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?


| August 2015



Escalators

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.

Photo by Fotolia/Rupert

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.

gregmarquis
9/3/2015 12:50:34 AM

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