Editor’s Note: Many environmentalists state their reason for wanting to stop the destruction on nature is because, according to them, there is no humanity without nature. As a biophilic organization, DGR believes that we should save nature because nature has an inherent worth (irrespective of the value for humans). The following article is written with the same sentiment.
By Simon P. James / The Conversation
Environmentalists rightly urge us to consider the long-term effects of our actions. Plastic bags, they point out, can take hundreds of years to decompose, while radioactive waste can remain dangerous for hundreds of thousands of years. It could take the Earth’s biosphere several million years to recover from human-caused mass extinctions.
As an environmental philosopher, I spend a lot of time thinking about facts such as these. This can be depressing. Still, looking very far into the future offers a glimmer of hope. After all, our waste will eventually decompose. The ecosystems we have degraded will eventually recover.
To be sure, like all things, planet Earth will eventually meet its end, engulfed, perhaps, by the expanding sun. However, as comedian George Carlin once said, it will nonetheless “be here for a long, long, long time after we’re gone and it will heal itself, it will cleanse itself, ‘cause that’s what it does”.
Only a few people, perhaps including Donald Trump, claim that this provides a reason to refrain from preserving biodiversity, reducing pollution or taking any other sort of environmental action. However, some think it tells us why such action is needed.
For them, the fact that the planet will eventually recover tells us that when environmental action is needed, it’s needed not for the planet’s sake, but for ours – for the sake of us humans.
Here’s how Peter Kareiva, former chief scientist and vice president of NGO The Nature Conservancy, expresses the point:
Almost no matter what we do, life will persist on Mother Earth – she is one tough lady. Even if there is a massive extinction, slowly the number of species will recover. So it is not Mother Earth that we should worry about. It is the quality of our own lives.
Satya Tripathi, secretary-general of the Global Alliance for a Sustainable Planet, agrees:
We need to look at ourselves, be very selfish, stop making high-sounding claims that we are helping Mother Nature and the planet, [and] start telling that we are helping ourselves […] The planet does not need saving. Mother Nature was here billions of years ago, and she will be here after us.
The writer Frederick Lim takes a similar line:
The planet does not need saving. Mitigating the impacts of climate change isn’t for Earth’s sake. Rather, it is for our own survival […] Even if we choose to neglect the climate emergency, and cause the Earth’s environment to be inhabitable, planet Earth would still survive.
The argument implied by these claims runs as follows. Take some immense and near-invulnerable entity such as planet Earth or Mother Nature. That entity will eventually recover from whatever damage we humans do to it.
So we don’t need to engage in environmental action for the sake of anything as grand as planet Earth or Mother Nature. We need to do it for ourselves – for the sake of us humans.
This is an argument for “anthropocentrism”: the view that the non-human world only has value because it serves human interests. There are several things wrong with it. Here, though, let’s consider just one.
The anthropocentrists seem to assume that people can only ever take environmental action either for the sake of some gigantic entity such as planet Earth, or for the sake of human beings. So if we reject the first option, we must accept the second.
That, however, is a false dilemma. Other options are available.
For the sake of the animals
Take Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park in Sumatra, for example. The anthropocentrists quoted above would, I expect, acknowledge that that huge area of highly biodiverse tropical forest should continue to be protected.
But they would add that it needn’t be protected for the sake of the planet. Even if the forest is levelled and transformed into coffee plantations, the planet will be just fine. Ditto Mother Nature.
They would add that Bukit Barisan Selatan should be protected for the sake of human beings – because it supplies certain people with vital material goods, for instance, or because it has cultural value for them.
But that is not the whole story. There is a third option – a third reason why the area should be protected.
Consider the non-human animals for whom the place is home. Consider the dishevelled, bear-like binturong, or the slow loris, a fluffy, owl-eyed mammal with a toxic bite. Or take the Sumatran rhino, the Sumatran tiger or the Sumatran elephant. These animals are not just parts of planet Earth, Mother Nature or whatever. They are conscious individuals.
And, as the philosopher Martha Nussbaum and others have argued, they both deserve to flourish and need places in which they can flourish. So, although the forest really should be protected for our sakes, it should be protected for theirs too.
The anthropocentrists are, therefore, partly right. The planet doesn’t need saving. But acknowledging this does not mean we must be “very selfish” and devote all our efforts to saving ourselves. There are other reasons to protect the strange, wonderful and partly non-human world we inhabit.
Peter Kareiva is probably the most prominent member of a group of what some of us call neo-environmentalists. They think that humans are the only ones who matter, and deride those of us who want to protect and restore wilderness and wildlife to their natural states. Instead, they think that “environmentalists” should work on making the Earth a garden for humans. This is just more human supremacist BS, and these people are as anti-environment as anyone as far as I’m concerned. Keeping the Wild by multiple authors is an excellent book on this subject.
The concept that humans can’t really harm the Earth and that the Earth will recover no matter what we do is a very anti-environmental attitude and is provably false. For example, some of the radioactivity that humans have added to our biosphere will be here until the heat from the sun kills life on Earth as we know it; human-caused extinctions permanently destroy entire species FOREVER; and much ecosystem and habitat destruction seems irreversible, such as forests turned into deserts by logging. It’s much better to embrace the idea that we need to live as lightly as possible on the Earth, caring for her and all the life here to the greatest extent possible. The logical conclusion to the concept that we can’t really harm the Earth is that we can do whatever we can, because hey, it won’t do any harm in the long run. Well, if someone kills a few billion people, there would still be plenty of people around and the human race would continue, but would anyone claim that we can’t really harm the human race even someone kills large numbers of them? This lack of empathy with other species, with ecosystems and habitats, and with the Earth herself is one of the main things wrong with humans. If humans don’t fix that lack of empathy, among other things, they’ll just keep killing and destroying.
This made me think.
At the simplest level, the Earth will never “recover” in the sense of its returning to some prior state. New climax ecosystems will arise, eventually, but they will not be the same as before humans learned to use tools.
However, humans are a species. What do species do? Collectively, they use whatever resources they can get access to. This is a feature of species but, in the non-human world, ecosystems reach a climax state where each species in it has its niche and there are limiting factors. Humans will also meet limiting factors but have been able to access huge amounts of resources and, in so doing, wreaked huge damage in every ecosystem. But they are still acting like a species.
I doubt any member of any other species has empathy for another species or even for most of its own species (apart from some domesticated animals). They all just act out their genetically, and epi-genetically, encoded behaviours, with survival and reproduction the focus. No species “deserves” to flourish. “Deserves” is a human invented term.
When humans seek to invoke the survival of its species as a reason to reduce the damage, they are really seeking to reduce the damage so that they, and theirs, can live a longer and, perhaps, more pleasurable life. It’s hard to have empathy for 8 billion members of our species and, so long as any actions have their main negative impact on others, I’m sure any individual could live with that.
To me, it just makes sense to limit the damage to nature because I, and my family and friends, have a better chance of survival and a better chance of living peaceful satisfying lives if that is done. Also, at a purely personal level, I’d like to think that we only harm other species to survive (e.g. hunting and gathering), because that seems to be playing by “the rules”. But this is only a personal feeling.