Ethics and Ideology in thinking about the environment

Another problem for environmental ethics has been its secondment by political ideologists.


Political philosophies have marched hand in hand with the development of environmental ethics: the preservation of private reserves where game flourished had the additional benefit, for those who had access, of allowing them to engage in hunting for leisure, a historically pleasurable pursuit for those with the time and resources to take part1. At the other extreme, those who questioned the entire liberal democratic, capitalist model cite environmental destruction as a key element of the system’s harms, along with social injustice both within the nation in question and beyond its borders (see David Orton:2010). Capitalism, relying as it does on exponential industrial manufacturing and the production of increasing amounts of goods, can only lead to further environmental degradation. A politicised environmental ethic would enforce an egalitarian agenda, reducing material benefits for that minority which has profitted from environmental exploitation, and improving the lot of all those on whose backs capitalism thrived. More extreme still was the point of view of those who argued that land ownership or indeed the ownership of any so-called property was inherently flawed as a basis for a political system. How could nature be owned any more than the air can be said to belong to anyone? These questions still rage amongst environmentalists of various shades of green and red.


Relatedly, less politicised but just as critical, Aldo Leopold questioned the benefits of increased human comfort at the vast cost to the non-human, and particularly to ‘Wild Nature’. What we lost, when we gained material comfort, was of far greater import, than what we gained, since what we lost could never be recovered (the extinction of species) whereas what we had gained was temporary and dependent on continuing unsustainable loss. Asking people to voluntarily reduce their consumption has proven to be one of the chief difficulties in the practical applicability of an environmental ethic and the ‘deep Green’ movement of Arne Naess and others has become critically sidelined by mainstream political agendas in the process.


Political philosophies rely largely on harnessing self-interest. Rachel Carson recognised this when she moved the question from aesthetics to human health: what we were losing, she argued, was not just biodiversity; what we were harming was not just the complex interrelationships of the non-human world (although she argued strongly against the ethics of a programme which allowed that loss). What were were also harming was ourselves. An increasingly aggressive attitude of dominance and exploitation towards the non-human, natural world would only have short-term benefits for its human agents: in the end, even the human populations would find themselves harmed by the process of aggressive pesticide use.


So, the competing political interests have vied with competing economic interests to paint the crisis in shades that flatter them. Businesses and policies which rely on aggressive exploitation, even though this threatens future biodiversity and human health, continue to pedal an accepted myth that economic growth is the only model for social stability. The reality that short-term benefits within this paradigm can only come at the cost of longer-term sufficiency is pushed far enough into the future to merit ignorance. How is it possible that we allow ourselves to be seduced, as a species, into this illusion?


Lynn White’s suggestion that it is our very (Judeo-Christian) belief system which was engendering an attitude of exploitation has been much discussed as one possible explanation for this phenomenon. White’s discussion questions an anthropocentric approach, but also allows for a questioning of the entire dualistic pantheon. John Muir clarified that, contrary to the evidence inherent in human activity, the natural world was not, in fact, made for our use. Yet this belief sustains the activity of a huge percentage of the human population who base their beliefs on Judeo-Christian, Muslim, or even Buddhist or Humanist teachings.


These beliefs argue that the world was created either by God for human use or that humans as the only animals with the ability to value, have an inherent right to control and master the rest of the unchoosing natural environment and all the creatures within it. A philosophical approach like this depends on the notion that humanity operates in a separate sphere from the rest of living existence.


The paradigm is so intrinsic to our thinking that its deconstructon threatens to unravel all we know about how to treat each other, let alone the rest of the world. Can we even contemplate the possibility of considering ourselves as organisms-in-general, nothing special? Would not what we owe others, human or non-human, become so diluted by this transition as to lose all impetus, all strength as motivation for action?


Before approaching that question, it is worth asking what sort of shift White and his ilk are advocating. In order to understand that, we simply have to look again at evolutionary theory. There is much that is controversial about this theory, and yet the broad thrust of the argument is undoubtedly simply the best explanation we have for the way things are. As well as challenging our notions of how we fit in with the rest of the biological world, the theory has had deep implications for how we might respond to the rest of the biological world (and beyond).


Whereas theories in the past depended on concepts to do with God and spiritual laws, and applied exclusively to concepts of standards which apply to our treatment of humans, suddenly the question of what context our actions take place in was brought to the surface. It is now worth demanding whether or not we could be freed, once and for all, from the illusion that we, humans, occupy the top of an apex towards which all creation aspires?


Evolutionary theory lays out a structure for understanding how humanity came about, and in the context of the dynamic process that operates on every ecosystem and species. Through the process of natural selection and chance mutations, as a response to changing (and idiosyncratic) environmental, ecological and climactic conditions, species, including humans, developed different physiological and behavioural characteristics that allowed them to avoid or deal with the different challenges to survival that any living creature faces – starvation, dehydration, freezing, burning, predation, disease and so on.


It is worth remembering, however, that Charles Darwin’s account of evolution by natural selection was itself idiosyncratic, dependent on his own cultural bias (from our perspective, Victorian, heavily Christian, hierarchical and with various tendencies towards prejudice in the context of race and sex). So although Darwin and, indeed, his ‘champion’, T H Huxley , both argued that natural selection is a highly competitive process driven by the (mainly negative) motivations provided by a hostile and threatening environment (‘nature red in tooth and claw’), more recent research indicates that there are strong arguments for a different interpretation. Our own time has brought a perspective which, while still recognising that the forces that shope evolutionary development are largely those that demand avoidance of negative conditions, there are also serious arguments to be made for recognising that some of the processes are for the development of cooperative behaviours. These include the well-known emxaples of cyanobacteria (prokaryotic cells) teaming up with early eukaryotic cells to form energy-capturing chlorophyll cells, the basis of all plant life. Closer to home, as it were, they include the high dependency of the human digestive tract on the presence of micro-organisms. Charles Cockell’s paper outlines this symbiotic relationship in some detail. Lynn Margulis’ work on symbiotic evolutionary developments proved extremely important in respect of changing the way that natural selection was seen as a process. Most recently, Frank Ryan’s work (Virolution) gave a clear indication that the process is not one of cosy harmonies, but a demand-driven systematic response that implicitly recognises the benefits to the organisms involved of mutual, rather than exclusive, survival.


If these processes are natural, and if we are driven by these same processes, what grounds remain for our sense of ourselves as separate from, and undefined by, these motivations? Moreover, while the response to the ecological crisis continues to meet resistance, both in the form of denial, but also in the form of a dualistic, anthropocentric approach to the issue, human groups and institutions whose activity causes the most biodiversity loss, pollution of soil, air and water, erosion, deforestation and desertification, not to mention climate change, are those that honour their commitments to environmental impact policies least. This gives no impetus to groups, institutions or nations with growing (but less) impact to curb their burgeoning problems.


Rather than seeing the issue in terms of ethics, then, it may be more useful to consider the foundations of these views, and areas of potential consideration and reflection within them. The first thing to note, then, is that the prevailing response to environmental issues rests on a view of realism which concludes, effectively, that states, like individuals, act only in their own best interests. Climate change in particular has empirically tested this (see Jamieson). There doesn’t seem to be a global consensus to take action to deal with problems even though the problems at issue are global in nature.


Yet this is the metaphorical equivalent of recognising human response patterns in terms of evolutionary ones: seeing short-term, particulate interests as dominant in demand for attention fails to acknowledge that there are also pressures to cooperate that prevail alongside, and sometimes prior to, the particular insterest of the group, community or state. Recent findings suggest that the self-interest of every holon, whether a cell, a body, a society, a species, an ecosystem, or a whole living planet, must be balanced in the mutual consistency of the whole and all its parts. Self-interest is destructive only when not tempered by the self-interest of the broader community (Hawkins, 2010). It’s not just the short-sightedness of the ‘own best interests’ approach that is the problem. The industrial enterprise which suggests that a piecemeal approach can ever succeed is fueled by the persistence of the (still largely unexamined) set of metaphysical metaphors that accept a Cartesian/Newtonian dualistic account of nature that utterly contradicts the explanations of Evolution. That this persists in the general zeitgeist with such tenacity suggests that there is some interest in the maintenance of this particular delusion.


What we are seeking, then, is not an ethic at all, but simply grounds for a response based on pragmatic concerns. Dissolving the illusion of duality demands much. If we are driven to act in particular ways which increase our chances of survival, how can we argue that this is any better than arbitrary action?


We can reframe the question: does our biological nature give us a clue as to what acts accord with the kinds of beings we are? One thing I will explore in further detail is the notion of our physico-biological nature creating a spectrum of activity that allows energy flows and matter cycles to take place relatively freely. Allowing these flows is neither moral nor immoral: it is simply the openness that is available to us to release so that energy can flow freely. This, then, opens to question whether or not through reflection on what we are, physically and biologically, human survival is enhanced or threatened. Naturally, we are inclined to take the view that enhancing human survival is beneficial, since it is beneficial to ourselves, temporarily, and to our offspring, physical or metaphorical (art, culture, memories, photographs), in the longer term. However, on reflection we are forced to admit that there is no necessary correlation between enhancing human survival and enhancing the survival of the biologically diverse patterns onto which we are, temporarily, mapped. Instead, there may be good reasons to argue that the biologically diverse patterns of living existence upon which we depend would be better served by our demise, as a species. At the very least, a serious reduction in human population would undoubtedly enhance the chances for biodiverse patterns, ecosystems and species to recover and for their evolution to re-establish itself.

1 Claude Evans, J., With Respect for Nature: Living as Part of the Natural World, State University of New York Press, 2005


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