Below the Radar Transcript

Episode 108: Ethical Living in the Anthropocene — with David Chang

Speakers: Alex Abahmed, Am Johal, David Chang


Alex Abahmed  0:01  
Hello listeners, I'm Alex Abahmed with Below the Radar, a knowledge democracy podcast. Below the Radar is recorded on the territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. On this episode of Below the Radar our host Am Johal is joined by David Chang, the PhD candidate in SFU's Faculty of Education, to discuss his recent book, A Book of Ecological Virtues: Living Well in the Anthropocene. I hope you enjoy the episode. 


Am Johal  0:27  
Hi there. Welcome to Below the Radar. Delighted that you could join us again today. We have with us today David Chang, who is part of an edited volume called A Book of Ecological Virtues: Living Well in the Anthropocene. Welcome, David.

Dave Chang  0:43  
Thank you very much. It's a pleasure to be here.

Am Johal  0:45  
I'm wondering if we can maybe again, if you could just introduce yourself a little bit.

Dave Chang  0:49  
Sure. I am a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Education and I study philosophy of education, environmental education, as well as contemplative education. And some of my research involves the kinds of practices and perspectives that we need to bring to students. If we are going to live more sustainably on the planet.

Am Johal  1:18  
You must know Sean Blenkinsop on the faculty there.

Dave Chang  1:22  
Yes, I do. Yeah. He's part of my supervisory committee. 

Am Johal  1:25  
Oh, yeah. Okay. Yeah, Sean, and I taught a course together a few years ago. So I know that this is a deep area of interest for him as well. 

Dave Chang  1:32  
Yes, sure. 

Am Johal  1:33  
So the book of ecological virtues, where did this project begin? Because you have other colleagues from SFU, here that have been involved but it would be interesting to see sort of how this book came to be in the world?

Dave Chang  1:45
Yes, well, starting around 2014-2015. Dr. he soon by came across a book project that aims to update some of the discussions around virtue ethics. And they're trying to talk about virtue ethics in lots of different domains. And we thought that it would be a very good extension of the discourse on virtue ethics to talk about what virtue looks like in the environmental realm, especially with the challenges that we're facing with regards to the ecological crisis. So it really came together that way. And we started the project with the idea that even though virtue ethics as it's understood, primarily in the West as an extension of Greek philosophy, there are lots of other cultures around the world that have been concerned with matters of ethics and excellence, how to live a good life. So we wanted to consult and draw on the wisdom traditions of a variety of cultures and bring them into the discussion of ecological ethics and virtue at this time.

Am Johal  3:01  
When I was in my undergrad doing a History of European Philosophy class, I remember they would distinguish between reason and virtue, as reason was the ability to distinguish between right and wrong, and virtue was to do right and not do wrong. It was kind of the action of it and I'm wondering when you use the term virtue ethics, how would you define it as a concept within the field of philosophy?

Dave Chang  3:26  
Yeah. Well, the virtue ethics goes back to the ancient Greeks and Plato was a proponent, but it's primarily attributed to Aristotle, who really elaborated on the details and mastered a certain perspective on virtue. Basically, Aristotle thought that there are certain faculties of capacities that people have, and we need to develop these faculties so that we can act in a beautiful and noble way. So, there are all kinds of ways that we can ascertain the merits of action. Some people say that we have to look at the consequences of our actions, we have to look at the act itself whether it is ethically meritorious. Aristotle tended to think that there are so many varieties of situations and contexts and different demands on our actions, that he didn't think that those would necessarily be a reliable indicator of how we should be acting. Rather, he says that if you are a just to person, let's say, or if you are a kind and compassionate person, then you would be able to do the kind and compassionate thing when a specific situation required. So he emphasized developing those qualities within the agent within the person. And he proposed a way of doing this by very much practicing the qualities of what do you call it, virtues. So, he's famous for saying that we become just by doing just things. So we become kind or loving by doing kind and loving things. So for him, these qualities, these noble qualities are never dissociated from the actions of everyday life.

Am Johal  5:40  
Now, you're saying that virtue ethics happen not just in the Western tradition, but other traditions grapple with the same concepts in their own way. And I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit about how these notions that Aristotle spoke about how they emerge in other thought traditions? 

Dave Chang  5:59  
Yeah, for sure and I will ground this discussion, particularly in the interests that the book brings forward, which has to do with how to live in a virtuous way, given that we are facing this environmental situation that we're seeing. Now, for example, there are a lot of Indigenous cultures that live in a way where their own actions and the way they move about the land, the way they interact with land, that actually is very nurturing, and very protective of land, the land itself becomes a thriving and greener place because of its interaction with human beings. Now, in the volume, we have Indigenous authors who talk about the ways in which Indigenous peoples have, let's say, produced a certain kind of marine agriculture, where they create terraces, around intertidal zones, and they create clam gardens. So just the way that they shape the landscape, the beach, and the intertidal zones become a really rich place for biodiversity. And they do so in a way that is actually not disruptive to the ecosystems, they take an existing ecosystem and augment it in a certain way so that it becomes even more rich. So as a result of looking at this way of being you can see that both humans and land benefit from this form of interaction. And this interaction is characterized by respect and reciprocity, interlocking mutually appreciative relationships, where both land and people nourish each other. So this can be a very instructive form of living, especially in the present age, where industries are extracting materials and resources at a scale that's really quite alarming. And so I think that this is one instance of a very worthy ecological virtue that can provide a lot of guidance to how we go forward as a species.

Am Johal  8:23  
I'm wondering, you know, environmental ethics itself has a long history, and there's critiques of it as well around how it tends to maybe individualize conversations around environmental or climate change issues, you know, should I recycle or not? Should I fly or not? And the critiques sort of come around that if we make these individuated projects, that we're not functioning at the scale of the problem, or that it's a set of collective choices. In your chapter, you talk a little bit about the sort of the complicity of all of us, in many ways that the systems where we don't know actually who's making the decision, but we're all sort of in this chain of events that are happening that relate to the ecological and I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit about your chapter because I think that this book distinguishes itself from I think, the traditional environmental ethics questions, which seems, need to be opened up into a more collective imagination.

Dave Chang  9:21  
Yeah, absolutely. Well, my chapter was really an extension of a very personal moment I had while I was on a cruise to Alaska, and coming back from Alaska, I saw a very impressive scene, which is the shape of Mount Fairweather on the northern part of British Columbia and the Yukon. And that was a really gripping moment. I really felt that that experience of beauty was very noble and it called out to me to live a life that was worthy of that mountain because I thought to myself, you know, why should I be here? Why should I be so lucky to be here to see this mountain. And so that was the impetus. But anyone who is serious about digging deeper into the ecological crisis, and the roots of that crisis, will start to muck around in the mire of it all because one's own personal agency and the flaws and the impacts of the larger system, blend together. And it's hard to sort out where one ends and where one begins, as you said, we are implicated in this system, but at the same time, it doesn't mean that we have no agency. But precisely what that agency is, is a matter of examination and analysis. So in my chapter, I'm trying to basically sort through what it means to be a friction against the machine, to borrow a phrase from Henry David Thoreau. How do we try to, in some ways, change or push back against a system that is predicated on a certain scale of development, that is not in accord with the ecological balance of the Earth itself. So in my chapter, there's a lot of examination about one's own involvement. And once a person is caught in this sort of industrial capitalist machinery, what does one do? First of all, there's a psychological grief that comes with a sense of powerlessness. But at the same time, there is also a renewed energy in forming one's decisions, and thinking thoroughly about one's choices. And those choices are not always popular. And those choices are often against the grain of popular assumptions and norms. But the urgency of the ecological crisis gives us further impetus to stay within those two tensions of holding great grief, but also trying to make the most of whatever agency that we also have. And part of this, of course, is reforming one's own life, as well as getting involved in collective actions so that we can initiate changes on the systemic level, which you refer to.

Am Johal  12:38  
You know, there are other thinkers who weigh in these questions in different contexts. And it's referenced in the book as well. People like Foucault talk about the apparatus in a state of capture Agamben does as well, although not related to environmental questions, but they do work within this context, I think very well. And I think this question of agency that you put on the table, the movement from the individual to a collective heart, or even, you know, somewhere beyond humanity or relation to land, or the other than human world, other animal species, about how that comes to be that there is this sort of when we get to the analysis to the inaction of a larger project to reorient our relation to others in the world? How do we confront the awesomeness of it, that this thing is too big, in a way when we're talking about world systems and earth systems? And how do you confront those questions of exhaustion and grief, as you say?

Dave Chang  13:39  
Yeah, I think that this is where virtue ethics can be of great assistance, because virtue has to do with living a beautiful, excellent life. And that beautiful, excellent life, however, we want to define it is nourishing, sustaining, its edifying in and of itself. So I think that the questions about doubt about the overwhelming nature of the task, which can be withering, for activists, for people who are trying to effect some change, mean, they can exert that kind of force, because there is this hope for desirable outcomes. Or people are liable to assign meaning to their actions, due to the outcomes that they're aiming for. I think what virtues ethics does is it sort of liberates action from outcomes and enables us to draw from the rewards to feel the beauty and the joy of living in a particular way. And it is in living in that specific way that one finds satisfaction and purpose and fulfillment. And the outcomes themselves are never guaranteed. And in many ways, if we strive vigorously for them and overextend ourselves in achieving the outcomes, that's when there is the possibility of burnout or exhaustion. So virtue ethics is a way of turning around the project, redefining the project itself. So that simply living moment to moment in accordance with the qualities that we deem to be noble or desirable.

Am Johal  15:37  
Yeah, that resonates really strongly with me because the book I worked on with my collaborator, Matt Hearn, we called it Global Warming and The Sweetness of Life. And it refers to this concept douceur de vivre that you have used around defining life as something outside of work, a different sense of temporality, a relationship to time that exists outside of the capitalist world, or the inertias of day to day life. And I think that resonates really strongly in the book, as well. Wondering if you can talk a little bit about your colleagues' contributions to the book as well, in terms of a few of them?

Dave Chang  16:16  
Yes, well, there are so many outstanding contributions. And a lot of them have to do with subjects that I think are ignored, and sort of overlooked within a larger culture of popular culture that is, and I think that an honest discussion about these kinds of topics can actually be really helpful. So David Greenwood has a chapter about death literacy. He co-wrote this with Margaret Qian, where he talks about how the culture is really not very well versed in matters of death, and death is hidden away. It's medicalized, it's shrouded by mystique, and fear. And people don't know how to face their own demise. And by extension, there is a fixation on life and the continuance of life. Ecologically speaking, this is actually not very healthy, because within ecosystems, death is an ineluctable reality, in the proliferation of life, the death of certain species feeds the lives of other species, and the circle continues. And so part of the work of living in the Anthropocene is to really consider what it means to die and to die well, and to accept, celebrate, and to embrace our own mortality. And I think that that is a wonderful chapter that readers can look forward to. There is another chapter that I also appreciate that was just the last chapter by Carl llego, and his collaborator, Margaret and Qian. And in that chapter, they talk about forging a very heartfelt, soulful connection to our own places, to the places where we work and where we live. And they propose a certain method of doing that, that is through poetry, sort of writing our connection to place, and paying attention to the ways in which memories are forged, how identities spring out of the soil, and how words give voice to those connections. And that particular chapter, presents all kinds of poems and stories, anecdotes related to the author's connections to their respective places, is a sort of love letter, to land and also to poetry itself. And its ability to bring out the sort of soulful connections that we have with our places, because we need these soulful connections to places if we want to learn to live well on the land and to protect the land and to live in a way that is sustaining both to land and to ourselves.

Am Johal  19:34  
Now that the book is out, how's the reception been? Or what are some comments that you've gotten back since the book came out? Because obviously, the publishing process by the time you write something, it goes through the whole process, it comes out. It's, it's almost like you've put it away and you don't know how it's gonna land out in the world. So what kind of feedback have you gotten?

Dave Chang  19:55  
The feedback has been generally positive. We've gotten some attention from The Tyee, and I have actually not received a copy of the book myself. So you have a copy of the book, I don't. [laughs] 

Am Johal  20:07  
It looks good! [laughs]

Dave Chang  20:10  
Yeah, it looks beautiful. I'm looking at a PDF copy in front of me. But generally, the feedback has been, has been limited, partly because of the pandemic, we haven't had a lot of work done to promote the book yet. And hopefully in the new year, we hope that everything subsides, and then we will have more events to try to promote the book, and then we'll get some reaction and see some people's thoughts about the book. But generally, whatever limited feedback we had, so far, it's been positive.

Am Johal  20:45  
That's great. Well, you'll be surprised how slow these things go, you know, we did our book launch for our book back in 2018. And we did a festival in the UK the year after, and then it was all kind of quiet, and my collaborator Matt Hearn and I, we're going to be doing a keynote in a small town in Norway by zoom, of course, near the Russian border. So it's always surprising how these objects go out in the world, who picks them up and receives them and how they circulate. So an invitation from rural Norway sounds super exciting to me, because it's sort of like how did it get there? And it's great that people are still reading and, and finding something in there. So it's really special. And it's no small feat to get a book out into the world. I'm wondering now that the book is out and this big volume, where is your work and thinking taking you to now?

Dave Chang  21:33  
Yeah, I think that one of the underlying themes through many chapters in the book is the idea of practice, practice is central to Aristotle's understanding of virtues. And many of the authors in this volume have taken the idea of practice up in a variety of ways. For myself, I am thinking about daily practices, or ordinary gestures, which can cultivate certain dispositions and habits that will allow us to meet the challenges at hand, and meet them with a certain grace and composure that is equal to what we would deem to be virtuous. So certainly, one of the ways that I've been thinking about the challenges that we face, I mean, the COVID 19 pandemic has been a really interesting experiment in the sense of a sociologist's way of looking at the world. Because all of a sudden, all kinds of things are being required of ordinary people in ways that we would not have anticipated, we need to physically distance, we need to wear masks, we need to be considerate of how other people might be more vulnerable to the virus than others. So all of a sudden, there are certain responsibilities and demands placed on ordinary people. And certainly, we've seen that most people are willing to adhere to these kinds of restrictions or these kinds of changes to their daily lives, but others are more reluctant. So I am thinking about the kinds of practices that would allow us to be really responsive. We don't know what the demands are, but we know that they will be challenging, or we won't take to them very easily. So my question might be, what kinds of practices will cultivate the kind of disposition that will allow us to do difficult things to do things that we don't like to do? So that's my homework, as you will, for the past year, or a year and a half is just think about these things, because the environmental crisis will also bring those kinds of demands on citizens across the world, actually.

Am Johal  24:04  
David, thank you so much for joining us on Below the Radar. And once again, the book is A Book of Ecological Virtues: Living Well in the Anthropocene. Thank you so much to you and your collaborators for putting this book out into the world. It's an important contribution in environmental philosophy, and I hope it gets out there and I encourage our listeners to go out and get a copy.

Dave Chang  24:25  
Thank you very much. It's a pleasure to talk to you.


Alex Abahmed  24:29  
Below the Radar is a knowledge democracy podcast created by SFU's Vancity Office of Community Engagement. Thanks for listening to our conversation with Dave Chang. You can find out more about his work by visiting the links in the show notes. Thanks again and see you next time on Below the Radar.


Transcript auto-generated by and edited by the Below the Radar team.
March 02, 2021

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