Is There Justification for Rational Environmental Practices?

Introduction

In this paper, I will suggest that there are no intrinsic values in the world which would guide people to commit to sustainable ecological practices. I will also suggest that anthropocentrism causes many people to have distorted views of the natural environment. They fallaciously assign attributes such as “goodness” and “badness” to natural phenomena, whereas nature itself is value-neutral; such values reside only in peoples’ imaginations. In a similar anthropocentric distortion, many people incorrectly separate the “human world” from the “natural world,” as though humans were not themselves part of nature. If nothing that humans do can be considered “unnatural” (since they are part of nature) — and cannot be intrinsically “bad” — then how can we condemn practices that are destructive to the environment, and how can we justify the effort toward environmental sustainability? After attacking anthropocentrism and claims of objective value in the world, I will argue that alas, there is indeed justification for rational environmental practices.

The disaster fallacy

In many parts of the world, cold winter weather is a certainty. Without adequate shelter and heating, many people would suffer and die[1]. Society prepares for this reality (at least for its privileged members) by building heated homes and manufacturing warm clothing. Except for a rare extreme cold spell (and for those without an adequate home), cold weather is not considered a natural “disaster.”.

Similarly, darkness is a predictable natural phenomenon for which society is largely prepared. Night time is considered romantic, entertainment-conducive, optimal for highway maintenance, and sleep-conducive — certainly not disastrous. Yet without lighting, human activity (except sleeping) would mostly come to a standstill at night, having disastrous economic and social consequences.

Typical amounts of rain, for which people are prepared, are generally not disastrous but would be if they had no waterproof shelters. But downpours and flooding for which people are unprepared, because of lack of sufficient structures, are considered “natural disasters.”

Earthquakes are certain to occur in many parts of the world. They are a natural effect of the movement of tectonic plates, an integral feature of Earth’s geological equilibrium. When buildings are not sufficient to withstand the shaking, the event is deemed a “disaster.” But in locales with more stringent building codes, people say that “disaster” was averted when large earthquakes result in little or no damage.

What we can learn from these examples is that natural and certain phenomena are deemed by people to be either “natural disasters” or harmless, as though these were properties of the events themselves. But the relevant difference between cold weather and an earthquake is nothing intrinsic in these events, but rather the degree of human preparedness for their certainty. Why people do not prepare adequately for certain types of natural phenomena, whereas they do for others, is beyond the scope of this paper — but perhaps its related to how often such events occur relative to human lifespans. Daily or seasonal events may precipitate more preparation than those which only occur every few decades. Whatever the reasons for human action or inaction, nature is simply doing what nature does, people view nature’s events through their anthropocentric filters, attributing characterizations and value (negative, positive, good, bad, disastrous, etc.) to value-neutral natural phenomena.

The pollution fallacy

The designation “pollution” is a human attribute which is assigned when a contaminant is detrimental to humans or organisms that humans value. One might object to that claim of relativism by asserting that there is an objective standard for pollution independent of human attribution, viz., when an ecosystem in equilibrium is adversely disturbed by an invasive species or substance. But such disturbances are entirely common and natural. Volcanoes spew ash and minerals into the atmosphere, and lava onto land and water, disturbing ecosystems. We can call this “pollution,” however it’s not the meaning of pollution people intend when they speak of human induced pollution. Volcanic eruptions and their consequences are a natural part of the equilibrium of Earth’s ecological system of systems, and it would be entirely anthropocentric to label volcanic eruptions “bad” or “negative.”

What we have seen is that attribution of “pollution” in a negative sense is questionable, in that what is detrimental to one species may be helpful for another. The disruption of equilibrium in one system might be essential to the equilibrium of another or assure equilibrium in the system of systems. Fire in a Giant Sequoia forest might be disruptive to some species, but it is necessary for the health and reproduction of the Sequoias (National Park Service).

The nested level fallacy

An ecosystem can be defined as “the complex of living organisms, their physical [including abiotic] environment, and all their interrelationships in a particular unit of space” (Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.). If the unit of space we choose is the underside of particular leaf laying on the ground, we can study that ecosystem. We might discover that within that leaf litter ecosystem there resides a community of invertebrates which feed off the decomposing leaf, breaking it into yet smaller pieces. But if we zoom in on an even smaller unit of space, we might see microscopic organism such as bacteria and fungi which further decompose the leaf pieces, converting them into chemicals and minerals (Lin). On a larger scale, the forest floor contains many decomposing leaves, trees, and mammals which live in the forest. If we zoom out and define a larger unit of space, we see that forests themselves are part of a large ecosystem we call Earth. Some even argue that Earth is part of a larger ecosystem which consists of the entire universe, even though life may only be present in isolated locales. According to an eloquent blogger, Michael McGee:

It is profoundly unsatisfactory to describe the “universe” as anything other than an ecosystem. To claim that the universe is a non-reactive bunch of rocks and gas forever holding the form of a very large funnel, which has no intimate connection with the earth or our solar system, is simply not doing justice to what we see around us.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

. . . the universe is an ecological smear, which consists of both organic and non-organic components which form themselves into ecological niches. One might then say that our solar system is a large ecological niche, and the rural pond we dip our hand into is a smaller ecological niche. (Cosmology)

What I am suggesting is consistent with McGee’s argument. Ecosystems exist on nested levels, with the smallest being possibly a small as the smallest particles and the largest being as large as the entire universe (or conceivably, multiple universes). If one were to overturn the leaf on the forest floor exposing our leaf litter ecosystem to warm sunlight, one would have drastically altered its environment, destroying the equilibrium and many of the organisms therein residing which require shade and cool dampness. Yet, we would not normally lament the destruction of an ecosystem, in this case. But what about the case where an entire forest was clear-cut. Many would consider that to be terrible — an example of unsustainable environmental practice.

What is the distinction between altering an ecosystem on one nested level (the leaf litter) versus an ecosystem on a higher nested level (the forest)? I suggest that people themselves reside geographically more on the forest level, and thus have a skewed, anthropocentric perspective such that emphasis is placed on the forest while the many nested levels of physically smaller ecosystems within a forest are largely out of sight, and out of mind.

Similarly, ecosystems on higher nested levels, such as the Earth[2] and even the entire universe, are often unrecognized as ecosystems merely because they are so much larger than people (See Figs. 1 and 2). By analogy, McGee states:

The amoeba have no way whatsoever to communicate with us or send signals, because their tiny voices and minuscule radio sets don’t have enough volume to get past the surface of the pond in which they live. So, these Amoeba Scientists get nowhere in their quest for finding intelligent live elsewhere in their Amoebic Universe. So, they construct theories that there may be other forms of life “out there” but they haven’t yet been able to make contact, but maybe in the future they will. (Cosmology)

Figure 1. The Earth as an ecosystem. https://www.slideshare.net/palgar2012/the-earth-is-an-ecosystem-ii
Figure 2. “A Living Universe.” http://kultuur.info/blogi/en/2016/01/15/fabiola-garcia-exhibiton-a-living-universe/

The “humans are not part of the natural world” fallacy

People often speak of the “natural environment” and if it were distinct from the human environment. But humans are animals; they are merely part of the natural environment. It defies logic that people would characterize the behaviour and activities of other animals as “natural,” but the behavior of humans as “unnatural.” If intelligent beings from another planet observed Earth, I suggest that they would see cows doing what cows do, bears doing what bears do, birds doing what birds do, and people doing what people do. The story that people create, viz., that people are in a category distinct from the rest of the natural world, is mere fiction that exists only in human imagination. Admittedly, the human brain is arguably the most biologically complex brain. Indeed, such complexity is what allows for consciousness wherein imagination can create illusions, distortions, and explain the anthropocentrism described above[3].

What these examples show us

What I have shown with these four categories of examples, viz., the disaster fallacy, the pollution fallacy, the nested level fallacy, and the humans are not natural fallacy, is the following: People superimpose their timelines, cultural and social phenomena, self-interests, and physical size biases onto a natural world which is itself free of such values and which rather consists of mere matter and physical phenomena. Unless one has religious faith or theistic philosophy, the universe itself does not “care” what happens to people — whether they suffer, are happy, survive, or not. When a stable ecological equilibrium is disturbed, another will eventually take its place. Even if all life on Earth were destroyed, a new stable equilibrium would ensue. And to the cosmos, it really would not matter.

Are we left with nihilism?

If one accepts my analysis above, it might seem that much of what environmentally responsible people hold dear is questionable. If a forest is analogous to the litter under one leaf, but merely on a larger scale, than why would the forest (to which people tend to attach great importance) have more intrinsic value than the leaf (which goes unnoticed)? After all, there are many forests. If all forests were to disappear, or even the entire Earth ecosystem were obliterated, then why would it matter? There are likely other planets with life in the universe, and possibly even other universes. If we remove human attribution of value and subjective anthropocentrism from the picture, what remains are just physical processes with no objective meaning.

Moreover, since humans are part of the natural world, then is it not the case that anything and everything that human do is, by definition, natural? Is not clearcutting a forest or burning fossil fuels just as natural as a bear clawing a tree in the forest? By what objective criteria can we judge human activities to be anything other than the natural order of things, and the aversion some people have to a “degraded” environment nothing more than superimposition of anthropocentric distortions onto a valueless world of causal relationships?

The case for rational environmental practices

The answers to these questions can be found here: If humans are part of the natural world, as I have argued they are, then all features of humans must therefore be natural, including their rationality. According to contemporary philosopher John Searle:

Our account of the mind in all of its aspects — consciousness, intentionality, free will, mental causation, perception, intentional action, etc. — is naturalistic in this sense: . . . it treats mental phenomena as just a part of nature. We should think of consciousness and intentionality as just as much a part of the natural world as photosynthesis or digestion . . . (207)

The complex brain that engineers systems designed for fossil fuel extraction and combustion is also capable of understanding the consequences of such actions. Humans capable of the rational thought which is necessary to develop industry can also know that there is a limit to growth: Earth has a maximum load, i.e., the number of people that the environment can sustain given limits to food supplies and resources, and the effects of industrialization and pollution (Meadows, Meadows and Randers). People whose armaments can wipe out life on Earth are also capable of understanding the consequences of human behaviour, and capable of developing systems and policies which lead to preferable outcomes (even if the outcomes are only preferable in the minds of people). The sophisticated brain which creates systems for clearcutting forests also can experience qualia, e.g., what it is like to walk in a quiet forest, feel a mountain breeze, reflect on life, and feel peace.

What I have shown with the previous examples is that rational and sustainable behaviour is completely natural. Moreover, rational behaviour is natural in that it provides evolutionary advantage: A species with the mental capability to alter its environment in a disadvantageous way, but without the mental capability to assess the consequences of its actions and make adjustments, would not seem likely to survive in the long term. Further, to live in a sustainable way is to reject naïve anthropocentrism — of which I have been critical — wherein people mistakenly believe that they can consume resources and release waste with impunity.

It’s completely natural for rational humans to desire some states of equilibrium over another. Johan Rockstrom explains that nature indeed has many possible states of equilibrium, but if people cause a state change, the alternative state that results may not be one that they desire. Climate change and erosion, for example, are causing state change to new “biophysical logic” and new species; people are in danger of being locked into “undesired systems that cannot support economic and social development” (Rockstrom).

But in a philosophical sense, if there is no intrinsic value in life (as I previously suggested) — if the Earth is merely one small system in a multi-universal system of systems — why then does it matter what happens to life and to Earth? Perhaps we need to define matter in terms of to whom? Let’s hypothesize for a moment that there is no God (to whom the state of the Earth or of the human race might matter). The fact remains that illusion or not, the continuation of life seems to matter to people. This is why many people employ their natural rationality to understand how the physical world works, understand the consequences of their actions, educate others, and promote environmentally sustainable practices. Therefore, to say that the world is intrinsically valueless on one hand — and there is value in protecting the world on the other — are not inconsistent statements if we understand that value is not objective but is understood relative to a conscious subject, i.e., a human being. And if value is attributed by a mind which emerges from (or is identical to) a part of the natural world, then there is, after all, value in the natural world! It may be true that if there were no sentient beings, then there would be nothing and no one to care whether life on Earth continued or not, and what its quality was. But there are sentient beings, and they do care, and feel, and think rationally (if they so choose). And that’s sufficient reason to justify sustainable environmental practices.

Works Cited

Caditz, Michael Robert. “Modern Challenges to Eurocentric Metaphysics and Its Application.” 2017. Unpublished Paper.

Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. “Ecosystem.” 2018. Encyclopædia Britannica. Web. 3 May 2018. <https://www.britannica.com/science/ecosystem>.

Lin, Kevin. “Seasonal Science: What Lurks in the Leaf Litter?” 18 Oct 2012. Scientific American. Web. 3 May 2018. <https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/bring-science-home-leaf-litter-biodiversity/>.

McGee, Michael H. “Cosmology: The Universe as an Ecosystem.” n.d. MCGEEHOME. Web. 3 May 2018. <https://mcgeepost.com/2013/11/08/cosmology-is-it-true-part-four/>.

Meadows, Donella H., et al. The Limits to Growth. New York: Universe Books, 1972. Print.

National Park Service. “Giant Sequoias and Fire.” 1 March 2015. Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Web. 5 May 2018. <https://www.nps.gov/seki/learn/nature/fic_segi.htm>.

Rockstrom, Johan. “Let the environment guide our development.” 31 Aug 2010. YouTube. Ted Talks. Lecture. 5 May 2018. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RgqtrlixYR4>.

Searle, John R. Mind: A Brief Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Print.

[1] Indeed, homeless people do die from exposure.

[2] That Earth is a living ecosystem has traditionally been a foreign concept to western metaphysics, although his is changing due to science and education. Many North American indigenous cultures, such as the Anishinabek, have long viewed Earth as a living organism (Caditz).

[3] Materialist theories of human mind can generally be divided into those suggesting that the mind is identical to the brain, i.e., consciousness is nothing more than physical brain states; and emergent theories which suggest that consciousness is not identical to the brain but rather emerges from it. Not-materialist (dualist) theories of mind suggest that consciousness is not biological at all, but rather something immaterial.

New York Institute of Technology, Vancouver (MS-Energy Management); Vancouver Island University, Nanaimo, BC (BA-Philosophy)