Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Cleaning up before moving on

This weirdly tropical late October day in Boston would be a good one on which to start taking on our specific crises, but I'm a little too busy for a decently researched post today, and there are still a couple more points I want to make about the fundamentals.

First, regarding the humanity/nature false dichotomy (or maybe not so false, in the view of some commenters) I'm inclined to view this question pragmatically. As long as we're around, we're going to have a big impact on the ecosystems around us. Whether that is for better or for worse is a question that we can only answer, ultimately, from our own point of view. To accuse me of speciesism is feckless, because if we weren't around, some species would be better off and others would be worse off. And I'm not just talking about our companion animals, and cockroaches and rats.

In New England, for example, there are numerous species, including some very charismatic ones such as cottontail rabbits and numerous kinds of birds, who depend on the patchwork landscape of woods and fields that is maintained by humans -- the forest boundary is a unique niche. With forest now replacing much of the land the earlier settlers cleared, some of those species are declining. There is nothing ethically preferable, in my view, about an ecosystem that develops in the absence of humans compared to one with us in it.

But there are some characteristics of ecosystems which are preferable both from our point of view, and for the long-term productivity of the terrestrial biomass. These include species diversity, complexity of food webs, and of course sustainability, which refers to the cycling of materials such as water, carbon and nitrogen, the maintenance of physical substrates, notably top soil, and low levels of substances which are broadly toxic to life. Note that doesn't mean no toxins -- plants and animals manufacture all sorts of toxins. It's a matter of degree. So without positing some mythic "state of nature," we can still think about nature and how to live sustainably on the earth, as part of it, and still be human. Unlike all the other creatures, we can have these thoughts, and make such choices. Kudzu and snakeheads can't.

The second point has to do with cultural relativism. People struggle with this all the time. I don't like the way women are treated in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia (or, for that matter, the Southern Baptist Convention). But is it any of my business? Those are different cultures, they have their own values, and they don't think much of mine either. So here's where I rely on the distinction I made earlier between morals and ethics. I don't care if women cover their hair or men have to wear neckties -- actually I do care about that, I hate them, but I don't have a choice sometimes. However, where there are important ethical issues at stake, my moral relativism dissolves. The status of women matters not only because of the manifest justice issue, but also because sustainability and prosperity, and the ultimate welfare of children living today, depends on it. Societies with relatively greater gender equity are healthier, wealthier and they even have fewer children and stable populations. Therefore, it is not because of ethnocentrism or cultural chauvinism that I condemn the oppression of women: it is for the long-term health of both humanity and nature.

Finally, there is the question of means. My only significant power is the one I am exercising now: the power to think and express my thoughts. And that's something everyone can do, whether they agree with me or not. The idea is not to win the argument, but to find the truth.

No comments: