Can a very short event change one’s outlook on the natural environment? Environmental awareness can be attained through formal and non-formal education, as well as through active engagement in environmental activities. However, a number of historical figures witnessed a change in their outlooks in the blink of an eye. This contribution explores the impact on environmental epiphanies on humans in a human/non-human encounter by showing their role in triggering powerful emotions and a long-lasting change in the character of three environmentalist figures from the 20th century: Aldo Leopold, Thomas Hill, Jr., and Albert Schweitzer.
A number of definitions have been given to environmental epiphanies. According to Joanne Vining and Melinda S. Merrick, they are “experiences in which one’s perception of the essential meaning of their relationship to nature shifts in a meaningful manner”.[i] Emmanuel Levinas refers to these experiences when he states that a sudden encounter with a nonhuman may cause unexpected ethical obligation on the part of the agent. These are occasions when we become inadvertently ethically responsible for an agonizing nonhuman. This responsibility emanates from our corporeal response to its suffering (body agency); it takes places before any rational decision on our part (pre-reflexivity); it is characterized by immediate rather mediated communication (immediacy), and it makes the agent lose control in the presence of the nonhuman (loss of control).[ii] In brief, Levinas’s theory suggests that we do not always resort to rationalization in order to sympathize with nonhumans. What is missing in Levinas’s view is that before environmental epiphanies can create an ethical obligation, they stir strongly felt emotions. And after they create the ethical obligation, their impact becomes long-lasting.
I began reflecting upon environmental epiphanies during a group forest walk in a natural park in Oujda, Morocco (the picture above). After walking for some time in the park, my friends and I decided to take a short break. The topic of our discussion shifted towards the ways in which our lived experiences with the natural environment were similar to those of various leading environmentalists. When it was my turn, I started talking about the life of American environmentalist Aldo Leopold, his experience with the forest, and how a single epiphanic event turned his outlook upside down. Leopold loved hunting deer, but more predators in his region meant fewer of them. That was the main reason for his decision to kill wolves, bears and other animals. The turning point in his life was when he shot a grey wolf and saw a “fierce green fire dying in her eyes”. This brief scene was so powerful that he “realized then that there was something new to [him] in those eyes – something known only to her and to the mountain”.[iii] Although that new thing remained unexplained in the rest of his essay,[iv] he seems to suggest that the gaze in the wolf’s eyes stirred up his emotions and had a lasting effect on his philosophy. This could be noticed in Leopold’s pioneering role in the shift of American environmentalism towards a more holistic policy based on the importance of preserving predators as necessary regulators of biodiversity.
Leopold was not the only person to have had such an epiphanic experience based on a single event. American professor of philosophy, Thomas Hill Jr. underwent a similar experience that affected his emotions and reshaped his approach with the natural environment. Seeing his “wealthy eccentric”[v] neighbour cut down a lovely tree to pave his way with asphalt as an economical strategy made Hill wonder “what sort of person would do that?” rather than “whose rights have been violated?” or “how has this action minimized overall happiness?”.[vi] It was the first time Hill questioned the character of a human being in regard to a nonhuman entity rather than just considering the possible justifications for such unmindful action. The environmental epiphany of seeing the tree being cut down left him “puzzled over how to explain his own intuitions regarding the wrongness of such situation”,[vii] and marked a long-lasting change in his personality. Small as it might seem, that scene made Hill conjure up memories of human alteration of the Appalachian wilderness.[viii] This was so unexpected that it further deepened his reflection upon the question of human character and the environment for the rest of his life.
A final example of “Aha” moments[ix] activating new environmental mindsets can be found in the life of the German-French religious philosopher Albert Schweitzer. While travelling upriver on a barge in Africa, “at the very moment when, at sunset, we were making our way through a herd of hippopotamuses, there flashed upon my mind, unforeseen and unsought, the phrase reverence for life”.[x] As Desjardins further explains the concept, that epiphanic moment triggered in Schweitzer a spiritual mix of wonder and awe at nature. Translated from the German phrase Ehrfurcht vor dem Leben, reverence for life – as Schweitzer conceives of it – is based on the compulsion to value all other organisms which are capable of development by preserving them and promoting their well-being.[xi] His search for a connection between the affirmative attitude of life and ethics vanished with that mind-blowing more-than-human scene because he finally found that the feeling of reverence for life was the missing link.[xii] Schweitzer was mindful of the natural environment even before this scene. Still, his realization that we can become ethical only when we consider life as such as sacred to us, and only when we devote ourselves to supporting all life in need of help was new, gained through this epiphanic encounter.[xiii]
To conclude,these reflections on environmental epiphanies came at a time when international parties were meeting at the COP26 conference in Glasgow[xiv] to make sure that the promises of the Paris agreement were kept. Still, inspiring global climate action needs a particular type of awareness which does not occur only through official meetings and detailed action plans, but may also arise through unexpected encounters with the natural environment that are just as vital for us to meet the big challenges of the 21st century. In this light, despite the influences of social and educational factors on the attitudes of Leopold, Hill, and Schweitzer as environmentally responsible citizens,[xv] their exposure to the natural world was substantial in making a great leap in their lives.[xvi] What about you? Have you ever come across a strong unexpected scene, like the view of a heart-breaking animal, a creeping wildfire or the fall of a giant tree which has categorically reshaped your attitude about nature?[xvii] If so, please write your comments below.[xviii]
[i] Storie and Vining, “From Oh to Aha: Characteristics and Types of Environmental Epiphany Experiences”, Human Ecology Review, ANU Press, 2018, 157, https://www.jstor.org/stable/26506666 (Accessed 1 November 2021).
[ii] Marais, Michael, “Impossible Possibilities: Ethics and Choice in JM Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals and Disgrace”, English Academy Review, 2012, 118-23. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1080/10131752.2012.695480 (Accessed: 1 November 2021).
[iii] Leopold, Aldo, A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There, Oxford University Press, 1968 , 130.
[iv] Leopold’s essay “Thinking Like a Mountain” is included in his collection A Sand County Almanac.
[v] Hill, Thomas, Jr. “Ideals of Human Excellence and Preserving Natural Environments”, Environmental Ethics, 1983, 1. Available at: https://dx.doi.org/enviroethics19835327 (Accessed: 1 November 2021).
[vi] Cafaro, Philip, “Environmental Virtue Ethics” in Lorraine Besser-Jones and Michael Slote (eds.), The Routledge Companion to Virtue Ethics, Routledge, 2015, 1-2. Available at: https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203071755 (Accessed: 1 November 2021).
[vii] Cafaro, Philip, “Environmental Virtue Ethics” in Lorraine Besser-Jones and Michael Slote (eds.), The Routledge Companion to Virtue Ethics, Routledge, 2015, 1-2. Available at: https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203071755 (Accessed: 1 November 2021).
[viii] Hill, Thomas, Jr. “Ideals of Human Excellence and Preserving Natural Environments”, Environmental Ethics, 1983, 1.
[ix] “Aha” is a German and English exclamatory expression of surprise at discovering something. Melinda Storie and Joanne Vining call it a “lightbulb” moment, which is also synonymous with an “epiphany” moment (168). For further details, kindly see Storie and Vining, “From Oh to Aha: Characteristics and Types of Environmental Epiphany Experiences”, Human Ecology Review, ANU Press, 2018, 155–80, https://www.jstor.org/stable/26506666 (Accessed 1 November 2021).
[xi] Schweitzer qtd. in Joseph, R., Desjardins, Environmental Ethics: An Introduction to Environmental Philosophy. Fifth edition. Belmont, Calif: Wadsworth, 2013 , 133.
[xii] Schweitzer, Albert, Out of My Life and Thought: An Autobiography. Trans. Antje Bultmann Lemke, The John Hopkins University Press, 1998 , 154.
[xiii] Schweitzer, Albert, Out of My Life and Thought: An Autobiography. Trans. Antje Bultmann Lemke, The John Hopkins University Press, 1998 , 157-8.
[xiv] The Conference Of the Parties (COP26) took place from October 31st to November 12th, 2021.
[xv] An example of that is Leopold’s dissatisfaction with the nearly worldwide ecological short-sightedness in the 1930s and 1940s (see Harold Fromm, The Nature of Being Human, The Natural of Being Human: from Environmentalism to Consciousness, John Hopkins University Press, 2009, 81).
[xvi] Similarly, Storie and Vining recommend that educators among others should “provide opportunities for Environmental Epiphanies by ensuring that the public continues to have access to natural areas with room for solitary contemplation.” (2018, 175).
[xvii] A study of 50 American adults revealed that 80% of them reported drastic changes in their attitudes, values, or behaviour after experiencing environmental epiphanies (See Storie and Vining 2018, 164).
[xviii] This contribution might pave the way for new lines of thought, namely the generalizability or culture-specificity of unexpected environmentalism as well as ages at which one is most likely to experience it, and the importance of exposing youth to the natural environment in order to open their minds to unexpected possibilities of sympathy and care for the nonhuman.