East West

March 4, 2012

March forth, young people. Today is the day to march forth!

As for me, I’m having biscuits at Mother’s. That would be the one down on Stark Street in Southwest Portland. The one with the 45-minute wait, but since I’m a single, I sneak in right away and sit at the bar. It’s especially nice to eat some biscuits after a week trying to put together a comforting breakfast off the buffet table at the Howard Civil Service International House Hotel in Taipei. This is not a knock on the buffet, which is sumptuous, but international food-adventurer that I am, it doesn’t take long before I’m ready for comfort food first thing in the morning. The couple sitting next to me at Mother’s was friendly (not that unusual in Portland), and soon the woman inquires about the biscuits. “Not quite as good as my Grandmother’s,” I told her, but pretty soon she was asking for a bite, anyway. As I said, not that unusual in Portland.

The week in Taiwan was a big success. It was an East meets West encounter around the theme of agriculture and environmental philosophy. Not to get boring, but environmental philosophy is about explaining and accounting for our environmental imperatives: the things we are morally required to do for nature. Back here in the West we academic-types have a big debate going over whether we can refer all of our environmental imperatives back to the services that nature provides back to us human beings, or whether nature has some kind of intrinsic value that provides a reason why we should preserve ecosystems whether they are useful to us or not.

I get to go first at the confab. My task was to describe “agrarian philosophy,” which is roughly any worldview that takes subsistence production to play an important role in building basic cultural forms. I argue that some agrarian philosophies have been an important source of environmental imperatives, and that what’s curious from a Western perspective is that they don’t get us into this dichotomy between intrinsic value and a view of nature’s value that is based solely on what’s in it for us. Agrarian views emphasize humans in nature, but because farming, fishing and other daily activities are the basis for culture and identity, nature becomes a source of imperatives, rather than something to be valued because it pays off to do so.

I point out that although agrarian views can be found in the history of Western philosophy, they begin to disappear about 200 years ago. The “official” Western culture transmitted in universities begins to regard agrarian thinking as a relic, and emphasizes ethical views formulated in terms of human rights or economic costs and benefits. People in the West become more and more detached from the experience of subsistence production, and agrarian philosophy just doesn’t resonate for them.  But I also give two important reasons why academic types East and West shouldn’t give up on agrarian philosophy entirely. First, agrarian worldviews are still around, and we should show respect for the people that hold them. Second, I believe that there are important things we can learn from these philosophies. They contain a moral wisdom about nature that is lacking in our current thinking about environmental imperatives.

This sets off an explosion. The academic-types from China and Japan talk about the way that an agrarian worldview was implicit in the philosophy of Confucius and Mencius, and how this background is assumed by almost all Asian commentators ever since. They also lament the fact that the new generation in Japan seems to be losing touch with agriculture, and are losing their connection to traditional Japanese culture, as a result. I tell them, “Wow! Who knew! When I studied Asian thought back in the sixties, I thought it was about taking acid out in the desert in order to become one with the universe!” My new friend Toshiro Kuwaka from the Tokyo Institute of Technology closes the conference by saying that he has never participated at an East-West event where there has better communication and understanding among the participants.

It was a great week for me. March forth, my friends, and may the biscuits be with you.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

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