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Environmental Studies

ES Philosophy student investigates sustainability

Story posted July 19, 2012

Chris Jayne ’13 has jumped into the middle of a fray. It’s a philosophical fray, however, so he’ll likely come out of it with few bruises. He’s tackling the notion of sustainability, which on the surface sounds straightforward, but in truth presents a number of philosophical problems.

The philosophy and environmental studies major has a summertime Hughes Family Fellowship from Bowdoin to critically examine the notion of sustainability, which he calls a “very slippery concept.” Though he’s spending his days quietly reading and writing, he’s uncovering a divided world of conflicting ideas, which have at their core the fate of the planet.

Jayne says he’s starting his research by looking at fundamental questions of sustainability. “Is the basic claim that we are consuming too much, too fast a legitimate one? If so, what do we want to sustain? Why?” he asks. 

Wrestling with these issues will eventually lead Jayne to explore what a sustainable life looks like for an individual, and whether that life is replicable for everyone.

Jayne’s advisor, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Environmental Studies Larry Simon, says the term sustainability has become something of a buzz word, opening up a space where philosophers can help clarify its meaning and implications. “One might argue, in a nutshell, that the solution to our environmental crisis is for us to achieve a sustainable way of life (‘us’ being all of humanity, importantly including future generations),” Simon says. “Of course, what this way of life would look like needs to be filled in, and that is where all the problems and disagreements lie. There is a lot of philosophical work (conceptual and moral especially) that can be done here.”

Jayne boils the sustainability debate down to this: “Should we be worried about it? An E.S. major would say, of course.” But there are other thinkers who argue that human ingenuity and innovation will solve our environmental problems. Jayne refers to them as “technology optimists, or cornucopians.”

According to these optimists, Jayne explains, “… many resources are effectively infinite if we can only access them. And technology is the key to that access. Artificial photosynthesis, new and inexpensive photovoltaic solar panels, nuclear power, and desalination of water are all technologies that unlock effectively infinite sources of energy and water.”

The Internet, too, could help spawn fresh ideas. “We will have some three billion new internet users by 2020. … This represents an unprecedented injection of human capital into the global economy,” Jayne says.

Despite these arguments, Jayne says he can’t help but put himself in the other camp, which he describes as those who believe nothing less than a “paradigm shift away from unfettered growth” will save us. “We are living in a finite world that has physical limits and abides by laws like entropy and conservation of mass, laws that render current economic practices absurd. Our way of relating to that world must reflect this reality. … Current average consumption levels require one and a half earths to be sustained, and if everyone tried to consume as much as the Americans, we would need five to six planets …”

Read more about Chris Jayne's thoughts on the sustainability debate here.

For Jayne, it is not a stretch to bridge his two academic interests, ethics and the environment, in his research. “When you talk about sustainability, you’re led to questions about what would be a more just world. The fields can’t help but intermingle at a deep level,” he says.

Many Bowdoin fellowships provide students, such as Jayne, a chance to ground themselves in the literature of their subjects as they lay down the foundations for their senior-year honors projects.



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"We are living in a finite world that has physical limits and abides by laws like entropy and conservation of mass, laws that render current economic practices absurd. Our way of relating to that world must reflect this reality. … Current average consumption levels require one and a half earths to be sustained, and if everyone tried to consume as much as the Americans, we would need five to six planets …"