Wild Minds LLC
“Each life form has an equal right to live”. “Because all life forms are interdependent, the loss of one leads to the eventual collapse of an ecosystem’s ‘web of life’.” “Humans have distanced themselves from and exploited nature to the point of irreparable harm.” Not too long ago, we fervently believed these related propositions to be true, and they inspired our conservation work—mostly with primates in Africa—and implicitly served as the guiding philosophy of our lives as parents, citizens, educators, researchers, and writers. But then, one day nearly 20 years ago, gently but persistently nudged by a close philosopher friend, we began to question all our assumptions and beliefs, especially our dearest, longest-held scientific ones. It sent us on a wild and scary journey, as we were forced to abandon much of what we had previously believed unquestioningly and to establish a new foundation on which to build anew.
The essence of this new “guiding philosophy” is described in the following paragraphs. It is meant to be honest, clear and unapologetic and, as a result, may shock but hopefully not offend the reader. You may take some comfort in knowing that as our philosophy evolved during the years of close study, we, too, were at first shocked by some of the unanticipated conclusions forced upon us by reason. As a result, we proceeded cautiously, vetting each new conclusion in conversation with professional philosophers, scientific colleagues, and in our work as conservationists and educators. While this process of careful examination has given us greater confidence in our now well-examined guiding philosophy, it is no longer one “carved in stone”. Rather, it is in its essence an evolving one, one that much more than ever before we are willing to amend or abandon altogether as necessitated by new knowledge and the work of our best, collective reasoning. We invite you to engage our philosophy and more thoroughly explore its implications through our published materials and, most importantly, to share your constructive thoughts with us.
As our guiding philosophy, we assume, minimally, that every human being, despite differences in cultural traditions, beliefs, or values, wishes to live and thrive. By this we mean simply that because human beings are self-aware, each person imagines a life for him or herself that goes beyond mere survival to include the realization of hopes and dreams, to be free to live up to one’s full potential. We can call this universally desired life one of flourishing or thriving—a universal ethic—and infer from it that for any person the optimal society is one that recognizes and promotes the value of, and protects the right of individual flourishing. In other words, as a society we choose to recognize, grant, and protect each individual’s right to flourish. It follows that if any one person has a right to flourish, then so does every human being and that one person’s flourishing should not impede another’s. Individual and collective flourishing, then, is at root a mindful exercise of each of us becoming fully aware of the widest possible impact of our values, attitudes, habits, and behaviors.
An immediate implication of this kind of mindful flourishing is that each of us needs to be prepared to adjust or moderate our behaviors and goals so as to maximize universal flourishing on a sustainable basis. Most critically, survival of the human species requires the sustainability of certain essential ecosystem services, which, in turn, demands their careful calibration and cultivation, and corresponding adjustments in human behavior (e.g., reduced population growth, improved management of natural resources).
When we agree that our shared goal or ethic is universally sustainable thriving, then we become mindful of what we need to survive (e.g., food, water, sources of energy) and thrive (e.g., aesthetically transforming landscapes, improved health care), and we will be motivated to individually and collectively steward these resources. (We note that we are aware that an alternative ethic would not put the human right to thriving ahead of the ‘rights’ of other species to thrive, but we find, after much careful thought, that the concept of an “intrinsic” right to thrive, applied universally to all living things, is philosophically untenable. The notion of a ‘right” to anything is a human invention, and throughout history humans have granted rights to others or abrogated them. However we decide what rights to grant or to whom, the very act of doing so seems to flow from our capacity to imagine or model a desirable future for ourselves; in other words, it stems from our unusual self-reflective capacity. We realize that the question of levels of conscious awareness, including self-awareness, in other species is an open one under active investigation. Thus other species may also have levels of self-awareness that lead them to imagine a desirable future for themselves, in which case such species could well also come to believe that they have a right to exist, and we should then be compelled to respect that right.)
Our present position, however, is consistent with the current predominant scientific evidence indicating that the degree, if not the quality, of the capacity for self-awareness is unique to humans. From this follows a further implication of our guiding philosophy, namely, given that as humans we are uniquely aware and desirous of leading meaningful or purposeful lives, we also have the ability to plan and estimate our long-term impact on our social and ecological environment. This means that we can—within limits—steward our social and ecological resources. We prefer the term “stewardship” to “management”, customarily used by conservationists, as the latter is too strong, implying a good measure of hubris about our control over “nature”. In our view, humans don’t stand outside nature, do not uniformly damage nature, nor interfere with nature’s “health”, “balance”, or “harmony”—all philosophically and scientifically indefensible concepts. We are, rather, fully part of nature, and, like other species, we continually modify our environment. Whether a modification is “good” or “bad” thus depends on our point of view or goal—in this case, we should ask, does it impede sustained human flourishing? (Here we recognize that our flourishing includes the flourishing of other living forms on whom we depend physically and psychologically, and all the inanimate matter or resources required to sustain our community of living things.) But nature, of which we are a part, is not a static, balanced system. Rather, all of nature is dynamic, changing, at times chaotic, and consistently resilient. Intrinsically, natural processes are neither good nor bad. In the history of life on Earth, the vast majority of species have gone extinct long before humans evolved. The Earth’s climate and distribution and extent of its eco-regions have also changed dramatically. It makes little sense, therefore, to believe that we can stop all species extinction or stop climate change, as it is oftentimes argued in the public place. Nature is not like a human-built factory, where all the parts and procedures are well-defined, that can be managed (or controlled) to insure smooth functioning. Neither nature nor ecosystems are manageable in the same way, and they ultimately defy our arrogant attempts to do so. We are, at best, mindful gardeners, understanding that our goals for nature are human goals reflecting human needs, values or preferences. This recognition or reconceptualization of our participation in nature is hardly a cause for despair. After all, mindful gardeners can and do produce beautiful, thriving gardens, while recognizing that unpredictable and uncontrollable elements can alter or undo their finest work.
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