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In 1992 countries met at the Earth Summit to crack a strategy for dealing with the environment. There was one issue that was the ‘key’ issue which was not on the agenda at all… population growth. It was left off because the Vatican and various Muslim countries didn’t want it on the agenda.
There is controversy to what extent growing population is the cause of environmental degradation. Economic growth is arguably more of a threat than population growth in itself.
Nevertheless it is true that population growth has boomed. 2000 years ago, 200 million people lived here. 200 years ago, it was at 1 billion. By 1950 it was at 2.5 billion. By 1990 it doubled. 1990’s another 1 billion net increased occurred. It’s predicted that by 2020 there will be about 8.5 billion, by 2050 there will be about 10 billion people on the planet and should level off between 11 and 14 billion around 2100.
Why will it level off? Part of the reasons is that there are limited resources which could bring about a crash or something like that, but the rate of replacement will decrease by this time. As people become more educated and as there are more social services, and with women’s rights and birth control increase there will be dramatic decreases of the birth rate.
Even in developing countries the birth rate is already decreasing, but even so there are still billions of people that are under reproduction age, and they won’t start reproducing for a few years, so even with the decrease of the population birth rate, there will still be a shoot up before the number levels off.
The controversy is progressively becoming less controversial as we can see that carbon levels have dramatically increased as the population dramatically increases. Also, logic says the more people there are – the more resources we’re going to use.
What are our obligations to the environment then? Animals share certain characteristics with human beings in particular they are conscious. They have desires and such therefore we ought to apply some level of moral standards that we apply to humans. But what then of all those elements that are not sentient? The rational dividing line was always the ability to suffer. If you can’t suffer then you have no interests to take into account. But there have been various environmental ethicise that say we need to expand our obligation to the non-sentient world.
Rachel Carson opened us up to the scientific side with Silent Spring, where Aldo Leopold looked at the philosophical side. His book Sand County Almanac came out in 1949, around the time he died and in it Leopold argues that we have to expand the circle of moral considered to the biosphere or ‘the land’ as he refers to it. An ethic ecologically is an ethic as it pertains to consciously putting limits on our behaviour. We ought not to kill each other; we limit that behaviour within ourselves. He suggests that we need to extend these ethics to include the ecosystems as these also struggle for life. This extension of ethics is an evolutionary possibility and an ecological necessity.
It is also something that advances our own possibilities of survival. Leopold sees the extension of moral obligations to the ecosystems is in line with our moral obligation to evolution. It is also an ecological necessity because of the impact we’re having on the natural environment. The land ethic enlarges our community to include soils, waters, plant, animals and particularly communities of creatures. He says that the land ethic requires a psychological shift from the idea that we are conquerors of the land to the fact that we are just citizens of the biotic community. We are parts of the evolutionary ecosystems, therefore just as the way to treat other human beings to respect them, we must respect other aspects of the natural world. The economic system, as presented by Max Baxter, is invested in self interest and is thus lopsided, it tends to ignore and thus eliminate anything that lacks commercial value. It assumes falsely that economic parts will function the same as the non-economic parts, it is all necessary for the functioning of a whole.
It is not good enough to leave this up to governments, Leopold argues. It is something that we all have to take on as a personal responsibility. We have to internalize this ethic, and understand the capacities of ecosystems. Therefore his key line is “a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise”.
Now, this in a moment’s reflection will show that this is a holistic environmental ethics. It is not focused on the intrinsic values of individuals, it is not a Kantian ethic in that sense, and it focuses on the health of eco-systems. It is in some sense, akin to utilitarianism, as it promotes the health of the whole; however that health has nothing to do with experiencing happiness. Basically Leopold asks us to simply stop thinking of the environment in purely economic terms. This anthropocentric approach, however, is more realistic because this is how people think.
So is the land ethic realistic? Or hopelessly idealistic?
Ones own self interest is to have clean water, not to have clean water for the bees and the pine trees. People will rarely do the right thing, unless they see a direct benefit in it for themselves. In some sense there no real big difference between Baxter and Leopold. The basic line comes down to conservation for the benefits. If you use Baxter’s argument, you’ll be more likely to fulfill Leopold’s bottom line.
Leopold’s bottom line does raise some challenging and perplexing questions…
Doesn’t nature evolve with constant change? Why is it good to preserve stability? And what is beauty? Is a desert as beautiful as a horse? In regards to animals such as the Pere David deer, do we have an obligation to reintroduce these species back into the environment? What if humans hunted zebra for their pretty stripes, would it then be wrong if we can genetically engineer them to have no stripes to stop the hunting? We’re not preserving the beauty, but we’re still preserving the animal.
J. Baird Callicott of the University of North Texas takes on the task of defending the land ethic. What’s surprising is that UNT is a hotbed for environmental philosophy. The journal of environmental ethics is published here and has attracted many environmental philosophers, to
Collicott has written extensively on environmental ethics, particularly defending the land ethic. He points to the fact that generally speaking the study of morality has been seen as uniquely human. It has set us apart from the rest of nature. What gives us the capacity to be moral creatures is reason. This is like Kant; who, as we know, argued that our ability to be moral rational agents set us apart from the rest of animals. The general idea is that humans are moral beings and this gives us a special worth in the world. And our language is also something that sets us apart; we can hold one another accountable and live by moral principles. (Sorry, I have to say it… Raptors had the ability to reason and communicate and were probably smarter than humans…)
Collicott later pulls on Darwin. One idea of morality is that it came from god; god gave us the difference between right and wrong. However supernatural explanations are literally nothing, the purple unicorn in the corner can’t vouch for your theory. Collicott makes the point that reason seems to depend on language, and that language would not have developed apart from humans living in society. So if reason can not evolve without linguistics and linguistics could not have happened without being social beings, in order to be these social beings we must have had limitations on our actions, before being these rational moral agents. Being social beings, we already have ethical limitations on our behaviour. If reason depends on being social and being social depends on having limitations it can’t be the case that reason gave rise to morality. Hence we must have become ethical before we became rational.
This is where Darwin comes in. Darwin, like Hume and Smith (*shudders* I detest Adam Smith, I have read waaaay too much of his stuff), argue that ethics rest on feelings or sentiments. The basis of our systems and notions of reality is sentiment, it is built within us. We have a natural disposition to apply the golden rule and empathize with others in their suffering and their well being. This sentiment with other people is the basis of morality. This is then informed by reason. Darwin takes this and argues that morality is to be found in many animals that are social by nature. Whether they be crows or lions, animals that live together in families or groups develop a sense of well being for others – it is naturally selected for.
We all sort of know Darwin’s basic idea of evolution but, I’ll just do a quick reminder – any species, different individuals have different characteristics, he noted that in any population there is an excess of those born or produced than what survive. The question is then, which are likely to survive? The ones that have a characteristic that gives them an advantage in their particular environment. The individuals which are better adapted are more likely to pass on those characteristics to the offspring which will ultimate produce a ‘better fit’ population in the future.
For animals that live in groups, coming to one anothers aid gives the individuals a better chance for survival, so that mutual aid and sentimental attachment to one another is selected for by nature. The origins of ethics is not with human reason, it starts before humans become humans. It can be found today in crows or bunnies.
Darwin’s account begins with the affections between parent and children common to perhaps all mammals. Darwin does not say that hyenas have the same level of morality of humans, but the difference between humans and non-humans is in a degree.
Collicott takes all this and says that Leopold’s land ethic’s basis is a Copernican cosmology, in other words, we are not at the centre at the universe. He tries to argue that the land ethic of Leopold is in line with evolution, particularly in line with the evolution of morality. We are one species on the earth, which is one planet, which is in one solar system, which is in one universe…of many universes. The extension beyond human concern is rooted in the natural history of ethics. The logic of the land ethic is that natural selection has equipped us with an effective moral response to identity. The land is a community, so a land ethic is not only possible, but is also necessary because we have developed the ability to destroy the integrity of it.
This then indicates that Singer and Reagan’s previous arguments toward animal rights are inadequate. The boundaries of the moral communities in cahoots with sentience do not take into account the interaction with the non-sentient world. Ethics like those of Singer or Reagan are based on extending the egotistical concern for ones self. The contemporary animal liberation rights and ethics of the kind in Singer and Reagan extend the classical paradigm of Kant and Bentham and extend it to non-human beings.
But this standard is too traditional, and bases too much consideration on modern capacities. This provides no moral consideration for holes, and ecosystems. Species do have interests as species. Endangered species, the biosphere of its totality, ecosystems and holes having no psychological experience, it doesn’t suffer or reason so it has no mental capacity thus we can’t deal with our obligations to the natural environment based on these ethics. Nature is not amoral, intelligent moral behaviour is natural.
We are not rational beings in spite of, but in accordance with nature.
So is the land ethic deontological? Or credential? It is both, self consistently both. It applies to someone who has absorbed the ethical view of nature and will internalize this attitude. The land ethic is a set of principles to follow because it is moral. From the objective and analytic point of view, there is no other way for land to survive with man acting irresponsibly, and no way for man to survive without the land. It is a categorical imperative. It is a moral principle to be obeyed, and it is in our best self interest to obey it.