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A Different Sort of Argument for Environmentalism

It seems like I have heard from numerous self-described “conservatives”1 recently that they reject the idea of climate change and global warming. They do so on the grounds that: the scientific evidence used to support the occurrence of environmental change is, at best, inconclusive; there is supporting scientific evidence to the contrary; and anyway, those who fund and perform research on the topic, as well as those who report on it, have an inherent “liberal bias” that calls their motives and conclusions into question. In caricature, the position is something like this:

I am skeptical of “global warming,” “climate change,” and other warnings raised by “environmentalists” because I believe in a set of ideas that tell me that, among other things, scientific research into these topics is inherently biased because to research them is to assume their existence; scientific research often takes place at universities, which are known bastions of liberal ideas and sympathies; the funding of such research is carried out by a government that spends too much and is too large anyway; the media which report on this research are biased against my beliefs and delight in trying to fight them, even to the point of lying or misleading the public; and I should have the right to do as I please, without government intervention, and it so happens that I like to drive an SUV, consume industrial agricultural products, buy things made in factories, and do other things that environmentalists want to take away from me.

Well. As I said, this is obviously a caricature, but I think it expresses the feelings of the conservatives I mentioned above with at least some degree of articulation. There are a lot of issues here, and to try to argue all of them would be to jump into precisely the fray that this person is expressing a distrust and distaste for. It is not possible to convince someone who is skeptical of science that they should heed warnings about global warming by presenting them with scientific evidence. If your goal is to be right, then (I believe) presenting scientific evidence is your best bet. But if your goal is convince people to dislodge their own false beliefs, you have to appeal to them on grounds they already accept. It’s this latter goal that is of primary importance when trying to enact policy. Only when you’ve convinced people to get on board can you sculpt a policy that is in line with our best understanding of how the world works.

I want to present a different sort of argument, one that is designed to avoid the fray of alarmism and ideological accusations that the above “conservative” is trying to reject. This is a personal appeal, based on an informal philosophical argument that has acquired some popularity recently, especially in questions of epistemology: the “Would you bet on it?” argument. The idea is that, instead of spending an enormous amount of effort trying to prove something beyond the shadow of a doubt (an effort that will constantly be frustrated by people who advance ideological or unreasonable doubt), you should present them with some facts that evidently contradict their beliefs, let them draw their own conclusions, and the ask them if they’re still sure enough to take a gamble on what they think.

So, without further ado, here’s the “would you bet on it?” argument for environmentalism:

  1. Humans have the ability to manipulate, change, and control our environments in ways no other species can do. The primary example of this is a very ancient one: we are the only species (at least as far as I know) that performs intentional, purposeful agriculture. We use other species to meet our needs in ways they would never submit to “in the wild.” We clear land, drill for oil, and synthesize chemicals; we build cities, harness solar energy directly, and communicate by sending signals into space. You might even say that our history, as a species, is a history of trying to avoid being controlled by nature and trying to control it.
  2. When we exercise control over our environments, we must generally (more often than not) consume or destroy part of it. Anyone who has ever tried to build or maintain a shelter of any kind knows this. To build a house, you must clear land, and dig a basement, and cut down trees for materials. Keeping a lawn “healthy” requires killing weeds. Keeping a house standing means replacing parts when they rot or are damaged by nature. Keeping a heater going requires some kind of fuel. Even using solar energy — the closest thing we have to a free lunch from the universe — requires harvesting or synthesizing the materials that capture it and convert it to electricity.
  3. The human population is growing. The tendency of every species is to reproduce whenever they have the resources to do so. In the United States, parents have, on average, more than two children. The populations of India and China have surpassed 1 billion people in recent memory. I doubt that anyone could question the assumption that the population of humans on Earth is going to continue increasing for the foreseeable future.
  4. Sustaining more people means exercising more control over nature and consuming more of its resources. Every human alive, just like every other living thing, needs energy to stay alive, and must consume natural resources in one form or another to get that energy. Thus: more people, more energy needed, more resources consumed.
  5. We often use our control over our environment to circumvent or put off the mechanisms by which other species’ consumption of resources are kept in check. The “natural” tendency of species is to grow until the resources available can no longer sustain their population, observed Thomas Malthus. Ecological systems maintain equilibria between populations of predators and prey, species in competition for food or sunlight, and just about every other kind of ecological relationship. Our environment is a great balancing act, a fact we have romanticized for centuries by referring to the “harmony of nature.” But the human species is different: because we control our own environments so well and so immensely, we can avoid some of the natural mechanisms that check the growth of other species’ populations, like competition from other species. Instead of starving when food supplies are low, we grow more to eat. Instead of being eaten by predators, we develop and deploy technology (hunting tools, houses) to protect ourselves. This doesn’t mean we’ll ever escape the equilibria imposed on other species, but it certainly helps us mitigate the effects in the present.
  6. So, given (1) through (5), it seems likely that the human species’ effect on the environment is negative, because we are consuming its resources while avoiding the forces that keep that consumption in check. Of course, this conclusion turns on what we mean by “negative”: negative for who? Certainly, from the perspectives of ecological sustainability and biodiversity our impact is negative. But that’s not likely to convince the SUV driver. Is it negative for us, as individuals? Well, maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t; but given that we will always need some sort of environment to sustain us, would you bet to the contrary? And would you make that bet for your children and grandchildren?

So there you have it, an argument that uses only elementary school science as evidence, combined with personal experience. Of course, if you’re actually talking to someone who is a self-proclaimed “conservative,” you might want to finesse this a bit; I am not a rhetoritician, nor do I want to be. I do agree with my caricatured interlocutor on one point: it’s time to get away from the alarmism and the yelling that constitutes the “debate about the environment.” Instead, we all ought to realize our needs and wants as biological consumers, and work to keep ourselves in check, for that is the only thing that can keep us around in the long run.

[1] I have used the term “conservative,” in quotation marks, throughout this post because it is the term that people with these feelings use to describe themselves, but I think it is a misleading description. There is something suspicious about someone who calls himself a conservative, yet holds views that defend practices like massive pollution, unnecessary consumption of energy, and hobbling the development of cleaner or more efficient technologies in the name of “individual liberties” and “free market principles.” In the end, turning a blind eye to the harmful parts of our relationship with nature can only destroy individual liberties and free markets, not to mention precious human life. In my view, a conservative is someone who values (among other things) the virtues of hard work; the efficient use of tax dollars; the sustenance of their family; the importance of local communities, businesses, and agriculture; and the freedom to move about in the world unhindered by external forces, be they legal or extra-legal. Greater respect for our environment and our interaction with it is consistent with these values; indeed, I believe they mandate a much deeper respect for the environment than the loudest “conservatives” would ever like to see. “Conservative” and “conservationist,” after all, share the same root.


Written by whereofwecannotspeak

November 1, 2007 at 5:05 pm

Posted in Ideas

4 Responses

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  1. What’s with the SUV-driver bashing? BTW, modern SUVs get more gas mileage than some larger cars. 🙂

    On a quick tangent, I think that people who enjoy cars and drive what they like take the brunt of the environmental blame because they are the low-hanging fruit. There are many other factors that contribute to global-warming more so than SUVs that get a few mpg less than smaller cars.


    November 1, 2007 at 8:03 pm

  2. Ok, Chris is right; SUV drivers perhaps get verbally abused more than they deserve, while other petroleum consumers go overlooked entirely. Actually, some of the thinking that inspired this post grew out of my surprise at learning that only about 20% of petroleum usage in the United States goes into fueling our cars. Another 20% is used by industrial agriculture, to run the equipment that makes large farms workable and to make the fertilizer that is needed in the absence of natural manure-based fertilizers that smaller farms use. So even if no one drove anywhere at all, we’d still be consuming 80% of the petroleum energy we currently use. I apologize for picking the low-hanging fruit; perhaps we should all turn our eyes more toward the other 80%, a fourth of which is driven by our eating habits.


    November 1, 2007 at 8:31 pm

  3. […] As I have mentioned in earlier posts, I think these terms may not be the best labels for the people who hold the beliefs I am talking […]

    Essential Debate « The World

    November 19, 2007 at 3:29 pm

  4. very interesting, but I don’t agree with you


    December 15, 2007 at 8:35 pm

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