Interview with inaugural winner of the Dr. Rowland Marshall HOST Essay Prize in Ecology and Environment

Interview with inaugural winner of the Dr. Rowland Marshall HOST Essay Prize in Ecology and Environment

Cameron Yetman has been awarded the inaugural Dr. Rowland Marshall History of Science and Technology Essay Prize in Ecology and Environment for his essay titled “Ecological and Cosmological Selves: Philosophy, Nature, and Islam in Ibn Tufayl’s Hayy ibn Yaqzān” written for Ecology and Religion taught by Dr. Stephen Snobelen.

Cameron Yetman

Cameron Yetman, BA(Hons)’20, winner of the inaugural Dr. Rowland Marshall HOST Essay Prize in Ecology and Environment.

Established by Dr. Rowland Marshall, friend of the University, the prize is presented to a student for a paper written for one of three History of Science and Technology courses:

On May 25, 2020, HOST student Faye Hiscock interviewed Cameron about his prize-winning essay and his wider interests in environmentalism and academics.

What sparked your interest in the environment in the past, and what motivated you to write this paper based on this interest?

I’ve been interested in both religion and the environment since I was a kid and I’ve also done some environmental advocacy in the past. In Ecology and Religion, one of the things we learned about was Islam and ecology—Medieval Islamic thought, and the fundamental beliefs of Islamic philosophers primarily interested me. The text I studied for my paper by Ibn Tufayl is set entirely within a natural environment and so the main character’s interactions with that environment thus reveal something about Ibn Tufayl’s ecological thought.

Tell me a bit about your winning paper, based on your thesis statement.

Titled “Ecological and Cosmological Selves: Philosophy, Nature, and Islam in Ibn Tufayl’s Hayy ibn Yaqzān,” the paper’s main goal is the conciliation of two of Tufayl’s main philosophical commitments. The first is that the ultimate goal of philosophy is to achieve unity with the cosmos—to recognize our place in a cosmological self—and the second is that traditional religion teaches reflections of philosophical truths. But what religious teaching corresponds to the philosophical truth of the cosmological self? To help answer this question, I turn to Islamic eco-theology, a relatively new field wherein scholars of Islam read the Qur’ān and pull out ecological themes from the text. The two main themes are: 1. Khalīfa, according to which humans are stewards of nature and vice regents to God, and 2. tawḥīd, a Qur’ānic term referring to the oneness of all creation. According to tawḥīd there is an ontological continuity between all things insofar as they are created by God. The “ecological self” is one with nature, but also occupies a space within it. The ecological self taught by religion corresponds to the cosmological self taught by philosophy, or so I argue.

What practical resources and insights about living in the natural world do world and Indigenous religions, some of which are very ancient, have to offer modern environmental policy and action?

Well, after taking this course, I recognize that there are a lot. There are countless theoretical resources in the world religions which might inform environmental policy but it is harder to find the practical resources therein. Comparatively, many Indigenous traditions contain not only theoretical but explicit practical teachings about how we ought to relate to the natural world, and we can learn much from this. There are common themes among many such traditions—natural beings as relations, for example. Despite our current climate condition, we often view nature as the other. In this course, we learned about the Coast Salish in B.C., an Indigenous group which understands salmon to be people who decided to turn into fish. Thus, they view salmon as their ancestors, and accordingly, treat them with due respect. Such an understanding of nature as intimately related to us would likely prove amenable to the sort of climate action the world so desperately needs.

Which aspects of the course appealed the most to you?

The mix of ecology and religion was generally appealing. To me, the two subjects seemed separate at first, since I didn’t yet know about burgeoning field of ecology and religion. We worked thematically by religious tradition, and I found it really interesting to learn about plausible ecologically minded interpretations of the Christian scriptures, for example. Such interpretations seem unorthodox, but in many cases they appeared to be surprisingly persuasive once the relevant passages were pointed out.

How do you see the study of history and philosophy of science making practical contributions to environmental policy and action?

I think one of the most important things we can get out of HPS are conceptual tools. Thinkers in the history and philosophy of science provide innovative frameworks for thinking about the world. One of the jobs of academics is to introduce these frameworks to the world, which might become applied. Unfortunately, it often takes a lot of work to make research matter; but it is no less worth the effort for that.

How did your training in HOST and philosophy contribute to your research for and conceptualization of your paper?

I made sure to approach the paper from different angles—as a historian, philosopher, and environmentalist, since too often academics remain wedded to only one approach and thus miss interesting interdisciplinary connections. The environmentalist approach was important because it allowed me to say a few words about why my conclusions might matter, can we learn anything from Ibn Tufayl about how we ideally ought to exist in and interact with the natural world? Unfortunately, Ibn Tufayl’s text doesn’t offer much in the way of practical advice, and in fact it treats the cosmological self as a higher ideal than the ecological self.

The main character in the text, “Hayy”, reaches enlightenment without ever talking to anybody or reading scripture of any sort. It is instead through empirical investigation, and later through philosophical contemplation and mystical practice, that he comes to know about and to identify his intellect with the Necessary Existent, or God. I approached this paper mainly as a philosopher, since it is my main field, but if I hadn’t taken any HOST classes, my ability to frame the text within its historical background would have been impaired. I also relied on some theoretical tools I learned in Ecology and Religion to aid in my analysis of the text, specifically concerning the nature of symbolic knowing. HOST has also given me the experience needed to develop a good research aptitude, allowing me to conduct research thoroughly, but also to apply that research in a concise manner.

What kind of environmental advocacy have you participated in recently?

From 2016-18 I was part of a youth climate organization called iMatter Halifax—a branch of the international group, iMatter—with several students from King’s and elsewhere in Halifax. Our work primarily involved environmental advocacy in local government. I participated in several presentations at City Hall, and also worked with councillors behind the scenes on a few important projects. We presented “Youth Climate Report Cards” which graded the municipality on its climate policy, and we advocated for the banning of plastic bags. I was also part of the Community Leadership Team, which helped plan the municipality’s new Youth Advisory Committee. This committee’s purpose is to help youth get their voice heard in municipal politics, and it was an honour to play even a small part in planning it. To be honest, advocacy and activism was very unfamiliar to me, and I remain a beginner in many ways, but I’ve definitely enjoyed the work that I’ve done and I’m proud of the results that it has produced.

What are your plans for next year?

I will be attending Western University to complete my MA in philosophy. My current research project has to do with philosophical thought experiments in the work of David Chalmers, Descartes, and Ibn Sīnā—who, coincidentally, heavily influenced Ibn Tufayl. After graduate school, I will take a year off to apply to PhD programs in philosophy.

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