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.
The formulation of a meaningful environmental ethics is an ongoing philosophical endeavor that has been marked by historical influences and attempts to apply earlier theories to problems on a scale never faced by humanity (Kottak, 2006, p. 41). While these theories have much to offer, it is doubtful to me if any of them are wholly adequate, without some adaptation, to be applied to the complex environmental issues we face today. In my opinion, the inadequacy of earlier ethical systems seems to lie in their attempts to determine the value of some thing. In environmental ethics, this is formulated through attempts to ascertain whether nature has inherent value or purely instrumental value (Simmons, 2006, p. 53). A further question of environmental ethics is on how much future generations should be worthy of moral consideration – if they should play a role in our determination of how to conserve the environment (Pojman, 2008, p. 11). These questions provide an inadequate basis for approaching the environmental crises. In spite of these inadequacies though, I find many of the ideas put forth in earlier ethical theories, especially those of Heidegger, are at least partly valid and provide the beginnings of a foundation to and formulation of my relationship to the environment, and offer a more adequate ethical theory, based on the value of life, for the contemporary human interaction within the environment in general.
Many thinkers, groups, activists, and academic disciplines are working to address the many environmental and cultural challenges we face. In the final analysis though, while these efforts surely are an essential part of addressing the various challenges, they are, at best, only a suppression of symptoms. Ultimately, the crises we face stem from the lack of an overarching vision for the future; at best, we are being led by a fragmented and obsolete vision that guided humanity through what Berry (1988) called the industrial age (p. 82). The current state of environmental affairs is a plethora of complex problems, which, in the still prevailing industrial view, we can only haphazardly address – academia is compartmentalized, professionalized (Wilshire, 1990, p. 99), and commercialized to the point of ineffectiveness; viewpoints on environmental issues, such as questions on the good or ill of income and development, are locked in wildly polarized dichotomies (Beckerman, 2006; Shiva, 2006); and even terminology to be used, such as sustainability (Fricker, 2006) or biodiversity (Escobar, 2006), cannot be agreed upon. We are completely without a holistic worldview that is appropriate for the contemporary environmental situation. Considering this lack of an overarching vision for the future of humanity’s relationship to, or place within, nature, it is painfully clear that there are no experts on the environmental crisis, only egos running dangerously wild and dragging the rest of the world down into their narrow fields of vision.
Biodiversity has become a ubiquitous ‘buzzword.’ Dictionary.com defines it as “diversity among and within plant and animal species in an environment” (dictionary.com, 2013). This definition reveals the potential absurdity of the idea that “people have created biodiversity, so they are essential to its survival” (Redford, Brandon, & Sanderson, 2006, p. 237). This statement implies, at least on a superficial level, that there was no diversity of species before humans arrived on the scene, and only with human’s creative powers did this diversity arise. Redford et al (2006) dismantle the idea that humans created biodiversity and thus are in some way essential for its survival by pointing out that the word ‘biodiversity’ is only a “meaningful concept,” and different from the actual and real state of affairs to which it refers (Redford et al, 2006, p. 237). This suggests that humans, since they created biodiversity, might be thus essential only to the term, not to the survival of the actual biodiversity found in the world. In a sense, they become responsible for the survival and evolution of the term, not, however, for the survival of actual biodiversity. This indicates a need to isolate the difference between the use of the words essential and responsible. While humans might be dismissed from the essential part of the survival of biodiversity, this does not relieve them of the obligation and ability to protect actual biodiversity. Just because biodiversity can be seen as only a concept does not mean that we are not responsible for protecting the actual, real biodiversity. While perhaps not essential to its survival, this does not negate the need to fully understand the term and the concept, and to thoughtfully approach the conservation of both.