Wednesday, December 17, 2008
The Land Ethic (or, are we screwed?)
I've been reading about Aldo Leopold, a conservationist, amateur philosopher, and one of the earliest of the modern day eco-warriors. In 1949 he wrote the first edition of the Sand County Almanac, and most notably within this book, his piece The Land Ethic, which was very much of a throwing-down of the environmental gauntlet.
What Leopold did was assert that the long held assumption that humans only had moral obligations towards other humans was wrong - that it didn't go far enough. There was no real thought within philosophy that along with humans, maybe plants, animals and ecosystems had rights as well. In the Land Ethic, Leopold says that humans, plants, animals, the entire ecosystem, should be considered one thing - a "biotic community". In considering what a moral action is, he wrote A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.
I basically agree with this, but nothing is easy. If we are to state (what I consider a defensible argument) that the earth doesn't really have the carrying capacity to support 6 billion people (much less the 9 billion the U.N. expects by 2050) - does this mean that too many humans = a fractured biotic community, and that getting rid of some of these humans is morally correct? Leopold's position has been attacked in just this way before. Later philosophers, like J. Baird Callicot have tried to refine Leopold's argument so that it doesn't seem to legitimize setting limits on world population.
A lot of the climate change literature makes you scratch your head though and wonder what the hell it will take to get humanity to live sustainably on this pale blue dot of ours.
My library has a number of the climate change books that have been coming out the last couple years. This topic is actually so hot that the literature defending the climate change deniers has even become respectable... for example this one and this one.
Anyway, I was leafing through Humanity's Footprint, which is a very academic book put out by Columbia University Press, and love this chapter title:
Seven - Searching for Answers: Can we achieve sustainability, or are we Screwed?