social positions, and cultural beliefs. If possible, members of this lifeworld would not necessarily feel any affinity to scientists' and engineers' understandings of sustainability; however, in participatory processes, such as those involved in the selection and justification of environmental or agricultural indicators, these people would be able to contribute more productively. Such a lifeworld shift has to be one that we could in some way re-create in some not too unreasonable way. The line of sight around this paradoxical impasse of his main problematic is the agrarian vision, a lifeworld shift that we already have embedded in our national environmental heritage throughout American agricultural history and in visionaries like Thomas Jefferson and Wendell Berry. These agrarian ideals are part of the historical heritage of Americans today even if contemporary Americans do not often acknowledge it to be the case. American democracy can be conceived consistently with these ideals despite what some may think today about the incompatibility between the culture of American democracy and sustainability. The lifeworld shift and recourse through the American heritage are paths of thought and argument that increase the value of Thompson's book, especially for the environmental philosopher. But, what if we are not canonical environmental philosophers? What if the other central themes of Thompson's The Agrarian Vision, such as justice and fairness, are inseparable from our environmental heritage, lifeworld and philosophical vision? To generalise, what if, as the reviewers here self-identify, we are environmental justice philosophers? While Thompson addresses justice and fairness in his emphasis upon democracy and social justice, we too often find an account remaining consistent with the canonical hierarchy--environment 'out there' is the focal point and human interests like food resources are inherently connected, which invokes the centrality of agriculture, and then issues of justice (entirely human interests) come into play. Thus, consistent with the canon, justice will be a second-order virtue to agriculture/environment. An increasing literature from environmental justice philosophers, who see heritage and identity, as well as fairness in the distribution of environmental benefits/burdens/resources, to be inherently linked with environmental values and experiences would simply not place agriculture or the environment 'out there', as Thompson criticises the canon, but neither would we put justice out of the environmental lifeworld at any point in the equation. Taking environmental justice considerations seriously, perhaps we can start with these three issues: first, justice in Thompson's book is conceived of in terms of social justice, and is thus passive about the virtues that environmental justice scholarship can bring to the agrarian discourse (such as, accounts of justice pertaining to cultural food practices, non-colonial agricultural histories and heritages, and direct environmental justice action to protect these heritages). Secondly, assumptions of canonical environmental philosophy are going to need to be reframed much more than Thompson suggests, since the canonical approach has classically, if not intentionally, left out the voices and environmental discourses of people of colour, women, in digenous people and the poor. Thirdly, in what ways is Thompson's Agrarian Ideals argument commensurate with environmental justice, specifically in the ways that the polity, especially the marginal members also confront science and policymakers, often in much more antagonistic confrontations seen in so many cases of environmental justice struggles?

In many ways, these are questions that it has been difficult to integrate with canonical environmental philosophy. Yet Thompson's work lends itself to dialogue around these questions that perhaps has been less possible before. This is an important achievement, and one that should motivate further work, of all kinds, between the literatures and scholars marshalled by Thompson in The Agrarian Vision and the literatures and scholars of environmental justice.

ROBERT MELCHIOR FIGUEROA University of North Texas and KYLE POWYS WHYTE Michigan State University
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Author:Figueroa, Robert Melchior; Whyte, Kyle Powys
Publication:Environmental Values
Article Type:Book review
Date:Aug 1, 2013
Words:1014
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