Professor Spotlight: Dr. Christopher Preston
In this episode of Confluence, we’re in the flow with Dr. Christopher Preston, professor of philosophy. Christopher reads an excerpt from "Four Quartets", by T.S. Eliot about the power of rivers, which leads to our discussion of trends in environmental philosophy, his research on the “synthetic age,” and the importance of a philosophy dedicated to impact in the public sphere.
As a further gloss on the references to Native tribal projects and values with respect to animals, listeners might want to consult the following websites:
“Hope and peace: Bison return to the Rosebud reservation” by John C. Cannon. Click here to read on mongabay.com.
A recent piece addresses the myth of “wilderness” as well, which we touch on in this episode, by drawing attention to Native engagement with the land and landscape of the West—in this case, Yellowstone—for centuries before Western settler colonialism. Click here to read at smithsonianmag.com.
ANDREA GAMMON: Of all of the advisors that I’ve had, I feel like Christopher has been the one who seems like the most invested in making sure that, like, my whole life is okay and not just that I’m doing my work well. But, that other things are fine too.
GILMORE MACLEAN: Every fall, he hosts like a chili party at his house and he invites all the grad students and all the professors. It’s just this spirit of openness and friendliness because you’re all just people eating chili.
CHARLES HAYES: He gave me the first tour of campus when I arrived and the first thing on the tour was he took me into the gym. We walked upstairs and he pointed to Mount Jumbo and he said, “Oh, hey, you can, when you’re on the treadmills you can look and you can see elk.”
ASHBY KINCH: This is Confluence where great ideas flow together, a podcast of the graduate school of the University of Montana. On Confluence, we celebrate the tributaries of wisdom and beauty that enrich the soil of knowledge on our beautiful mountain campus. You just heard the voices of Andrea Gammon, Gilmore Maclean, and Charles Hayes, talking about their mentor Dr. Christopher Preston from the Environmental Philosophy program, our guest on this episode. I'm your host, Ashby Kinch, Associate Dean of the Graduate School. Every episode, we pick a poem or short passage from literature about rivers for our guests to read. Here's Christopher Preston reading a passage from T.S. Eliot's “Four Quartets.”
I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
is a strong god – sullen, untamed and intractable,
Patient to some degree, at first recognized as a frontier;
Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;
Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.
The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten
By the dwellers in cities – ever, however, implacable.
Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder
Of what men choose to forget. Unhonoured, unpropitiated
By worshipers of the machine, but waiting, watching, and waiting.
His rhythm was present in the nursery bedroom,
In the smell of grapes on the autumn table,
And the evening circle in the winter gaslight.
The river is with us.
KINCH: T.S. Eliot’s excursus on the river emphasizes not its traditional role as a centralizing force for the growth of human agrarian civilization, but its role as a barrier, an antagonist, a force to be tamed and then forgotten. Eliot’s reminder – that the “river is with us” through all phases of our lives – is both a cautionary and a promise about human life lived in awareness of the reciprocal impact of human civilization and the natural world. I thought of this passage when contemplating the work of our guest, Christopher Preston, whose work spans two decades and includes three books, the titles of which evoke the core concepts that have driven his effort in applied environmental philosophy: Grounding Knowledge; Saving Creation; and in 2018, The Synthetic Age: Outdesigning Evolution, Resurrecting Species, and Reengineering Our World. In the episode that follows, we talk about that most recent book, whose central question derives from the same wary recognition that the forces of nature remain, in T.S. Eliot’s words, “unhonoured, unpropitiated by worshipers of the machine.” In Christopher’s account, our “synthetic age” has resulted in a fundamental alteration of the human interface with the natural world that forces us to decide whether that’s the future we want, especially in relationship to our animal kindred, with whom we might need to re-imagine a different future. We also trace his journey from the coal country of England to the American West, where he sought adventure and philosophy as a graduate student in Colorado and Oregon. He recounts his summers on fishing expeditions in Alaska, and the pivot of his work toward applied philosophy, where he makes direct contributions to public discourse on the ethics of emerging technology. Christopher integrates this commitment to applied philosophy with his role as a mentor of graduate students, who appreciate his grounded, practical approach, attuned to the special features of Missoula, this space and place we are lucky to share with our human and non-human friends.
So welcome to Confluence, where the “river is always with us.”
KINCH: Today, we've got Christopher Preston. Welcome to Confluence, Christopher.
PRESTON: Nice to be here.
KINCH: So as always on Confluence, we start out by hearing your Montana story. So many professors here have a kind of interesting story to tell about how they got here and yours is an interesting one. Tell us how you ended up here.
PRESTON: Yeah, so I did my undergrad in the UK and then when I finished that, I moved over to Colorado. I kind of had a hunger for mountains and snow and wild places. And I really moved to Colorado because I didn't want to put on a suit and go work in London. There wasn't really much more of a motivation than that.
KINCH: And, and that, that previous work was in engineering?
PRESTON: I started off as an engineer, yeah.
PRESTON: It didn't suit me that well, so –
KINCH: Suit in the double sense…
KINCH: Yeah. You didn't want to wear a suit and you didn't – yeah, it didn't match your interests.
PRESTON: Exactly. So, I found philosophy and then I found this thing called environmental philosophy and I thought, wow, I can go to Colorado, get a grad degree, learn a little bit more about the mountains and how we should be treating them. And, Colorado turned into Alaska and Oregon and I kept moving west and north.
KINCH: Yeah. I sense a theme there, yeah.
PRESTON: That's right – really sort of hooked by these wild places and by the wildlife as well in those places. It wasn't just the physical geography; it was the sort of encounters you could have. And when I was in my – getting towards the end of my Ph.D. in Oregon, I announced to one of my colleagues, friends there I said, “One day, I'm going to live in Missoula, Montana.” And I don't know why I announced that. I guess I had Montana in my mind and this word Missoula, the indigenous lilt to it. And just the idea of Missoula, Montana really stuck with me. So, I said that to this friend, and then lo and behold, at the end of that year, I had a one-year job here. I was replacing someone who was on sabbatical. And that one year really kind of set me on a course.
KINCH: So, so you knew from that point forward, I got to get back here and anchor myself here.
PRESTON: Yeah. I mean, most people come out with their Ph.D. and they take a few jobs in different places where they're not really sure they want to live. I came out and I knew immediately that I was in the place I wanted to be. So, I really sort of set my mind on being here permanently.
KINCH: That's great. And, and before that Colorado State degree, you had not formally studied philosophy? That, that was a – that was a new avenue of inquiry for you?
PRESTON: No, I actually, I fell into philosophy in that undergrad degree in England. I mean, literally fell into it. I was toppling out of engineering and I asked my tutor, I said “Where can I go?” And in England, you're not free to change majors. You are accepted into a degree at a university.
PRESTON: And so, my tutor looked around, literally, he looked around and tried to find a major where there was a space that opened up.
PRESTON: And he said, well there's a space in psychology or there's a space in philosophy. And I thought, well, philosophy sounds good. So that was where I ended up right at the end of my undergrad experience.
KINCH: That's so interesting. And you were at Durham at the time?
PRESTON: I was at Durham, yeah.
KINCH: Yeah. What's Durham like as a place to – I've been there, you know, as a medievalist – I've been there to look at the cathedral and, I mean, it's a beautiful town. What's it like to be a college student there?
PRESTON: It's interesting. It suffers from a pretty severe town and gown problem. It's not far from Newcastle and you know the old adage about taking coals to Newcastle.
KINCH: Right, right.
PRESTON: It's a mining area. And I lived in a village outside of Durham called Brandon. And, we burned coal in the fireplace, and it was an old mining area.
KINCH: And I'm guessing the engineers at Durham are thinking of all kinds of ways to bring more coal from Newcastle?
PRESTON: So that's some of what they were doing for sure.
KINCH: Yeah, yeah.
PRESTON: But what it meant is it was – it was very much a working-class town. But the cathedral heart of Durham also has this sort of flavor to it.
KINCH: Toney, kind of, yeah, older village.
PRESTON: Right. So, it – the student body – let's just say the student body is not well integrated into the area, which is a terrible shame.
PRESTON: It's sort of a problem that Durham I think has always tried to recover from. And I don't know if they've ever succeeded.
KINCH: Huh. That's really interesting. And so, I'm just kind of piecing this together with later work, though. I mean, growing up in an area that's dominated by extractive industries by, by, you know, carbon-based economy. That must have been some of the filter that influenced your thinking in environmental philosophy?
PRESTON: Yeah, I think it might've been. The other thing about that part of the country is if you, if you want to be anywhere in England where you have open space and you have wild country, you have to be up in the north. And so, I was at – before Durham, I was at school in Yorkshire, which is a lovely part of the country. And then I went north to Durham. And so, I got a little hint of what bigger, wilder landscapes look like. But also, as you say, sort of bumped up against that extractive economy. So that probably did have a lasting influence on what I ended up doing.
KINCH: Yeah. Yeah. And of course, now that you've been in the grand west – what the British might call a wild – it doesn't feel that wild anymore. But there are some gorgeous spaces up there obviously. Scotland and the borders and the Lake district and –
PRESTON: Oh yeah, there's lots to like about it. It's sort of a microecology that, you know, the bird diversity, the insect diversity is incredible. And, and right now they're starting to talk about rewilding in those parts of England. And so, one of the big debates in the north of England is whether to bring back the lynx, which would be pretty exciting.
KINCH: In England. Not in Scotland.
PRESTON: No, in England.
KINCH: Wow, that is amazing. I don't know if you've read Charles Foster’s Being a Beast, which is, you know, a quirky, sort of, British naturalist. You know, there's this great tradition of British naturalists and this one he lives for a certain period of time, two to three months, as six different animals. He literally goes and eats what a hedgehog would eat or eats what a fox would eat. You know, it's this quirky kind of British tradition. Is that something you tap into or is that kind of a, when you were younger, you didn't know about it, but now you're kind of reflecting back on it?
PRESTON: Well, I didn't know much about it when I was younger, but one of the interesting things about the tradition is it's very much a pastoral type of tradition. Sort of wander in the woods, meditate. And The Natural History of Selborne is a classic there. What's happening now in the UK, which I just find fascinating and it kind of ties into the, my story in the U.S. as it has evolved is that the UK and other countries in Europe – Netherlands, Germany are starting to look beyond that sort of highly managed pastoral idea of nature. And they're looking to reintroduce species and rewild landscapes. So, the Dutch, for example, are taking dykes down so that the land floods.
PRESTON: You know, they want to see floods. They want to see erosion. Wolves have poured into Germany. And then gone all the way through Germany, into the Netherlands and into Belgium. The UK is about to bring back its first bison in 6,000 years.
PRESTON: So, for me, this has all been fascinating because I left the UK in part because the landscape felt so gentle and so tamed and so managed. And I was in Colorado and Alaska and then Montana thinking, well, this landscape is so wild and so original. Of course, that turned out to be a little bit of an illusion –
KINCH: Yeah, there's always a romantic delusion, right? That has to be popped, right?
PRESTON: Yeah. So, I carried that with me for a while, but as that illusion has been fading over here, I've been watching this extraordinary resurgence of interest in the wild in Europe, which for the arc of my career, it's just been an amazing turnaround. It's been a really exciting change.
KINCH: Yeah. Well and, you know, just here in town, right, we've had this – I mean just in the last few weeks, this active discussion about grizzlies appearing in the Rattlesnake. Have you, have you been following this at all?
PRESTON: Yeah. So, one of the differences between Europe and the United States is the word “rewilding” has been much more popular in Europe. I think because the sense is here in the U.S. why do you need to rewild? We already have wilderness here. I mean, the Wilderness Act is such a bedrock of cultural thinking here that you wouldn't need to rewild. But that's not actually true. I mean, there's plenty of rewilding that could happen in the U.S. and then you take the American Prairie Reserve and the efforts they're undergoing to bring bison back. And then as you mentioned, take the grizzly bear, which is sort of stepping out of its strongholds in Glacier and in Yellowstone. And is starting to, you know, nose its way around the edges of Missoula. I mean, that is rewilding.
KINCH: Yeah. That sighting that I’m thinking of recently up in Sawmill Gulch. I mean, that’s an area – I mean, hundreds of people, I mean, if not thousands, bike each year and walk each year. And, so I think it, yeah, it starts to bring that and – maybe we do need, in America, a different term. “Rewildernessing” or something?
PRESTON: Yeah. My sense is the word wilderness needs a rest. That word has carried a lot of cultural baggage for half a century.
KINCH: Yeah, interesting, yeah.
PRESTON: And it’s a problematic word. It comes out of a certain cultural context. And I think it could not be retired, but just sort of demoted a little bit so that it’s not the primary word that governs American environmentalism. I think it would be nice to see something different. Something that pays a little more attention to the Indigenous peoples of the landscape.
KINCH: Yeah, yeah.
PRESTON: I've been thinking quite a bit about the idea of animals as partners. Thinking about the way we can see ourselves as working on common problems with our animal partners and, you know, a good example of that I think is the beaver and the way that beavers can help us with fire management, for example, and help us keep water tables high for cattlemen who need to graze during dry summers. And so, the beaver has always been thought of as a problem. Wouldn’t it be interesting to think about rewilding with animals, like beavers, and think of them as partners in the process? And so, putting ourselves onto the landscape with those animals and imagining what it would be like to think of us and some of the more, some of the charismatic animals, and the not so charismatic ones, working together on common problems keeping the landscape habitable.
KINCH: Yeah. And of course, with the bison up – the Piegan Blackfeet projects on bison development, redevelopment are fascinating that way. There's a really active project to bring the bison back onto that landscape. And that's clearly a partnership that has tens of thousands of years behind it, right? That it's not a new thing, but it's returning to an old thing.
KINCH: Yeah. Can you kind of give us some examples of experiences you've had with, with animals in particular, you talked about this idea of partnering with animals and that relationship between the human and the animal that have had a significant impact on the way you think about the natural world?
PRESTON: So, one of the most powerful animal experiences I had was powerful because of the way it juxtaposed with my academic work. So, I connected with a boat captain in Alaska called Toby back when I was in Colorado. And I worked with him several summers on fishing boats in Alaska, mainly in Prince William Sound. And as I – each spring semester as I would come towards finals during my grad degree, I would start thinking I should give Toby a call or maybe Toby will give me a call and maybe I can connect again this summer and get back up there on his boat. And every summer for five years this happened. And it was – Toby was never one to prepare ahead of time – so, it would always be a last-minute thing. But I’d get a call literally as I was working on finals and it would be Toby. And he'd say, “Can you be up here next week?” And, a lot of my friends at that stage in my Ph.D. were going to spend the summer working on their dissertation or getting a presentation ready for a conference, but I could not do anything but go up to Alaska and work with Toby. I mean, it was just written into who I was. And, there was just one particular summer I remember where I handed in final papers, got on the plane up to Alaska, went to Whittier, which is a little town in Prince William Sound. Toby picked me up on his fishing boat and we headed out to fish. And within 24 hours of handing in that paper, we were motoring through Prince William Sound with killer whales alongside the boat. And there was a killer whale mother and a calf, and they were just cruising alongside, and they were eyeballing us. And the welcome into that different world was so striking to me. When I had been, 24 hours previously, worrying about Kant and Mill and whether my arguments were going to hold water with my professor. And then a little bit later, I'm there in this wild world alongside these creatures who have their own lives independent of mine. It was just a way of exploding my perspective from something that had become increasingly narrow over the academic year into this bigger wider world, which was terribly exciting to me. And the people I met in that wider world – I mean, you know, ironically the, there was a little library on this boat that I worked on and the library included Terry Tempest Williams, it included Thoreau. And so, I'm working alongside commercial fishermen and women who read the same stuff as the philosophers that I'm working alongside are reading. But they're doing it in this context, which felt so alive and so visceral to me that I knew I was never really going to be able to let go of that.
KINCH: That's a beautiful story. I think we probably do read and think a little bit more clearly in spaces outside the, kind of, rush of our daily lives where civilization impinges on us more.
PRESTON: I mean one thing about working on a boat is you get a lot of time. A boat’s a small space and quite a lot of the time you’re not actually fishing. So, you can plow through a lot of books, and I think a number of the people I met up there and worked with up there were doing just that.
KINCH: But speaking of books that you can take with you on fishing trips, you and I have a common friend here in Missoula, Peter Stark. He’s an outdoor journalist and a writer and he’s an amazing craftsman. He’s been, he’s made this incredible career out of writing about the role of wilderness in his life, and more recently kind of on American political life in books like Astoria and Young Washington. And both those books kind of explore early American frontier wilderness engagements. When I asked you to share a passage about rivers, you immediately pulled out this really precise passage from his book, At the Mercy of the River, describing a river trip when he was four. And here’s that passage:
“I remember the comforting smell of sun-warmed canvas as I napped in a nest of sleeping bags amid ships – my grandfather paddling the stern and my father the bow – the jumping flames of the campfire in the dusk, the twilit river sliding past, the sweet fizz of root beer on my tongue. Propped on his elbow near the fire, my grandfather gestured to the dark, forested, opposite shore. He told me they would soon build a big highway bridge right here.
‘When you grow up,’ he said, ‘this will all be gone.’
I love that passage, right? It’s just a, it’s such an incisive piece of writing, it connects that kind of sharp personal experience to this larger story that he tells in that book and in other places in his work about the sort of growth and development that has radically reshaped our engagement with wilderness. And, in some ways it’s kind of a version of Eliot’s point in the “Four Quartets,” that passage that we read about the “builder of bridges” who sees the river as a problem to solve. So, I thought maybe we’d talk a little about the influence Peter’s had on you. How’d you get to know him?
PRESTON: So, when I got out of my Ph.D. program, I had this one-year job in Missoula and I just, I thought I was the luckiest person alive. And, I rented this place on Monroe street and Peter was my neighbor. And over that year, got to know him pretty well and got to know about his writing. And we went on a few adventures together, skied on a couple of mountains. And, I borrowed his canoe a few times. And, after that one year, I just had the one-year job and I had to move on for five years to South Carolina, but we remained friends and he's become a sort of writing mentor. I obviously have always or mostly written in the academic space. Peter previously was writing in the adventurous space and has moved more recently into more historical types of works. But he's an incredible nurturer of young writers and people who are looking to connect with different audiences. And it's something that, that he's obviously learned to do very well. And so, his guidance and friendship has really meant a lot to me over the years.
KINCH: Yeah. So much of what his writing is about really is about the fragility and vulnerability of the human in these borderland spaces where you're subject to all of the conditions of an animal, essentially, right? That you're reduced to your weakest point, in fact, when you leave culture behind. And so Last Breath, you know, captures some of that. And then I say, you know, the most intense writing in all of his recent books has remained descriptions of canoes and canoe paddling and descriptions of intense deaths. You know, in Astoria there are these really grim accounts of people dying at sea or drowning.
PRESTON: Yeah. I mean, that intensity is important. And when he writes for magazines like Outside, obviously there's an intensity there. But there's also, as you mentioned, the vulnerability that the personal elements and the passage that I shared to you before of his writing where he's on this river with his father and his grandfather. My eye was drawn to the idea that he remembers the smell of the canvas in the front of the canoe and he remembers the feel of the wood as he lay there. And, when you – when I think about my own life, I think about the very sort of personal moments, the sensory moments that stick with me and sort of motivate some of the bigger picture stuff. You know, the work in support of rewilding or work on climate change. I mean, that's all sort of big picture important conceptual types of work, but it's motivated by those personal moments of a smell or a feel or a feeling that, you know, might have been with me for 40 years or so.
KINCH: Yeah. Yeah. Well, and that's a great segue in fact for, you know, you said something really striking to me in our, before the podcast in our communication about how it's taken you 30 years to learn to write, and a couple of other things that kind of cluster in the same category of pushing away from some of the more technical sides of philosophy and thinking more about a term that you used, which I liked because in music theory, in music pop culture it's used, which is “crossover.” You used the term crossover to kind of think about ways that you're bringing your philosophical ideas into the public sphere. Could you talk a little bit more about recent work that you've done in that era, area, excuse me. And, and ways in which that kind of, you know, fits in with your narrative about yourself as a researcher where, how you've grown and developed and changed.
PRESTON: Sure. Yeah. Just to tie into some of what you were saying earlier when I came over to the U.S. it was in part because I'd heard of this thing called applied philosophy. And I thought well philosophy is interesting, kind of. I've just beginning to get to know it, but what would applied philosophy be? And right from the get-go, to me, it was the idea that you could take a look at important concepts and you could learn how to be a translator so that those concepts could filter into real world situations and could actually change how we did politics or change how we lived. And so, I've always pushed at that. And at the beginning of an academic career, it's very difficult to push hard on that, in that direction because the standards that you're trying to fit in with have already been set and you feel very small in relation to those standards.
KINCH: And you're thinking about just the journal culture and the pressure to get publications out and, and conform to a certain model of contribution to the field?
PRESTON: Yeah, there's those professional sorts of norms, but there's also the way that academics talk about the concepts they use. It's a particularly distancing voice. And so, for the first decade or so of my career, I still had the – my vision on this applied work, but I found so many obstacles to it. Both in terms of what you needed to do to get jobs and get promoted, but also in terms of what you could say in a setting where there were other professionals around you. But, I never actually lost that vision of applied work. And over the years, more recent years, I found more and more avenues to explore that. And perhaps a key turning point for me was when I started doing work with the National Science Foundation on the ethics of emerging technologies. Because National Science Foundation is pouring tens of millions, hundreds of millions of dollars, into looking at new technologies. And to their credit from pretty early on, they recognized that we need to have some sort of ethical analysis of these. Some sort of look at what the ethical stakes are. And so, if you manage to be in the right place at the right time, you could start commenting on this and you could start commenting on it, not just amongst your peers in philosophy, but amongst engineers, amongst ecologists, amongst climate scientists. And this, for me, was a sort of a revelation that there were other avenues out there where applied philosophy could become applied.
PRESTON: And that really was a turning point for me. And I worked in climate engineering and in biotechnology and synthetic biology, nanotechnology. And all of these have been really exciting avenues to be a philosopher. But to be a philosopher in the world in ways that were satisfying to me.
KINCH: And, and that’s, so that's partly a matter of expanding your audience, but it's also partly a matter – and it's partly a matter of, as you're putting it, of kind of having a practical applied impact. Has it changed your thinking? I'm thinking in particular about your most recent book, right? The Synthetic Age. Has doing that kind of work evolved new concepts for you? I mean is it, is it contributed to – especially that book project? So, we're talking about The Synthetic Age: Outdesigning Evolution, Resurrecting Species, and Re-engineering our World.
PRESTON: It's changed my –
KINCH: Big title.
PRESTON: It’s changed my thinking in the sense – within the academy, you come to have a set of beliefs about which concepts are important, which concepts you want to talk to people about. When you dip a toe outside of the academy, what you learn pretty quickly is that those concepts that might have looked important from within the academy might not cut it outside of the academy. And so, you have to adjust. I've always thought that what people talk about in philosophy is inherently important and inherently interesting, but you have to sometimes adjust it so that it can look interesting so that it can grab people in a way that they're going to engage with it and not just say, well this is not relevant to what I'm doing. So, my thinking has changed in the sense that I'm more critical of the concepts now. And I ask myself, is this a concept that will translate? Is this a concept that will have mileage outside of this environment or is it something that is really always going to be locked within a particular debate?
KINCH: Well, yeah, and I mean I'm going to pull one of those concepts out for a second for a little bit closer discussion. So, Darwinian concepts underlie your work, I think in some subtle and interesting ways that going all the way back, one of your book projects was on the life of Holmes Rolston, and we don't necessarily need to go into him in particular. But one of his issues was reconciling Darwinian theories with a tradition that he was deeply immersed in, which is a Christian philosophical tradition.
PRESTON: Yeah. So, there's a phrase that John Stuart Mill used about the natural world and which I have always stuck with. He said that the natural world is the cradle of our thoughts and aspirations. So, it's this cradle into which we're thrown, and it does its thing independent of us. It had been doing its thing for millions of years, billions of years before we showed up. And there's something about that cradle that is undetermined, that is self-developing. That is surprising. That is full of randomness. There's something about that that is important. We measure ourselves against it in certain ways. We're in this world, we try to cope. We try to live good lives. And you mentioned earlier on this fellow Holmes Rolston, who, when I first came over to the United States, I worked under him at Colorado State University, and he struggled a lot to reconcile that unpredictability. Sometimes that's red in tooth and claw character of this biological world with the predetermination that was supposed to be part of his Calvinism and part of how he reconciled it was to say that it's not actually a dark nihilistic world that we set ourselves in opposition against. It's a world that in, in his phrase, suffers through to something higher. I wouldn't use that religious register myself, but what I would, and what I did pick up from that, is that over those millennia, over those eons, out of these random processes, if all things like the grizzly bear that's just shown up in the Rattlesnake again, or the bull trout that can now make their way past the removed Rattlesnake Dam. Out of these processes came great beauty and great inspiration. And so certainly when I first started working in environmental philosophy, I was hammering away at the importance of those processes. Now over time, as my work turned towards those technologies I was mentioning earlier, I started to see those technologies as attempts to redirect those fundamental processes. And I've always been decidedly ambivalent about that. Of course, we want to redirect the processes when they result in great pain and suffering, but we don't necessarily want to redirect them and control them in our entirety.
KINCH: Yeah. So much of eco-criticism has been rooted in the critique of the nature-culture-divide and in, particularly, sort of understanding a specific kind of industrial revolution forward moment where, you know, the general line of thinking is that humans, perhaps unknowingly, but partially knowingly, began making such a big impact that, there through industrialization and the growth of modern society that they have fundamentally altered the world. And of course, they wouldn't have known that in the late 18th century when the big scaled up industrialization was happening. But we do now, right? That we have a name for it. We call it the Anthropocene and we give it a name with a geologic parameter and that’s an amazing, you know, phenomenon. But in the meantime, you know, you write about the synthetic age and I – there's a lot of thinking, I don’t want to lump your thought into any one category, but I think about, there’s a whole array of thinking going on about artificial intelligence and the post-human phenomenon. How do you sort of situate your work in relationship to that? You know, on the far end of it would be thinkers that are imagining in a happy way the kind of transcendent of the carbon-based human, right? Into a kind of synthetic human that is not anymore restricted by its biological roots.
PRESTON: Yeah. So, the book The Synthetic Age is really a question.
PRESTON: And the question is: do we want the type of future that is barreling our way? And it's barreling our way through technologies, which get under the skin of nature in a way that other technologies have not done before. And The Synthetic Age starts by making the case that it's not just that humanity now occupies the Anthropocene. It's worse than that. The Anthropocene, if you like, was a giant accident. Nobody wanted to change the climate. Nobody wanted to influence evolution to the degree that we have. Nobody wanted to put toxins in whale blubber in the Arctic, for example. It all happened as an accidental result of technologies that were designed for other purposes. But now we have technologies which are designed not for other purposes, but for the very purpose of changing the way inheritance works. Or for the very purpose of changing how DNA is structured. Or for the purpose of changing the amount of solar energy that makes its way to the surface of the earth from the sun. So, these are willful, intentional ways of taking control of fundamental elements that shaped the world.
KINCH: That's interesting. I'm going to cut in just to clarify because I think that's a really important distinction you're making that it's not just that the changes themselves happened in this unconscious way, but the now the big change is not just that we're manipulating the world, but we're consciously doing so knowing what the ramifications can, are slash can be.
PRESTON: And at a level that we were previously unable to do.
PRESTON: And so, the book is written as a question: do we want that future? And do we know that's the future that we're beginning to shape for us? And what I try to do is I try to say, you know, there's good things here. There are, for example, gene drives, which might be able to slow down the spread of malaria by stopping mosquitoes from reproducing and who would not want to stop the 450,000 people who die a year from malaria from dying. So, there's good things there. But there's also, with gene drives, the idea of sending human design out into the wild world. Now we've designed organisms genetically in a lab and in agricultural fields, but we've never designed organisms that live and breed in the wild world before. And that's what a gene drive allows us to do.
PRESTON: So, I just try to pose the question: is that the future that we want? And just to make a quick tie back to Holmes Rolston, who we mentioned earlier. He's retired now, but he read the book and we got on the phone. He said, “You don't want to hear what I'm about to tell you.” And what he was about to tell me or what he was about to ask me is why had I embraced this synthetic future that I described.
PRESTON: That was actually a misreading of the book. I don't embrace that synthetic future, but I say it's coming our way should we choose it or not.
KINCH: There's always that vulnerability when you put work out in the world that by just describing what you see as a coming change, you will be seen to be endorsing it, right? And that's, you know, one of the problems of public intellectuals in general, right?
PRESTON: Well, I was going to add there, I mean one of the things, one of the lessons of working more publicly is you, you progressively lose more and more control over what the response to your work is going to be because you're reaching more and more people who are located in more and more different places and coming from different conceptual backgrounds and really you make yourself vulnerable in a way that you better be ready for.
KINCH: Yeah, yeah. So, how do you bring your environmental philosophy ethics to bear on your role as a graduate mentor? Your program is – it's not unique. There are other programs like it, but there aren't that many, right? That you've made this deliberative decision to focus your master's in philosophy on environmental philosophy. Talk a little bit about the program and how you see your philosophy playing itself out in your mentoring of graduate students.
PRESTON: So, there's maybe three, maybe four graduate programs in the United States where they do environmental philosophy. And Montana has a long history as being one of those programs. In fact, when I applied to go to graduate school in the United States, which I'm shocked to say is 30 years ago now. I applied to University of Montana to do environmental philosophy here. So, it has this history, it has this legacy. And people, as I did, associate this place with environmental thinking and environmental writing. And I'm sure that that's a part of what you see from English as well.
PRESTON: So, we have worked hard to make good on that history, that legacy while constantly fine tuning what we do to make ourselves more practical, more applied. And to give students who come here a range of pathways out of their degree. So obviously some people are going to want to go on and do a Ph.D. in philosophy and environmental philosophy. And that's great if they do. And you know, we're definitely equipped to get people into top programs, which is what we've managed to do over the last few years. But there are also people who are going to come here and they might be thinking more in terms of politics and advocacy. Or they might be thinking more in terms of wildlife or they might really just be wanting to press pause – the pause button for a couple of years, just to sort of orient themselves to a place, in a way, that is meaningful for them. So, we have tried to tailor our program, not just towards people that go on to Ph.D.’s, but towards people who might want to be advocates or activists or might want to redirect themselves in their lives, just take a time out and rethink their priorities. And so, how we've done that is, is we've incorporated internship experiences into our program. We have a required internship. We have a colloquium experience, which is very much a broad type of colloquium. You don't just meet with your peers and listen to philosophers. You listen to geographers; you listen to journalists. You listen to writers and poets and you try and bring their work into the sphere of thinking that, that your classes are covering in our degree. So, we make ourselves broad. We make ourselves diverse. We've recently added a civic engagement project, which allows people to sort of pick up on something that they are passionate about and just make, you know, an early attempt to bring it to the community or to engage with the community in some fashion. You know, we don't expect spectacular results from anybody. We're not pressurizing people to change the world, but we want to give them a sense that you can take ideas and you can translate them, and you can give them traction in the world off of a university campus.
KINCH: Yeah. And, wearing my Associate Dean of the Graduate School hat. We love to hear that, right? I mean, we love to hear programs that really do see their goal as pushing people out into the world to make a difference. And, we also love to hear that interdisciplinarity. I think that's one of the hallmark features of the community that work across disciplinary boundaries and environmental studies, ecocriticism, and literature. But of course, obviously the forestry school and the wildlife biology program and the geography program and the geology program – geosciences. That's one of our big interests in this podcast is promoting and highlighting that interdisciplinary work that a great graduate school needs to have. We have to have our graduate students in conversation with one another.
PRESTON: Yeah. And I really think that the two years that you spend after an undergrad degree can be completely transformational. I look at my life as I mentioned at the start, I went to Colorado because I didn't want to put on a suit and go to London. So, I just had these two years where I was going to just try and figure out where I want to be, what I wanted to do. And you know, 30 years later, here I am. And those two years transformed my life without a doubt.
PRESTON: And we, in Missoula, have such a capacity to do that. I mean, this is such a special place. We – our grad students come here, we take them out to Yellowstone to watch wolves with one of the legendary wolf watchers in Yellowstone. I mean that's a unique experience. And so, I try – we all try in our department – to make it so that the two years that students have here, that they don't just learn a lot about environmental philosophy. They learn about being in the world in a practical way. And I just, I can't overstate how lucky we are to be here in Missoula in the kind of community in which we live surrounded by the kind of scenery that we have. And the kind of projects that people do at this university, we have a real head start in creating a transformational experience for people. And so, that's where I try and put my energy as a mentor.
KINCH: We end every episode with quick hitters. Morning or night person?
KINCH: Bitterroot or Clark fork?
KINCH: Sunrise or sunset?
PRESTON: I try and avoid sunrise.
KINCH: Yeah. But you're a morning person? I found out that to be a bit of a conflict.
PRESTON: Morning doesn't mean sunrise.
KINCH: I only make sunrise in the winter when it's coming up pretty late. Yellowstone or Glacier?
KINCH: And you said winter Yellowstone, I think initially, right? Winter Yellowstone. That's different, isn’t it?
PRESTON: Yeah. I was just there this last weekend. It is just unbelievable.
KINCH: Yeah. We had our first experience of winter Yellowstone about four years ago. We went and stayed four nights in the park. It was staggering. I mean, it's the stark beauty of it is just impossible to describe. It's like nothing we've ever done before. It's amazing.
KINCH: Bitterroots, Pintlers or Missions?
KINCH: Favorite Bitterroot hike?
KINCH: Yeah, that's a favorite. See a lot of Missoula license plates in the Blodgett Canyon parking lot.
PRESTON: Actually, can I up the ante a little bit? I have a favorite Bitterroot hike that's more aggressive than that. It's the Bass-Kootenai loop.
KINCH: Okay. How long?
PRESTON: It's about 18 miles.
KINCH: That's a substantial loop. One day?
KINCH: Get up early, crank the whole thing out…
PRESTON: Put a car at one trailhead and drive to the other end.
KINCH: What's the elevation gain on that?
PRESTON: I think you gain about 3,000 feet. You have to go over the ridge at the top.
KINCH: That’s pretty substantial. Well, thanks a lot. I really appreciate it. And, yeah, take care.
PRESTON: Thanks for having me on Ashby.
KINCH: We hope you enjoyed your time floating on the river of knowledge with us. If you enjoyed this episode, give us a like on SoundCloud, and stop by the University of Montana Grad School website at www.umt.edu/grad, for more episodes and videos highlighting our amazing graduate students.