I can’t bear to get back into the news just yet, so let’s discuss this a little bit.

Are human beings part of the environment? You can answer in two ways.

If you say no, they’re not, then you’re stuck with the pernicious dichotomy between humans and nature that has bedeviled Western intellectual history and led to the illusion that we can dominate or control nature. Humans are rational creatures, in touch with some sort of Platonic realm beyond the grubby, irrational, violent chaos of nature — that kind of thinking. Much of environmentalism has been devoted to trying to knock down that false dichotomy.

But if you say the environment does include human beings, then you’re left with nothing that the environment doesn’t include. "The environment" is thereby synonymous with "everything." But then the term is useless. Saying something is good for the environment becomes tantamount to saying it’s good for everything. And that doesn’t make any sense.

What can we learn from all this?

For one thing, we need more sophisticated ways of describing how human behavior differs from the behavior of other creatures and ecosystems.

Obviously human beings are natural creatures, in that we evolved, we consume food and emit waste, we are composed of flesh and blood, we depend on resources drawn from the ecosystems around us. We are animals. That fact has immense consequences for how we understand ourselves. For one thing, we tend to vastly overestimate the efficacy of conscious reasoning and underestimate the influence of biochemical squirts and animal instincts (that’s our Western heritage, but also, I suspect, something that we are evolutionarily inclined to do).

It’s also obvious that we differ substantially from any other natural creature of which we are aware. Yes, yes, other animals use tools. Others laugh. Others have complex social structures. But human cognitive abilities are vastly in excess of any other animal’s. We create advanced mathematics, build cities, organize to cooperate over long timescales, systematically kill each other, etc. etc. There’s no point denying that human beings are unique in the natural world.

Humans’ unique abilities have created wonders worthy of awe and admiration. They’ve also allowed us to expand our numbers and our infrastructure all out of whack, to the point we’re doing great damage to the ecosystems that sustain us and the flora and fauna therein. We can’t will ourselves "back to nature," or whatever — nor would I particularly want to — but there are obviously things we can learn from how natural systems operate.

So, I’m afraid there’s no alternative to finding more fine-grained ways of talking about the interrelationships among humans and other natural systems. Casting human interests and the environment’s interests in opposition is misguided. But saying we’re part of the environment and thus anything good for us is good for the environment is misguided too. Any action can help or hurt particular ecosystems; any action can help human beings in some time frames and not others.

The empirical details matter; substituting vague philosophical notions for real empirical analysis is not helping us move forward.