Humans become different kinds of people when wrestling with deep problems

Jedediah Purdy discusses his new book, After Nature: Ross Andersen: For a relatively slim volume, this book distills an incredible amount of scholarship — about Americans’ changing attitudes toward the natural world, and about how those attitudes might change in the future. How long have you been thinking about this?

Jedediah Purdy: I started thinking about this project seven or eight years ago, when I was co-teaching a course at Duke on the law, science, and politics of climate change. What struck me then was how much of the scholarship involved very sophisticated analyses of futility. There were all these studies about why we should expect to do nothing: because climate change overruns our national borders, the timelines of our political decision-making, the scope of our moral concern, and even our cognition.

So I began thinking: This sounds familiar. Many of the ideas we take for granted now, at least as widely shared goals — democracy, gender equality, diversity, economic life without any form of slavery, overcoming the legacy of racism and even overcoming the myth of race itself — would have seemed impossible at many earlier times. In fact, they would have seemed unnatural. Not so long ago, the best minds believed they had seen the limits of human possibility, and those limits did not extend very far. And in a sense they were right. In fighting out these questions, humans became different kinds of people. They came to care about new and different things. The scope and shape of their moral communities changed.

So, I thought, maybe climate change — and, really, the whole global environmental crisis — is like that. Maybe it’s one of these deep problems that, if we engage it in a serious way, changes us. Maybe we need to become different people in relation to the natural world. And maybe that isn’t such a wildly utopian thought: that becoming different people is something that humans do, in wrestling with deep problems. [Continue reading…]

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