Besides the actual, material, problems that environmentalism deals with there is also the troubling theoretical disputes between differing viewpoints of environmentalism, namely ethics which helps us realize whether or not we are obligated to have to take care of these issues and if so, how. There are particular moral decisions that those involved in environmental studies must make to create policies, economic decisions and more. An added problem is what many call Nature Deficit Disorder, or the idea that young children are not given appropriate playtime outdoors in any kind of nature, which also adds weight to certain arguments.
These conflicting viewpoints range from those who believe that nature is capital to be managed, to the idea that nature has a deeper reason for humans, to the view that all organisms are equal to humans and should be treated as such. I tend to fall in the middle view but examining the other views is certainly worthwhile in helping build a stronger understanding of ethics. One other concern which can be discussed is what nature really is-what makes something natural or synthetic-and is there such a difference. Giving equal measure to these views, I posit that everything is natural, but again I will give equal weight to each view.
A majority of people who are not involved with the environmental movement, and many that are, ascribe to the viewpoint that our planet is a vast depository of resources, and with our ingenuity we will never deplete them. This is called the Planetary management viewpoint, in which we manage life on earth mostly for our own benefit. Vaclav Smil, mentioned earlier, is one prominent proponent of this viewpoint, and backed it in his book The Earth’s Biosphere: Evolution Dynamics and Change.
The Stewardship viewpoint is ascribed to another part of the environmental movement which believes they have an ethical responsibility to be stewards of the earth. Success depends on how well we manage the earth’s life-support systems for our benefit and nature.
Environmental Wisdom, a minority in participants, is mainly comprised of those who ascribe to the land ethic and animal rights activists. They believe that all humans are a part of nature and exists for all species and our success depends on learning how nature sustains itself and integrating lessons into how we think and act.
Unfortunately, these viewpoints many times come at odds with one another when politics and economic decisions are made, something which will be explored at a later time, and leaves policy at a standstill. There are prominent supporters on every side, but one who I believe gives the greatest argument for the Land ethic created by Aldo Leopold, a kind of ethics that was revolutionary for its time. It gave the conservationists and budding field of environmentalism a voice, one that declared that
“All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts… a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
These, and other basic principles of land ethics revolutionized the way people thought about the environment. It no longer was this simple collection of capital to be mined, forested, hunted, and cultivated but something to be considered as beneficial in the sense of preserving for the myriad interconnected webs of organisms.
Environmental Justice, which grew from this new ethics, would begin to examine the effects that humans have on nature, not just examining the effects these same measures would have on humans. Measures like the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act to maintain climate standards that would directly benefit humans’ living conditions were great, but soon the Endangered Species act was passed-categorizing animals into a range of threat based on the numbers of their population. People began to recognize that keystone species, like the shark mentioned earlier, should be preserved not only to maintain their numbers to be exploited by the market for shark fin soup, but also because there is an ethical responsibility to not endanger other species in their environment.
To back track a little, we can first examine the idea of what nature is in particular. Upon attendance of the lecture “Humans in Nature: The World as we find it and the world as we create it” with Dr. Gregory Kaebnick I learned of the question of whether or not we can still identify “natural” states of affairs in the world and in ourselves, particularly given how much we’ve already altered the world. Although debate was limited, he introduced two main competing viewpoints.
On the one hand there is a school of thought that sustains that labels of natural, unmolested wild does not include GMO‘s (genetically modified organisms), man-made structures, and forests that are replanted by humans. This endeavor of categorizing the varying degrees of nature is even harder below the surface as history has shown us that there is practically no landscape completely untouched by human influence. Even before the intense period of industrialization began, agriculture and selective breeding had already changed organisms and the environment into something entirely new.
The other viewpoint proffered, which I tend to agree makes much more sense and makes nature much easier to define, is that there is no real unnatural object created by humans. By this viewpoint you can recognize that regardless of whether one nucleus is injected into another cell’s or there is an open-pit mine that is dug and its coal burned for energy humans are still obeying the laws of physics, and every single compound involved has been found on Earth. This chain of thought may then seem to allow people to discount any action they make in the environment as natural and thus allowable, but this is not the case. Several members of the audience proffered the suggestion that there are always impacts that come from every action and it is be our duty to evaluate our decisions as harmful or neutral or beneficial to the environment. Much like the Environmental Wisdom Viewpoint discussed earlier.
What I learned from this lecture was the real question is how we go about doing this and why we should. In all, this lecture opened my mind up to what nature really is, and what we should do with this new found knowledge.
There is also the other point that environmentalism makes. Preserving the environment in order that future generations can live in a world where there is biodiversity, a plethora of aesthetic, natural beauty and sustainability in this world for years to come is vitally important. This brings us to the idea that there is a Nature deficiency in our society. Many argue, like Richard Louv the author of “Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder,” that there needs to be some basic implementation of programs that allow for all children to find a place in nature.
With this new kind of education, environmental literacy would become more widespread, allowing children to grow into the next generation of adults who appreciate and understand the significance of environmental issues. His book also discusses that there is research to support the inherent benefits of those who play outdoors which may even be motivation for planners and architects to design green spaces. This becomes, then, something more important than allowing for green spaces just for the benefit of the resources available, or aesthetic reasons, or even the preservation of biodiversity, but instead for the basic benefits that are said to come with playing in this wild nature.
Hopefully some light has been shed on the nature of ethics found in the field of environmentalism, something regrettably neglected in many teachings. There is more to the motivation of environmental policy and studies than mere capital preservation and management, for many people. Spirituality, health, and the ecosystems’ rights should also be the motivations of policy towards protecting the environment. Nature itself may not be what it appears to us as, but as something more. This is something else we should take into consideration when making these decisions. You are free to draw your own conclusions. Comments are welcome.