Becoming Dinosaurs?

dinosaur

I often write about the systemic character of sustainability-as-flourishing, but it’s rare to read an article that presents this idea in stark, quantitative terms. Writing in the New York Times, Richard Pearson warns us about the dangers of accelerated species extinction.

NEARLY 20,000 species of animals and plants around the globe are considered high risks for extinction in the wild. That’s according to the most authoritative compilation of living things at risk — the so-called Red List maintained by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

This should keep us awake at night.

If we are concerned about sustainability, we should be worried about this simply on its own, but Pearson goes further and suggests we have a stake in the potential loss of so many species.

It is often forgotten how dependent we are on other species. Ecosystems of multiple species that interact with one another and their physical environments are essential for human societies.

These systems provide food, fresh water and the raw materials for construction and fuel; they regulate climate and air quality; buffer against natural hazards like floods and storms; maintain soil fertility; and pollinate crops. The genetic diversity of the planet’s myriad different life-forms provides the raw ingredients for new medicines and new commercial crops and livestock, including those that are better suited to conditions under a changed climate.

I don’t think we are at the same point that the dinosaurs were when they disappeared, but that’s not an excuse for failing to pay attention here. Beyond an awareness of the benefits pointed out just above, we are not some alien species visiting the Earth with our scientists, probing the natural world and making the discovery reported here. We are part of the same eco-system that these other species belong to. We share the earth and depend on each other for existence. It may not be a matter of ecological urgency when a single ant variety goes absent, but it is an important reminder of our interconnectedness to all creatures, large and small.

When we see the richness of the world out there diminished in any way, we are diminished as well because, try as we might to place us outside of that world, we cannot. It is good, on the one hand, to connect the disappear to its economic consequences. But, by reducing the existence of all life to some economic equivalent, we blind ourselves to the connections we share.

These ecosystem services are commonly considered “public goods” — available to everyone for free. But this is a fundamental failure of economics because neither the fragility nor the finiteness of natural systems is recognized. We need markets that put a realistic value on nature, and we need effective environmental legislation that protects entire ecosystems.

Putting a “realistic value” on nature will make our economic system more mindful of protecting and nurturing these resources, but it is only a Band-aid. The real problem is not some market failure. It’s the attitudes that dismiss the natural world as foreign and apart from us. It our economistic way of giving meaning only through some monetary equivalent. It’s a cultural issue springing from the way we have come to know the world standing apart from it and learning about it by looking through soda straws. It’s inevitable that doing this for hundreds of years would create the unconsciousness that ignores this observation as something of only economic consequence, the value of the services we get from nature each year. Kant’s moral rule was designed for humans but can be extended to all life. He wrote “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.” Simply replace “humanity” with “all life” and “person” with “creature,” and the moral dimension of the extinction will pop up.

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Boudewijn Boon said:

Dear John,

Thanks for your post. Efforts in extending the moral theory of Kant to the natural world has been done by several authors in the field of environmental ethics and I strongly support this extension. However, Kantian ethics is often argued to be a a 'rule-based' or 'action-based' ethics. I would therefore like to make an addition below based upon the work I have done lately.

From your book I would conclude that not necessarily the rules should change (although institutional change is required), and that our actions are not the only aspects that need to be directed (i.e. behavioural change); no, our main focus should be on a change in human character (as Fromm referred to it) or, concerning the natural domain, in our fundamental attitude towards nature.

Lately I have been exploring the field of environmental virtue ethics, which focuses on the virtues and vices (i.e. character traits) that that reflect whether we 'live the good life' or not. I've come to find many similarities between your work and virtue ethics in general. For instance 'care' and 'authentic Being' could be seen as the core virtues in your work. (However, you might describe care and Being as ontological rather than as moral virtues)

Moreover, in the realm of virtue ethics it is recognized that in order to pass on virtues we need some kind of moral habituation or training, which is often done through parenting or teaching. I've come to see your 'presencing by design' as a form of moral habituation through technology; an idea also recently being explored in philosophy of technology (Verbeek 2011; Waelbers 2011).

I thought these similarities might interest you. I'm looking forward to upcoming posts. Kind regards,

Boudewijn

ps. For an interesting overview of environmental ethics see "Environmental Ethics: An Introduction to Environmental Philosophy" by J.R. DesJardins. Above I also referred to Verbeek's "Moralizing Technologies" and Waelbers' "Doing Good with Technologies". They do not express a strong vision on a sustainable future as you do in your work, however, they do discuss the moral relevance of technologies in our perception, actions and decision making.