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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Sharing Is Caring

Day 12 Blog Post

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

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

Premise 1: All endangered species ought to be protected.

Premise 2: The northeastern box turtle is endangered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

St. Rose’s Garden

Day 2 Blog Post

This post is in response to the St. Rose Garden project. More links to find out about the St. Rose Garden located on the Bronx campus can be found here and on the Facebook page.

As a commuter who’s main campus is FCLC, the idea of having access to freshly grown organic produce at a fraction of the price it costs at Whole Foods is very enticing. However, the St. Rose’s Garden is located at the Rose Hill campus. If there were a way to bring the produce down to Lincoln Center – sort of like a “fresh direct” or peapod approach – I’m sure the FCLC students would happily embrace the $16/share idea, and there would definitely be an increase in the amount of student supporters of this initiative.

One problem arises, though; the act of transporting the locally grown produce by truck (or some other carbon-based method of transportation) essentially negates the green initiative of this project. I suppose if students took some form of public transportation (subway, ram van) and brought the food back down themselves then the system would be pretty green; however, getting kids to go up to the Bronx campus for any reason other than having class is a struggle in itself.

In regard to connecting the St. Rose Garden practicum to the reading, “Agrarian Philosophy and Ecological Ethics,” I must say that nowhere else can one see the validity of the statement “the natural environment is intentionally modified by human beings” more. What I mean by that is that in seeing all the work that goes into maintaining an urban garden no larger than a typical suburban backyard, it’s easy to see how interacting within the man-made environment (everywhere you see concrete rather than dirt ground) is, ironically, becoming second-nature. The traditional definition of agrarianism says it’s “a social or political movement designed to bring about land reforms or to improve the economic status of the farmer.” Others, however, place a more moral role on the movement/way of life. One idea that’s interesting to take away from this reading is that “moral codes evolve over time to fit the way that ‘patterns and action allow a given group to cope effectively with the challenges of its environment’;” for example, the old hunter gatherer societies moralized sharing because their lifestyle – the way they interacted with their physical environment – was in such a way that not sharing meant less living. This is key: the environment shapes the moral landscape of society; “norms that are passed down are those selected by the environment by virtue of their capacity to feed people.”

In reading this, it just seemed like human history made so much more sense. The reasons of interaction and mentalities behind every emerging culture obviously sprouted from their relationship to the world around them and beneath their plows. Most economists and philosophers argue that value is derived from human use of nature and natural entities (like rivers, forests, etc.), however environmentalists believe that value is an intrinsic feature of sentient creatures, living organisms, and self-reproducing systems (like species, ecosystems, planet earth itself). The idea of “new agrarianism,” however, is a “popular movement emerging out of various attempts that small farmers and community organizers have made to develop an alternative food system, loosely organized around the notion of ‘land-health’.” And what better example of “new agrarianism” than none other than our St. Rose’s Garden.