The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia
Monday, 29 January 2024 16:24

John Nolt still examines the incomparable value of nature

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unnamedFormer University of Tennessee Professor John Nolt strolls through his garden during a recent conversation about his career as a philosopher and one of the Southern Appalachian region’s most respected environmental activists.  J.J. Stambaugh/Hellbender Press

Former UTK prof defends the environment, logically

KNOXVILLE — It’s hard to think of many figures in the local environmental movement who command the respect that former University of Tennessee Professor John Nolt has earned over the past four decades.

He has served as a leader, a teacher, and a repository of wisdom for thousands of students and activists. He’s authored eight books on environmental ethics and logic, and he was one of the main players in the struggle to force a cleanup of the notorious David Witherspoon Inc. site in South Knoxville. 

While the 73-year-old philosopher’s formal academic career came to an end a couple of years ago, I feel privileged to report that he’s continued to add to his legacy. You see, it’s come to my attention that quite a few people are curious to know what he’s up to these days, and Hellbender Press agreed that I should chat him up.

In the interest of journalistic transparency, I need to disclose that Nolt has played a great many roles in my life — teacher, advisor, mentor, and occasional source; I even had the honor of teaching his daughter logic and literature when she attended my alma mater, Laurel High School, in the early 2000s. But today, as we sit on the front porch of his South Knoxville home enjoying an unseasonably warm afternoon, he’s playing a new role — that of an interview subject. 

Well, it turns out that he’s got no shortage of irons in his fire. He may have a bit more time to spend with his vegetable garden these days, but he still hopes that humankind will somehow manage to overcome its ruthless desire to subjugate the natural world in exchange for wealth and power. 

Later this evening, in fact, he plans to speak with someone from the Center for Biological Diversity about potentially resurrecting an old lawsuit to have the Berry Cave Salamander declared an endangered species.

“I’ve wanted people to be aware of what we’re doing to this planet,” he says when asked to reflect on his career, which was sparked during the tumultuous 1960s and witnessed profound changes in American society, especially a growing awareness that humankind was destroying its home.

Nolt was born in Massillon, Ohio, in 1950, a community which he describes as “a little steel town.” His father was the editor of the local newspaper and his mother was an elementary school teacher, and he grew up in the midst of the post-WWII boom that saw vast increases in population and wealth. He came of age in the midst of the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War, and he became involved in activism after enrolling at Ohio State. His undergraduate years also saw his first exposure to the great philosophers (particularly Rene Descartes and Bertrand Russell), but he had no idea at the time that he would eventually follow in their footsteps.

“I graduated in 1972 with an undergraduate degree in pretty much whatever the hell I wanted to take,” Nolt laughs. “It was an interdisciplinary degree in all kinds of stuff. Education was a little bit easier in those days. I learned a lot, but I didn’t focus on anything because I didn’t know what I wanted to do. It never occurred to me in my college years to become a philosopher, but I was interested in it.”

After graduation, Nolt found himself confronting the same life-or-death moral dilemma that was faced by hundreds of thousands of young men in his generation when he was ordered by the federal government to take a physical for the draft that was feeding the vast military machine the United States had deployed to fight in Vietnam. 

Nolt was morally opposed to killing or being killed in the jungles of Southeast Asia. He ultimately chose the same path that was taken by many other young men, but the decision he made decades ago still haunts him.

“I pretended I was crazy,” he recalls. “I was inspired by the Arlo Guthrie song (“Alice’s Restaurant Massacree”) and I went to the draft physical dressed like a Viet Cong. They sent me to see a psychiatrist … in a ritzy suburb of Cleveland. I visited him and I just kind of acted like I didn’t know what was going on, and he classified me as having an antisocial personality disorder. And I got a 4F deferment. Crazy business.”

After a brief pause, Nolt acknowledges that he can see the humorous side of his tale but nonetheless recognizes that it was, essentially, a tragic experience.

“I look back on it and I think, well, it was humorous I guess to me, but to someone else it wouldn’t have been because someone else went to Vietnam instead of me,” he says. “I don’t feel good about it. But it did keep me from going to that war, which I ardently opposed.”

After his confrontation with the Selective Service, Nolt found himself adrift with no clear goals. He spent two years as an iron worker, and he ended up befriending a computer science professor from India who lived next door.

“He was working on artificial intelligence in the early 70s, and I got real interested in that, and I was getting really interested in logic and started to get the idea that I wanted to work on this stuff,” he said. 

Nolt was especially impressed by Descartes’ Meditations, which was first published in 1641 and is credited with being largely responsible for kicking off both modern philosophy and the Enlightenment. 

“What fascinated me was his use of the axiomatic method,” says Nolt. “You start with this simple truth, ‘I think therefore I am,’ then bring in these other premises and you end up deducing all this incredible stuff, the existence of God and everything else. It falls apart, of course, but his axiomatic method was what impressed me, not his results. I thought that’s a pretty good method if you wanted to be certain about things… I wanted to do it, and do it right.”

Nolt ended up doing exactly that, and by all measures he did it very well. He applied to graduate school, earned his PhD in Philosophy in a little over three years, and moved to Knoxville after he was recruited by UT. He would remain at the Knoxville campus for the rest of his career, eventually earning international recognition as an authority in formal logic, a highly abstract discipline which has roots that stretch all the way back to Ancient Greece and uses syllogisms, mathematical symbols, and equations to elucidate the laws of inductive and deductive reasoning.

But when the most transformative event of Nolt’s life finally arrived, it had nothing to do with his academic successes: his daughter, Jenna, was born in 1985. 

Instead of the joy and excitement of nascent fatherhood, however, Nolt found himself weighed down with depression that stretched on for several months, his feelings of despair made worse by the fact they seemed inexplicable.  

“It was weird, it didn’t make sense,” he remembered. “But it gradually became apparent to me that I wasn’t really depressed, I was pissed. I had started thinking about what the world would be like for Jenna. I was aware of the trends in climate, population, and degradation of the environment.”

He continued: “I was really angry because I realized the world she was going to grow up in was not going to be as good as the world I grew up in. Once I understood that, I realized that I had to do something. I didn’t want her to one day ask me, ‘How did you guys screw up the world so bad?’ I didn’t want to have to answer that question.”

Nolt dove headfirst into local activism, working with environmental groups such as the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance (OREPA) as the organization was getting off the ground. But his first major action came when he learned about one of East Tennessee’s ugliest secrets: the sordid history between the U.S. government’s nuclear weapons program and David Witherspoon, Inc., a scrap metal facility located in the dirt-poor South Knoxville neighborhood of Vestal.

To this day, no one knows exactly how many tons of contaminated scrap metal and other forms of toxic waste were processed or buried on the company’s land. It’s not even clear exactly when the federal government and its contractors first started doing business with the company, but records show shipments taking place in the early 1960s and continuing well into the mid-80s, according to Nolt. 

Witherspoon mainly employed women from the surrounding neighborhood to sort the materials by hand using Geiger counters but without respirators or other protective gear. These blue collar workers were exposed to a hair-raising mixture of lethal waste products, including uranium and PCBs. 

Nolt, Todd Shelton, and other South Knoxville residents went on to form the nonprofit Project Witherspoon to put public pressure on state and federal authorities to clean up the affected properties, where rust-covered 55-gallon drums could be seen leaking a witch’s brew of poison into the ground mere yards away from row upon row of working class houses.

As Nolt discusses Project Witherspoon, I can’t help but remember my own experiences surrounding the site. You see, my very first “hard news” assignment as a reporter came in 1990 when I wrote a story about the scandal for The Knoxville Journal, a daily newspaper that had competed with The Knoxville News-Sentinel for generations but was doomed to close the following year. I vividly recall the horror I felt standing at the edge of the Candora Avenue site while a young woman described how her mother had died from cancer after years spent handling scraps of gamma ray-blasted metal without gloves. I’ll never forget the intense discomfort I felt reflecting on my own family’s contribution to this disaster, as my father’s first job out of college had been as a supervisor over the uranium separation process at the Oak Ridge facility. An “accidental exposure” soon forced a career change, and I couldn’t help but wonder if the same batch of yellow cake that ended his dreams of a career in physics had later made its way into the nightmarish landfill before me … or even into the body of the woman whose death I was chronicling. 

Prospect Witherspoon remains a textbook example of successful grassroots activism. Outraged citizens won the attention of then-U.S. Senator Al Gore Jr., were able to show the company had been allowed to operate despite a lengthy history of gross safety violations, and eventually forced a state Superfund cleanup.

Nolt has worked on numerous environmental projects in the years since then, but he’s arguably had an even greater impact through his work as a teacher. He was one of the first philosophers in the world to develop a course in environmental ethics, and in his classroom two generations of UT students learned about their species’ impact on the Earth as well as getting a firsthand taste of grassroots organizing.

By 1990, Nolt had become so involved in his community work that he realized he either needed to switch careers or somehow integrate it into his teaching. Environmental ethics was a relatively new field, but he learned what he could about what other philosophers were doing and ended up winning the support of UT’s departmental head to develop his own program.

The class was an immediate success, and it would go on to be a consistently popular academic offering that attracted students from a wide variety of majors for more than 30 years.

“I taught it as a hands on-course,” Nolt relates. “We would go look at the Witherspoon site and I’d talk to them about that. We’d have people come in from OREPA, or other activists who were doing work on various projects… The students would also go out and do community service projects. 

“It was integrated into the work I was doing, and I was making use of them to magnify the work I was doing, but they were learning at the same time. It seemed to be good for the students, it was a popular course, and it was good for the community.”

I first met Nolt shortly after the course was introduced into the curriculum. Although I’d worked as a journalist immediately following high school, the demise of The Knoxville Journal had soured me on the profession and I had no intention of becoming a reporter again (obviously, fate had other plans for me). Rather than majoring in Communications when I enrolled at UT in 1993, I chose to study the Philosophy of Science and Nolt became my advisor. As a result of this pairing, we spent countless hours in his McClung Tower office discussing everything from modal logic to pacifism and the more obscure implications of quantum theory. 

In retrospect, however, I’m disappointed that I somehow never found the time to take Nolt’s course on environmental ethics. But I’ve known many people who did, both personally and professionally. As a journalist, in fact, I’ve encountered them frequently at rallies, meetings, and a host of “direct actions” — a seemingly endless parade of highly motivated crusaders for peace, nuclear disarmament, and endangered species. Many times, all it took to change a tight-lipped protester into an ebullient spokesperson for their cause was for me to ask, “Do you know Dr. Nolt at UT?” 

All careers, however, eventually come to an end. Nolt retired from UT in 2018, but he continued teaching a single course per semester until exiting the academic life for good in 2022.

He’s stayed busy since then, recently publishing what is effectively his magnum opus, a dense treatise that brings together his studies in formal logic with his environmental activism in a new way.

He hopes that his book, Incomparable Values: Analysis, Axiomatics, and Applications, will ultimately give policymakers a new set of conceptual tools they can use to address urgent crises such as fossil fuel-driven climate change.

“It provides a basis for environmental decision-making that’s not economically based,” he explains. “Most of the policy work that’s done now is about translating environmental values into economic values, which completely distorts the whole picture.”

According to Nolt, the singleminded reduction of environmental dilemmas to economics inexorably causes lawmakers, regulators, and other officials to discount anything that can’t be quantified in terms of dollars and cents.

It’s an old problem, and one that’s proven exceedingly difficult for even the brightest thinkers to grapple with. After all, how does one measure happiness or put a price on an ecosystem? It’s arguably impossible to assign a dollar value to human beings, much less formally recognize any kind of intrinsic worth in the lives of animals, plants, fungi, or microbes.

“The problem is that environmental values just reflect human desires,” Nolt explains. “They don’t reflect anything like the objective value of the environment. They don’t reflect the fact that there’s a squirrel out there that’s got a life and that life matters to it. It’s a piece of value independent of us.”

He continues: “It’s still a value, it’s just incomparable with our monetary values. Now, how do we deal with it? Well, there are ways of dealing with it, and they’re logical, and that’s what this book is about.”

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Last modified on Saturday, 23 March 2024 21:18