by Mallory Abel
Abstract: Humanity’s relationship with the environment is far from sustainable. On its current course, the natural world will soon be damaged beyond repair, and the future of living systems immeasurably compromised. To avoid these consequences, it is imperative that we facilitate a shift in the societal values that currently dominate our motivation for conservation. By using virtue ethics as a tool to reawaken and nurture biophilic potential, we might encourage the values and responsibility that will lead to a sustainable future.
Humanity’s relationship with the environment is far from sustainable. With each day, the natural world is damaged further and the future of living systems immeasurably compromised. To avoid these consequences, it is imperative that we critically analyze human attitudes toward the natural world. This paper holds that the pervasiveness of materialistic values has been a driving factor in the degradation of the environment, and argues in favor of a virtue ethics approach focused on biophilia as a foundational virtue.
Geological periods are often distinguished by the biological force or event that has proven to be the most influential during that time. It is not uncommon for this force to be one of destruction (Kolbert 2014). According to the International Commission of Stratigraphy, we are currently in the Holocene epoch (Kolbert 2014, 107-110). However, the question has been raised as to whether this title is still an accurate label. Some scientists argue that human influence is dominating the current geological time period and that a more appropriate label for the present might be the “Anthropocene” (Crutzen 2002; Kolbert 2014) or the Era of Humans (Potts 2013, 30).1 This concept is more than a linguistic turn – it serves to illustrate, in one word, the full scale of human impact on the earth.
As population and consumption continue to grow, human presence overwhelms the environment. When Crutzen published “Geology of Mankind” in 2002 and first introduced the concept of the “Anthropocene,” an estimated 30-50% of the earth was being exploited by humans. Just over a decade later, that estimate has jumped to 83% (Potts 2013, 27). And within that space, it is estimated that we control over six times more continental water than is left free-flowing (Potts 2013). But these figures merely indicate the extent to which our species has spread itself over the earth’s surface; the damage that is caused by that presence is a different story altogether.
The adverse affects of human activity on the environment have reached frightening levels. We have altered the atmosphere and geography of the earth to the point where we have induced climate change on a global scale (WMO 2014). And while this alone influences all forms of life on earth, the damage runs deeper. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), extinction rates are up to 1,000 times the natural rate. If this remains constant, nearly one-third of all living species will be extinct by 2100 (Kendall 2000).
We are changing the face of the earth, literally, and the repercussions of these actions are largely unknown. One might even refer to these actions as biocide or geocide: “the killing of life systems themselves and even the killing of the Earth” (Berry 1996, 1). The urgency of this matter has stimulated the emergence of grave warnings regarding the future of our planet. In the “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity,” (2000, 1) author Henry Kendall cautions:
Human beings and the natural world are set on a collision course. Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources. If not checked, many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society… and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know.
To conclude this warning, Kendall reminds us that the earth is finite, and says that if we do not fundamentally change our current practices within the next few decades, we will soon reach the end of its limits, and the consequences will be irreparable.
If this fate is to be avoided, a dramatic shift in our stewardship of the natural world is in order. And yet, while we seem to have reached a point where we can no longer turn our heads from the severity of this man-made catastrophe, a staggering majority of us seem either unaware or unwilling to act. With this in mind, it’s clear that a critical component of fostering necessary change will involve encouraging a shift in the social consensus ethic.2 This grassroots approach will emphasize the development of individual character, and in doing so, serve as an agent for developing the broad perspective and renewed sense of responsibility that will lead us to success. Before we can begin this process, however, it is important that we attempt to identify the motivations behind our presently harmful actions in relation to the earth.
Our current relationship with the environment is one that is generally determined by self-interest. Plainly stated, our concern for its wellbeing seems to revolve almost entirely around its potential function or use to us, which is often calculated in economic terms. Western countries (Canada, the United States, Western Europe, etc.) in particular are often associated with having strong values of self-interest (Schultz and Zelenzy 2003, 126).
If we look further, our culture has developed into a system that has a tendency to place the natural world on a backburner. Materialism has been described as “a value structure through which individuals… seek relationships with the objects of consumption that form their identity and enhance their subjective wellbeing” (Kilbourne and Pickett 2008, 886). The development of materialistic culture can then be seen as a mere manifestation or byproduct of values based in self-interest. And though this, too, was once thought to be unique to the West, research has shown that materialistic values not only are widespread throughout much of the world but may actually be stronger in underdeveloped countries (Ger and Belk 1996, 72-73). By ceaselessly amplifying consumption levels, a materialistic lifestyle contributes directly to problems such as pollution and resource depletion (Kilbourne and Pickett 2008, 886).
The combination of prominent values based in self-interest and the ascent of materialistic culture has been shown to correlate to the troubling rift that persists between pro-environmental attitudes and behavior (Schultz and Zelenzy 2003; Kilbourne and Pickett 2008). Although it may seem as if the environmental movement has taken off, research indicates that there has been no substantial change in pro-environmental behavior (Kilbourne and Pickett 2008, 885). This dilemma, referred to as the attitude-behavior gap (Kilbourne and Pickett 2008) or the attitude-action gap (Kollmuss and Agyeman 2002), is particularly frustrating for environmentalists. And while it should be noted that this problem is admittedly influenced by a complex interaction of factors including demographic factors, internal factors (e.g. economic, cultural, institutional, etc.) and external factors (awareness, motivation, values, attitudes, priorities etc.), it’s clear that materialistic culture and values of self-interest are common themes within that mix. Specifically, both self-interested attitudes and life goals have been shown to have a negative effect on pro-environmental thoughts and actions (Schultz and Zelenzy 2003; Kilbourne and Pickett 2008). The individuals who identified these correlations have stated that these trends do not necessarily lend themselves to any simple or apparent solution (Kollmuss and Agyeman 2002; Kilbourne and Pickett 2008). That being said, a potential solution may lie simply in appealing to the interests of the majority.
Biologist E.O. Wilson once stated that an important component of a successful conservation ethic is “the principle that people will conserve land and species fiercely if they foresee a material gain for themselves” (1984, 121). Because self-interested values and materialistic culture are so widespread, it has been proposed that it may be beneficial to ground our conservation ethic and education programs exclusively on these values (Wilson 1984, 131-132; Schultz and Zelenzy 2003; Kilbourne and Pickett 2008, 891).3
This is a dangerous concept to rely on. Consider the consequences of such a gamble: if we rely too heavily on those aspects of nature which provide some promise of personal or material gain to motivate conservation actions, the inevitable development of an artificial form of those services would render the natural world useless and conservation unnecessary. Furthermore, these values don’t appear to be functioning effectively as incentive in the first place if they have been negatively associated with environmentally conscious thoughts and actions (Schultz and Zelenzy 2003; Kilbourne and Pickett 2008).
We should be wary of allowing these values to mediate our treatment of the natural world. Aldo Leopold once cautioned against a system of conservation based on economic self-interest, saying that these values lead us to ignore aspects of the environment that lack commercial value, but which may in fact be crucial to its continual health and functioning (Leopold, 1949). Over half a century later, these words hold incredible magnitude when we reflect on the situation we find ourselves in. If the goal of this effort is to restore a harmonious relationship between humans and the natural world that will sustain itself over the grand scale of time, it is clear that right action will be insufficient without the right mindset motivating it.
From this point, we can conclude that an important component to the development of a new environmental ethic will involve facilitating a shift in the social consensus ethic toward self-transcending values. While this may sound challenging, we must keep in mind that our values are constantly shifting and being influenced by social constructs and ideals. Plato once argued that you cannot teach rationality to a person, you can only remind them (Rollin 2006, 39; Anastaplo and Berns 2004). This is precisely what we must do; rather than attempting to instruct societal values toward success, perhaps we need only remind humanity that the key to success is something that is already within all of us.
Consider the term “biophilia.” Coined by E.O. Wilson in 1984, the term translates descriptively to “love of life or living systems,” but it is also a hypothesis that proposes that humans have an innate (or unlearned) desire to affiliate with nature (Wilson 1993, 31). The existence of biophilia has been directly and indirectly acknowledged by academics in a range of fields, including philosophy, the social sciences, and the biological sciences (Hill 1983; Wilson 1984; Joye and De Block 2011). Its existence signals an optimistic future for conservation efforts, as it suggests that some element of conservation-mindedness exists in all of us. If this concern for nature were to be amplified on a large scale, conservation action would become a rewarding option in alignment with these self-transcendent values.
It should be noted that criticism of the biophilia hypothesis tends to circulate around the origin or adaptive function of biophilia (Hill 1983; Joye and De Block 2011). Although these arguments have revealed that the origin of biophilia is unclear, this paper makes no claim to support or dispute any of these claims. It merely acknowledges, along with these authors, that it indeed exists, and, like other human traits, can be shaped to promote a greater good for the natural world (Joye and De Block 2011, 208). From here, our task is simply to determine how biophilia can be utilized as a tool for conservation.
In light of the conflicts previously identified, one of our priorities in developing a new environmental ethic is to minimize the gap between conservation-mindedness and behavior. To generate this type of change, virtue ethics may be a particularly effective tool. It is unique from other ethical theories in that it places emphasis on the qualities of the person performing an action rather than the action itself, or the consequences of that action. These qualities are classified either as virtues, which are defined as morally good or praiseworthy traits, or vices, which are morally bad or blameworthy traits (Rowlands 2012). The potential for virtues and vices to manifest themselves exists, to varying degrees, within all of us. It is not the distinction between virtues and vices, however, that makes virtue ethics a suitable tool for conservation ethics.
Virtue ethics is an especially efficient tool for eliminating the gap between actions and values because of the prerequisites involved in becoming truly virtuous: in order to fully possess a virtue or vice, a person must constantly think and act in a manner that is consistent with that particular trait. In other words, a person cannot simply think virtuously without also acting virtuously; knowledge necessitates action (Rowlands 2012, 29-30). And so if a virtue or set of virtues were identified that would lead a person to conservation-mindedness, by necessity, they would also need to act in accordance with that mindset. In light of this, it is beneficial to begin by prioritizing a foundational virtue (or set of virtues) for this specific cause. Classic virtues (such as compassion, responsibility, and mercy) are undoubtedly important to this discussion, but they fall short of being specifically linked to the goal of environmental ethics. For this cause, one trait in particular seems address this cause perfectly: biophilia.
Consider biophilia as a virtue in its own right. A biophilic person would, in theory, think and behave in a manner that a love for life and living systems would necessitate. This obligation to behave morally for the sake of both the natural world and its human and nonhuman inhabitants solidifies its status as a morally good or praiseworthy trait (i.e., a virtue). Furthermore, the biophilic love of nature is linked to other virtues such as love, compassion, responsibility, and respect.
In light of this relationship, one could argue that biophilia is merely something that would develop as an extension of other virtues. While this is certainly true, the same could also be said for any other virtue. Rowlands, for example, exemplifies the interrelationship between the virtue of mercy and other virtues such as kindness and loyalty (Rowlands 2012, 32-34). He points out that it is difficult to carefully distinguish specific characteristics as one virtue and not another. For example, while we may attempt to imagine a situation in which a person behaves kindly without behaving mercifully, we realize that the action does not, in fact, seem like a genuine act of kindness at all without some element of mercy. Rather than concluding from this relationship that mercy is a mere product of the possession of other virtues, Rowlands instead concludes that by encompassing the characteristics of other virtues, mercy is somewhat fundamental to those virtues.
This is precisely the case with biophilia: while biophilia corresponds with characteristics of other virtues, these virtues do not seem to truly exist without biophilia. For example, when we imagine a situation where a person behaves kindly in many contexts, but does not behave biophilically (for example, the person is cruel to nonhuman animals) that person does not, in fact, seem to be genuinely kind after all. In this way, biophilia (like mercy) is fundamental to kindness, rather than a byproduct of it. This also illuminates a different sort of virtuousness that could be said to precede the true possession of biophilia: love and concern of nonhuman animals. We will revisit this concept later on.
In general, it is important to remain aware of the often interwoven relationship between virtues. Because virtues are, by nature, interrelated, to question the true status of biophilia as a virtue would be to question the status of all other virtues. Doing so would essentially place the entirety of virtue ethics into question, opening up a debate that is beyond the scope of this paper.
Like other virtues, biophilic potential also appears to be possessed by the majority of humanity (Hill 1983; Wilson 1984; Wilson 1993; Joye and De Block 2011). One might argue against this claim, however, for if that were true, wouldn’t it follow that we would never have allowed the degradation of the environment to reach its current state? As a response to this, we must again keep in mind that the development of biophilia would follow the same process as any other virtue: it not only would begin at a unique level for every individual person but would also be further diversified over time by the effects of people’s individual experiences.
In this regard, the process of becoming more or less virtuous is analogous to muscle mass. The process of gaining or losing muscle varies due to genetic traits, patterns of use, and nutrition. For all animals, however, muscles grow and strengthen through use and atrophy when they are not used (though they will never disappear altogether). Virtues, like muscles, atrophy when they are not exercised, but only to the point where they first began. And herein lies the explanation for our current relationship with the environment (which may also shed light on a potential cause for its widespread degradation).
It may be that direct, impactful experiences have become too scarce to cultivate biophilia. Over time, as society has prioritized self-interest and materialistic values, we have developed a lifestyle that draws us away from the natural world. We are able to manipulate the environment in such a way that we are hardly at its mercy (Potts 2013). As a result, we have come to see ourselves as transcendent beings – both separate from nature and above it.4 In neglecting our natural affiliation with nature, we have created a lifestyle that is so detrimental to biophilia that it has caused this virtue to atrophy.
In order to reestablish our connection with the natural world, it is imperative that we begin to broaden our sense of responsibility and progress toward a more inclusive sense of conservation. However, we must be mindful that the jump to environmental concern is, for some, a big leap. In order to bridge that gap, we are brought back to the notion of nurturing a love for nonhuman animals, first. The development of concern for other-than-human life will serve as a critical antecedent for those who are unconcerned with the conservation of the natural world as a whole. For example, it is conceivably easier to give moral consideration to other sentient beings than it is to give moral consideration to abiotic factors. Likewise, it is much easier to convince someone that nonhuman animals deserve moral consideration than it is to convince them that rocks do. Because of this, our relationship with nonhuman animals will serve as the foundation on which we can begin to cultivate a broader sense of responsibility that extends beyond the human species. From here, this insight will bring us closer to a holistic ecocentric ethic.
Tom Regan, a prominent animal ethicist, has criticized holistic ecocentric ethics by stating that promoting the good of the biotic community encourages “environmental fascism” by destroying the rights of the individual (Regan 2004, 362). This suggests that animal rights and holistic ecocentric ethics are mutually contradictory. Even further, the “triangular” relationship between humans, nonhuman animals, and the environment (Callicott 1988; Fix 2014, 96) in the industrial era has historically been one of conflict. Logically, it should follow that moral concern for any of the three would coincide inseparably with moral concern for the others. Unfortunately, our actions in relation to nonhuman animals and the environment rarely indicate that we have reached this conclusion. Instead, we tend to prioritize our own moral status to the point where we have forgotten that the human race is a part of something much greater. In order to expand our moral sphere and acknowledge our role in this relationship, a holistic ecocentric ethic would serve the purpose of blurring distinctions between ourselves, other animals, and the environment.
Holistic ecocentric ethics may prioritize the wellbeing of the whole over that of the individual, but it does not do so with the intention of denying moral rights to individuals altogether, as Regan suggests. This is simply one of the primary differences between animal rights and holistic ecocentric ethics that causes them to butt heads; while an animal ethicist may analyze the repercussions of a particular action based on how it would directly affect individual animals and relationships, a holistic ecocentric ethicist would evaluate the repercussions of that decision based on the broader ecological relationships that would be affected (Callicott 1988; Fix 2014, 96). In some cases, this concern for the wellbeing of the greater ecological community takes precedence over that of individual animals, but it does not by any means cause them to be forgotten altogether. While Regan’s concern for the rights of individuals in these situations is not unwarranted, each individual – and all of its conspecifics – would eventually cease to exist without an ecosystem in which to do so. It must then follow that in order to truly give moral consideration to individuals, we must ensure that they are provided a means of continuing to exist on this earth. In order to ensure that this is possible, it is simply not practical to make decisions under the assumption that the biotic community can be sustained without its abiotic counterparts (Berry 1996).
Because the nonliving elements of the universe contribute so deeply to the continuation and homeostasis of life processes, it would be foolish to understate the importance of these elements in the development of a new conservation ethic (Berry 1996). In order to serve as effective, responsible, and compassionate stewards of all life, the acquisition of true biophilia mandates that we broaden the scope of our moral sphere beyond the biotic community. Until it has grown to encompass all forms of life and their interdependence on one another, we will fall short of being truly biophilic.
From here, we are forced to admit the necessary relationship between the three aforementioned concerns, the boundaries of which have already started to collapse. The eradication of “speciesism,” for example, is supported by many animal rights advocates. Because speciesism essentially places only humans (or at best, very human-like nonhuman animals) within the moral circle, eliminating speciesism would simply involve extending the moral circle to all animals. From here, the extension of the moral circle from all animals to the environment should come somewhat naturally; “if one regards sentient beings as part of the land… distinctions between ‘animal’ and ‘environment’ quickly blur” (Fix 2014, 96). In this regard, the development of concern for nonhuman animals serves as much more than a mere stepping-stone to reach biophilia – it is essential. Because each of these concerns is an extension of the other, we cannot achieve environmental concern without concern for nonhuman animals. Likewise, we cannot truly be concerned about the environment without being concerned about other-than-human life, including nonhuman animals. Because of this, the true acquisition of biophilia will lead us to a consciousness and appreciation for the “grandeur” of earth processes (Berry 1996, 9) and a respect for the sanctity of all life.
From here, we might wonder how a biophilic individual would respond to the overpopulation of white-tailed deer in the absence of grey wolves, or how they might react to the adverse effects of feral cats on native wildlife. In response to complex, multifactorial situations like these, it is often unrealistic to seek a perfect solution. But by cultivating biophilia, we can certainly begin to approach them in a more enlightened state and make the best out imperfect circumstances. Because the cultivation of biophilia involves the development of a holistic respect for the relationships that sustain all forms of life, and a respect for the sanctity of all life alongside it, a biophilic person would naturally seek a solution that accommodated those priorities. Rather than focusing on specificities between situations, the development of a holistic ecocentric ethic would mandate that we focus instead on the establishment of this broadened moral circle. When we have successfully equipped our mindsets with a wider perspective, we will become capable of responding to these situations in the best way possible and minimize the development of similar circumstances in the future.
If we are to alter the trajectory of life on earth, it is crucial that we begin the process of developing and implementing a new practical conservation ethic immediately. And although the environmental crisis is clearly a complex issue, the development of biophilia as a fundamental virtue clearly exhibits the potential to dramatically improve this situation. In guiding humankind toward an ultimate respect for all that sustains life and living systems, biophilia can and should be used as a valuable tool for reestablishing a healthy and harmonious relationship with the natural world.
Acknowledgements: Adam Fix, M.S.
- An Anthropocene Working Group is currently developing a proposal to the International Commission on Stratigraphy to formally recognize the Anthropocene as the current geological epoch. Elizabeth Kolbert, “Welcome to the Anthropocene,” in The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company, 2014), 109-110.
- The term “social consensus ethics” was coined by Bernard Rollin in Science and Ethics. Rollin describes it as “those portions of ethical rules that we believe to be universally binding on all members of society, and socially objective.” (Cambridge, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 34.
- “The only way to make a conservation ethic work is to ground it in ultimately selfish reasoning…” Edward O. Wilson, “The Conservation Ethic,” in Biophilia (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984), 131.
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