Something’s Gotta Give

Day 17 Blog Post

This post takes a look at the fault with the free-market approach in its idea of endless growth in GDP and consumption, as well as the problem with endless population growth upon the earth.

Today there are over 6 billion people on the planet, and estimates say that by 2020 there will be 8 billion; and by 2050, ten billion. This steady increase in global population means that the rate that people are being born is more than the rate that people are dying. In a perfect world, these rates would be equal (and obviously less in number than what they are operating at now). Thomas Malthus’ Essay on the Principle of Population explains that when left unchecked, population increases in a geometric (exponential) ratio, whereas subsistence (food) increases in only an arithmetic ratio. This means that the population growth rate would look like 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 516; and the subsistence growth rate can only increase by 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10. According to this disconnect in growth rate between us what we need for survival, he said that an increase in the rate of the human species population can be kept proportional to the increase in their food supply  “only by strong law of necessity acting as a check.” This means that if we are to continue this rate of population growth, we must be rational in distribution – if we want all people to have somewhat fair shares of the thinly stretched food supply. What’s even simpler? No food, no humans; which implies a limit to this growth. If we were able to keep increasing the rate of food production and human population, then eventually each and every human being would get less and less rations of food. But Malthus’ real bottom line is telling us that tragedy and pre-mature death await us in the form of famine; “the superior power of population cannot be checked without producing misery of vice.”

Technically this would be occurring today, but the current societal structures in place allow for a skewed distribution of food. In real life, this equates to the richer nations getting more food and poorer nations getting less. One needs only to look at history to see that populations increase only where there is a means of subsistence.We in the first world have been “oblivious to these oscillations” because the “histories of mankind are recorded by the higher classes;” and for a more correct view we need to take into account the experiences of those who live closer to fear of not having enough. We also don’t pay attention to the real cost of the labor that produces our goods for consumption, which is what perhaps contributes the most to conceal this truth from our view. Our society’s dependence on a “limitless” growth in GDP does not jive well with the sobering reality of the consequences of our constant consumption. As a matter of fact, “neo-Malthusians” are criticized from the political left because they’re claimed to support “genocidal programs” to deal with overpopulation, or for supporting the “infringement of a right to procreate;” as well as they are criticized from the political right because they’re claimed to be technological pessimists and to underestimate the capacity of the planet to support large population growth.” At the end of the day, however, Malthus’ calculations are right, which means that unless the problem of overpopulation is corrected by human means, like war, plague, or epidemic, then a famine of monstrous proportions is inevitable. Something’s gotta give.

Garrett Hardin, author of Tragedy of the Commons, gives a good metaphor for a way of thinking about the overpopulation problem in the his “lifeboat ethics.” Imagine you’re in a lifeboat with 50 people. The capacity is 60, and 100 people are out wading for survival in the water, begging to get in. How do you choose who comes into the boat? Would you chose the “best” people? The neediest? Would you make it first-come-first-serve? Now imagine a larger scale in which the population inside the boat doubles every 87 years and the population outside doubles every 35 years, and don’t forget the earth’s resources dwindle to support the said unending growth. Add on the way societies are set up, and you see a increasingly drastic difference in prosperity between rich and poor countries. An egalitarian approach would be to pool all our resources together with these other countries. The result would be that American would have to share resources with more than 8 other people. And thus the familiar tragedy of the commons plays out when everyone has access to use something shared by everyone, which in reality is what we’re doing, but it’s hidden behind the true cost of labor and externalities. Doesn’t this also mean that we have a responsibility to protect our commons? Should not one of the major tasks of education today be an awareness of the dangers of misuse of the commons? Such as illuminating not just the biological and ecological effects, but also the social and thus economic effects of, for example, overfishing?

It appears that only a replacement of the system of the commons with a responsible system of control will save the air, and, water, and oceanic fisheries. Recently there has been a push to create an “international depository of food reserves to which nations would contribute according to their abilities and from which they would draw according to their needs,” or a World Food Bank. It is thought that the developing world is the more environmentally taxing populous with its 2.5% population increase per year (versus the richer countries’ 0.8% population increase per year), however the first world makes up for its fewer numbers with qualitatively more environmentally destructive economic practices like pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. The World Food Bank idea appeals powerfully to humanitarian impulses, but is this great food reserves concept nothing more than a human-made common? The creation and implementation of a system of growing more food (pushing more commodities through the economic machine, which ultimately means more business for agronomies) and storing it for the purpose of staving off famine, hunger, and death without repercussion only exasperate the initial problem? Human ecology tells us that this well-intended humanitarian effort is “like helping the spread of a cancer on the body of the earth.”

Garrett Hardin would say any form of voluntary restraint from plundering this new common would prove ineffective in a world run by imperfect humans, so another – proverbial – philosophy is proposed. The Chinese saying “give a man a fish and he eats for a day, teach a man to fish and he eats for the rest of his life” is the approach taken by the Ford and Rockefellar foundations. In the “Green Revolution” these programs have led to the development of “miracle rice” and “miracle wheat,” new strains that offer bigger harvests and resistance to crop damage to help feed the 15 million new Indians born each year and foreign-aid could mean 1.2 billion Indians within 28 years, each of which puts an additional burden on the environment. But here we’re just giving the growing populations the tools to sustain their growth, tools that ironically mean economic furtherance to us and environmental exhaustion on the planet. It appears that there’s now no eloquent way to say it: there needs to be less people on the planet, not just a leveling off of what we have now.

It’s a distressing reality that we have no choice but to address if we have any intention of creating a more just earth for everyone. However, some like Julian Simon wish to undermine the necessary concern and claim that natural resources are not finite. Simon sees “scarcity” as just another way of saying “increase in cost,” and says that is something is replaceable, then it’s not finite. Unfortunately, it is anthropocentric, economic-based solutions like this that actually do more harm than good. Simon’s lack of any geological, or any scientific evidence does not do his argument any good. And he must be joking about going to the moon for resources. I think the one sentence where he speaks truth is when he says that solar energy is infinite (by human standards), however he quickly ruins his sole logical thought in saying that this then means that the energy within fossil fuels (derived from plants that harnessed the sun’s energy) is thereby infinite as well. It just doesn’t work like that.

So what do we do? I believe that an anthropocentric approach, like free-market environmentalism, cannot be the answer (let alone an acceptable school of environmental thought at that). It focuses too much on one species rather than looking at the big picture in the way that all of the life on earth functions in unison with each other. I agree with Malthus in that if something isn’t done soon, then the famine will come later. Without trying to be a fear-monger, it seems that without a proactive approach to solving the population crisis we’re just delaying whatever stabilizing force nature has in store anyway. It appears that overpopulation is more than half the problem of environmental crisis. Education, especially among women, brings population sizes down. Contraception is obviously necessary. Vertical farming needs to be pursued far more than just as a concept. It is a nasty and unfortunate “mixture of poverty, entrenched patriarchal attitudes, ignorance, passivity, prejudice, shame, and institutionalized barriers, sometimes expressive of cultural and religious ideologies, that is at the root of population excess in many poor nations,” so undoing that will mean a more “natural” form of depopulating.

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Everything Comes with a Price

Day 16 Blog Post

We have seen what a non-anthropocentric approach to environmental policy looks like with Leopold’s land ethic. His polar opposite comes in the form of William Baxter’s “anthropocentric libertarian free-market environmentalism,” which is a long way of saying that we humans should do what we want as long as we’re fulfilling what we want. If protecting the planet is what we desire, then we should pursue it, but only because it is what we, as members of the species of homo sapiens, want. He starkly claims that his “criteria are oriented to people, not penguins,” and that, “Damage to penguins, or sugar pines, or geological marvels is, without more, simply irrelevant.” At least he’s honest.

Baxter is very blunt about his argument. He says that nature cannot communicate its wants and needs to us, it is “ammoral,” and it has no moral consciousness; thus the principles of his libertarian free-market approach is basically the whim of the selfish needs of the human race, and maximizing our consumer demands as efficiently as possible. In this view, moral standing can only be given to conscious, rational humans; whom are also the only inhabiters of the moral community in his view. An environmental policy based solely on economic grounds requires well-defined property rights that allow decisions to be made about the use of property as well as evaluation of trade-offs with competing ends. Other than his placement of selfishness on a pedestal, Baxter’s lunacy also takes form in his belief that “ought” questions are meaningless when applied to nature because of its said lack of moral standing. Seeing as how all life is intertwined, this poses a problem.

Economic reasoning is extremely influential on policy making due to its practical, realistic, and precise formal approach. But the main defense of the market mechanism as a major player in policy making is its appeal to efficiency. Before the first thoughts of regulation, this typically anthropocentric view has lead people and governments to wreak havoc on the natural environment. If an industrial waste killed off an entire species in a forest, is it a pollutant? Traditional anthropocentric policy would have said no, as no humans would be in concern. Many economists often insist that they’re impotent to say whether the rules are “good” or “right,” and that to put a value judgement on the chips as they fall is a purely emotional response. However, the whole implicit commitment to the value of aggregate human happiness and want satisfaction suggests that evaluative assumptions are integral to economics. So what do we do when economic machines churn out negative externalities like water and air pollution? We can either persuade the people, corporations, and nations to voluntarily stop polluting, coerce them by attaching criminal penalties and/or public standards to polluting, or use a different form of coercion by placing taxes or charges to units of pollution, or require the possession of legal rights to pollute in a cap-and-trade system. The first is usually denied to have much or any effectivity in our society dominated by, ironically, Baxterian selfish corporate forces. The second and third propose a coercion to get people to do the right thing, and imply the cooperative efforts of realizing property rights. However, the talk of property rights is something that needs to be clearly laid out.

What is a property right? The concept of having property in something may be understood to mean having some combination of rights with respect to the thing owned. For example, to have a property right on something can mean having the right to use it, the right to exclude others from using it, the right to transfer the property to someone else (including the right to own it as property), the right to be compensated for its use by others, and even the right to destroy it. Now to claim that something has moral standing is to suggest that it is not subject to be owned in any full-blown sense. What does this imply when we think about how we as a species are depleting the natural resources that we technically share? Garrett Hardin’s famous essay Tragedy of the Commons challenges our treatment of the commons along these lines.

The Tragedy of the Commons claims that valuable natural resources are held in common, and that unrestrained access to the commons often leads to overuse and exploitation, proving destructive to all of us as a people. Privatization is discouraged because it allows for the use, consumption, and ultimate destruction of the natural resources that happen to be arbitrarily located within a company or nation’s political borders. John Locke saw property as something that you acquire through mixing your labor with the object, allowing it to become yours. But doesn’t the infringement on property rights caused by misuse of the commons deserve rectification? For example, acid rain is a violation of many property rights (private owners do not directly consent to having their foliage poisoned), and has caused a loss of $5 billion a year to Germany’s timber industry.

Hardin even explains why Bentham’s utilitarian principle of the “greatest good for the greatest amount” cannot be realized. Mathematically it’s impossible to maximize for two variables at once, and in maximizing population you must minimize the work calories required to sustain that population. This actually becomes his thesis: the “‘population problem,’ as conventionally conceived, is a member of the class of problems that have no technical solution.” “Population naturally tends to grow exponentially,” and in a finite world this means “the per capita share of the world’s goods must steadily decrease.” It’s pretty simple. A finite world can support only a finite population, so population growth must eventually even off at zero to accommodate for all the energy that goes into supporting the optimum population size. Ecologically this is understood as the carrying capacity, and right now our global population is way above the carrying capacity. When this happens to non-human species, it becomes a game of survival of the fittest in competition for food; however, our society is constructed in a way that would never allow for such hunger games (at least in ours).

Without getting too esoteric, we are nothing more than energy materialized in matter. Unfortunately we don’t produce our own energy like plants, so we need to eat. We derive our energy from other means in the form of work calories obtained from the metabolism of food. This is the amount of energy essential for doing anything above just sustaining life. Currently not all people have access to work calories (enough food to get up and move), which means they get by at the bare minimum. But this isn’t just the case with feeding people. The umbrella problem is the acquisition of energy in general. Our pursuit of coal is not only pollutive, but finite as well. Since the dawn of industrial acquisition of goods from the common, the oceans of the world have suffered under the credence that its “inexhaustible” resources will be there to supply us, and this is simply not true. We’re “fouling our own nest” with sewage, chemicals, and radioactive wastes in our grounds and waters, and noxious and dangerous fumes in the air. We’re adding to the problem without limit, as we’re taking away the common resources needed by everyone. We’re burning the candle of the earth at both ends.

As stated above, Hardin’s central concern is that the freedom to breed is intolerable. In calling attention to the damage that innocent actions by individuals can inflict on the environment, he says that “to couple the concept of the freedom to breed with the belief that everyone born has an equal right to the common is to lock the world into a tragic course of action.” Tragic, he means, in the sense that we are unintentionally causing the problems that will lead to our destruction. Hardin proposed a “mutual coercion mutually agreed upon,” as no perfect system of policy will be tolerable by all. This goes along with our recognition of the necessity of reform. He points out that restrictions on disposal of domestic sewage have widely been accepted in western civilization, but we’re still struggling to close the commons to pollution by automobiles, factories, insecticide, fertilizers, etc. Perhaps because these other pollution methods don’t directly appear as a burden to us as sewage management does (think of which you’d give priority to), and only until the pollution becomes so bad will we make as strong infrastructural commitments to their maintenance.

The way I see it, isn’t the fact that we have gotten to a point in civilization where we need to divide shares of the commons mean that we’re running the planet too fast? We’ve actually gotten to the point where as a species that has evolved with the earth we can now count and predict that we’re in danger of collapse. It would seem so unfathomable, but the reality is that our culture of consumption of resources is being adopted by other people. It would appear that a real golden age of modern humanity can only happen when the growth rate drops to zero – the perfect balance of constant birth and constant death. We need to start thinking with the common good in mind. We biologically cannot afford to deal with any company or nation’s selfishness as Baxter would have. We’ve enjoyed living beyond our means, but now that the rest of the world wants in on our lifestyle, plus the same for their kids, something’s gotta give. The cruise was fun, but now we’re stranded in the middle of the ocean, and there aren’t enough snacks for everyone. The truth here goes beyond one of inconvenience, it’s just scary.

This Radical Old Thing Called the Land Ethic

Day 15 Blog Post

Aldo Leopold was an early 20th century American author, scientist, ecologist, forester, and probably one of the most well-known environmentalists. Leopold was influential in the development of the modern environmental ethics, for having developed his own “land ethic,” and in the movement of wilderness conservation. He held what was for his time a radical view that emphasized biodiversity and ecological health. His journey as one of the leading environmentalists of our time started when he was assigned to hunt predators like wolves and bears because of their cost to agriculture in New Mexico. He noticed that this was wrong to kill certain species within the food chain because of human dependance upon their agronomically motivated destruction, and that our attitude toward the land is in dire need of change.

Aldo Leopold viewed ethics ecologically as a “limitation on freedom of action in the struggle for existence,” and philosophically as a “differentiation of social from antisocial conduct.” In realizing that our relationship to land in this country is strictly economic –  entailing privileges and not obligations to it – we can see where man’s pursuit of a fatter wallet will take him if he continues on this road of ecological destruction. The conservation movement was taking root during Leopold’s time, and as the first semblances of some kind of state of harmony between western man and land, he regarded it “as the embryo of the affirmation that the despoliation of land is not only inexpedient but wrong.”

Aldo saw ethics as such: “All ethics rest upon the premise that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts” and that “the land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soil, water, plants, or animals – collectively, the land.” He points out the misconception that although as Americans we have this idea that we love our land, value it, and cherish it as the sustenance we obtain from it for our livelihood in a country built upon the “American dream,” we are obliviously incorrect. Just what and whom do we love?

“Certainly not the soil, which we are sending helter-skelter downriver. Certainly not the waters, which we assume have no function except to turn turbines, float barges, and carry off sewage. Certainly not the plants, of which we exterminate whole communicates without batting an eye. Certainly not the animals, of which we have already extirpated many of the largest and most beautiful species.”

He proposes that “a land ethic of course cannot prevent the alteration, management, and use of these ‘resources,’ but it does affirm their right to continued existence…in a natural state.” And he warned that at this time of America’s booming growth, the people’s assurance that the land would “drip milk and honey” into the mouths of whomever used its endless bounty was inverse to the degree of the people’s education about the land. The problem is with our socialization. Back then, people were brought up under the notion of this “milk and honey” idea that proved to be only a short lived fantasy. Farmers were taught to do only what saves his soil, because his soil makes him money. Leopold criticized that man was too timid and too anxious for quick success to realize the true magnitude of his artificial obligations to the dollar.

Further, what’s funny about our “appreciation” for this bounty of endless land (up until the Pacific Ocean) is that we couldn’t acknowledge the role the land played in probably most human successes. Throughout our continued human struggle and preoccupied with human affairs, Leopold asks us to recognize that not all of our triumphs, in the multitude of wars that have been waged and structural and economic endeavors that we remember as beacons of human ingenuity, we all made possible or (in our great failures) impossible by our correct relationship with the land. The horrible 1930’s dustbowl is one relevant case.

The land ethic relies on the guidance of the land pyramid as a model for ecosystems. It shows the distribution of quantities of different species in the various trophic levels all balanced in a system that has evolved to be highly organized. In a most basic description, it’s broken down into the two groups: the autotrophic organisms are the plants at the bottom, sustaining themselves from the sun’s energy, and the heterotrophic organisms that derive their energy from eating other living things.

Energy moves up through the pyramid, from the sun to the autotrophic flora, from them to the heterotrophic herbivores, and from them to the carnivores and omnivores in a delicate cyclical system.

As Leopold saw it, land is not merely soil but a “fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants, and animals.” The world-wide disorganization in land use would be similar to a disease, a human plague, upon the sore earth; and depending on the flexibility of the ecosystem affected, it will recover, but will will yield reduced levels of complexity (biodiversity) and carrying capacities of life in its wake. Leopold suggested that if the “private land owner were ecologically minded, he would be proud to be the custodian of a land that adds biodiversity and beauty to his farm.” And since Leopold thought it impossible for government to handle all land management, he saw the only visible remedy to be ethical obligation on the part of the private land owner. What more can be done to foster this sense of belonging and obligation to the land? Leopold said we can only be ethical to something we see, feel, love, understand, or otherwise have faith in. The most practical and hopeful is education. Teaching kids from an early age to respect the land and to garner appreciation for everything outside has been effective, at least for me I like to think, in forming a generation of ecologically minded people.

All ethical theories have a principle at their base from which they make their case. The primary principle for Aldo Leopold’s land ethic was respect for the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. We need to stop seeing ourselves as “conqueror” and more as “citizen and member” of the land community. He believes the conservation movement was “paved with good intentions,” but would prove futile because it is devoid of a critical understanding of the land. He makes a good case in claiming that “the most serious obstacle impeding the evolution of land ethic is the fact that our educational and economic system is headed away from, not toward, an intense consciousness of the land.” We must stop looking at the land as just “the space between cities on which crops grow,” for this is something that has been within our environmental psychology since the creepings of urban and suburban sprawl. The land ethic’s criterion of moral standing as being a member of the land community leaves virtually nothing as a resource to be pillaged for arbitrary economic needs. Some may find this as a little too restrictive, or even “eco-fascist.” But it’s this level of necessity that we must acknowledge in order to start making the right choices.

An application of Leopold’s land ethic in its entirety may not be the complete answer, but its the exact direction we need to start looking toward to get anything important accomplished.

The Seeds of Environmentalism

Day 14 Blog Post

As responsible as we are in the production and continuation of polluting the earth with greenhouse gases and industrial waste, the environmental movement actually got its roots here in the 1960’s. Senator Gaylord Nelson gained national recognition for his nation-wide “teach in,” in which teachers across the country used April 22, 1964 to educate and spread the word about the atrocities inflicted upon the planet by industrial societies. This day would go on to become Earth Day. By the 1970’s, environmentalism consisted of many concerns. It was a philosophy that identifies wild landscapes with wholeness and aesthetic beauty, and asserts that such landscapes, along with their plant and animal species, possess an inherent value beyond any economic value. It called for the legal protection of environments and species to prevent them from being absorbed into the industrial economy. It held the conviction that industrial societies, in their present form, are incompatible with natural systems and that human process lies in the increasing knowledge and understanding of how best to live as members of plant and animal communities. It was a critique of excessive consumption, overpopulation, pollution, and destructive technology, such as nuclear weapons and chemical pesticides. It wanted the extension of human rights to include the right to clean and healthful homes and neighborhoods.

This laundry list of demands emerged out of a country of people who were starting to see the settling consequences of industrial economic “progress” (more like fallout) after the post-war era of increased industrial manufacturing and growth. The Green Movement was starting to gain headway during this time. It was defining itself as a group of people with the desire for pure food (as opposed to food produced by industrial agriculture), for pedestrian spaces (as opposed to highways and cities built around automobiles), for renewable energy sources (as opposed to petroleum and nuclear power, both of which depend on large, centralized industrial systems), and for a decentralized society in general that would result in a larger sphere for personal expression. The movement would find supporters in a variety of demographics, including housewives who were becoming concerned about the dangers of the pesticides they were using in their gardens, or Theodore Seuss Geisel – Dr. Seuss – who made his contribution with the book “The Lorax;” spreading environmental awareness to children.

Environmentalism can find its roots in a number of romanticist writers, artists, and poets; the foremost being Aldo Leopold. In his essay “Thinking Like a Mountain” (1949) he describes the central epiphany of his career and a defining moment in environmental thought. He says that “only the mountain is old enough to listen objectively to the howl of the wolf,” meaning that rather than place ourselves on top of the food chain, superior to even the wolf with our guns and technology, it is foolish to try to pit ourselves against this thing called nature for any gain to ourselves.

“We reached the old wolf in time to watch the fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes – something known only to her and to the mountain…. I thought that fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing that green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”

Aldo Leopold also invented the land ethic, which changes the idea of the role of homo sapiens from conqueror of the land community to plain member and citizen of it. This was a radical new way of thinking of the human race’s position on the earth in the contemporary western culture. But just why is it so radical? The answer is in our cultural perspective, born of our western religious roots…

As a nation that can’t seem to separate itself entirely from Christianity, we must peer into what Christian doctrine has to say about the environment. When speaking of Christianity it’s important to distinguish between the historical institution of the Christian church and the logical implications of its doctrine, especially those found in its sacred writings. Historian Lynn White blames Christianity for the part is has played in fostering an attitude of arrogance toward nature in his 1967 essay “The Historic Roots of Our Ecological Crisis.” He claims we need to reject the Christian axiom that nature has no reason for existence other than to serve man – the most dogmatic sense of anthropocentrism. It’s true that in the way biblical texts have been interpreted in the growing democratic culture aided by the fruits of science and technology, we have landed ourselves in a downward spiraling ecological crisis by serving the ends of only ourselves without repercussion, but that’s obvious.

But not all religions took such a contemptuous stance against nature. The earliest civilizations were animistic, meaning that they saw divinity in nature and natural objects and entities. Eastern cultures like Japanese shintoism, Chinese daoisn, and Buddhism all believed that nature had spirits within its entities like the water and mountains. The Egyptians had one of the most complex societies and worshiped their gods in nature. The Greco-Roman cultures had multiple gods and each resided within nature, like Zeus in the lightning, Diana in the moon, etc. Everything changed when the idea of divinity was contained to one god. Judaism was the first major monotheistic religion, which held that god transcended nature. This idea puts god outside the physical realm and leaves us, our world, and all of nature subsequently beneath god; and Christianity and Islam would follow suit. It can be said that Christianity destroyed animism for the west, as well as many forests. In biblical thought, “man shares god’s transcendence of nature,” and spirit on earth was thought to belong to humans only. The whole story of creation, and how god gave man “dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” This word dominion has been nature’s nightmare. It’s just too aggressive and people have been using it as a justification for the blank check we’ve been taking out at nature’s expense for too long. It’s also caused a deep cultural conception of nature as evil, as outside of god’s light, as a place where the devil resides. Just look back to any original fairy tale, or the northern European memories of telling tales of the (German) “dark forests,” and witches and goblins who make their home among the not-so-human-friendly beasts that dwell in the dark. However, a common charge against this claims that “man’s dominion” is not arbitrary rule over the earth but rather stewardship of our fellow creatures for which man is responsible. Lynn White says that the very problem is in the very openness of biblical scripture to interpretation that has allowed such atrocities of numerous other scales, and that unless people find a new religion they’re going to have to rethink the old ones.

The stewardship interpretation says that since the earth is god’s property, and in our rental of his home it’s our responsibility to take of it and, basically, not trash it. Judaism also maintains a certain amount of stewardship from religious law, such as to keep kosher in jiving with the principle of prohibiting pain to animals. However, the religious notion that humans are at the summit of creation implies a hierarchy of importance, not a biocentric egalitarianism. Then some say that stewardship is difficult to justify religiously because the earth doesn’t depend on humanity as much as we depend on it. Theologian Sallie McFague’s model of the world being “god’s body” urges us to value nature for its own sake, and blends religious thought comfortably with evolutionary theory. Another theologian Jay McDaniel claims that for a biocentric Christianity, god must be conceived as loving all creatures on their own terms and for their own sakes. In any search for “environmental wisdom” one must look at those who live closer to the earth, those who walk through the trees and live in nature and not just watch it on TV. One such Christian example was St. Francis of Assisi, who hailed from the Middle Age mysticism in which people believed the mystery of god was manifested in nature – nature is “god’s art.” He would hold conversations with wolves that threatened livestock and held court with the trees. Pope John Paul II held St. Francis as the patron saint of animals, and the Franciscan monks are mystic in practice. This was the same pre-Christian paganism that gives us Halloween and fanciful European tales of gods, nature spirits, and fairies. This kind of ancient mysticism was prevalent after the fall of Rome, before Christianity filled its place, when people lived in and learned from nature and worshiped a kind of maternal giver of life on earth. We know these people in our cultural memory as witches and wizards, but you could also call them the original ecofeminists.

Today, we call these people “primitive,” and that says something about us. We see ourselves as having this artificially elevated moral standing out of these other “primitive” people. Traditional Ecological Knowledge challenges this. This is the “cumulative body of knowledge, practice, and belief, evolving by adaptive processes and handed down through generations by cultural transmission, and it concerns the relationship of living beings with one another and with their environment.” It’s Pocahontas vs. John Smith, and it hasn’t been as embraced as it should be by western (anthropocentrically guided) science. Cosmologically, it contains the idea of a person-like Being who created and sustains the world for all life, and we could learn from this. Even though we’ve only been around for about 1% of geologic time, we have this western view of human beings as the end all, or masterpiece, of creation (as well as what we deserve on this throne we have given ourselves) might be wrong given the current scientific thoughts on evolution, and is a culturally rooted perspective that we need to get over.

In constructing an environmental ethic, Anthony Weston says we need to develop an appropriate attitude toward the earth. “We need to think of the earth as a complex system with its own dignity more intricate than we can understand.” And here come the evaluative frameworks of anthropocentric utility-value and non-anthropocentric intrinsic-value ascribed to nature. There are movements that develop an attitude toward our treatment of nature, conservation and preservation. The conservation movement has scientific roots and emphasized wise management of recourses over long periods of time under the principle that nature is here to be used by people, spawning from a society of worried industrialism. It is anthropocentric in belief and has had leaders like Gifford Pinchot and Teddy Roosevelt. When Pinchot became head of the U.S. Forest Service under Roosevelt, he said “The object of our forest policy is not to preserve the forests because they are beautiful…or because they are refuges for the wild creatures of the wilderness…but…the making of prosperous homes,” and that “land is to be subdued and controlled for the service of the people, its rightful masters, owned by the many and not by the few.” The other movement was preservationism. This was heralded by John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, Aldo Leopold, and J. Baird Callicott. This idea is born from the New England romantics with help from the paintings and writings of Thoreau and Emmerson who saw newfound beauty in natural landscapes, and is all the reason why we should preserve nature. The aesthetic and spiritual component of nature was tied into the sublime, the complex idea that when seeing a natural beauty like a mountain range or gazing out at the sea, one is filled with such incomprehensible fear of the imminent power of nature that one’s fear is replaced by intense respect for it; thus sanctioning the holiness that Muir found in nature. Callicott even went so far as to advocate that trees and streams should be able to sue in court.

Casper David Friedrich’s “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog”

In September 2008 Ecuador became the first country to give constitutional rights to nature, reflecting the beliefs and traditions of the indigenous peoples, and taking environmental protection to a whole new level. The constitution now declares that nature “has the right to exist, persist, maintain, and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions, and its processes in evolution.” Spanish parliament has already extended human rights to apes. Imagine that kind of initiation taken by our own country? I don’t see it happening for at least another ten years, possibly more. Instead, we’re more like leaders in ecological ignorance. It’s saddening to think that there are actually people out there like this who exist among us. I went to Barcelona recently and noticed that they, along with most of Europe, are on top of their environmental game. Their waste management system is blatantly simple and encouraged. They also charge people for plastic bags at stores, so bringing your own renewable bag is institutionalized in the economy. This very interesting youtube video documents humanity’s cognitive progression through time, and there’s definitely something to be said from it. Our human journey is really just beginning. We got it right when we were young, but we lost our way. Here’s to us finding the path toward peaceful coexistence with all life on earth.

Money or Leaves, Which is Greener?

Day 13 Blog Post

In today’s day and age the need for sustainable environmental policy is invaluable. The problem is we need to agree on a political, and thus value, method that encompasses the widest range of interests, while also being reasonable to the ecological conditions that we face. What this means is that some toes will get stepped on.

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment assessed the consequences of ecosystem change for human well-being. From 2001 to 2005, the MA involved the work of more than 1,360 experts worldwide. Their findings provide a state-of-the-art scientific appraisal of the condition and trends in the world’s ecosystems and the services they provide, as well as the scientific basis for action to conserve and use them sustainably.The MA planed to use valuation as a tool that enhances the ability of decison-makers to evaluate trade-offs between alternative ecosystem management regimes and courses of social actions that alter the use of ecosystems and the services they provide. This usually requires assessing the change in the mix of services provided by an ecosystem resulting from a given change in its management.

The importance or “value” of ecosystems is viewed and expressed differently by different disciplines, cultural conceptions, philosophical views, and schools of thought. There are four major frameworks for evaluating ecosystem goods and services.

One is ecological value, which is based on what the natural sciences tell us and takes an anthropocentrically neutral stance. Ecosystems have value because they maintain life on earth and the services needed to satisfy human material and nonmaterial needs. A source of value has been articulated by natural scientists in reference to casual relationships between parts of a system, for example “the value of a particular tree species to control erosion or the value of one species to the survival of another species or of an entire ecosystem.” Globally, different ecosystems and their species play different roles in the maintenance of essential life support processes, such as energy conversion (photosynthesis in plants to give us oxygen), biogeochemical cycling (nitrogen fixation for planting and agriculture), and evolution (we’re here because of it). Indicators of ecological value are species diversity, rarity, ecosystem integrity (health), and resilience. This makes ecological valuation probably the easiest form of valuation because all these things can be empirically studied, measured, and proven.

The economic utility-based value is a form of economic anthropocentrism that looks to quantify nature, and thinks that knowing how to treat nature will be easier if we put a price on it. It is entirely utilitarian in theory and is based on the fact that human beings derive utility from ecosystem services either directly or indirectly. Two aspects are stressed. One, such a utilitarian approach bases its notion of value on attempts to measure the specific usefulness that individual members of society derive from a given service, and then aggregates across all individuals, usually weighing them all equally. The other is that utility cannot be measured directly, and therefore looks to measure all services in conveniently well recognized monetary terms. Motivations for our use of the economic valuation of ecosystems is to assess the overall contribution of ecosystems to social and economic well-being, to understand how and why economic actors use ecosystems the way they do,  and to assess the relative impact of alternative actions so as to help guide decision-making.

The problem is that many ecosystem services, like enjoying forests, boating on the seas, and climbing mountains, are not traded, and hence their values are not captured in the conventional system of national accounts as part of total income. These tend to be underpriced or not priced at all, leading to the inefficient and often unsustainable use of resources. This is why the utilitarian says valuation can help establish ecosystem values that allow correction of a country’s national accounts, also known as “greening;” and thus help reveal policy and institutional failures and benefits, as well as creating markets or improving incentives. But the Millennium Assessment plans to use valuation primarily for the rationale of assessing the impacts (gains and losses) of alternative ecosystem management regimes. The concept of total economic value (TEV) is used here to refer to the value of ecosystem goods and services that are used by humans for consumption or production. The TEV is separated into use and non-use values. The use value we derive economically is composed of direct use values (consumptive uses like harvesting food products, timber for fuel or construction and nonconsumptive uses like recreational and cultural amenities like watersports) and indirect use values, which would be inputs for production of final goods and services, like water, soil nutrients, and pollination, and other services like water purifications. There are also option values, which posit that many ecosystems services when not being used still hold value for preserving the option to use such services in the future, and so provisioning and regulation ensue. Then there are the non-use values, also known as existence value or conservation value. Although the utilitarian paradigm has no notion of intrinsic value, humans do ascribe value to knowing that a resource exists, even if they never use that resource, and many people do believe that ecosystems have intrinsic value. This is where there is partial overlap between the valuations. However, quantifying the biophysical relationships of the ecosystem is never simple and requires quantifying a chain of causality, which then requires collaboration between experts of various fields.

There is the sociocultural value of nature, which makes up a large gray area that mixes culturally anthropocentric values with non-anthropocentric values. It is important to realize that ecosystems are valued outside of their contribution to human well-being. It’s also important to keep in mind that some ecosystems are closely associated with historical, national, ethical, religious, and spiritual values. Think of the ethical importance of the rain forests of South America, the misty mountains of China, the bald-headed eagle of America. These things provide cultural services in their collective welfare of their societies. Even though the mentioned examples all serve anthropocentric ends (people are the ones who care about these things), it can be said that these ecosystems, landforms, and animals are also important in themselves – and that’s where the gray area between utilitarian and intrinsic value exists. It is proposed that the valuation of ecological goods and services should therefore result from a process of open public deliberation, and not from the aggregation of separately measured individual preferences, creating a deliberative or “group” contingent valuation process and uses hypothetical models and payment vehicles. However, I personally think that education on the importance of the ecosystems would be necessary before such heavy decision-making is put in the public’s hands. Regardless of whom the ecosystems in question are important to, these principles demonstrate how anthropocentric and non-anthropocentric values toward the environment are both important and mandate its protection.

And then there’s the intrinsic value of nature, which is non-anthropocentric and uses moral extentionism to see non-human beings and entities as valuable in their own right. The notion of nature’s intrinsic value is familiar to many of humanity’s oldest religions and cultures, but not so familiar to our modern rational choice society, which is based largely on economic valuation. It can be seen in the indigenous North and South American, African, and Australian cultural world views as well as in major religions of older European peoples, Middle East, and Asia. In some Native American worldviews, humans are on equal footing with animals and plants, born from the Mother Earth and Father Sky – we are related to these other aspects of nature and thus we all have intrinsic value. The presence of the Brahman – the essential oneness of all being that exists at the core of all natural things – is an example of the intrinsic value of nature in Hinduism. The moral imperative of ahimsa or “non-injury” that the Buddhist tradition extends to all living things is another example of intrinsic value expressed in these cultures.

It is important for decision-makers to assess empirically the actual ecosystem-oriented values – intrinsic, sociocultural, and ecological, as well as utilitarian – of those affected by ecosystem-oriented policy and decision. It’s interesting to note the two main traditions of modern secular ethics in western culture are counter opposites of each other. Utilitarianism, whose principle is the aggregate “happiness” or greater balance of pleasure over pain, and Kantianism, whose principle is to further the ends of humanity, but to also keep in mind that anything that is beyond a price has dignity. Being that human rights are principled on dignity and intrinsic value, many non-anthropocentric ethical theorists have adopted the intrinsic value paradigm. The principles of the differing worldviews, traditions, and religions are the cruxes of where they oppose each other. Aldo Leopold, creator of the land ethic, thought that everything deserving of human “love and respect” has intrinsic value, especially “biotic communities.” In Judeo-Christian thinking, people have intrinsic value on the principle that they were created in god’s image, and this perception of the difference between us (humans) and them (wilderness) is what has caused all of our cultural conceptions to date, as well as attributing the highest amount of intrinsic value to human life.

In modern democratic societies, we ascribe value through the parliament or legislature. It is only relatively recently that we started to ascribe intrinsic value to nature. The U.S. Endangered Species Act of 1973 gave absolute legal protection to listed endangered species, thereby giving them dignity comparable to the dignity that is accorded human life. Another bit of progress in undoing our tradition of selfish speciesism is the safe minimum standard (SMS), which is the economic equivalent of socially recognizing intrinsic value and subsequent protection. The SMS approach starts with a presumption that “the maintenance of the healthy functioning of any ecosystem is a positive good.” The rule is to maintain the ecosystem unless the opportunity costs of doing so are “intolerably high,” requiring burden of proof. The quantitative threshold to which the opportunity cost must rise to warrant violating the SMS is left as an open empirical question, allowing for the ever-beneficial furthering of scientific exploration and knowledge about the environments in which we inhabit so that we may intelligently protect everything in them.

Thoughts? The Millennium Assessment focuses heavily on the economic valuation of ecosystem goods and services, and probably because we inhabit a world where that’s the paradigm we’re in. It claims the purpose of economic valuation is to make the disparate services provided by ecosystems comparable to each other, using a common metric. But this is very difficult both conceptually and empirically. In the end, it’s great that considerable thought is going into the protection of ecosystem goods and services, for whatever justification, and if we can bring about a better looking planet from all of this thought and regulation, then perhaps we’ll realize what justification reigns supreme.

Structuring Ethical Reasoning Analysis

Day 11 Blog Post

In evaluating whether the question of ethics or morality is really relevant for dealing with environmental problems, policy solutions, and motivating the public to act, the three-step method for analyzing ethical reasoning is applied. The method deals with not only ethical “ought” or “value” statements about the environment, but also incorporates “is” or “fact” statements from the natural sciences, social, political, and economic “policy” statements, from the social sciences, and “design policies” from design disciplines like architecture and urban planning. It is the combination of the empirical and ethical statements and evaluations that makes decision making more whole and beneficial.

Step 1: Figuring out what the author or theory is saying

Step 2: Applying the author or theory to a case study

Step 3: Critically evaluating the author or theory

Terms for Step 1

The “criterion of moral standing” is a characteristic or standard that the theory in question thinks beings have to have or meet if we are to acknowledge “moral standing” or “intrinsic moral value” in them, regard them as members of the “moral community,” and see them as  directly owed the ethical protections and duties of respect that are entailed in the theory’s ethical principle, values, and rules/policies. A common criterion of moral standing is sentience – the ability to use the senses, feel happiness/pleasure. The criterion of moral standing is defined by what the theory’s ethical principle focuses on as important. For example, in the utilitarian ethical theory, the principle is “greatest happiness/pleasure for the greatest number of people,” and in Kantian ethical theory the principle is “the furthering of humanity.”

Moral standing is the status of a being whose existence, well-being, and interests are something to which we have duties of respect. A form of moral standing is saying the being is “an end in itself” or to say the being “has intrinsic moral value,” which would be the Kantian version.

The moral community is the community of those beings with moral standing. Examples of plausible moral communities are all human beings, all rational beings, all sentient beings, or all living beings.

Moral agents are beings with moral standing, in the moral community, and are capable of being conscious or moral duties to others, reflecting on them, and consciously carrying out moral actions. People are the most obvious moral agents.

Moral patients are beings with moral standing, in the moral community, and are owed ethical duties; however, they don’t need to be capable of carrying out moral actions themselves. Infants are obvious moral patients because they are owed ethical duties to be cared for, but don’t carry out moral actions. Other possible moral patients could be, depending on who’s giving them moral standing, plants, mountains, or entire ecosystems.

Resources are entities without moral standing and thus not in the moral community. They are used as an instrumental means for the ends of those beings with moral standing.

“Duties to” something are direct duties owed to members of the moral community. “Duties regarding” something are indirect duties to the resources that others own. Since resources don’t have moral standing, we only have indirect duties regarding them. This distinction is primarily employed by anthropocentric theories. The concept of duties is central to Kantian theory. His principle was to further the ends of humanity (anthropocentric), but he proposed that although we don’t have any direct duties toward the environment or animals, we should refrain from doing whatever we want to them because our indifference to seeing suffering on the part of the environment or animals could spill over to our feelings toward people, so our respect toward anything non-human is indirectly respecting humanity in the end.

Moral relevancy is any consideration used to determine what our particular duties to another might be.

Moral irrelevancy is any basic moral consideration that does not correspond to what the ethical principle should focus on as “relevant.”

Discrimination is denying a being of moral standing and basic forms of ethical respect like life, freedom, equality of treatment, on the basis of a morally irrelevant and thus arbitrary consideration like race, gender, religion, nationality, etc.

The “-isms” are pervasive forms of such discrimination, such as racism, sexism, ethnocentrism, ageism, etc.

Anthropocentrism, or humanism, is the view that only human beings have moral standing, and that all nonhuman nature is in one way or another simply a resource or ‘means” for human beings. Most common view in traditional ethical theories (utilitarianism, natural law, etc).

Speciesism is the non-anthropocentric denial of the acknowledgement of moral standing and respect to the nonhuman on the basis of the morally irrelevant criterion and principle of species membership (being a rational homo sapien).

Moral extentionism refers to the progressive historical extension of the acknowledged principle of ethics, criterion of moral standing, and boundaries of the moral community so as to include those who have traditionally been excluded with the status of means/resources/slaves/marginalized second-class citizens. Non-anthropocentric ethical theories want to push this extentionism so that the moral community includes more than just human beings in varying degrees. For example, increase the boundary of the moral community to nonhuman animals (animal rights), all living things (biocentrism), everything including the inanimate (holism). For the most part, moral extentionism wants to eliminate the criterion of reason as a means of entry to the moral community.

Moral egalitarianism is the view that human members and non-human members of the moral community have equal moral standing and equal moral rights, like the right to life. The right to life of a human is not of less or more value than that of a nonhuman.

Moral hierarchy is the opposite of moral egalitarianism in that it sees nonhuman members of the moral community as having less moral standing than humans and their rights are less weighty than those of humans. Traditionally is has been easier to see human interests overriding nonhuman interests.

Step 2

Ethical conflicts over goods, values, rules, policies, stakeholder groups, and judgements have “trade offs,” “opportunity costs,” and “cost/benefit analysis.” The principle of the applied theory is used as a weighing mechanism to rank the conflicting set of goods and duties on each side.

Step 3

Just like in critically evaluating the best scientific theory, the best ethical theory is the one that is superior to all its competitors in a number of relevant respects. Any ethical theory consists of a set of claims thought to be belief-worthy. One criterion of assessment for an ethical theory is simply whether its empirical assumptions are plausible. If a normative theory presupposes empirically false assumptions, that seems sufficient treason to reject it.   Then, a set of claims is said to be logically consistent if and only if they can all be true. The comprehensiveness of scope is also important; you want an ethical theory that provides guidance over a greater range of decision making without being too vague. Another criterion is the compatibility of the combined moral theory with suitable empirical assumptions to our deepest, pretheoretical moral convictions – unless the moral conviction is rooted in cultural indoctrination and rationally suspect. Overall, the most acceptable moral outlook will be one that is clear, sufficiently precise, comprehensive, logically consistent, compatible with the best scientific theories and results, and compatible with our deepest and most prejudice-free moral convictions.

Sharing Is Caring

Day 12 Blog Post

Given the current conditions of the environment and how everything from rainforest health to economic policy is so tangled together, it is difficult to determine a course of action that is beneficial for everyone. But such is the struggle of humanity throughout the ages of our existence. How do we organize a world that’s fair for everyone? Justice for people and the environment? Is justice for the environment not a culmination of justice for all living things and the systems in which they function? How do we satisfy everyone’s livelihood? All these questions involve the application of ethics. But is ethics or morality relevant in discussing environmental policy? Why not? When the actions of one person, group of people, company, nation, or any entity affect another, the question of ethics will inevitably show up. The study of ethics can be very tricky, and there are so many different ethical theories on how to conduct ourselves. It might even be impossible to use one to satisfy all the planet’s nations and cultures. But something has to be done.

One way to start is with Aristotle’s practical syllogism. This is the use of premises and a consequent conclusion that arises soundly and validly. This is structured as so: general normative/ethical premise (ethical part) + particular factual premise (natural and social part) = conclusion about the particular thing specified in premise 2. The first premise states the ought, or what should be done and the second premise states the empirical fact, or what is known to be true. Here’s an applied example of the formula:

Premise 1: All endangered species ought to be protected.

Premise 2: The northeastern box turtle is endangered.

Conclusion: Therefore, we ought to protect the northeastern box turtle.

One ethical theory is the “two egoisms” and social darwinism. These are psychological egoism, which is the idea that every human act is motivated by self-interest, and ethical egoism, which is the idea that each person ought to act in such a manner as to promote or maximize his or her self-interest. The only difference between the two egoisms is that psychological egoism is the empirical statement that everyone does act in ways that maximize his or her self interest and ethical egoism is saying that everyone should act in his or her self-interest. Both of these egoisms see all actions as inherently selfish to some extent. Social darwinism draws on the normative conclusion of ethical egoism in that it is desirable that only the fittest survive. Social darwinism endorses the view that it is fitting to be indifferent to the interests of other human beings, and presumably the rest of the biosphere, so long as this does not adversely affect one’s own well-being.

The divine command theory considers that whether an act is right or not depends solely on whether god commands it. This theory’s approach to decision making involves the following assumptions: 1) there is a god, 2) god commands and forbids certain acts, 3) an act is right (or permissible) if and only if god commands it, and 4) humans can sometimes ascertain what it is that god commands or forbids. This theory is problematic because it removes scientific fact from reasoning and can be swayed to permit any act “if god commands it,” which can only be ascertained through human (technically rendering the decision anthropocentrically-based) means unless god comes down and says so himself.

The rights theory is one that has been employed by western culture but still a little difficult to universalize. For example, it is important to note the difference between saying “someone has a right” and “an act is right.” There’s also the notion that with rights come duties to uphold those rights. The rights theories all maintain that all beings within a certain more or less “natural” kind have the same rights. But the problem with this view is that rights are generally denied to any non-human, thus the critique of anthropocentrism is large. However, not all humans can have the same rights. Blind people don’t have rights to drive, right? Natural rights are held by human, sentient, rational beings. Also, sometimes rights are taken away in dire circumstances (like war or scenarios between life and death).

Utilitarianism is one of the most famous ethical theories. Proposed by Jeremy Bentham, it claims that we ought to do that which will bring about the greatest balance of pleasure over pain, or utility over disutility. The principle of utility states that the right thing to do is whatever maximizes the total amount of net utility; this is also called the greatest happiness principle. The rightness or wrongness of an act is entirely dependent on the consequences. Utilitarianism demands that the good and bad consequences for everyone affected by an action be taken into account and be given due weight in determining whether the action, among all the alternatives available, will maximize total net utility; implying that it’s not just the agent’s well-being that is significant. Utilitarianism is closely related to the task of cost-benefit analysis. Since the theory goes by maximizing and reducing pleasure and pain, then it applies to all sentient beings, such as people and animals. The term sentient in philosophy refers to any creature capable of experiencing suffering or satisfaction, in whatever forms they may take. Which animals and humans are sentient is an empirical question, there’s a yes or no answer (whether we know the answer is a different story). But utilitarianism isn’t fairness for all, there will always be a minority that will end up suffering for the end result of the benefit for the majority. And it says nothing about non-sentient beings (trees, rivers, natural entities), so technically the utilitarian would approve of (depending on how grand a scale of time one looks at) clearing a rainforest for the economic benefit of many.

Natural law theory goes by the “natural order of things,” and that what is good and right is a direct function of the way things are, in particular the way human beings are (this is based on their natural capacities, tendencies, and desires). That being said, certain norms are found in nature, and so it makes the assumption that the good of humans (and perhaps other creatures as well) is constituted by the realization of these natural strivings or natural tendencies; and the perfection of such capacities in humans constitutes human flourishing.  The natural law is often claimed to be an expression of the divine will and can be ascertained by reasoning. This theory is hard to use because the natural tendencies of all humans is a squishy subject. Human nature is something that’s widely disputed, and what’s “natural” for one person on one side of the earth in a nation and within a certain culture may not be so “natural” for someone on the other side, in another nation, of another culture. Its reliance on the divine will is also problematic. This theory is too reminiscent of Aristotle’s view of the natural hierarchy. Just because someone may make a good slave does not mean it is right for that person to be a slave. To say that the natural end of some species is to serve others has deep implications and has led to historically “immoral” acts and behavior. If this is true, then would the natural function of humans be to live at the top of the food chain and then feed the decomposers that take care of our remains when we die? In the end, this theory relies too much on inferring normative conclusions from empirical premises.

Kant says that one cannot determine the morality of an act solely by assessment of its consequences. Kant’s supreme principle of morality is the categorical imperative, and it has two versions. The first states that one should act only on those maxims of one’s actions that one can, as a rational being, will to be a universal law and obeyed by all moral agents. So, if the question be “is it ok to drive a car out of convenience?” The answer would be no, because allowing all rational people to drive out of mere convenience would cause further environmental disaster, which would not be willed by any rational person (hopefully). The other version is that we would never treat a person/rational autonomous creature as a mere means to an end. Kant’s reliance on the cognitive capacities to judge by fails the animal rights activists. He would see “shooting a dog when it’s no longer useful” as not morally wrong; however he suggests that we not treat animals cruelly because doing so makes a person less likely to care about people too.

The notion of environmental justice is something that has only started to make headway. It’s tricky to employ any of the above stated ethical theories in a discussion that would yield any type of environmental justice in part because environmental justice is something that strives to provide just living conditions for the widest amount of living things ever debated over in western culture (all of them). The major historical foundations we have in the social contract are tempting because it seems so basic to us that just acts arise from consent, but there are some participants who cannot consent. Young children and the severely retarded are just a small example. Many living things being affected by the contracts and consequences of human actions never agreed to such contracts. The ducks who drown in oiled waters, the polar bears who swim to their death looking for sturdy ice, the people who live near dumping grounds for toxic wastes – none of them agreed to such conditions. So, one radical and relatively new Theory of Justice suggested by John Rawls uses the imagined “veil of ignorance” to construct a bargaining situation in which we wouldn’t be aware of our economic class, race, nationality, generation, even personality in order to organize a system in which we would agree to the conditions of the lowest members on the totem pole in the chance that we were that person. This way of thinking encourages justice to future generations, or “intergenerational justice.” Even though Rawls designed this concept anthropologically – “for persons with a sense of justice” – it can easily be applied to design a social and political structure for all sentient creatures. Why not let the veil of ignorance also mask our species?

The idea of a unique environmental ethic is hard to pose, because the already difficult intrahuman conflicts are great enough, and to add non-human interests muddies the ethical waters. But simplicity must not again be bought at the price of reasonableness. Perhaps a movement from the old anthropocentrism to more of a biocentrism, in which all life is given equal moral standing. Boiling ethical theories down to their most basic trade-offs and then weighing them seems like a good idea. But sharing the limited space on a planet that comes with politically cut-up borders, standing traditions, and 6 billion new neighbors is no easy task. A revolution is in order.