Walking the Line

Day 20 Blog Post

So far it seems that there exists this deep dichotomy between socially opposing views of environmental conduct. It seemed as if one would have to choose between varying levels of either Baxter’s totally anthropocentrically based, free-market economic view that serves the whims of the admittedly greedy human race OR Leopold’s strictly ecocentric Land Ethic that neutralizes all hierarchies of organism dominance, placing human beings on the same level as trees and animals. Split down the middle between two completely opposite, extremist schools of thought. Surely anyone who knew that moderation is key would try to meld benefits of both, but it would seem these two ends of the spectrum can never converse with each other. Maybe that’s true, but Bryan Norton’s environmental ethic proposes something to consider.

In his paper, “Environmental Ethics and Weak Anthropocentrism,” Norton seeks to identify a distinctly environmental ethic. He starts by deducing that a distinctively environmental ethic must take a stance on accepting or rejecting anthropocentrism – the view that only humans are the “loci of fundamental value.” Anthropocentrists mainly believe that anything that is deemed valuable is only so because it contributes to human well-being. Some nonanthropocentrists reverse this by saying that humans are the source of all values, but they can also ascribe value to nonhuman things. This decentralization of human beings as the start and end of anything valuable allows for at least a more flexible reasoning system that an environmental ethic would require.

Since any form of anthropocentrism takes into account human interests, it becomes necessary to illuminate what really are human interests. Norton says there are two types: felt preferences and considered preferences. Felt preferences are human desires or needs that can at least temporarily be sated by some specifiable experience of the individual. A considered preference is any desire or need that a human individual would express after careful deliberation, including a judgement that the desire or need is consistent with a rationally adopted world view. Traditional economic approaches see felt preferences as the basic platform for decision making – how many pizzas does this community want/consume, the usefulness of this forest for the indigenous population or for that company, money. The considered preference has way more thought put into it and can only really be accounted for after an individual has thought of how this particular preference mixes with his or her entire world view – I prefer to use my reusable water container because I know that by doing so I can be only less contributor to an unsustainably open-loop materials system. More thought is put into my “preference.”

Further, there is strong anthropocentrism and weak anthropocentrism. Those who think in terms of strong anthropocentrism make choices based almost completely off felt preferences. Those who have weak anthropocentrism are really making convenience less of a priority and make their choices based on their considered preferences. Logical progression would find that “weak anthropocentrism provides a basis for criticism of value systems that are purely exploitative of nature.” When you weaken the “I want, I use, I need” mentality of strong anthropocentrism, you find that “nature need no longer be seen as a mere satisfier of fixed and often consumptive (in our society) values,” but rather, Norton says, “it also becomes an important source of inspiration in value formation.”

There’s also the difference between individualism and nonindividualism. Basically, nature doesn’t cater to just one type of species. It is unquestionable that we biologically share the earth’s resources with every other living thing. Norton points out that “the satisfaction of individual interests are the basic unit of value for utilitarians, and in this sense, utilitarianism is essentially individualistic.” He clarifies that “no ethical system which is essentially individualistic, regarding less of how broadly the reference category of individuals is construed, can offer ethical guidance concerning current environmental policy in all cases.”I liken this to how the royal families would satisfy their preferences by utilizing all of the resources of the country without sharing it with the rest of French society. Life is not supportable this way, and, eventually, something must give.

Ultimately, “in a post-Darwinian world, one could give rational and scientific support for a world view that includes ideals of living in harmony with nature, but which involve no attributions of intrinsic value to nature.” Leopold wouldn’t like this very much, but I say at least it’s a realistic step in the right direction of attuning people’s relationship more directly toward nature. I think that Leopold’s Land Ethic is great, and in a perfect world it would reign supreme, but we can’t go from zero to 60 that fast. Even though the dawn of environmentalism occurred almost 30 years ago, we’re just witnessing the topic of global warming and climate change in our societies’ presidential speeches. Real progress will take time, and I think Norton’s weak anthropocentric environmental ethic is the best life preserver we can cling to while we continue to mend our policies, attitudes, and overall relationship to the planet.

First World Problems

Day 19 Blog Post

In order to completely understand the crisis of environment degradation and what exactly we are doing to ourselves we need to first step outside of ourselves and take a look at who we are as a nation, as a polity, and as a community of individuals whose values and interests are unfortunately bleak.

When perceived clearly, even the most ardently iconic American businessman cannot deny that the line between citizen and consumer is pretty much nonexistent. It’s almost impossible to say otherwise. But what’s scary is whether or not we care about our new title. In a hypothetical open question to all of America, how do we feel about our citizenship and national duties being boiled down to being good consumers? Can I safely say that I’m really only a good citizen if I keep my wardrobe updated seasonally and replace my goods at the first blemish of outdatedness?

Now layer this concept over the idea that our most direct relationship to anything is to the environment (we walk through it, breath it, eat it, live in it, perceive the world through it)… What happens when efficiency replaces infinity as the central conception of value? What do we really value? Mark Sagoff’s essay “At the Shrine of Our Lady of Fátima, or Why All Political Questions Are Not Economic” concerns with the economic decisions we make about the environment. He points out that the cult of Our Lady of Fátima has only a few devotees, but the cult of Pareto optimality (us) has many devotees. Where some people see only environmental devastation, the devotees of Pareto optimality see efficiency, utility, and maximization of wealth. One man’s trash is another man’s…what exactly?

Not all of us think of ourselves as simply consumers, but see our citizenship as separate from our roles in the market economy; acting as consumers to obtain what we want for ourselves and as citizens to achieve what we think is right for the community. However, the traditional approach to environmental policy that assumes there’s only a problem when some resource isn’t allocated in equitable and efficient ways essentially means that our only values appear to be those that a market can price. Do you value a condo on the beach more than the air you breathe? What about a full tank of gas over the water you drink? If our consumership has taken over our citizenship, that would mean that the things we value most in society are the most costly. Sagoff rhetorically questions “how much did you spend last year to preserve open space?” then, “how much for pizza and gas?” So, are what we want for ourselves consistent with the goals we would set for ourselves collectively as citizens? Are our preferences as a consumer consistent with our judgements as a citizen when you speed on the highway and then vote for laws to lower the speed limit? Or are we all suffering from a theoretical identity crisis, doomed to a life of bipolar values?

In 1977 the Secretary of Labor reduced the amount of benzene – a carcinogen for which no safe threshold is known – allowed to be exposed to workers from 10 to 1 ppm. In 1981 Reagan published Executive Order 12, requiring all administrative agencies and departments to support every new major regulation with a cost benefit analysis, establishing that the benefits of the regulation should outweigh the costs. The American Petroleum Institute challenged the new benzene standard, complaining the benefits to the workers don’t outweigh the costs to the industry. The conflict between environmental and worker safety being treated as a commodity or as a value in its owns sake is a moral one that needs to be debated morally, not economically under cost-benefit analysis. Such a contradiction over moral principles cannot be settled by the arbitrary judge of economics.

Furthermore, making the consumer the priority is to treat the individual as a bundle of preferences and not as an advocate of ideas to help one another. So, to protect only consumer interests is to sacrifice the ideas of the citizen to the psychology of the consumer. In his essay De la Liberté des Anciens Comparee a Celle des Modernes, Benjamin Constant claims that the individual in society is “lost in the dark… [and] rarely perceives the influence that he exercises,” and therefore must be content with “the peaceful enjoyment of private independence.” This unfortunately rings too many bells to the modern audience. The individual asks only to be protected by laws common to all in his pursuit of his own self-interests. But does this not mark a turn in society that shows how we’ve gotten selfish and inadvertently ignorant to the collective needs of the community? Perhaps the mental undercurrents of the anti-environmental politician’s motives are that society has gotten too diverse too fast for any one person to hold the interests of everyone; but to say so would be social blasphemy and, frankly, unacceptable.

The real problem is that we’re so engrossed in our own narrow consumerist worlds, privately feeding our wants, being spoon-fed false necessities by the “infotainment” media, and not realizing our real needs. We’re ultimately fooling ourselves when we put our greed and materialism before our basic values. I have been very much affected by Frankenstorm Sandy, being left without the crutch of electricity, tv, internet, easy travel, and found myself calmly reclaiming what I as a human being truly hold valuable – heat, nutrition, friends and family. We cannot replace the moral function of public law with economic analysis. The antinomianism of cost-benefit analysis is not enough. Real power lies in acting as a nation, together, after realizing what we all really need and what we don’t, and we must be able to act on public philosophy.

Fighting Fire with Fire

Day 18 Blog Post

In the stricter economic circles, recommendations for policy concerning pollution and other environmental problems are known to be unfortunately taken with a good deal of skepticism and perhaps even distrust. This is because, to the economist, the environment is a scarce resource that contributes to human welfare; and the allocation of such scarce resources to essentially unlimited human needs and wants is given top priority. The problem here is that economic policy caters to the preferences of individuals, and has two properties: substitutionability and an absence of limits/wants. The market system will reach economic efficiency if given certain conditions: a) all goods must be capable of being bought and sold in markets, and b) all markets are perfectly competitive. When one connects the dots, it is apparent that these basic economic principles do not fit well to an environmentally healthy outlook. The use of the environment in economics involves trade-offs, and therein lies the ethics of decision-making.

But because there is no market for environmental services, the decentralized decision-making of individuals will result in the misallocation of environmental resources. Such traditional use of environmental services causes unowned or commonly held resources to be overused, some goods (like fossil fuels and clean water) to be used up too quickly or in the wrong ways, and imposes burdens on the people who didn’t consent to pollution in their backyard. And this leads to market failure in the form of, mostly, externalities. An unfortunately popular example of this is when the typical chemical manufacturing plant produces waste that seeps into the groundwater of a nearby town; the people of which clearly didn’t ask for dirty drinking water. This is an example of market failure, and in order to correct it economists can then either establish property rights or use various forms of government regulations, taxes, and subsidies to replicate the incentives and outcomes that a perfectly functioning market would produce. The idea is to bring these externalities back into the playing field of the economy so that they may be properly accounted for.

There are a few ways that economic policy can correct for market failure: environmental quality standards and charging for pollution (cap-and-trade falls within this strategy). Environmental quality standards are legally established minimum levels of cleanliness or maximum levels of pollution that can be the basis for enforcement actions against a polluter whose discharges cause the standard to be violated. However, the environmental quality standard will almost never call for a complete elimination of pollution. In charging for pollution, the government taxes the firm according to how much damage its pollution costs to others. The firm then basically pays taxes equal to the damages caused by their remaining pollutive discharges and the government uses these tax revenues to compensate those who are damaged by the pollution. This method insinuates an economic value of life, which is actually thought to be able to be calculated from information on a person’s trade-off between money and risk. It has even been proposed to discount future generations for our soiling of their world, and this debate is ethically charged as well. In my opinion, this is all reminiscent of the Monsignor’s tossing of a couple of gold coins to the father whose son he had run over with his carriage in A Tale of Two Cities.

Now, if anything is to be done about the treatment of the environment, perhaps an economic approach would be a more effective step in realizing large-scale change. But the stemming problem with the economic machine is that our satisfaction wants are not equal to our welfare. When was the last time you got McDonald’s for its nutritional value?

In Robert Repetto’s essay Earth in the Balance Sheet, he uncovers the frightful disconnect between a country’s account of its wealth and its natural resources. The aim of national income accounting is to provide an informational framework suitable for analyzing the performance of a country’s system. The current “System of National Accounts” (SNA), promoted by the United Nations and in use since the 1930’s Keynesian era – a “historical artifact” as Repetto calls it – focuses on economic concerns that were most relevant back when it was created, such as the business cycle and persistent unemployment. It pays little attention to national resource scarcity.

The SNA gives inconsistent treatment to the consumption of capital goods and natural resources. In other words, it values the existence of buildings and other man-made resources that directly contribute to the economy over natural entities like rivers and forests. The scary part is that the SNA records deforestation, soil erosion, and overfishing as all contributors to income and investment; however, the loss of such natural capital is not recorded in national income and investment. But we know the truth is that no nation can stand without a healthy ecological foundation. This then creates the illusion of income development when, in fact, national wealth is being destroyed. In such a method, economic AND ecological disaster masquerade as progress.

Repetto gives a good case study in the example of the Costa Rican economy and how it serves as a microcosm of all these complex economic factors coalescing in a dangerous downward spiral. Like in many other developing countries, natural resources were the most important economic asset for Costa Rica. The country’s natural resource deterioration is indisputable, but the loss wasn’t reflected in national accounts. Instead, net revenues from overexploiting its forests, soil, fisheries, and water resources were treated by national accounts as factor income. More than 60% of Costa Rica’s territory is only suitable for forests, yet only 40% of the land remains as forests. Even worse is that only 8% of its land is suitable for cattle pasture, but they’ve spread over 35% of the land. Repetto says that had the Costa Rican government constructed balance sheets that included this loss of natural resources they would have been properly accounted for. However, never did the annual accounts of national income, expenditure, savings, and capital information reflect ongoing loss, but rather they showed only continuing growth in national income and a high rate of capital formation… until the economy crashed in the 1980’s. The national accounts gave no warning that the basis for continuing growth was being destroyed because of this disconnect between natural resource depletion and national income.

Repetto recommends that this outdated SNA be revamped with corrective environmental and economic policies that can reverse this disconnect. Policy-makers have this false sense of a dichotomy between having to choose between the economy or the environment (and frequently pushing the latter under the bus to save the former). That needs to be stopped. So, in resource-dependent countries, national accounting systems must be changed so that economic policy-makers don’t make misguided decisions. He proposes closer dialogue between scientists and policy-makers.

I agree with Repetto’s recommendations. Capitalist consumer nations (though mainly ours) weave a self-destructive culture that relies on forgetting about where all our stuff comes from. Until something disastrous occurs, something out of a sci-fi movie that raises important questions (EDIT: HURRICANE SANDY?!), the free market cannot play nicely with the environment, and in today’s world that’s a problem we literally and figuratively cannot afford. Also, rather than try to place a price on the cost of replacing organisms, the cost of replacing biological functions like photosynthesis and nitrogen fixation, “we should acknowledge that certain ecological effects are not commensurable with economic effects measured in dollars.” To me, the answer to our country’s recession problem lies in creating jobs that tend to the environment. With all this talk about creating new jobs, why not create jobs that work toward mending our relationship to the land, finding new energy alternatives, and find ways that allow our capitalistic tendencies to help maintain a healthier environment for everyone?

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.

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.