Wilderness, the Built Environment, Poverty and Politics

Despite the variety of positions in environmental ethics developed over the last thirty years, they have focused mainly on issues concerned with wilderness and the reasons for its preservation (see Callicott and Nelson 1998 for a collection of essays on the ideas and moral significance of wilderness). The importance of wilderness experience to the human psyche has been emphasized by many environmental philosophers. Næss, for instance, urges us to ensure we spend time dwelling in situations of intrinsic value, whereas Rolston seeks “re-creation” of the human soul by meditating in the wilderness. Likewise, the critical theorists believe that aesthetic appreciation of nature has the power to re-enchant human life.

By contrast, relatively little attention has been paid to the built environment, although this is the one in which most people spend most of their time. In post-war Britain, for example, cheaply constructed new housing developments were often poor replacements for traditional communities. They have been associated with lower amounts of social interaction and increased crime compared with the earlier situation. The destruction of highly functional high-density traditional housing, indeed, might be compared with the destruction of highly diverse ecosystems and biotic communities. Likewise, the loss of the world's huge diversity of natural languages has been mourned by many, not just professionals with an interest in linguistics. Urban and linguistic environments are just two of the many “places” inhabited by humans. Some philosophical theories about natural environments and objects have potential to be extended to cover built environments and non-natural objects of several sorts (see King 2000, Light 2001, Palmer 2003, while Fox 2007 aims to include both built and natural environments in the scope of a single ethical theory). Certainly there are many parallels between natural and artificial domains: for example, many of the conceptual problems involved in discussing the restoration of natural objects also appear in the parallel context of restoring human-made objects.

The focus on the value of wilderness and the importance of its preservation has overlooked another important problem – namely that lifestyles in which enthusiasms for nature rambles, woodland meditations or mountaineering can be indulged demand a standard of living that is far beyond the dreams of most of the world’s population. Moreover, mass access to wild places would likely destroy the very values held in high esteem by the “natural aristocrats”, a term used by Hugh Stretton (1976) to characterize the environmentalists “driven chiefly by love of the wilderness”. Thus, a new range of moral and political problems open up, including the environmental cost of tourist access to wilderness areas, and ways in which limited access could be arranged to areas of natural beauty and diversity, while maintaining the individual freedoms central to liberal democracies.

Lovers of wilderness sometimes consider the high human populations in some developing countries as a key problem underlying the environmental crisis. Rolston (1996), for instance, claims that (some) humans are a kind of planetary “cancer”. He maintains that while “feeding people always seems humane, ... when we face up to what is really going on, by just feeding people, without attention to the larger social results, we could be feeding a kind of cancer.” This remark is meant to justify the view that saving nature should, in some circumstances, have a higher priority than feeding people. But such a view has been criticized for seeming to reveal a degree of misanthropy, directed at those human beings least able to protect and defend themselves (see Attfield 1998, Brennan 1998a). The empirical basis of Rolston's claims has been queried by work showing that poor people are often extremely good environmental managers (Martinez-Alier 2002). Guha's worries about the elitist and “missionary” tendencies of some kinds of deep green environmentalism in certain rich western countries can be quite readily extended to theorists such as Rolston (Guha 1999). Can such an apparently elitist sort of wilderness ethics ever be democratised? How can the psychically-reviving power of the wild become available to those living in the slums of Calcutta or Sao Paolo? These questions so far lack convincing answers.

Furthermore, the economic conditions which support the kind of enjoyment of wilderness by Stretton's “natural aristocrats”, and more generally the lifestyles of many people in the affluent countries, seem implicated in the destruction and pollution which has provoked the environmental turn in the first place. For those in the richer countries, for instance, engaging in outdoor recreations usually involves the motor car. Car dependency, however, is at the heart of many environmental problems, a key factor in urban pollution, while at the same time central to the economic and military activities of many nations and corporations, for example securing and exploiting oil reserves. In an increasingly crowded industrialised world, the answers to such problems are pressing. Any adequate study of this intertwined set of problems must involve interdisciplinary collaboration among philosophers and theorists in the social as well as the natural sciences.

Connections between environmental destruction, unequal resource consumption, poverty and the global economic order have been discussed by political scientists, development theorists, geographers and economists as well as by philosophers. Links between economics and environmental ethics are particularly well established. Work by Mark Sagoff (1988), for instance, has played a major part in bringing the two fields together. He argues that “as citizens rather than consumers” people are concerned about values, which cannot plausibly be reduced to mere ordered preferences or quantified in monetary terms (also see Shrader-Frechette 1987, O'Neill 1993, and Brennan 1995). The potentially misleading appeal to economic reason used to justify the expansion of the corporate sector has also come under critical scrutiny by globalisation theorists (see Korten 1999). These critiques do not aim to eliminate economics from environmental thinking; rather, they resist any reductive, and strongly anthropocentric, tendency to believe that all social and environmental problems are fundamentally or essentially economic.

Other interdisciplinary approaches link environmental ethics with biology, policy studies, public administration, political theory, cultural history, post-colonial theory, literature, geography, and human ecology (for some examples, see Norton, Hutchins, Stevens, Maple 1995, Shrader-Frechette 1984, Gruen and Jamieson (eds.) 1994, Karliner 1997, Diesendorf and Hamilton 1997, Schmidtz and Willott 2002). Many of the more recent assessments of issues concerned with biodiversity, ecosystem health, poverty, environmental justice and sustainability look at both human and environmental issues, eschewing in the process commitment either to a purely anthropocentric or purely ecocentric perspective (see Hayward and O'Neill 1997, and Dobson 1999 for collections of essays looking at the links between sustainability, justice, welfare and the distribution of environmental goods). The future development of environmental ethics depend on these, and other interdisciplinary synergies, as much as on its anchorage within philosophy

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