Wednesday, 21 September 2005

A new environmentalism: Putting humans first

Icehawk and DenMT objected to me "green-bashing" when, in my blog on Techno-Environmentalism, I linked mainstream environmentalism with the anti-human views of deep ecologists. This is my reply.

I'm very pleased that you're repudiating the deep ecology insanity, guys, and presumably also the idea that nature possesses intrinsic value in and of itself. But let me ask you if you both agree with an environmentalism that accepts humans as first in the hierarchy of nature; if so then we are in agreement. But I would challenge you both to point me to more than a few mainstream environmental organisations that do so.

To be fair, I believe the number of deep ecologists is decreasing from where it was when Bidinotto wrote 'The Green Machine,' from which came the quote to which you objected, but a 1997 survey published in American Demographics found that fully a fourth of all Americans "see nature as sacred, want to stop corporate polluters, are suspicious of big business, are interested in voluntary simplicity, and are willing to pay to clean up the environment and stop global warming." That's one quarter of Americans who see nature as sacred, just as the deep ecologists do.

 It's true that there is now a growing tension between those who sympathise with the view of the deep ecologists--what you might call the 'romantic' or 'religionist' environmentalists-- and a growing minority who have reversed their views on issues of population growth, urbani­zation, genetically engineered organisms, and nuclear power (as I discuss in a previous blog called 'Religionists for Nuclear.'), but this latter group is not yet in the environmental mainstream, although they do deserve to be.

On this question of who comes first, consider the case of Florida boy Jessie Arbogast, whose arm was bitten off by a shark. It's easy to agree (or to maintain a discreet silence as animal rights activists did) with the shark being shot so the arm could be retrieved and successfully reattached (but do note that such an action might now be illegal if the shark was one of Chris Carter's protected Great Whites) . That's an easy case with which to agree, and the justice of shooting the shark and retrieving the boy's arm should be obvious, as Tibor Machan quite properly points out:

Few among us would have hesitated at this choice: boy's arm versus life of shark. Of course the boy's arm is more important, and so the shark had to go. Yet, there are millions of animal-rights advocates around the world, many of them Hollywood celebrities with easy access to talk shows and news reporters, who have remained completely silent about their professed view—namely, that human beings are not more important than non-human animals.
But consider Tibor's further point. An environmentalism that honestly puts humans first would go further and apply the same principle applied correctly to secure the boy's survival and well-being to all the day-to-day activities human must undertake to secure their livelihood: Rather than seek to shackle human production and fecundity, they must recognise that the unique nature of human beings requires that they use, alter and sometimes despoil nature in order to maintain their lives and to produce wealth: no other means of livelihood is possible to the human animal.

Supporting human life means opposing the 'religious' environmentalism that is often economically devastating to farmers, fishers, miners, loggers, and others who necessarily 'despoil' untrammeled nature in the necessary pursuit of their, and our, livelihood.

So that's the challenge I put to you: do you agree that humans should be put first in the hierarchy of nature? And if so, do you agree with my conclusion from the article to which you objected; that is, in an "environmentalism ... that...eschews any idea of 'intrinsic values' or deep ecology, and embraces instead the idea of seeking and advancing those environmental values that support and enhance human life."


  1. You've posed the question in a very loaded fashion. Associating 'religious environmentalism' with not putting humans first would make anyone who disagrees with you appear to be a religious zealot.

    Let me pose it another way; do you agree or disagree with this passage (Genesis 1:26):

    Then God said: "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and the cattle, and over all the wild animals and all the creatures that crawl on the ground."

    This is an excellent justification to "put humans first", and well ingrained into our society from the Bible. Could that view not also be considered as religious environmentalism?

    This was dangerously extended to cover indigenous peoples with Pope Nicholas V's 1452 encouragement for settlers to " capture, vanquish and subdue, all Saracens, Pagans, and other enemies of Christ".

    Compare this to the Hindu viewpoint;

    The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.
    -- Mahatma Gandhi

  2. "You've posed the question in a very loaded fashion."

    Not at all, Sam. That is the fundamental question, the result of answering which is to throw out the idea that so-called 'intrinsic values' exist above and superior to real human values. Any serious environmentalism must either begin by accepting humans as first in the hierarchy of nature, or be exposed as being prepared to sacrifice some human beings to what some other human beings consider to be 'intrinsically' valuable.

    That, for example, anti-DDT campaigners are prepared to countenance 55 million dead human beings in pursuit of their values suggests the question is an important one, one that is at present being answered in the negative, and one that desperately needs to be asked.

    " you agree or disagree with this passage (Genesis 1:26):..."

    Not exactly, no. It's not that "dominion" was "given" to human animals--the point is that the nature of human animals requires that they make use of nature in order to pursue their lives and well-being. That truth was not so much given to us, but discovered by us. As pioneering families used to say, it's root, hog or die. That's not a truth given to us by God, but by reality.

    "Could that view not also be considered as religious environmentalism?"

    Well, yes of course, and it's just another example of intrinsicism. Some people clearly do hold that to be true in a religious sense, and they of course are beyond argument in that regard. But the religious derivation neither proves not disproves the conclusion, it just means that as a statement it's neither true nor false until checked against reality. Real human values are not rules and doctrines given to us by tablets handed down from the sky or from a bush that's caught fire, but must be discovered by each of us, and--once discovered--protected. As Aristotle pointed out, 'the good' does not inhere in things as such, but (as he used to say) things are 'good for the sake of' something or other. Real human values then, are not God-given, but discovered by us--they are good because they further our life.

    "This was dangerously extended to cover indigenous peoples..."

    As TS Eliot had a character say in 'Murder in the Cathedral,' (I think) "The greatest tragedy is to do the right thing for the wrong reasons." Your point is his point. If values come from a bearded being in the sky, then we must do whatever that being seems to tell us, or whatever his representatives enjoin him to mean. If they say "murder in the name of God," then murder it is. As Voltaire said on precisely this point, those who believe absurdities commit atrocities. Better perhaps to recognise absurdities when we see them.

    Basing actions on real human values is the opposite of this. To say that humans are first in the hierarchy of nature is to recognise that values are 'ordinal' and can be ranked, and that in order for humans to live, some part of nature must die--be it an apple, a cow or an ant I just trod on. It does not mean that in order for some humans to live, others must die. That's neither necessary, nor moral, nor any part of what I've argued for here.

  3. PC, you are couching your argument in very problematic terms.

    Either one bats for the 'Deep Ecologists,' who apparently seek the end to technological civilisation and would have us all living in caves, or conversely, subscribe to the libertarian perspective, that the entire world exists solely to serve humankind's noblest pursuit, namely the creation of personal wealth.

    I don't need to point out that rather than a considered discussion of actual mainstream conceptions of environmentalism, you have merely picked out two extreme poles and opposed them, with respect, a bit crudely.

    Again, your only reference in backing up your argument is to libertarian sources, which is a bit like me making an argument that the American occupation of Iraq is inherently damaging to the Middle Eastern view of the West, referring only to the writings of radical Iranian Muslim clerics. Any discussion of the 'pollution' of mainstream environmentalism by extreme 'anti-human' radicals would be most compellingly argued using non-radical sources. Either that, or you are simply preaching to the (rather few) converted.

    To answer your questions:

    'Do you agree that humans should be put first in the hierarchy of nature?'

    My personal opinion is that we as a species have a vastly important role of stewardship over what is a complicated, fragile, and carefully balanced eco-system. Merely asserting our role in this respect is to state that survival of humans is essential in maintaining this balance (especially given the ecological damage we have already wrought as a species).

    So yes, humans are at the top of the 'hierarchy' principally because we HAVE this duty to ensure the continued maintenance of our shared planet. This necessarily entails a duty of care over the natural environment, expendable and precious resources, and the biosphere - all living species which depend on each other.

    Humans are the most important, as it falls to us to ensure the integrity of our ecosystem, upon which all other things depend. This is primarily our own stupid, blundering fault.

    However, we are not the reason for which the world exists. The Earth is not a spaceship that we should be gunning round the solar system till the gas runs out, then pissing off somewhere else.

    As to your second question:

    Do I agree with " "environmentalism ... that...eschews any idea of 'intrinsic values' or deep ecology, and embraces instead the idea of seeking and advancing those environmental values that support and enhance human life?"

    Let me chop this one up a bit. I'm not going to do any eschewing of 'intrinsic values', because I fundamentally disagree with that little bit of Objectivist philosophy. Just me, you know, I have yet to be convinced by anyone that everything exists for the purpose of our pleasure. I believe the ecosystem in and of itself is a thing of value.

    Furthermore, if we strip out 'and enhance' from the last bit of your statement (by which you mean 'the trappings of a wealthy Western lifestyle' I assume) then I can buy the last bit, ie "...advancing those environmental values that support...human life". I'd go so far as to say that's a truism given how I feel about your first wee poser.

    From one architect to another (we're in the same game you see) check out the writing of Buckminster Fuller. He has done some very thoughtful analyses of how we can best live in harmony with the Earth, without shafting it (and necessarily ourselves) enjoying the lifestyle of 'four billion billionaires'.

  4. I very much agree that humans come first, in principle. But of course if we wreak the environment then that's going to be devastating to, e.g., future generations of humanity. So I do think preserving the environment (for the sake of other humans) may well be more important than the jobs and production from unsustainable industries.

  5. Any serious environmentalism must either begin by accepting humans as first in the hierarchy of nature, or be exposed as being prepared to sacrifice some human beings to what some other human beings consider to be 'intrinsically' valuable.

    You have hit on an interesting facet of evolution, PC - but I think your angle on the topic is still very slightly dangerous. For a start, I'd avoid using "humans" to something like "intelligent life", because at the species level, we know there is really very little that seperates us from animals. We have no automatic claim to superiority there.

    In fact, if you are to expand on the situation to include the possibility that (for instance, to take a meme from an Asimov novel) the Earth itself might be conscious, then it might be in a well placed position to view the destruction that we are wreaking on the life systems on its crust that sustain its consciousness as parasitical and malignant. We might not be "first" in the heirarchy of nature at all.

    That aside, let's look at something else you have said;

    To say that humans are first in the hierarchy of nature is to recognise that values are 'ordinal' and can be ranked, and that in order for humans to live, some part of nature must die--be it an apple, a cow or an ant I just trod on. It does not mean that in order for some humans to live, others must die.

    This is a very interesting comment in a number of ways. Firstly, you are acknowledging a ranking - let's say for the sake of arugment that a ranking system includes humans, mammals, and plants, in that order. You've also stated a preference against letting humans die in order for other humans to live - as well as stating the dependency issue - the higher levels require the lower levels to exist for their own survival.

    You could extend this to say that if one set of humans choose to eat exclusively mammals to survive, then they are detracting from the ability of other humans to survive. However if a second group eats only one quarter of the amount of mammals, getting the rest of their food source directly from plants (assuming this is more efficient than the mammals eating it first, as is certainly the case in the real world), then they are not placing such a demand on the biosphere for their own survival - and hence, not detracting from the ability of other humans to survive.

    I don't put it that either way is more right or wrong - just that the path that is more efficient (eating less mammals) is more highly evolved.

    I think that both forms of environmentalism - bottom up or top down - are equally valid, but if the principles that drive them are followed through closely enough, then they should basically arrive at the same result.

  6. Also, PC, I'm curious to know how this little example from this morning's news fits into your libertarian anti-protectionist environmental paradigm.

    'Lions unsettled by deforestation have killed 20 Ethiopian villagers and devoured 750 of their domestic animals.

    "The lions killed shepherds tending cattle and villagers after breaking into their houses," local official Tadesse Gichore said of the attacks about 500km south of Addis Ababa.

    Authorities were hunting the lions, which began roaming after their habitat was wrecked by deforestation.'

  7. I won't answer all questions at once, but rest assured that unless someone else answers them first I will answer them.

    Den, you asked about the "Lions unsettled by deforestation [who] have killed 20 Ethiopian villagers and devoured 750 of their domestic animals," (story here) and you wonder "how this little example ... fits into [my] libertarian anti-protectionist environmental paradigm."

    I've got a number of responses, actually. First, that it's bloody tragic.

    Second, that this is precisely what I was arguing against in my earlier blog on the stupidity of protecting Great White Sharks, and what Graham Webb and others were talking about when they warned that government protection of wildlife dangerously increases the numbers of destructive predators, and sets the protection of these animals against local peoples, often tragically, as it was here. "Conventional conservation is constrained when animals are pests to local people," says Webb. When "elephants [are] trampling crops and destroying houses; tigers, lions and crocodiles [are] eating people and livestock; parrots, cockatoos and flying foxes [are] raiding seeds and fruit; 30 000 people each year [are] killed by snake bite in India; wheat crops [are] being eaten by emus and kangaroos; etc..." ... when all that is happening to people, little wonder that "it is unrealistic to expect them to be willing partners in efforts to increase their abundance"

    As Webb says, you have to give local a property right in the animals in order to make the animals' protection a boon to them rather than a disaster. That's what Webb, and organisations such as the Sustainable Use Initiative of the IUCN, are attempting to do. See their stories here, and Webb's arguments in pdf form here: 'Conservation and Sustainable Use of Wildlife - an Evolving Concept.'

    But the logging is perhaps the reason you want my opinion, yes? Presumably someone has decided that logging is the highest use for the land along the Gibe Valley in Ethiopia. (Given the lack of property rights in Ethiopia, that person was probably a bureaucrat; given the corruption in Ethiopia, the decision was probably bought, in complete disregard of any other value than the money being passed across the desk.)

    What's needed IMO is two things, one legal, the other moral:

    1) The recognition that granting property rights in wild animals to local peoples can enrich them instead of killing them; in some parts of Southern Africa this has already resulted in species conservation and tourism becoming the highest value use rather than subsistence farming, and in Kenya has resulted in legislation "to mandate that landowners who benefited from wild animals had to assume some liability for damage those wild animals did to others."

    2)Enacting laws that enrich locals for protecting wildlife is recognition of a moral principle highlighted by Tibor Machan in his book 'Putting Humans First' (sample chapter here): "The individual rights approach to human community life is the only one that most readily accommodates human nature and beneficial human interaction with the natural ecology of which human beings are part."