The Real Tree-Hugger’s Manifesto

Day 27 Blog Post

Moving on from a look at interspecific justice and interactions between species, we now look at a more stringent approach to an environmental ethic: Paul Taylor’s biocentric ethic, in his The Ethics of Respect for Nature. In this he makes the “biocentric egalitarian” claim that all living things have equal inherent worth in that each living being is a goal-directed system pursuing its own good. He develops a sort of Kantian approach by giving two concepts, one being that “every organism, species population, and community of life has a good of its own which moral agents can intentionally further or damage by their actions,” and that we consider all living beings to have inherent worth. From this, Taylor develops the principles of moral consideration and intrinsic value. The principle of moral consideration holds that “wild living things are deserving of the concern and consideration of all moral agents simply in virtue of their being members of the Earth’s community of life.” The principle of intrinsic value states that, regardless of what kind of entity it is in other respects, if it is a member of the Earth’s community of life, the realization of its good is something intrinsically valuable. Basically, Taylor is expanding the moral community to all things that are alive; and as good as this sounds on paper, it might be one of the most drastic, or hard to actualize, theories that we’ve looked at.

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His biocentric outlook has four main components: 1) humans are thought of as members of the Earth’s community of life, holding that membership on the same terms as apply to all the nonhuman members; 2) the Earth’s natural ecosystems as a totality are seen as a complex web of interconnected elements, with the sound biological functioning of each being dependent on the sound biological functioning of the others; 3) each individual organism is conceived of as a teleological center of life, pursuing its own good in its own way; 4) whether we are concerned with standards of merit or with the concept of inherent worth the claim that humans by their very nature are superior to other species is a groundless claim and, in the light of elements 1 and 2 and 3 above, must be rejected as nothing more than an irrational bias in our own favor.

Callicott comes under fire for his “environmental fascism” that places the benefit of the ecological whole over the ecological individual – sacrificing a couple of deer for the benefit of the community that is avoiding overpopulation. But Taylor is almost the opposite. He differs form Callicott in that his more individualistic rather than holistic approaches total ecosystems as only mattering because individuals find their good within them, but since the entire ecosystem is not driven toward a goal-directed end, it’s consideration is beneath that of the individuals that make it up. This seems somewhat silly to me. I can appreciate what he means in saying that as our understanding of living things increases with the studies of biology and ecology, then so does our interactions with other organisms and empathy for their lives and ends in themselves. But the entire construct of life itself on the planet is based on the symbiotic relationships between living and non-living things. This means that some species use others in mutual ways to the benefit of both. Sometimes it’s more one-sided, as with any animal that eats another, but ecologically sustains the energy system of life.

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I do agree with his denial of human superiority. No where in the natural world are we given privilege over anything else. The privilege we think we have is completely self-constructed, so in theory it doesn’t really count in relation to the way we treat other living things. But I see what Taylor is ultimately saying here. Rather than lower ourselves or lower insects in a hierarchy of ecological importance, we must consider (sounds like Singer’s language) the lives of all living things as equally important. This obviously comes under attack when we think that the picking of a flower is as harmful as killing a person, and ecologically it might be a little too purist to follow through and put into any kind of law. I mean, it’s not like we can photosynthesize for food…

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I personally believe that people like Leopold, Callicott, and Taylor are all etching closer and closer a picture of an environmental ethic that ultimately needs to be a more ecologically-based. An approach that develops a proper ethic of human treatment toward nonhumans is necessary. After all, we are animals, we do not live apart from the planet’s ecosystems. Our own ecological niche must be examined to determine our role on the planet so that we can make ours as smooth a fit as the others.

Keeping it Green in NYC

Day 8 Blog Post

New York City used to have a rich environmental history. Before the Dutch started claiming land away from the Native American tribes that had been inhabiting there for thousands of years, the island of Manhattan (or Mannahatta as it was called by the native tribes) was like a green emerald between the two rivers. It’s interesting for our modern mentalities to learn that the greatest metropolis of today used to be a giant pine forest, with streams running all through the island and marshlands making up most of the downtown area. Teaming with wildlife, like bears, otters, elk, and beavers, the island would have been akin to the greatest of today’s national parks. It’s weird to think that today we need to designate land in special parks for such ecological and wildlife activity to still flourish.

To remind us of the natural ecology and landscape that we so easily forget among the hustle and bustle of modern life, the Wildlife Conservation Society has constructed a cool interactive map called the Mannahatta Project that shows what NYC would have looked like in 1609. Here’s an interesting video explaining the project a little further. Not only is it a testament to our human ingenuity and ability to transform entire islands and landscapes to suit our needs and wants, it’s really interesting to know that under your apartment building was once a stream, or a bear habitat, or even all water. The geological extent of the island of Manhattan is naturally 30% smaller, because the majority of the waterfront (mostly downtown) is completely man-made. The natural history of the city is definitely a fascinating field, and it makes you question the direction we’re going in.

But what’s good about realizing that we have this immense potential to change the face of a landscape is the reverse. That also means we have the potential to change things for the better. In 2007 Mayor Bloomberg announced his PlaNYC idea, “a bold environmental agenda for the city of New York, to make the city a greener place.” PlaNYC calls for improvements that are necessary to meet the needs of our growing population; as well as revamping our aging transportation and infrastructure, and assess new needs from the changing climate and evolving economy. It’s a loaded task that looks to minimize the carbon impacts of existing and future developments while maximizing clean air and water for everyone. NYC ranks 17 out of 25 on a scale of air quality, so a number of traffic congestion initiatives have been implemented to help (such as an increased bridge toll, hybrid fuel buses,  and new green bike paths to cut down on the number of cars in the city). NYC is making great strides in keeping its title as the biggest walking city, with over half of its population not owning a car.

But what about the infrastructural disaster that is the Bronx? New innovations have been taken by groups to restore the ecology of much of what’s left of the Bronx’s green space and natural landscapes. The Bronx River Alliance is working to restore the Bronx River by reducing erosion, bank stabilization, and invasive plant removal. What it’s doing is essentially rebuilding the river to make it inhabitable again. This is aided by georeferencing, or using old maps to show what the landscape used to look like and then layering topography, water systems, and then biology over each other to recreate the naturally occurring landscape. Once life has a foothold in the environment again, then the real healing to the landscape can begin; as biodiversity is the key to any healthy ecosystem. An example of this is building up the shellfish population of the river, because shellfish like oysters and clams are essential to biofiltering the river water, and thus a healthier environment for all the life in the ecosystem. And when the ecosystem is healthier, the wildlife aren’t the only ones who benefit, but the community of people around it benefit as well.

Now what is Fordham doing to create a more green landscape? On their website, Fordham says it “is committed to sustainability as a central consideration in all aspects of its activities including its curriculum, student development and education, faculty and staff involvement, and physical plant operations.” With its main campus located in the Bronx, the university claims it “will endeavor to design, construct and maintain its buildings, infrastructure and grounds in a manner that ensures environmental sustainability. Reaching beyond compliance in areas of environmental concern, Fordham will pursue sustainability best practices in a broad range of areas…” Given the set up of the university, it does have  a pretty green infrastructure. The ram van service that transports students from the Rose Hill and Lincoln Center campuses reduces the students’ need to take other methods of transportation, and each van can hold about 14 people maximum. 23% of the vehicles in Fordham’s fleet are electric. Fordham did sign on to mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC in an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 30% by the year 2017; and since signing on, the university has reduced its overall emissions by 23% since 2005. Another great accomplishment by the university is that all new construction must reach LEED Silver requirements, with two that meet silver standards already and three that meet LEED-EB standards. It would be interesting to find out if the new dorm building at Lincoln Center is LEED certified. Fordham diverts 90 percent of construction and demolition waste from landfills. To conserve water, the university has installed dual-flush toilets, efficient laundry machines, low-flow faucets and showerheads, waterless urinals, and weather-informed irrigation systems. So then why was Fordham given a C+ on its College Sustainability Report Card?

It seems that the weakest grades were given to the shareholder engagement and endowment transparency. The shareholder engagement category examines how colleges conduct shareholder proxy voting. As investors, colleges have an opportunity to actively consider and vote on climate change and other sustainability-related shareholder resolutions. Forming a shareholder responsibility committee to advise the trustees allows schools to include students, faculty, and alumni in research and discussion of important corporate policies on sustainability. What I suppose would be a good way to increase our ratings in this category is to continue our work with the St. Rose’s Garden to promote healthy environmental practices and urban ecology, and publicize the progress to the greater faculty, student, and alumni, and neighborhood communities. The endowment transparency category evaluates the extent to which schools release information about their endowment investment holdings and shareholder proxy voting records. Access to endowment information is useful within a college community to foster dialogue about opportunities for investing in clean energy, and about using proxy votes to encourage responsible corporate practices. I suggest that the university not only, obviously, provide better access to their endowment investments, but also offer more possibilities for green investment. A louder student and faculty voice can move the university to practice more green approaches to college life and community fostering.