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From the Social to the Natural Contract. PHIL 1003 2008-09. Condition of nature today. There is disagreement about the extent of the problem, BUT the planet seems to be in trouble: Global warming: extreme weather, rising sea level, invasive species;

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From the Social to the Natural Contract

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condition of nature today
Condition of nature today
  • There is disagreement about the extent of the problem,
  • BUT the planet seems to be in trouble:
    • Global warming:
      • extreme weather, rising sea level, invasive species;
    • Pollution: water, air, soil, serious health effects;
    • Habitat loss = > species loss;
    • Deforestation:
      • Floods (e.g. Bangladesh), weather changes
    • Desertification (e.g. northern China);
    • Violent manipulations:
      • e.g. dams (3 Gorges), unforeseen disruptions.
gaia hypothesis j e lovelock
Gaia Hypothesis (J.E. Lovelock)
  • Gaia = Greek word for the earth goddess (“geode,” “geography,” “geometry”);
  • Planet and various life forms will survive environmental degradation
  • Humans at risk b/c their way of life has such specific and extensive requirements
  • So we’re more at risk than the planet!

Key problem:

pace of human-induced environmental change is rapid;

too rapid for gradual adjustments to occur?

leopold s take on this
Leopold’s take on this:
  • “man-made changes are of a different order than evolutionary changes,
  • “and have effects more comprehensive than is intended or foreseen” (218);
  • “Biotas seem to differ in their capacity to sustain violent conversion”;
  • “The land recovers, but at some reduced level of complexity, and with a reduced carrying capacity for people, plants, and animals” (219).

Komodo dragon, Komodo Park, IndonesiaCO2 concentrations threaten coral reefs; rising sea levels threaten sea turtle nesting beaches and mangrove forests.

connection of environmental degradation to food shortage
Connection of environmental degradation to food shortage
  • World food shortage:
    • 850 million under-nourished people
    • 400 million anemic women of child-bearing age
    • 180 million severely underweight children
  • What does environment have to do with this? Everything!
  • Truly sustainable agriculture is needed;
  • A degraded environment is not productive:
    • Agriculture writers in ancient Rome: Columella, Varro.
  • Source: lecture by Sir Gordon Conway, Royal Geographical Society (HK), 22 November 2007.
francis bacon 17 th c
Francis Bacon (17th c.)

We should examine nature

“under constraint and vexed…forced out of her natural state” to achieve the “relief of man’s estate…” (Great Instauration and Advancement of Learning, 1627).

‘Man’s estate’ = Brutal and hard, full of toil, disease and death;

Use nature to improve our material conditions.

bacon s utopia the dream of modernity
Bacon’s utopia:the dream of modernity

New Atlantis:

- utopian state

- Scientists in charge

- uses bio-engineering

- other technologies

- achieves material prosperity

Nature at the command of man.

transformative technologies the dream of biotechnology
Transformative technologies: the dream of biotechnology
  • “…we make…in the same orchards and gardens, trees and flowers to come earlier or later than their seasons, and to come up and bear more speedily than by their natural course…We make them also by art greater much than their nature; and their fruit grater and sweeter and of differing taste, smell, colour, and figure, from their nature. And many of them we so order, as they become of medicinal use” (NA, 74).
  • “We have also means to make divers plants rise by mixtures of earths without seeds, and likewise to make divers new plants, differing from the vulgar, and to make one tree or plant turn into another” (NA, 74).
and not just plants animal experimentation
And not just plants…Animal experimentation
  • “We have…all sorts of beasts and birds, which we use…for dissections and trials [experiments]…Wherein we find many strange effects, as continuing life in them, though divers parts, which you account vital, be perished…resuscitating of some that seem dead….We try also all poisons and other medicines upon them, as well of chirugery [surgery] as physic [medicine]” (NA, 74).
ren descartes 17 th cent
René Descartes (17th cent.):

We should “make ourselves masters and possessors of nature…to enable us to enjoy without pain the fruits of the earth and all the goods one finds in it, but also principally for the maintenance of health, which unquestionably is the first good and the foundation of all the other goods of this life…” (Discourse on Method, pt. 6).

michel serres on descartes
Michel Serres on Descartes
  • “Mastery and possession: these are the master words launched by Descartes at the dawn of the scientific and technological age when our Western reason went off to conquer the universe We dominate and appropriate it…Our fundamental relationship with objects comes down to war and property” (The Natural Contract, 32).
john locke 17 th cent nature worthless property
John Locke (17th cent):nature = worthless property
  • Private ownership is most productive because owner has interest in increasing production:
    • “…of the products of the earth useful to…man nine-tenths [9/10] are the effects of labour…in most of them ninety-nine hundredths are wholly to be put on the account of labour” (emph. original; Second Treatise of Government, ¶ 40, 1688).
  • Earth’s value = 1%!
  • Nature is there to be used for maximum profit as defined by the market.
marx also no greenie
Marx: also no greenie!
  • Continues tradition of conquering nature
  • Great feat of Bourgeoisie
  • Has “subjugated” nature
  • Put forces of nature into human hands
  • Proletariat will continue this trend
  • Nature will yield fruits of earth to humans
  • Nature should expect nothing in return.

How is the social contract involved?


In common?


locke and hardin
2nd Treatise, ch. 5

Private land is cultivated to its full extent;

Field in England produces more than vast “waste” in “America”;

Nature almost worthless (1% or less!);

Will nature be stewarded or over-used?

E.g. corn production—depleting and polluting!

“Tragedy of the Commons” (1968)

Commons = air, water, and soil

Trashed b/c we don’t care about them

B/c they aren’t “mine” or even “ours”!

Have to use coercion of social contract to enforce responsible use.

Locke and Hardin
leopold s land ethic 1949
Leopold’s “Land Ethic” (1949)
  • “Land” stands for nature, energy circuits, everything living on the land;
  • Rejects both Locke and Hardin;
  • Nature is trashed, no matter whether owned or common;
    • “…economic self-interest is hopelessly lop-sided”;
  • Ignore what lacks commercial value (214);
    • “…most members of the land community have no economic value” (210);
    • We give our favorite bits “economic importance.”

Have you looked at the soil lately?

Or visited a country park?

Can you name one tree species on campus?


The bottom line:

Land Ethic

Natural Contract

michel serres natural contract
Michel Serres’ “Natural Contract”
  • “Back to nature…we must add to the exclusively social contract a natural contract of symbiosis and reciprocity in which our relationship to things would set aside mastery and possession in favor of admiring attention, reciprocity, contemplation, and respect; where knowledge would no longer imply property, nor action mastery…” (NC, 38).
man the parasite
Man the Parasite
  • “…a symbiont [future man] recognizes the host’s rights, whereas a parasite–which is what we are now—condemns to death the one he pillages and inhabits, not realizing that in the long run he’s condemning himself to death too.
  • “The parasite takes all and gives nothing; the host gives all and takes nothing. Rights of mastery and property come down to parasitism” (NC, 38).






How to contract

with nature?

the land ethic natural contract
The Land Ethic = Natural Contract
  • “There is as yet no ethic dealing with man’s relation to land and to the animals and plants which grow upon it” (203);
    • “the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts” (203)
    • citizen of the land community (204)
  • “The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land” (204);
  • Model of the “biotic pyramid” (214);
  • “We can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or...have faith in” (214).

A thing is right

when it tends to preserve

the integrity, stability

and beauty of the biotic community


It is wrong when it

tends otherwise (LE, 225).


Land ethic (natural contract) =

"an evolutionary possibility

and an ecological necessity" (203)

question on land ethic
Question on Land Ethic
  • In 'The Land Ethic' Aldo Leopold states that 'a system of conservation based solely on economic self-interest is hopelessly lopsided.'
  • Do you agree with this?
  • Do you think Hong Kong's environmental policies concerning environmental conservation are solely based or largely based on economic values? If yes, do you think these policies are morally justified?
question on the natural contract
Question on the ‘Natural Contract’
  • In 'The Natural Contract' Michel Serres suggests that ‘mastery and possession‘ of nature was launched by Descartes, making the fundamental relationship between human and the world one of war.
  • Because of this concept we want to conquer the environment; we somehow inflict much harm on our Earth.
  • Do you agree with this? Can we strike a balance between developing our city and protecting the environment?
great questions

Great Questions

Happy greening!