Sustaining Society

Caring about the Environment
by Stuart Iler -- April 5th, 2013

Before my time at Duke, I had a teacher who used to say something like this: “I don’t care why you care about the environment, I just care that you care.” I have always remembered that idea, and in this post I ask: what are some of the reasons we care, and what related questions arise? And although I won’t try to give any answers, I would love to hear your thoughts.


To begin, it’s my sense that most of us care about the environment in a practical sense for the sake of human livelihoods, such as fulfilling our needs for clean air and clean water. Perhaps we can view this as the ‘common denominator,’ in the respect that most people probably value these benefits for humans, and as such care about the environment (at the very least) for its capability to provide these benefits. But does this mean that we need the environment, at least in its current state? Would it be possible to take these services over, either partially or substantially, through human technology? And if it is possible, how much would it cost?


In addition to valuing the environment for human livelihoods, some of us might care about the environment for its recreational and aesthetic benefits, such as hiking, sightseeing, fishing, hunting, and many others. I venture to guess that most people fall into this category. My thought is that the same questions regarding the feasibility and cost of substituting man-made capital for ‘natural capital’ still arise. But beyond that, because many of us are concerned about recreation and aesthetics, I think it makes sense to ask: is this kind of substitution desirable?  In other words, even in the case that human life-support systems can function in the midst of environmental degradation (because of our compensating technology), would we also, in that case, be losing the ability to fulfill our needs for outdoor activities and enjoyment?


A hiking trail at Eno River State Park


Finally, a third group might care about the environment for human livelihoods, for recreation/aesthetics, and for the sake of the environment itself. Of course, even people who identify with this category embody a huge range of value orientations, depending on their personal priorities and other factors. For me, the primary additional question here is: what are we willing to sacrifice (beyond what is needed for human livelihoods, recreation, and aesthetics) to maintain the diversity and health of habitats and species?


Although these categories are generalizations, I think the questions they raise are important. A key element in all three categories – and particularly in the first two – is our uncertainty regarding the possibility and cost of taking over for natural processes. I think our response to this question largely determines how careful we are in our interactions with the natural world. The second category challenges us to consider what we actually want. Although we may be able to survive in a practical sense with degraded habitats, we may also forfeit psychological benefits that only nature can provide. And the third category prompts us to consider sacrifice. When options are mutually exclusive, or when some beneficial action requires significant costs – especially if the goal is environmental protection – we are faced with deciding what, if anything, we might be willing to give up to achieve that goal.


All said, there are many reasons to value the environment, and I think all perspectives are valid. Perhaps what’s most important is that we discuss our values, the questions they raise, and what the answers mean for our common future.

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