Friday, November 27, 2009

Practical Steps toward an environmental ethic

Eleven things we can do to actualize our obligations to each other and our ecosystem, develop our moral-environmental character, and moderate our collective impact on the rest of nature (including its present and future inhabitants):

1. Consume less meat and animal products, or none at all, and eat no animal products produced by industrial methods. Eat food that is sustainably grown, minimally processed, and as local as possible; grow a garden (even a small one).

2. Have fewer children to stabilize, and eventually reduce, global population, and hence reduce resource consumption and ecosystemic degradation.

3. Reduce energy use in home and work settings (lower thermostats, improve insulation, upgrade heating systems); invest in green energy production.

4. Avoid air travel, opting when possible for foot, bicycle, rail, bus, or efficient automobile transport (in that order).

5. Resist pressure for unnecessary consumption of anything; keep, share, repair and recycle things rather than throwing them away; compost food waste.

6. Champion global economic and political justice, especially the education and empowerment of women, whose conditions of life and choices have the most significant effects.

7. Challenge large-scale corporate financial and production systems, and political processes that enable them, so as to reduce exploitation of people, other animals, and natural resources, thereby removing entrenched barriers to the adoption of greener technologies and habits.

8. Oppose all war, as destructive of and oppressive to all living things, and environmentally devastating at every level.

9. Support the creation of commons trusts to manage land, water, air, and other shared resources for the common good and for future inhabitants of the natural world.

10. Advocate for policy initiatives at every level that encourage, and normalize as habitual, all of the above.

11. Fight the temptation of fatalism or pessimism about the prospects for improving our symbiosis with nature, along with other debilitating fixed ideas (such as Hobbesian egotism or the desire for moral purity). Fatalism and pessimism are quietist and self-fulfilling, entailing unwarranted knowledge-claims about what is possible for us to achieve.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Population and Sustainability

As you know, there is a fierce and long-standing debate over the environment and population control. If the ecosystem is to remain healthy and livable, then humans will certainly have to limit our population, as part of getting ourselves in balance with our environment. But as we have seen, the effects of population range widely -- those in the developed world have an impact many times greater than our numbers. Thus many have charged that calls for limiting population growth are inequitable, classist, or even racist (as they probably would be, if we were to take only population into consideration). Here is a response by Laurie Mazur of the Population Justice Project to a recent accusation of this sort:

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Gaia in Crisis

Here is an excellent review essay about James Lovelock's most recent book:

Friday, November 13, 2009

Freakonomic Phantasies

Here's another Elizabeth Kolbert review in the current New Yorker magazine, providing a rather pointed critique of the techno-fix attitude toward climate change. Among our duties toward the environment, perhaps, is to avoid promulgating bad ideas...

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Active Nonviolence and Passive Violence

I just came from a talk at Williams by nonviolent activist Randy Kehler, who was speaking about tactics and principles for environmental advocacy, and something interesting occurred to me. As he pointed out, nonviolence worth the name is active, not passive. Particularly where the environment is concerned, by contrast, the most consequential violence may in fact be passive. Our everyday use of dirty energy sources, for example, which until recently most of us did casually and in all innocence, in their aggregate effects wreak catastrophic violence on the planet -- and perhaps indirectly generate much of the overt, active violence (warfare, oppression, etc.) that so captures our attention.

If this is right, then choices such as minimizing our use of fossil fuels, and likewise attempts to reorganize policy and practice at various levels to promote a green economy, local food, less meat-eating, etc., are properly understood as acts of principled non-cooperation with passive violence. That is to say, they are acts of civil disobedience, at the same time that they are acts of civic engagement.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Natural Balance?

Jamieson raises the question on page 171 of whether there is such a thing as a natural balance. This is a crucial question, especially if we are inclined to think (as Aliesha suggests) that an ecocentric perspective will clarify for us the nature and source of an environmental ethic. Since the ecosphere is a dynamic and sometimes riotous system of smaller, equally dynamic systems interacting with each other, it is seriously difficult to say in what such a balance of nature might actually consist.

We marvel at a dynamic equilibrium between predators, prey, and fauna in a mature island ecosystem, for example, and value its stability, diversity (of several kinds) and resilience. But to do so requires us to choose a time slice in which we view it, ignoring the prior periods of creative-destructive disequilibrium which made it what it now is.

We cannot, that is, assume that our simple idea of healthy ecospheric balance is more than another anthropocentric wish-projection; we will have to show, conceptually and scientifically, that it is an independently credible notion.

Friday, November 6, 2009


Goodpaster argues for biocentrism, the view that all life is deserving of direct moral consideration, on the grounds that everything is so deserving that has interests. For a more recent and very sophisticated defense of this view, see Nicholas Agar's book Life's Intrinsic Value(Columbia University Press, 2001). On this view, drawing the line at sentience (or at subjects of lives, as Regan does) seems arbitrary.

There are, of course, some difficulties. One, which we have discussed, is that rocks and molecules can also sensibly said to have interests (in maintaining their structural integrity) in precisely the same, unconscious sense that plants and microbes do, though to a less active degree (and crystals even grow...). Thus the line between what is living and non-living might fall to the same sort of criticism as the biocentrists level at the line between sentience and vegetation.

A second problem is how we might go about fulfilling our duties to microbes, since if they have even a tiny bit of direct moral considerability, eating, moving, and breathing would amount to mass murder. A moral theory which demands that all moral agents cease to exist as soon as they realize that all life is valuable seems to ask far too much.

Thirdly, biocentrism does not, after all, resolve the question of the nature and origin of our moral responsibilities for the ecosystem as such. Some further line of reasoning will still be required to make that out, as with the previous theories we have discussed.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Eating Animals

Apropos of our conversation on Wednesday about the merits and demerits of eating meat, here is a thoughtful review from this week's New Yorker magazine of Jonathan Safran Foer's new book about meateating. The author is Betsy Kolbert, who lives here in Northern Berkshire. I think you will find this article a nice complement to our reading and conversation so far:

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Global Warming Concerns

Many people have lamented the new poll figures from the Pew Research Center, showing that public concerns about global climate change have softened:

In itself this poll, like all such data, is merely a snapshot of a moment, and in our factoid- and crisis-driven media culture there is nothing surprising about such fluctuations of concern. I am more concerned about the methodology itself, which treats this problem on a par with the other sorts of things people are worried about (taxes, the world series...) as though it were just another question that we will eventually work out some sort of compromise on -- and no doubt we will.

The problem with this, as Bill McKibben has lately been pointing out, is that all indicators are pointing toward a much more rapid climate shift than scientists had anticipated, and chemistry and physics don't negotiate.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Environmental Ethics and Animals

Given the vast range of issues and lines of argument he has to summarize, Jamieson does a remarkable job in Chapter 5 of surveying the central problems and positions on non-human animals. It is beyond the scope of this course to resolve all the serious and interesting questions raised by human-animal relations. These are questions that will not go away, and each of us will be dealing with them for a long time.

For present purposes, however, we might be able to take an intellectual short-cut. Suppose we set aside the discussion of the moral standing of various kinds of animals for a moment, and limit ourselves to questions of the larger environment. Aside from what meat-eating does to animals as experiencing beings, we can ask the restricted question of its impact on the ecosphere. Credible empirical data suggest that current practices of animal agriculture (including CAFOs and the fossil-fuel intensive monoculture of grain and legume crops for animal feed) are locally and globally catastrophic, and thus perhaps by themselves dispositive of almost all meat-eating in the developed world (which is where most meat is consumed).

If this is the case, then for now perhaps we need not settle critical disputes about moral standing (as between whether only rational beings count morally, or also subjects of lives, or all sentients, and so on). Environmentally, how we answer any of these questions may turn out to be moot.