Hypatia – Michael Doan Interview


Interviewed by C. Shaheen Moosa (Penn State University): Tell us about yourself.

Michael Doan: Ok, well, my name is Michael Doan and I’m an assistant professor at Eastern Michigan University in the History and Philosophy department.  I received a PhD in philosophy from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.  And my research interests are primarily in naturalized social epistemology, social and political philosophy, and moral psychology. 


MD:  Well, I think that gender is important to understanding climate change along a number of interrelated dimensions.  I think it’s a really good thing that a lot more attention has recently been directed to differential impacts of climate change, along lines of gender, race, ethnicity, class, age, ability, religion, and so forth.  But I think it’s also important to keep foregrounding questions concerning who’s responsible for causing climate change.  Maybe perhaps even more importantly, who’s articulating analysis of the structural causes of climate change and also mobilizing in response to climate change by building relationships and building movements that seek to address those structural sources.  I think there are at least three related questions that prompt us to be attentive to gender when thinking about climate change.  The first is: who is causing climate change through what structural, economic, social, and political processes and in what ways.  And here I think it is also important to ask questions like: why is it so often men who end up being responsible for causing climate change largely because they tend to be folks who are in positions of significant power.  And then second of all, we need to pay attention to the impacts of climate change:  who’s impacted by climate change?  When?  And in what ways?  And here it’s important to ask why is it to so often that women—and women of color in particular—who so often bear the earliest and heaviest burdens of climate change in the global north and the global south.  And then lastly, we also need to be asking questions about who is responding to climate change and offering leadership and responding in what ways.    And here, I think it’s important to ask, also, questions like: how do gendered and racialized ways of thinking and relating inform and affect our visions of alternative structural arrangements?   When we think about worlds that are more sustainable…how are gendered and racialized ways of thinking forming those visions and also how are they informing our strategies and processes for engaging in the work of mitigation and adaptation—both individually and collectively.  So, I think it’s really important to be attentive here to existing leadership around responding to climate change and where women—and women of color in particular—are often made invisible, but are in fact, often offering some of the most vibrant and dynamic leadership in responding. 


MD:  Well, this is a really difficult question and I think it’s when one that other contributors in this special issue are going to address in a lot of different ways because there are just so many different areas where people identify as feminists and as feminist philosophers are making really important contributions not only to thinking through climate change but also to mobilizing in response. So I’m just going to focus on one area here that has been particularly helpful for me in thinking about climate change and that’s in recent efforts largely involving feminist philosophers who have been challenging the dominance of ideal theorizing in social and political philosophy, but also in ecological thinking as well.  And I think that maybe there are a lot of ways in which environmental philosophers need to be paying more attention to these challenges of ideal theorizing because they bleed into environmental ethics as well, in lots of what I think are really troubling ways.  So what feminist philosophers have been doing here is asking whether we should really, as philosophers, be starting by working out really abstract ideals of what a perfectly just and sustainable society would be like when doing that really kind of invites us to turn away from the actual worlds that we live in with actual tremendously unjust and oppressive economic, social, and political structures.   The question is really:  how can we develop theories that would better help us to navigate the real world that we actually live in with all of its very real ecological and social catastrophes if we start by articulating normative ideals and by turning away from that actual world.  So feminist philosophers have been suggesting in a variety of different ways that we really, as philosophers, need to start by listening to and engaging with people who are dealing with very real problems in their everyday lives, including what are already the effects of climate change and starting from that point trying to figure out what sorts of guidance are actually going to be helpful in not only dealing with, but also coping with, just the very real problems that people are dealing with.  So I found this move towards what people are increasingly calling different varieties of non-ideal theorizing—that is theorizing that begins by addressing the non-ideal circumstances in which we actually live—to be one of the really important contributions that feminist philosophers have made to thinking about climate change. 


MD:  My philosophical work has really recently focused on the question of how best to understand and go about remedying inaction in response to really complex ecological and social problems, such as global climate change.  So I’ve been looking for various forms of what we might think of as “motivational inertia” such as apathy, indifference, complacency, resignation, and despair.  And the paper that I wrote for the special issue on climate change is called “Climate Change and Complacency.”  There what I’m trying to do is…I’m really focusing on the question of how do we need to reimagine what it means to be complacent in the context of climate change and more specifically in the context of the global north when philosophers have tended to think—I think really unhelpfully—of complacency as an individual vice that individuals are solely and wholly responsible for.  So I want to instead start by asking:  how do we need to think differently about complacency, recognizing that our characters and specific structures, or traits of character, are going to be shaped by the interconnected systems of oppression and domination in which we live our lives in the global north.  And so, how, in light of recognizing that, can we then come to understand what it means to have the kind of character defect that prevents us from responding well—not only responding well, but also just inquiring into and understanding—but responding to, as well, to really complex problems like climate change.  So that’s what I’ve been working on lately. 


MD:  So when it comes to understanding what it means to be complacent with respect to climate change…part of what I’ve been doing is resisting the temptation to suppose that there must be something that I can do to become a “good environmental citizen” specifically through changing my own behavior or lifestyle.  Now, I don’t want to deny that there are lots of important things that people living in the global north—especially particularly affluent people—can and should be doing to reduce their personal sphere emissions, so by driving less or finding alternative means of transportation, changing diets.  These are all options that people need to be exploring very seriously.  But part of what I’ve been trying to understand is what is it that leads people to come to expect that there must be something that they can do as an individual and that their responsibilities would be limited to what they can do as an individual in responding to such a complex problem.  So what is it that keeps encouraging people to expect there’s something I can do to be a good environmental citizen when there are in fact other options available to people.  More collaborative and collective forms of engagement that are not just oriented towards solving the problem through prefabricated solutions, but actually collaborative and collective processes that are oriented towards just inquiring into and understanding the problem from a variety of different perspectives.  Involving people who may be more or less severely affected and at different times and in different ways, and in light of that process, trying to figure out together what sort of alternative structural arrangements we might be aiming for and then what sort of strategies we need to be implementing in order to move towards those sorts of visions.  So, to return to the question, I don’t really have a lot—and I don’t really think it’s my necessarily my place as a philosopher to offer—solutions from my own very limited perspective to what is such a complex problem and a multidimensional problem that I think, really, we can’t as the very finite, limited beings that we are, understand from our own perspectives.  So I think that there are a lot of things that people already recognize are things that they could be doing, and other options that they might not have been exploring because of how they’ve been raised or what they’ve been encouraged to think and that it’s really important that people engage collaboratively and collectively in working through those options for themselves and figuring out, you know, how they can orient their lives more towards creating a more just and sustainable society.