Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Protecting the Environment

My second major paper for my Nature and Human Values class last semester. Enjoy.
(Paper automatically copyrighted 2009 by Oliver Chase, and will also be caught by turnitin.com if you try to plagiarize for your paper...)

Why Nature Deserves Ethical Treatment

Aldo Leopold and John R. E. Bliese, respective authors of “The Land Ethic” and “Traditionalist Conservatism and Environmental Ethics,” argue that humans have an obligation to protect planet Earth. In other words, there’s something wrong about injuring the natural world. However, they do not agree exactly how much responsibility we have or why. Leopold argues that treating the land ethically is necessary for the good of the planet. Bliese somewhat agrees, but additionally sees this treatment as a respect for the land God has created.

Although Leopold and Bliese both reach the same conclusion on protecting the environment, Bliese has the stronger argument. Leopold’s reasoning has good points, but it doesn’t really compel the individual person to treat the land better. Without a source for morality, the reader is left wondering why nature should matter to him personally. Bliese has the better argument, as he has found a deeper, more universally appealing, and more personally compelling reason to protect nature, namely a relationship between God and man.

Aldo Leopold’s paper tries to convince the world that we need a “land ethic” (239). He claims that there were many fewer people who received moral treatment hundreds of years ago. Each person looked out mostly for himself and a few other individuals, and his moral duties expanded only gradually. Over time, humans have come to extend moral treatment to the communities they live in and their nations. Along the way, they have elevated women and slaves from pure property to people deserving of moral consideration. Leopold says that it’s time for another extension: to the land itself.

To answer why a land ethic is needed, one must first understand Leopold’s conception of ethics. Leopold views ethics based on community: “All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts. His instincts prompt him to compete for his place in the community, but his ethics prompt him also to co-operate” (239). In this light, an action is right when it benefits the community, which indirectly benefits the individual.

It is clear in Leopold’s mind that human society depends on a healthy environment. He explains this in the concept of the biotic pyramid. Simply put, there is a flow of energy from the simplest life to the top of the food chain, humans, that is very complex. Indeed, “the biotic mechanism is so complex that its working may never be fully understood” (Leopold 241). As humans ultimately depend on nature for food and resources, it’s unwise to make changes to these relationships. Breaking or stressing the connections too much could imbalance nature and lead to disaster.

Because of this dependency, it makes sense to Leopold that harming the land is equivalent to harming humans directly. For this reason, Leopold includes the land in the moral community, thus mandating that it receives ethical treatment. The problem is that modern society does a poor job of preserving nature. We can’t get people to take care of the environment by merely educating them; they will act in self-interest regardless of how they are taught. The economy only protects the profitable parts of nature, but does little for those considered worthless. Trees are not planted unless there’s an economic motive; certain ecosystems, like bogs and deserts, are left unmanaged and frequently harmed. Eventually the land will recover, but it may not be as healthy or useful as before. Left solely to individuals’ self-interest, the environment is not adequately protected.

To compensate for this carelessness, Leopold wants humans to consciously think about the impact their actions have on the environment. He says, “Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and esthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient” (Leopold 262). Perhaps if the fundamental way of thinking about the world is changed, people will better evaluate the environmental costs of their lifestyles. Just as murder harms society, unnecessarily harming nature hurts the biotic community and is wrong. Ultimately Leopold’s argument is holistic (based on the entire earth) or even anthropocentric (based on humans); it is based on the idea that we need a fully healthy environment for the good of society or the larger community of which we’re part.

Contrast Leopold’s basis for the ethical requirement to conserve nature to that of John R. E. Bliese. While Leopold makes his claim from the concept of a biotic community, Bliese sees preservation as a result of nature’s divine creation. Bliese explains that conservatives are friends of the environment by going through several key conservative principles. Three in particular stand out as to why conservation is wise: piety toward nature, social contract across generations, and prudence.

Bliese’s main point deals with piety toward nature. For Bliese, conservatives see the world as the creation of a supernatural being, which he leaves unnamed, but hints to be the Christian God. The realization that the world is a gift from this creator then calls humanity to act piously, with “a sense of restraint into [our] behavior … toward nature” (Bliese 144). This knowledge should limit what man does to nature. It’s not something to just trample or conquer for selfish purposes. Instead, it is to be treated with care and respect, as a divine creation should be treated.

Bliese also believes that conservatives have an obligation to future generations and that this view in turn spills over into environmental considerations. His moral sphere, if you will, is expanded to include the interests of people still to come. As this increase in moral duty is quite general, it can be applied in many areas. The implication for nature is that it is to be preserved for the enjoyment and/or use of future generations. Ruining it now would be doing our children and grandchildren an injustice and should therefore be avoided.

Finally Bliese deals with the virtue of prudence. In this case, prudence boils down to being cautious with complex things. Because the environment is so complex and interconnected, it is unwise to go tampering with it. The effects are unknown, and we have obligations to our offspring. Instead of making hasty changes, society must carefully analyze its decisions to avoid ruining the environment. Leopold implied this as well, as Bliese’s description of prudence is very similar to the concept of destabilizing the environment and harming the community.

Leopold and Bliese come to similar conclusions. There is something wrong about making choices without thinking about the impact on the environment. Bliese has better support for this conclusion on a number of levels, however. The first issue of contention is on the value of an individual object, be it animal, plant, human, or nonliving. In building his whole definition of ethics upon the idea of community, Leopold deprives individuals of intrinsic value in isolation. Without an interdependence with the rest of a system (for example, if life were found on a comet), an individual is nothing. It derives a value from its role in stabilizing the whole of nature but nothing from its mere existence.

Many modern Americans would object to this devaluation of individuals, but the problem goes away entirely when a creator is presupposed. As His masterpiece, every single bit of creation would have a value of its own, derived from God Himself. Bliese correctly recognizes this fact in quoting Richard Weaver, who states, “The creation of a benevolent creator is something good” (145). The collective planet has a worth of its own, to be sure, but the last plant on earth would still deserve to live as long as it could on sunlight alone. Each individual requires ethical consideration.

One could easily object to Bliese that if all of nature is special, how are we permitted to use any of it at all? Though Bliese doesn’t explicitly address this issue in his paper, he does hint that some uses are better than others. For example, he has a major problem with materialism, collecting stuff that we don’t really need. Wise use of environmental resources, without real impact on future generations or ecosystem stability, is probably more acceptable if done out of necessity (building a house) rather than selfishness (building a mansion). Another distinction that others have used is in the types of resources. Animals may be considered more ethically important than plants for instance. Plants were originally given to man for food (The Holy Bible: New International Version, Gen. 1:29), and possess a different type of soul than animals (Todhunter). Nonliving matter has even less spiritual significance. So it’s not that we can’t use any resources, but we should use the less valuable ones whenever possible: those that are renewable, derived from plants, or completely lifeless.

What is the worth of humans? Leopold sees humans as just another piece of the natural system, an animal, while Bliese sees us as God’s greatest creation, and with that comes a duty to the rest of the world. God placed us here to rule and “work [the earth] and take care of it” (The Holy Bible: New International Version, Gen. 2:15). Even non-Christians typically like to think of humans as having something special differentiating us from the rest of the animal kingdom. To reduce us to animal status actually reduces our ethical obligation. If man is completely natural, his actions should be natural as well, no more ethical or unethical than those of the next creature. To what degree are our actions calculated to cause harm to the community, and to what degree are they simply a natural part of life? Man cannot be both inside the community and special at the same time. The problem can be avoided by recognizing, like Bliese, that man has a special place in the world. If we are here to protect and take care of the planet, then an action would be wrong when it causes the planet harm. Man’s actions are then no longer purely natural, and can be evaluated ethically.

Leopold’s argument either distorts or entirely ignores Christianity. Twice he refers to the Decalogue as being a human-inspired set of rules for improving individual relationships. The Golden Rule does nothing more than extend these rules to all of society. There’s no real weight behind them for someone who doesn’t care about the “community” from the start. Those who see the Bible as the literal, inspired Word of God are more attracted to Bliese, who sees a parallel between a right relationship with nature and a right relationship with God. In a nation that still pays at least lip service to God, basing an ethical responsibility on Him is stronger than on some abstract community concept.

Perhaps an example can demonstrate how Bliese’s argument is more powerful. The question at hand is whether a person is doing anything ethically wrong in purchasing a fur coat, of, say, a rare Siberian tiger. Most would agree that there’s something immoral here. But why? As Leopold would say, one reason is that if too many tigers are killed, the balance of nature will be upset. Since we all rely on this balance, mass poaching ultimately hurts society and is wrong. This does nothing to prevent breeding tigers for their coats, however, provided that it’s done in enough isolation to prevent harming the rest of the biotic community.

By giving the individual tiger a value, however, buying the coat can become even more wrong. Bliese’s plea for prudence agrees that it’s unethical to tamper with ecosystems we don’t fully understand, especially as it may harm future generations. Even more fundamentally, however, that tiger was a unique creation with a value all by itself. Humans are supposed to be taking care of the planet, not needlessly conquering it. To kill the tiger just for vain, materialistic purposes is an impious, even sinful, act indeed.

From one angle or another, it is clear that humans should evaluate their actions based on the impact those actions will have on the environment. It’s simply the right thing to do. For those people that don’t yet think this way, however, the reasoning behind this conclusion is very important. Bliese’s argument revolves around an existing relationship between a creator God and mankind, present and future. Leopold’s argument revolves around a new relationship between man and nature, dropping man’s status in the process. This new relationship has no precedent and is harder to swallow. At least in this nation, with a Christian heritage and an overwhelming belief in some god or another, a new land ethic needs to pass through the filter of religion before society will change its ways.

Works Cited

Bliese, John R. E. "Traditionalist Conservatism and Environmental Ethics." Environmental Ethics 19.2 (1997): 139-41.

The Holy Bible: New International Version. Grand Rapids: Zondervan House, 1984.

Leopold, Aldo. "The Land Ethic." A Sand County Almanac. New York: Ballantine Books, 1966.

Todhunter, Michael. "Do Leaves Die?" Answers in Genesis. 06 Sept. 2006. 26 Mar. 2009 .

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