restricted access 6 Why “Nature” Has No Place in Environmental Philosophy
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Environmentalism, both as theory and as practice, is traditionally concerned above all with nature. Its focus is on protecting nature against the harms generated by human action. The “environment” it wishes to defend is not the built environment of cities, or the technological infrastructure modernity seems to require— although many of us live in urban environments, and the technologies of modernity might be said in a deeper sense to “environ” us all. It is not the nuclear power plants and toxic waste dumps and gridlocked highways surrounding us that environmentalism wants to protect but rather the natural environment—an environment that these things instead are said to threaten. Environmental protection means the protection of nature, and environmental damage means damage to nature . The destruction of something built by humans, like a skyscraper or a dam, does not by itself count as environmental damage. Of course, such destruction may itself have harmful environmental consequences, but this only means consequences that are harmful to nature. Environmental philosophy reflects this concern. Its central theme is to find an appropriate way to understand and defend the ontological and ethical status of nature. Environmental ethicists who want to expand the reach of moral considerability beyond its traditional limitation to humans speak of the “rights of nature”; they do not, typically, worry about the rights of bridges or of toasters. The “environment ” spoken of by environmental philosophers is the natural environment; chapter Six Why “Nature” Has No Place in Environmental Philosophy Steven Vogel, Ph.D. Why “Nature” Has No Place in Environmental Philosophy 85 the built environment—despite the fact that most of us actually live in it—is not usually part of their concern. Yet to be concerned with the protection of nature, under conditions of modern technological development, is inevitably to worry that it might be too late—that nature might already have ended. This was the famous thesis of Bill McKibben’s 1989 book The End of Nature. The real core of the “environmental” crisis, McKibben claimed, was that nature itself had literally been destroyed. Particularly as the result of large-scale climate changes produced by human technologies, he suggested, we have entered a new historical stage where no square inch of earth can any longer be called “natural.” Human intervention has affected everything, and so everything in the world is different from what it would otherwise, “naturally ,” be. No place is natural any longer, every place is artificial, and so the entire environmenthasbecomeinacertainsenseabuiltenvironment.“Wehavechanged the atmosphere and so we are changing the weather,” McKibben wrote. “By changing the weather, we make every spot on earth man-made and artificial. We have deprived nature of its independence, and that is fatal to its meaning. Nature’s independence is its meaning; without it there is nothing but us” (p. 58). But if nature has ended, then it isn’t clear any longer what environmentalism is supposed to protect. Without nature, an environmental theory or practice oriented toward nature’s protection has nothing left to do: the game is up, and we (and nature) have simply lost. If McKibben is right, defending nature makes no more sense than defending the Holy Roman Empire or rooting for the Brooklyn Dodgers. His argument appears deeply pessimistic (and self-defeating) in its implications ; it can only lead to sadness about what has been lost, but not to any positive environmental policies at all. After the end of nature, it seems, there’s not much for environmental thinking to do except to mourn, and perhaps to think about what was lost and why. For nature once ended cannot be restored. One possible response to this problem, of course, is to deny that McKibben is right: nature, although threatened, is not quite gone, one might say, and environmental philosophy’s role is to protect what’s left of it. There are problems with this response—not the least of which is that he probably is right—but I won’t go into them here. Rather, I would like to consider a different possible response to the pessimism his thesis seems to generate, one that instead of denying nature’s end rather wonders why the end of nature should entail the end of environmental concern. Supposing for the sake of argument that his thesis were unquestionably true, would the fact that nature has ended mean that environmental considerations had suddenly become irrelevant—for example, that further global warming 86 Steven Vogel ought not to be prevented or that the dumping of...


Subject Headings

  • Bioethics.
  • Biotechnology -- Moral and ethical aspects.
  • Nature -- Effect of human beings on.
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