Green Creed

Day 28 Blog Post

It seems that environmental ethics has a facet in almost every corner of our lives. After all, the ethics of interacting in one’s environment are really the ethics of conduct in every situation known to us, since we cannot escape our environments – both natural and man-made. So, since an environmental ethic is so pervasive, one would ask if it can be related to theology? What does religion say about the environment?

The idea that something something’s life has an end in mind, or lives to serve a purpose, is called its “telos.” Taylor’s biocentric theory that extends moral standing to all living things sees plants as “teleological and perspectival centers of life,” though he didn’t see inanimate natural entities, like oceans and mountains, as having the same kind of telos. E. O. Wilson thought that if you infuse natural science, ecology, and environmental concern into religion, you can help the environmental movement, and thus the world, immensely. Then there’s spirituality, as in the sense of a less institutionalized form of cosmology. The sense of mysticism, beauty, and magic in nature is a sort of theme we’ve seen reoccurring in “Last Child in the Woods” and in E. O. Wilson’s “biophilia” concept; both of which illustrate the natural love we have for nature and the natural world, as well as our wonder in the presence of nature that is shared by all people. But in our modern society it is easy to point anywhere and say that this sense of reverence for the natural, this appreciation for nature’s beauty, is lost in our post-capitalist, resource-hungry world. In the west, we are dealing with the cultural runoff of Descartes’ dualistic notion that man and nature are two separate entities, rather than the concept of nature being all inclusive. Is there no institution that can back up this seemingly newfound love for nature?


Aside from some nature-praising poetry and songs in the Old Testament, it can be argued that much of the world’s oldest religions originally revered what we call “nature.” The Christian idea of stewardship, that man is called to tend to earth and god’s creation as custodians of the divine, is perhaps the most direct relationship we can squeeze out of a religious mentality. The idea that we are a part of nature has historically been more favorable for the secular. In ancient times, secular Greeks like Protagoras said that “man is the measure of all things,” Aristotle created a hierarchy that placed plants and animals beneath man since they “served” him, and this was also the guiding theme of the human-centered thinking of the Renaissance. The following Scientific Revolution would try to promote the idea that only humans have minds, Descartes actually believed that animals were amoral mechanical automata, on top of inventing more math. I really don’t like Descartes.

Lynn White Jr. says that science and technology have fundamentally changed human ways of interacting with nonhuman nature, and that the unity of science (the brain) and technology (the hand) was what actually sewed the seeds that led to the development of democracy. White illuminates how man’s relation to the soil was profoundly changed when the development of the plow lead to the distribution of land being based no longer on the needs of a family but now on the capacity of a power machine to till the earth. “Formerly, man had been part of nature; now he was the exploiter of it.”  The 11th century reclamation of Greek texts that were saved by Islamic scholars led to Latin universities, science and technology, and inventions that allowed for higher standards of living. With the hand of the church becoming the guiding force behind pretty much all areas of life in the medieval times, Christianity would crush paganism and most of the pre-christian western religions and philosophies. The most notable surviving memories we have of those today are Christmas trees (in which we brought “nature” into the home for the holy time of Christ’s maesse), Halloween (where we celebrated the harvest season), and nature-based folklore like fairies and witches, as well as the rebirth of the Wiccan religious movement and various other European cultural traditions that have taken the backseat in our modern societies. Back then, science and religion worked together. But at some point in the 18th century the hypothesis of god became unnecessary to many scientists. Today, White says, “with the population explosion, the carcinoma of planless urbanism, the now geological deposits of sewage and garbage, surely no creature other than man has ever managed to foul its nest in such short order.” “The present disruption of the global environment is the product of a dynamic technology and science which were originating in the western world,” says White, and he opts that we mimic the teachings and styles of St. Francis of Assisi, who conversed with the animals and rebelled against this dichotomy so well. “Hence, we shall continue to have a worsening ecological crisis until we reject the Christian axiom that nature has no reason for existence save to serve man.” Those of us who study ecology and environmental science know this to be certain.


Andrew Linzey is the founder of the Christian vegetarian movement and reminds us that “while god’s love is free, generous, and unlimited, we Christians have been all too good at placing limits on Divine Love.” His more religious discourse asks us to love the world as god does, and that “we must not hate even those who hate animals, those who hate the church, nor those who hate one another,” but rather, “we must love the world or we shall perish with it.” This is a good example of religion and environmentalism working together again.

Robert Gordis offers the promising view that Judaism has on the environment that the “true genius of Judaism has always lain in specifics.” He tackles that whole “dominion” problem in Genesis by saying that “the verb ‘subdue’ was interpreted to relate to the previous statement ‘be fruitful and multiply,’ meaning that the obligation to propagate the human race falls upon the male rather than the female.” He also gives two fundamental Jewish concepts that “shape and direct humankind’s action, thinking, and outlook on their fellow creatures, their environment, and their role on earth.” One is that we must be mindful of “the pain of living creatures,” in a way that is very reminiscent of the Aristotelian virtue ethics in an effort “to spare the feelings of living creatures and inculcate the spirit of mercy in human beings.” It means that one cannot slaughter an ox or sheep together with its offspring on the same day. It’s also where the Jewish people get their kosher practices to reduce the pain of slaughter as much as possible and to not allow the eating of blood because blood is the “seat of life.” The other concept is “do not destroy.” In ancient times one could not destroy a fruit-bearing tree in wartime, and “the recognition that every natural object is an embodiment of the creative power of god and is therefore sacred” meant that, by extension, “whatever has been fashioned by human beings and is the product of their gifts and energies is equally a manifestation of god’s creative power, one step removed, since we are the handiwork of god.” Apart from Buddhism and the Eastern traditions, this is arguably one of the more kind expressions of religious consideration of the natural world that I’ve come to know.


While it is interesting to see how monotheistic religions once had somewhat of an environmental ethic, lost it during the human-centric self-obsession of the Scientific Revolution, and are now being used to psychically combat ecologically destructive forces at work now (alla the National Religious Partnership for the Environment), other world religions have been very green the whole time. In “The Emerging Alliance of Religion and Ecology” lecture by Mary Evelyn Tucker of Yale University, she comments on how we don’t know how to talk about religion as comfortably as we would sometimes like to because “that language has been co-opted by a media who is by-and-large rather uneducated about religion per se, and sees religion within a framework of monotheisms, dancing through their particular claims to truth and their particular fundamentalisms.” This reductio ad absurdam formulation of religion is what makes the American public so dualist and dissecting, that we cannot see the varieties and spectra of ideals and messages that not just the three main monotheisms but rather the entirety of the world’s spiritualities have to offer. As a matter of fact, she says, the preoccupation with absolute truths is not a main concern for most of the world’s religions. They just don’t get hung up over it. Rather, eastern religions and philosophies like Buddhism and Confucianism, Daoism and Hinduism, are more concerned with how we should live the life we’re currently living, more focused on the here and now rather than one what happens when you die, more peace-oriented. If you ask me, these philosophies are practically perfect. What I really like about her speech is that it confirms something that I’ve been thinking about for a while in this class, she says something that is all too true: we need an ecological culture.


As someone who is not very religious but understands the power that religion can exert across time and space, I can’t agree more with this statement. My favorite lesson taken from another philosophy class is that it is the fruits, not roots, of a philosophy that are truly important. Because religion is a part of culture, it can serve as the spiritual engine that a culture would need to become motivated to actually do something about the current degradation of the environment. It would help people see the natural world as not just something that exists apart from us, but rather something that encompasses us, something we are inextricably linked to. It would give us the sense of duty we would need in every day life to make the small and large changes that are required to end the constant blasphemous toxification of the biota. An ecological culture fueled by a religious fire that burns green would reverse this dichotomy of man and nature and bring us back together to focus on what’s really important – helping the planet that’s helped us the whole time.


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.


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.


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.

“As The Doctors Study, The Patient Dies”

Day 26 Blog Post

The views of Peter Singer and Tom Regan have some pretty demanding intentions when taken to heart, so to examine how better to treat animals caught up in our modern day world we look to a more stratified outline on the possible ways we can legally reform such treatment of animals. Donald VanDeVeer (one of the authors of our textbook) and J. Baird Callicott offer two critical modifications of animal rights ethics that stand to be seen.

This gives us some new ethical “-isms” to look at; one being ethical humanism, which equates higher mental/psychological functioning with moral standing. This is, essentially, glorified speciesism. Then there’s humane moralism, which gives moral standing to humans regardless of previous criteria but also determines capacity for pain and pleasure to be the ultimate factors for morality. This is where hints of Bentham’s utilitarianism peek through. And then there’s Leopold’s Land Ethic, which stresses the importance of the health of the biotic community as a whole. With the land ethic, the study of ecology made it possible to see land as a third order. But this also means that it holds the interests of the collective over the interests of the individual in what we can see becomes a paradox. Since biodiversity is key to a healthy ecosystem, a pure land ethic would advocate the removal (or death) of humans before that of an endangered species, so as to promote the welfare (biodiversity) of the whole ecosystem. Also to keep in mind is that, ecologically, the greater the population size, the less important the individual. This is a common argument on behalf of animal testing to use rabbits, hamsters, and mice because they are so renewable. But, then again, so are we.


Callicott’s modification of the land ethic gives degrees of ecosystem importance as moral relevance. He advocates for very strong reform to the land ethic, and his main principle is to consider the animals’ role in the ecological community rather than value the life of each organism as the same. Callicott would have us make a hierarchy of importance in ecology. Keystone species are detrimental to ecosystems – without bees we probably couldn’t exist, yet there is no law preventing harm to bees. Callicott also says that Leopold’s land ethic is majorly based on human admiration of the “beauty” of nature – a human interpretation – biased toward our interests and poetic license. But he says skip the Sierra Club small talk because this won’t hold up, and rather we should call what we mean by its real name – intrinsic value – so that the argument has more argumentative worth. Ultimately, Callicott says we can still eat animals, but we need to reform the way we treat our ecosystems, like in implementing only small, organic farming rather than destructive monocrops. In his “The Conceptual Foundations of the Land Ethic” he says that “the implication of [Leopold’s maxim] includes the clear prospect that the individual may be sacrificed for the greater biotic good…” Regan calls this “environmental fascism” in that it leaves no room for individual rights in a world governed by one’s relationship to another. After getting called out, Callicott reformed his position.


VanDeVeer’s main modification of Singer’s Animal Liberation is that degrees of sentience should determine moral standing. He believes that the ability to reason contributes to higher sentience, almost in a way that John Mills describes. He holds weak hierarchical positions for certain kinds of interspecific interests and offers a break down of different types of relationships humans have with other species. Radical speciesism is the nonsense that Descartes ranted about; claiming that animals are mechanic automata without thoughts or capacity for pain. VanDeVeer says there are no legitimate premises strong enough to entail radical speciesism as plausible, obviously. Then there’s extreme speciesism, which allows anything so long as it promotes some peripheral human need. This is also indefensible as the threshold for cruelty is not determined. The “interest sensitive” speciesism occurs when interests of similar importance are at stake, for example the human keeping of birds as caged pets. The humans benefit from having the bird as a pet and the bird benefits from being fed, though is still caged and under the control of the human. But, two factor egalitarianism, he says, is the trickiest relationship because it’s weighing the calculated interests of both parties. VanDeVeer “alleviates” conflict by offering higher psychological capacity as the criterion for whose interests are more important to maintain – essentially throwing the interests of “lesser” mentally capable species under the bus. But, he says, the difficulty is in weeding out the trivial wants from the basic needs that are obtained from unfavorable treatment toward the other species. This can be killing an elephant for its ivory tusks, pitting the human interest to have classy piano keys over the elephant’s tusks, and life. But the use of animals as food also falls under this relationship. It’s in this cross-benefit analysis of weighed interests that we find no solid line to draw a right or wrong. VanDeVeer also suggests that we consider people’s ability to retain memory and capacity for psychological pain to go into the negotiation of whose interests are put before others’.


Personally, I find this part of his argument difficult to follow.  Rather than dissect our theories and make fight over nitty gritty contingencies, we need to look to what we know is true and valid. We know that other animals (dolphins, elephants, cats, etc.) have feelings, memories, and other traits we associate with what gives humans their humanity; but it’s also to say that with all of our cognitive powers and rational abilities, we as members of one species are inherently unable to truly sympathize with the worldview of other species, let alone another person. But just because we can’t really walk in another’s shoes/paws/hooves/fins doesn’t mean we shouldn’t treat them with respect and allow them to live a happy life.

You Are What You Eat

Days 23 & 24 Blog Post (Just in time for Thanksgiving!)

We are starting to become aware of the injustices inflicted on people through environmentally degrading forms of exploitation and how our economy perpetuates deep-seated roots of racism and the institutionalization of second-class citizens. But so far there has been another biotic group that has gotten less attention, and this group contains far more numbers than humans. The dependance of our and other economies on the severe injustice toward animals – fellow beings that feel pleasure and pain – is probably more atrocious than the economic injustices toward most people.

The traditional view that most cultures and societies of human existence is often called the “anthropocentric paradigm,” and we have used this to determine which things have moral standing. So, since human historical memories can trace, the appropriate criterion for moral standing has been mere membership to the group of homo sapiens. This is speciesism; and it’s the most historical and basic determining factor for moral standing, and thus not a sufficient condition of formulating an adequate ethical theory. I will try to make these points with as many helpful pictures of my dog, Noble, as I can.

Following this factor for moral standing is what and how we assign value to something. We have assumed that only the lives of human beings have intrinsic moral value. There is a difference between intrinsic and extrinsic moral value. When we say something has intrinsic value, its existence comes with being valuable. But when something has extrinsic moral value, it means that it only has value in its use toward something else. This is also known as instrumental value. Things with intrinsic value are ends in themselves, but things with extrinsic value are means to an end. For much of “civilized” human history, animals have had merely extrinsic value.

A number of criteria for moral standing have been proposed that should allow something to have moral standing. Throughout time, value has been given to: 1) personhood 2) potential personhood 3) rationality 4) linguistic capacity 5) sentience 6) being alive 7) being an integral part of an ecosystem 8) being an ecosystem. This is the historical anthropocentrically assigned rubric of value throughout time. It also stands to mention that at some point around the 17th and 18th centuries during the time of René Descartes and Isaac Newton there was a shift in the concept of the earth as being alive, of being a generous parent, to the concept of it being an object, or a wound-up clock to be tinkered with, by us. Unfortunately, Descartes believed that non-human animals lacked linguistic capacity and therefore “lacked a mental-psychological life,” a vestigial view of the moral standing of animals that lasts today.

(I know for a fact that my dog has intense dreams. He often flails his legs like he’s chasing something or makes chewing motions with his mouth, all while he’s sleeping. How can something dream and not have a mind?)

Today we have instated the existence of animal rights, which is based on the “the idea that some or all nonhuman animals are entitled to the possession of their own lives, and that their most basic interests – such as an interest in not suffering – should be afforded the same consideration as the similar interests of human beings.” This idea was heralded by Peter Singer, and it opposes making decisions on speciesist claims and advocates that animals should no longer be viewed as property or be used for clothing, food, research subjects, or entertainment, taking into consideration the welfare of the animals. Animal welfare, or the physical and psychological well-being of animals, is measured by indicators like behaviors, physiology, longevity, and reproduction. The term can also mean people’s consideration of the best interest of animals. Historically, different cultures have viewed the importance of animals differently. One famous example is the Egyptian reverence for their various local animals, and their love of cats – whom they believed embodied the spirit and intelligence of the god Bastet. The Greek historian Heroditus observed that if a domesticated cat died, the entire house would go into mourning “as if it were a human relative,” and that if someone killed a cat, even accidentally, the punishment was swift death. Cats were even mummified to ensure that they lived on in the after life.

Noble asserting himself as a part of the family

Many people and organizations today have argued on behalf of the animals in order to pivot our view of animals as things to be consumed, in the harsh ways we consume them, to a more humane position, and thereby bringing them into our moral community. One of these people is Joaquin Phoenix, who made the documentary ‘Earthlings” to show just how wickedly we treat animals whom we, by our actions, ascribe only consumptive value. The film opens with saying that there are three chronological levels to the truth: ridicule, violent opposition, and finally acceptance. There’s nothing I can say here that can possibly come close to substituting the message of seeing the film and the powerful images and footage it employs to make us understand the horrors of the institutions that exploit animals and the lowly, if not negligent, moral status we give them. What goes on behind the systems that give us animals for pets, animals to consume as food and clothing, animals for entertainment, and using animals for science research is truly comparable to a never-ending holocaust. It is becoming more mainstream knowledge the practices that give us our abundance of food – birds with food hoses shoved down their throat, cows pumped with hormones. One image I will never shake is seeing a dog (who looks a lot like my husky) getting its skin ripped from its body, alive, and then watching the dog panting, bloody, skinless, and in unimaginable pain. One more widely disputed topic is brought up in the film that was also discussed in another class of mine – vivisection. Some scientists argue in favor of testing on live animals for its benefit to people. Vivisection is subjecting living animals without anesthetic to torturous trials of experiments, such as injections, dissections, exposure to nuclear radiation, and even forcing blunt G-force trauma, usually to the heads of monkeys multiple times. I fail to see even the utilitarian benefit of inflicting terrible pain on countless bodies for the sake of a more comfortable consumer. And what kind of people deserve anything that comes from torturing fellow sentient beings? Joaquin Phoenix perfectly sums up our placement of animals in “our” world in one sentence: “The fate of animals is to be unwanted by man, or wanted too much;” and suggests that what we need is a stronger, more mystical view of animals, rather than the one our culture promotes now that instates complacency for commercial bliss. Our moral community needs to be extended to all the earthlings.

I recently watched another film for another class called “The Cove” by Louie Psihoyos. This truly heart-breaking documentary is an exposé about the atrocious abuse and exploitation of dolphins by the town of Taiji, Japan, for the lucrative business of dolphin use in aquariums, exhibitions, and food. The film was not only extremely informative and saddening, but also very intense due to the crew’s having to spy around the cove in Taiji at night and watch out for the constant surveillance that the Japanese government/fishing industry put in place. “The Cove” perfectly sums up our exploitation – our harvesting – of defenseless animals in our endless pursuit of commodification (“a dolphin in the right spot can make millions a year”). This industry is capitalization of nature at its worst. It has been noticed that dolphins are very human-like in their socialization and recognize each other in familial units, just like us. They also won’t leave a fellow dolphin being attacked or in trouble, which makes it easy for the fishermen to massacre most of the catch. They scare the dolphins by banging on the hull of their boats which disorients the dolphins due to their keen perception to sound (their main sense) and then assault entire groups with spears and harpoons once they’ve trapped the dolphins into the cove. It’s worth noting that dolphins are one of the many animals studied that we know engage in purely playful interaction, again, just like us. They’re also famous for being known to save human lives. In moral terms, is there no more innocent creature on the planet, and perhaps even more capable of morality and moral standing than us?

The fact that many humans take animal rights/welfare as a joke might say that we’re in the ridicule part of ultimately accepting the truth about the moral standing of animals. There’s probably still a ways to go before we release our grip on a constant supply of animals to fuel our society’s creature comforts. Logically, there really is no way around justifying it, and the strongest argument against giving moral standing to animals is that it is unappetizing. That’s just not good enough. Clearly I’m obsessed with my dog and personally think that some members of my own species deserve the same violent end they bring upon such gentle creatures for superficial and economic gain. But if we can’t treat simple – and not so simple – animals with the respect they deserve, how are we ever going to get that with people?

p.s. adopt from shelters!

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?

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.