did not appreciate the role of “worthless” wetlands in flood control
until an exceptionally big hurricane revealed the consequences of having already destroyed them. Nor did anyone imagine, when internal
combustion engines made transport easier or when coal-fired power
plants provided abundant cheap energy, that the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would eventually change the planet’s
temperatures and climate. And so on. That the outcome seemed so surprising in case after case after case might prompt reflection (Harremoës
et al., 2002).
The historical lesson may be simply that humans tend to exhibit
gross blindness to the far-reaching consequences of their actions, what
might be called ecological hubris. The affliction is not so different from
the Ancient Greek concept of hubris: the arrogant disregard of the
powers that determined fate. In the modern version, humans fail to
see or adequately respect the power of their own actions to cascade
through nature’s complex interconnections. The lack of awareness
or humility leads to corresponding consequences, over and over
again. However, rather than offend the gods, we harm other people.
The dangers of ecological hubris may seem to resonate with Leopold’s claim about valuing the integrity of nature. Not that nature
itself should be revered or hallowed. Rather, every action has potentially amplified effects. Ethically, precaution is warranted: a need to
tread carefully (O’Riordan & Cameron, 1994; World Commission. . .,
2005). A responsibility to proceed, sensitive to ecological context
and wary of possible long-term consequences to others. The larger
the scale of the action, the greater the need for caution. The plainest
remedy to ecological hubris seems to be a posture of ecological
humility. Ironically, in a narrow view, that might well resemble an
ethical respect for nature itself.
So, the source of environmental values here is conventional
ethics: “respect for others” and perhaps “first, do no harm.” Ecology
merely informs us of the often unseen links from actions to their
Imagining an Ecological Level of Self
Clarifying the interaction of values and science allows us to thread our
way back to Leopold and his land ethos. As a first step, acknowledging
nature as a bridge that connects all global inhabitants helps transform
the ethical landscape. We shift moral regard from an exclusive focus
on direct person-to-person interactions to the longer causal chains
that link one person to other, socially remote persons. There is a world
of upstream actions and downstream consequences (the ethics
explored more fully in Scherer, 1993). The moral horizon of our
apparently private routine behavior expands dramatically in scope.
Any act with environmental overtones has inherent moral implications, as measured by the eventual effects on others. That includes virtually everything: from driving a car or using plastic bags to eating
meat or charging a smartphone (Brower & Leon, 1999). Nature, so
often conceived as distinct from and apart from humans, vividly
becomes part of a fabric that ties us together. Atmosphere, oceans,
soil, climate, glaciers, forests, rivers – Leopold’s “land”: all are interwoven into a very human ethical tapestry.
The second step is realizing that many of the greatest environmental concerns are ultimately about human welfare. Despoiling
or destroying wilderness endangers ourselves. This is decidedly
anthropocentric – in stark contrast to Leopold’s land ethos. Valuing
nature need not rely at all on establishing an intrinsic value of nature.
Yet Leopold was surely right about one thing. An understanding
of ecological interactions gives greater importance to more holistic,
systems-level perspectives (Scheffer & van Nes, 2018). Everything
becomes ethically relevant. The status of nature, too. Even uninhabited
wilderness. A human-oriented ethics, when informed by the large-scope view of ecology, inevitably becomes, ironically, more ecocentric.
Customarily, we ascribe identity to individuals, and think of them
as moral units. But we also assume other identities, or “selves”: our family, our neighborhood, our school, our hobby club, our sports team,
our nation. The lessons of ecological hubris lead us directly to consider
the global ecosystem as another simultaneous level of “self.” In other
words, we benefit by regarding Earth’s ecology as a dimension of our
own identity. “Think like a biosphere.” In this perspective, preserving
nature or wilderness ultimately reflects another version of caring for
oneself, just writ very (very) large.
Leopold envisioned the “land” as wilderness, or as distinctly nonhuman. But a scientific understanding underscores the role of human interactions with the environment and, equally, the environment with
humans. Historically, we may well wonder about the origin and meaning of a posture that nature is – or can be – distinct and apart from
humans. That shortsightedness seems the root of our ecological hubris.
How did we become aloof to our impact on the environment and thence
on each other? Humans are an integral part of nature. And understanding that may have been, arguably, at the heart of Leopold’s ethical vision.
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DOUGLAS ALLCHIN is a historian and philosopher of science and science
educator. He is author of Teaching the Nature of Science: Perspectives and
Resources (2013) and Sacred Bovines: The Ironies of Misplaced
Assumptions in Biology (2017), based on essays from this column.