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Nature & Nurture

by Rick Lewis

Environmental philosophy is concerned with how we humans relate to our habitat, and how we should deal with the various problems which arise with that interaction. It’s a big territory, so we haven’t tried to cover the whole of it in this issue, but we’ve brought together a few articles to give you a taste of what it is about. But rainforest destruction? Extinctions? Pollution? Surely these are problems for scientists and politicians rather than for philosophers? Well, two philosophical questions do keep cropping up, namely, “What can we know?”, and “What should we do?” They come together in the most urgent environmental problem of the moment: global warming.

Global warming is rarely out of the news these days, the subject of international summits and political wrangling. This is because it seems to pose a real threat to civilisation. It seems beyond doubt that the average temperature of the Earth’s surface has been rising steadily for some decades. Not all the experts are convinced that this rise is man-made, but that is certainly the majority view, and we have to make decisions anyway despite that lack of certainty. Even deciding to do nothing and hope the problem goes away is still a decision. One relevant snippet from the history of philosophy is Pascal ’s Wager. Blaise Pascal wasn’t thinking about environmental problems but about religious belief. He said that if you are faced with a choice to believe in God or not, then even if you don’t have certain proof that God exists, it makes sense to believe in Him anyway. For if God exists, you will be eternally rewarded if you believe in Him and eternally damned if you don’t. If on the other hand there is no God then it won’t make any difference to your prospects whether you believe in Him or not. Therefore, from looking at the different possible outcomes, it is a sensible wager to believe in God.

On similar lines, it might make sense for us to believe in man-made global warming and act accordingly. If we are right, then we ’ll have saved the world and if we are wrong ... well, we might have put ourselves to considerable trouble and expense unnecessarily but at least there will be no dire consequences beyond that. Unless of course the action we take to avert global warming is somehow risky in itself, which is a thought to bear in mind as you read this article.

One influential view of the nature of our relationship with the planet is the Gaia Hypothesis put forward by James Lovelock in 1973. He argued that our planet ’s oceans, atmosphere and all its living creatures act as a kind of feedback loop, regulating planetary conditions such as temperature and atmospheric composition so as to keep them suitable for life. He called this interconnected system Gaia. As the idea grew popular, some (not Lovelock) interpreted it as meaning that Gaia is in some sense a living organism. Lovelock says in his latest book that destruction of the rainforests means we are ‘pushing Gaia too hard’ for the feedback mechanisms to cope; Gaia will probably still prevent runaway atmospheric heating from turning our planet into another Venus, but there will be environmental turmoil which may cost countless lives.

There are several general philosophical approaches to the question of our relationship with the environment. One of the most radical is called ‘Deep Ecology’. It was developed by Arne Naess, a professor of philosophy in Norway. According to Deep Ecology, we don’t just need an instrumental approach to environmental problems, but a reverence for all aspects of the natural world and a recognition that our interests shouldn’t be put above those of other living things. At the other end of the spectrum, the ‘Wise Use’ movement calls for sustainable use of the natural environment for human ends.

An older approach says that God gave us dominion over the animals and the plants, so we should use them however we see fit. However, theologians found plenty to argue about there: did God (if She exists) hand the world to us as a gift, or appoint us as stewards, which is a different thing altogether? This is a classic example of how philosophical disputes keep recurring in new guises.

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