Enviornmental Ethics

It’s smart for us to take care of of the earth (I’m not so fond of the phrase “mother earth”..), the question is whether the environment has inherent worth or value?

It makes sense, from a human perspective, to protect the planet.  Driving fuel-efficient cars, recycling, controlling pollution etc.. are smart because it’s like keeping up your individual home — only on a grand scale.

The question is whether the land has a value in and of itself — beyond what it can do to sustain us?

As you can see from our other blog, Andy and I have been to some pretty spectacularly beautiful places — Colorado most recently… and I’ve been to most parts of the country at one point or another — so, I know what’s out there.

I also come from a farming background in Iowa (yep… my parents were Iowegins…).  My great-grandfather was a farmer and my grandfather did some really innovative work restoring old coal mines in Iowa — When I was a child he was still working and driving his beat-up Subaru (before they were yuppie cars) around Iowa supervising land reclamation of open pit coal mines.  So, if anybody was raised to be an environmentalist, I was…

The other part of my family examples are a bit different — my great-grandfather on my grandmother’s side was the chief engineer of a coal mine in Michigan.  My grandfather in Iowa also had a huge garden (and the best tomatoes EVER!!)…. so, clearly they were accustomed to using the land for their purposes.

If the environment has inherent value, then we cannot use it for our own purposes.  At least, not if we think of inherent value in the way that Kant did.  I do think the land and environment in general has value, but only in so far as it is valuable to human beings.

Think about our national parks for a minute.  I spent Spring Break in Rocky Mountain National Park — one of the most beautiful places in the country — do the mountains themselves have worth if nobody is observing them?  The simple answer is, yes — they have worth because they are still valuable to the human experience — but, the more complex answer is no, because human beings create worth.

As I often do, I was just discussing this with Andy.  He’s someone who loves the wilderness, perhaps more than I do.  He likes to be in the woods, by a lake, in the mountains or anyplace there are fewer people.

We decided that the worth of the environment goes well beyond the value of the planet to sustain life.  Imagine if we had a mechanism that would provide us with all the essentials of life (food, air, water etc.), thus permitting us to live a life without needing nature.  For the sake of argument, say that the quality of food, air and water are similar to that of those things found naturally.

The question is, at that point would the environment be valuable to us as either individually or as a group?  It seems the answer is “yes” — because there is something about the human spirit that responds to natural, wild places in a way that can’t be quantified or even adequately described.  Without access to the natural world in some form, the human spirit loses something essential.

Since human beings “create” value, we can also change what we value — to a pretty large degree.  For example, many behaviors that weren’t acceptable in the past are acceptable now — and others aren’t.  Moral norms are like fashion trends, decided by the masses and changing over time.

What doesn’t change are aspects of the human spirit (if Nietzsche is wrong and we have a human spirit) — the need for connection to other human beings is part of that spirit.  The need for intellectual stimulation and emotional comfort seem to be part of that spirit.  The need to revitalize and relax in nature also seems to be part of that spirit.

So, while it’s the case that the environment doesn’t have inherent value on it’s own –it seems to be the case that the value it has for human beings is directly tied to something inherent in US, so for that reason we ought to protect it.


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