Why worry about doing right or wrong when it comes to the environment?

A recent survey showed that the vast majority of Irish people consider that they care for the environment.  Some of us even act on that concern – picking up litter, monitoring the lives of the birds in ‘our’ gardens, writing letters about gas refineries, cycling to work. But even those of us who consider ourselves as acting with concern for the environment would do well to pause for a moment and ask, on what basis do we act with concern?

Various reasons have been given for why people show concern for the environment but the first, foremost or sometimes only reason is, how the environment affects particular humans.  For example, with climate change, Americans are only or mainly concerned for the impact on the United States, the Irish for the impact on Ireland, and so on.  Self-interest, or self preservation, is extended only insofar as it is felt that its extension will extend the benefits to the self. There is no actual ethical consideration in this position.

However, there is also another perspective on why we ought to consider the right and wrong – the ethics – of our actions towards the environment. This relies on thinking of the environment as having value in and of itself. From this perspective, individual organisms, entire species, and entire ecosystems are valuable for their own sakes and not because humans are there to value them.  Pigs, dogs and horses, as well as microbes and whole, natural ecosystems, have value by virtue of their being evolved, independently of human agency, and of being alive.

The word “environment”, derives from a latinate root, still evident in the French term, environ, meaning “round about or surround”. By environment, in a sense, I mean, the neighbourhood, that surrounding milieu within which we live out our lives. This includes, most obviously, the human environment, in the sense of the community of people, but also the built landscape, by which we are surrounded. It also includes the environment in the more traditionally understood sense: the natural world, from the microbial to the entire biosphere: the living ecosystems around us, and the material, mineral, gaseous backdrop upon which they evolved. The microbial environment is not only external, existing in the soil around us, as well as in all our humanly built constructions. It’s also within us: in our guts and bloodstreams, in the air, water and food, passing in and out of us, and living alongside the primate part of us as intimately and intertwined as if we were one co-organism.

Morality is about more than acting in our own interests.  The requirement of ethics is to go beyond simply doing as you would be done by – only in order that someone or something does something good to you in return. Instead of acting kindly in the hope that someone will act kindly back, we also act kindly for the other’s sake. In acting morally, we don’t act for a reward, even if a reward of some kind is one element of motivation. Instead, we act because we recognise that the other has value too. We treat that other – either human agent or ‘the environment’ – not as an instrument of our own good, but as an end in itself, recognising that certain conditions are good for the other quite independently of their being good for us.

Once we admit to ourselves that individuals and communities of other species have their own agendas, their own interests (though that does not imply that they need to be conscious of those interests) , independent of our interests, then we’d be hard pressed to ignore that information and continue as though the only interests which mattered were human.

Human agents – individuals or communities – which operate purely on self-interest are impoverished by the lack of imagination and creativity they display. To human beings, and indeed to human societies, which have evolved through the strategy of thinking, of problem-solving, any process, such as imagination, which curtails thinking is bound to curtail the ability to behave resiliently when under threat. In reality, a curtailment of imagination, of creativity, is actually a curtailment of resilience, a failure to use the full potential that humans have to react and respond to emergency situations.  Without imagination, especially the ability to imagine the life of other humans or species, we often resort to fear and violence for survival. Just as ‘de-humanising’ others is used as a strategy to facilitate the killing of other humans in war, so a denial that other organisms or clusters of organisms have interests of their own allows us – illegitimately – to justify their destruction.

There is an argument that living with ethical concern for the environment involves a contradiction in terms. We can’t help but to destroy life in the course of our own living. Our living requires that we kill to eat (even as vegetarians), to clothe and heat ourselves, for shelter – taking space from other creatures. And we are simply too large as organisms to be able to avoid the unfortunate unintentional killing of countless tiny lives as we go about the course of our days.

What this argument fails to recognise is that having a concern for the environment for its own sake implies developing an attitude of respect not only towards the environment, but towards one another. However hard it seems, we need to rebalance the consideration of interests involved, including the interests of the environment. This involves using all the tools we have, internal, external, to imagine how our lives impact on other lives.  We necessarily still kill and destroy others in the environment, but if our attitude is to minimise the harm that we do to the interests of others in the environment, then we are far more likely to come to a balance than if we only consider, ‘what’s in it for me’.

However ethical we want to be, self-centredness will still be one important motivating factor in any decisions about how to relate to the environment. However much we respect and even revere living entities in all their shapes and forms, from mountains to molehills, from oceans to octopi, we have also to recognise that it is most certainly in our own interests to be involved in the protection and conservation of the environment and of natural biodiversity, where this means a rolling back of the influence of human interventions. We really don’t need to be hair shirt wearers to act ethically towards the environment. We don’t need to pretend that we’re on some moral high ground either. As human agents we have the capacity to step outside ourselves, to understand that we’re not alone in having an interest in being alive. Without acknowledging that  recognition that there are other interests at stake, narrower, shorter-term interests will always take precedence. But we need to do more than appeal to pragmatism. Because beneath and beyond our self-interest, concern for the environment is more than just ‘doing it for ourselves’.

Lucy Bingham McAndrew is a PhD student at NUI Galway researching environmental ethics

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