”Humans’ actions, regardless of their effect on other organisms, are natural and perfectly acceptable … we should be allowed to live out our ‘evolutionary potential to [our own destruction] because this is ‘nature’s way”
In discussing the background to environmental ethics, the last chapter sought to give an account of Paul Taylor’s biocentric outlook. The first chapter, then, was a clarifying, informative, over-viewing, scene-setting chapter. This chapter is focussed on how to address some of the problems that discussion brought up.
The second general issue that arose is that attempts to describe the issues in moral or ethical terms have created further layers of difficulty for dealing with the issues. This, the problem with ethical approaches, is another problem we will tackle in this chapter.
As I detailed in Chapter One, Robin Attfield (2003), described and outlined the spectrum of responses to the ecological crisis as running from anthropocentric stewardship to ecocentrism. Each response depended on where it located value and this has become the core feature of debate and contention: does it lie only in the sphere of human existence and understanding? Is it a feature of individual sentience that can it therefore be extended to include other so-called ‘higher’ animals? Or is it an emergent characteristic of harmonious relationships?
Most controversially, Garett Hardin used this ethical characterisation of the response to defend his account of how we ought to react to the ecological crisis by limiting the sphere of moral duty to those within the “lifeboat” of the global North. This excludes the human majority upon whom the crisis is likely to have most impact and who have least control over material resources. Elinor Ostrom responded to Hardin with practical examples that undermined his image of the grasping desperation that dictates a tragedy for the commons but Hardin, like others before him, including Charles Darwin, depended on the Malthusian theory of population boom and bust to advocate a contracting field of moral responsibility.
If we can subvert the issue of what moral obligations we have to the non-human world, and even to one another, entirely, then these problems become illusory. Instead, we can consider other ways of deciding how to act that are independent of ethical judgments.