Contrary to many environmental philosophies, I think it is important to recognise humans as occupying a special niche within nature. Eco-philosophies often have the assumption that humans are, in fact, indistinguishable from the rest of nature and the logical conclusion is that humans have no special rights to abstraction and interference. I think the logical conclusion is that humans also have no special responsibilities and, more damningly, that it leads to an eco-moral nihilism where all human behaviour (abstraction and interference included) is simply ‘ecology as normal’.
Deep Ecology, one of the more radical eco-philosophies, shares this basic spirit of assuming no special position for humans. Arne Naess, one of the founders (or, at least, popularisers of) Deep Ecology has concluded that human intervention should, therefore, be limited to vital human needs. This is because we have no right, according to Naess, to reduce the diversity or richness of nature. Deep Ecology, as an environmental ethic, strips itself of the ability to say this. One of the premises from which it advocates this minimal-interventionism is that of humanity’s “excessive” and “worsening” interactions with nature (Naess, 1995). But, if humans are atop no special niche, such evaluative language is entirely meaningless; the only thing that could be said is that, as far as Naess can see, humanity is living in a disequilibrium with nature. That is neither good nor bad, but simply ‘ecology as normal’.
I am not advocating ethical nihilism. I am simply pointing out that to truly take Deep Ecology’s “platforms” (not premises, apparently) seriously one must actually arrive at very different conclusions to the ones Naess and other advocates of Deep Ecology reach.
I think it is much more sensible to recognise humanity as being in a distinct ecological niche, clearly different from the niches of other species. All species have effected their niche; they are a part of the ecosystem and changed the way it functions by their presence. This happens through predation, release of toxins, eating plants and in some cases, like ants and beavers, the actual creation of physical structures. However, humans have some level of control over their ecology, in real terms. Human knowledge has allowed humans to adapt environments to their needs. There is even a proto-habitat in space (Deutsch, 2011). Human knowledge plays a very different role in shaping an ecology than the ecological function of other animals does. I think this is an important distinction, as the potential reach of human knowledge is vast, if not entirely unbounded. This gives us, not rights, but responsibilities.
It is only our knowledge that allows us to appreciate the interconnectedness and fragility of nature. Only knowledgeable explorations of ecosystems allow us to appreciate that how certain actions in the environment play out are unpredictable (at our current level of knowledge). It is only empathy and compassion that might implore us to imbue rights into other species. (Other animals may well have interspecies compassion.)
The minimalist intervention conclusion of eco-philosophies like Deep Ecology are not just irrational, they are deeply pessimistic. Arne Naess believes biodiversity is valuable in its own right, distinct from human needs. To conclude that humanity should not intervene with nature, from this premise, requires that readers bring a pessimistic premise about the essence of human interactions with nature. But, human knowledge and compassion are such that this is a wildly unnecessary premise. Humans do not just regulate against CFCs to mitigate their damage, they also reforest and afforest areas and there is a proposal for the ‘greening’ of the deserts; this means creating a rich and diverse ecosystem, where currently there is desert (Issar, 2010). Such actions have implications for carbon and climate change, as well. These sorts of interventions realise the value of biodiversity (if such a thing exists) much better than simple non-internvention.
In the context of The Moral Landscape (Harris, 2011), known to be what I think is a better explanation of ethics, this recognition of humans as occupying a special niche and how that affords humans responsibilities (telling humanity nothing of its rights) does limit itself, and offers some rather counter-intuitive eco-moral ideas. It does suggest that human intervention in nature should work towards the improvement of nature, with respect to species that are capable of wellbeing. (Elm trees are not capable of wellbeing, but their role in an ecosystem makes them vital to wellbeing.)
This ethic, coupled with a trend to not limit human population and wealth, leads to a counter-intuitive conclusion for an eco-philosophy: we should aim to occupy outer-space and leave geo-nature to itself. This is true as, in principle, it would be possible to create a source of gravity that harnesses matter from the universe (dust and hydrogen and alcohol) which we could then transmute into other materials to sustain a space-dwelling civilisation (Deutsch, 2011). In the short term, we are to live with geo-nature and the concept of ‘environmental management’ falls in the purview of geography and we can see our need to better get along with nature. However, in the future, environmental management and resource management could fall under the purview of astrophysics and nuclear physics; questions of how we harness things from space and how we transmute them into what we need.
In that short term, Harris’ qualms with eating meat (mahalodotcom, 2011) are relevant here. But the questions of veganism are important on even deeper levels: pastoral farming is very land intensive, land we could be putting to more biodiverse or practical purposes. Harris raises the image of “life in an abattoir” to start to unpick why this is a moral or ethical question. The distinctly important answer is that a balanced diet can be vegan. In the same way as meat eating is no guarantee of dietary health, veganism is no guarantee of dietary deficiency. One may defend meat-eating by saying that it is easier to get a balanced diet from meat, and therefore compare the wellbeing in abattoirs to that of having to plan meals in advance. I doubt that defence would ever have held up, but the analysis, so far as I can see, has never been done. It’s also no longer true. Huel and Soylent are nutritionally balanced powdered vegan meals. There’s simply no way to make the convenience argument.
One may argue that to cease farming is to condemn a great number of animals to death, and a net reduction in population. This is quite possibly true, and encouraging massive depopulation or extinction is an important ethical consideration. Another important ethical question is that of heavily reducing the agricultural sector, leading to unemployment. These are significant questions. However, I would argue that if an open discussion about food diminishes the demand for meat, then, like all economic bodies, farmers must simply adapt. As that market dwindles, looking at how to occupy and farm space and transmute materials expands.
In conclusion, traditional premises of eco-philosophies do not get us to the conclusions they advocate or hope for. However, the opposite premise of recognising humanity’s distinct ecology and behaviour does a better job of affording humanity with responsibilities, as well as cosmically counter-intuitive long term goals; environmental management, itself, will eventually be subsumed into the hard sciences. In the shorter term, humanity needs to rethink its relationship with species on the planet in terms of land use, diet and the extent to which it tolerates low-diversity habitats like deserts.
Deutsch, D. (2011) The beginning of infinity: Explanations that transform the world. Penguin UK.
Harris, S. (2011) The moral landscape: How science can determine human values. Simon and Schuster.
Issar, A.S. (2010) Progressive Development by Greening the Deserts, to Mitigate Global Warming and Provide New Land and Income Resources. In: Progressive Development. Environmental Science and Engineering. Springer Berlin Heidelberg. pp. pp. 37–42. [Accessed 13 January 2016].
mahalodotcom (2011) Can You Defend Eating Meat with Sam Harris. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vLFnJ8pWh8g [Accessed 13 January 2016].
Naess, A. (1995) The deep ecology ‘eight points’ revisited. Deep Ecology for the 21st Century. pp. 213–221.