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THE ECOLOGICAL STORM

The third storm is ecological.

The Basic Ecological Storm

Once again, there is dispersion of causes and effects; this time across species.31 Anthropogenic climate change has profound implications for other animals, plants and ecosystems. Often, this encourages a distinct form of ecological buck-passing. Consider the simple metaphor of Kick the Dog. In the (terrible) old children’s story, the farmer kicks his wife, his wife kicks the child, and the child kicks the dog. In the climate case, the parallel is likely to be that the current rich “kick” the poor, both “kick” future generations, and all pass the “kicking” on to other species through the ecological systems on which they depend. In other words, the initial bad behavior sets off a chain reaction towards the end of which stand not just the most vulnerable humans, but also many animals, plants, and places (e.g., the polar bear, big cats, rainforests, the Arctic). Moreover, if and when the natural world kicks back, it is likely to induce further cycles of buck-passing.

There are many reasons to decry this scenario. The first is narrowly anthropocentric: the instrumental value of nonhuman nature to humans, in terms of things like biological resources and “ecosystem services.” Although compelling insofar as it goes, this reason remains limited. For example, years ago I came across a magazine article by an economist that argued that climate change is not a problem because future humans could build massive domes on the earth’s surface to live in. On the instrumental view, Dome World is problematic only because it is not currently technically feasible, or else too expensive by comparison to protecting the natural world. Humanity’s problem is that we do not yet have the means to trash the Earth and move on, as they do in the film Wall-E. (Trashing is off the table only because we currently lack a good escape route.)

A second, but broader, anthropocentric view denies this. It claims that nonhuman nature also plays a constitutive role in flourishing human lives in a way that cannot be replicated in Dome World even if such a world were possible. For example, life on the spaceships of Wall-E, watching TV and drinking soda, is just too shallow to be really good for human beings.

Some accept a modest version of the constitutive view, believing that it holds under current circumstances, but that technology will ultimately provide good substitutes for the natural world (e.g., virtual reality devices like Star Trek’s “holodeck”). My own view is that we should look deeper. For one thing, nonhuman nature represents the world from which we evolved, and against which we understand and define ourselves. Our relationship with it plays a considerable role in determining our self-conception. Trashing it therefore harms us in a deeper way than concern for ecosystem services suggests. In some ways it is an attack on who we are and can be, and one proceeding from a very narrow conception of the human good. To that extent, easy talk of substitutes seems a little like the view that the Mona Lisa can eventually be replaced, without loss, by an image on a high definition TV. Although we can see why someone might take this view, and even be unsure how to combat it, it is significantly out of step with what most of us believe.

A third view is straightforwardly nonanthropocentric: at least some nonhuman entities, relationships, and processes have value beyond their contribution to human projects.32 Such positions are often treated as marginal, as well as too controversial to be taken seriously in both public policy and mainstream political philosophy. Still, I have come to believe that this is a mistake. In fact, most of us are nonanthropocentrists, to at least some extent. We believe (sometimes implicitly) that at least some nonhuman entities warrant at least some ethical consideration apart from their contribution to human projects. For example, it is very common to think that entities such as the great apes, polar bears, giant sequoias, and the Great Barrier Reef deserve protection and respect even if we never visit them, benefit from them, and so on. Indeed, this is a central reason why Kick the Dog and Dome World bother us. Yet if this is our view, then neither public policy nor philosophy should ignore it. To treat such beliefs as akin to mere personal preferences, or (worse) as not even deserving the political standing of such preferences, is to dismiss them too readily and without regard for their content, which fundamentally involves judgments about what really matters, not mere questions of taste.33

Like the previous storms, the ecological storm may also involve fragmentation of agency, albeit this time in an extended sense. We tend to see agency strictly speaking as an exclusively human preserve. However, to describe the rest of nature as merely a passive victim of human action would be deeply misleading: the nonhuman world behaves in ways that are independent of humans and reflect (at least some) nonhuman concerns. Moreover, traditionally, many environmentalists have seen this independence of nature from human purposes as an important source of its value, and so have aspired to respect and accommodate that independence to at least some extent.

This suggests that institutional inadequacy is also an issue in the ecological storm. Current institutions remain largely blind to, or biased against, the whole issue of accommodation. Furthermore, while any attempt at accommodation would already involve reconciling a vast number of different aims (human and nonhuman), and integrating them into a broad vision of flourishing (for them and for us), this challenge becomes even more daunting in a world of anthropogenic climate change.

 
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