Walking the Line

Day 20 Blog Post

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

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

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

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

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

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


This Radical Old Thing Called the Land Ethic

Day 15 Blog Post

Aldo Leopold was an early 20th century American author, scientist, ecologist, forester, and probably one of the most well-known environmentalists. Leopold was influential in the development of the modern environmental ethics, for having developed his own “land ethic,” and in the movement of wilderness conservation. He held what was for his time a radical view that emphasized biodiversity and ecological health. His journey as one of the leading environmentalists of our time started when he was assigned to hunt predators like wolves and bears because of their cost to agriculture in New Mexico. He noticed that this was wrong to kill certain species within the food chain because of human dependance upon their agronomically motivated destruction, and that our attitude toward the land is in dire need of change.

Aldo Leopold viewed ethics ecologically as a “limitation on freedom of action in the struggle for existence,” and philosophically as a “differentiation of social from antisocial conduct.” In realizing that our relationship to land in this country is strictly economic –  entailing privileges and not obligations to it – we can see where man’s pursuit of a fatter wallet will take him if he continues on this road of ecological destruction. The conservation movement was taking root during Leopold’s time, and as the first semblances of some kind of state of harmony between western man and land, he regarded it “as the embryo of the affirmation that the despoliation of land is not only inexpedient but wrong.”

Aldo saw ethics as such: “All ethics rest upon the premise that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts” and that “the land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soil, water, plants, or animals – collectively, the land.” He points out the misconception that although as Americans we have this idea that we love our land, value it, and cherish it as the sustenance we obtain from it for our livelihood in a country built upon the “American dream,” we are obliviously incorrect. Just what and whom do we love?

“Certainly not the soil, which we are sending helter-skelter downriver. Certainly not the waters, which we assume have no function except to turn turbines, float barges, and carry off sewage. Certainly not the plants, of which we exterminate whole communicates without batting an eye. Certainly not the animals, of which we have already extirpated many of the largest and most beautiful species.”

He proposes that “a land ethic of course cannot prevent the alteration, management, and use of these ‘resources,’ but it does affirm their right to continued existence…in a natural state.” And he warned that at this time of America’s booming growth, the people’s assurance that the land would “drip milk and honey” into the mouths of whomever used its endless bounty was inverse to the degree of the people’s education about the land. The problem is with our socialization. Back then, people were brought up under the notion of this “milk and honey” idea that proved to be only a short lived fantasy. Farmers were taught to do only what saves his soil, because his soil makes him money. Leopold criticized that man was too timid and too anxious for quick success to realize the true magnitude of his artificial obligations to the dollar.

Further, what’s funny about our “appreciation” for this bounty of endless land (up until the Pacific Ocean) is that we couldn’t acknowledge the role the land played in probably most human successes. Throughout our continued human struggle and preoccupied with human affairs, Leopold asks us to recognize that not all of our triumphs, in the multitude of wars that have been waged and structural and economic endeavors that we remember as beacons of human ingenuity, we all made possible or (in our great failures) impossible by our correct relationship with the land. The horrible 1930’s dustbowl is one relevant case.

The land ethic relies on the guidance of the land pyramid as a model for ecosystems. It shows the distribution of quantities of different species in the various trophic levels all balanced in a system that has evolved to be highly organized. In a most basic description, it’s broken down into the two groups: the autotrophic organisms are the plants at the bottom, sustaining themselves from the sun’s energy, and the heterotrophic organisms that derive their energy from eating other living things.

Energy moves up through the pyramid, from the sun to the autotrophic flora, from them to the heterotrophic herbivores, and from them to the carnivores and omnivores in a delicate cyclical system.

As Leopold saw it, land is not merely soil but a “fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants, and animals.” The world-wide disorganization in land use would be similar to a disease, a human plague, upon the sore earth; and depending on the flexibility of the ecosystem affected, it will recover, but will will yield reduced levels of complexity (biodiversity) and carrying capacities of life in its wake. Leopold suggested that if the “private land owner were ecologically minded, he would be proud to be the custodian of a land that adds biodiversity and beauty to his farm.” And since Leopold thought it impossible for government to handle all land management, he saw the only visible remedy to be ethical obligation on the part of the private land owner. What more can be done to foster this sense of belonging and obligation to the land? Leopold said we can only be ethical to something we see, feel, love, understand, or otherwise have faith in. The most practical and hopeful is education. Teaching kids from an early age to respect the land and to garner appreciation for everything outside has been effective, at least for me I like to think, in forming a generation of ecologically minded people.

All ethical theories have a principle at their base from which they make their case. The primary principle for Aldo Leopold’s land ethic was respect for the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. We need to stop seeing ourselves as “conqueror” and more as “citizen and member” of the land community. He believes the conservation movement was “paved with good intentions,” but would prove futile because it is devoid of a critical understanding of the land. He makes a good case in claiming that “the most serious obstacle impeding the evolution of land ethic is the fact that our educational and economic system is headed away from, not toward, an intense consciousness of the land.” We must stop looking at the land as just “the space between cities on which crops grow,” for this is something that has been within our environmental psychology since the creepings of urban and suburban sprawl. The land ethic’s criterion of moral standing as being a member of the land community leaves virtually nothing as a resource to be pillaged for arbitrary economic needs. Some may find this as a little too restrictive, or even “eco-fascist.” But it’s this level of necessity that we must acknowledge in order to start making the right choices.

An application of Leopold’s land ethic in its entirety may not be the complete answer, but its the exact direction we need to start looking toward to get anything important accomplished.

The Scarlet Era: Anthropocene

Day 4 Blog Post

Scientists know that there have been six major mass species extinctions on the planet to date. In one of these mass extinctions, the dinosaurs ceased to exist. And each phase of newly replenishing of fauna and flaura, for which is takes on average tens of millions of years to biologically bound back, have been given names (Pleistocene, Triassic, etc). It is widely accepted that what caused the end of the dinosaurs was an asteroid, an extra-planetary cause that could not have been prevented. Due to all the changes that our species has directly dealt onto the planet, there is the notion that we should call this era of time in which we inhabit the “Anthropocene.”

The Anthropocene era is an “informal geologic chronological term that serves to mark the evidence and extent of human activities that have had a significant global impact on the Earth’s ecosystems,” coined recently by ecologist Eugene Stoermer. There is no specific start date, but atmospheric evidence points to the Industrial Revolution; although it can be argued that the very start of agriculture can also mark the beginning of the Anthropocene era. This is as much a celebration of human dominion over the earth as it is a dunce cap. In textbooks, it should be written in as a sober reminder of what we have done. Our textbook, The Environmental Ethics & Policy Book, includes a literal warning to the readers and to the world at large:

“We the undersigned senior members of the world’s scientific community, hereby warn all humanity of what lies ahead. A great change in our stewardship of the earth and the life on it is required, if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated.”

For those who argue that extinction is ok, a natural rhythm of life – it is, but not at the rate that we’re causing it to be. The rate of extinction today is happening 100,000 times faster than what “natural rhythms” in evolutionary processes would normally allow. What this means is that the rate of extinction is surpassing the rate of evolution and growth, and simple math tells us that before long, there will be a LOT less biodiversity on the planet. If current trends continue, half or more of all plant and animal species will disappear forever. But what does that mean for me in my house living my comfortable life indoors? Well, other than permanently severing the ecospiritual relationship that we as a species share with the earth that was explained in my last post, it would mean the collapse of not only precious ecosystems and life forms, but also a crumbling of many of the institutions that we as a culture, society, and a people rely on. Our pharmaceutics depend on biodiversity to create the vaccines that we need; the comfortable climate we’ve been enjoying since our start as a species is directly linked to healthy ecosystems; biofiltration is important not only for the chemical defenses that some plants have that we can use, but for the air that we breathe. Tree hugging is sounding better and better, right?

What’s amazing about life is that all living things are direct descendants of the strange little organisms that lived 3.8 billion years ago. All living organisms are genetic libraries, who’s DNA is composed of nucleotide sequences that record evolutionary events from all across the immense spans of lived time. We evolved into that tapestry of life that had already been so beautifully woven around the planet. If 50% of the calcium that makes up the bones in some species of bears and 60% of the nitrogen that makes the conifer trees of the forests has been isotopically found to come directly from marine life – fish – I believe there is one universal lesson: everything is connected.

Each year we consume 50% of what the earth has produced using photosynthesis; global warming could doom 50 million different species by the year 2050; 70% of the earth’s surface has been transformed for human use. We create plastic, a substance that had never existed before, at an alarming rate and we don’t have a way of getting rid of it (except for this amazing discovery of plastic-eating bacteria – earth fights back?) After learning this I took a closer look at my commute from school to home and it was eye-opening to notice that the only signs of foliage, life other than the human footprint, something other than concrete, was a park I passed by on the train and the lawns in front of mine and my neighbor’s houses. The very ground beneath your feet right now is most likely artificial or man-made. This begs the very current question: does wilderness exist anymore, and is there anything we can do to save what remains? The working definition of “wilderness” (one of those obscure words like “nature”) is “an area of the earth substantially untrammeled or unmodified by human beings.” What’s upsetting is that people will vouch to save the “wilderness/nature” they think is “pretty” or “nice,” but if beauty is in the eye of the (human) beholder, the solution for preserving natural entities shouldn’t be based on aesthetics. Telling this to a society that derives happiness from consumption/thinks food comes from the supermarket is an uphill battle, but one worth every drip of sweat to fight.

We’re the only species that has the ability to destroy copious amounts of life. It took 3 billion years of evolution to create the diversity of life that brought us into existence, and 350 million years to assemble the rain forests in which half of all living things inhabit (VanDeVeer). We’ve only been around for 100,000 years, and in less time than that, we’ve managed to start the onset of events that will, if gone unstopped, bring the whole intricate system to a crashing halt. But we’re also the only species who can save everything. Let’s call this era the Anthropocene; and let’s wear that title as a reminder of what we’ve done, but also as an encouragement to better the life of the one thing that counts most – the earth.