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.

care

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.

dog-orangutan

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…

sun person SS

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.

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.