August 22, 2011
There has been an insidious shift recently in environmentalist thinking that is both clever and dangerous: that the planet (biodiversity) has rights that must be respected. Man’s actions that have an effect on the balance of nature are judged morally repugnant and that man living sustainably (without having an impact on the planet) is the new ethical paradigm. Why then does the Risk-Monger feel that this picture is immoral?
Environmental virtues fulfil an environmentalist’s lifeplan, religion, agenda … and add meaning to a life perceived to be sacrificial and heroic. Going organic, meat-free, renewables based, chemical and plastic-free are all virtues we are told we must adopt to save the planet, to restore the order that man has destroyed, in his original sin of greedy consumerism (brought about by the temptation of that serpentile industry). In telling others, we confirm the righteousness of our ways and the commonality of our cause.
And there is the insidious nature of this green lobbying strategy. By trying to create the perception that sustainability (certain preconceived notions of sustainable living) is an ethical virtue – one that all members of humanity should aspire to – green activists are pushing to have their agenda taken as a commonly shared concept that needs no further examination. I have written elsewhere about the dangers of commonality – that when we all agree, we stop thinking. As Greenpeace chants: It is time to stop talking and start acting!
Last year was the UN year of biodiversity and we saw pronouncements of man’s obligations to the planet that bordered on a charter for the rights of the planet. This entails that man’s actions that have consequences on biodiversity are then moral transgressions. Man, to avoid immoral behaviour, must not interfere with biodiversity (extreme sustainable living). There are different levels of perceived moral propriety or judgement here:
- At the more modest end, man’s actions should be to protect the planet and correct past moral transgressions (anything from green chemistry to the alignment with Christian fundamentalists through the evangelical environmentalist concept of Creation Care).
- At the more radical end, any human interventions with nature must be avoided (an underlying argument why some NGO activists are arguing against man actively attempting to cool the planet through geo-engineering). Could man ever be trusted to protect the planet?
Underlying both of these environmental ethics positions is faulty logic. At the foundation of respect is the perception of intrinsic worth (dignity). Humans, in so far as they are human, have this worth and must be respected as ends in themselves (go back to Kant’s Groundwork, just after his third formulation of the categorical imperative). It is on the basis of human dignity that we attribute rights to help protect our worth and ensure mutual respect. We accord certain rights to animals in so far as we humanise them (most of us have no problem eating cows and pigs, but not cats and dogs). Outside of our attempt to humanise Mother Earth, does the planet have intrinsic worth (dignity)? Does biodiversity imply an integrity, a wholeness, that man must not interfere with? The whole question of sustainability being an ethical virtue hinges on this.
I do not believe that we should take respect for the planet as a moral principle or ethical virtue. I would argue that the planet has a utility (something with a price and thus not an intrinsic worth or dignity). Arguments for protecting biodiversity have also tried to determine an extrinsic value and economists like Nicholas Stern or those in the TEEB project have tried to quantify it. Arguing that lost biodiversity cannot be replaced is not arguing that the planet has a dignity (my 1975 CV2 cannot be replaced either). Trying to limit damage we may cause to things is normal, based not on ethical worth, but on economics or a preservational will.
Sustainable living has a value, no doubt (in the same way as being polite or being charitable), but it is not ethical (and any cunning environmental lobbying to frame it in such a way should be recognised as activist attempts at cementing a dangerous commonality). Sustainability is not an end in itself, but like that CV2, sustainable living may make me feel good. Extrinsic worth is built into the definition of sustainability: that we don’t use everything up. Saving something for my children does make me feel good, but it doesn’t make me a moral being, and it doesn’t morally oblige me.
I also mentioned that environmental ethics is a clever activist strategy. By creating the perception of an integrity, purity, and innocence of Mother Earth, environmental activists are undermining the role science has taken since the days of Francis Bacon (to protect humanity from the ravages of nature). Nature, through pestilence, diseases, storms or earthquakes, has threatened humanity from the beginning of time. To protect man (in his integrity and dignity), science has developed medicines and means of resistance to nature. By trying to present nature as a moral being, victimised by man, with science needing to be controlled or prohibited (on ethical grounds!) is clever. It is also reprehensible and the potential consequences of such an attitude are dire.
Today, many people in developing countries are dying from diseases or catastrophes that science has developed solutions for (eg, through seed technologies, crop protection materials, chemicals and disinfectants …), but which environmentalists are attempting to limit on the basis of some ethical puritanism. It is not the first time that religious zealots, acting on a belief of moral purity and elitism, have caused great harm and injustice.
In short, environmental ethics seems to have led man to become quite unethical!
In the third part of the Risk-Monger’s summer series on ethics and the environment, arriving later this week, the concept of selling indulgences to absolve one of unsustainable living shall be examined.David Zaruk