As the human population increases, so does its capability to cause irreversible and damaging impacts to the planet. The technologies and lifestyles of the 21st century, especially those within industrial societies, are contributing to global warming, destroying ecosystems, and obliterating thousands of species each year. While the majority of the scientific community recognizes these catastrophic trends, political actions reflect little concern for the state of the world we live in. This lack of progress exists in the U.S. because the culture encourages anthropocentrism, consumerism, individuality, and a separation of humankind from other forms of nature including both the living and nonliving. Although many believe that the solution to the environmental crisis is through education and better awareness of ecology, biology, and sustainability, I contend that education is not enough. While education is a key component towards positive change in the Earth’s current state, what society needs is a new ecocentric worldview that not only respects all that is living and nonliving for its own sake, but promotes the self actualization of all entities, species, and ecosystems.
In the United States, traditional education centers on what there currently is (studies which are understood through observation such as physics, chemistry, math, some biology) and what was before (history, anthropology, geography), but gives little attention to what should be (what is ethical, how humans, animals, and plants should be treated, and what an ideal universe would look like). Such an education system focuses too much on the present and gives little interest towards an examination of our modern lifestyle, what it’s effects are, and what steps we should take to create an ideal city, country, and eventually planet. While classrooms across the nation expend great amounts of effort, and rightly so, to teach children the wrongs of hitting, hurting, or causing direct physical harms to others, little is done in the way broadening that context. However, pain is hardly, if ever, discussed as a harm that can be caused through indirect actions as well as to nonhuman beings. By not introducing the concepts of value to these students and asking critical questions such as “What has value?” “What kind of value does it have?” or even more simply, “What matters in your life?” children learn not only to take everything for granted, but also to not value anything outside of themselves and the humans around them (which they have been taught not to hurt). Additionally, these children grow up to be adults and walk away from their school with diplomas and degrees, yet no genuine knowledge as to how they view the world around them or how to ethically interact with non-human nature.
I do not deny that education can be essential to improving the lives of many individuals and can also benefit society in drastic ways, but it is not enough. Within the United States alone education is highly correlated with increases in socioeconomic statuses, reductions in health complications, and decreases in both crime and incarceration rates. While all of these changes are good and righteous, the benefits reside solely in human culture and do not extend to the rest of nature. In order for positive environmental changes to occur, education must go beyond merely teaching students to learn how the world works. Instead of simply seeking to understand the biology of a starfish or the chemistry involved in photosynthesis, students must understand the value inherent within such beings. It is through this appreciation of nature that humankind can begin to make alterations to its laws and patterns of life to protect the future of all that exists, and not just human culture.
It is evident, especially in our society, that education is not a sufficient means of creating an environmentally conscientious community. This can be best understood through an examination of the U.S. legislators and their environmentally aimed actions. Even though the majority of our congressmen and congresswomen have achieved high levels of education, political actions, which either protect the environment, us, or prevent global climate change, are few and far between. With a House and Senate full of advanced degrees, one would expect such educated individuals to be doing everything in their power to make the world a healthier place for humans and nature alike. However, many politicians are not only hesitant to make change, but deliberately against it, as they do not ‘believe’ in global climate change. Clearly, education alone (as it is currently structured) is not sufficient to produce environmentally conscious individuals.
So why exactly are so many educated students exiting school systems and entering the career fields without any care or concern for the environment? As stated before, these students are being denied a rich and flourishing environment of contemplation. A curriculum without thought provoking questions regarding what deserves value and why students are not forming an environmental ethic of how they view nature. By default, the ethic-less students become anthropocentric because they have never learned to value anything for its own sake. This view by itself is harmful, but when combined with the individualistic, consumerist society that is highly separated from nature, it proves lethal.
Individualism is highly prevalent within westernized countries and viewed as an attractive trait within individuals alike. This leads citizens to become incredibly competitive with each other in school, work, athletics, and many other aspects of life. Leading a competitive life is not inherently wrong, but it seems to fuel unnecessary consumerism as individuals and businesses compete with each other for money and status. The two major consumerist habits that cause our society to be wasteful are (1) overconsumption by desire and (2) fast n’ cheap consumerism. Overconsumption involves individuals buying excessively more than they need because they have been told, through various advertisements and means of influencing, that they desire it, want it, and need it to be happy. Here, citizens eat more than is healthy, shop for more clothes than they need, and make unnecessary purchases. Fast n’ Cheap, on the other hand, is focused less on buying excessive amounts but, rather, centered around getting what is the easiest at the moment and not factoring in the impacts of the decision or even the quality of the product. In Fast n’ Cheap consumerism individuals eat fast food, use disposable items instead of saving both money and resources on reusable products, and purchase items which were not designed to last and thus require constant replacement.
Outside of human culture, neither of these consumerist strategies is beneficial to the natural world. For the sake of profit, valuable sources are taken from ecosystems and shortly after placed in landfills. As cities expand larger, replacing trees with skyscrapers, and supplementing highways for rivers, the landfills only increase in size. Like the non-human nature that exists outside of cities, these landfills are kept out-of-sight-out-of-mind for the majority of these citizens. Not only are humans disconnected from nature and the harms they are causing to it, but they are also closed off from seeing the trash pits they have created. By staying unaware of both sides of the equation, both what the consumerism takes from the planet and what it leaves in its wake, shoppers are able to stay happy and guilt free, thus encouraging the endless cycle of nature’s destruction.
Throughout this essay humankind has been repeatedly distinguished from nature, implying that they are two distinctly different entities. However, humans are a product of nature, and thus posses an interesting predicament. For if humans are formed from nature, should our culture not also be considered natural? Is the city building and skyscraper constructing really so different than the anthills and beaver dams made in nature? The answer is yes and no. Humans are natural, yet also something dynamically different from nature because of the uniquely different human culture of Homo sapiens. It is a complicated issue and the best way to explain it is through the use of colors. Pink is a type of red color, but we do not simplify it as red. Although pink cannot exist without red, because that is where it gets its hue, it is dynamically different from red because of its white component. The addition of white distinguishes pink from red so drastically that when coming across a pink and red sweater we do not describe it as red. Rather, the item is considered to be composed of two different colors. This example is comparable to the relationship between humans and nature. Utilizing this metaphor, nature represents the red, human culture is the white, and thus humans are pink. Although humanity is natural, it is different from nature because it has the additional component of culture, which is not inherent in nature. So, just as with the red and pink sweater, when describing nature, humans will not be included in this description since they are not reducible to such designation.
Because humans are a production of nature they are interconnected with ecosystems and other species and, therefore, cannot live completely separate from either. Since humankind is not completely independent it is necessary to evaluate humankinds relationship to nature, as it is inevitable that the species will impact nature. After determining what in nature has value, and for who’s sake, duties can be administered. Intrinsic value is the worth recognized in something that has value for it’s own sake. Instrumental value, however, is appropriated only to things that are valued for their usefulness to something else. Direct duties are a person’s responsibilities to something for it’s own sake and indirect duties are a person’s responsibilities towards something for something else’s sake. For example, one might value his/her sister and thus avoid causing any harm to her for her own sake, but if her alarm clock is blaring early in the morning your choice to not smash it is not because you feel direct duties to it, rather, you recognize its instrumental value to your sister and thus the alarm clock remains unscathed. This example incorporates direct duties to an intrinsic value, the sister, and indirect duties to an instrumental value, the alarm clock.
In the case of the alarm clock, it had only instrumental value and no intrinsic value, and I believe this to be true for the majority of human made items. (I recognize the vagueness of this statement, but alas my environmental ethic towards human tools is complicated and I will not approach it in this essay.) However with products of nature, including the living, non-living, species, ecosystems, and earth as a whole, I contend that everything has intrinsic value. It is undeniable that things which reside on earth are of instrumental value to other beings, but this fact does not in any way lessen the entities’ intrinsic value. The worth of living and non-living beings should not be based on any traits or qualities other than their existence because the existence of anything and everything remains a mystery, and arguably a miracle (without implications of a deity). Therefore, the sheer existence of something is a valid enough reason to recognize its intrinsic worth and offer it direct duties. This is defined as an ecocentric worldview as all parts of an ecosystem are valued for their own sake.
Although all things within nature retain intrinsic and instrumental value, it is important to recognize that these values are not dispersed equally. As Rolston stated, “instrumental and intrinsic values are not homogenously distributed” (223). Rolston describes a direct relationship between intrinsic value and instrumental value where the higher a beings’ intrinsic value, the lower its instrumental value. Within this relationship, abiotic things “have minimal though foundational intrinsic value and are more importantly elevated in the instrumental value in the communities in which they become incorporated” and “humans are of maximal value intrinsically as individuals and of minimal value instrumentally” (223). Here it is evident that there is no hierarchy within nature defining what is inherently better than something else as each being, living or non living, has value for its own sake and also contributes to the well being of the ecosystem as a whole.
If all that exists has value, of some form or another, how do we justify our living? By our very existence, by nourishing our bodies with food (be it plant or animal) we are causing death and thus destroying intrinsically valuable beings. The question is then: must humans suffer starvation to remain moral? I do not think so. Utilizing the Earth to survive is not wrong. One of the most magnificent skills within nature is its capability to recycle all that exists. Soil nourishes plants, plants provide food for herbivores, and higher animals prey on the lower until they die and restore the soil with nutrients. It would be an insult both to evolution and the natural recycling process of nature to reject this beautiful process and choose death when each living being that exists is the product of four billion years of natural selection. Rather than consume ourselves with the guilt of committing plant homicide, we should exhibit the utmost respect towards our soon-to-be-food.
Because all things that exist have value, they in turn deserve respect and to be in our scope of direct moral concern. So, as rational creatures, we have duties to all that exists. We have duties to limit our negative impact on individual beings, species, and ecosystems as a whole. For species we have a duty not to cause any species to go extinct before their time. Their “time” refers to the fact that eventually every species is extinguished through the process of natural selection, but we should not hasten this process. During the natural weaning, other species are born and form their own niche in the environment, thus contributing to the diversity and creativity of the world. However, when species go extinct due to human causes there is no new species. Instead, something irreplaceable has left Earth forever and cannot be reproduced. This is not only irreversible, it is morally wrong for humans to completely destroy what may or may not be an integral part of nature. Many species have already fallen victim to extinction due to ignorant actions of humans, and this unfortunate truth makes it all the more necessary for humankind to ensure all species are respected and preserved, not just those which benefit our needs.
Species deserve to be protected against anthropogenic deaths, but individual beings are not so lucky. Life and death are natural processes in life that no amount of money or protection could halt. It is not our duty to protect every individual fern, bear, or human. I declare that our duty to individuals is to respect them by way of their autonomy and to maximize their self-actualization. Autonomy refers to an entity’s level of freedom and independence. Therefore, all plant life has more autonomy than abiotic life because unlike a rock or cloud, plants can move independently, respond to their environment, and provide themselves with sustenance. Animals, thus, are even more autonomous than plants as they can seek out their food, choose where to live, and protect their kin through intentional action. Following this logic, it can be understood that humans are the most autonomous form of life as they have the ability to use reason, alter their personalities, evaluate the world in which they live in, and drastically reshape their environment. While some may utilize these differences to form a hierarchical structure that places humans above all other living and non-living beings, this is anthropocentric. Humans should neither be viewed nor treated superior to other entities. Instead, differences between each entity should be properly understood in order to recognize the entity’s needs to achieve actualization.
While the term “self-actualization” has reached considerable popularity within the field of Western psychology, its concept is of considerable importance in environmental ethics. The Random House Kernerman Webster’s College Dictionary defines self-actualization as “the fulfillment of one’s potential.” Though not explicitly stated, many will interpret this statement as applying to humans and only humans. However the question must be asked, does not everything have a certain potential it can reach? Is a fern not fulfilling its potential better when it is producing hundreds of spores and not limp and dying of drought? Are bears not better mothers when they protect their young with roars and chasing feet? Everything that exists, the living and non-living alike have certain potentials they can reach and it is our duty to protect these potentials. It is important to note that self-actualization is not limited to individuals. The concept of actualization includes all of the world’s ecosystems, Earth, and any other astrological objects we are fortunate enough to interact with.
When considering larger environments such as ecosystems, actualization becomes much more complex. Like species, ecosystems deserve greater protection because, by definition, they are more valuable. Ecosystems represent not just one entity, but the thousands of living and non-living beings within the ecosystem. Therefore, the intrinsic value of an ecosystem is thousands of times more valuable than any given individual. Because ecosystems regulate their own stability it is unrealistic for humans to think the appropriate course of action is to pursue protection of each individual within ecosystems. As mentioned before, life and death is a beautiful process within ecosystems and should not be tampered with. Therefore, individualistic actualization should only be considered in contexts outside of natural ecosystems. For example, because animals have the capacity to feel both physical and mental pain, humans should respect the autonomy of their animals by feeding them, providing a loving environment, and abstaining from placing them in any situation which could cause pain, such as concentrated animal feeding operations. Another example exists within research laboratories. Within such situations, scientists should recognize an animal’s potential to have a family and form relationships within herds. Therefore, animal research should only occur when (1) there are no sufficient alternatives to the research that do not include animals, (2) it causes the animal the absolute minimal physical and mental anguish, and (3) when it can be justified as absolutely necessary. The third component, of course is subjective and difficult to put parameters around. Therefore, I can only hope that such researchers have an environmental ethic respecting individuals for their own sake and not only as a tool for experimentation.
To achieve ecosystem actualization, the best approach is laissez faire. Nature has its own system of checks and balances and human interferences can cause negative harm. An example is the human attempts to stop forest fires, which prevents nutrients from returning to the soil. To survive, humans must use sources from their ecosystems and this fact is irrefutable. However, the age old ‘less is more’ saying proves remarkably relevant for this scenario, as ecosystems are fully capable of managing themselves without the help of humankind. Not only should humans limit their attempts to control ecosystems, they should also limit exploitative tendencies. Ecosystems provide the necessities for humankind to flourish, but we should not take more than we need for our own self-actualization. Consumerist lifestyles steal from the intrinsic beauty of nature because humans overindulge in their own wants and desires at the sacrifice of ecosystems. For example, wolf pelts are attractive, but we should not kill wolves for this decoration piece because it is wrong to exploit nature for our selfish and unnecessary desires. Wolves in themselves have intrinsic value and it is insulting to destroy something of value to create our own artificial beauty.
To be moral towards individuals, species, and ecosystems, humans must embrace environmentally directed minimalist lifestyles and only exploit what is necessary to achieve our own self-actualization. This does not mean that we must abandon human society and culture and live out in the woods like a beast off the land. If this is your path to self-actualization, so be it. But embracing the lifestyle of a bear will not necessarily yield the noblest life. An environmentally driven minimalist lifestyle involves being conscious of one’s actions toward nature and limiting one’s connection to the artificial world created by humans without inhibiting one’s actualization. Some may interpret this as a sacrifice which will result in unhappy people and societies. However, many people have become so deep rooted into their drive for more money and more unnecessary things that they do not realize the empty life it is providing them. Advertisements and trends are created to encourage the spending of money and selling of products, not the happiness of individuals. Because each month there is a new fad and each year there are new gadgets shoppers continuously want more, buy more, and get more. The cycle never ends and thus consumers are never truly happy because if happiness is equated with objects it is only for so long as a more desirable object soon replaces that object. This is drastically different from an environmentally driven minimalist lifestyle, as minimalists want for little because they know that with each item they chose not to buy they are preventing further harm to ecosystems. Rather than submitting to an ascetic lifestyle, these individuals are filled happiness as they recognize both the meaning and consequence of their choices.
Like all other beings which exist, humans are just another product of nature they hold capabilities of causing irreversible destruction to the all that is living and non-living. This is wrong because it inhibits nature’s ability to achieve actualization. In an attempt to decrease human caused disaster, it is essential to reform the education system so that students can begin examining the world around them as an entity of value for its own sake. With this environmental ethic in place, humans will become more conscientious of their actions and thus move away from rampant consumerism to a life filled with meaning and happiness. Such a lifestyle is beneficial not only to humankind, but the rest of nature as it provides the earth with its best chance at actualization.
Rolston, Holmes. “Natural Value.” Environmental Ethics: Duties to and Values in the Natural World. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1988. 223. Print.