When you look at a tree, do you see a piece of paper or a living, breathing hug waiting to happen?
Perhaps one of the most central ethical questions of the environmental movement concerns our ultimate relationship to nature: are we separate, morally superior to the earth and other creatures, or just one part of an innumerably vast web of life?
Far from mere idle philosophizing, I think this question — and how we tend to answer it — has significant, practical implications for how we order our world. And though I'll permit some wiggle room in the middle of this debate, for we don't always maintain a consistent response to this, the way we interact with the world around us is fundamentally shaped by how we conceive this relationship between man and nature.
One understanding of this relationship implies that nature is essentially a resource to be exploited by man for his exclusive benefit. As the highest form of life on earth, man has the exclusive right (and responsibility) to harness the natural environment in a way that supports the social, political and economic development of human beings. Natural resources must be managed, implying on some level that if left alone, the natural world would not function in a manner maximally beneficial to humans. This attitude underlies much of the modern world's human systems, including, I would argue, the thinking of many environmentalists.
A different understanding of this relationship assigns nature an intrinsic value in and of itself, with human beings playing just one role in a vastly complicated and interconnected system. Human beings are not morally distinct from all other forms of life, and thus don't enjoy a monopoly of use of the natural world. A harmonious balance benefits all forms of life equally, and so doesn't assert the primacy of man over his surroundings. The long-term health of the system is valued over short-term increases in standards of living for man at the expense of the rest of the system. Though certainly not true in all cases, this attitude is more representative of native cultures.
Is one of these worldviews more right than the other? Is nature of primary value to us as a resource to be exploited for our material benefit? Or when seen as the totality of organisms and processes that make up a delicate, self-regulating system with its own inherent value?
Surely there are benefits to both value systems described above. And maybe it is an artificial distinction to make in the end, as many cultures seem to have elements of both blended together. However, I'm interested to know what YOU think about this.
I don't know how many readers I actually have out there, but please share your thoughts with us and perhaps we can create an enlightening discussion about the merits or inconsistencies of both understandings. I don't mean this to be a loaded question (apologies if my treatment seems one-sided here). I think a genuine discussion about this might benefit us all — and perhaps create a more consistent understanding of how we are to approach the many looming crises facing this planet.
Photo: Andrew Horne