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