Recently, I was asked to write an essay on valuing the environment. As someone who blogs about the subject regularly, it might come as a surprise that the essay wasn’t easy to write. One reason for this was that it had to come from a philosophically rigorous basis, which, to some degree, prevented me from saying what I really think. Getting all tangled up in the terms ecocentric/anthropocentric, intrinsic/instrumental etc. I held back from expressing myself in the manner I wanted to – which would have involved asking ‘what right do we have to act in a manner that does not value the environment?’
Not that this isn’t a valid opinion, and it’s a way in which many of us feel. My basis behind asking this question didn’t have to get tangled in notions of environmental rights either, it could just be concentrated (in the more pragmatic way that makes so many environmentalist shudder) on humans. What right does one of us have to subject another to a lesser living environment? When environmentalist argue that basing environmental ethics on human values can be troublesome because; a) values change, and; b) different people value different things – I still don’t think they’re identifying critical problems. Although values may change, everyone values fresh air, whether it is done consciously or not. And although people might value different things, I would suggest that most thinking people put a fair amount of value in the environment – and, what’s more, that it is intelligent and rational to do so.
This claim might sound elitist of me, prescribing what might make us intelligent, but it comes from some standard ideas about human beings as creatures. I live in a city now, and around me, everyday, I experience people living away from nature. Although city living can, in many ways, be more efficient than other ways of living, it makes demands on your personal space and demands on your time. Like chickens crowded in a barn, being shoulder to shoulder makes human beings stressed and aggressive. Living on top of each other means viruses spread faster, while the pace of life shortens our tempers. Fumes from the traffic and light and noise pollution become common place and the little things in life, like birds singing, go unnoticed. Social pressures over boil in the form of riots that express revulsion and disrespect for the surrounding environment while those who can afford it take a trip away to get some space and fresh air. This is not a wholesome way of being that is good for body or soul. It is survival.
Many people practice yoga or meditation to try to deal with the stresses of life, and both can have extremely positive influences, but walking in the countryside used to be a free form of meditation, and it’s one that most people have forgotten or, worse, no longer have the luxury to access. A little while back, while I was still living in the countryside, the bus dropped me off from work and I took the opportunity to walk the 3 miles home. It was a route I would sometimes take from school, off the main road and suddenly onto a windy, hilly, dusty one-track lane, with hedges thrown up on either side of me. I sauntered along, interrupted by the sight of blackberries in the bushes more often than I was interrupted by cars, and let the pace of life slow down.
Something about that walk always reminds me of ‘Cider with Rosie’ – although I couldn’t really say why. But it reminds me of things we have lost value for that were actually good for us. Modern transportation zips us from A to B without a thought, and social media keeps us in contact every second of the day, but what do they do for our peace of mind? And what do they do for the good of the human body, or the soul – or even for our relationships with each other? Buddhists sometimes engage in ‘walking meditation’, and, although we might not have been aware that the practice had a name, we used to engage in it on a common basis too. Of course, nature had (and still has) an antagonistic role in our existence as well, but the virtues of nature remain uncompromised, and coming to realise them, and respect them, can lead to a fuller human life.
So, I return to the question I started out with. What right do we have to destroy the environment and to lessen someone else’s quality of life? And my answer, although it might not be philosophically rigorous, is: not one little bit.