We better get used to facing tough ethical dilemmas, as environmental destruction forces some tangled conundrums.
Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2020 novel The Ministry for the Future fictionally portrays how the world might navigate the impending climate crisis and change direction. In addition to dramatic economic and political changes (and a dose of jarring eco-violence), the world in Robinson’s novel commits to a scheme called Half Earth to combat the looming and accelerating biodiversity crisis.
The Half Earth concept is borrowed from real life, championed most notably by the late biologist E.O. Wilson. It is the proposition that to save 80 percent of the Earth’s species, we need to protect – in some fashion – one half of the Earth. In Wilson’s words, “Only by committing half of the planet’s surface to nature can we hope to save the immensity of life-forms that compose it.”
In The Ministry for the Future, Half Earth was a rich success: “creating a vast integrated park and corridor system that included and supported the local indigenous human populations, as park keepers or simply local residents, part of the land doing their thing.”
However, in the real world, the Half Earth proposal has come under fire. Writing in Nature Sustainability, for example, Judith Schleicher and colleagues suggest that while “the proposal itself has been ambiguous about the exact forms and locations of the new conserved areas,” they found “that over one billion people currently live in areas that would be protected under the Half Earth proposal, if it were applied to all ecoregions.”
The Half Earth concept seems to pit two commitments to justice against one another. Motivated by a commitment to restorative justice (we caused the biodiversity crisis therefore we should fix it), Half Earth also raises questions of distributive justice that need to be acknowledged and thought through. Who wins and who loses in the Half Earth proposal, how are harms and benefits distributed?
Likewise, humanity’s failure to mitigate climate change and biodiversity losses also raises questions of restorative and distributive justice. This makes Half Earth a classic dilemma. Manifesting Half Earth will likely cause harm. Failing to protect 80 percent of the Earth’s biodiversity will also cause harm. Some harms of manifesting Half Earth could be mitigated by strategy and the pace of roll-out. But ultimately, we better get used to this; we better get better at thinking our way through such dilemmas.
We face a future where win-wins are likely to be scarce, if not outright impossibilities. We face a future where our failures of the past will cause great harm. Recognising that reality and finding ways to chart a course through that moral minefield is perhaps the hardest and most necessary work in the coming years.
This dilemma can also be understood as a difference of opinion about moral inclusion. If the world is viewed through a human-centred lens where the preservation of human life is paramount, then the disruption of one billion human lives to enact Half Earth is morally objectionable. However, a non-anthropocentrist believes that in addition to human lives, the lives of plants and animals and even species, ecosystems, and biological communities also matter. Then, Half Earth might seem like a moral obligation.
While the dominant Western culture appears to strongly correlate with a loss of biodiversity, humans are not inevitably despoilers of the land and agents of biodiversity loss. In some cases, there is a positive relationship between biodiversity and human activity on the land. In some Indigenous-managed areas the enhancement of biodiversity has been well documented.
Perhaps the deepest issue here is that the Half Earth proposal fails to address the real roots of our environmental problems, which are philosophical. The Western culture’s relationship with nature is broken because we were convinced to turn away from our ancestors’ animist beliefs and instead view nature as an inanimate- goods-and-services-producing-machine. At least since the Renaissance (if not the origins of Christianity) Western culture has beheld itself as separate from and superior to the rest of the world. This view is woven into the very fabric of all institutions: religious, educational, medical, political, scientific, economic, and so on.
Biodiversity loss (like climate change, like massive wildfires, like air and water pollution, and so on) is a symptom of our fundamental assumptions about the world and the human place in it. As American conservationist Aldo Leopold noted more than 70 years ago: “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”
The history of conservation is littered with grand schemes: one big idea, often requiring quick enactment, promising to right past wrongs and bring about a brighter future. These schemes always involve tradeoffs, and tradeoffs have winners and losers. But perpetuating current practices also involves tradeoff. As ecologist Carl Safina powerfully writes,
Of all the psychopathology in the climate issue, the most counter functional thought is that solving the problem will require sacrifice … As though losing polar bears, penguins, coral reefs, and thousands of other living companions is not sacrifice. … As though risking seawater inundation and the displacement of hundreds of millions of coastal people is not a sacrifice …We think we don’t want to sacrifice, but sacrifice is exactly what we’re doing by perpetuating problems that only get worse; we’re sacrificing our money, sacrificing what is big and permanent, to prolong what is small, temporary, and harmful. We’re sacrificing animals, peace, and children to retain wastefulness.
A disastrous 400-year experiment has now run its course and we must decide whether we will philosophically and ethically reinvent ourselves, or whether we will cause tremendous harms along the way to our ultimate demise. Without that basic ethical expansion, grand scheme proposals fail to get at the root of our environmental problems, instead they once again lull us into the belief that we can scheme our way out of our environmental problems without fundamentally changing who we are.
Michael Paul Nelson is the Ruth H. Spaniol Chair of Renewable Resources, professor of environmental ethics and philosophy, and serves as lead principal investigator for the HJ Andrews Long-Term Ecological Research Program at Oregon State University. The author has no conflict of interest to declare.
Editors Note: Michael Paul Nelson in Oregon