Land Preservation and a Brief Introduction to Environmental Ethics

The Land Conservancy of West Michigan (LCWM) announced in 2011 the successful completion of a project which transferred 173 acres of land on the coast of Lake Michigan from private ownership to the city of Saugatuck. This project will prevent development and ensure the preservation of this land which is home to endangered species of plants and animals, and provide a place in nature for human recreation (naturenearby.org). Along with the obvious environmental benefits of land preservation, there are many philosophical theories about the value of nature which make land preservation a valuable pursuit. Whether concerned with plant and animal life, human life, or with a more ideological perspective on the inherent value of nature, the preservation and conservation of land should be viewed as a good to be sought after.

Founded in 1976, the LCWM aims to preserve and maintain land in Allegan, Kent, Ottawa, Newaygo, Muskegon, Oceana, Lake, and Mason counties in western Michigan, and is the only land trust dedicated to the region. Working with a network of donors, volunteers, and permanent staff, the LCWM has protected around 8,000 acres of Michigan land by acquisition through purchase or donations, and is active in the care and stewardship of this land. Some of the success stories of the LCWM include the forty-five acre Bradford Dickinson White Nature Preserve in Lowell Township, the twenty-two acre Minnie Skwarek Nature Preserve in Spring Lake Township, and the forty-five acre Kuker-Van Til Preserve in Park Township (naturenearby.org).

The most recent acquisition was the 173 acre Saugatuck Harbor Natural Area. On December 22, 2009, the LCWM purchased the property in an attempt to protect the diverse landscape and the habitats for rare plant and animal species. Within this area are dunes, wetlands, pine forests, and nearly 10,000 feet of shoreline on both Lake Michigan and the Kalamazoo River, as well as on an oxbow lake. The region is home to many rare and endangered species such as the prairie warbler and Blanchard’s cricket frog. Over a multi-year period, the previously private property was transferred to the city of Saugatuck, and is now open to the public for non-motorized recreation (naturenearby.org).

Prior to transferring ownership to the city of Saugatuck in December 2011, the LCWM held the property and leased it to the city for $1.00 per year while grants were being processed for the final purchase. This allowed for the earlier protection of the area and enabled the use of the property by the public during the transition phase. As part of the fundraising, which included many local and national partners and donors, the city of Saugatuck received an endowment which will be used to ensure that the region will continue to be protected in the future (naturenearby.org).

A Brief Introduction to Environmental Ethics

This land was once considered for development (naturenearby.org), but now that it has been protected as a nature preserve, other possible commercial or residential land uses and their values are lost. Thus the question arises – just why is preserving the Saugatuck Harbor area as a nature preserve good? The obvious answer is the protection of rare plant and animal habitats, or perhaps that it is good for human life. While these are valid and important reasons for land preservation, they do not answer why it is good. What makes it valuable? This frames one of the central questions of environmental philosophy – does the natural world hold intrinsic value or is it limited to instrumental value, that is, to value derived from human use?

The answer to the value of nature also determines human ethical obligations, which forms the second of environmental philosophy’s main ethical questions – to what within nature do humans hold moral obligations: to ecological systems, to species, to individuals of species, to humans of current or future generations (Pojman 11)? There are of course, within these very broad categories, different schools of thought, but the differences in these lie mainly in the methods of answering the questions, not in the formulation of the questions. In attempting to answer the question of what makes nature good, we will now examine the main points of three environmental philosophies: biocentric ethics, ecocentric ethics, and environmental pragmatism. The mainly anthropocentric root argument of opposing theories will also be summarized.

The Biocentric and Ecocentric Theories. Albert Schweitzer, often credited with the extension of existing ethical theories to include all life, is commonly seen as the father of biocentric ethics (Pojman 104-105). He held that the possession of a “will-to-live” was the only criterion for inclusion in the moral community, and thus to be worthy of ethical consideration. He defined the will-to-live as the striving for pleasure and continued existence and the avoidance of pain or destruction. Thus he saw all life as good and worthy of ethical consideration, saying, “I am life which wills to live, and I exist in the midst of life which wills to live” (132). His ethical theory was summarized as:

Ethics thus consists in this, that I experience the necessity of practising the same reverence for life toward all will-to-live, as toward my own. Therein I have already the needed fundamental principle of morality. It is good to maintain and cherish life; it is evil to destroy and check life. (132)

Taylor further developed Schweitzer’s ideas into what he called life-centered environmental ethics, saying that humans have moral obligations to all members of the earth community (140). That being the case, he holds that humans have the duty not only not to harm them, but to ensure that all species are able to “achieve and maintain a healthy existence in a natural state” (140). In this view, humans are morally bound to care for the environment. This obligation is grounded in his view that all members of the earth community have inherent value (142). He included humans within the earth community, implying that we also have ethical obligations to each other, but his main point in including humans was to illustrate the fact that we are “newcomers” and not important; perhaps even detrimental to the continued existence of life on earth (145-147).

A common feature of biocentric ethics is its focus on the individual will-to-live, whereas the scope of ecocentric ethics extends this to a more holistic view (Pojman 105). One of the best known and earliest works on ecocentric ethics was by the forest ranger and professor of wildlife management, Aldo Leopold, who felt that the environment should be the center of any value system, and therefore called for an inclusive ethical theory which would encompass all aspects of the ecosystem (Pojman 105). Leopold urged a change in attitudes toward conservation from one driven by economics to one driven by “love, respect, and admiration for land, and a high regard for its value” (p. 171).  His method to allow a land ethic to emerge was for people to:

quit thinking about decent land use as solely an economic problem. Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and esthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise. (172)

Far from being a fully developed philosophical treatise, Leopold’s seminal work A Sand County Almanac received much criticism, being branded “dangerous nonsense” by Sumner, and “environmental fascism” by Regan (Pojman 106). Callicott defends Leopold’s ideas by developing them further and placing them in historical context, saying that Leopold was not attempting to be antihuman as his critics claimed, but to place human ethical inquiry into a larger, ecological context (Pojman 105-106).

Environmental Pragmatism. In environmental pragmatism, experience is the measure of value. This centrality of experience begins with the very notion of environment, which is not something separated from humans; it is in fact the very place in which the human experience unfolds (Parker 28-29). From this perspective, it is impossible to approach either the environment or humans as some external thing in order to determine the value or lack thereof. Both are contributors and participants in experience (Parker 29), thereby both have intrinsic and instrumental value. To the environmental pragmatist, all questions of value and ethics in respect to the environment return to the transactional and variable determinant of experience.

The experience of any form of environment, from natural to man-made, is the source of human development, and thus any notion of dominating nature is ultimately self-destructive as it removes an inherently valuable field of experience from human experience (Parker 30). By asking the value of experience rather than that of object, place, species, or human, all of these things (and more) take on value of necessity in as far as they contribute to experience. The goal of the pragmatist is thus learning to live well in different forms of environment and recognizing the inherent value of each (Parker 30).

Similar to the ideas of ecofeminism (Parker 31), environmental pragmatism emphasizes relationships between elements of relationships. The overarching goal of pragmatist ethics is the “sustainability and diversity of experiences,” and thus action which promotes these is the preferred and ethical course to take (Parker 32).  This relational and experiential approach renders impossible the idea that the natural world is good due only to its instrumental value to humans, and thus the destruction of natural areas is seen as unethical. It also cannot support a purely ecocentric view of ethics, or indeed any ethical view limited to one perspective. Instead, it recognizes that all viewpoints are valid and approaches situations on a transactional and relational view of experience, asking always how the value of experience can be guaranteed through sustainability and diversity (Parker 33). The pragmatist holds that instrumental and intrinsic values are interdependent and never mutually exclusive. If an object exists, it has inherent value, and if it exists it also has instrumental value, as it can affect the experience of other objects (Parker 34).

Opposing Views. The above theories can of course be called “green,” as they all presuppose the inherent value of nature. It would be remiss to not mention any opposing views.  The most obvious objection to these and other “green” theories would arguably be that of one of the western tradition’s most influential philosophers, Immanuel Kant. In his principle of humanity, he argues for the ethics of inter-human relations, claiming that all humans should be handled as ends in themselves, and not as a means to some other end (Shafer-Landau 159). This is fine as far as it goes, but he also held that only rational beings are worthy of this moral consideration, since they alone can know of moral law (Shafer-Landau 172). He did not intend this to be a license to dominate or abuse non-rational beings, but indicated that any ethical behavior toward them was only an indirect means to develop ethical behavior to other rational beings; that by being at least kind to non-rational beings, we can develop ethical character toward other humans (Pojman 62).

There are many problems with the Kantian view, but the limitation of moral consideration to rational beings seems to be the most glaring. Not only does his theory leave many “grey areas” about what constitutes ethical behavior (Shafer-Landau 166), his narrow view of ethical consideration excludes many non-rational beings which are clearly deserving of moral consideration. These include such beings as infants and the mentally ill (Shaffer-Landau 172). In regards to sound environmental ethics though, the resulting limited moral community of the Kantian principle can be especially problematic since it allows only for an anthropocentric approach to moral behavior toward the natural world.

 Conclusion – The Value of Land Preservation

The basic rule in biocentric ethics is that it is good to preserve and revere life and evil to destroy life (Schweitzer 312). The preservation of the Saugatuck project fulfills this rule and protects not only endangered species, but all species that are at home within the property. The biocentric theorist is happy at the preservation of life within the Saugatuck Harbor Natural Area. If it is true that “a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community” (Leopold 172) then the preservation of the Saugatuck Harbor Natural Area is also in accordance with ecocentric ethics. It is evident that the entire system, including natural beauty, plants, animals, and humans, has been considered, and not only economics. Leopold’s ecocentric requirements are met. The environmental pragmatist is also satisfied with the value of the Saugatuck project, as the “sustainability and diversity of experiences” (Parker 32) are promoted by the preservation of land. Considering the assumption that all things have inherent value as well as instrumental value, these experiences naturally include not only those of humans, but also those of all the natural elements of the area. The requirements for all of these “green” theories are clearly met by land preservation, but even if one is inclined to adopt a Kantian anthropocentric view and hold that nature has only instrumental value, one can still be pleased that an area of enjoyment has been preserved which provides value to humans.

All of the theories summarized in this paper attempt to account for the value of things, and to substantiate resulting ethical obligations. When applied to land preservation and the LCWM project in Saugatuck, they illustrate why these are good and valuable and should be sought after. Although this paper could include but a brief introduction to some of the ideas in environmental philosophy, it becomes clear that land preservation in general, the LCWM, and the Saugatuck Harbor Natural Area specifically, are good and valuable. In view of the fulfillment of the diverse criteria for good in these theories, the value of land preservation in West Michigan is apparent and cannot be denied.

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Works Cited

Leopold, Aldo. “Ecocentrism: The Land Ethic.” Ed. Louis P. Pojman and Paul Pojman.

Environmental Ethics: Readings in Theory and Application. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2008. 163-72. Print.

Naturenearby.org. Land Conservancy of West Michigan. Web. 18 Apr. 2012. <http://naturenearby.org&gt;.

Parker, Kelly. “Pragmatism and Environmental Thought.” Ed. Andrew Light and Eric Katz.

Environmental Pragmatism. London: Routledge, 1996. 21-37. Print.

Pojman, Louis P., and Paul Pojman. Environmental Ethics: Readings in Theory and Application.

Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2008. Print.

Schweitzer, Albert. “Reverence for Life.” Ed. Louis P. Pojman and Paul Pojman. Environmental

Ethics: Readings in Theory and Application. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2008. 131-38. Print.

Shafer-Landau, Russ. The Fundamentals of Ethics. New York: Oxford UP, 2010. Print.

Taylor, Paul. “Biocentric Egalitarianism.” Ed. Louis P. Pojman and Paul Pojman. Environmental

Ethics: Readings in Theory and Application. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2008. 139-54. Print.

 

 

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