Where does the environmental movement get its moral force?

by Rishidev Chaudhuri

Polarbear Where does the environmental movement get its moral force? There are any number of practical reasons to care about, say, global warming, given that a world with a dramatically different climate will probably be dramatically less comfortable for us. But this is quite different from the set of reasons usually advanced by environmental advocates. These center around preserving the environment for its own sake and limiting human impact on the natural world. And they typically seem to be making a strong ethical claim. Humans have spoiled a once pristine natural world; humans, through greed, have upset the natural balance. Implicit in this narrative is a warning that, depending on your preference, is Promethean or Edenic: we have reached too far in our attempt to escape our natural state and must now bear the consequences.

These are unusual arguments. Most of our moral intuitions and behavior is founded on relationships to other moral subjects. And there is a very strong and compelling moral reason to address global warming that does involve humans. A changing climate will affect and is affecting the livelihood of millions of people and these people are disproportionately poor and vulnerable. Our moral obligation to mitigate the effects of warming on the environment can be seen to stem from our obligation to other human beings.

This argument makes no reference to the natural or to preservation as an intrinsic good. It also involves a complex mix of factors to be weighed against each other. We are obligated to help preserve the environment because of our obligation to help give people a decent quality of life, but there are many other ways this can be carried out. For example, making people richer and giving them lifestyles closer to those in the developed West would also have the same effect, but this might act against the preservation of the environment. Given that we rarely see these sorts of debates in the environmental movement, it seems that the impact on people is not the primary motivation.

So what about moral arguments that are not centered on humans? Do we have more than practical and aesthetic motivations to preserve the climate as it is now?

After all, this particular climate is not universal or ahistorical; the Earth’s climate has drifted quite a bit over the last few millennia and species come and go all the time. Is there a good moral reason for preserving this particular mix of species and plants as opposed to the set that we would have with a warmer planet or the set that existed in the Cretaceous (apart from us, that is)? And even if the climate and the mix of life was historically stable and could be called natural, are we able to go from this naturalness to form a moral argument for its preservation? Most of us can agree that we have a moral obligation to at least some animals. But, again, this takes us into the realm of careful balancing. What sort of obligation do we have? Which animals do we have an obligation to? How do we weigh this against the rights of people? Does it matter if what’s happening to some particular set of animals is deliberate or the result of a process that’s making the lives of some set of people better. Do we have a duty to the existence of a species as opposed to a collection of individuals?

Again, these considerations rarely seem to appear in environmental discourse. Instead, preservation of the natural is understood as an intrinsic good, and one not to be weighed against other sorts of good. The natural world is understood to be radically different and separate from the human one; it is seen as ahistorical, unchanging and easily and unambiguously identifiable. In a few centuries of developing and getting richer, human beings have begun to greedily spoil this natural world, which had remained the same and in balance for millions of years. This disruption will lead to apocalyptic consequences and we will be punished.

This unexamined distinction between the natural and the unnatural is then transformed into a moral opposition. The natural world is not just natural, it is also authentic and good and in as much as we are separated from it, we are immoral. So a large share of the opposition to nuclear energy is because it’s unnatural rather than because of, say, the environmental costs of mining uranium or concerns about storage and transportation. And because it is unnatural and hence undesirable, there is no need to compare nuclear energy against its alternatives, in terms of efficiency of energy production or land-use, or to weigh the benefits of using it against the costs.

Similarly, the opposition to genetically-modified plants comes mostly from the idea of a species as an essentially given and immutable natural category. There are of course practical concerns and one might decide that scientific knowledge and regulatory bodies are ill-equipped to deal with such rapid changes to what we eat, or that having corporations produce and patent seeds is inferior to having agricultural collectives or governments do it. But this is not the primary sort of objection raised. Aside from the problem with moving from natural to desirable, objecting because genetic modification is unnatural completely ignores the historicity of the natural. Most of the plants we eat and consider natural are the end-point of sustained breeding to make them non-poisonous, to make them taste better, to produce bigger fruit, to make them more resistant to disease or easier to propagate, and so on. This is genetic engineering, albeit a slow form. And by virtue of its being slower and more gradual it has more intrinsic safeguards. But it is no more natural than what modern scientists do, and if the one is ethically suspect because it isn’t natural then so is the other.

When concern for the environment is understood as preservation of the natural and when it derives its force from the presumed morality of the natural rather than from a set of obligations to other human beings and perhaps animals (combined with a widely shared set of aesthetic preferences), it starts to lose sight of outcomes in favor of more detached consumption-focused gestures and strange shibboleths. I regularly see signs around my university asking people to unplug phone chargers when they aren’t being used; this saves a trivial amount of energy. On the other hand, taking one fewer intercontinental flight per year saves at least several thousand times as much energy as always unplugging your phone charger[1], but I never see signs encouraging people to fly less. Many of these gestures seem focused on becoming and demonstrating the sort of person who cares about the preservation of the natural, so that taking a vacation in a big city is seen as less environmentally friendly than flying to Patagonia for an eco-tourist vacation. These gestures are also focused heavily on consumption and actions that people can carry out. In this view, it’s more important to use fewer paper towels than to push for increased funding for research in alternate energy or carbon sequestration.

Seeing environmentalism as the stewardship of the natural can also lead to goals that are diametrically opposed to concerns of equity and social justice. A Western lifestyle for everyone in the world is impossible with current sources of energy and current methods of production. Yet the solution is often seen to be a simple preservation of the current standards of living, which means freezing inequalities in place. This leads to the stunning hypocrisy of the industrialized West explaining to developing countries that they cannot emulate the West and grow rich because the environment must be preserved. The argument is that while it’s unfair to tell other countries that they can’t grow rich and have the same standard of living, it’s not feasible to drastically reduce energy consumption in the rich world and so poorer countries need to voluntarily accept restrictions on their growth for everyone’s benefit. Apart from the obvious unfairness of this, it’s also the case that poorer people have fewer resources to deal with climate change and, especially in countries with many small farmers, they are also disproportionately affected by it, so that getting richer mitigates the effect of climate change. A way for these people to get rich in a way that isn’t disastrous for the environment is possible but would require large technology transfer and aid from richer countries to help leapfrog the dirtiest stages of industrial development, yet this is often completely ignored in discussions of limiting growth. If the primary moral obligation was understood as an obligation to people rather than to simple preservation, this would be impossible to ignore.

In many cases, what are understood as moral judgements about the environment are concealed aesthetic preferences. I love small farms, carefully grown vegetables and meeting the people who produce my food. These are all aesthetic preferences and I’m baffled by the moral force that many people attach to these preferences. The environmental claims are unproven or ambiguous (whether producing food locally or halfway across the world results in fewer greenhouse gas emissions varies from case to case and depends on multiple factors), and the force of the judgements is generally quite disproportionate to the possible environmental benefit. The local food movement can seem more like a strand of Romanticism or the Volkisch movement than the simple outcome of concerns about carbon footprint, and suggests an uneasy reaction to a globalizing world and a lack of homogeneity. Having a conflicted view of modernity and being suspicious of a triumphalist capitalist narrative is reasonable; replacing it with some imagined past free of suffering, when everyone was authentic and close to the land, is only possible from a particular sort of modern post-industrial standpoint. I don’t mean to overstate this case, and I don’t think that the produce stand at my local farmers’ market is the thin end of an ethnocentric fascist wedge. Imagined utopias are often valuable, both for inspiration and for aesthetics, and Romanticism in all its manifestations is a valuable corrective in human thought. I also respect the attempt of some local food advocates to bring the human dimension back into exchange and to push against the commodification of all work. But we owe ourselves more complexity, especially when we’re making policy decisions in an environment with multiple competing claims. It is good to remember, for example, that in spite of all its flaws, modern industrial farming has made it possible to feed billions of people, and to do so without using the entire surface of the Earth. Forest cover has expanded in the United States over the last fifty years, and many of these new-growth forests grow where farms once were.

There is still much to praise about the environmental movement, of course, and it is obvious that we need to find new sources of energy and a new interaction with our environment. And note that I am not claiming that we should be able to leave ethical considerations out and simply let pragmaticism and science take over. This is impossible to do: there are always strong moral concerns at play. But we can act without being sloppy about the categories we create and without letting ourselves be bound by projected abstractions. An uncritical and normative acceptance of the “natural” takes history out of our hands. In this it is reminiscent of all the other abstractions (God, the Market) that are supposed to intervene to punish us when we leave behind the natural, ahistorical and right order of things, and it does no service to us in our attempt to expand the scope of our freedom and create the world we live in. It harms both our attempts to respond to global warming and our attempts to create a more just world.


[1] I get this estimate from David MacKay’s excellent book, “Sustainable Energy – without the hot air”

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