Sunday, December 8, 2013

Why I'm an Environmentalist

I'm an environmentalist.  That might be a surprise to people who knew me growing up.  But a lot of things would probably surprise people who knew me from growing up.  I guess I'm just very capable of changing my opinions.  For a class this last semester I was doing a little bit of writing on a reading assignment about the different political schools of thought that influenced environmental policy.  And I really felt like it deserved becoming a blog post.

The article I was reading described two ways of thinking about the world, one it called Cornucopian.  I used to fall into this group.  I thought that the free market and individual action was the only possible moral way of dealing with the social and environmental problems brought about by unlimited growth.  I had so much faith in these concepts that I didn't even really believe environmental problems that would largely affect people other than the ones benefiting from an action existed except as freakish exceptions to the rules that could be dealt with on a case by case basis in the court system.  But then I learned about tragedy of the commons, where unrestricted access to public goods almost always leads to the near destruction of the value of that public good.  I learned about the early history of labor unions in the US, where free and individual action was suppressed on the assumption that it was anarchistic, communistic, or both.  I learned about the history of pollution regulations in the United States and Britain.  If everyone could have their external costs brought back on their own heads sure yes maybe unlimited freedom of individual action could solve the problems in the world.  But that's not the case.  For example, when I bike on roads that are so clogged with cars that the air is choked with exhaust and I start to have asthma attacks at bike speeds a little above a walking pace.  No one would accept that their car exhaust fumes should be piped back into their own cars so that they would have to breathe their own exhaust.  People idling their engines would all promptly die and cars would become worthless.  But if people had to take that kind of responsibility they would start demanding cars that you could drive without dying and they would never idle their engines at a stop.  Meanwhile, I might die trying to breath their exhaust if I have a bad asthma attack on a day when I forgot my inhaler, and nationally many people die of pollution related causes every day.

It would certainly be more just if people had to breathe their own exhaust instead of me the biker.  I don't benefit from the cars being on the road, why should I breathe their exhaust?  But even a milder suggestion that exhaust fumes should be piped into compressed air tanks in the backs of the vehicles would be seen as absurd.  Regarding car exhaust, there is already an assumption in society that the air is a common resource that no one should be particularly responsible for unless the car pollutes more than a certain maximum standard.  The damage is seen as borne by all when in reality it is disproportionately created and disproportionately felt based on all sorts of factors.  Smog in Britain and the United States was increased by the factories until people started to die and the government decided that for the public good individual liberty had to be curtailed and pollution controls introduced.  Without a history of such pollution controls, an asthmatic like me could probably only hope to bicycle out in rural areas, that is if there were any left and if I had the money and time to travel to them.  Pollution laws help preserve my freedom to live anywhere and exercise out of doors as I please without as much fear of death by asthma.  Preserving freedom requires laws and restrictions on freedom because there is no practical way to make all people responsible for all of their own externally caused costs.

            Another movement of people described in the text were "Deep Ecologists."  A quick way of summarizing deep ecology would be to say that morally, all life or at least all species have an almost equal right to exist, so morally society has an extreme obligation to not obliterate other forms of life unnecessarily.  Honestly I feel some sympathy for this view.  If God created all life and called it good then we blaspheme when we destroy the beauty and goodness created by God.  If all life is just an evolutionary accident then I'd argue that the whole sale destruction of the beauty of the world represents an animalistic lack of sophistication.  For if its all just evolution then we don't have any more right to be here than anything else, we just happened to be better at exploiting the world than other species.  If we have indeed evolved an enhanced moral sense that makes us superior in the natural order of things we should have the sense to avoid a juvenile destruction of beauty and uniqueness.  Avoiding wholesale destruction requires careful planning, taking into account the needs and dreams of everyone involved.  That means environmental regulations.  If we have no higher evolved moral sense but only the nifty tricks and tools that allow us to exploit the world better than any other organism than I think any talk of liberty and individual rights is hypocritical, since there would be no reason to protect the poor and powerless selectively except that it appeals to the emotionality created by evolution whereby altruism to ones kin group is perpetuated as a useful trait.

            I choose to believe that our sense of altruism towards the powerless, whatever its source, suggests a sense of moral obligation to the world around us.  We can become a people of more integrity if loving our neighbor includes the non human ones to the extent that we can manage it.  I reject the notion that having "dominion" over the earth somehow means that we have free license or duty to destroy anything on the earth we please as long as we benefit from it.  Would we accept government having dominion over its citizens to mean that the government should always take its own priority and preferences over the rights of its citizens, even slaughtering its citizens as a matter of convenience?  Around the globe that often happens because of the power imbalance between the government and individuals, but we fight against it its so obviously wrong.  Of course, around the world the power imbalance between nature and man is intense.  How could it be otherwise, since mice can't vote?  As a result of that power imbalance, without even taking thought we act unjustly toward all of creation that we can reach.  The human worldview is by default, centered on humanity.  But there is no reason to always assume such a preference is right or useful.

            There is no easy way to fix this.  Squirrels can't sit in as members of Congress.  Other than the occasional civilizational collapse caused by ecological exhaustion, there is no real feedback mechanism for nature to respond to humanity.  And, even though protecting nature may be grand sounding we often don't even know how.  When we don't know how to protect nature and we know how to protect ourselves, by default we can only really fully respond to our own needs.  And, in reality, there is no grand harmony of reality where the lions sit down with the lamb and all the critters naturally get along.  The very basis of human society is based on the exploitation of nature to achieve human comforts, and at its roots there is nothing wrong with this if it is done wisely.  But surely we can do better than we have done so that we can preserve much of what we will lose otherwise.  Whether we're trying to prevent the loss of unique genetic lineages or prevent the destruction of God's good handiwork, it comes down to close to the same thing.  In the United States and much of the rest of the developed world, we're smart enough and rich enough to afford halting much of the wholesale destruction of the earth's unique species and ecosystems.  If we cared.  I choose to care.

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