The moral argument in environmentalism

As humans, we have, like all other animals, an inherent bias toward our own interest. However, a book about wildlife management from the perspective of a gray wolf (Canis lupus) might focus on wilderness areas and place major emphasis on populations of deer (Odocoileus spp.), moose (Alces alces), and other prey. Little attention would be given to farmlands, upland birds, marshes, or waterfowl. Moreover, such a book might conclude with a section advocating control of an invading species: humans. Try as we might, we cannot remove our own human biases and perceptions when dealing with those animals and plants we conveniently call wildlife.
~”Wildlife Ecology and Management,” Fifth Ed., Bolen and Robinson

I call it the moral argument, but it may not necessarily be considered “moral” by everyone. What I call the moral argument is simply the argument that we should let nature be nature. That we should preserve species and ecosystems the way they were before man…I mean white man…I mean, shit. The way they supposedly were in some romanticized notion of uncivilized “wilderness.” The moral argument is the one that argues for natural checks and balances instead of human management and that we shouldn’t harvest or alter national forests and parks for human use. It also says that natural processes should be allowed to occur as they would without human interference.

I agree somewhat, anyway, with the moral argument. I believe in a species’ intrinsic right to exist, and that we should leave some wild lands untouched simply for the sake of having them. I don’t believe environmentalism is the only thing standing between us and completely destroying the planet.

But at the same time, I don’t believe that anything humans do is truly “artificial.” We’re a part of nature, though some of us have forgotten it. We only do what any species in our position would do…perpetuate ourselves to the absolute best of our ability. The same thing non-native species do when we release them into new areas. We are, ourselves, a force of nature.

So in many ways, I’m on the conservationist side. Not entirely, no, but mostly. If it’s possible to harvest natural products sustainably (oh is that a tricky word), then I do believe we should be allowed to. I don’t believe that every speck of wild land should be utilized, nor do I believe that every speck should be left completely untouched a la preservationism. Granted, I don’t think any conservationist or preservationist took their view to those extremes.

The moral argument is mostly preservationist. But such a viewpoint gets one into some sticky areas. If a hurricane threatens to wipe out an endangered sub-species of beach mouse, should we do something about it? If one endangered native species threatens another native species with localized extinction, what should be done? If climate change is not anthropogenic (although it may be likely that we are exacerbating a natural warming trend), then should stop it?

And just what the hell is a “healthy” ecosystem, anyway? A good portion, if not most, of the planet has been altered by humans for a while now. In some areas, “healthy” ecosystems were created and maintained by human beings. So what the hell do we mean by that? That said ecosystem has all its historically native species intact? That the area appears the way it did when the white man finally showed up and arbitrarily decided that this is how the place did look and looks now and should always look?

As I’ve said before, I much prefer a world with all the species we currently know and love intact. But that’s my choice, and I realize it’s a little bit selfish. I’ll pick an Eastern Bluebird over a House Sparrow, any day. But fundamentally, neither will make or break anything. Maybe I’ve a fondness for that arbitrary “native” designation (I’d like to point out that all those wild horses everyone tries to save so hard were brought here by Whitey and either escaped or were turned loose. The native horses of the new world died out before Whitey made it over here. But since wild horses are more charismatic and less obviously destructive than, say, feral pigs, we have deigned them as necessary.), or maybe I just prefer the color blue over the color brown. At any rate, I view it not as moral, but as selfish. I like wolves, ergo I’d like to see them stick around. The fact that they help to maintain an ecosystem I view as aesthetically pleasing and therefore worthy of preserving is an added bonus. But there is nothing moral about it. If it were left to nature’s devices, well, the wolves would be gone since another species (known to us as H. sapiens) arrived and attempted to drive them out along with a number of other competing species.

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One Response to “The moral argument in environmentalism”

  1. I’ve nothing to contribute, but this is a very good post. :)

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