“We are as gods, and might as well get good at it.” – Stewart Brand
There seem to be two movements under the banner “environmentalism”. One, which we might call old environmentalism, is mainly about wanting everyone to have a high quality of life. Living in a polluted city, drinking dirty water, or having all the forests turned into parking lots would suck, and we can mostly all agree on that.
Of course, there’s still a lot to do, but we’ve largely succeeded at cleaning up the Western world. Leaded gasoline is out, catalytic converters are in, and London is cleaner than it’s been in centuries. (To get an idea of how it was when the US was industrializing, one might look at China, whose rich are moving out to escape vast clouds of smog.)
But the other movement, new environmentalism, seems to be based on the purity/contamination moral axis. From this perspective, nature is “pure”, and humans are “contaminating”. Any change we make to nature is ipso facto bad, not because it has bad consequences (either for us or for animals), but because it damages nature’s purity.
The trouble with this view is that it doesn’t allow for tradeoffs, or expected utility calculations. If we want to clean up the local park, we can figure out how much we value a clean park, how much the cleanup will cost, and then decide if it’s worth it. Should we pay a thousand dollars? Probably. Should we pay a billion dollars? Probably not. The worse a problem is, the more we should pay to fix it. Standard economics.
But purity/contamination morality doesn’t allow for that kind of math. Purity must be preserved. Any contamination, however minor or harmless, is unacceptable. One bizarre result of this is that places we should care least about often have the most environmental protections, because they are implicitly seen as “pure”. For example, Antarctica has some of the world’s strongest environmental laws – all mining is outright banned, and “environmental assessment” must be conducted for all activities, even things like tourism. Now, the majority of Antarctica is a deserted moonscape, with no humans, animals, plants, or even microbes. You could dump a billion tons of garbage there, and no one would even notice for years – it’d have basically no bad consequences. So why are people worried about it? Why would anyone worry about something as small as a single candy bar wrapper, especially in such a place? Because, I think, any human activity feels contaminating, and we dislike contamination.
The same principle applies to global warming. Rapid, unplanned change is usually bad, since animals (including us) have implicitly planned for current conditions, whatever those may be. But it’s unlikely the current climate is optimal. After all, no one decided the weather – it just happened by accident. I haven’t done out the math, but it seems likely that – if it’s slow and well-planned enough for us and nature to adapt – warmer weather and more CO2 in the air would be net beneficial. It would open up vast areas of the planet that are now basically unused for more natural life, more people, and more agriculture. But from the purity/contamination perspective, altering the climate in any direction is sinful.
One standard justification for new environmentalism is the law of unintended consequences. We can’t plan out the future perfectly – hence, any change will have some unplanned bad effects – hence (so the reasoning goes) any change, any contamination, must be bad. This rests on the silly assumption that imperfect planning, even if it’s quite thorough, must be worse than no planning at all. (See also The Fallacy Of Complexity.)
After all, if we don’t control the climate or the distribution of species or the allocation of water, these things get decided by asteroids and storms and volcanoes. A volcano doesn’t care that it will have unknown subtle effects on the downwind ecosystem a century hence. It just erupts and destroys stuff. The real motivation isn’t that anyone thinks humans are worse planners than volcanoes, but that any human activity is assumed to be contaminating, and therefore bad.
The lesson here isn’t that we should destroy the environment, or save the environment. The lesson is that any decision, whether to act or not to act, should be judged by analysis of its costs and benefits. Just like anything else, some human activities are good, and some bad; some really matter, others we can ignore. Real decisions must be based on real numbers, not blanket conceptions of “good” and “evil”.
I think the “new” environmentalism is actually the older of the two. Certainly there’s been a heavy undertone of it in environmentalism-related discussions for as long as I can remember.
Also, I don’t think that considering damage to nature a Very Bad Thing prevents expected utility calculations by itself, any less than considering death or suffering a Very Bad Thing prevents expected utility calculations when trying to decide on how safe to make something. Certainly EU calculations become impossible if someone is effectively considering something infinitely bad, but here it sounds like you’re implying that everyone who thinks that nature has inherent value also assigns any damage to nature an infinite disutility. Which is obviously not true.
I really do think that many people think damage to nature should be assigned an infinite disutility, just as many think death should be assigned an infinite disutility. Of course, this isn’t mathematically consistent, but there’s no law saying people’s beliefs have to be mathematically consistent.
Right – many people do assign infinite disutility to damage to nature, I won’t dispute that. But your argument sounded like assigning any disutility to damage to nature implied assigning infinite disutility to damage to nature, which isn’t correct.
Judging by the historical chronology, old environmentalism would date from the early 20th century and new environmentalism from the past few decades, but new environmentalism is still old enough for neither of us to remember its origin personally.
You’re probably right.
I would agree with you that there are several kinds of environmentalism. The old kind, like you write, was mainly focused on us humans and our habitats: The newer kind is more nature-centric. I also agree that some environmentalists do the purity/contamination thing, and that is not a very rational way of reasoning. I personally consider myself an environmentalist, but that has a lot more to do with the evidence pointing to a collapsing ecosystem, that we are very much dependent on.
Think of it like this instead: I assign a high utility to us humans surviving and thriving, and a significant-but-lower utility to the rest of nature doing the same. If the earth becomes sterile we die. If the earth\’s ecosystems collapses, we don\’t get food, oxygen, etc. Simple math.
When it comes to your paragraph on the complexity justification, I agree with you that planning is better than no planning: Over-planning isn\’t the problem here though. Nature is insanely complex. That is not to say that planning amidst that complexity is impossible, merely very hard. Famously, every change is not necessarily an improvement, but every improvement is necessarily a change. What one has to appreciate with nature though, is evolution\’s tendency towards local optimization, which in practice means that in this one specific case, the vast majority of changes will have net negative consequences, by knocking things of that local optimum. I\’m all for trying to improve nature once we understand it enough to make reliable predictions on that sort of thing, and that is still a long ways of.
When it comes to Antarctica, I agree with you that its a quite silly situation; I would much rather have seen that protection applied to the Amazon River Delta, or the Great Barrier Reef, etc, but such is alas the nature of politics.
When it comes to a controlled elevation of temperature and CO2, I would expect a net negative for both humans and nature; Sure, Siberia and the Northern Territories would be more open to us, but deserts would grow, sea levels would rise, and sea currents would change. I\’m all for analyzing that situation more thoroughly though, but I\’m not for acting before we have very good odds of succeeding, and very high confidence in those odds, considering whats at stake. If you look at the problem from the point of view of terraforming other planets, it at once becomes obvious how small a target a habitable environment is in the concept space of all-possible-environments.
Oh, and any one candy wrapper isn\’t a problem, but we dump about 6’400’000’000 kilograms of plastic a year (source: http://www.projectaware.org/update/breaking-all-rules-cause). That\’s about 12 metric tons of crap per minute, which is causing problems.
I completely agree with the last paragraph of your post by the way.
“warmer weather and more CO2 in the air would be net beneficial. It would open up vast areas of the planet that are now basically unused for more natural life, more people, and more agriculture.”
Yes, if we were starting from scratch; however, we’ve built lots of infrastructure right next to this thing called the ocean. The value of this infrastructure is greater than the value of the undeveloped future vast areas.