Bill Nichols presents six conceptual lenses through which to examine the ways in which documentary film functions to invoke and convey its meaning or message, and they are the poetic, expository, observational, participatory, reflexive, and performative. Although he claims that several of these modes can hold sway in particular documentaries, it is not unusual to encounter several of these modes working synergistically in a single film.2 Primarily adhering to Nichols’ taxonomy it is possible to categorize Black Wave: The Legacy of the Exxon Valdez (Paul Carvalho and Robert Cornellier, 2008)  in terms of the expository mode, because the film adopts what might be labeled a journalistic presentation of and approach to its historical content. Common features of this film that make it consistent with the expository mode include the use of factual material and data conveyed through narration or “voice-over,” the conventional use of editing and sound, and the logical sequencing of shots, including found and news-reel footage that are juxtaposed to create and communicate the story. Nichols also stresses that this mode of documentary filmmaking includes a rhetorical element, which commonly emerges, as in Black Wave, from the pressing social, economic, and political issues inspiring the documentarians to produce the film. 

As stated, a sustained reading of the film could be approached through employing the lens of the expository mode as suggested by Nichols. However, it is to the documentary film theory of Toni de Bromhead that we turn when approaching and offering an eco-phenomenological reading of Black Wave, which is a riveting documentary still holding valuable lessons for us if we are attuned to responding to its message regarding the proliferation of global environmental or ecological destruction. Black Wave is focused on one of the most extreme environmental disasters in the history of the United States, the Exxon-Valdez tanker oil spill (29 March 1989) occurring in Prince William Sound, Alaska.3 The film establishes the ineluctable connection between the oil spill and wanton political corruption, unfettered corporate greed, and flagrant disregard for the condition and dire fate of all that is non-human, the natural world and its propensity for destruction at the hands of humanity. Black Wave primarily highlights the social, economic, and legal consequences of the massive 11-million-gallon oil spill, e.g., the demise of the fishing industry and the many hardships that the Alaskan communities endured, including prolonged physical illnesses and protracted legal battles in the largely unsuccessful attempt to secure compensatory and punitive damages from the Exxon Corporation.  

Black Wave exposes the egregious and inexcusable failures of Exxon: The corporation was lax in properly inspecting and maintaining their equipment and vessels. There was no clean-up plan in place to respond to the inevitable event of a monumental oil spill. Initially, Exxon attempted to convince the community of Cordova, whose entire fishing industry was decimated, that it was doing everything possible to restore the shoreline to its previous pristine condition. Despite Exxon’s adjudicated liability for five-billion dollars in damages, the corporation had no intention of paying and did everything to avoid the imposed monetary recompense by filing a multitude of seemingly endless legal appeals. Since the Exxon oil corporation was unconcerned with the safety of either Alaska residents or the sprawling natural habitat of the Prince William Sound, it turned its back on the people and the natural environment they had destroyed in the pursuit of profit. The death toll was staggering. The oil killed over 300,000 seabirds, 3,500 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 350 eagles, and 22 killer whales, as the oil spill insidiously spread over 1,200 miles of Southwestern Alaskan coastline. Accumulations of oil on the beach rose to the height of 3-feet, covering the rocks and smothering foliage and beach-dwelling wildlife. As will be discussed below in more detail, using personal narration – as opposed to omniscient narration – and the juxtaposition of footage portraying the visceral immediacy of the mass destruction of land, sea, and animal life, the film elicits a heightened sense of moral urgency in viewers. Thus, our reading is focused on the crucial ethical implications that this film shelters.     

Our claim is that when experiencing this film, when revealing, gleaning, and responding to its ethical call, we are not merely responding to the films’ rhetorical potential to persuade, as Nichols would have it; there’s a deeper phenomenon at work, and when attempting to explain it we turn to the theory of documentary film found in the film-philosophy of de Bromhead, who offers a more intimate and participatory model for the cinematic experience associated with documentary.4 De Bromhead argues that documentary film demonstrates what might be termed a cinematic aesthetics, which transforms the spectator into a subjective participant in the narrative, eliciting emotional and empathetic responses, and this relates to our eco-phenomenological analysis. In the living mode of the experiential, the viewer enters and participates in the lived world of the film, she is oriented and then re-oriented or transformed within the context or created (aesthetic) world of the documentary. Although de Bromhead does not discount the importance of the pleasure of the aesthetic experience (jouissance) associated with cinema, her unique theory stresses the potential for documentary film to inspire a legitimate moral response to the issues presented, e.g., in relation to Black Wave, this might include a commitment to environmental awareness and activism or, as in the case of this essay, to pursue a systematic understanding of environmental ethics – specifically a prima facie ethics of Nature – grounded in an eco-phenomenological approach to reconceptualizing the now-imperiled Nature-human relationship.          

The film serves as a prescient warning that this type of environmental destruction, which instantiates a heedless disregard for natural life and environmental flourishing, will continue if the human’s informed and ethical intervention is not forthcoming. Below the surface story of the Alaskan denizens’ struggle with unfettered corporate power, another story unfolds that intimates the crucial issue of how we comport ourselves, and beyond, how we should comport ourselves, to the natural world or Nature.5 Black Wave confirms that humanity is under the nefarious influence of the Anthropocene, and we have already discussed the film’s focus on the privileging of corporate power and profit above the care and tendence of the natural world. This essay, adopting an eco-phenomenological approach,6 seeks to draw inspiration for transcending reductive scientific, mechanistic, and anthropocentric views of Nature that continue to wreak havoc on the planet. How might we define the Anthropocene to understand and respond to the sinister influence it has on our ways of Being-in-the-world in relation to Nature? 

The term Anthropocene describes the current historical epoch where the centrality and dominance of human involvement has altered the course of world’s natural environment. But, as eco-phenomenology argues, it is something deeper than merely an overarching ideological framework. It is perhaps best understood as a “cultural framework” (Weltanschauung), a form of deep attunement through which we reveal, understand, and discourse about the world, which includes our relationship to and dwelling-within Nature. The Anthropocene, is often expressed philosophically as the “metaphysics of presence,” “the onto-theological” epochal framework, or the “naturalistic framework.”7 The Anthropocene reduces our view of nature to a mechanical causal nexus, an objectified constellation or “store,” of disposable (non-human) resources for human consumption. In short, Nature is “objectified” in terms of its instrumental and economic value for human benefit. This view is antithetical to the eco-phenomenological view that nature has its own “intrinsic” value (normativity) outside of any valuation we project on it.8 The Anthropocene forecloses the potential for us to legitimately adopt a normative approach toward Nature, which requires our attunement to the “ethical” imperatives that are inherent within and given voice by Nature itself.9 

Eco-phenomenology, as a method and practice, is diagnostic-and-prescriptive. It merges phenomenology and eco-philosophy to challenge the anthropocentric view of Nature.10 It is concerned with the problems plaguing the planet that continue to be accelerated by humans wielding science and technology in service of the hubristic belief in unbounded human progress at the expense of the environment. In essence, eco-phenomenology confronts the problem of human influence on and potential destruction of all that is non-human. Planetary devastation should move us deeply, in an ethical manner, and eco-phenomenology inspires us to seek out and reveal for study, “the interrelationship between organism and world in its metaphysical and axiological dimensions,”11 addressing the pressing concern related to Nature’s inherent normativity. Eco-phenomenology contributes to the recognition of perspectives beyond our limited personal view of things, revealing a trans-subjective/extra-subjective view of things, for in and through description, reflection, and critical analysis of our experiential perspectives, a newfound understanding emerges that transcends the “subjective,” leading to the radical de-centering of the human subject in the presence of Nature – a transcendent mode of the non-human that defies human understanding and mastery. 

Black Wave incorporates certain elements that are consistent with discursive storytelling, but the cinematic aspects of the production make it far weightier than the types of documentaries that seek to communicate facts and information using newsreel or archived film footage. It is more accurate to state that the filmmakers organize the documentary according to the schema or mode consistent with narrative cinema, which de Bromhead likens to the linear model adopted by classical Hollywood cinema. This not only humanizes the issues, beyond it facilitates a genuine empathetic or sympathetic response to the many types of people we encounter, the many unique stories to which we, in an important sense, relate. Black Wave is a “character-driven” documentary, which eschews the use of the omniscient or objective narrator, and opts instead for personalizing the issues, allowing those involved in the catastrophe to speak in their own unique voice, through the experience of their own pain. For example, the cinematic vignettes or episodes, blending interviews and newsreel footage, stress the importance of personal testimony, and include moving scenes (stories) of fishermen who lost their business because of the oil spill, environmental lawyers working tirelessly to secure damages from the recalcitrant Exxon Valdez Corporation, scientists from the US Fish & Wildlife Services surveying the devastation that the toxins from the oil caused to the many local fish hatcheries. As stated, the documentary progresses in a linear fashion and the editing is traditional in that it seeks to achieve the coherence and interconnectivity of the scenes and events portrayed as they contribute to revealing the overarching theme of the film. However, unlike the typical Hollywood film, and this speaks to the unique power of the documentary form, there is no resolution to the conflict presented, and in an all too real sense, Black Wave leaves us with the understanding that the conflict giving unity to the film persists. 

It is possible to argue, along with de Bromhead, that the intimacy of the events structured and portrayed in Black Wave facilitate the all-important sense of relatability or subjective experience of the viewer. For our purposes, it is crucial to note that subjective experience serves as the inroad to all phenomenological analyses, and de Bromhead’s theory stresses this type of involved or “engaged” spectator response. In a manner reminiscent of Heidegger’s view of art,12 de Bromhead argues that film cannot be reduced to an artifact situated at an objective remove from passive spectators. Instead, film is experienced as an event or enactment of life that invites viewers into the truth of the unfolding story, inspiring subjective and empathetic responses from spectators who are transformed into participants, opening the potential for legitimate ethical responses. The film’s main protagonist, the hub around which the film turns, is marine biologist and toxicologist Dr. Riki Ott, a dedicated activist and tireless advocate for natural preservation. At the time of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, she was a fisherwoman in the small town of Cordova, located on the shore of Prince William Sound in Alaska. Keeping in mind the subjective and empathetic response the documentary inspires, Black Wave serves as a rich source of experiential data that is expressive of our impoverished relationship with Nature, and this is especially obvious when attending to the pinnacle scene that might be said to open the door or vista into our eco-phenomenological exploration.13  

The vignette introducing viewers to the disaster is structured to highlight Ott’s frantic and emotional state, conveyed through her vivid description, dripping with temperamental tone and inflection, recounting the moment when she first learned of the oil spill in the early morning hours of 29 March 1989. She recalls that as she approached Prince William Sound from above in a plane, it was a sublime March morning with the rising sun causing the sky and mountains to shimmer with a pink, effervescent glow, and she was stunned into silence in the presence of the majestic beauty that surrounded her. Again, filmmakers incorporate personal narration to serve as a voice-over for a series of long shots framing the natural landscape, which are intercut with “real-time” video footage shot by Ott from the plane. She claims that her silent state of wonderment was abruptly arrested, and the inter-cut of an overhead shot juxtaposes the beauty of the landscape with the horrifying and macabre visual of a “blood-red tanker” with a large black inky stain around it, which according to Ott, violently disrupted the peace of the “flat, calm blue water.” For Ott, the urgency and immediacy of this experience made it transformative, and we as participants in her story sympathize with her shock and grief, for there is the recognition of the violation of the beauty and sanctity of Nature, representing an unfathomable ethical effrontery. A haunting melancholic pall weighs heavy over this moment in the film, for intimated was the experience of a lost or forgotten relationship to Nature, which was obscured by the influence of the Anthropocene – Nature reduced to a disposable resource or commodity, profit over value, profit at all costs. 

At a deeper level, what remained “unsaid” in Ott’s descriptive narration, traceable to a pre-reflective mindset, was the experience of an intuitive sense of normativity, or what eco-phenomenology refers to as the presencing of the intrinsic value of Nature, which is primordial, transcendent, and antecedent to our and interaction with it. This experience, brought about by the Exxon disaster, reveals that we require a radically re-conceptualized view of the Nature-human relationship that transcends the anthropocentric view. For Nature is irreducible to a standing reserve of resources to be exploited.14 To view Nature as lacking intrinsic worth, to continue subjugating it to our limited instrumental purposes, is to ignore that Nature needs both care and preservation. Black Wave inspires enlightened thinking on what a re-conceived relationship to Nature should look like and how it should unfold. If we can return to an immersed sense of authentically living-with-Nature, we can perhaps come to intuitively understand the proper and ethical ways in which to address the demands of Nature that come to us through reticent imperatives or the ethical call of Nature. As stated earlier, this requires a process that is at once diagnostic-and-prescriptive, one that reverses the epistemological and ontological directionality as determined by the Anthropocene, inspiring the move from the following model, HUMAN > nature to an eco-phenomenological model, NATURE > human (as participant in Source).15 In relation to the ethical issues raised in Black Wave, using the film as a spring-board, we move to elucidate the phenomenological and eco-phenomenological views of Michael Bonnett and Alphonso Lingis. The essay concludes by offering readers a systematic view of prima facia ethics focused specifically on the environment. The philosophical explorations contained in the final section of the essay, offer but one way to seriously contemplate and pursue a positive response to the pernicious and devastating crisis, an ongoing crisis, that the film reveals. 

In response to the influence of the Anthropocene, Bonnet’s eco-philosophy de-centers the human subject and proposes an alternative to the knowledge of and relationship to Nature occurring exclusively through the technical-mechanistic prism of scientism. He argues that we should approach Nature in a way that is similar to becoming “acquainted with a person,” through a form of a “direct, intimate, tacit knowledge that affects and is capable of engaging all the senses,”16 a kind of knowing wherein “personal, moral and aesthetic dimensions are imbedded,”17 which is to say that fact and value are “not separated out because things are perceived in their life, wholeness, and inherent mystery.”18 Bonnett contends that through our “embodied” intentional consciousness, our authentic contact with Nature occurs through feeling, passion, and emotion, we acquire knowledge from and of Nature through what the ancient Greeks understood as aisthesis.19 When engaging  Nature in the most primordially manner, by means of “a receptive sensing that is less susceptible to abstract generalization and objectification,”20 we experience it in its own right, in all of its radical otherness and mystery, as transcendent and intrinsically valuable, and not in terms of its relation to our limited instrumental purposes. Here, we are called or hailed by Nature to demonstrate a form of acquaintanceship that demands an attuned and resolute openness to receive and respond to Nature’s demands. This calls for an attitude that transcends the drive to volitional-technical mastery, as consistent with scientific objectivism, and more resembles a “dialogical openness to engage in a primordial conversation with Nature.21 

Lingis echoes this line of reasoning in his view of the fundamental ethical imperatives that are inherent to and emanate from the “faces” of others and the things of the world (Nature).22 He argues that our response or rejoinder to these imperatives, reveals our primordial duty to Nature, grounded in an overwhelming sense of awe and respect.23 For Lingis, non-human things have their own life and orientation that does not depend on our presence. Through perception in our pre-theoretical or pre-reflective dealings with things, value emerges as a binding force, manifesting in the form of imperatives in a way that precedes not only our rational modes of understanding, but also what might be termed our phenomenological sense of subject-hood and the accompanying emergence of autonomy. In addition to arguing for the sense of ethical rightness and wrongness linked to Nature, Lingis offers a unique vista into the issue of “moral goodness” or ethical attunement. We experience the urgency and immediacy of things as they call to us, and in this call, they tacitly direct our appropriate rejoinders and responses within specific circumstances, that is, if we are aurally (ontologically) attuned to their call.  Despite this, such an experience does not lead to the establishment of indelible ethical (nomological) principles for prescribed and proscribed behavior toward Nature. For this ethical encounter is irreducible to systematic formulation, and indeed, Lingis’ phenomenology is open to critiques from those embracing an objectivist or deontological form of morality. In addition, the unique idea that values can be intrinsic, and not imposed upon things through human subjectivity, also serves as a point of contention among critics of eco-phenomenological (environmental) ethics.      

According to Bonnett, to challenge the view of Nature’s intrinsic worth reveals an essential flaw in rational thought and the type of all-encompassing “calculative” thought related to the attunement of the Anthropocene.24 Since rational thought exhibits its own unique instrumental orientation, it cannot avoid imposing this orientation on and hence determining our understanding and experience of Nature.25 This wrongly indicates that our experience of Nature’s intrinsic value is unjustified simply because it cannot be expressed in purely rational terms, through propositional or formable logic and discourse. Bonnett concludes that all fundamental “intrinsic values rightly are resistant to this requirement and properly demand that rationality be subservient to what they intuit – helping to reveal them more fully by working within their ambience.”26 In addition to Nature’s transcendence and sublime mystery, Bonnett traces the notion of its intrinsic value to the ideas of “truth” (integrity) and “beauty” (aesthetic), contending that both these modes of Nature’s normative revelation or presencing hold the potential to inspire a deep and enduring sense of respect in humans.27 These claims are inextricably bound up with the process of justification for our experience of the normative in Nature. Bonnett’s response is that within our immersed and primordial experience of Nature, we simply feel and intuit the (ethical) rightness or wrongness concerning the ways we are behaving toward, or better, orienting ourselves and responding to the call of Nature’s ethical imperatives.28 

For example, in our attuned involvements with Nature, moments of enlightenment, we come to understand the ethical sense “of not simply how things are, but how they should be.”29 Thus, when we as participants in Black Wave experience the grim descriptions and horrendous images of ecological devastation, it is possible to simply intuit (prima facie) the wrongness and accompanying sense of moral outrage that such events inspire. The Exxon Valdez disaster, and many others like it, represents a grave and monumental injustice done to Nature, an egregious occurrence that it is irreducible to an instance of human negligence, and instead reveals a cruel and malevolent attitude toward Nature. Here we encounter the demand to uphold our duty to care for Nature, and perhaps, as the instance demands, offer reparations for the despoliation of a seashore and the needless death of hundreds of thousands of indigenous life forms on both sea and land. However, eco-phenomenology also demonstrates concern for instances of ecological destruction occurring on a much smaller scale, let us say, instances of ecological vandalism. For example, we recognize and heed Nature’s call, in light of a duty to beneficence (as against malevolence), to avoid even the “unnecessary trampling of the bluebells emerging through the woodland floor, or the wanton destruction of an ancient oak.”30 When attuned and enlightened, we understand that the value in Nature transcends our subjectivity, calling and binding us to an ethical responsibility grounded in Nature’s own unique demands. 

Black Wave mediates the ethical call of Nature, which can be heard in the sound of waves crashing against the immaculate shore, gurgling and frothing up before returning the their origin, but after the tanker defiled the waters of Prince William Sound, violating the space of Nature, the waves communicate in muted tones, choked out by gallons upon gallons of crude oil gathered on the surface forming a thick, viscous shroud – the drone of a death knell echoes. As opposed to freely flowing and washing over the shoreline, they now slither onto the shore, covering the rocks and leaving a heavy black remainder – a reminder that Nature’s call has been ignored and silenced. Then, consider the fate of the sea birds that cry out one last time before succumbing to the rumbling silence of death. Birds, trapped at sea by the heavy oil, weighed down and violently flapping their wings at the water’s surface, creating the desperate sound of their imminent demise as they cry out in vain struggling for their final breath. In their calls, in their soundings, their terror and desperation are given voice just before the black, sticky sludge envelops them and drags them below the surface of the once pristine “calm” of the blue ocean. Other forms of life, which include the delicate eco-system, die a slow and syncopated death over an extended period, eventually succumbing to the fall-out of the deadly oil spill. 

As related to this grim description, Lingis stresses that our binding sense of duty to Nature is most exigent when it “is determined by the intrinsic importance of what is in danger,”31 considering Nature’s fragility and finitude. This drives home the ethical imperative’s mortifying force, expressed through the summons of death, which lies beyond and supersedes our wants and desires. Thus, we demonstrate our deepest sense of duty when caring for those things that are in danger of perishing, declining, or disappearing. As opposed to a religious or theological understanding of mortification linked with radical asceticism, in Lingis’s phenomenology, this indicates subduing and sublimating our desires in the greater service of Nature’s (the other’s) expressed desires. In this act of opening ourselves to Nature’s needs, being receptive to Nature’s demands, we are at once re-attuned and released from our servitude to the Anthropocene, we transcend our cloistered subjectivity. As related to these thoughts, Black Wave strategically organizes and intercuts images of the destruction to the water, shore, and wildlife to memorialize these horrors, so they serve as a dire warning to us. In the thralls of a catastrophic event such as the Exxon Valdez oil spill or bearing witness to it through the medium of film, we are moved ethically, we hold the potential to be attuned to Nature in the thralls of immanent destruction. Because we are mortified, and out of a deep sense of respect, we are moved to respond, heeding Nature’s call for assistance and support in a time of desperate need. 

Lingis argues that although Nature’s imperatives are binding, they do not float free above the existential circumstances of our immersion in the world, and so these situations serve as contingencies for morality, which is to say, their unique content can never be expressed in terms of indelible or objectivist (nomological) principles establishing ethically prescribed and proscribed behavior. However, Lingis assures us that the contingent principles (imperatives) intimated by Nature possess a commanding force that defies rational explanation,32 but as stated, they do not possess categorical validity that transcends all contingent circumstances. We cannot, as the eco-phenomenological argument runs, have an environmental ethics comprised of agent-neutral principles. This reveals the undeniable pluralism in Lingis’ phenomenological ethics, which highlights the ad hoc character of the imperatives inherent overridingness, in a way that acknowledges their contingent, circumstantial, and situational (albeit not in a pejorative sense) make-up. This is Lingis’ way of addressing the systematic issue in ethics of the conflict of duties (“conflict of imperatives”) argument, and here we note the crucial similarities, focused on this idea of the overridingness of principles (imperatives), between eco-phenomenological ethics and prima facie ethics.33 For what has to be done, according to Lingis, “requires attention to the concrete particularities of this situation,” and the thinking that generates “what I have to do is ad hoc.”34 

Here, we encounter the prima facie recognition that the rightness of an act is intuited, just as in Bonnett’s eco-philosophy, and then the overarching duty emerges, but only after reflecting on the potential reasons why such acts should inspire tentative ethical principles. In the moment, Nature calls us to subject ourselves to this principle over others, e.g., I cannot at once care and tend for my land in time of drought and, as Lingis observes, “go to Ethiopia to assist engineers dig (much needed) wells.”35 Here, both situations are structured by imperatives, and each imperative holds its own legitimate weight. Amidst the dilemma of the conflict of duties, choices must ultimately be made, and such choices hinge on assessing the situations within which we find ourselves. It is the uniqueness and contingencies of these situations that ultimately determine the ethical priority and weight of the imperatives that are given by Nature, which guide and direct our behavior and ethical choices.36

As stated, eco-phenomenology unfolds in a diagnostic-and-prescriptive manner, and we have discussed the destructive influence of the Anthropocene on the environment. Focused on the Exxon-Valdez disaster, we have presented an alternative view of both conceiving, engaging, and living with Nature as a sublime and transcendent presence, which possesses inherent value. Let us now move to concretize or formalize the ideas discussed throughout, distilling the essential eco-phenomenological elements to envision, in an original and unique manner, seven potential prima facie ethical (principles) imperatives or duties for inspiring a newly attuned and transformed ethical response to Nature, with the understanding that the inclination toward carrying out these duties lies in both our openness to Nature’s needs and the apprehension of the rightness of the actions we are about to undertake when responding to the call or address of Nature.

  1. Duties/Imperatives to fidelity. This is the faithfulness we demonstrate to our obligations or duties toward Nature. This faithfulness to the obligations and responsibilities we have for heeding and adhering to Nature’s imperatives is inseparable from our immersion in the natural world.
  2. Duties/Imperatives to reparations. This is the duty we have to Nature to make amends and offer recompense for wrongs that have been done. Reparations might include, but are not limited to, seeking to secure alternative sources of energy that render dangerous practices for extracting fossil fuel such as “fracking” and “deep-ocean drilling” obsolete.
  3. Duties/Imperatives to gratitude. This is the duty to offer “thanks” for what has been given by Nature as a gift. The sense of gratitude emerges when we are attuned to Nature in a way that transcends the oppressive influence of the Anthropocene.
  4. Duties/Imperatives to justice (equity). This is the duty to demonstrate fairness and adhere to a sense of rightness and equity within our dealings with Nature. It is possible to recognize that there is already a sense of justice in the duty to fidelity, which is also related to the conscientiousness we show toward upholding what we intuit as the “moral right” in Nature’s transcendent presence.
  5. Duties/Imperatives to beneficence. This is the duty we have to Nature of doing “good,” all the while upholding the attitude of approaching Nature with a heightened sense of charity, respect, and kindness. This, we might say, is also demonstrating a sense of deep and solicitous care for Nature’s wellbeing based on the recognition of its fragility, which elicits a deep sense of mortification considering the overarching ontological condition of finitude and the inevitability of mortality.
  6. Duties/Imperatives to self-improvement. This duty, in a manner that is at odds with what psychology views as the process of self-actualization, is the realization that our emerging and developing sense of self-hood occurs authentically only through our dealings with Nature, in and through the process of subjecting ourselves to the imperatives of Nature.
  7. Duties/Imperatives to non-malevolence. This is the duty to ward off and resist doing evil, avoiding malicious behavior and actions that do unnecessary harm to Nature. Non-malevolence can be understood on a grand scale or a smaller, micro-level.37

We have stated that eco-phenomenology seeks out “lived” world experiential data to serve as phenomenological “source material”. However, beyond personal (subjective) lived experience, we can also find rich sources of experiential data by exploring descriptions that emerge from other sources: (1) Descriptions of others (second-hand data); (2) Experiential descriptions from literature and poetry; and (3) Descriptions and imagery from art and film.38 The documentary Black Wave provides (1) and (3) for our analysis. Indeed, the visceral power of the film, created and facilitated through its specific mode of production – through sight and sound cinema works on our sensory, “experiential” mode of Being-in-the-world – holds the potential to move and transform us in deep, profound, and empathetic ways, if we accept the documentary film theory of de Bromhead, which intimates elements of an existential understating of a re-conceived relation to documentary film.

Undoubtedly, the Alaskans’ organized ecumenical responses to the Exxon ecological destruction in Black Wave were courageous and necessary courses of action. However, as this essay attempted to elucidate, the damage inflicted on the ecology of Prince William Sound lives at a deeper level, because the wanton disregard for Nature that led to the disaster was given structure and in great part ingrained and determined by the prevailing attunement of the Anthropocene. Ruminating on the valuable contributions of the eco-philosophers discussed, in conjunction with the difficult lessons accrued from the documentary Black Wave, it is necessary, at a time when the planet’s ecological (Doomsday) clock is rapidly approaching midnight, that we work vociferously and with a heightened sense of exigency to re-conceptualize our relationship to Nature.


  1. I thank the reviewer for suggesting changes to the essay. Following his/her commentary, the essay is vastly improved.
  2. Bill Nichols. Introduction to Documentary. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001).
  3. The film offers an urgent warning concerning the possibility of future ecological disasters occurring related to the extraction and transportation of fossil fuels. The Exxon-Valdez disaster remains second only to the most recent disaster occurring in the US, the massive Deep Water Horizon oil spill (Gulf of Mexico, 20 April 2010). Over 87-days, the spill spewed 3.19 million barrels of oil into the ocean, which is the equivalent of 134-million gallons of oil.
  4. Toni de Bromhead. Looking Two Ways: Documentary Film’s Relationship with Reality and Cinema. (Aarhus: Intervention Press, 1996).
  5. In this essay I capitalize “Nature,” much like translators of Heidegger often choose to capitalize “Being,” and I do this for a similar reason, namely, to indicate that Nature, as the interpretation establishes, is a transcendent (non-human) ontological phenomenon, which is irreducible (epistemologically or ontologically) to the human realm. Nature always stands beyond and outstrips the limits of human thought and machination, and hence radically defies human mastery.
  6. Mary M. Litch. Philosophy Through Film. (UK: Routledge, 2017). In addition to eco-phenomenology, this essay is also a work of what is now termed, film-as-philosophy or philosophy through film, and this field of study is separated off from what is commonly understood as philosophy of film, which primarily takes film, as a work of art and the production methods thereof as the foci of study. However, film-as-philosophy works off the premise that film itself (as communicative medium) can “philosophize,” or offer the spectator (as aesthetic participant) an opportunity to glean a philosophical message or theme that might be read in a philosophical manner.
  7. Martin Heidegger. The Question Concerning Technology, trans., W. Lovitt. (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1971). In eco-phenomenology, it is possible to relate the notion of the Anthropocene to Heidegger’s later “thinking”, in terms of his presentation of the overarching mood (Stimmung) or mode of attunement associated with the (modern) technological “En-framing” effect of das Ge-stell.
  8. Michael Bonnett. Environmental Consciousness, Nature, and the Philosophy of Education: Ecologizing Education. (New York: Routledge, 2021).
  9. J. M. Magrini. The Ethical Call of Nature: Reticent Imperatives. (New York: Routledge, 2020).
  10. Beyond the immediate concerns of the film Black Wave, eco-phenomenology is concerned with air and water pollution, soil and land pollution, climate change, global warming, deforestation, increased carbon footprint, genetic modification, destruction of marine life, public health issues, habitat destruction, ozone layer depletion, and the scarcity of natural resources It is possible to draw out five tenets expressing the aims and concerns of eco-phenomenology: (1) There is a problem with the way we think and interact and hence treat/behave toward/respond to Nature. (2) This problem is grounded in the tacit sway of the Anthropocene attuning humanity. (3) The Anthropocene can potentially be transformed/transcended if we are made aware of its existence and its connection to the problem afflicting Nature. (4) This calls for a re-conceived, re-attuned understanding of Nature and our relationship to it as it appears and is experienced outside of or antecedent to the Anthropocene. (5) Once these “hidden” issues are wrested from concealment (via reflective phenomenology) and made explicit, the potential exists to change the ways we speak, understand and, ultimately, interact with Nature.
  11. Charles Brown, Ted Toadvine. Eco-Phenomenology: Back to the Earth Itself. (Albany: SUNY Press, 2003), p. 26.
  12. Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” in D. F. Krell (ed.), Basic Writings. (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1993, pp. 139-212. See also: Shawn Loht. Phenomenology of Film: A Heideggerian Account of the Film Experience. (New York: Lexington Books, 2017).
  13. J. M. Magrini. Social Efficiency and Instrumentalism in Education: Critical Essays in Phenomenology, Ontology, and Hermeneutics. (New York: Routledge, 2014).  This notion of “sympathetic” response in cinema is linked directly to phenomenological verification, the move beyond private subjectivity to the experience of trans-subjectivity or inter-subjectivity. Phenomenology is not merely reporting through introspection what’s going on inside of our own minds. Instead, we are observing, describing, and analyzing our experiences in the world with others, and then communicating these experiences through descriptive analysis, within which we participate. In the case we have explored, it is the film that depicts such experiences for our understanding and participation. Although there is no way to provide categorical verification for phenomenological claims, there is a way to establish a criterion for correctness through inter/trans-subjective consensus for phenomenological analysis. When we do, it is possible to relate the content of the film and the depictions contained within the work to our own life and world and occasions where we have had similar, if not identical, experiences. This recognition of similitude might be said to represent the criterion for correctness for phenomenology’s revelation of the ontological aspects of our existence, e.g., our ontological relationship with Nature.
  14. Heidegger, Question Concerning Technology, 35.
  15. J. M. Magrini. “The Phenomenology of Nature and Ethos of Earthly Dwelling,” in: J. M. Magrini (ed.) New Approaches to Curriculum as Phenomenological Text: Continental Philosophy and Ontological Inquiry. (New York: Palgrave, 2015), pp. 76-110.
  16. Michael Bonnett, “Environmental Education and the Issue of Nature,” Journal of Curriculum Studies, 39 (2007): p. 714.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Liddell and Scott. Greek-English Lexicon. (Mansfield Centre: Martino Publishing, 2015,) p. 21. This is unique form of intuitive understanding of knowledge occurs by means of perception, whereby we acquire the “sense of a thing,” and “learn” about it.
  20. Bonnett, “Environmental Education,”  716
  21. Ibid This is a normative awakening; we come to the awareness that in Nature’s rising presence we discover values rather than imposing them.[22. Holmes Rolston, III, Environmental Ethics: Duties to and Values in the Natural World (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1981), p. 230. Holmes Rolston, III, who mirrors the view of Bonnett when emphasizing that “what counts as value in nature is not just brought to and imposed on the ecosystem: it is discovered there.” Interestingly, as related to our themes, Rolston insists that it is through the description and analysis of Nature we uncover and experience its intrinsic and essential value, which opens the possibility of endorsing its systematic rightness, and in this experience of Nature’s “rightness,” as related to our discussion regarding the challenges facing eco-ethics, the “transition from is to good and hence to ought occurs,” in that we are transported, attuned, and we leave science and the factual realm “to enter the domain of evaluation, from which an ethic follows.”
  22. Graham Harman. Towards Speculative Realism. (UK: Zone Books, 2010), pp. 14-21. The uniqueness of the phenomenology of Alphonso Lingis was brought to my attention by Harman. It was from this introduction that I went on to craft a book-length interpretation of Lingis that aligns his ideas with the eco-phenomenological movement, a movement that is primarily focused on and limited to German and French philosophers such as Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Levinas.
  23. Alphonso Lingis, The Imperative. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998).
  24. Martin Heidegger. Discourse on Thinking, trans., J. M. Anderson and E. H. Freund. (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1966).
  25. Michael Bonnett, Retrieving Nature: Education for a Post-Humanistic Age (United Kingdom: Wiley-Blackwell, 2004), p. 86.
  26.   Ibid., p. 88.
  27. Ibid., p. 81. In addition, when confronted with the critique denying Nature’s inherent value, Bonnett emphasizes its fatal flaw that is grounded in the erroneous assumption that “value” requires a valuing subject, and it is the human being that primarily bestows and projects value on the natural world, and this directionality, from valuing human to valued Nature, reduces value to fulfilling the needs of the one valuing. This wrongly indicates that value is not and cannot be internal to objects, and rather value is based on relational properties, and further, only sentient and conscious entities possess values and hence are the only ones that can bestow or project value. Thus, as opposed to intrinsic value we encounter an anthropocentric view of derivative intrinsic worth, which might be construed as essentially instrumental, and so this view remains trapped in the traditional metaphysical predicament that eco-phenomenology seeks to extricate us from, namely, the drive to reduce Nature to its instrumental value, showing the highly limited concern “for what it does for the valuer, rather than what it is in itself.”
  28. Magrini, The Ethical Call of Nature, pp. 120-140. See Chapter 4 of this book for a detailed analysis of “ethical intuitionism,” which includes an important discussion and defense of Hume’s view of ethics in relation to both eco-phenomenology and prima facie ethics. I also note for readers that this text serves as the first introduction of prima facie ethics into the academic fields of environmental philosophy and environmental ethics.
  29. Michael Bonnett, “The Powers that Be: Environmental Education and the Transcendent, Policy Futures in Education, 19 (2015). p. 6.
  30.   Ibid., 7.
  31. Lingis, The Imperative, p. 172.
  32. Karl Jaspers. The Way to Wisdom, trans., R. Manheim. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959), pp. 52-53. The imperatives as described by Lingis can be related to Karl Jaspers’ notion of what he terms the unconditional imperative. When dedicated and beholden to living in the light and under the burdensome responsibility of the unconditional imperative, “our empirical existence becomes in a sense the raw material of the idea, of love, of loyalty.” To dedicate one’s life to the unconditional imperative, is to steadfastly remain “loyal where disloyalty would have destroyed everything.” Adherence to this type of imperative, is difficult indeed, but it is what is called for in this time of grave ecological devastation.
  33. D. W.  Ross. The Right and the Good. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1961). This ethical system seeks a “third way” that merges crucial ideas of two moral philosophies, Kantian deontology and Aristotelian virtue ethics. Ross endorses “rule intuitionism,” which indicates that although we cannot establish moral rules with categorical certainty, the principles are “self-evident” to persons reflecting on the contingencies of the situations within which we find ourselves.
  34. Lingis, The Imperative., p. 220.
  35.   Ibid., p. 74.
  36. Ibid. As might be related directly to Ross’ prima facie ethics, in a way  that  does not relate to Nature or the environment, let us consider the following example: If I am called to the duty of expending my funds on the medical treatment of my son afflicted by a rare disease, requiring repeated surgeries and demanding around-the-clock attention, I am at once neglecting the needs of my other children and wife, all the while understanding, though based neither on a discursive explanation nor rational justification, that in this instance, in this situation, the exigency of my son’s illness calls me to a duty to subject myself to this imperative at the expense of others, for in this contingent situation, this is the imperative that holds superior ethical weight.
  37. Magrini, The Ethical Call of Nature, pp. 136-137.
  38. Max van Manen. Researching Lived Experience. (Albany: SUNY Press, 1990), pp. 53-76.

About The Author

James M. Magrini teaches Western philosophy and ethics at College of Dupage (Glen Ellyn/USA). He has published numerous peer-review articles on many subjects including Heidegger’s philosophy. In 2017 he published, with Elias Schwieler, Heidegger on Literature, Poetry, and Education During the “Turn” (Routledge). His most recent monographs are titled Plato’s Socrates, Philosophy, and Education (Springer) and The Ethical Call of Nature: Reticent Imperatives (Routledge), which merges phenomenology and environmental ethics.

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