Dan Pagan

Exploring the imperative behind Earth Day

Why we actually must protect nature

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Earth Day falls just over a week after Easter weekend and provides a nice shift in perspective from all the supernaturalism to something, well, more natural. Holidays are meant to evoke reflection, so let's take stock of the Earth and ask: what is so good about the Earth anyway? Why should we devote so much to its protection?

When people say we have a duty to protect nature -- rocks, trees and rivers -- for its own sake, they are speaking nonsense. The argument is never made clear as to why rocks and trees deserve moral consideration and instead relies on emotion to convince why a tree deserves our protection. Last week I discussed the impact of hunting and factory farming; the former is often said to be good for the environment, while the latter is notoriously bad for it. In both cases environmental degradation is a corollary: the main issue, is that the animals themselves have an interest in not feeling pain and so deserve freedom from such. Trees and rocks, as far as any scientist knows, cannot feel pain and so lack any interest in what is done to them.

Future generations may be a reason to protect the environment: surely our children deserve to inherit a world free of pollution. Yet, while it seems tempting, it isn't clear why something not yet in existence deserves moral consideration. On the other side, dead people don't deserve respect either, because neither can be harmed in any meaningful sense of the word. Even if they did, it doesn't strike me as an effective strategy to enact change. Why should our generation suffer so much and not be able to appreciate any of the value of our work?

Once we shift focus to protect the right things for the right reasons, the whole issue becomes stronger because it is more clear. When people demand that nature "pay its way," they are overlooking one reason we value it. There is aesthetic appeal to enjoying the world outside our cities, as there is appeal to listening to good music or reading a thoughtful book. Yes, composers and writers have to make a living, but the whole point of the arts is for us to enjoy a life well-lived, not ask how the music is saving lives and so on.

Similarly, science is repeatedly interrogated to ensure it's contributing its part. Funding is going to developing technology and not toward researching the natural world. Of course science does its part: the medicine you get to cure your infection and the non-stick frying pan you use to cook your food are both of great value. But neither are ends in themselves and we don't prevent infection just for the sake of living a while longer. No, the goal is to increase our standard of living.

When I saw the great entomologist Edward O. Wilson speak last year, he described what he calls Wilson's Rule. It goes like this: if we are firm in our commitment to protect those species that have a good of their own, then we must also commit ourselves to their surroundings. A grizzly bear needs fish to eat and the fish need a river to swim in, so protecting the environment is necessary to saving bears. Our main concern is for those who experience pain and pleasure, like the bear, but in the end, the whole system needs protection. There might be good reason not to cut down that tree after all -- the tree itself won't be harmed, but the nonhuman animals inhabiting it may be.

Our appreciation of the natural world must stop short of worshiping it. Thanking Mother Earth is akin to thanking a man whose wallet we find on the street after he drops it, overflowing with money but no return address -- he didn't intend to lose his wallet and probably wants the money back. In the same way, nature had no plan to get us where we are now and nothing about natural history suggests humans were destined for success we have enjoyed. We can be humbled, then, without resorting to spirituality and activists like David Suzuki fail us in this respect by resorting to such fluff.





So future generations don't require moral considerations because they don't exist yet? Don't you think that's a bit selfish? After all, it's not like the future generations are something that may or may not happen (like a meteor impact), they will happen. There's a guarantee that people will go on making babies, so it's only fair that we don't leave them with a swollen prostate of a planet.
I also disagree with your philosophy on not killing things just because they feel pain and have emotions, while killing trees which (probably) don't experience these things is okay. A tree is alive like you or me, and you are placing an arbitrary value on it's life based on your personal beliefs. As for the animals, they kill each other all the time (granted only for sustenance). Should we round up all the carnivours and make them eat veggies? I know it is possible for humans to live without meat, but that doesn't mean that eating meat is unnatural. The human digestive track and dentition does not resemble that of an obligate herbivour, but more closely resembles that of an omnivour, such as a bear.

The author responds:

Geoff, the distinction I'm making is between two forms of harm. The first, as you point out, is the sense that a tree (or a computer monitor or a bicycle) can be harmed by becoming a less good object. What I am distinguishing is the notion of intrinsic value, or harm caused to something that has an end in itself. Things may have instrumental value as a tool for achieving some purpose--as a dentist does to keep teeth clean, or a bike does to transport us. The important value a tree doesn't have is intrinsic value, the ability to judge one's life as being good or bad for one's self. So the tree will be harmed in that it won't be able to continually grow and make more of its species, but there is no reason to think it cares any more than the bicycle does about how its life is going. Instead, if I break your bicycle you would be the one harmed, because you have to pay for its repair. In the case of the tree, as I suggest, it's the sentient animals that will be harmed.

You raise some good points, David. Regarding future generations, I don't think it's a clear cut argument either way, and so I resigned myself in the article to stating that it isn't a necessary argument to protect the Earth. We run into major obstacles when we have to balance how much sacrifice we should presently make to fix the damage to the planet, mainly caused by the previous generation, on behalf of a future one. Are future persons considered the same as living persons now? Of course it is true that the species will continue to reproduce, but is that a scientific fact we have to deal with, or should the present population do more to control increased population so we sacrifice less? I don't know. But I don't think it's important because of the other reasons I find more compelling to protect biodiversity.

As I pointed out regarding Geoff's point, a tree is alive like you and me. But whereas life is an arbitrary delineation, the capacity to feel pain is not. This is because it is nonsensical to speak of the value of the tree for itself. There is no reason to believe the tree will care either way, so we have no need to consider it as a moral agent any more than I have to consider the feelings of my computer as I type on it or a road as I drive on it. My examples are not alive, but I don't think it matters because life in this case seems to be arbitrary. Whether a bias exists because I'm a human is much harder to deal with, because the implication if either of us is right is that if we have to choose between the life of a pig or our mothers, we can't choose the latter because of our relationship to her--maternally or by species. I think you expand the circle too far by suggesting I can't choose between the tree or the pig or my mother because of personal bias. Suffering seems to be the best nonarbitrary way of deciding the matter, and the trick to changing that as the crucial point revolves on saying why it should be expanded further, such as to all things that are alive. The other way is to suggest the circle should be smaller, which is the more common view, of course. Traits such as intelligence, the ability to plan for the future, and so on, might all be factors to sway the argument on behalf of my mother. But these might reflect personal beliefs, as you point out. More problematic is that all the traits above exist in different amounts in humans alone. These other biological facts seem to result in unjustifiable ends to morality, like killing people below a certain IQ.

Eating meat is natural, and in fact was a necessary step to becoming what our species is today. But because something exists naturally doesn't mean we should condone it as a moral stance. Cancer is just as natural as meat eating, but we have no moral qualms doing everything we can to eradicate it (unless we adopt the tree argument, in which case we would have to give cancer moral consideration). We have evolved eating meat, and your biology is correct, but a biological description is not a moral prescription. There is no reason to continue doing things we did in the past just because it's 'natural' (most of the past was filled with slavery, warfare, the suppression of women etc.) We can fully accept the fact of evolution without claiming it to be a sound moral philosophy. To return to my cancer analogy: an oncologist can know everything about cancer without thinking it's a good idea to keep around. Similarly, we should accept a Post-Darwinian phase of human history and declare that the goals of nature and of morality don't always match up.