Environmental Ethics in a Post-Natural World

Western environmental ethics place tremendous value on “natural” places to the detriment of the built environment most people inhabit. What might a philosophy that recognizes the value of human activity offer to environmentalism?


The built environment that people inhabit has traditionally been left out of environmental thought, creating a dramatic divide between the types of environment we consider worth protecting and those we find disposable.

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In Thinking Like a Mall (MIT Press, 2015), Steven Vogel argues that rather than concerning itself with an abstract concept of “nature,” environmentalism needs to consider the built environment people inhabit. He suggests that the concept of nature as distinct from the built environment may actually be damaging to environmental thinking, as it requires an all-or-nothing approach to preserving the environment. The following excerpt is from chapter one, “Against Nature.”

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Environmentalism, both as theory and as practice, has traditionally been concerned above all with nature. Its focus is on protecting nature against the harms generated by human action. The “environment” it wishes to defend is not the built environment of cities, or the technological infrastructure that modernity seems to require—although many of us live in urban environments, and the technologies of modernity might be said in a deeper sense to “environ” us all. It is not the nuclear power plants and toxic waste dumps and gridlocked highways surrounding us that environmentalists want to protect but rather the natural environment—an environment that these things instead are said to threaten. Environmental protection means the protection of nature, and environmental harm means harm to nature. The destruction of something built by humans, such as a skyscraper or a dam, does not by itself count as environmental damage. Of course, such destruction may have harmful environmental consequences, but this only means consequences that are harmful to nature.

Environmental philosophy reflects this concern. Its central theme is to find an appropriate way to understand and defend the ontological and ethical status of nature. Richard Routley, in one of the essays that founded the field, wrote that an environmental ethic is one concerned with “setting out people’s relations to the natural environment.” Holmes Rolston in 1988 called for “an ethics that appropriately ‘follows nature.’” J. Baird Callicott’s first essay on the topic, published in 1989, asserted that “an environmental ethic is supposed to govern human relations with nonhuman natural entities.” Paul Taylor began his 1986 book Respect for Nature by writing that “environmental ethics is concerned with the moral relations that hold between humans and the natural world.” Christopher Stone in a 1972 law review article anticipated modern concerns by proposing that “we give legal rights...to the natural environment as a whole.” Even Andrew Light, who has criticized the narrow focus of environmental philosophers on the “value of nature,” still offers a defense of environmental restoration projects on the grounds that they help to “restore...the human connection to nature.” Environmental ethicists who want to expand the reach of moral considerability beyond its traditional limitation to humans speak of the “rights of nature”; they do not, typically, worry about the rights of bridges or of toasters. The “environment” spoken of by environmental philosophers is the natural environment; the built environment, even though most of us actually live in it, is not generally part of their concern.

And yet to be concerned with the protection of nature, under conditions of modern technological development, is inevitably to worry that it might be too late, that nature might already have ended. This was the famous thesis of Bill McKibben’s 1989 book, The End of Nature. The real core of the environmental crisis, McKibben claimed, was that nature itself had literally been destroyed. Particularly as the result of large-scale climate changes produced by human technologies, he suggested—especially global warming caused by the burning of fossil fuels and damage to the ozone layer caused by the use of chlorofluorocarbons—we have entered a new historical stage in which no square inch of Earth can any longer correctly be called “natural.” Human intervention has affected everything, and so everything in the world is different from what it would otherwise, “naturally,” be. The temperature at the top of Mount Everest or in the depths of the Arctic Ocean or anywhere else is now different from what it would have been had humans not transformed the atmosphere; to be in one of these places on a warm day is to be, McKibben writes, “in the equivalent of a heated room.” No place is natural any longer, and so the entire environment has become in a certain sense a built environment. “We have changed the atmosphere and so we are changing the weather,” McKibben writes. “By changing the weather, we make every spot on earth man-made and artificial. We have deprived nature of its independence, and that is fatal to its meaning. Nature’s independence is its meaning; without it there is nothing but us.” The trees he sees outside his window in the Adirondacks, he sadly concludes, although they look natural, no longer really are. In the context of global warming and acid rain, they are hothouse trees, whose growth and health depend on human action.

Without Nature, What Should Environmentalism Protect?

But if nature has ended, then it isn’t clear any longer what environmentalism is supposed to protect. Without nature, an environmental theory or practice oriented toward nature’s protection has nothing left to do: the game is up, and we (and nature) have simply lost. If McKibben is right, defending nature makes no more sense than defending the Holy Roman Empire or rooting for the Brooklyn Dodgers. His argument appears deeply pessimistic (and self-defeating) in its implications: it can only lead to sadness about what has been lost, but not to any positive environmental policies at all. After the end of nature, it seems, there’s not much for environmental thinking to do except to mourn, and perhaps to think about what was lost and why. For nature once ended cannot be restored. The philosopher Eric Katz has made this point quite strongly, arguing emphatically against the idea of “ecological restoration,” which in a famous essay he calls a “big lie.” Those who work to repair damaged ecosystems or to re-create ones that have been destroyed by human action, he asserts, fail to see that all they are producing are simulacra, artifacts built by human beings for human purposes. Such restoration projects might reproduce particular flora and fauna, and even ecosystemic functioning, Katz argues, but what cannot (ever) be reproduced is the area’s naturalness. For once humans have transformed an area, that naturalness is gone forever.

The end of nature, then, once it has occurred can never be reversed. And so if environmentalism is concerned with protecting nature, then if McKibben is right environmentalism is simply over; there is no role for it any more. One answer to this might be to suggest that McKibben’s point is a rhetorical exaggeration, that nature is not yet quite gone, and to take him to be warning us against a potential consequence that is already uncomfortably close to becoming actualized. Yet there are difficulties with this response, not the least of which is that McKibben’s argument really is quite convincing, and seems not to involve much exaggeration at all. The temperature likely is different everywhere on Earth from what it would have been had humans not spent more than two centuries burning fossil fuels at an unprecedented rate, and so one would be hard-pressed to find those few last remnants of nature that might still exist somewhere, or to figure out how to “protect” them from the influence of anthropogenic atmospheric processes. The impact of human activity on Earth has clearly been enormous.

But a different response to the pessimism McKibben’s thesis seems to generate is possible, one that does not deny nature’s end but rather wonders why that end should entail the end of environmental concern. Supposing for the sake of argument that his thesis were literally true, one might ask: would the fact that there is no nature any longer mean that environmental considerations had suddenly become irrelevant—for example, that further global warming ought not to be prevented, or that the destruction of atmospheric ozone was no longer something to be criticized, or that the dumping of toxic wastes into waterways was now fine? Wouldn’t one expect a good environmentalist to continue to oppose those processes not only for anthropocentric reasons but because of what they do to the environment, “unnatural” though that environment would now turn out to be? If the entire environment has become a built environment, would that not then mean that it was time to think about an environmentalism of the built environment? Indeed, one might even start to wonder whether the emphasis on the protection of nature—if nature is gone, or even if nature is simply going—might actually be an obstacle to clear environmental thinking: if most or all of the world that “environs” us is not natural, shouldn’t it be the built environment, and not nature, that is the focus of our environmental concern? Might not worry about nature seem more like a diversion from the central issues? Such considerations, perhaps surprisingly, suggest that the idea that environmental thought must be oriented toward the protection of nature might in fact be mistaken, and that instead there might be a role for environmental philosophy after the end of nature. Thinking through this suggestion is our project.

When Did Nature End? The Problem of Wilderness

The idea that an environmentalism focused on nature finds itself oddly unable to say anything about the real and pressing problems that arise within the environments that humans actually inhabit (and have already transformed) is one that authors such as William Cronon have explored with respect to the notion of wilderness. Cronon and others, such as Ramachandra Guha and J. Baird Callicott, have argued against the central role that wilderness and the protection of wilderness have played in American environmentalist discourse. “Wilderness” functions conceptually in that discourse just as “nature” does for McKibben: it refers to that part of the land that has not been settled or transformed by human action. An enormous amount of practical and theoretical energy, these authors suggest, is spent on trying to protect wilderness against its destruction by human alteration. Cronon, Guha, and Callicott all note the uniquely American character of this concern for wilderness and relate it to a national historical narrative that begins with the first European settlers encountering an entirely wild continent and then, decade by decade, taming it and pushing back the frontier. While earlier versions of this narrative emphasized the bravery and heroism of those settlers and celebrated the process whereby nature was “civilized,” more recent versions—of which McKibben’s can serve as an example—are marked by a palpable nostalgia for the nature that was lost, a nostalgia that is evident in the call to preserve those few remnants of the original wilderness that can still be found. Most other continents have a very different history of human habitation, however, and thus for most other nations, whose connection with the land they inhabit dates from “time immemorial” rather than from a recent date such as 1492, the concept of wilderness does not play as significant a role.

Such an argument shows the culturally bounded character of the appeal to wilderness, relativizing it to a particular kind of historical experience. But furthermore, as Callicott and Cronon and others have pointed out, it is simply false that that the continent encountered by the first European settlers was a wilderness. Tens of millions of people were living in North and Central America in the year Europeans call 1491, with a long history of interaction with the land. The landscapes the first Europeans thought of as unspoiled wilderness had in fact already been transformed by the activities of those humans who lived in them through agriculture, hunting, the building of shelters, religious rituals, and so forth, just like landscapes anywhere else in the world. The forests of New England, the prairies of the upper Midwest, the mounds of the Mississippi Valley, the cliff structures of Arizona and New Mexico, all took the forms they did because of the influence of human activity. Even the wildlife encountered by the colonists showed the effects of the hunting patterns of the aboriginal humans who lived there. The myth that pre-Columbian America was an example of pristine nature, or that the history of European settlement has been one in which a wilderness was humanized, reflects a kind of deep historical amnesia. And, of course, the disappearance of those tens of millions of indigenous inhabitants from the American historical self-understanding is not merely a matter of conceptual erasure. One of the most significant environmental effects of the European colonization of North America was the death—especially through European-originated illnesses, to which the aboriginal peoples had no immunity—of up to 90 percent of the indigenous population. (William Denevan calls it “probably the greatest demographic disaster ever.”) Arguably it was only because of this massive depopulation that it even became possible to view the North American continent as a pure wilderness: the land seemed unpopulated by humans simply because they had died.

The amnesia here thus has what Callicott calls an “ethnocentric”—perhaps a better word would be racist—element. For whether the history of the American environment is to be understood as the history of the human civilization of nature (as in the positive version of the story) or as the history of the human destruction of wilderness (as in the negative version), the only way such an account can be made consonant with the inconvenient fact that millions of people were already living in, and changing the landscape of, North America in 1492 is by treating those people as themselves “natural” or “wild,” as somehow existing on the other side of the human/nature dichotomy—which means: as not human. Guha finds this racism also at work in what he sees as an Orientalist tendency in environmental thought to extol indigenous or third world cultures for somehow being more “in touch” with nature than Western ones: when those cultures live on the land, apparently, they do not “civilize” or “humanize” it because they are taken to be natural themselves in a way that Westerners, for better or worse, are not.

Wilderness Versus Intentional Use

But the point of showing that the landscape of 1491 was no wilderness is not to push the moment when wilderness (or nature) disappeared even further back into the mists of time but to raise the question of why finding pristine wilderness should seem so important—and of what the search for it might prevent us from thinking about as well. For as Callicott and Guha and Cronon all argue, to emphasize wilderness protection is at the same time to deemphasize, or even to ignore, the problem of determining a way for human beings to live in an environment in a sustainable and ecologically healthy manner. From the point of view of wilderness protection, all humanized landscapes are unnatural, and so talk about what sort of human activity might be best for a landscape is irrelevant or even meaningless. “If we conceive of wilderness as a static benchmark of pristine nature in reference to which all human modifications may be judged to be more or less degradations,” Callicott writes, “then we can duck the hard intellectual job of specifying the criteria for land health in four-dimensional, inherently dynamic landscapes long inhabited by Homo sapiens as well as by other species.” Guha asserts that in India, the notion of preserving wilderness has led, among other effects, to the displacement of poor farmers from their traditional land as conservation parks are carved out for the protection of wildlife, and thus has “resulted in a direct transfer of resources from the poor to the rich.” He contrasts American environmentalists’ concern with wilderness, which “is a distinctively American notion, born out of a unique social and environmental history,” with Indian or German Green environmentalism, which sees itself as concerned with restructuring a global economic system, and global patterns of consumption, in a way that would allow humans to live and work in ways that are both ecologically sustainable and globally just.

Cronon makes similar points, writing that:

“The dream of an unworked natural landscape is very much the fantasy of people who have never themselves had to work the land to make a living—urban folk for whom food comes from a supermarket or restaurant instead of a field, and for whom the wooden houses in which they live and work apparently have no meaningful connection to the forests in which trees grow and die. Only people whose relation to the land was already alienated could hold up wilderness as a model for human life in nature, for the romantic ideology of wilderness leaves precisely nowhere for human beings actually to make their living from the land.”

Human beings are by definition left out of wilderness, and so if wilderness is to be our model for environmental thinking, then that thinking will (paradoxically) have nothing to say about human beings and their own activities—except, of course, to insist that they make sure those activities do not encroach on wilderness areas. But then, Cronon concludes, “we thereby leave ourselves little hope of discovering what an ethical, sustainable, honorable human place in nature might actually look like.”

Indeed, one might even argue that the appeal to wilderness functions as a kind of alibi: by protecting wilderness, we can excuse ourselves from responsibility for the environmental consequences of our own actions within the human, nonwild, world. The built environment is already fallen, and so no work we might do to prevent or remedy environmental damage there does anything to remove the stain of sin, a stain that comes from not being wild. And so for this sort of view, as for McKibben’s, an environmentalism of the built environment makes no sense. But as Cronon writes, “the majority of our most serious environmental problems start right here, at home, and if we are to solve these problems, we need an environmental ethic that will tell us as much about using nature as about not using it.” The trouble with emphasizing wilderness, he complains, is that it “tends to cast any use as abuse, and thereby denies us a middle ground in which responsible use and non-use might attain some kind of balanced, sustainable relationship.”

Environmental Ethics Without Wilderness

To recognize that the American view of wilderness is a myth is to realize that the history of the human transformation of nature is an old one indeed, and no less in North America than anywhere else in the world. But that means in turn that the “end of nature” that so worries McKibben might be something that happened a great deal longer ago than he thinks, that it is not the result of modern technological developments such as the burning of fossil fuels and the production of chlorofluorocarbons, or even of the European conquest of a previously pristine wilderness. Rather, the end of nature might be something that, in the Heideggerian phrase that seems relevant here, has always already happened. Finding a landscape with no history of human intervention seems difficult indeed, and every search for the imagined pristine landscape before such intervention seems destined to fail. The Adirondack forests whose naturalness McKibben worries is being destroyed because of the effects of acid rain and global warming are not, as he himself acknowledges, primeval ones; the colonists cut down the “original” forests they found in a failed attempt to turn the land into farmland. But those earlier forests, too, as Cronon and others have shown, were not primeval either, showing signs as they did of controlled burnings by the native population before the arrival of the first British explorers. And the history of that native population is itself long and complex, so one would be hard-pressed to specify the moment at which the forests were "first" touched by humans.

It seems as though whatever landscape human beings encounter turns out to be one that they have already transformed, and so the search for the “original” wilderness is always pushed back into the past, always deferred. Or rather perhaps the point is that one cannot encounter a landscape at all without transforming it, which is to say that there is no such thing as a human encounter with a landscape that does not leave that landscape different and hence does not “end nature” in McKibben’s sense. What happens, though, if the “end of nature” is something that took place many years ago—or, worse, if it is something intrinsic to the condition of human beings as creatures who live in the world, and whose practices cannot help but change that world? If McKibben turned out to be right about the end of nature but wrong about the date on which the end occurred, what would that mean for an environmentalism that saw its goal as nature’s protection? Would it turn out that such an environmentalism had always been misguided, having always been based on a mistake—worrying desperately about threats to something that had already ceased to exist millennia before, and perhaps had already, and necessarily, ceased to exist at the moment the first human appeared on the scene? Or would we rather not want to say, in such a case, that an environmentalism after the end of nature—which here would mean nothing other than an environmentalism for a world of humans, a human environmentalism—would be exactly what needs to be developed?

Excerpted from Thinking Like a Mall: Environmental Philosophy after the End of Nature by Steven Vogel, published by The MIT Press in 2015. Copyright Steven Vogel. All rights reserved.