Environment And Man - Research Project

This essay has a total of 5091 words and 22 pages.

Environment and Man - Research Project


The Environment and Man - Respecting the Natural World

[By J. Wilkinson]

At some point in history — ages ago, before any semblance of civilization — human beings or their close ancestors must have thought of themselves as fundamentally the same as other mammals. Then, through cultivation of his rational faculties, Man learned to manipulate his environment in ways that would set him apart significantly from the rest of the animal kingdom. First with the advent of fire and tools, then with the innovative leaps to agriculture and fixed dwelling places, Man came to see himself as master of beast and earth.

Today it goes without question that one might 'own' a piece of land, and the vast body of philosophical works indicates that we are quite right in this way of thinking. Such prominent Enlightenment scholars as Kant and Locke viewed the use of the soil as a fundamental right of humankind (Kant, 411) (Locke, 26). In the past few hundred years, however, our footprint on the natural world has broadened tremendously. This has added a new level of complexity to the concept of Man as possessor of the Earth. Now more than a century into the industrial age, we are capable of exploiting the land in such a way that some are left to wonder whether we are causing irreparable harm to the biosphere — the portion of the Earth and atmosphere necessary for sustaining life (Fridell, 8). Kant, Locke, and the cavemen, in the face of the evidence we have today, would no doubt concede that our right to use the Earth must be limited. The question then becomes, Where does our right to use the Earth end and our duty to protect it begin?

Conservation (the movement to conserve natural resources) and environmentalism (the movement to control pollution) (Fridell 18) are perhaps not controversial in the ordinary sense of the word. In dealing with these issues one does not witness the impassioned defenses and deep-seated gut reactions common among opponents in abortion or same-sex marriage debates. Few would argue that we ought to forsake the benefits of technological progress and revert to a state of Eden-like communion with the Earth, and fewer still would suggest that we raze the surface of the planet in order to squeeze from it every available drop of profit. Rather, a moral grey area dominates the debate over environmentalism. Even those who count environmental protection as a priority disagree as to what the focus of our protective efforts should be. It is clear that we have at least some duty to maintain a clean environment, for the purposes of health and maintaining our natural heritage. But it is equally clear that some destruction of the environment is necessary for the good of the industrial state. Forests and swamps must give way to roads and cities. Land must be set aside for housing the considerable amount of waste that we generate. The very paper this essay is printed on necessitates the widespread harvesting of pulpwood. In any worthwhile sort of civilization, the destruction of land and depletion of resources is unavoidable. The controversy over environmentalism, then, is one of how best to reconcile the competing goals of industrial advancement and environmental protection.

This essay seeks to find a position of compromise that will appeal both to those who emphasize protection and maintenance of the land and those whose primary concern is immediate economic gain. It will show that extensive efforts to protect the environment are in the best interests of everyone, from the biologist to the indigenous tribesman to the CEO. To begin, I will highlight some key issues with a survey of philosophical perspectives on Man's relationship with nature. In this first portion of the essay I will outline the thoughts of Kant, Locke, Rousseau, and some Utilitarian authors. In the second portion, I will apply these viewpoints to a couple more recent debates: first, the debate over property rights; then, the debate over the intrinsic value of land. In the third and final portion, I will turn to a discussion of the most important issue facing us today — global warming. The essay will find that the correct stance on land ethic is one characterized by respect for and partnership with the Earth. This runs contrary to the view commonly held by scientists and activists that much of the Earth needs to be set aside from human involvement.

The Philosophical Backdrop

A stance on conservation and environmentalism is inherent in the writings of each of the great philosophers of the enlightenment era, even when the issues are not directly addressed in those writings. Immanuel Kant, John Locke, and Jean Jacques Rousseau all used a close scrutiny of Man’s original position in nature to arrive at a secular theory of rights, pointing to a significant relationship between people and the environment that surrounds them. Much of the contemporary literature on conservation and environmentalism finds its roots in the writings of these philosophers; therefore, an overview of their thoughts is in order.

As Kant sees it, land is that that thing which we must own before we can rightly own anything else. In his Science of Right he argues that although “all men are originally and before any judicial act of will in rightful possession of the soil,” the mechanism of society makes it so that we must bargain for rights to the soil, and thereby acknowledge the concept of private land ownership (411). Kant clarifies this point by supposing that all members of society are in equal possession of the land, then exposing this premise as a slippery slope. Under it, I may knock down your house with a wrecking ball while acting completely within my rights. I may in fact move anything on top of a piece of land in order to get at that land, because it is just as much mine as anyone else’s. Given that this conclusion is unacceptable, the possession of any immoveable object must preclude an exclusive right (against any other potential possessor) to the soil underneath it (Kant, 411-414). The implication of Kant’s philosophy is that a piece of land is for its owner to do with as she sees fit. Interference — say, by a national government or a conservationist organization — would be unjust.

Locke and Rousseau serve as particularly apt foils for one another. They promote similar theories of Justice, both centered around a hypothetical situation in which people rise up from their original position in nature to set the rules for a cooperative society (Locke, 28) (Rousseau, 387). Nevertheless, their views as they apply to conservation have been interpreted as directly opposed to each other.

In Locke’s view, what Man removes from a state of nature belongs to him. Things that exist in nature are the common possession of all, but by his labor Man turns the fruits of nature into an extension of his most fundamental possession — himself (Locke, 30). Locke makes an example of the American Indian kings to show that untamed land lacks value. The kings’ quality of life, Locke writes, is less than that of a mere commoner in England because the benefits of the kings’ land remain untapped. No matter how prosperous an Indian king is, he must live in relative squalor until he has conquered his natural environment by adding roads and sturdy buildings (34). Opponents of the environmentalist movement often quote Locke because he takes the stance that land has no intrinsic value (Goldfarb, 80).

Whereas Locke sees land as worthless until humans rise up and tame it, Rousseau romanticizes our natural surroundings. “Man is born free, and yet we see him everywhere in chains,” writes Rousseau in the opening to The Social Contract (5). According to him, we are only fully satisfied when we escape the bindings of society and revert to our original position as primitive beings that depend on the land. (Tucker, 42). This notion has been used to justify the cordoning off of large sections of land for the enjoyment of just a few people, such as backpackers (Tucker, 43). Rousseau’s philosophy hints at the idea that land is valuable no matter whether it is of economic use to anyone. It is valuable by virtue of its being there for people to experience.

In contrast to Kant, Locke, and Rousseau, all of who view humans as the only beings worthy of moral consideration, Utilitarians extend the moral community to include all conscious organisms. Peter Singer writes, “The basic principle of equality does not require equal or identical treatment. It requires equal consideration” (Singer, 2). Therefore, under the principle of utility, we should respect the rights of living organisms insofar as they are able to experience pleasure and pain. And a large part of respecting their rights is ensuring that they have a stable natural environment. The forester Aldo Leopold takes this argument one step further by proposing that we extend our moral obligations to the soil, the atmosphere, and plant life. He argues that intelligent life and the natural environment are so closely interconnected that the only way to serve the interests of ourselves and conscious animals is to treat the planet as an entity with moral rights (Leopold, 420). Singer and Leopold add perspective to the environmental issue. They take the focus off of serving ourselves and remind us that the consequences of our environmental decisions reach far beyond us.

Since my objective is to find a position of compromise, and since this entails the weighing of costs against benefits, I will rely more on Utilitarianism than on theories of rights. I do maintain, however, that the compromise I support will appeal to the followers of Kant, Locke, Rousseau, and Utilitarianism alike.

The Modern Debate

The modern debate over consumption, conservation, and environmental protection tends to be polarized between the handful who take such issues seriously and the many who roll their eyes in disdain at such activists. I can speculate on a few reasons this latter group is so unsympathetic to the environmental cause. First of all, the dangers of abusing the Earth remain fairly remote. Pollution, a serious problem worldwide (Fridell, 18), is no problem at all to those privileged persons who are neither willing nor forced to acknowledge it. Secondly, waste regulations add limitations to business. Some feel threatened by this encroachment on commercial liberties and may therefore become blinded to the legitimate reasons for environmental protection. Thirdly, because of environmental extremists, taking an interest in ecological protection is currently unfashionable. The people who focus on the environmental cause tend also to hold radical ideals rejected by the political mainstream. Those at the farthest extreme engage in environmental terrorism — in the name of defending the planet, activist groups have burned down construction sites, demolished SUV dealerships, and spiked trees with metal rods intended to shatter saw blades and kill or injure mill workers (Bandow). Such unethical actions serve only to further the distance between the environmental movement and mainstream thought.

This conflict between environmentalists and political conservatives is incidental rather than necessary. In fact, it is in the best interests of the pragmatist to support efforts to conserve the land, air, and water. Let us follow the classical Utilitarian method and suppose that we should take measures to protect the Earth only to the extent that it benefits society. This being the case, the total good that society derives from use of the Earth needs to be greater than the total harm caused to society for its use of the Earth. Obviously, then, irreparable harm to the Earth should be avoided. No temporary gain can offset the negative impact of the planet’s destruction, which is the eventual end to a policy of uninhibited exploitation of the Earth. But to understand just when we should take advantage of the land around us and when we should refrain from doing so, a deeper investigation is required.

Of all the objections to the cause of environmentalism, the idea that environmental regulation impedes on property rights is the most substantial. This is an immediate and legitimate threat that needs to be taken seriously. James Madison, a founding father of the United States, once proclaimed, “Government is instituted no less for protection of the property, than of the persons of individuals” (quoted in Lewis, 25). Property rights are seen as central not just to our Constitution but to our moral foundation. Economist Bruce Yandle is fearful that the U.S. government’s environmental regulations are violating this heritage. Yandle follows the Lockean notion that land is valuable only when it is transformed, and he pictures our modern society as a Garden of Eden. With the technological advancements of the free market, he argues, have come more opportunities, more convenience, and a higher life expectancy. Most importantly, though, the free market has brought freedom to most of the world. It has liberated many nations once under communist or totalitarian control (Yandle, 82). At the heart of the wonderful society responsible for bringing all of these benefits about, says Yandle, are property rights. Needing government permission to plow flooded plains on the basis that they are considered protected wetlands, to cut down a tree that may house an endangered species, or to dispose of small amounts of chemical waste are all subtle but serious threats to those rights. According to Yandle, such restrictions are indicative of a despotic government. To support this claim, he quotes the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution, which states that private property may not be taken by the government without fair compensation (83).

Doug Harbrecht, a Business Week correspondent, takes issue with those such as Yandle who cite the Fifth Amendment as a reason not to support government regulation. He thinks that we need to make a clear distinction between the government taking our land and the government setting limits on our use of the land. The slippery slope is that some will come to expect government compensation for simply obeying the law (Harbrecht, 89). We have even witnessed the beginning of this phenomenon. Environmental and religious groups in Mississippi and Georgia teamed up to successfully put an end to legislation that would require pornography dealers, who are prohibited from peddling their wares around schools or churches, to be monetarily compensated for their inconvenience. “The rule of law in the United States has long been that landowners must not use their land in any way that creates a public or private nuisance,” Harbrecht writes in defense of environmental regulation. He points out that property often would have no value at all if not for the existence of costly sewage and water systems that are put in place by the federal government. Therefore, he argues, the federal government clearly has a right to impose limitations on land use (91).

Even so, abuse by the government can and has taken place. A father and son in Florida were convicted by federal jury for filling their quarter acre lot with sand during the course of a home improvement project. By the time the ordeal was over, the two “had served 21-month sentences and were appealing fines totaling more than $10, 000,” all because their lot was adjacent to a protected wetland (Lewis, 25). When fires burned down the homes of many in California in 1994, a group of victimized homeowners sued the U.S. government. They had been forbidden to prune the foliage around their homes because i

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