The title of Dr. Jim Sheppard’s talk was Environmental Ethics in the 21st century: Exclusions, evaluation, and the burdens of knowledge. Dr. Sheppard is an Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy.
I think we would all agree after listening to Dr. Sheppard’s presentation that we feel a burning desire to make a difference with our lives. Dr. Sheppard began with the words of David Foster Wallace, “Why are we here and engaging in a university education?” Dr. Sheppard elaborated that learning comes with responsibility and a new perspective. If you get an education, why then go out into the world simply to conform to society’s limitations? You should take your education and push new boundaries, test the social norm.
Dr. Sheppard then elaborated on humanity’s suffering. The big 5 wounds: anthropogenic climate change, threats to biodiversity, freshwater shortages, depleted oceans, extreme poverty. The problem that confronts us is that every living system in the biosphere is in decline, and the rate of decline is accelerating. Dr. Sheppard believes we should follow the lead of Jane Addams. She dedicated her life to helping the poor. He concluded that humanity is blind. In the words of William James, “We grow stone blind and insensible. The remedy under such conditions is to descend to a more profound and primitive level.” We must be observant and see the horrific tragedies happening around us everyday. One of Dr. Sheppard’s favorite writers, Arundhati Roy, stated that we should “… never get used to the unspeakable violence and vulgar display of life around you.” Dr. Sheppard went on to explain his point by quoting Emile Durkheim on Homo Duplex, “In brief, this duality corresponds to the double existence that we lead concurrently; the one purely individual and rooted in our organisms, the other social and nothing but an extension of society.” Are individuals incapable of seeing past themselves to see what real evils are plaguing our planet? Dr. Sheppard finds the solution to be simply that individuals must become aware of the people around them. William James stated, “What most horrifies me in life is our brutal ignorance of one another.”
Through this ignorance of each other, individuals create groups and exclusions. Ultimately, we must maintain these groups and exclusions. This matters because what we rationalize is determined by what we include and exclude. How can we ponder new ideas and break through the obstacles and wounds armed only with information that is meant to hinder humanity? We have to start from scratch. Change our thinking entirely. As the great Albert Einstein stated, “The world will not evolve past its current state of crisis by using the same thinking that created the situation.”
Dr. Sheppard them warned us of what would come next. In the words of William Gilman, “… people are stupid and when you speak of realities it seems to them conjuring.” Dr. Sheppard then asked us to use our knowledge to deploy our greatness of spirit. For us to do the greatest good we must first figure out what humanity’s greatest evils are. But where should we begin? Dr. Sheppard had answers. “First we must break down and challenge the force of categories and exclusions. We deceive ourselves if we think our self-drawn categories don’t exist. Open yourself up to the world in a new way and feel, love things and understand things to develop a faith for those things. As Jamaica Kincaid noted, every native of every place is a potential tourist. But don’t be just a tourist in your own city. Your role now (and how to make your generation great) is to be the cultural leaders! Be those cultural leaders that make the connection to further envision the change. With it comes the responsibility to be creative.”
Are you going to be the cultural leader or the tourist? Make your choice.