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‘Thinking While Walking’: La Jolla author shares philosophical thoughts from the Pacific Crest Trail

La Jollan Martin Bunzl's "Thinking While Walking" explores the relationship of humans to nature.
(Courtesy of Martin Bunzl)

In an attempt to promote philosophy for a general audience, retired Rutgers University philosophy professor Martin Bunzl has authored a book expounding on the connection between humans and nature.

“Thinking While Walking: Reflections on the Pacific Crest Trail,” published in May, is “a set of nine chapters with different reflections on our relationship to nature,” Bunzl said.

Bunzl, a La Jolla resident since 2004 and a philosophical consultant to the Salk Institute for Biological Studies’ Harnessing Plants Initiative, said he “wanted to think philosophically about how we relate to nature.”

“After I retired, I thought ... about this while walking on the Pacific Crest Trail [that it] would be a great opportunity to be stimulated by my surroundings,” he said.

The PCT is a 2,653-mile-long trail that runs from the Canadian border south through Washington, Oregon and California, terminating in Campo, near the Mexico border.

Bunzl said he hasn’t completed the entire PCT and isn’t sure how many miles he’s walked. “What I did was I went to nine different locations and spent a day or two walking around … starting in Campo and ending up near the Canadian border,” he said.

Martin Bunzl shares his philosophical reflections on nature in his latest book.
(Courtesy of Martin Bunzl)

In the book, Bunzl makes a distinction between strolling and hiking, the latter of which can be “mind-numbing because you’re doing the same thing at a relatively aggressive pace,” he said.

While strolling, he said, “your mind is meandering as you meander. … Creative connections in the mind come when you’re not trying too hard to make it happen.”

“Thinking While Walking” is Bunzl’s fifth book; his previous tomes have focused mostly on philosophical issues in science.

“My most recent book was on the intersection of philosophy and climate change,” he said, “and thinking about questions on how we should assess risk when it comes to climate change and also ethical issues involved.”

“Thinking While Walking” is an “extension of the work on climate change,” Bunzl said, “but in a slightly broader issue, which is how should we think of our relationship to nature more generally.”

“Our idea of nature is very much derived from what happened in the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th and 19th century, where before that nature was seen as a danger to human beings,” he said.

After the Industrial Revolution, he said, “we came to see what we did, our cities, our industry, as danger and nature as safe and benevolent.”

That influences how “we think about not only climate change but combating climate change,” he said.

He said he is involved in climate change debates locally and internationally.

“If we think about worst-case climate change,” Bunzl said, the probability of human extinction is “either unknown or very, very low. But the cost of human extinction is very, very high. How do you proceed in terms of public policy choices in a situation like that?”

Philosophers can “help us focus on the concept of risk” and prompt discussions of ethics, such as using genetic engineering in food, he said.

As he walked portions of the PCT, Bunzl said, “things would strike me from a serendipitous point of view,” such as the issue of litter.

“I never intended to think about litter,” he said. But when he started walking in Campo, he observed that “the Pacific Crest Trail that we think must be wild and pristine and beautiful is actually covered in litter.”

Bunzl said he would make notes in a small notebook he carried and pose philosophical questions like “What makes litter litter?” He would then make more notes at home as he researched his ideas.

“The other thing that struck me,” he said, “is how much nature is affected by human beings. When you walk through the Mojave Desert, there are gigantic solar farms and wind turbines and canals to provide water to L.A.

“You’re walking through those, you’re not walking through nature untouched by human beings. We forget that human beings started affecting nature 10,000 years ago” with the development of agriculture.

Bunzl said “much of which we take to be nature untouched by human beings is in fact profoundly touched by human beings.”

“Nature is always changing. It’s an illusion to think that we can freeze it as it is,” he said.

“Thinking While Walking: Reflections on the Pacific Crest Trail” is available at bit.ly/BunzlBook. Bunzl also maintains a blog connecting current events with philosophy at mbunzl.com.