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Global Warming, Environmental Philosophy
and Public Policy:
John Dewey vs Martin Heidegger

by Richard Grego


This essay compares and contrasts the views of Martin Heidegger and John Dewey with respect to environmental philosophy and the global warming issue. It examines how their respective concepts of nature, human nature, and philosophy of science, might apply to current environmental thought and policy. It argues that Heidegger's latter thought (with its rejection of modern culture's science, technology, and commercialism, as well as its quasi-mystical concepts like 'Being' and 'freedom') is generally less-suited to constructive application in environmental policy than Dewey's philosophy (which celebrates these modern institutions as a triumph of both natural and human potentials). However it is also argued in conclusion that, while the spirit of Dewey's philosophy might be better-suited to policies which entail short-term strategies regarding environmental regulations, laws, and improved technologies, the essential message of Heidegger's philosophy may be needed for ensuring a long-term commitment to sustainable environmental protection.

Heidegger, Dewey, and Environmental Philosophy

Concern over global warming and other environmental problems has garnered a great deal of public attention recently. The February 2007 report issued by the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is controversial (and the technical scientific details of its various possible interpretations are beyond the purview of this essay), but it appears to confirm what many environmentalists have been asserting for some time now: The planet is heating up, and this phenomenon is man-made. This heating process is part of a century-long trend — likely caused in large-part by greenhouse gas emissions (CO2, methane, nitrous oxide, etc) — that is already having adverse environmental effects on many levels. Much of the scientific community agrees that its long-term consequences (which, again, cannot be detailed here but include such possibilities as heat waves, droughts, new wind patterns, melting polar ice, and species extinction) could be catastrophic for both the natural environment and human civilization.

At this time therefore, environmental policy makers are attempting to answer two main questions:

1) What is causing the problem? And 2) What can/should we do about it?

Scientists have provided some obvious technical answers here. Global warming is caused by greenhouse gas emissions and the solution to the problem of global warming is to reduce emissions via improved technologies, policies, and regulations where necessary (one of the most recent ideas in the U.S. along these lines is a change in the federal tax code to encourage the use and development of alternate energy sources by corporations).

Of course philosophers , as always, tend to view both the causes and possible solutions to such problems in more complex and problematic ways than do scientists. Environmental philosophy thus encompasses things like ethics, metaphysics, and the philosophy of science, rather than just simple empirical analysis, in seeking to address issues related to environmental protection. These issues are currently being debated by any number of thinkers across academic disciplines and professions.

While contemporary environmental philosophy is a rich and prolific field of scholarship, it is still sometimes instructive to take a glance at some of its intellectual origins. Though John Dewey and Martin Heidegger (as philosophers at the beginning of the 20th century) lived and thought prior to the most recent environmental concerns of our time, they nonetheless had much to say about science, nature, and humanity's relationship with the natural world. Their respective ideas on these themes have provided a firm foundation upon which much contemporary environmental thought is based. Current philosophers like Michael Zimmerman and Bruce Foltz have synthesized Heidegger's thought with environmental philosophy, while philosophers such as Andrew Light, Larry Hickman, and Anthony Weston have applied Dewey's pragmatism to environmentalism. Thus, examining some of Dewey's and Heidegger's basic concepts in comparative perspective can highlight and clarify assumptions and themes discussed/ debated by contemporary scholars — and can provide critical insight into some of the philosophical issues at stake in current environmental policy debates.

In fact, although Heidegger and Dewey share certain environmentally relevant ideas, their differences are more pronounced and exemplify two distinctly different attitudes toward issues like global warming. Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) has been associated with the 20th century philosophical movements known as phenomenology and (though he disowned the label) existentialism. A student of phenomenologist Edmund Husserl, Heidegger was one of this century's most influential thinkers. His thought, as we shall discuss further, tended to assume a decidedly anti-modernist bias — leading him, especially in latter writings, to critique unfavorably such cultural institutions as technology, commercialism, and instrumental science. Since these institutions are so integral to the modern world, there is a quasi-reactionary sensibility about Heidegger's latter thought (Although in all fairness to him, he considered his critique of western civilization to be forward-looking and visionary.)

American philosopher John Dewey (1859-1952) in contrast, was an unequivocally forward-looking thinker who embraced the spirit of modernism enthusiastically. Closely identified with 'pragmatism', his philosophy has also been referred to as 'instrumentalism' and 'experimentalism'. Unlike Heidegger, he saw science, technology, and commerce as creative expressions of human potentiality. He therefore tended to be more supportive of these institutions and their cultural influence than Heidegger was.

The Nature of Science and the Science of Nature

Were they actually here to comment themselves, both thinkers would undoubtedly see deep connections between concrete problems like global warming and more abstract issues like the philosophy of science, the metaphysics of nature, and human nature. However they would also surely disagree on the character of these connections. Their philosophies agree that science and technology have shaped humankind's relationship with the natural world, but they disagree about what this relationship is, how it has come about, and what it means.

Heidegger's vision of science and technology is, for all practical purposes, a negative one. In his latter work especially, he portrayed the scientific legacy in western history as a manifestation of humanity's disregard for, and estrangement from, the natural world and from the very ground of existence. This legacy, beginning with the philosophy and culture of ancient Greece and culminating in the science and philosophy of modernity, is a tragic story of cultural and spiritual decline. Pre-Socratic Greeks first apprehended the awesome wonder and mystery of existence (or 'Being', as Heidegger calls it) and began to develop philosophy and science to describe this experience. However, the ultimate meaning of this experience was simply too sublime and profound for any descriptions to do justice to, so subsequent thinkers like Plato and Aristotle began to articulate philosophy and science simply as logical explanations for the natural world, rather than as poetic exclamations about the mysterious experience of Being. Such explanations made the natural world rationally intelligible but did so by neglecting a deeper appreciation for Being's original revelation. This made any deep appreciation for the Being of nature impossible and led to the progressive alienation of humanity from nature in western thought and culture.

Thus, the development of science and technology in the modern (post-enlightenment-era) world are cultural expressions of this alienation. Science and technology have now 'enframed' (in Heidegger's terms) the natural world by turning it into a mere object of empirical study for the purpose of commercial exploitation. The natural world has become a resource 'standing reserve' for technical manipulation. Science:

...Sets upon Nature... Agriculture is now the mechanized food industry. Air is now set upon to yield oxygen, the earth to yield uranium... Even the Rhine [River] itself appears to be something at our command... the revealing that rules throughout modern technology has the character of setting upon. (QT, 320-321)

Hence, enlightenment philosopher Rene Descartes' belief that the scientific revolution's purpose is to accomplish '..the mastery and possession of nature' has come to full fruition in modern life. Science has transformed nature from a living revelation of Being into an intellectual/ commercial resource.

Dewey agrees with Heidegger that modern science has its origins in the intellectual life of ancient Greece and has since changed humanity's relationship with the natural world. However unlike Heidegger, Dewey views the legacy of science as one of liberation and enlightenment, rather than one of domination and estrangement. Though the classical founders of western philosophy and science were engaged in a futile 'quest for certainty' and search for an eternal or sacred meaning in nature , modern science since the enlightenment-era has become a more practical tool for framing open-ended questions and generating temporary hypothesis. Unlike the science, philosophy, and theology of ancient times, modern science does not see reality or nature as having any fixed or determined metaphysical or supernatural structure. Nature, as the subject-matter of current science, is a malleable and dynamic construct of the human intellect. Science, according to Dewey, has created, 'A natural world that does not subsist for the sake of realizing a fixed set of ends' and 'is relatively malleable and plastic; it can be used for this or that'. (RP, 70)

Heidegger agrees with Dewey that this is indeed what has happened, but thinks it is a bad thing. Dewey however, sees the advent of modern science as the great liberating event in the history of ideas and extols its possibilities for empowering human potentials------advocating: 'the transfer of the experimental method from the field of physical science to the wider field of human life'. Dewey concludes that in the contemporary world:

Nature as it already exists ceases to be something which must be accepted and submitted to, endured and enjoyed just as it is. It is now something to be modified, to be intentionally controlled. It is material to act upon so as to transform it into new objects which better answer our needs. (QC, 80-81)

— And indeed this is just as it must and should be: For nature is the source of human abilities, and the ultimate evolutionary product of nature is the human ability to transform nature itself. Our ability to bend nature to our will is an aspect of nature. The improvement of human conditions by manipulating and transforming the natural world via science, technology, commerce and the arts, is nature's own supreme achievement.

Heidegger, in contrast, tends to view nature more as 'something which must be accepted and submitted to...', as the unfolding of something sacred and supernatural ('Being') with which humanity looses touch when it is treated as an object of scientific knowledge or commercial exploitation. Our destruction of the natural world is symptomatic of our spiritual alienation from the ultimate source of meaning in our lives. Having reduced 'Being' to a scientific-technocratic-commercial world of objectified 'beings', humanity now finds itself alone in a trivialized world of 'resources' and 'commodities'. Having separated nature from its sacred animating ground, humanity has robbed nature (and itself, for that matter) of intrinsic value. Nature now seems lifeless and meaningless in any deep sense.

Thus a kind of 'Homelessness', as Heidegger calls it, 'has come to be the destiny of the world' (LH, 243), and the only remedy for this dilemma (which Heidegger seems dubious about, even while advocating it) is for humanity to reject the 'frenzy of rationalization', technology, and commercialism (QT, 449) in favor of 'freedom'. Heidegger describes this 'freedom' as the 'letting-be of beings' (ET, 125). It involves an attitude of quietism, reverence, and profound appreciation for nature as a sacred incarnation of 'Being'. In this state of mind, nature would be celebrated once again as a source of wonder, and would no longer be used merely as an object of exploitation.

Science, Nature, and Environmental Policy

Having examined Dewey's and Heidegger's contrasting views on these issues then, their possible respective answers to our original questions regarding global warming might seem obvious. Given his rather strong endorsement of an 'activist' scientific spirit, Dewey would probably see the cause of global warming as a possible miscalculation of our collective goals and methods with respect to what we currently know about our technologies and the environment. His probable solution would involve evaluating how our development (on many levels) is effected by this phenomenon and then re-evaluating how best to utilize the technologies that are responsible for it.

However, his radically dynamic and open-ended conception of both nature and human nature would make these evaluations quite problematic. If nature and human development are in perpetual flux, have no inherent structure, and are continually re-configured by the ever-evolving matrix of inter-relationships that they are a part of, then even defining what the natural environment 'is' — let alone what may or may not be harmful to it — becomes extremely difficult at best. There is nothing intrinsic or essential to nature in Dewey's view. It is an ever unfinished project whose limits cannot be defined and whose 'purpose' is a matter of interpretation. Whether current policies are benefiting or harming nature is therefore a matter of interpretation as well — and our interpretations are largely tentative and change with every temporary change in values, needs, and worldviews. Indeed, the spirit of Dewey's instrumentalism suggests the possibility that there may be ways still unimagined in which global warming may actually enhance human potentials and improve the environment!

On the other hand, Heidegger's response might not be quite as predictable — if he would choose to respond at all. Commentators have speculated widely on the reasons for an attitude of philosophical disregard and personal aloofness concerning real-world affairs that Heidegger seemed to hold throughout his life and career. Some have suggested that it had obvious origins in his rejection of science, commerce, and all such institutions of modern culture. Others have claimed that abstract quasi-mystical themes like 'freedom', 'Being',and 'nothingness' that dominated his latter writing, led to an Ivory-Tower lack of interest in worldly concerns. Still others have suggested more cynical and opportunistic motives behind his his unwillingness to risk taking personal stands on controversial issues. Whatever his reason(s) may have been, Heidegger claimed that humanity and nature have now reached the end of their potentialities, and that humanity cannot hope to 'engineer' its way out of the spiritual malaise wrought by its alienation from Being via science and technology. 'Being' has now exhausted its possibilities in 'Nothingness', which manifests itself in contemporary culture as nihilism and meaninglessness. World civilization is dominated by an instrumentalist mentality in which nothing is intrinsically valuable or sacred. The devaluation of nature to the status of a mere resource for technology and industry is an example of this nihilism.

Unfortunately, Heidegger also says that any attempt to engineer yet another scientifically calculated solution to this dilemma would be, paradoxically, a perpetuation of the very nihilistic mentality that has caused it. Scientifically generated public policies, ecological initiatives, and environmental regulations, are part of the mentality that 'enframes' or objectifies nature by controlling and manipulating it via science and technology. Neither humanity nor nature can be redeemed in this way. In fact, since the only hope for an authentic encounter with nature involves appreciating it in 'freedom' — which means 'letting-be', rather than trying to change or improve it — Heidegger seems to be claiming that inaction (simply doing nothing) is our best course of action. We must, he states, wait patiently for the 'soundless voice of Being' to reveal itself once again. But it must come to us during an experience of the kind of quietism in which the 'frenzy of rationalization' is finally stilled.

How any of this might translate into an actual environmental policy is anyone's guess (and contemporary interpreters of Heidegger are certainly doing a lot of guessing!) but some general possibilities come to mind. Environmentally, Heidegger is heir to the legacy of Medieval Christian mysticism, German idealism, and romanticism, and he is the inspiration for much contemporary thinking associated with 'deep ecology'. He encourages a heartfelt awareness of and appreciation for the natural world as a dwelling-place of the sacred. With this awareness and appreciation may perhaps come a general shift in the public consciousness (a renewed revelation of 'Being') that can lead, in turn, to a new way of 'dwelling authentically' or living harmoniously with the natural world. Such dwelling or living will then lead effortlessly to policies that sustain this harmony. However we cannot make these policies unless the shift in consciousness occurs first.

Dewey's views, in contra-distinction, are quite compatible with the spirit of instrumental science, technology and commerce and are applicable to environmentally sound policies like low-carbon technologies in industry, international regulations on greenhouse gas emissions, and environmental standards in the Kyoto Protocol. These are temporary flexible innovations made by interested political and commercial parties that are based on tentative research-findings which may be revised as circumstances change. Dewey does not share Heidegger's antipathy toward modernity and sees things like environmental problems as incentives to further research and improvement, rather than as an end to human possibilities. While Dewey endorses a kind of Heideggerian-sounding awareness and appreciation of the natural world (lauding the value of 'aesthetic experiences' in the appreciation of nature, for instance), he sees this as only one capacity among many that may be employed to protect or improve the natural environment, which humanity is an integral part of. The Global Roundtable On Climate Change based at Columbia Universities' Earth Institute in New York, in which various scientists, corporations, civic organizations, and political action groups from around the world are researching and adopting a comprehensive statement on environmental science and policy, seems like precisely the sort of initiative that Dewey would support.

Yet, while Heidegger's views may seem too extreme for the practical necessities of our current situation, Dewey's more practical approach is vulnerable to the Heideggerian criticism that it may be too accommodating to this situation. Heidegger would probably say that any attempt to preserve, protect, or improve nature by tinkering with it through science, defeats its own purpose — and it does appear as though every new 'solution' to ecological dangers over the past half-century has only yielded new problems — the latest of which is global warming (and some of the proposed scientific solutions to this problem are ominous themselves: From giant space shields, to spreading aerosol particles in the upper atmosphere, to spraying water-clouds into the air from the oceans). Thus perhaps the very impractically of Heidegger's ideas make them particularly worthy of consideration. It is fairly obvious that environmental degradation is largely — if not primarily — a result of the impact of science, technology and commerce on the natural world, and that the kind of reverent appreciation for nature's sanctity that Heidegger advocates would engender a deeper concern and respect for nature. What may therefore be needed for environmental protection over the long-term (as opposed to short-term fixes for temporarily 'fashionable' issues like global warming) is a Heideggerian-type transformation in the public consciousness, rather than more Deweyan technocratic innovations. A renewed experience of authentic 'freedom' and the revelation of that 'Being' which is the groundless ground that sustains both nature and humanity, might be just what is needed for the earth's sustainable future.


Dewey, John. Intelligence In the Modern World: Philosophy of John Dewey. Ratner, ed. (New York:Modern Library) 1939:

------'The Quest For Certainty

------ 'Reconstruction In Philosophy'

------'Knowing and the Known'

------ 'Art as Experience'

Foltz, Bruce. Inhabiting the Earth: Heidegger, Environmental Ethics, and the Metaphysics of Nature. (New Jersey: Humanities Press) 1995

Heidegger, Martin. Basic Writings. Krell, ed. (San Francisco: Harper) 1993:

------'Being and Time'

------'The Essence of Truth'

------'The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking'

------'Letter on Humanism'

------'The Question Concerning Technology'

------'What is Metaphysics'

Katz, E. Light, J. Environmental Pragmatism. (New York:Routledge) 1996

Zimmerman, M. Contesting the Earth's Future: Radical Ecology and Post-Modernity. (Berkeley: University Press) 1994

© Richard Grego 2007

Dr Richard Grego, Associate Professor
Department of Humanities/ Culture
Daytona Beach College