Feeding People versus Saving Nature?
By Holmes Rolston, III
Published in: William Aiken and Hugh LaFollette, eds., World Hunger and Morality, 2nd ed. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1996), pages 248–267
When we must choose between feeding the hungry and conserving nature, people ought to come first. A bumper slicker reads: Hungry loggers eat spotted owls. That pinpoints an ethical issue, pure and simple, and often one where the humanist protagonist, taking high moral ground, intends to put the environmentalist on the defensive. You wouldn’t let the Ethiopians starve to save some butterfly, would you?
Human beings are at the centre of concerns for sustainable development.” So the Rio Declaration begins. Once this was to be an Earth Charter, but the developing nations were more interested in getting the needs of their poor met. The developed nations are wealthy enough to be concerned about saving nature. The developing nations want the anthropocentrism, loud and clear. These humans, they add, “are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature,” but there too they seem as concerned with their entitlements as with any care for nature.(1) Can we fault them for it?
We have to be circumspect. To isolate so simple a trade-off as hungry people versus nature is perhaps artificial. If too far abstracted from the complex circumstances of decision, we may not be facing any serious operational issue. When we have simplified the question, it may have become, minus its many qualifications, a different question. The gestalt configures the question, and the same question reconfigured can be different. So we must analyze the general matrix, and then confront the more particular people-versus-nature issue.
Humans win? Nature loses? After analysis, sometimes it turns out that humans are not really winning, if they are sacrificing the nature that is their life support system. Humans win by conserving nature—and these winners include the poor and the hungry. “In order to achieve sustainable development, environmental protection shall constitute an integral part of the development process and cannot be considered in Isolation from it.” (2) After all, food has to be produced by growing it in some reasonably healthy natural system, and the clean water that the poor need is also good for fauna and flora. Extractive reserves give people an incentive to conserve. Tourism can often benefit both the local poor and the wildlife, as well as tourists. One ought to seek win-win solutions wherever one can. Pragmatically, these are often the only kind likely to succeed.
Yet there are times when nature is sacrificed for human development: most development is of this kind. By no means all is warranted, but that which gets people fed seems basic and urgent. Then nature should lose and people win. Or are there times when at least some humans should lose and some nature should win? We are here interested in these latter occasions. Can we ever say that we should save nature rather than feed people?