Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Two kinds of ducks

Recently I was speaking with some students about environmental philosophy, and about the ethical dimensions of hunting and fishing. Most of those students were not hunters, but all of them seemed to care about the environment.  I asked them at one point if they knew how many species of ducks live in our region.  I think the best (and most entertaining) answer I got was "Two: mallards and non-mallards."

What struck me was how little, in general, my conservation-minded students know about the wildlife around them.  And I think they are not unique in this.  In fact, they may know a good deal more about nature than most of their generation.

Recently, Smithsonian published an article about conservation ecologist Patricia Zaradic.  Zaradic worries that we are becoming ever more attached to video screens, and that, as a result, our knowledge of the natural world is suffering.

My fear is that we are, in a way, becoming modern-day Gnostics.  (Gnostics hope to liberate the spirit from materiality by means of esoteric knowledge.)

But this is dangerous.  Rejecting materiality--rejecting the body, its world, and its boundaries--seems like a bad idea.  Maybe I'm wrong, and the transhumanists like Ray Kurzweil and his disciples have it right.  But the body, it seems to me, is just as ethically significant as the soul or mind.

Losing touch with the material world makes it harder for us to notice when ecosystems are suffering.  It also might make it easier for us to undervalue the bodily suffering of other people.  And, speaking for myself, at least, I know that the pleasures of video screens are almost always more alluring than taking care of my own body.  In fact, I'd be exercising right now--or duck hunting--but it has been a while since I checked in with my Facebook friends.  I wonder if any of them can help me learn about ducks.

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