Thursday, March 24, 2005

The Expanding Ethical Embrace

In conjunction with the New York Historical Society’s exhibition, "Audubon's Aviary," the NYHS, Nurture New York's Nature, and the NYC Audubon Society partnered to present a series of Audubon-related talks. During the second evening of presentations, entitled “The Fall and Resurrection of Nature in New York,” NYC Audubon Society member Peter Joost spoke of our evolving ethical paradigm. Over the last several hundred years, he argued, humans have become progressively more enlightened. Joost cited the political developments of 20th century America to prove his point: today, we consider every human equal, irrespective of race, sex or religion. (True, but our American “melting pot” is yet pervaded by racism, xenophobia and religious intolerance; I agree with the general thrust of Joost's thesis, but recognize that we must be vigilant if we are to preserve our liberal ethics.)

Mr. Joost also pointed out that, as humans continue to expand our ethical embrace, we are beginning to consider other species, especially our ape relatives, as equals or near equals. He foresees a societal shift towards vegetarianism and the adoption of a moral code which includes an increasing number of species. Presumably this shift won’t guarantee voting rights for horses, but the meat industry, hunting and animal research would all end. Perhaps a future Mosaic code will include the commandment, 'Do unto your neighboring species as you would have done unto you.'

All well and good...sort of. If our ethic/moral code expands to include animals, plants, and eventually bacteria, what role will conservation play? Some degree of manipulation is required to maintain the ecological status quo. Wildlife management works, in part, because we perceive ourselves as stewards of the land, a species situated slightly above the fray. If a US Fish & Wildlife biologist elects to burn a section of forest in order to encourage future growth and habitat restoration, he isn’t condemned. But his actions killed many insects and displaced other species! If every species’ rights are to be considered, management that today is laudable will be controversial; conservation biology would be further burdened by litigation.

But I am a realist, and so don't fret about the possibility of an over-extended ethical embrace. Morality is not born of humanity's existential sameness or some essential, animating goodness. Like all other animal species, humans evolved to survive and propagate; that is, we evolved to be winners. Even our predilection for classification - as seen in the periodic table, clothing labels and taxonomy - is innate, an evolved trait that better equips us to ward off “the other,” to proactively eliminate potential competition. But this us-and-them trait is no longer tenable in our interconnected world. It seems to me that the quickening of our ethical expansion in recent centuries corresponds to a wider worldview. Whereas once we were many, now we are one economy. If this is the case, isn't our extension of human rights to all races, cultures and creeds a victory in our campaign to deny human nature, a requisite improvement to the foundation of global socio-politics?

If this is so, our increasing capacity for compassion creates new problems. An inclusive, caring society, even if inconsistent, is attended by a population boom and longer life expectancy. By embracing one another, then, we also increase our species’ demands on the environment. When even more populations - in Joost's argument, other species - enter our moral peripheral vision, we will find ourselves facing a philosophical and pragmatic dilemma. Will our compassion overload the circuitry?

The idealist in me believes that our concept of conservation will be replaced by one more reconcilable with a Joost's inclusive ethical paradigm. After all, why should we strive to “manage” when we are but part of the environment ourselves? But the realistic answer to that question doesn't jive with Joost's ethics. We are part of the environment; as such, we are creatures adapted to live within a given range of environmental conditions. Sustainable conservation should not reject human needs. To the contrary, it must incorporate them.

Dr. William Cronon, a very intelligent writer and environmental historian writes,
“The nature we carry in our heads is as important as the nature that is all around us, because in fact the nature inside our heads is often the engine which drives our interactions with physical nature, transforming both ourselves and nature in the process….Non-use is not an option: to live in nature is to use and change it by our presence. The choice we face is not to leave no marks – that is impossible – but rather to decide what kinds of marks we wish to leave.”
I look forward to an age when humanity has extended its moral code to the other animals, but where does such a shift take us? The question is hypothetical and abstract. I am content to view it as an imponderable and this, I suppose, is why I am an artist rather than a philosopher or lawyer.

I scribbled notes as I listened to Joost, and I thought of Aldo Leopold. A hunter and conservationist, on the one hand, and a moralist and preservationist, on the other, Leopold embodied the contradiction at the heart of this question. Returning again to Cronon,
“Having spent his entire life as a manager of land and wildlife, [Leopold] knew all too well that wild nature will not long remain in the modern world without an active commitment on the part of human beings to manage it responsibly...and he knew that this task was far from easy….Knowing that he himself was manipulating wildness in the very act of protecting it gave him a powerful sense of the paradoxes such work entailed, and he was clear-eyed and unblinking in acknowledging these paradoxes. ‘All conservation of wildness,’ he wrote, ‘is self-defeating, for to cherish we must see and fondle, and when enough have seen and fondled, there is no wilderness left to cherish.’...His dream was for a world where large tracts of wilderness would be protected, but where wild things would thrive and be honored in many other places as well: in rural wood lots, in humble wetlands, in restored prairies, even in urban parks. Only so would people be reminded, regularly and in the most ordinary ways, of the larger community to which they belonged and on which their own lives depended.”
Will an expanding ethical embrace make Leopold’s dream more possible or will it serve instead to complicate matters, making our search for a sustainable, moral society a more Herculean task?


chris at organicmatter said...

You manage to speak eloquently about a topic that I often struggle to explain to others - how humans can manage their environment for themselves, and at the same time to the benefit of the ecosystem as a whole.

What book/article are the Bill Cronon quotes you used from? I have a couple of his books from an environmental history course that I took as an undergrad (I gather that our professor was a friend of his), but neither of your quotes sounded familiar to me. I particularly liked the first quote.

Hungry Hyaena said...

Thank you.

The first Bill Cronon quote is taken from an essay in Environmental History, entitled, "The Trouble With Wilderness; or Getting Back to the Wrong Nature."

The later quotes, those dealing with Aldo Leopold, come from Cronon's 1998 lecture, "A Voice in the Wilderness," celebrating the 50th anniversary of A Sand County Almanac.

Deborah said...

I find the idea of extending human morality and ethics into conservation tricky. To view certain species through human morals/ethics is dangerous.

Many species, including primates, routinely practice infanticide. Most predators do not provide their prey with easy deaths and begin eating them alive. Competing groups of rat will fight to the death. Elephants will decimate their environment and then move on. Are these species thus condemned by our moral code? Do these behaviors justify the same actions on the part of humans?

No one involved with conservation would seriously suggest judging animals and condemning species that violate human law, but wrapping conservation in the idea of morals, especially in todays overly religious climate, is distressing.

Conserving the environment should be important to everyone - something seen as a common sense activity, but it should not be a moral imperative, saddled with all of the judgements that morality implies.

Hungry Hyaena said...

Thanks, Deborah. I agree completely. A line must be drawn somewhere.

It's an interesting question, though, nevertheless.