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Why So Protective?

February 22, 2018

You know this all already. The earth is in crisis. Human-produced carbon dioxide has changed the composition of our oceans and could have severe consequences for the wildlife that inhabit it. While the global human population has almost tripled in the last 50 years, scientists say that by 2050 the world’s current fish stocks could be completely depleted. Of the 83 billion metric tons of plastic that has been produced, 6.3 billion metric tons has become waste – much of that ending up in our oceans resulting in the Pacific’s own “garbage dump”; and more locally, our beaches are riddled with micro plastics, so small they are almost indiscernible from sand. The list goes on. And on...

waves rolling on the beach

Photo cred: Marion Michelle/ Unsplash

“And so? What is new?”, you are probably asking.  We’ve been ruminating on the planet’s destruction for years. Actually, you might be thinking, the past decade has seen the surge of a new rhetoric –  a response to the earth-guzzling capitalist machine. At first slowly, and now at a gallop, everywhere you turn people, companies, cities are integrating sustainable principles into their practices. Environmentalists, eco-warriors, sustainability sanctions, green gods.  Things are happening!

And you, I imagine you share these sentiments.  Safe to say you found yourself here, reading this page because you care about the environment in some way. Perhaps you purchase sustainably sourced goods?  Maybe you buy organic meat, or less meat, or no meat at all. You choose to recycle and you feel a sense of pride when you remember to bring your cloth bags to the supermarket, refusing the offer of plastic ones. Youve recently started drinking through a bamboo straw, and it saddens you to learn that later generations may never experience what it is like to catch a fish by hand and reel.

But have you ever stopped to ask yourself why you make the choices you do? Why you care? Why you feel a sense of duty to preserve and protect? Maybe I’ll ask you this:  Who or what are you protecting? Questions of morality have troubled philosophers for centuries; interested in the deepest questions, moral philosophers want to understand the inner workings of our moral compass.  It is not enough to simply be told how we should act by policy, government, or our peers. Why we should act in particular ways at all?  Let’s consider a few possible reasons:

misty forest

Maybe you are of the opinion that the wilderness needs to be protected for future generations. It saddens you to think that your children might never know what it’s like to see animals in the wild; to collect mussels off the rocks, to swim with seals. You feel some sense of duty toward your fellow men, women and children to preserve the planet for the future survival and enjoyment of other people. If this is what drives you to make environmentally wise choices you probably identify with a view called Humanism. According to humanists we have a duty to protect the environment only in so far as it serves other humans. Climate change must be mitigated because we must protect humans from rising temperatures. Mass farming of animals destroys the planet for future generations and so we should stop eating meat to protect our future children. The ocean and wilderness must be protected because the human race would be desperately lost without connecting to our wildness.

Indeed, this might resonate with you, as it does in some ways with me. But perhaps, like me, you sense a bitter irony in this argument. That something has gone awry with a view that asks us to care for the environment only because it is of use to humans. If so it might be that your concern lies further, beyond the narcissistic grip of human ego to a place that sees that value of the earth and non-human species is in and of itself.

Deep ecology reaches further still. It argues for  “biospheric egalitarisanism”,  the view that all living things have equal value and that this value exists independently of their usefulness to others. Under this view we have a duty to protect the environment and all living things in it because they have just as much right to be here as we do. Being more ‘intellectually advanced’ does not mean that we deserve anymore resources. In fact, some deep ecologists argue that it is because of our intelligence and power that we have a greater responsibility to protect those who need protecting, human and non-human being alike.

smoke coming out of an industrial chimney at sunset

Maybe for you its neither of the above. You’re somewhat more pessimistic. Yes you do your bit, but in truth you don’t really see much hope for things getting better at all.  That said, you have found a way of making sense of the destruction you see. It’s the great circle of life. According to the Gaia Hypothesis, this is all part of the process. People, species, entire planets are born - and they die. And though eventual human and animal extinction is almost guaranteed, this doesn’t really worry you. Because the earth is resilient to any amount of violence. It will continue to spin. And some form of life will inhabit it whether humans continue to screw it up or not. The planet is a self-regulating system. It will survive, it just might not survive in the way in which we would have liked it to.

Maybe none of the above have ever crossed your mind, instead you unconsciously got whipped up in the current zeitgeist. Being environmentally conscious is trendy – I get it. What a relief that it is! But protecting our earth goes beyond a simple fad, it is a lifetime commitment. It asks us to tread softly, consume less, and constantly question the necessity of your actions and their implications. Sometimes it will call on you to make sacrifices, to give up the things you want, to stand up for creatures that don’t have a voice, or to confront big oligarchs that want to pump plastic into our oceans. Sometimes it might just ask you to pick up some of the endless litter strewn along the sand as you make the long walk back from your favourite beach break.  And when these times call on you the ability to draw on the fundamental reasons for your choices will provide you with the drive and energy needed to fight.

The philosopher Martha Nussbaum says that human emotions are not merely random brain states, they are internal experiences there to guide our moral actions. Tune in to those quieter voices, listen, question, analyse, and come to your own conclusions for why you care.

Author: Jessica Lee

Jessica works as a researcher for the Climate System Analysis Group. She has a Master’s degree from the University of Cape Town and has just started her PhD in philosophy of science. Her spare time is spent in mountain and sea.