Exploring the imperative behind Earth Day

Earth Day falls just over a week after Easter weekend and provides a nice shift in perspective from all the supernaturalism to something, well, more natural. Holidays are meant to evoke reflection, so let’s take stock of the Earth and ask: what is so good about the Earth anyway? Why should we devote so much to its protection?

When people say we have a duty to protect nature — rocks, trees and rivers — for its own sake, they are speaking nonsense. The argument is never made clear as to why rocks and trees deserve moral consideration and instead relies on emotion to convince why a tree deserves our protection. Last week I discussed the impact of hunting and factory farming; the former is often said to be good for the environment, while the latter is notoriously bad for it. In both cases environmental degradation is a corollary: the main issue, is that the animals themselves have an interest in not feeling pain and so deserve freedom from such. Trees and rocks, as far as any scientist knows, cannot feel pain and so lack any interest in what is done to them.

Future generations may be a reason to protect the environment: surely our children deserve to inherit a world free of pollution. Yet, while it seems tempting, it isn’t clear why something not yet in existence deserves moral consideration. On the other side, dead people don’t deserve respect either, because neither can be harmed in any meaningful sense of the word. Even if they did, it doesn’t strike me as an effective strategy to enact change. Why should our generation suffer so much and not be able to appreciate any of the value of our work?

Once we shift focus to protect the right things for the right reasons, the whole issue becomes stronger because it is more clear. When people demand that nature “pay its way,” they are overlooking one reason we value it. There is aesthetic appeal to enjoying the world outside our cities, as there is appeal to listening to good music or reading a thoughtful book. Yes, composers and writers have to make a living, but the whole point of the arts is for us to enjoy a life well-lived, not ask how the music is saving lives and so on.

Similarly, science is repeatedly interrogated to ensure it’s contributing its part. Funding is going to developing technology and not toward researching the natural world. Of course science does its part: the medicine you get to cure your infection and the non-stick frying pan you use to cook your food are both of great value. But neither are ends in themselves and we don’t prevent infection just for the sake of living a while longer. No, the goal is to increase our standard of living.

When I saw the great entomologist Edward O. Wilson speak last year, he described what he calls Wilson’s Rule. It goes like this: if we are firm in our commitment to protect those species that have a good of their own, then we must also commit ourselves to their surroundings. A grizzly bear needs fish to eat and the fish need a river to swim in, so protecting the environment is necessary to saving bears. Our main concern is for those who experience pain and pleasure, like the bear, but in the end, the whole system needs protection. There might be good reason not to cut down that tree after all — the tree itself won’t be harmed, but the nonhuman animals inhabiting it may be.

Our appreciation of the natural world must stop short of worshiping it. Thanking Mother Earth is akin to thanking a man whose wallet we find on the street after he drops it, overflowing with money but no return address — he didn’t intend to lose his wallet and probably wants the money back. In the same way, nature had no plan to get us where we are now and nothing about natural history suggests humans were destined for success we have enjoyed. We can be humbled, then, without resorting to spirituality and activists like David Suzuki fail us in this respect by resorting to such fluff.

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