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26.4.06

A Critique of Deep Ecology

I've posted before about my dislike for Deep Ecology. But it's difficult to find an intelligent critique of deep ecology. Most non-Deep Ecologists either ignore it completely, or find it so absurd as to be worthy only of mockery or "well duh" responses rather than argumentation. Some Deep Ecologists do little to help this, as they admit that the Deep Ecology position is one that can only be reached through a religion-like "conversion" (sometimes described as a Kuhnian paradigm shift) rather than through logic, and thus they focus on emotional appeals rather than the careful marshalling of evidence.

As a small attempt at a more intelligent response, I'd like to give some commentary on the eight-point "Deep Ecology Platform" constructed by George Sessions and Arne Naess. Naess has argued -- and other Deep Ecologists have enthusiastically followed -- that these eight points are the only things common to all Deep Ecologists. Anything more, such as theories about the basis of intrinsic value, is only a feature of the particular "ecosophy" of a certain subset of Deep Ecologists. I'm only dealing here with the first four points -- I may come back later to the other four, but I've had this post sitting half-written for many months now, so I can't promise anything.

1) The well-being and flourishing of human and nonhuman life on Earth have value in themselves (synonyms: inherent worth; intrinsic value; inherent value). These values are independent of the usefulness of the nonhuman world for human purposes.

Whether I agree with this point depends on whether I approach it as a textualist or as a originalist. As a textualist -- looking only at the words on the page -- I find nothing to disagree with in the literal meaning. I even agree with the implication that there are some nonhuman things that have intrinsic, as opposed to instrumental, value. But as an originalist, I have to recognize that what Naess and Sessions mean by this point is quite different from my own viewpoint. It all turns on the definition of well-being. In my view, well-being is a subjective state, and thus it's only meaningful to talk about the well-being of entities that are subjects -- that are capable of having experiences and forming counterfactual preferences. Not only can an entity such as a mountain or a chair or a flower not have "well-being," I don't even understand how one would go about defining what that well-being would consist in (in later posts I may deal with my objections to attempts by some Deep Ecologists to define the well-being of non-subjects either through a revived Platonic theory of the Forms, or through ascribing to them a non-conscious telos). Based on my own experience and reading of the science on this point, my evaluation of which entities are subjects lies somewhere between Descartes and animism. I would confidently ascribe a morally relevant (but not necessarily equal) degree of subjectivity to most humans, other primates, ceteceans, dogs and cats, and crows. A number of other animals (notably pigs) are potential candidates as well. However, I do not go as far as some Deep Ecologists toward the animist end of the spectrum in ascribing subjectivity to plants, much less to ecosystems or the planet as a whole, because I see no evidence for it (much less any way to determine what the content of their subjectivity is).

2) Richness and diversity of life forms contribute to the realization of these values and are also values in themselves.

I offer no contest to the first clause here as a rule of thumb -- as an empirical matter it has been well established in ecological science. I would, however, raise a note of uneasiness about the way placing it as the second of eight basic points elevates diversity, turning it into the essence and measure of ecological health. Certainly diversity is generally a good thing, but I worry at times about the biodiversity fetishism of certain parts of the environmental movement. For the same reasons described in my response to the first post, I object to considering diversity as a value in itself, despite its clear instrumental value with respect to the well-being of subjects.

3) Humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity except to satisfy vital needs.

The idea of vital needs versus luxuries is an appealing theory that becomes hugely difficult in practice, as those who have tried to follow Maslow have discovered. The idea of "vital needs" also tends to reify and naturalize a list of proper ends for human life. Making a list of vital needs (and certainly operationalizing that list -- eg what do we mean by "food"?) is inevitably a political project aimed at justifying one way of life that obscures its own political nature. This point of the platform does, however, point at the important idea of justifiable tradeoffs. That is, human whims can't trump environmental quality (as too often happens now), but at the same time human needs need not be completely sacrificed for the good of nature. However, we need a more flexible framework for evaluating these tradeoffs, rather than a simple categorization of vital needs versus non-vital needs and wants. Some form of utilitarianism seems to me to provide such a framework. It has the added advantage of making the tradeoffs and values involved explicit, and hence open to contestation.

4) Present human interference with the nonhuman world is excessive, and the situation is rapidly worsening.

I generally agree with the practical upshot of this point, which is critical of current human use of nature. However, as a philosophical guideline I'd rather rephrase it. I don't see human interference in nature to be inherently or necessarily detrimental -- indeed, in some cases it's positively good. As currently stated, this point treads dangerously close to the wilderness ideology, which rests on the act-omission distinction (which I find to be generally unimportant) and a separation between humans (who can mess things up) and nature (which works just fine in isolation from humans). Nevertheless, I am far from willing to give carte blanche to human exploitation of nature. I would prefer to state the point as "Present human involvement with the nonhuman world is detrimental ..." -- thus placing the philosophical starting point in the question of how, rather than how much, human activity versus human absence affect nature. Of course, human absence is still one of the tools in our toolbox, and it's a particularly useful one for dealing with the fact that we don't (and in many cases never will) have sufficient knowledge to wisely make large changes in the environment.

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