Environmental Realism: From Apologetics to Substance

in Nature and Culture
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This article assesses the cornucopian theory of the mastery of plastic nature. Serious deficiencies are found, especially the theory's complacent faith in economic rationality and its underestimation of nature's capacity for unexpected emergent disturbances. Conclusions about the real state of the world and realistic expectations for the future must take into account not only present trends, but also the findings of research into disasters and societies that have collapsed. Learning from the analysis of such discontinuities and breaking points will help to avoid simplistic presumptions of safety based on extrapolating time-series trends of present well-being in wealthy societies into the distant future. It is precisely disaster research and studies of collapsed societies that can teach us about failures of foresight concerning nature's dynamics, about the material consequences of such errors, about the uncertainties involved in foreseeing nature's emergent dynamics, and about social barriers to learning from the prompts of nature. Although apologetics for business-as-usual, full-steam-ahead practices that masquerade as realism should be rejected, a deeper realism that has learned to expect the unexpected from nature is necessary. Such a critical realist perspective for investigating prompts from nature has been elaborated in this article.

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