A philosophical reflection of Joseph DesJardins’ “Environmental Ethics”
Many people are too consumed by artificial desires to realize the devastation our environment has come to know. Furthermore, we fail to acknowledge that this devastation is a result of our own ways of thinking and, in turn, our actions. By considering ourselves separate from our environment, we abolish the very real interconnectedness we share. However, after reading and analyzing Environmental Ethics by Joseph DesJardins, I have come to know that we can down play the destruction of our environment and ourselves. Re-evaluating our values will help us to better distinguish our needs, wants, and interests. We can create new communal models that allow for not only ourselves as humans here and now to prosper, but for future generations, not limited to humans nor biotic organisms, to grow and develop sustainably. All it takes for reducing our negative impact on the environment is acknowledging the fact that we have caused the destruction, understanding that our survival is dependent upon the continuation of a healthy natural world, analyzing our personal values, and promoting a lifestyle of respect for the environment that defines us. For many people, the necessary shift in consciousness that would allow the aforementioned steps to take place would disrupt their lifestyle dramatically. Yet, if an individual holds any concern at all, whether it be a selfish or selfless concern for the environment, it is easy to start climbing the ladder to what deep ecologists call their two ultimate norms: self-realization and biocentric equality.
I side with deep ecologists that “the cause of environmental and ecological destruction lies with cultural and social factors that are deeply entrenched in the contemporary world” (DesJardins, 206). Deep ecology recognizes the dominant worldviews that guide society’s decision-making, especially reductionism and individualism. I, however, will focus mostly on materialism and consumerism. On a most basic level, reconditioning our behaviors and habits is a strenuous process requiring us to weigh out rewards and punishments. It is difficult to reform habits; the best way to go about doing so is to start small and work up. In other words, begin to live a more environmentally friendly life with one-time tasks versus everyday ones: Buying energy efficient light bulbs versus starting a compost bin. Consider your options before making a purchase: think economically in the sense of “Will this benefit or harm the environment? How does the packaging of product A or B contribute to the amount of accumulated waste? Is this product beneficial for me in the long or short term?”
Another example of people manipulated by these dominant worldviews is collectors. A woman living modestly in her home is a collector of cats. Even if she is at peace with her cats, we find her idea of happiness a joke and something to criticize. What is more daunting is the part of our society that can only think about making money off collectors. We dedicate airtime to “Hoarders” who are so out of touch with real, intrinsic, value that they consume their lives with materialism and consumerism and eventually hurt those around them who are trying to help the situation. That hoarder was most likely on a constant cycle similar to the one mentioned in the mini-documentary “The Story of Stuff”(See video below.) I’m going to work now so I can buy this stuff so I can be happy and when happiness fades I will have more money to buy more stuff to be temporarily happy again. All this cycle does is bring you and the environment closer to death sooner. It calls for more resources to be depleted to produce more stuff to bring temporary happiness and long term waste accumulation. British writer Oscar Wilde portrayed the human condition of cynicism well with his words “a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”
I especially liked the way that DesJardins compared the deep ecologists’ process of identifying the underlying causes of environmental destruction to a doctor’s medicinal practice of getting to the root cause of an illness. Just as a deep ecologist or a doctor, we as individuals should practice this psychological “step back” to come to a better relationship with our own personal philosophies.
My most vivid memory of this stepping back process occurred in 2010. I had been in the Sonoran desert of Arizona for two weeks backpacking with another thirty or so students and leaders. While there, I appreciated the natural beauty that surrounded me and felt a great bond formed between myself and the landscape. Upon returning to civilization, I was struck with a great deal of unsettling contemplation; I felt like Tarzan coming to the city and thought: “What is all this noise? Why is everyone on this paved road so persistent on getting to work so they can sit there and be unhappy? Everyone seems so snobby and ungrateful, so attached to their devices that tell them important things about what they value.” I did not want to go home, nor did I want to be anywhere near what I called home because it seemed despicable compared to the nature that had enveloped me for the past two weeks. The one amenity I did appreciate once I got home was hot running water. My trip to the desert influenced me to reconsider what I really needed in life. It is unfortunate that we cannot force someone out into the wild, away from the asphalt and concrete, just so they can take that psychological step back and reconsider why they do the things they do to get the things they think they need to be happy.
From my perspective, people in America are very out of touch with how to distinguish between needs, wants, and interests. I wonder if a change of scenery such as my desert trip could be the solution to reducing environmental destruction by encouraging more people to question their personal philosophies. Change allows critical thinking and evaluation to take place which brings an individual closer to understanding oneself and their relationship with the natural world. It would be my hope that it would not be just a romanticist dreamscape where once nature is out of sight, it is out of our minds.
I have found through reading DesJardins’ Environmental Ethics to call everything into question in order to better understand myself and my place in the world. Most of the questions I have asked in regards to ethics are those of metaphysics and ontology: What is success? Why do we value certain goods over others? Who are we to attempt to determine who and what else has “moral standing?” Deep ecology appeals to me because it strives to answer questions such as these. Also, the process of self-realization and recognition of biocentric equality inspire me to reconsider my personal values. More specifically, I have come to question what we value as human beings and why exactly we value certain things.
What we value depends on our own personal moral hierarchies. Two distinct “selves” govern the way we choose some interests over others, according to DesJardins, “One is the self constituted by the conscious beliefs, wants, and intentions of the ego. The other self is the true nature that underlies this person’s ego” (Desjardins, 217). Materialism and consumerism are the predominant ways in which we display if we value something instrumentally or intrinsically. This would conclude that our values are determined by our ego which is constructed by the advertising and competition put in place by dominant worldviews.
In the decision making process, we must consider who we will affect by choosing one thing to value over another. To do this with ethics in mind, we must consider future generations and recognize the differences, yet vast interconnectedness of both abiotic and biotic communities as well as poor nations and wealthy ones. When we consider these three groups, materialism and consumerism seem so unimportant. The way we choose our value receiving audience is dependent upon which version of your two selves you find more authentic, promising, worthwhile, and happy. Is it the self-governed-self or conditioned-by-society self? The surface self or the underlying self? If you are selfish in your actions you are a care taker, but selflessly you are a care giver. One would think that decisions would be made in a non-anthropocentric, holistic mindset. In doing so, we view nature more intrinsically which allows for an ethics of virtue to be fulfilled.
In order to overcome these dominant worldviews, we must change radically as individuals and cultures rather than simply reform old ethics. With the knowledge I have acquired through reading Environmental Ethics, I am confident in stating that the people involved in making decisions for our country seem to be out of touch with their underlying self. Because of this, policies are being based off of false values by people who do not want to recognize the destruction of our environment, take responsibility, and acknowledge the “oneness.” In the seventies, people valued things differently than today. Consequently, we should not be living by policies from that time. Instead, our policies should evolve through time just as a species adapts alongside nature. Modern government and economics is dominated by utilitarianism. It is understandable that a Utilitarian would want to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number; however, this “good” is dominated by this out of touch way of thinking and therefore does not do the best thing every time. It is obvious that our consumerist demands affect the natural world negatively. Traditional ethics does not recognize this fact or the interconnectedness of themselves and the natural world. Thus, we need a radical shift, not an extension of tradition, to adapt our ethics to the ethical issues of today. This begins with a different view of ourselves as individuals to end the consumerist habits that tell us what we want and instead start determining who we are in character.
It depends on the eye of the beholder, but also the mental strength of the underlying self to feel motivated to re-examine personal and cultural values in order to create new worldviews. This not only includes a shift from acts of selfishness to acts of selflessness, but also recognition of the reality of environmental destruction. We need to break down this mime box that society built around our underlying self and look towards what is out of sight in order to get reality back in our mind. Therefore, in order to form a society that strives for goals with intrinsic, rather than inherent, value, we must begin showing people at young ages how to define their underlying self so that things like materialism and consumerism seem unappealing. Perhaps this includes more emphasis on outdoor recreation. Physical and mental prosperity can come with wealth, but wealth should not be the only road to success if you and Mother Earth are not happy on the journey. We created the cycle, we can re-create it, too.
By Libby Gobble, Zero Waste Team member