Friday, May 18, 2012

Environmentalists Versus Developers

A member of the studio audience has provided me with a long question that I think can be summarized as a request to a particular species of social controversy - the conflict between environmental concerns and development concerns.

It is about conflicts like that between the defenders of the spotted owl and the lumberjacks, or between the defenders of the snail darter and the dam builders.

Before I get into the specifics of this debate, I want to note that desirism does not come with a set of commandments. It does not belong in the same genus as libertarianism, communism, objectivism, humanism, or most (if not all) theisms, each of which provides its members with a list of thou shalts and thou shalt nots. It is, instead, a theory of how to evaluate commandments - a theory that says that there is a fact of the matter, but it does not dictate any particular fact.

This is like the relationship between the scientific method and any particular scientific claim. Using the scientific method, we learn that the earth is 4.5 billion years old. However, the scientific method itself does not dictate this conclusion. The earth might have turned out (and still might turn out) to be of some other age. Yet, the way that this will be determined is through the application of the scientific method.

So, desirism does not dictate an answer in the environment vs. development debate. I may argue for one or the other - employing desirism in making my moral arguments. However, it will always be possible for somebody else to come along and say, "Though desirism is true, your application of desirism to this specific case is flawed."

Desirism tells us to focus on desires.

In the environmentalism versus development debate, a relevant desire may be a desire that the snail darter or the spotted owl continue to exist. This is the desire motivating one group of people to preserve the snail darter or the spotted owl and, in doing so, stop development.

Is this a good desire, or a bad desire?

Another relevant set of desires focus on earning a paycheck by cutting down trees or building a dam - or that center around using the lumber or the power that results from those activities. The desire for a paycheck is typically a means-desire. The paycheck is not a goal in itself - it is a means for acquiring food, shelter, medical care, and the like. The desire for power and for flood control in the case of the dam is also substantially an interest in their usefulness.

Of course, as a means, we may ask whether there are other means that are just as effective. Are there not other forests to cut down? Are there not other ways to get the power or to control flooding?

The availability of substitutes becomes an important part of the debate on this model. It tells us how much the fulfillment of desires actually depend on this particular activity.

The desire that the snail darter continue to exist may be defended as a manifestation of a more general desire for environmental preservation.

A general desire for environmental preservation can be defended as a way of preventing something like the Easter Island scenario from happening on a global scale.

A group of Polynesians landed on and colonized Easter Island about 1000 years ago or more. Research tells us that, at the time, the island was heavily forested and rich in plant and animal life. These new settlers started to harvest the trees. The resulting deforestation changed the local climate. Easter Island lost not only its forests, but also its ability to support most food crops. The population of the island dropped by 80% within a century. Starvation and famine kept the population down.

Clearly, people generally have many and strong reasons to avoid this fate on a global scale. Doing so may require promoting - through praise and other social tools - a general desire for environmental preservation.

We might hear the developers say that the loss of this one species just isn't that important. It will not make that much of a difference in the overall scheme of things. After all, species come and go all the time.

Against this, an environmentalist can respond that the people on Easter Island could have fallen victim to the same way of thinking. "Clearly, the loss of this one tree is not that important. It is just one tree. Trees die all the time." However, that is exactly the attitude that brought them into the position they found themselves in at the end. It is the attitude that this one tree does not matter that got them into that situation, it is the attitude that this one species does not matter that will do the same for us, or so the argument goes. Thus, it is this attitude that we must condemn.

Recall that desirism is all about the evaluation of attitudes (desires), not actions.

However, the argument condemning the attitude that this one species does not matter depends on whether the claimed relationships between the attitude and consequences like those on Easter Island are true. Desirism cannot help us answer that question - it is an empirical question that depends on scientific research. Desirism brands the form of reasoning used above as valid, but it says nothing about the truth of the premises.

On the other hand, an environmentalist might argue that each species has intrinsic value. The disappearance of a species is intrinsically bad and is to be avoided regardless of the consequences. This avoids the problem of having to demonstrate that the relationships described above are true. When using the intrinsic value argument, those relationships are not relevant, so the environmentalist can avoid the need to defend them. This is what makes intrinsic-value arguments tempting.

Here, the desirist says, "Whoa. There is no intrinsic value. What you are doing here is exactly like the behavior of the person who hates homosexual marriage. Knowing that his desire alone gives him no right to harm others he invents a god, assigns his own desire to that god, and says, "God is offended." He has invented a myth to give an illusion of legitimacy to acts that fufill his own desires in ways that cause harm to others. Your myth about the intrinsic badness of extinction follows the same pattern. You want something that harms the intersts of others. In order to see yourself as a good person while you harm others, you give your harmful behavior an illusion of legitimacy by wrapping it in the fiction of realizing intrinsic values."

This illustrates the way in which desirism tells us which arguments are valid and which are invalid in this tpe of debate. It gives us some useful insight into sound moral reasoning. However, it does not dictate any particular conclusion. Moral conclusions depend on a combination of valid moral arguments and true premises. To discover the truth of premises, we must use empirical research. This type of truth cannot be provided a priori (which is exactly what most - if not all - competing theories try to do).


Anonymous said...

Ah, I see you share the common false opinion about environmentalists, that they do what they do because they love fuzzy cute little birds and animals and think trees look beautiful.

Let me give you a metaphor. You and a full compliment of passengers wake up together on a passenger plane. You don't know where you're going. It's dark outside; in fact, there's a storm going on. To your horror, you discover that the plane is on some kind of autopilot you don't understand, and the plane is definitely missing some controls. You can't figure out all the instruments, and you can't even be sure if -- given the autopilot -- the instruments are showing enough information to pilot the plane anyway.

To your horror, your fellow passengers start disassembling the plane from the inside and selling each other the parts, which they have a tendency to smash. In fact, some of them don't bother disassembling the pieces first, they just smash things up.

A few minutes ago, the plane started to tremble. You are quite certain that the wobbling started with the removal and breakage of a few specific parts because you were watching. You try to stop the other passengers, and they say "stop worrying, you can't prove we're going to cause a crash, the plane has always kept going so far."

That is the position of environmentalism; the point is not to preserve the cute little animals or the pretty trees, it's to preserve humanity. We know that the earth as it has been for the last several millennia can support human life and civilization. There are disquieting signs that if too much more damage occurs in certain particular ways, there will be big changes which we may or may not survive. There may even be hazards of which we are totally unaware, because ecology is vastly more complex than anything else we study -- physics, chemistry, geology, and biology are all sub-fields of ecology proper.

How much more of the world can we deforest, pave, pollute to the point of toxification, and/or irradiate before the ecosystem as a whole goes phut? Dunno, but the plane is wobbling, and a lot of idiots like you are saying "surely it doesn't matter if I pop out a few more rivets and take a gear out of the gearbox".

Furthermore, the snail darter is a particularly bad example for your argument, because the snail darter is a species which is a very good indicator of the health of its habitat. If the snail darter dies, it probably means everything else in the habitat is at least in danger.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


The opinions you are accusing me of having - i do not have.

My opinion about environmentalists is that they are a diverse group with diverse interests and it would be a mistake to think that they are all alike.

Anonymous said...

Oh really? You don't list a desire for continued survival anywhere in your analysis, and yet if you talk to practically any serious, professional environmentalist, that's what they'll tell you.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


The Easter Island example I used, as I said, is the same sort of argument as your airplane example. There is no relevant difference.