The title of our discussion this evening is "The Environment: Is there a Problem?"
What I have tried to show so far has been largely negative. While I appreciate the importance of considering more than one side to any story, and while I appreciate that the complexities of environmental issues confront us with considerable uncertainties precisely regarding crucial information -
I have also tried to show so far that Rush Limbaugh and Gregg Easterbrook, as apparent representatives of a conservative tendency to dismiss environmental concerns, do so with a striking lack of logic. As a result of this critical thinking exercise, I come to the conclusion that especially Limbaugh is not to be trusted as a source of reliable information or insight regarding environmental matters. (This is why I tell my students, read him all you want, but go somewhere else for reliable sources and documentation.)
To conclude, I'd like to make three points:
a) as a parting shot at the conservative views represented by Limbaugh and Easterbrook, I'd like to make a last observation regarding what I call their epistemological fundamentalism.
b) I'll then turn to some more positive comments - primarily, my best understanding of the environmental situation we face (i.e., my answer to the questions, "what are the facts," "how certain can we be of them?"). This in turn will lead to
c) what ethical and political conclusions I believe can be drawn at this point in time regarding environmental issues.
A last way of understanding the so-called conservative position is to see it as a species of epistemological fundamentalism.
Fundamentalism arose in the 19th ct. in our country in reaction against a number of factors including new claims made about human beings from within the frameworks of science that appeared to conflict with cherished elements of the 19th ct. North American Protestant worldview. In particular, fundamentalists sought to counter what they saw as the anti-Christian theory of evolution.
The rhetorical strategy of the fundamentalist attack on science (and other competing claims) is well known. It has antecedents in the 16th century, when a group of Catholics sought to counter the claims of the new Copernican hypothesis, and we see the strategy pursued consistently today. The strategy amounts to two steps:
a) undermine the epistemological validity of the competing claim by attacking it "as only a theory."
b) seek to substitute the now discredited and rejected epistemological source (broadly, the natural sciences) with an ostensibly more reliable, more certain, more absolutely epistemological source (e.g., the Bible as read literally [sort of]).
What strikes me about Rush Limbaugh in particular and conservatives generally on the question of the environment is that they follow an analogous version of this same strategy. That is, they seek to undermine the claims made regarding environmental degradation, including the human role in that degradation, by seeking to exploit the incompleteness and uncertainty of those claims. "It's only a theory," they say, for example, of global warming - just as conservative Christians reject evolution as "only a theory."
Such an approach is not especially good for religion - it will only guarantee an anti-science ignorance and posture that will make "religion" increasingly obsolete and irrelevant in those societies driven, for better or worse, by scientific insight and technological advance.
Such an approach is equally bad politics - and for the same reasons.
Nor does it reflect an informed understanding of the natural sciences in general (nor of the environment as a nonlinear dynamic system in particular).
It needs to be pointed out that such an approach reflects a profound misunderstanding of the nature of science as a way of knowing. - a misunderstanding that ultimately rests on essentially 19th ct. positivist assumptions regarding the power of the natural sciences to deliver us absolute, certain, and complete knowledge. A great deal can be said here, again, concerning the epistemological errors such positivism can lead us into.
Suffice it to note for the moment, however, that this fundamentalist rejection of scientific claims as "only a theory," and/or because of uncertainty regarding such claims, especially when they conflict with our own cherished and familiar beliefs, would in fact mean the rejection of all scientific knowledge. At least, as I understand it, scientific knowledge is limited and uncertain in principle and in a number of ways
the methodological assumptions of the natural sciences cannot be proved, much less known for certain - precisely because of their function as assumptions (this is the problem of a "background language," coupled with the implications of Goedel's proof which denies that any axiomatic system can be both complete and consistent);
the logical problem ("affirming the consequent") which means that no amount of data ever "proves" a scientific claim, but simply provides evidence that is consistent with that claim;
and when dealing with dynamic, non-linear systems (such as the global atmosphere, especially in its interaction with the oceans) - uncertainty is built in to any claims we can make about these systems, no matter how complete our data collection and how fast our computers may become.
(there are additional reasons to acknowledge the limits of scientific knowledge - e.g., the shift from correspondance models of truth which require a single account of a given phenomenon as "the right one" to instrumentalist models which require multiple, complementary "maps" of a given phenomenon [as in the understanding of a photon as both a particle and a wave])
To put it another way, this contemporary, "post-positivist" understanding of the natural sciences means that our epistemological choices are not, as the fundamentalists would have it, between absolutely certain knowledge and what can be comfortably rejected as "only a theory." On the contrary, there is much to argue that contemporary science begins to resemble both the social sciences and the humanities in terms of knowledge claims: on my view, all these disciplines share a kind of methodological strategy which allows to at least move beyond demonstrably unreliable and unsound claims to what are more sound and better supported claims.
This is of course, an open process - one involving continual refinement. This means, to put it still another way (as suggested by my discussion of Easterbrook) - the choice is not between epistemological dogmatists (there is one answer, and we've found it) and epistemological relativists (there are no answers, so don't bother looking). Rather, good science - like good philosophy, economics, etc. - is on the journey from unsound "answers" to more sound "answers."
This process view means, however, that nothing can be taken as "final, complete, certain." Does that mean everything we claim is then uncertain and thus false - as the dualism presented to us by the fundamentalists would suggest?
If so, we're in a lot of trouble...
On the contrary, I' m rather certain (!) that if we analyze our choices and behaviors - from the most mundane to the most dramatic (such as the abortion question, and questions of the environment) - we will find that we "muddle along" every day, in a great cloud of epistemic uncertainty. But we will seem to learn new things, make good decisions, and move forward, even though we lack perfect certainty.
To some degree, just as we learn which movie reviewer to trust on movies, which newspapers and magazines to trust on what topics, so I would propose that with enough work, individuals can learn to trust certain sources on the environment. An additional, obvious strategy is to be especially wary of those sources with identifiable ideological commitments. For this presentation I have not relied upon materials available from any environmental organization, for example - nor have I used what for me are the equally suspect sources from the environmental right (U.S. News and World Report, as an example).
If we review some of this literature - what will we find? There is a problem, and it's serious.
What do we know about the environment? An incomplete list...
Beyond the wealth of material compiled for the IPCC report, let me add the following:
* the U.S. is the 8th highest producer of CO2 on a per capita basis (5.2 metric tons /person) - we are the single largest aggregate producer: we contribute 23% of the CO2 pumped into the atmosphere annually.
CO2 emissions have more than tripled over the past 40 years - though they show sings of leveling off in the late 1980s and early 1990s. (Rodger Doyle, "By the Numbers: Carbon Dioxide Emissions," Scientific American (May 1996), 24.)
* while temperature increases may increase the ability of some ecosystems to absorb additional carbon - that ability can also hit a limit as some creatures (e.g., salps, a species of zooplankton in the southern oceans) begin to die off after an initial population expansion.
"...it will take much more research to determine with any accuracy how this ecosystem will respond to - or affect -rising CO2 and water temperatures....Of course, there may be hundreds of other cycles, biological and chemical, that will have greater impact. Perhaps the most pertinent question about global warming is: Can we expect an answer in time to do anything about it?" -- W. Wayt Gibbs, "Some Like It Hot" (S.A. (December 1995), 30).
* while David G. Vaughan of the British Antarctic Survey points out that any link between Antartic temperature increases and the decline of the ice shelves - the west side of Antarctica has warmed 2.5 degrees Celsius over the past 50 years. (Tim Beardsley, "It's Melting, It's Melting," S.A. (July 1995), 28)
[There is debate between the "stabilists" and the "dynamists" regarding whether or not the Antarctic ice melted substantially 3 million years ago. A recent report of a 3 million-year-old bed of moss under the ice supports the dynamists side (for now). S.A. (May, 1996), 22: see also John Horgan, "The Big Thaw: Stability of the Antarctic ice remains unclear" (S.A. (November 1995), 18-20).]
* sea levels appear to be rising - the debate is over by how much per year. There is geologic evidence to suggest that sea level changed some 50 feet over the period of a century ca. 120,000 years ago. "Researchers agreed that the [current] rise has quickened during the past century, concomitant with atmospheric warming, and that coastal erosion and flooding are a reality. With half the planet's population living in coastal areas, ancient and modern data suggest we may be in a madhouse [of dramatic sea-level changes] again." (Christina Stock, "High Tidings: Ancient, erratic changes in sea level suggest a coming swell," S.A. (August 1995), 22.)
[additional support for global warming comes from the work of David J. thomson's study of changes in the seasonal cycle from 1651 to 1991: see David Schneider, "Global Warming Is Still a Hot Topic: Arrival of the seasons may show a greenhouse effect" S.A. (February 1995), 13-14. For a graphic on global temperature over the past century...]
Forests, biodiversity, and all that
While U.S. forests may be roughly stable - at least in area - in tropical forests, an area the size of Florida is denuded every year. (According to a U.N. study, 90% of the deforestation is the result of clearing for agriculture or cattle ranching. See David Schneider, "Good Wood," Scientific American (June 1996), 36, 38)
Biodiversity: some claim that we are in the middle of a mass extinction - the loss of 1/3 to 1/2 of existing species will occur over the next few hundred years, as compared with "natural" mass extinctions which take place over much longer time spans. (Biodiversity is not only good for the planet - it's good for human beings in a rawly utilitarian and self-interested way.) The list here is a long one: two examples -
* commercial fishing grounds began collapsing in the 1970's. The peak catch was in 1989, followed by staganation and/or decline. "operation of the world's fisheries cannot be sustained." (Carl Safina, "The World's Imperiled Fish," S.A. (November 1995), 46)
* amphibian populations are declining. Amphibians, "crucial components of many ecological communities" and who directly benefit humans, are disappearing as a result of increased UV (because of thinning ozone: the UV accounts for "severe losses of fertilized eggs in at least two...species" who lay their eggs in the open - 52), andhabitat degradation (destruction of habitat/pollution of habitat). -- Andrew R. Blaustein and David B. Wake, "The Puzzle of Declining Amphibian Populations" S.A. (April 1995) 52-57.
The ozone problem is real.
The latest data from the NASA TOMS (Total Ozone Mapping Spectrometer) shows a 6.8% loss PER DECADE since 1972 in the Northern hemisphere, and a 9.9% loss PER DECADE since 1972 in the Southern hemisphere. (see "Ultraviolet Radiation on the Rise," Scientific American (October 1996), 28)
[For a recent image of ozone levels...]
Ozone depletion occurs at midlatitudes, not just at the South Pole. "Between 1978 and 1990, ozone levels over North America dropped by 0.5 percent per year. In 1993 the total loss reached 7.5 percent" (Sasha Nemecek, "Holes in Ozone Science," S.A. (January 1995), 27.
It may be fixable: ozone-depleting chemicals in the lower atmosphere decreased by 1% by the middle of 1995 - presumably showing that the Montreal Protocols (reducing CFC use and production) are having an effect. (See S.A. (August 1996), 24).
But there's still the problem of imperfect knowledge: James G. Anderson, director of a NASA program to to study midlatitude thinning, "We just do not understand the midlatitude stratosphere from top to bottom...Clearly, there is the potential for surprise." (Nemecek, January 1995, 27)
Human population is likely to double over the next 50 years...
-- this includes U.S. population which is projected to rise to 520 million by 2050
(Janet Raloff, "The Human Numbers Crunch," Science News [June 22, 1996], 396)
but: since 1955, nearly one-third of the world's cropland - an area larger than China and India combined - has been abandoned because its overuse has led to soil loss, depletion, or degradation. Finding substitutes for the lost acreage accounts for 60 to 80 percent of the world's deforestation (David Pimentel, Cornell University, reported in Raloff)
per capita availability of cereal grains (= 80% of the world's food) has been declining for 15 years (Pimentel, in Raloff, 397)
--> How will we feed a doubling population, vis-a-vis environmental degradation?
For example: while soil erosion in some parts of the U.S. has been stabilised - "some cropland in the eastern three fifths of the country was eroding excessively in 1992 - most notably in southern Iowa, northern Missouri, parts of western and souther Texas, and much of eastern Tennessee and the Piedmont region. (Still, all these areas were averaging less erosion in 1992 than they were in 1982.)" -- Roger Doyle, "By the Numbers: Soil Erosion of Cropland in the U.S., 1982 to 1992," Scientific American (October 1996), 34.
And remember: because of overfishing, many of the world's important fisheries have collapsed, resulting in smaller catches (since their peak in 1989) and higher prices for fish (see Carl Safina, "The World's Imperiled Fish," Scientific American (November 1995), 46-53.
What we also know:
"the environment" is global: U.S. sulfate aerosols create acid rain in Europe - even after the Europeans have made substantive reductions in their own sulfate emissions
(In Europe, fish stocks have continued to decline and tree bark dissolve despite a reduction of sulfur emissions (30% since 1980). Not surprisingly, "The lack of results has frustrated European scientists, who were powerless then to explain why stringent cleanup efforts failed." "Lidar," a device like radar but using laser light produced images, however, that show U.S. sulfate aerosols drifting across the Atlantic to Europe (Brenda DeKoker, "An Acid Test," Scientific American, October 1995, 40)
"the environment" is a nonlinear dynamic system - a "chaos system" in which small changes can cascade into dramatic ones.
There is evidence of such dramatic changes in the past (see Christian Stock on the sea level change recorded in Bahamian limestone - S.A. (August 1995); and reports on Antarctic ice (Horgan, S.A., November 1995; May, 1996).
As a particular example: the "Atlantic conveyor," a major circulation system that helps pump warmth into the northern latitudes of Europe, appears to be such a chaotic system - one that can "shut down" under the impact of polar ice melt-off. (Wallace S. Broecker, "Chaotic Climate" S.A. (November 1995)
There is also a slowdown in global response to demonstrable problems.
The Montreal Protocols may be sabatogued by black market production and use of CFCs. The 1995 Berlin conference on global warming resulted in "the acceptance of 'joint implementation,' which will allow wealthy nations to exceed targets if they support projects to reduce production of greenhouse gases in poorer countries," - and the agreement to talk again soon. For that, "Only two or three developed nations have any real chance of keeping their emissions in 2000 to the levels of a decade earlier, the target vaguely endorsed at the Earth Summit. Data already show that the U.S. and Europe will probably go 6 percent over that goal." -- Tim Beardsley, "Rio Redux: Surpise! Promises of the Earth Summit are still unmet," S. A. (June 1995), 36.
So, given that
"the environment" functions as an unpredictable and potentially exquisite chaos system
- one that faces increasing stresses because of human population growth and the concomitant increases in natural resource consumption, pollution, and environmental degradation, and
global responses to such problems appear to be slowing down...
c) what should we do?
So far I have stressed that environmental issues are much like other important moral choices we face on a daily basis. However much we might like more complete and more certain information - that information is simply not always (indeed, not usually) there for us, and we have to make the best decisions we can with what varying degrees of certainty about various important factors.
There is one way, however, in which environmental issues are not like other moral issues. Most moral theory - particularly in the modern period - has been concerned with individual and collective human concerns: ethics and politics focus on a human scale of moral choices.
But just as the sciences have been dramatically reshaped over the past century or so by new discoveries which radically enlarge the scale on which theory must apply - so the environment has forced moral theorists to radically expand the scale on which our theories must function.
What this further means is that the theories we've been using for the past couple of centuries - especially utilitarian theories of the sort that prevail in this country - are simply no longer adequate for dealing with the scope of issues presented by the environment. Just as classical Newtonian mechanics doesn't work when applied to either the very large (e.g., the frameworks of relativistic systems) or the very small (the probabilistic behaviors of sub-atomic particles and the instrumentalist models of knowledge they require)
- so 19th and 20th ct. utilitarianism seem inadequate for dealing with moral problems involved in the environment, for example: how to properly value the consequences of our actions for future generations - how many generations into the future?; how to properly value an ecosystem as a whole, in contrast with utilitarian efforts to assign values to particular elements of a whole?
This means more broadly that questions of the environment are not only complicated for the sorts of reasons Limbaugh likes to point out - namely, the uncertainty and incompleteness of our scientific knowledge regarding the environment: such questions are further complicated because they go beyond the human scale from which and with which our familiar moral theories attempt to deal. And, of course, there is no lack of controversy here either...
From an ethical standpoint, to put it a last way - the problem with the conservative argument is that it fails to recognize the qualitative difference between environmental issues and the sorts of issues pre-environmental moral theories are designed to handle. In particular, the sorts of utilitarian calculus that the conservative argument attempts to bring to bear strikes me as clearly inadequate to the task. Most broadly - the conservative argument of Easterbrook and others urges us to let markets and private ownership of resources take care of our environmental challenges. This misses several things:
1) we had private ownership of resources before - but such ownership did not avoid generating environmental concerns. nor is it obvious how private ownership alone is going to solve genuinely global problems. Example: how will private ownership of resources solve the problem of sulfate aerosols generated in one country - the U.S. - damaging the forests and lakes of other countries - Europe?
(This is the problem of value: the focus on individual ownership as our primary way of determining what is valuable seems unable to help us determine the value of environmental entities - species, ecosystems, the environment as such - i.e., wholes, not parts. Whole, moreover, that noone "owns" individually.)
2) A crucial problem with utilitarian approaches is that they depend on predicting future consequences. The problem with the future - and most especially the environmental future - is that it defies prediction. It defies prediction for precisely the two reasons we've seen above: (a) we don't know enough (surprise! there's a hole in the ozone! surprise! it's over our heads! surprise! we don't understand it...) and (b) what we do know - that much of the environment functions as a dynamic, nonlinear system - means that it cannot be predicted very far out into the future, even with more complete knowledge of the system.
It also means that it's a chaotic system - i.e., that long periods of apparently stable behavior can become suddenly chaotic once key conditions reach threshold levels. (Examples: ocean level variations of 50 feet over a century; melting at the pole, the Atlantic conveyor and European climate).
As an alternative to the modernist, utilitarian approach apparently favored by Easterbrook, Limbaugh, and others - I would suggest that we have to approach environmental issues from a somewhat different perspective, one that includes both utilitarian and deontological considerations, and which seeks to respond to the global character of the environment.
My own position here is complex (as it must be for any important moral choice). But it involves the following elements:
utilitarian: when the future, upon which the utilitarian calculus of costs and benefits depends, is uncertain - be a conservative. Don't take unnecessary chances with something of great value - ultimately, of absolute value - especially when that something is a dynamic, non-linear system which can radically shift and collapse in important ways.
deontological: I'm convinced that the environment forces us to shift from especially modernist Western notions of "the individual" and individual rights to new systems of moral thinking that will incorporate pre-modern (not "postmodern"!) understandings of the importance of wholes (as well as of individuals) - understandings, moreover, that will involve deontological commitments to some acts as simply right or wrong, no matter what utilitarian benefits might derive from those acts.
In fact, I think Rush would be proud of me: I won't invoke Gaia this evening - let me instead invoke God.
I will defer to Dr. Stauder as the trained and experienced cultural anthropologist on this first point. But as someone who has studied and taught world religions for a number of years, what I know about both "great" and "little" religious traditions - prior to modernity - is that they universally regard Creation as something above and beyond humanity. However important human beings may be within a given worldview - every religious system I know of takes Creation to "belong" to the Divine, not to humanity. As a result, Creation must be treated with considerable respect.
And fortunately, one doesn't have to become a "New Age mystic" or an ancient druid to refer to religious traditions in the West that endorse just such a view. On the contrary, dear old Judaism and most strains of Christianity, at least prior to 1637, uphold rather strong insistence that "the Earth is the Lord's, and the fullness thereof."
There is a very old tradition of environmental stewardship that is captured in the Hebrew Bible (the Christian "Old Testament"). The fundamental assumptions behind this stewardship, moreover, are shared by Jews, Christians, Muslims, significant numbers of Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, and others: namely, (a) the world is not ours - is it not ours, in Descartes' phrase (the theme of modern technology), "to master and possess." Rather, it is the artifact of the Divine, and our primarily responsibility towards that artifact is that of stewardship.
What this seems to mean is (b) careful use of what we genuinely need: it explicitly does not mean exploitation to the point of environmental collapse.
And so in the Hebrew Bible one finds considerable attention to restrictions on economic activity - farming, grazing, "banking" - where these activities are understood to threaten what we would call today the health of the environment. This goes so far as to include "land sabbaticals" every 7 years, for example, along with restrictions on property ownership so that private ownership does not begin to expand in ways that will be destructive of both the human and larger communities.
All this takes place within a larger understanding of the kingdom of God - a time of shalom, of both peace and prosperity, in which the original harmony of the world at Creation is restored. Our careful stewardship of the natural order is a key way in which we as human beings work to bring about this kingdom of God.
For what it's worth, I find similar sensibilities towards nature in virtually every other religious system known to me.
So, in the face of what I think I know about the environment, here are the philosophical and religious conclusions I draw:
a) on analogy with the question of abortion: because uncertainty regarding the health of the environment is intrinsic to the environment as a chaotic system - out of both utilitarian and deontological grounds, it seems to me that great care must be taken to preserve the health of the environment.
Utilitarian - because even utilitarians must breathe and have living customers holding jobs in order to engage in economic activity
Deontological - because the health of the environment directly affects our ability to attend to basic human rights and needs - attention which is likely to become increasingly difficult in light of continuing environmental degradation and growing population.
b) on philosophical grounds: I am convinced that the "conservative" arguments for continued economic expansion and optimism regarding the ability of markets and self-interest to cure our environmental problems is both (a) partly right - and partly one-sided, as this argument
- seems to call for a return to the focus on individual property rights and self-interest that have led to much of our environmental woes;
- as this sort of return seems very unlikely to provide a way of dealing effectively with genuinely global issues, and
- as this argument rests on primarily utilitarian ethics - one which is unable to grapple with all of the elements involved in environmental concerns (as it depends on a future it cannot predict, and on values it cannot "fix," etc.)
More broadly, the philosophical worldview that underlies this argument is too historically relative: it is modernist - specifically 19th ct. - and I think that the environment forces us to move beyond (both back before and forward from) this piece of modernist philosophy.
c) on religious grounds: in light of the dangers and uncertainties regarding continued economic expansion and human population growth - my religious sensibilities strongly point in the direction of a more "conservative" position, one that does not so optimistically trust in new technologies, the allegedly robust nature of nature, etc. Rather, my sense is one of fundamental responsibility - not only for what I do as an individual, even what I do as an individual in community with other human beings - but as an individual made as part of, as steward of, Creation itself.
This responsibility makes even the most challenging moral responsibilities of ordinary existence pale by comparison. And as responsibility increases, coupled with uncertainty, my response is to be as careful as possible.
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