I’m still a bit hung over from yesterday’s Oscar party. (Yes, Crash‘s upset victory for Best Picture is a farcical insult to all that is just and decent). But let me venture a semi-coherent observation about the clash of values that keeps breaking out here.
Environmental ethics, as a subfield of philosophy, has been around for over three decades. (See our interview with environmental ethicist [and, full disclosure, former professor of mine] Andrew Light). The most fundamental division within it is between those who argue that nature has intrinsic value — that is, value in and of itself — and those who argue that its value is instrumental to human ends. Biocentrism vs. anthropocentrism. Deep ecology vs. shallow ecology. Gaiaism vs. humanism. (My apologies to actual practitioners of environmental ethics, who know the full story is far more complicated.)
It’s probably no secret at this point that I’m squarely in the latter camp. It’s not even clear to me what it would mean for something to be valuable apart from beings capable of valuing.
But I don’t want to argue the philosophy here. I have a purely practical point to make.
Setting aside what I suspect is an extremely small core of radical biocentrists who want humans removed from earth, the goals of biocentric and anthropocentric environmentalists overlap more than they diverge. We all want restoration of water tables, reduction of CO2 emissions, more renewable energy, political accountability, stabilized population, major efforts to preserve biodiversity, green architecture, and all the rest of it. There are plenty of battles to fight together on behalf of both humans and the rest of nature. These are practical challenges, and it is in the interests of all environmentalists to help meet them.
We could walk together for 90% of the road. Perhaps we’d diverge on the last 10%, but if we got that far we’d all have cause to celebrate.
It’s just not important to settle the philosophical question any time soon.
What’s important, in the face of global environmental problems, is concerted action. We will be judged by how quickly we generate sustained motion, not by our motives or metaphysics.