Nature is not your enemy (but it may bite you if provoked)

Over the last two days, I have explained why I am not a Socialist (despite dabbling with it in the past); and why I have lost my faith in Capitalism (despite being unavoidably enmeshed in it to this day)… So, what is the answer? Is there a “Third Way”…? Yes, I think there is and, in what follows, I will attempt to explain what I mean. However, first of all; a few words addressed specifically to recent subscribers: Even if I do not thank you all individually – or follow all your blogs – I am extremely grateful to all those who choose to follow this blog (i.e. newcomers arrive almost daily). It has occurred to me that, to some long-standing followers, this blog may at times be repetitive; whereas to others it may seem that I often assume the reader understands the whole backstory (i.e. has read everything I have ever written). If you identify with either statement, then I can only apologise. However, because my last two posts seem to demand it, I am going to risk repeating myself, or rather, repeating the words of the late Petra Kelly, the inspirational young leader of the Green Party in Germany in the 1980s:

“Greens are neither left nor right; they are out in front!”

Last September, I posted (in 3 parts) one of the many 5000-word essays (i.e. written assignments) that I had to do for my MA in Environmental Politics, which addressed the question: “Can modernisation ever be ecological?”.  Although a play on words (i.e. within the sphere of environmental politics ‘Ecological Modernisation’ is a concept similar to sustainable development), the essay essentially addresses the question as to whether environmental degradation can and will ever be decoupled from economic development. That essay was written, at the very end of 2010, from an institutional perspective (i.e. what would we have to do to achieve the laudable aim and how might go about it). However, a few months later, I had to write another essay, this time from a purely philosophical perspective, which addressed the question implied by Petra Kelly’s statement, namely: “Can, should, and/or does environmental politics transcend the left versus right political divide?” I was tempted to post this essay in 3 parts as well but, so as not to frustrate established readers, have decided not to. However, I suspect that, somewhere or other, I will have said it all before. Nevertheless, for the benefit of those who definitely haven’t “heard it all before”, you may wish to take a look at any of the following (if you have not already done so):

The ecological challenge for Conservatism (13 October 2011) (i.e. followed by similar critiques of both Liberalism and Socialism).

Green politics in a nutshell (21 January 2012)

Green philosophy in a nutloaf (23 January 2012)

Living on the edge of an environmental breakdown (24 January 2012)

Apart from that, I would just like to repeat a few of the key things I feel I learned from doing the research for both the essays referred to above. I believe these go to the heart of our modern dilemma; and point the way to how we may yet resolve it:

Three kinds of value (Neil Carter in The Politics of the Environment [2007]) — Instrumental value: That which something has for someone as a means to an end (e.g. money [also known as utility or exchange value]). — Inherent value: That which something has because it is considered desirable (e.g. precious metals such as silver, gold and platinum). — Intrinsic value: That which something has because of what it is – typically essential for the existence of life (e.g. sunlight, clean air, and clean water).

A green theory of value (Robert Goodin in Green Political Theory [1992]) — Capitalists are focussed upon the inherent value of things they consume. — Marxists are focussed on the instrumental value of the things they produce. — Greens should be focussed on the value of nature itself – whether inherent or intrinsic. Goodin, however, chose not to pursue this (as does Carter) to suggest that the intrinsic value of nature is not contingent on our being here to value it!

Five ways to value nature (Robyn Eckersley in Environmentalism and Political Theory [1992]) Eckersley proposed that our attitude to nature must lie somewhere on a spectrum between strongly anthropocentric to strongly ecocentric, and suggested 5 main possibilities: 1. Resource conservation – the wise use of natural resources for human benefit: Eckersley suggests that the conservation movement was founded upon the Judeao-Christian notion of humans having “dominion” over the Earth; rather than any duty of “stewardship” towards it, as exemplified by Gifford Pinchot (the first chief of the US Forest Service). 2. Human welfare ecology – an appeal to enlightened self-interest: Eckersley cites Barry Commoner’s “four laws of ecology” as (1) everything is connected to everything else; (2) everything must go somewhere; (3) nature knows best; and (4) there’s no such thing as a free lunch. 3. Preservationism – seeking the aesthetic preservation of wilderness areas: Whereas Gifford Pinchot wanted to preserve nature for development (i.e. maximise the utility of natural resources for human benefit), John Muir (of the Sierra Club) wanted to preserve nature from development (i.e. minimise the human impact on the natural environment). 4. Animal liberationism – the prevention of cruelty to certain animals: A comparatively modern, radical, development; which can trace its heritage back to “humane” societies formed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals (RSPCA). 5. Ecocentrism – seeking the preservation of nature for its own sake (also known as Biocentric Egalitarianism, Ecologism, or Deep Ecology).

Nothing in life is simple (Rick Altman in Anthropocene Reality [2012]…!) When I was at University I was very tempted to set up a Vegetable Rights Society. I was therefore not surprised to find out nearly 25 years later that even people like the late Arne Naess conceded that, since food is an essential requirement for life, an entirely egalitarian attitude towards nature is untenable… As Neil Carter has more recently put it: “Certainly, any principle along the lines of biocentric egalitarianism would be impossible to implement. Taking it to the extreme, how could a human justify killing any animal of fish, or consuming a vegetable, bean or berry? All involve some restraint on another entity’s capacity to live and flourish.”

Conclusion As nice as it would be for there to be a simple answer to all this stuff, there isn’t. In all of the above, I have not even mentioned humanity’s Optimism Bias (i.e. a tendency to remain optimistic when presented with evidence that it is unwarranted); and I have not mentioned the two alternative sources for that “faith in the future”, namely nature’s bounty (i.e. Cornucopianism) and human ingenuity (i.e. Prometheanism – a.k.a. “technological optimism”). But, either way, the basic problem is that, despite all the good things it gave rise to, the fallacy of the Age of Enlightenment was to think that humanity is superior to – and detached from – nature; whereas in reality we are not superior to nature – we are part of it. We cannot impact nature without impacting ourselves. If we do not protect our environment; we will ultimately destroy it and, in so doing, we will destroy ourselves. This is what the history of past human civilisations tells us.

More relevant posts you may like to read (if you have not done so before):

All things are connected… (12 January 2012)

All things are still connected (17 January 2012)

Collapse or ecocide – which will it be (14 February 2012)

Jared Diamond’s warning from history (15 February 2012).


About Rick Altman

Possibly just another 'Climate Cassandra' crying 'Wolf' in cyberspace. However, the moral of the old children's story is that the Wolf eventually turned up!
This entry was posted in Climate Science, Collapse, Ecological Modernisation, Economics, Environment, Intergenerational Injustice, Philosophy, Politics, Sustainable development and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Nature is not your enemy (but it may bite you if provoked)

  1. pendantry says:

    A third way? I think Annie Leonard has vision (while everyone else wears bifocals).


    • Rick Altman says:

      Thanks for posting this (even if it must be watched on You Tube)… This 22-minute video (watched by 2.3 million people so far and with an 85% approval rating) is presented like a children’s TV show and would be extremely funny were it not for the fact that there is a very serious point being made. I think it goes a little too far down the road of saying the way things are is bad and they way things could be is good (e.g. an awful lot of effort is made to make landfills and incinerators safe [or else they would not be allowed to operate])… However, like I said, the light-hearted form of presentation is deliberately ill-suited to the serious message because the message it seeks to convey is… “this should not be happening!”.


  2. Schalk says:

    Well, I think the crux of the matter is that humanity needs to be re-educated. And, since we are simple creatures, we need a simple message. The one I am trying to spread goes like this: 1) Reducing carbon and ecological footprints is incredibly important 2) Reducing carbon and ecological footprints is incredibly easy 3) Reducing carbon and ecological footprints brings incredible personal benefits Once a person fully understands these three simple concepts, human nature will take care of the rest. The trick is only getting enough people to understand this…


    • Rick Altman says:

      Thanks Schalk. You have a wonderful turn of phrase and economy with words. Good luck with the eminently sensible mission – I will try and emulate.


      • Schalk says:

        Hehe… This whole “economy with words” thing really is bloody difficult. I never thought it would be so hard to write posts shorter than 400 words… But thanks for the encouraging words. We all should simply keep playing our part in spreading various parts of this message. It really needs to go viral ASAP!


  3. Pingback: The dustbin of failed evolutionary experiments? | Anthropocene Reality

  4. Pingback: Future uncertainties! | Learning from Dogs

  5. Pingback: Are we all Britain haters now? | Anthropocene Reality

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s