To illustrate my environmental views I’ll start by posing a question. What good is New York Times columnist George F. Will? Did he make any money for me this past year? NO! Did he give me anything or do anything to help me? NO! In fact, I think George Will has never done anything to benefit me in his entire life! George will is completely useless to me. Why should I keep him around?
Of course, this reasoning is flawed. George Will does not exist for my benefit. He is a separate being with his own innate value. He has the right to exist for his own purposes regardless of whether he benefits me. The core belief of environmentalism is that human beings are not the only things in the universe with this innate right to exist for one’s own purposes. A deer living in the forest doesn’t have to justify itself by being useful to us. I firmly believe this is true.
There are however, two deeply flawed attitudes held by some of those in the environmental movement. I’m not sure how widespread these attitudes are, whether they are held by most of those who consider themselves environmentalists, or only by a vocal minority. The two attitudes are anti-humanism and the golden age that never was.
There are environmentalists that are anti-human. They believe that people are a pollution that has spread over the world and we should get rid of us to allow “nature” to return to its “pure” state. This is rediculous because people are part of nature. We have just as much right to use the world as other animals and plants do. Not more, but just as much. We have the right to use our fair share of the Earth’s resources. It’s our moral responsibility to figure out what that fair share is. It’s wrong to hold the anti-environmental attitude that our fair share is everything. But equally wrong is the anti-human attitude that our fair share is nothing. Feminism makes a good analogy here. The core feminist belief is that women are equal to men. There are definitely feminists who are anti-men, but the core belief is not anti-men. Likewise, there are environmentalists who are anti-human, but environmentalism is not anti-human.
The second flaw is the golden age that never was. This is the idea that the world used to be in some perfect state, and any change we make automatically degrades or destroys nature and takes us further from that perfect state. This perfect state is usually conceived of as whatever existed just before humans started changing it. Opponents of global warming rightly point out that the cretaceous period was much warmer than today with higher CO2 levels. There was a different mix of plants and animals. There were more rain forests and swmaps and fewer glaciers. Even the continents were in different locations. That environment was created by nature, so why should we prefer the environment that existed in 1800 AD over what existed in 100 million BC?
I’ve glossed over a couple things so far. I said that human beings are not the only things in the universe with a right to exist, but how far does that extend? Do plants have rights? What about bacteria? Maybe non-human organisms don’t have individual rights, but species and ecosystems do. You can eat meat, but you can’t extinct a species. What about inanimate objects? Some would claim we shouldn’t colonize Mars because we would destroy its natural state. But even if inanimate things do have rights, how could we know what they would want? Maybe Mars is hoping we’ll come and plant trees there. You could say that it’s so beautiful that nature figured out a way to increase the biosphere by evolving humans to bring life to another planet.
The short answer is that I don’t know. I haven’t figured out an answer that I have total confidence in and no doubts. I don’t know how far the right to exist should extend, and I don’t know how to decide which natural state we should be trying to protect. But I do have a couple guidelines:
1) Be conservative. When we don’t know we should err on the side of caution. Avoid losing what we have right now because we might not be able to get it back. We should avoid unintentional changes to the environment. For global warming, we should not be asking, “Is it definitely happening?” We should be asking “Is the probability of it happening great enough that we should start taking precautionary measures?”
2) Intentional changes should be carefully considered. I don’t reject the possibility that it could be good to change the world’s climate to be more like the cretaceous. But we would need to make an intentional decision to do that after including all stakeholders in the decision making process. For global climate change, all stakeholders would have to include everyone in the world and proxies representing the interests of non-human species. It would not require consensus, but it would require a democratic process where everyone was represented. Until we do that it’s immoral of us to take the decision into our own hands and do things that will change the global climate.
3) Costs should be shared fairly. Environmental changes create economic winners and losers. For global climate change, those hardest hit would be non-human species, and the worlds poor living subsistence lifestyles closely tied to the local climate with few resources to retool for a changed climate. Those who benefit most from current consumption of fossil fuels have the most resources to adapt to climate change, while those who benefit least will suffer most from the side effects. This isn’t fair. We need to change that. On a more local scale, environmental regulations have had the effect of making individual propery owners pay the full cost of protecting the environment, something that benefits everyone. We need to make sure these costs are shared fairly too.
4) Biodiversity and biomass make good metrics for the health of the environment. I like lots of living things, and a lot of different kinds of living things.
5) Environmental justice is not optional. The libertarian approach to the environment is that each land owner can decide to protect the environment if he wants, and if no one does, and a species goes extinct too bad for that species, not my problem. That’s wrong. Environmental protection is everyone’s moral responsibility.