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Finding common ground for environmental activism and ethics

Finding common ground for environmental activism and ethics

Peter Timmerman

With a history of researching and teaching a wide, interdisciplinary array of environmental topics, as well as engaging in social and political activism, Peter Timmerman began his academic work in the early 1980s on emergency and risk research, climate change, and disaster and nuclear waste management. He has developed an overall environmental philosophy and ethic, grounded in years of work on Western and Eastern philosophies, various phenomenologies and sustainable practices, and the religious traditions of the world and their environmental perspectives.

He argues that the emerging recognition that we live on a planet with finite boundaries has led to a surge of immanent philosophies and spiritualities, thanks to what he calls “an implosion of sensibility” — the struggle of humanity to deal personally, socially, economically, and spiritually within a world of limits. What began as a shift or turn away from a broad cultural belief in a transcendent deity towards a re-evaluation of the material world has spread with increasing urgency and creativity into various domains and expressions in various forms, ranging from existentialisms to renewable energies, Indigenous renaissances, and alternative forms of economics which has also generated fierce resistances at all levels.  This theme has also been part of his examination of ethics in the context of the Anthropocene epoch, which has seen him focus specifically on long-term sustainability in the world’s faith traditions, especially researching Buddhism and environmental activism in South and Southeast Asia.

One aspect of this move into immanence has been the rise of ecological economics, a fundamental challenge to standard neo-classical economics, with its historic, pervasive commitment to infinities of various kinds. Timmerman’s work in the field of ecological economics led to his co-editing of Ecological Economics for the Anthropocene (2015), with McGill Professor Peter Brown, a collection of papers produced by a multi-university project on the ethical foundations of ecological economics. Further contributions to the field have seen him examining the early history of the concepts of growth and development in the context of the rise of capitalism, and the core tenets of alternative economic systems around the world. His most recent publication for a special thematic cli-fi volume of Exile is a climate fiction on the exhumation and desecration in the 2050s of the bodies of climate change deniers from the early 21st century. In November 2020, Timmerman filmed a mini-documentary lecture on Learning to Live on a Finite Planet where he discusses the need for humanity to be able to live in a sustainable world.

Earlier in April 2020, Timmerman's Earth in our Hands analyzes seven human-made ecological crises of the mid-to-late twentieth century. These crises can be seen as ontological assaults on the very fabric of life. They have sparked and catalyzed multiple phases of environmentalism and shaped its forms of social and political action. These crises include the arrival or awareness of the atomic bomb, acid rain, the depletion of the ozone layer, the accelerated endangering of species, the threat of climate change, prospects for the genetic redesign of life and COVID-19 can be added to this globe changing list. It is at this point in history, as Timmerman says, that “we find ourselves, in some sense, with the Earth in our hands – to attempt to control, to heal, to fight for – and not, to drop.” Earth in our Hands – Threats to the Fabric of Life can be found on YouTube at:

Timmerman is Associate Professor at EUC and Research Fellow at the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity (CUSP) at the University of Surrey, UK. His research explores contemporary economistic world views as hybrids of romanticism and capitalism. His work with CUSP includes a paper titled “Boundary Conditions: Learning to Live in a Finite World” arguing that our worldview is a hybrid of romanticism and capitalism which mutually reinforce an ontology of the infinite — the breaking through of all constraints as the basis of human freedom. He has served as the Chair of Faculty Council, the Co-ordinator for the Business and Environment Diploma, and a member of the University Academic Policy and Planning Committee. He is also the Convenor of the Environmental Music Collective.