I was over at Gristmill today and inspired to respond to David Roberts' March 6th post on Environmental Ethics. As our Representatives reserve the right to revise and extend their remarks in the Congressional Record, so shall I avail myself of the same opportunity in my own forum.
The discussion at Grist juxtaposed two philosophical views of the environment: biocentrism, the belief that nature has intrinsic value, and anthropocentrism, the idea that it is we who ascribe value to nature. Taken to reductive extremes that few adherents of either viewpoint actually approach, one side might argue that human influence on nature is at all times undesirable, while the other may hold that a falling tree is soundless without a human ear to apprehend it. The more interesting question is whether we can discuss nature and humanity apart from each other, or whether the very nature of the question is about the impacts of the behaviors that our values inform.
There is not a square inch of planet Earth - air, land or sea - that is not affected by human values and the choices we make as their outward expression. That is different from saying that the existence of the planet and all the organisms it sustains matters only to the extent that humans place some worth on them. Nor do I subscribe to the value system that believes in a divinely reordered New Earth regardless of human intention. However, treating humanity as somehow separate from and distinct from the environment is neither ecologically sound nor sustainable.
To take but one example from East Africa, David Western recounts in his exploration of the relationship between Kenya's people and their environment, In The Dust of Kilimanjaro, that removing pastoralists from nature preserves resulted in an overall decline in wildlife health. In the absense of Masai cattle which had been grazing among the antelope and elephants of Amboseli National Park for millennia, unpalatable grasses proliferated. Only a return of cattle to this system reestablished a mutually beneficial grazing regime.
Human behavior reflects our values, and this is true for the choices we make as individuals and as groups. The range of constraints and resources available to us defines our arena of choice. If we wish to change our behaviors, and the repetitive patterns of behavior that comprise our institutions, then we need both to understand the values that inform our problematic actions and broaden our arena of choice. To transform an institution and the values that support it requires an informed act of social change. Anything less merely replaces the gargoyle squatting atop the capital and leaves the rest of the column on the same, shaky foundation as before. So it's "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss" or, if you prefer the proverbial French to lyrics by The Who, then "Plus ça change...plus c'est la même chose" makes the same observation.
Conservation is entirely about values. One of these is a belief that we can and should take responsibility for the consequences of our actions for the rest of the environment. Another is that simply letting "nature take its course" will nonetheless result in human-influenced outcomes. Conservation is about making informed choices and recognizing the value in maintaining and promoting value-laden attributes of our environment: wilderness, biodiversity, the view from the back porch, sustainable rural economies, dark skies, community character, finite resources.
Quantifying ecosystem services, while statistically interesting, has not been a universally convincing argument for conservation. The invisible hand of the market has neither created just and equitable human societies nor safeguarded shared environmental resources. It takes intentionality to achieve these values-based ends.
How resource users feel about their environment, their relationship with it and to other stakeholders in its conservation, is a critical determinant in how they perceive their arena of choice and what outcomes they will support. The broader lesson of the Intelligent Design controversy may be that values can trump science, but values can change: physical laws of cause and effect are far more immutable. Finding our place in the universe means valuing the place we have.