Good environmental policy seeks to establish ‘the greatest good for the greatest number for the longest time’. Essay

Good environmental policy seeks to establish ‘the greatest good for the greatest number for the longest time’. Essay

It is important to remind ourselves of the assumptions that have culturally shaped ‘the good’. In Western philosophy, its etymology has Aristotlean origins but, in many respects, its more contemporary derivation rests on Thomas Hobbes: ‘whatsoever is the object of a man’s appetite or desire, that is it which he for his part calleth good [1]. This then has become the utilitarian final end at which the individual actions of the ‘greatest number’ must aim the satisfaction of ‘appetite or desire.’ It is an ethic of unmitigated consumption that has squandered much and preserved little. I shall spend time examining the implications of this social theory as applied to environmental ethics by Gifford Pinchot and the reactions to it from some environmentalists.

Pinchot’s treatise was an attempt to perpetuate this utilitarian maxim through a programme of resource conservation and development, thus guaranteeing it would be practised for ‘the longest time.’ As Pinchot so dramatically states, ‘The first duty of the human race is to control the earth it lives upon.'[2] This typifies what Sessions calls the ‘anthropocentric resource ideology. [3] The rub of this utilitarian ethic is, of course, that the ‘greatest number’ currently stands at 6.5 billion and is increasing by the hour. Despite Pinchot’s desire to ‘see that there shall be natural resources left… ‘ he promotes a consumptive agenda that becomes hugely problematic when those numbers are growing exponentially and resources are clearly finite [4]. His policy is also based on the restrictive notion that the ‘use’ of resources will be the measure of fulfilment that it is only when nature is being ‘used’ that it attains value, when it becomes the means to fulfil our desires, e.g. property and prosperity. To pursue such ends is wholly consequentialistic, as utilitarianism is, and pays little heed to other human needs and less heed to the billions of beings excluded from the anthropocentric rationality club.

In a poignant moment of clarity, John Muir evoked opposition to Pinchot’s creed. Like the Buddha’s tree, Muir’s own realisation came when he wandered into a clump of rare white orchids at Lake Huron. There he recognised that all organic and inorganic matter all of existence in fact had inherent value independent of its perceived use for humans; that the orchids would have lived and died whether a human had seen them or not. This awakening was developed by Aldo Leopold and the quest for a workable ethic to confront Pinchot’s instrumentalism really began.

Leopold’s own epiphany came when he shot a wolf. As a park manager this had been his job but it altered his perception irrevocably. Consequently, he argued that ‘the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts… soils, waters, plants, and animals; or collectively: the land.”[5] This pointedly challenged the Platonic dualism of Pinchot (that mind/body and man/nature are separate) to suggest a being-union that circumscribes utilitarian freedoms of action and prescribes responsible codes of behaviour to the wider ‘biotic community.[6]

Sessions and Naess reinvigorated this imperative through another meaningful context, this time camping in Death Valley where they devised their eight principles of ‘deep ecology.’ Continuing Leopold’s premise, they argued there needs to be a moral overhaul of ‘conservation’ to stimulate a spirit of ‘biocentric equality.[7] Thus the ‘greatest good for the greatest number for the longest time’ should pertain to the desires and appetites of all beings in the biosphere but for certain ‘vital needs’ of humans. [8] They hoped the ‘self-realisation’ of these values would be the categorical antidote the nemesis to the ‘ideology’ of Pinchot.

Thus the eight principles are an attempt to achieve a hypothetical imperative that has universal application without the preceding requirement to stumble upon orchids, shoot wolves or be in Death Valley. It follows the logical conclusions of Muir and Leopold to include all life-support systems; ‘that all things in the biosphere have an equal right to live and blossom and reach their own individual forms.’ [9] This doctrine has been matched by Holmes Rolston III through his ‘Let it be’ thesis and it is clear their collective reasoning for ‘a new commandment’ is the same: to stop the instrumental tide of utilitarianism that flagrantly liberates all human action at the expense of all other natural forms. [10]0 It does, of course, reveal an unorthodox historical urge for ‘ecosophy’ a meme perhaps that can be traced through centuries of ecological epiphanies from Lao Tzu, Pythagoras, the Buddha, Blake, Thoreau, Schweitzer, Ghandi to Leopold, Calicott, Naess and Ynestra King and beyond. [11]

Theorists like Martell and Singer, however, have challenged elements of this moral method by arguing it can result in a counter-productive preoccupation with ‘holism’ where right and wrong is calculated in relation not to individuals but to the biotic community: ‘It means that we can value systems over individuals and individuals can be sacrificed for the sake of an impersonal structure.’ [12] Since no individual is necessary for the survival of the whole then the value of the individual becomes negligible. [13] They argue that aspects of deep ecology are also unworkable because there are no means of measuring the relative needs of non-sentient beings but through their contingent use to sentient beings. Thus the programme of vicarious ‘extrinsic’ rights to non-sentient beings is proposed by Martell since ‘they evoke well-being not in themselves . . .but in other sentient beings.’ [14] This expands Stone’s idea beyond just human ‘guardianship’ to include guardianship to all sentient life and as a corollary to non-sentient life.[15] However, to locate value around the notion of only sentience may promote further species hierarchy and it is notoriously difficult to ascertain where the sentient species border starts and stops. With Schweitzer, therefore, I would argue that requirements for value should rest not upon issues of sentience but upon issues of life: thus lakes are valued because they house fish, rocks are valued because they house woodlice and soil has value because it houses plants ad infinitum. Since all inanimate objects directly or indirectly support animate life, with very few exceptions if any at all then the totality receives moral consideration.

More significantly, this belief in reverence and respect for all life must be compatible with effective, pervasive and immediate community education and action. I agree wholeheartedly with Norton and Singer that more protracted debates about intrinsic value and self-awareness are a luxury we cannot afford [16]. As Singer notes, ‘The problem is that . . . . . .ethical principles change slowly and the time we have left to develop a new environmental ethic is short.’ [17] Asking billions of people in ‘over-developed’ nations or rapidly ‘developing’ nations to join in collective epiphanies of self-realisation is an impossible task when the concept of utilitarian materialism has such a grip on the hearts and minds of those citizens. Sadly, contemporary political structures do ‘divert us from facing reality . . . ‘; yet ‘deprogramming’ 6.5 billion humans in limited time is an improbable task there simply aren’t enough trees left to muse under, orchids to stumble across or wolves, heaven forbid, to shoot [18]. Good environmental policy must therefore be ethically pluralistic, avoiding the atomising approach of rightists and the sacrificial ends of holism. This is reverence for life in a practical way that removes all barriers of consideration and prevents further decades of abstract argument while promoting the evolutionary potential of all existence.


1 Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy (London:OUP:1996), p. 160
2 Gifford Pinchot, Conservation and human welfare in Thinking through the Environment ed. Mark J. Smith, (London:Routledge:1999), p. 188
3 Bill Devall and George Sessions, Deep Ecology in Thinking through the Environment ed. Mark J. Smith, (London:Routledge:1999), p. 205
4 Pinchot, op. cit., p. 189
5 Aldo Leopold in The Land Ethic in Thinking through the Environment ed. Mark J. Smith, (London:Routledge:1999), p. 192 6 Ibid., p. 192
7 Devall and Sessions, op. cit., p. 201
8 Ibid., p. 205 The notion of ‘vital needs’ is ambivalent and could still be used to justify meat eating, vivisection or other forms of animal exploitation. Deep ecologists are still at odds with these issues and they sadly remain a matter of choice. Perhaps they require more excursions around the average factory farm or vivisection laboratory to remind them how far removed from being ‘self-realised’ these violent means are. Given that the deep ecology movement has been greatly inspired by the work of Ghandi, who abhorred both practices, it would seem counter productive to suggest the aims of deep ecology can be achieved through supporting such institutions.
9 Devall and Sessions, op. cit., p. 201
10 Holmes Rolston III, Valuing the Environment in Thinking through the Environment ed. Mark J. Smith, London:Routledge:1999), p. 210
11 For a full discussion of memes see Richard Dawkin’s The Selfish Gene (OUP:2006) I refer to it now wholly as an intriguing aside.
12 Luke Martell, On Values and Obligations to the Environment, in Thinking through the Environment ed. Mark J. Smith, (London:Routledge:1999), p. 235
13 As opposed to Mark Schrenzel’s argument: ‘We believe a tapeworm has a right to exist just as any other animal does.’ Mark Schrenzel in Save the Rhino Maggot by Matt Kaplan (Open University Offprints:2005), p. 85
14 Martell, op cit., p. 85
15 See Christopher D. Stone, Should trees have legal standing? in Thinking through the Environment ed. Mark J. Smith, (London:Routledge:1999), p. 211
16 Notably, BP’s chief executive Lord Browne recently said, ‘The levels of carbon dioxide emissions worldwide is about 20% higher than when the Kyoto protocol was signed in 1997.’ In We are cutting energy – but it is dirtier by Liam Halligan in The Business: 18 June 2006
17 Peter Singer, Practical Ethics (Cambridge:CUP:1993), p. 285
18 Devall and Sessions, op cit., p. 201

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