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Values in Environmental Studies

by David Barnhill last modified Sep 20, 2010 07:21 PM

What role do values play in environmental studies? How can I incorporate values into my senior thesis?

Environmental issues are often portrayed as being simply questions of scientific fact. In other cases, social policy (primarily economics and politics) is seen as part of environmental issues. Only rarely do people recognize or consider the dimension of values found primarily in the humanities – especially philosophy and religion. Indeed, if this dimension is brought up, its relevance is frequently denied. In actuality, every environmental issue or policy involves (at least implicitly) ethical values and philosophical views. The UW Oshkosh Environmental Studies program is designed to highlight this dimension along with science and policy, and ES 490: Senior Seminar is an opportunity to articulate at a sophisticated level the significance of values in environmental issues. When you analyze a policy and when you develop your own policies, it is crucial to recognize and articulate the values involved.

To simplify, we can state that there are two main aspects of the values dimension in environmental policy. The first is ethics. A policy inevitably involves a particular sense of moral responsibility to other humans. In the policy, whether it is another’s or you own, you should ask what type and degree of moral responsibility is assumed in relation to people in the local arena (e.g., Wisconsin or the U.S.), people around the world (e.g., Sri Lanka), people in different races and classes (including workers), and people in the future. Different views on moral responsibility lead to different policies.

The question of moral considerability is not limited to humans. In a particular policy, what is the type and relative degree of moral considerability given to individual animals and plants, to ecosystems, and to the biodiversity of the planet? A policy toward renewable energy, for instance, affects the health of children who breathe the air and the poor who eat more of Wisconsin’s toxic fish than the wealthy, the livelihood of workers (too often ignored by environmentalists), the biological health of lake ecosystems, and future generations of people living close to the ocean, such as in Sri Lanka. And because that policy has the potential to benefit or harm these and many other living things, it has a moral dimension. If you believe that you have moral obligations to the people of Sri Lanka and to local ecosystems, your policy will be different than those who see their primary (or only) obligation to the economic well-being of corporations and consumers. Pick a policy on any issue: what moral values are at work?

The second major aspect of the values dimension is what we can loosely call philosophy, both philosophy of nature and social philosophy. (I say “loosely” because the concepts and approaches involved may not fit the confines of rationality that most modern Western philosophers work within.) Any policy involves at least an implicit conception of what nature is. If you see nature as a collection of resources, you will probably come up with a different policy than if you see nature as a community of fellow beings or an integrated system we are a part of or God’s sacred creation. For instance, the belief that nature is a set of resources without any real vitality or inherent value is quite likely at work in a policy that favors genetic engineering. That belief is a philosophical view that dates back to Francis Bacon and other philosophers of the scientific revolution. What conceptions of nature are at work in the policies you discuss?

Also involved in any policy is a social philosophy, in the sense of a view of the self and of our relations to other humans and to nature. Most environmental (and social and legal) policies imply that we are individuals, essentially separate and distinct form other humans. Our relations to others, whether locally, nationally, or globally, are secondary and “accidental” – not part of our essential self. But some environmental policies, especially those proposed by deep ecologists and ecofeminists and those influenced by Asian or Native American culture, involve a belief that we are inextricably and essentially part of a human community to which we are responsible and to which we should have deep care that goes beyond a rational sense of justice. A related issue concerns our relationship with nature. Does a policy (another’s or yours) assume that we are essentially separate from and superior to the natural world? Or does it assume that we are fully a part of nature, whether it is Aldo Leopold’s sense of being a “plain citizen of the land” or the more mystical sense of identification found in deep ecology?

In thinking about the dimension of values, it is often helpful to keep in mind various schools and movements, such as animal rights, bioregionalism, deep ecology, ecofeminism, social ecology, and stewardship. You should also consider different types of ethics: consequentialist (utilitarian), deontological, natural law, virtue ethics, and ethics of care. And it is important to consider a number of distinctions made in environmental philosophy: anthropocentrism versus biocentrism versus ecocentrism, holism versus communalism versus individualism, intrinsic value versus instrumental value, biocentric egalitarianism versus hierarchies of value, monism versus pluralism. Reference to these can help analyze the philosophical assumptions in any environmental policy.

It is crucial that we learn to recognize and articulate how these issues of value are at work in environmental policy. Debates about policies often go astray because the real disagreements are found in implicitly held values that no one talks about. And one of the reasons the environment has been so degraded is because our society has failed to consider such issues.



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by David Barnhill last modified Sep 20, 2010 07:21 PM