Environmental ethics II: The humanist strikes back
The environmental-ethics post below obviously raises more questions than it answers, but I was trying to keep it short, since I’m not sure how interested normal people are in such esoteric matters.
A common assumption is that anthropocentric environmental ethics leads inexorably to rape and pillage of ecosystems. After all, if non-human nature has only what value we assign it, why can’t we just use up all the resources, pave all the wilderness, pollute all the water, and so on? More for us!
I think this assumption is badly wrong, in two overlapping ways:
- First, consider this: treating ecosystems the way we have has expanded deserts, denuded soil, lowered water tables, polluted the air and water, sharply reduced biodiversity, and may warm the entire atmosphere by a couple of degrees in the coming century. All these things hurt people. They cause human suffering. Thus, under any reasonable humanist ethics, they are unethical. It is in humanity’s long-term interest to have healthy, functioning ecosystems; it is greed and ignorance, not any value system, that obscure that fact for us.
- Which leads us to the bigger problem with deep ecology: It buys into the very nature/human duality that got us into trouble in the first place. It accepts that the rapacious destruction characteristic of modern mankind’s relationship to nature accurately reflects our interests; it conceives of humanity as essentially alien to nature, fallen from it, competing with it, and vows to fight on the side of nature in that zero-sum struggle. This sets up a situation wherein to be good, people must act against their own interests and the interests of those they love. People tend not to do that. Deep ecology sets us up for failure.
My hope is that humanity matures before it destroys itself. Maturing will mean realizing that the linear, brute-force model of industrialization — resources in, waste out — is only sustainable provincially, when there’s an "outside" to dump all the waste. But there are some 6 billion of us now. There’s no outside left. It’s all inside, and one does not shit where one sleeps. We’re going to have to figure out a way to fit comfortably in the cycles of death and renewal that characterize all ecosystems.
Preserving and restoring nature, living in balance with it, is our self-interest. Self-interest and sustainability are indistinguishable.
(Incidentally, I believe the same basic thing when it comes to interpersonal ethics: enlightened self-interest is indistinguishable from altruism. Not in some fake way, wherein you act nice to get what you want. To be genuinely happy — and that’s the goal of self-interest, right? — is to feel in one’s bones that the interests of one’s family, community, species, world are one’s own.
When you think about it, it’s a little bizarre that "self-interest" is always equated with accumulation of material goods. Is that what makes you happy?)