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Radically Reimagining Environmental Ethics Using Alice and Wonderland (Part A)

As a self-identified environmentalist and humanist, the question that keeps me awake at

night is the extent to which I should accept or reject the realities of a system that don’t

embody my values? Perhaps the hardest part about approaching, let alone answering, this

question is the feeling of fear that pervades all my choices: the fear, at an individual level,

that my anger, sadness and frustration towards this oppressive system will jade my view of

life so much that I will miss out on seeing the abundance of beauty in it; and, the fear, at a

collective societal level, that no matter what choice I make, it doesn’t matter. Although

these particular fears are my own, they are but a drop in the unknown abyss of fear and

uncertainty in which we all live.

The goal of ethics, and to be more precise, environmental ethics, has been to help

society navigate this unknown abyss by centering our environmental decision making on

specific value theories (Hattingh 1999; Minteer & Collins 2005; Booth 2012). However, this

applied theoretical process of deconstructing an exceedingly complex world, and,

subsequently, developing a set of universal guiding ethical principles that can be used in a

wide range of practical scenarios, is increasingly unrealistic (Weston 1985; Hattingh 1999;

Weston 2004; Gardiner 2006; Fesmire 2012). As such, the important role environmental ethics

can play, and has played, on a practical level is also increasingly less relevant. This is not to

diminish the importance of environmental ethics, on the contrary, environmental ethics are

absolutely essential if we are to overcome the socio-ecological crises the world is facing

(Kelbessa ND, Gardiner 2006; Carter 2012; Fesmire 2012). However, it does mean that if

environmental ethics is going to remain relevant and help guide the world towards a more

sustainable socio-economic and ecological trajectory, it needs to radically reimagine itself.

Stories and storytelling are as ancient as our world and hold the unique ability to help

us make sense of what appears to be nonsensical (Annecke & Swilling 2004). Alice’s

Adventures in Wonderland is no exception. Written by Charles Ludwig Dogdson, under the

pseudonym Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was first published in 1865 and

tells the story of Alice’s fantastical adventures in Wonderland. I contend that an ecocritical

reading of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland can provide a unique ‘looking glass’ into what a

radical reimagination of environmental ethics might look like. And so, with that being said, I

invite you to follow me, and Alice, down the proverbial ‘rabbit hole’ on an adventure into

environmental ethics.

Falling down the Rabbit Hole: Decentering our experience and imagination

Down, down, down. Would the fall never come to an end? “I wonder how many miles

I’ve fallen by this time?” she said aloud. “I must be getting somewhere near the centre of the

earth. Let me see: that would be four thousand miles down, I think – ” (for, you see, Alice had

learnt several things of this sort in her lessons in the schoolroom, and though this was not a

very good opportunity for showing off her knowledge, as there was no one to listen to her, still

it was good practice to say it over) “–, that’s about the right distance – but then I wonder what

Latitude or Longitude I’ve got to?” (Alice, had not the slightest idea what Latitude was, or

Longitude either, but she thought they were nice grand words to say.”

Presently she began again. “I wonder if I shall fall right through the earth! How funny

it’ll see to come out among the people that walk with their heads downwards! The Antipathies,

I think – ” (she was rather glad there was no one listening, this time, as it didn’t sound at all

the right word) “ – but I shall have to ask them what the name of the country is, you know.

Please, Ma’am, is this New Zealand or Australia?” (and she tried to curtsey as she spoke–fancy

curtseying as you’re falling through the air! Do you think you could manage it?) “And what an

ignorant little girl she’ll think me for asking! No, it’ll never do to ask: perhaps I shall see it

written up somewhere.” (Carroll 1865: 4-5)

As Alice is falling “down, down, down”, she asks herself two very relevant questions: first, if

her fall will ever end; and, second, if she has finally reached the center of the earth (Carroll

1865). Just like Alice, environmental ethics has been trying to answer the same two

questions. In other words, if we synthesize these two questions into one, has environmental

ethics been able to abstract “down, down, down” to the moral center of the earth. Since it

emerged as a recognized academic discipline in the 1970’s, environmental ethics has primarily

evolved as a sub field of applied ethics (Hattingh 1999; Booth 2012). At its most general level,

the goal of applied ethics is to develop an ethical theory and then apply that theory to a wide

range of situations in order to test its ability to resolve problematic cases and questions

(Booth 2012). As such, applied ethics is rooted in theoretical constructions whose value is, in

large part, its ability to consistently reduce down to its core value statement (Weston 1985;

Hattingh 1999; Booth 2012). The advantage of being able to derive a core value or singular

truth is that it provides a coherent and consistent framework to make the ethical and rational

choice (Hattingh 1999).

At the center of this more theoretical debate is if nature has value in itself (intrinsic

value), or, has value in relation to how it can be utilized by humans (instrumental value)

(Weston 1985; Hattingh 1999). The continuation of this debate is the degree to which nature

has intrinsic value and the implications this has in terms of why and how this intrinsic value

can be extended outwards to include “other than human” life, larger ecosystems and

ecosystemic processes, and finally the planet as a whole (Hattingh 1999; Weston 2004).

Anthony Weston (2004:25) explains this familiar logic of ethical reasoning using geometric

terms, “Each new circle of moral consideration is supposed to enclose the previous circles,

neatly, evenly, and totally, all the way back to the single original center, just like the

concentric ripples from a single stone dropped into a still pond.”

However, this more concentric approach to environmental ethics is problematic for a

number of reasons which Alice can help illuminate. As Alice continues falling, she also

realizes the absurdity of her questions and her inability to answer them or connect them with

her present reality (Carroll 1865). Although she may be able to use reason and logic to help

make sense of where she is, for example by thinking in terms of distance and Latitude and

Longitude, the reality is she has no way of knowing where she is going, or, what it will be like

once she arrives (Carroll 1865). As such, Alice submits to the disorientation and considers she

may have already fallen right through the center of the earth (Carroll 1865:4). Furthermore,

she realizes the more linear and deterministic laws of nature no longer apply. She is able to

imagine people waking upside down and is even able to curtsey while falling through the air

(Carroll 1865). Alice, at once realizes her ignorance without completely abandoning the idea

that she may find some answers “written up somewhere” (Carroll 1865:5). As such, she does

not completely severe the connection with her more deterministic and logical history, but, at

the same time, she embraces the imaginative possibilities or where she is and where she may

be going.

Returning to environmental ethics, due to the increasing complexity and diversity of

ways in which climate issues manifest themselves through time and space, it is also

increasingly difficult to extrapolate universal ethical truisms (Weston 1985; Hattingh 1999;

Weston 2004; Gardiner 2006; Fesmire 2012). Not only are the causes of climate change

unevenly dispersed throughout the globe, the magnitude of their impact is also deferred in

time (Gardiner 2006; Carter 2012; Schmidt, Brown & Orr 2016). Furthermore, climate change

is not caused by isolated actors or decisions, but rather is a collective phenomenon that is

entrenched deep in the infrastructure and systems which currently dominate global society

(Gardiner 2006; Booth 2012; Schmidt, Brown & Orr 2016). As such, current institutions are

inadequate for coordinating or enforcing any effective global response (Kelbessa ND; Gardiner

2006; Schmidt, Brown & Orr 2016). In light of these observations, it seems that

environmental ethics, like Alice, is equally absurd in continuing to question and look for an

ethical center, or monocentric moral bedrock, that can ground environmental policy and

action. All we need to look at are the current failures of global climate change negotiations,

such as the Kyoto Protocol, and the continued unilateral action of powerful nations such as

the USA (Kelbessa ND; Gardiner 2006). As Weston reflects (2004:32), “Monocentrism thus

extends and disguises a mono-logical ethic as well. Unicentrism extends and disguises unilateralism.”

Although environmental ethical value theories still offer great insight and can help

measure how far we have fallen down the rabbit hole, maybe, like Alice, right now is not “a

very good opportunity for showing off her [ecological ethics] knowledge, as there was no one

to listen to her […]” (Carroll 1865:4). Perhaps, environmental ethics should follow Alice’s

example and consider abandoning it’s more centric and deterministic nature, and instead,

consider that it has already fallen through the center. By submitting to this disorientation,

environmental ethics can utilize its diversity and shift its attention towards a pluralistic range

of potentiality, a sort of systemic wonderland!

Entering Systems Wonderland: Finding Identity through Context, Dialogue and



THE Caterpillar and Alice looked at each other for some time in silence: at last the

Caterpillar took the hookah out of its mouth, and addressed her in a languid, sleepy voice.

“Who are you?” said the Caterpillar.

This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, “ I –

I hardly know, sir, just at present –at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I

think I must have been changed several times since then.”

“What do you mean by that?” said the Caterpillar sternly. “Explain yourself!”

“I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, sir,” said Alice, “because I’m not myself, you see.”

“I don’t see,” said the Caterpillar.

“I’m afraid I can’t put it more clearly.” Alice replied very politely, “for I can’t

understand it myself to begin with; and being so many different sizes in a day is very


“It isn’t,” said the Caterpillar.

“Well, perhaps you haven’t found it so yet,” said Alice; “but when you have to turn

into a chrysalis –you will some day, you know –and then after that into a butterfly, I should

think you’ll feel it a little queer, won’t you?”

“Not a bit,” said the Caterpillar.

“Well, perhaps your feelings may be different,” said Alice; “all I know is, it would feel

very queer to me.”

“You!” said the Caterpillar contemptuously. “Who are you?” […] (Carroll

1865: 60-61)

Although Alice enters Wonderland with an almost innocent and eager curiosity, she also knows

that this curiosity may cause her a certain amount of discomfort and chaos. This discomfort

becomes increasingly evident in Alice’s response to the Caterpillar’s simple, and yet profound,

question “who are you?” (Carroll 1865:60). However, despite the discomfort and

disorientation from falling down the rabbit hole into Wonderland, Alice courageously allows

her reality to be confronted, and furthermore, uses the opportunity to radically question the

very core of her identity. Exactly because she opens herself in this way, in this same

conversation with the Caterpillar, the Caterpillar is able to introduce Alice to three very

important themes that she will continuously be confronted with throughout her journey in

Wonderland (Carroll 1865).

First, nature has voice, and despite is skeptical and distrusting view towards humans,

nature also has something important to say, just as long as we listen. Although the Caterpillar

responds to Alice in a more confrontational and “contemptuous” tone, the Caterpillar has

something very important to reflect to Alice (Carroll 1865). Building off this first lesson, the

Caterpillar introduces to Alice to a second important theme, what is true for one person or

being, is not always true for another. Although Alice is quite troubled about her constantly

changing shapes and sizes, for a Caterpillar this is not only natural it is actually quite

comfortable (Carroll 1865). Finally, the experiential process and conversational nature of life

are vital in discovering who we are. However frustrating the conversation may have been with

the Caterpillar, by the end of the dialogue, Alice, seemingly unconsciously, was better able to

articulate some of her own feelings and start the process of rediscovering who she is. In so

doing, Alice initiated the process of building bonds of solidarity based on recognizing and

valuing her difference with the Caterpillar, rather than trying to find similarity with the

Caterpillar (Carroll 1865). When taken together, these three themes lead to a more profound

process of developing empathy. Alice is forced to consider that for the first time she is an

outsider both within herself as well as in her environment. In order to navigate Wonderland

she will have to develop a greater imagination and learn to not only validate others

experiences but also reconsider herself and who she is.

In much the same way as Alice, environmental ethics would greatly benefit from

considering these same three themes and, in doing so, demonstrate a more empathetic and

pragmatic approach to addressing environmental issues in today’s complex world. First and

foremost, I suggest that giving nature a voice be the starting point for environmental ethics.

As Booth (2012:75) states, “Agreements must start from somewhere; without a baseline of

agreement, little or no progress can be made towards reconciling conflicting interests.”

Rather than focusing on whether or not nature has intrinsic value, giving a voice to nature

circumvents this more monistic and centrist characteristic of environmental ethics, and,

instead allows a more pluralistic view of what nature has to say to emerge (Weston 1985;

Weston 1996; Hattingh 1999; Weston 2004; Booth 2012; Lindholdt 2012).

Whether or not nature possesses consciousness or has intrinsic value, nature is

responsive (Weston 2004; Minteer & Collins 2005; Booth 2012; Carter 2012). This can be seen

through studying scientific feedback loops, in the ways in which animals and humans

negotiate boundaries, or even through more direct forms of spiritual communication present

in many indigenous cultures (Weston 2004; Minteer & Collins 2005; Booth 2012; Carter 2012).

Booth (2012:80) gives a very practical example of how humans can more directly give nature a

voice, “Some species in a bioregion can serve as indicator species and thus can ‘speak’ for the

health of the ecosystem as a whole. Thus it makes good pragmatic sense to give them some

form of representation in democratic decision making.” Nature has a diversity of ways in

which it can communicate with us, rather than debating why nature has value, we would be

wise to instead shift our attention to listening to the diversity of ways in which it is already

speaking to us (Weston 2004; Booth 2012; Lindholdt 2012). “If we humans continue to hold

ourselves apart from and above other sectors of the natural world, we will continue in the rut

of historical humanism. If we scorn the prospects for an interspecies communication, we will

be tacitly silencing the more-than-human world” (Lindholdt 2012:118).

Building off this baseline starting point, the second theme which the Caterpillar draws

to both Alice’s, and environmental ethics, attention, is that what is true for one person or

being is not always true for another (Carroll 1865). This recognition of diversity of experience

allows a more relational and collaborative approach to emerge in environmental ethics

(Weston 1985; Hattingh 1999; Weston 2004; Fesmire 2012). As Weston (1985:322) reflects, by

recognizing the interrelated nature of our values, “The notion of fixed ends is replaced by a

picture of values dynamically interdepending with other values and with beliefs, choices, and

exemplars […]”. How individuals, and species, relate to the environment and climate change

is highly context specific and is directly related to socio-cultural and economic power

structures in a given society (Kelbessa ND; Kaijser & Kronsell 2014; Schmidt, Brown & Orr

2016). Rather than giving value or power to one specific experience, it is increasingly

important to uncover the underlying economic and cultural norms that perpetuate uneven

power structures thereby reinforcing the unsustainable status quo (Kelbessa ND; Hattingh

2001; Kaijser & Kronsell 2014).

Reinforcing a narrow set of values based on a more homogenized and deterministic

experience across society runs the risk of further entrenching hegemonic power structures

that can promote, often times unconsciously, structures of oppression and exploitation

(Kelbessa ND; Hattingh 2001; Weston 2004; Kaijser & Kronsell 2014; Schmidt, Brown & Orr

2016). Valuing diversity fundamentally accepts that values are not created or manifested in a

vacuum, but rather are hopelessly intertwined with our unique interaction with reality

(Weston 1985; Hattingh 1999; Weston 2004; Booth 2012; Fesmire 2012 Kaijser & Kronsell

2014). Rather than seeing the diversity of views and opinions surrounding environmental

ethics as an obstacle to creating a unified approach, this diversity should be seen as tool kit

to negotiate the contextual richness and multiplicity of ways socio-ecological issues can be

approached (Hattingh 1999; Weston 2004; Minteer & Collins 2005). As Kaijser and Kronsell

(2014:419) articulate, “intersectionality can be used to generate critical and constructive

insights. It provides a critique of existing power relations and institutional practices relevant

for climate issues and, thus, adds significantly to the framing and understanding of climate

change. Moreover, intersectionality can generate alternative knowledge crucial in the

formulation of more effective and legitimate climate strategies.” This more intersectional

approach, which has its roots in critical feminist theory, opens the door for the Caterpillar’s

third insight: through dialogue we are able to start to discover who we are and subsequently

build bonds of solidarity.

As Forno and Graziano (2014) point out, one of the greatest challenges socioecological

movements face is creating bonds of solidarity that result in collective action.

Environmental ethics has unsuccessfully focused much of its effort on forging these bonds of

solidarity and collective action through a process of assimilation based on a central value

theory of nature (Weston 1985; Hattingh 1999; Weston 2004; Booth 2012; Kaijser & Kronsell

2014). Thus, within environmental ethics, Hattingh (1999:78) observes that, “debates

between the proponents of the respective theoretical positions are highly confrontational and

adversarial, and also inconclusive, since they quickly degenerate into ideological stalemates.”

As such, if we accept that nature merits a voice in environmental ethics, and, is

characterized by a rich diversity of experience relational to the socio-ecological and

economic power structures in society, environmental ethics can shift from its more polarizing

approach of convergence in similarity to a more nuanced and inclusive approach of

convergence in diversity (Holt-Giménez & Shattuck 2011).

This sort of convergence in diversity suggests a sort of permeability to environmental

ethics in which a diversity of actors across race, class, and culture can engage in a cross

disciplinary dialogue to find solutions to pressing socio-ecological issues (Holt-Giménez &

Shattuck 2011; Kaijser & Kronsell 2014). Furthermore, it refocuses environmental ethics on

process rather an end goal, and, on creating spaces in which conflicting values can be

reconciled and collective action fostered (Weston 1985, Weston 2004; Booth 2012). However,

just as Alice’s conversation with the Caterpillar did not end in smiles and hugs, this shift in

environmental ethics will not be a clean and simple shift. Rather it will be wrought with

tension and what Weston (1985) terms, “hopelessly conflicting desires ”.

Different socio-ecological movements have different goals, and, furthermore evaluate

their success based on different, and often times contradicting, factors. As Kaijser and

Kronsell (2014:424) point out, “The tension between different academic fields is reflected in

the often-contradictory goals articulated by social movements that strive for equal rights and

opportunities (often in material terms) and the downshifting lifestyle strategies that have

been suggested by environmental movements.” Carter (2012) points out that this shift will

also make environmental ethics more vulnerable to co-optation and misappropriation of

ethical principles and tools by more powerful actors to justify inaction or unsustainable

practices. Carter (2012) is specifically concerned about elevating and overvaluing economic

incentives to promote environmental sustainability. Gardiner (2006), also recognizes the

impending “perfect moral storm” in which it becomes “perfectly convenient” to shift and

divert responsibility from environmental issues by applying selective attention to limited or

inadequate environmental responses.

However, are these criticisms or critiques substantial different than what is already

happening both within environmental policy or environmental ethics? This is not to suggest

that these criticisms are not warranted or welcomed! On the contrary, these criticisms are

essential in helping environmental ethics define what Carter (2012) and Booth (2012) call the

boundaries or baseline agreements necessary for any ethical discussion. There are limits to

the inclusiveness of this approach. However there are relevant examples from which we can

learn such as bioregionalism, Scharmer’s Theory U, the “food hub” movement, or even food

sovereignty/la via campesina (McLachlan & Garrett 2008; Booth 2012; Hinrichs 2014; Waddell,

Waddock, Cornell, Dentoni, McLachlan & Meszoely 2015). The question for future research

thus becomes to identify and, subsequently, learn how to design, protect, and amplify the

impact of these more process driven approaches.

Conclusion: Systems Wonderland as a Real Utopia

Lastly, she [Alice’s sister] pictured to herself how this same little sister [Alice] of hers would, in

the after-time, be herself a grown woman; and how she would keep, through all her riper

years, the simple and loving heart of her childhood: and how she would gather about her other

little children, and make their eyes bright and eager with many a strange tale, perhaps even

with the dream of Wonderland of long ago: and how she would feel with all their simple

sorrows, and find a pleasure in all their simple joys, remembers her own child-life, and the

happy summer days.

THE END. (Carroll 1865:192)

Underpinning this analysis of environmental ethics and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is

one essential characteristic that I believe we need to foster more of as a society – it also just

so happens that in this final passage Alice’s sister also recognizes and affirms this same

characteristic in Alice– namely, imagination! As Feshmire (2012:212) poignantly recognizes,

“But even the most thorough knowledge about complex systems will overwhelm rather than

enhance moral intelligence if that knowledge is not framed by imagination”. Imagination is

the unique characteristic of humans to amplify the meaning of our life by allowing us to see

the impossible and beautifully interwoven fabric of life (Weston 2004; Booth 2012; Fesmire

2012; Lindholdt 2012). It gives us the creative power to stretch and design reality and find

connections in the most incredible and wild places (Weston 2004; Booth 2012; Fesmire 2012;

Lindholdt 2012). In a sense, it gives us the ability to see what Wald and Hill (2015:210-211)

call a “real utopia” or “that space between what is hoped to be achieved and what can be.”

Heifetz (2012:54) notes, “The power of human learning enables human culture to

ameliorate the expression of natural behaviors which present impediments to developing a

civilized society. Equality, and many other precious achievements, are products of heroic

effort and hard won cultural adaptation.” If human society is going to overcome the

impending socio-ecological crises, it is going to take a heroic imaginative effort from

environmental ethics to redefine itself. My goal in writing this essay was to use Alice’s

Adventures in Wonderland to highlight the potential of giving nature a voice, valuing diversity

of experience, and using critical dialogue to foster a convergence in diversity in

environmental ethics. However, at a deeper level it was also to practically demonstrate the

power and role an ecocritical imagination can have in that process!

© Submitted as an assignment for Leadership and Environmental Ethics, April 2017. Post Graduate Diploma in Sustainable Development, Stellenbosch University.

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