Ethical basis for environmentalism

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Ethical basis for environmentalism

Postby Quercus » Sat Apr 26, 2014 9:28 am UTC

I am a moderate environmentalist by inclination (i.e. I love nature/wilderness with a passion and feel that the world would be a much less interesting/fun place to live were this to be substantially or even partially destroyed). However, I have major problems with how many environmentalists justify their stance, and would be very interested thoughts or suggestions of books/essays which address the following issues, whatever final view they reach (indeed I am most interested in soundly reasoned arguments against my view, as these tend to be the most informative). My issues are threefold:

1) Many environmentalists express a concept of "the right of species to exist". However, over geological timescales, the vast majority of species have gone extinct. Indeed, it is probably essential to evolution that this be so. Therefore, that natural progression of any particular species is probably to go extinct eventually. This seems fundamentally incompatable with the notion that species have a right to exist.

2) There is a massive degree of bias in how conservation efforts are directed. Most effort is directed at mammals and birds, and to a lesser extent reptiles, amphibians and plants. Very few campaigns are directed towards invertebrates (bees being an exception), and none that I know of aim to preserve the biodiversity of fungi, bacteria or protists. I can see no sound logical basis for this bias. Has one ever been proposed (perhaps based somehow on complexity)?

3) Many environmentalists claim that humans are destroying the planet (or at least the biosphere), however, human impacts on the planet seem far less extreme than ice ages, major meteorite impacts or periods of highly active volcanism. Over geological time-scales the biosphere has recovered perfectly well from these and other mass extinction events. Indeed it seems likely that humans will make the planet uninhabitable for humans (or at least human civilisation) before they cause permanent damage to the biosphere as a whole.

As for my view, I currently have a fairly human-centric and individual-centric view of conservation. That is, I think that we should preserve, for example, elephants as a species because they are beautiful and I would prefer to live in a world with elephants. I think we should generally preserve ecosystems because they are both beautiful and often useful to humans (e.g. medicinal compounds, carbon sinks). As for animals as individuals, I think they should be well-treated as a function of their capacity to experience suffering (I take it as axiomatic that suffering is bad and should be minimised). Furthermore I believe that there is a psychological component to this, both in that I feel (without much good evidence, other than my own experience) that destructive acts, towards humans or nature, are intrinsically psychologically damaging; and that experience of natural beauty is psychologically positive.

TL;DR version: Quite a lot of environmentalism is based on emotional and scientifically flawed reasoning, I would appreciate anyone's thoughts and/or suggestions of sources that approach the issue from a logically sound and well informed standpoint, whatever the conclusion reached.

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Re: Ethical basis for environmentalism

Postby BattleMoose » Sat Apr 26, 2014 9:47 am UTC

My personal stance on envrionmentalism comes from one of my most core and fundamental ethical/moral beliefs. Don't be a dick.

Everyone has access to and is dependent on the environment. Many people are very dependent on the environment, fishermen, farmers particularly small scale third world farmers and people who are entirely dependent on specific water resources, specific rivers/lakes et cetra, this is mostly the third world and that's okay. Messing with the environment has a fairly strong indirect effect on such individuals. Negatively effecting the environment has real consequences on such people and wanton abuse certainly would qualify someone as a dick in my world view.

Other tangible negative impacts of environment abuse include turning glaciers into ice dams, and when they break they flood valleys killing people and destroying livelihoods.

Rising sea levels will destroy a country, The Maldives.

All comes back to, don't be a dick.

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Re: Ethical basis for environmentalism

Postby Quercus » Sat Apr 26, 2014 10:18 am UTC

BattleMoose wrote:My personal stance on envrionmentalism comes from one of my most core and fundamental ethical/moral beliefs. Don't be a dick.

Everyone has access to and is dependent on the environment. Many people are very dependent on the environment, fishermen, farmers particularly small scale third world farmers and people who are entirely dependent on specific water resources, specific rivers/lakes et cetra, this is mostly the third world and that's okay. Messing with the environment has a fairly strong indirect effect on such individuals. Negatively effecting the environment has real consequences on such people and wanton abuse certainly would qualify someone as a dick in my world view.

Other tangible negative impacts of environment abuse include turning glaciers into ice dams, and when they break they flood valleys killing people and destroying livelihoods.

Rising sea levels will destroy a country, The Maldives.

All comes back to, don't be a dick.


Thanks - very much agree with that (and I'm slightly embarrassed that I forgot to emphasize that aspect more strongly in my own post).

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Re: Ethical basis for environmentalism

Postby Ormurinn » Sat Apr 26, 2014 10:52 am UTC

Free market environmentalism / libertarian environmentalism seems pretty rational and logical in attitude.

They don't focus on there being a right for species to exist or mythologise unspoilt nature.

Rather, it's a case of "find a way to privatize $aspect_of_nature, and the tragedy of the commons goes away and the property owner has a reason to maintain it. People make money, the environment gets maintained, win-win.

See - lochs in Scotland, ownership of land for tourism etc.
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Re: Ethical basis for environmentalism

Postby Qaanol » Sat Apr 26, 2014 1:45 pm UTC

Quercus wrote:1) Many environmentalists people express a concept of "the right of species people to exist live". However, over geological timescales the centuries, the vast majority of species people have gone extinct died. Indeed, it is probably essential to evolution human life that this be so. Therefore, that the natural progression of any particular species person is probably to go extinct die eventually. This seems fundamentally incompatable with the notion that species people have a right to exist live.

Hmm…

Quercus wrote:2) There is a massive degree of bias in how conservation efforts are directed. Most effort is directed at mammals and birds, and to a lesser extent reptiles, amphibians and plants. Very few campaigns are directed towards invertebrates (bees being an exception), and none that I know of aim to preserve the biodiversity of fungi, bacteria or protists. I can see no sound logical basis for this bias. Has one ever been proposed (perhaps based somehow on complexity)?

This is true, and a relevant term is charismatic megafauna.

Quercus wrote:3) Many environmentalists claim that humans are destroying the planet (or at least the biosphere), however, human impacts on the planet seem far less extreme than ice ages, major meteorite impacts or periods of highly active volcanism. Over geological time-scales the biosphere has recovered perfectly well from these and other mass extinction events. Indeed it seems likely that humans will make the planet uninhabitable for humans (or at least human civilisation) before they cause permanent damage to the biosphere as a whole.

This is called the fallacy of relative privation. And by “this” I mean “the thing Quercus is doing here.” Your claim amounts to “X is not as bad as Y, therefore X is perfectly fine and/or X is not worth doing anything about.”

For example, “The FCC changing its rules to eliminate net neutrality is nowhere near as bad as Russia annexing Crimea, so let’s just let it happen.”

Quercus wrote:As for my view, I currently have a fairly human-centric and individual-centric view of conservation. That is, I think that we should preserve, for example, elephants as a species because they are beautiful and I would prefer to live in a world with elephants. I think we should generally preserve ecosystems because they are both beautiful and often useful to humans (e.g. medicinal compounds, carbon sinks). As for animals as individuals, I think they should be well-treated as a function of their capacity to experience suffering (I take it as axiomatic that suffering is bad and should be minimised). Furthermore I believe that there is a psychological component to this, both in that I feel (without much good evidence, other than my own experience) that destructive acts, towards humans or nature, are intrinsically psychologically damaging; and that experience of natural beauty is psychologically positive.

TL;DR version: Quite a lot of environmentalism is based on emotional and scientifically flawed reasoning, I would appreciate anyone's thoughts and/or suggestions of sources that approach the issue from a logically sound and well informed standpoint, whatever the conclusion reached.

So…basically you hold exactly the same view as the people in your point (2), but you justify your own stance based on greed and selfishness and you are upset that other people hold the same view either with a different justification, or simply without attempting to justify it?
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Re: Ethical basis for environmentalism

Postby Enuja » Sat Apr 26, 2014 9:35 pm UTC

I have only read the first part of it (it's not held by my public library system), but I liked what I read, and my sibling enthusiastically recommends Sunflower Forest: Ecological Restoration and the New Communion with Nature by William R. Jordan III. It is, in many ways, about restoration, but for Jordon restoration is a way out of the bankrupt philosophy that nature is good because it excludes humans. There is a whole field of environmental philosophy, but that field includes some painfully anti-nature naval gazing, and I don't know it very well.

Although it doesn't directly address your questions, when I think of Sunflower Forest, I think of Rebecca Solnit's Savage Dreams, which is about land, ideals, nuclear weapons, native americans, and Yosemite. Savage Dreams is more my cup of tea than Sunflower Forest is, because Savage Dreams is beautifully written, interconnected, and very personal. Instead of addressing abstract issues of what environmentalism is and should be, Solnit addresses concrete experiences of her own (while exploring and explaining abstract ideas and where they came from).

To your point three, just because the biosphere is going to survive just about anything humans do it, doesn't mean the resulting biosphere would be a pleasant one to live in. Yes, there have been past mass extinctions. And the planet took many millions of years to restore diversity. In the meantime, you get jellyfish soup and not a lot else. No fun for anyone but jellyfish. And just because something has happened without human cause, doesn't mean humans should be morally OK with it doing it ourselves.

My approach is very simple: diversity is an axiomatic value.

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Re: Ethical basis for environmentalism

Postby Quercus » Sun Apr 27, 2014 10:50 am UTC

@ Qaanol - Thanks, this is great. I'm not being sarcastic here, I'm genuinely pleased when people point out flaws, even major flaws, in my reasoning.

Qaanol wrote:
Quercus wrote:1) Many environmentalists people express a concept of "the right of species people to exist live". However, over geological timescales the centuries, the vast majority of species people have gone extinct died. Indeed, it is probably essential to evolution human life that this be so. Therefore, that the natural progression of any particular species person is probably to go extinct die eventually. This seems fundamentally incompatable with the notion that species people have a right to exist live.

Hmm…


Okay, I see and concede your point here. I'm going to go away from the concept of "rights" now as I don't think they will be helpful to my modification of point one based on your argument. I guess what I object to is the notion that there is always a moral obligation to preserve species regardless of other considerations, just as I would object to the notion that there is always a moral obligation to preserve human life regardless of other considerations (although in each case such an obligation may exist the majority of the time). The example I would use is palliative care, where prolonging a low quality of life at the cost of much suffering may actually (in my view) be morally objectionable (the wishes of the patient being primary here). I would like to therefore read some discussion, if anyone has any suggestions, regarding the circumstances under which species should be preserved, and circumstances under which they should not, as clearly extinction is a natural and essential process for species under some conditions, just as death is a natural and essential process for humans.

Qaanol wrote:
Quercus wrote:2) There is a massive degree of bias in how conservation efforts are directed. Most effort is directed at mammals and birds, and to a lesser extent reptiles, amphibians and plants. Very few campaigns are directed towards invertebrates (bees being an exception), and none that I know of aim to preserve the biodiversity of fungi, bacteria or protists. I can see no sound logical basis for this bias. Has one ever been proposed (perhaps based somehow on complexity)?

This is true, and a relevant term is charismatic megafauna.


Thanks for the term, I was not familiar with it.

Qaanol wrote:
Quercus wrote:3) Many environmentalists claim that humans are destroying the planet (or at least the biosphere), however, human impacts on the planet seem far less extreme than ice ages, major meteorite impacts or periods of highly active volcanism. Over geological time-scales the biosphere has recovered perfectly well from these and other mass extinction events. Indeed it seems likely that humans will make the planet uninhabitable for humans (or at least human civilisation) before they cause permanent damage to the biosphere as a whole.

This is called the fallacy of relative privation. And by “this” I mean “the thing Quercus is doing here.” Your claim amounts to “X is not as bad as Y, therefore X is perfectly fine and/or X is not worth doing anything about.”

For example, “The FCC changing its rules to eliminate net neutrality is nowhere near as bad as Russia annexing Crimea, so let’s just let it happen.”


Agreed, I guess what I am objecting to here is the use of hyperbolic language by some conservationists, rather than their actions. This is a lesser objection - but it is important, as it allows anti-conservationists to justifiably attack the notion of "saving the planet", when what we should all be focusing on is "preserving/creating the best possible planet".

Qaanol wrote:
Quercus wrote:As for my view, I currently have a fairly human-centric and individual-centric view of conservation. That is, I think that we should preserve, for example, elephants as a species because they are beautiful and I would prefer to live in a world with elephants. I think we should generally preserve ecosystems because they are both beautiful and often useful to humans (e.g. medicinal compounds, carbon sinks). As for animals as individuals, I think they should be well-treated as a function of their capacity to experience suffering (I take it as axiomatic that suffering is bad and should be minimised). Furthermore I believe that there is a psychological component to this, both in that I feel (without much good evidence, other than my own experience) that destructive acts, towards humans or nature, are intrinsically psychologically damaging; and that experience of natural beauty is psychologically positive.

TL;DR version: Quite a lot of environmentalism is based on emotional and scientifically flawed reasoning, I would appreciate anyone's thoughts and/or suggestions of sources that approach the issue from a logically sound and well informed standpoint, whatever the conclusion reached.

So…basically you hold exactly the same view as the people in your point (2), but you justify your own stance based on greed and selfishness and you are upset that other people hold the same view either with a different justification, or simply without attempting to justify it?


The elephant was a bad choice here, being of the charismatic megafauna. I actually regard all life, including bacteria and even viruses (to the extent they can be regarded as alive) as beautiful and therefore worthy of preservation. This is not an idle statement - I spent a year studying microbiology at university and haven't yet found an organism that isn't beautiful.

As for greed and selfishness, I'm realising that I'm not actually happy with my current viewpoint, precisely because of its somewhat selfish nature, which is partly why I created this thread - to look for viewpoints which take a different perspective. I came on a little strong in the TL;DR, I'm not upset with people who hold a view with an emotional justification, I'm just interested in exploring logical, evidence-based justifications for the purposes of this thread.

As an addendum, I really need to study ethics in general a lot more, as you see I'm somewhat blundering around in the dark here.

Enuja wrote:I have only read the first part of it (it's not held by my public library system), but I liked what I read, and my sibling enthusiastically recommends Sunflower Forest: Ecological Restoration and the New Communion with Nature by William R. Jordan III. It is, in many ways, about restoration, but for Jordon restoration is a way out of the bankrupt philosophy that nature is good because it excludes humans. There is a whole field of environmental philosophy, but that field includes some painfully anti-nature naval gazing, and I don't know it very well.

Although it doesn't directly address your questions, when I think of Sunflower Forest, I think of Rebecca Solnit's Savage Dreams, which is about land, ideals, nuclear weapons, native americans, and Yosemite. Savage Dreams is more my cup of tea than Sunflower Forest is, because Savage Dreams is beautifully written, interconnected, and very personal. Instead of addressing abstract issues of what environmentalism is and should be, Solnit addresses concrete experiences of her own (while exploring and explaining abstract ideas and where they came from).

To your point three, just because the biosphere is going to survive just about anything humans do it, doesn't mean the resulting biosphere would be a pleasant one to live in. Yes, there have been past mass extinctions. And the planet took many millions of years to restore diversity. In the meantime, you get jellyfish soup and not a lot else. No fun for anyone but jellyfish. And just because something has happened without human cause, doesn't mean humans should be morally OK with it doing it ourselves.

My approach is very simple: diversity is an axiomatic value.


Thanks, both books sound great and I'll be sure to check them out. I particularly like the rejection of the philosophy that nature is good because it excludes humans, which has always struck me as a particularly nasty and pernicious sentiment. Thanks also for your own thoughts.

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Re: Ethical basis for environmentalism

Postby EMTP » Mon Apr 28, 2014 1:03 am UTC

I am fond of a utilitarian argument I call the Starship thought experiment(*). This posits that you are the captain of a ship with carries the last surviving human beings, headed to an inhabitable world on the other side of the galaxy:

Your knowledge of this far-off world is limited, but you know that the climate, ecosystems, and resources can support all the people you have with you. This is all you know.

At some point in the voyage, you learn that the climate of the planet is threatening to shift. If you invest a small portion of your resources, you can keep the planet in the state it was in in the original survey. If you don't:

* The average temperature may rise by 4-8C.
* 25% of the extent species may go extinct.
* Rainfall may shift in unpredictable ways.

. . . and so on. Do you invest the resources, or do you allow radical shifts in the state of affairs of the one and only planet on which you can live, a planet whose life and climate no one understands perfectly, but which you know can support you now?


We know that Earth can support human civilization, because it has for thousands of years. Past that, our knowledge of biology, ecology, and climate is limited, to put it kindly. When we crudely disrupt the natural world, destroying species, monopolizing water, modifying the climate for a little temporary wealth or convenience, we are fucking with the one and only life support system seven billion humans depend upon. And that's not just wrong; it's stupid.


*Original to me, as far as I know.
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Re: Ethical basis for environmentalism

Postby Red Hal » Mon Apr 28, 2014 12:53 pm UTC

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Re: Ethical basis for environmentalism

Postby elasto » Tue Apr 29, 2014 5:08 am UTC

Yeah. Well said.

It always struck me as hugely missing the point when skeptics try to argue against anthropogenic global warming by pointing out the earth was much hotter with more CO2 in the past. It's absolutely true. The earth can survive warming or cooling just fine. And the plants, trees and algae would love more CO2. It's the small matter of floods, famines, water shortages, potential migration of a billion+ people over a short period of time and the resultant wars we should be more worried about.

We can peg growth back a percentage point or so as an 'insurance policy' for keeping the earth roughly as it is now, or we can roll the dice. The unfairness is, though, that it's the West that has largely benefited from a century of industrialization but it's the developing world who'll mostly suffer under climate change.

So, yeah, environmentalism is mostly just enlightened self-interest - as are most ethical behaviors, fortunately.

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Re: Ethical basis for environmentalism

Postby peregrine_crow » Tue Apr 29, 2014 1:58 pm UTC

That's nice and all, but I don't think it is an accurate reflection of what is happening. Humans are capable of using complex tools and models to understand and modify our surroundings, this means that we have a much greater capability to adapt to changing circumstances than any kind of animal can achieve through evolution alone.

Sure, we currently depend on the climate to stay as it is in order to maintain our frankly ridiculous numbers and if it changes then many many people will die, but the species Homo Sapiens will endure (albeit likely in much smaller numbers). If we manage to muck up the situation to the point where the planet is no longer capable of supporting us at all then I don't think it will be capable of supporting any other kind of complex lifeforms either.

Life is not some universal constant, it is only possible under a very specific set of circumstances and evolution only allows a species to adapt so far. Mother nature can act all smug if she wants, but nature has not survived worse things than us, if we go down, we're taking all life* on earth with us.

Mind you, I don't think we will muck up things this badly and I fully believe that mankind (in the end) will turn out to be a blessing for life on earth, but let's not kid ourselves, we have the ability to do some mayor damage to this planet.


*:With maybe the exception of some microscopic lifeforms, in which case: Yay, we've only set back evolution by several hundred million years instead of stopping it alltogether.
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Re: Ethical basis for environmentalism

Postby Izawwlgood » Tue Apr 29, 2014 2:09 pm UTC

peregrine_crow wrote:Life is not some universal constant, it is only possible under a very specific set of circumstances and evolution only allows a species to adapt so far. Mother nature can act all smug if she wants, but nature has not survived worse things than us, if we go down, we're taking all life* on earth with us.
I think you are beyond incorrect in this assertion. Nature has not only survived mind blowingly worse than us, but Nature has caused mind blowingly worse than us. We will not take Nature down with us, and I truthfully don't think we're even capable of doing so if we tried.

Which isn't, of course, to say we should. And doesn't mean we shouldn't be more responsible with how we're treating this very large resource of ours.

peregrine_crow wrote:*:With maybe the exception of some microscopic lifeforms, in which case: Yay, we've only set back evolution by several hundred million years instead of stopping it alltogether.
We have done no such thing.
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Re: Ethical basis for environmentalism

Postby Tyndmyr » Tue Apr 29, 2014 2:40 pm UTC

peregrine_crow wrote:That's nice and all, but I don't think it is an accurate reflection of what is happening. Humans are capable of using complex tools and models to understand and modify our surroundings, this means that we have a much greater capability to adapt to changing circumstances than any kind of animal can achieve through evolution alone.


This is certainly true. However, even so, there's likely a very real cost associated with changing and adapting. Evaluating the precise cost may be challenging, but it's probably significant. So, it makes sense to consider how much prevention is likely to be cost effective and so on.

As for "setting evolution back", evolution has no particular direction to it. It just is. Sometimes entire branches die off. That's a thing that happens. Really bad from OUR perspective, but nothing else is going to care.

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Re: Ethical basis for environmentalism

Postby peregrine_crow » Tue Apr 29, 2014 2:54 pm UTC

Izawwlgood wrote:
peregrine_crow wrote:Life is not some universal constant, it is only possible under a very specific set of circumstances and evolution only allows a species to adapt so far. Mother nature can act all smug if she wants, but nature has not survived worse things than us, if we go down, we're taking all life* on earth with us.

I think you are beyond incorrect in
this assertion.

I disagree, but that wasn't my main point. We are currently the most adaptible species on earth because, aside from regular evolution (which still applies to us if it comes down to it), we can predict changes in our enviroment and adapt our means of survival accordingly. No other animal can match that, so if at any point earth changes so radically in such a short time that even we can't survive here anymore than those other animals don't stand a chance either.
Izawwlgood wrote:Nature has not only survived mind blowingly worse than us, but Nature has caused mind blowingly worse than us.

Could you elaborate? The best I can think of is something like the plague or locusts or something similar, but those hardly made a dent in human populations and did much less to animal populations. We can certainly do worse than that. Unless you are talking about climate change, but wasn't the whole point of this discussion that we are causing that right now?
Izawwlgood wrote:
peregrine_crow wrote:*:With maybe the exception of some microscopic lifeforms, in which case: Yay, we've only set back evolution by several hundred million years instead of stopping it alltogether.

We have done no such thing.

No, indeed we have not. That was in the case that we devastated the planet to the point where humans can no longer survive.

Edit:
Tyndmyr wrote:As for "setting evolution back", evolution has no particular direction to it. It just is. Sometimes entire branches die off. That's a thing that happens. Really bad from OUR perspective, but nothing else is going to care.

True of course, I was being overly dramatic, evolution is a mindless emotionless process. But if we are going to personify mother nature then I think she would be happier with more, more complex and more diverse lifeforms. It would take a very long time for microscopic organisms to evolve back into the complex ecosystems we have now.

Other than that I completely agree with you.
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Re: Ethical basis for environmentalism

Postby Izawwlgood » Tue Apr 29, 2014 3:19 pm UTC

peregrine_crow wrote:I disagree, but that wasn't my main point. We are currently the most adaptible species on earth because, aside from regular evolution (which still applies to us if it comes down to it), we can predict changes in our enviroment and adapt our means of survival accordingly. No other animal can match that, so if at any point earth changes so radically in such a short time that even we can't survive here anymore than those other animals don't stand a chance either.
Your point did not include anything about human adaptability. But sure; humans ARE the most adaptable species on the planet, aside from, you know, every other organism that is found virtually everywhere on Earth. I don't disagree with your point in principal, I just think you're making it abundantly clear you aren't a biologist.

peregrine_crow wrote:Could you elaborate? The best I can think of is something like the plague or locusts or something similar, but those hardly made a dent in human populations and did much less to animal populations. We can certainly do worse than that. Unless you are talking about climate change, but wasn't the whole point of this discussion that we are causing that right now?
Well, in terms of biotic effects, the whole 'oxygen as an electron acceptor' was a pretty brutal change to the makeup of not only the face of the planet, but the entire worlds population of life. With respect to plague, the black death did in fact dent the human population. And as long as you've got that image open, pay attention to how low the global human population was until quite recently. Advances in medicine sure went a long way.

And yes, of course, to be crystal clear, I absolutely feel the data supports anthropogenic climate change. I do think you're grossly overestimating our impact on LIFE itself, and grossly underestimating life's previous impact on the planet.

peregrine_crow wrote:No, indeed we have not. That was in the case that we devastated the planet to the point where humans can no longer survive.
Which may happen! But that's not 'setting evolution back several hundred million years', that's just killing a bunch of humans.

peregrine_crow wrote:True of course, I was being overly dramatic, evolution is a mindless emotionless process. But if we are going to personify mother nature then I think she would be happier with more, more complex and more diverse lifeforms. It would take a very long time for microscopic organisms to evolve back into the complex ecosystems we have now.
This again makes me think you aren't a biologist. 'Mother Nature' loves beetles. If we make the world uninhabitable for people, we probably won't really be affecting the global beetle population all that significantly.
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Re: Ethical basis for environmentalism

Postby Heisenberg » Tue Apr 29, 2014 6:32 pm UTC

I find Louis C.K.'s argument to be compelling. And most people agree with his foundational premise.

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Re: Ethical basis for environmentalism

Postby Quercus » Tue Apr 29, 2014 10:49 pm UTC

Izawwlgood wrote:
peregrine_crow wrote:I disagree, but that wasn't my main point. We are currently the most adaptible species on earth because, aside from regular evolution (which still applies to us if it comes down to it), we can predict changes in our enviroment and adapt our means of survival accordingly. No other animal can match that, so if at any point earth changes so radically in such a short time that even we can't survive here anymore than those other animals don't stand a chance either.
Your point did not include anything about human adaptability. But sure; humans ARE the most adaptable species on the planet, aside from, you know, every other organism that is found virtually everywhere on Earth. I don't disagree with your point in principal, I just think you're making it abundantly clear you aren't a biologist.

There's also the fact that other organisms have a lot more tickets for this particular lottery. Let's imagine for a moment that we do something really bad to the environment, and that we are indeed better at adapting to it - in particular lets imagine we have a 40% chance of survival, whereas other animals have on average a 1% chance of survival. That's pretty good going, but we are just one species, and we are more likely to be wiped out than not. On the other hand we can expect 30-300 thousand other animal species to survive. Life as a whole is a lot more durable than any one species, including us.

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Re: Ethical basis for environmentalism

Postby speising » Tue Apr 29, 2014 11:30 pm UTC

see also, Chicxulub. pretty devastating for the then-dominant species, but life carried on pretty well.

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Re: Ethical basis for environmentalism

Postby Izawwlgood » Tue Apr 29, 2014 11:39 pm UTC

speising wrote:see also, Chicxulub. pretty devastating for the then-dominant species, but life carried on pretty well.
People forget that the overwhelmingly vast majority of life that has walked this planet has gone extinct. Remember when reptiles took wing and started flitting around as birds? Insect diversity plummeted. Remember when mammals took advantage of their own heat generation and were able to run around at night? Dinosaurs struggled.

It just seems weird to point to humans and say 'Monsters! Changing the biotic landscape!' when virtually every form of life does so, often times WAY more dramatically. I half expect the OP to quote Agent Smith about how humans are actually a virus because we don't reach a natural equilibrium (think it in his voice).

I feel I've just poked at other people's sentiments here, so I'll include my own;
I think we have an ethical and practical responsibility to care for the land and preserve it as best we can for future generations. I also think that every thing in the solar system is ours to utilize. I'd have no ethical quandary with seeding the skies of Venus with bacteria to change the atmosphere to something useful for humans, even if it meant radically changing the face of the planet. I think the Earth and everything on it is a tool to further man kinds agenda; a responsible craftsman respects their tools and cares for them. Strip mining the Amazon is shitty tool use. Setting up large regions as National Parkland for everyone to enjoy is good use. You can't put the whole world in a bubble, but you can minimize the damage you do to it.
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Re: Ethical basis for environmentalism

Postby leady » Wed Apr 30, 2014 9:02 am UTC

EMTP wrote:Your knowledge of this far-off world is limited, but you know that the climate, ecosystems, and resources can support all the people you have with you. This is all you know.

At some point in the voyage, you learn that the climate of the planet is threatening to shift. If you invest a small portion of your resources, you can keep the planet in the state it was in in the original survey. If you don't:

* The average temperature may rise by 4-8C.
* 25% of the extent species may go extinct.
* Rainfall may shift in unpredictable ways.

. . . and so on. Do you invest the resources, or do you allow radical shifts in the state of affairs of the one and only planet on which you can live, a planet whose life and climate no one understands perfectly, but which you know can support you now?


This thought experiment is quite good because it exposes the underpinning flaws with environmentalism too

a) How have you determined the problem and how accurate is the prediction
b) How have you determined the cost of preventation and how do you know the results
c) Why do you think the risk of climate shift lower than the consequential economic impact
d) Who will control the direction of the resources to fix


On the precise topic I don't think there is a pure moral good in environmentalism - there are however obvious moral bads in destroying the environment indirectly on other peoples property. it will get fuzzy with creatures that move :)

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Re: Ethical basis for environmentalism

Postby EMTP » Fri May 02, 2014 12:20 am UTC

leady wrote:
EMTP wrote:Your knowledge of this far-off world is limited, but you know that the climate, ecosystems, and resources can support all the people you have with you. This is all you know.

At some point in the voyage, you learn that the climate of the planet is threatening to shift. If you invest a small portion of your resources, you can keep the planet in the state it was in in the original survey. If you don't:

* The average temperature may rise by 4-8C.
* 25% of the extent species may go extinct.
* Rainfall may shift in unpredictable ways.

. . . and so on. Do you invest the resources, or do you allow radical shifts in the state of affairs of the one and only planet on which you can live, a planet whose life and climate no one understands perfectly, but which you know can support you now?


This thought experiment is quite good because it exposes the underpinning flaws with environmentalism too

a) How have you determined the problem and how accurate is the prediction
b) How have you determined the cost of preventation and how do you know the results
c) Why do you think the risk of climate shift lower than the consequential economic impact
d) Who will control the direction of the resources to fix


On the precise topic I don't think there is a pure moral good in environmentalism - there are however obvious moral bads in destroying the environment indirectly on other peoples property. it will get fuzzy with creatures that move :)


Those are all good questions to ask, as long as you realize that uncertainty does not necessarily make the case to act less compelling. You may not know the scale of the harms you face precisely, but that is only a case for inaction if you believe, irrationally, that the uncertainty is all one way, towards less harm instead of more.

Historically, the benefits of efforts to conserve the natural environment have radically outstripped the costs; the Clean Air Act, for example, is estimated to have brought $26 of benefit for every dollar of the cost. Preventing water pollution, similar ratios. Japan and the Dominican Republic have realized huge economic and social benefits from stopping deforestation.

Of course, any particular proposal may be cost-effective, or not, but historically (and this seems also to be the case with global warming) the political willingness to act strongly is nowhere near the point that an objective cost/benefit analysis would imply it should be.
"Reasonable – that is, human – men will always be capable of compromise, but men who have dehumanized themselves by becoming the blind worshipers of an idea or an ideal are fanatics whose devotion to abstractions makes them the enemies of life."
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Re: Ethical basis for environmentalism

Postby morriswalters » Fri May 02, 2014 12:54 pm UTC

leady wrote:there are however obvious moral bads in destroying the environment indirectly on other peoples property. it will get fuzzy with creatures that move :)
If you damage the environment you damage everybody's property. Either directly or indirectly. But having any one, or even hundred of species go extinct, is a different problem than affecting the biospheres larger function,energy regulation. If Global Climate Change is a fact then a lot of property owners never got asked. And those who have contributed least to the problem may get affected the most.

leady wrote:a) How have you determined the problem and how accurate is the prediction
b) How have you determined the cost of preventation and how do you know the results
c) Why do you think the risk of climate shift lower than the consequential economic impact
d) Who will control the direction of the resources to fix


The answer to these is that you can't know how accurate the prediction is. But you can assess the possible outcomes of the theory if it is correct. The public policy question is, what is the prudent thing to do, given those possible outcomes. And accept that there will be winners and losers no matter what choice you make, and with the certain knowledge that you might be wrong. Good luck with that.

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Re: Ethical basis for environmentalism

Postby leady » Fri May 02, 2014 1:04 pm UTC

I agree its a hard decision, when faced with "do nothing = uncertainty" or "do something = uncertainty" I side with do nothing, because humans being falible always manifest their biases in predictions :)

As a general hint if anyone (and I mean anyone) suggests a 3600% profit rate on anything - they are lying

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Re: Ethical basis for environmentalism

Postby speising » Fri May 02, 2014 1:08 pm UTC

the problem is democracy. leaders elected for 4-year terms are really shitty for long-term decisions. they rather "boost economy now" than take unpopular measures whose benefits will only be realized in 20 years.

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Re: Ethical basis for environmentalism

Postby cphite » Fri May 02, 2014 8:09 pm UTC

speising wrote:the problem is democracy. leaders elected for 4-year terms are really shitty for long-term decisions. they rather "boost economy now" than take unpopular measures whose benefits will only be realized in 20 years.


Yes, what a wretched system democracy is, the way it gives common people an actual say in the direction of their lives...

Your premise is flawed for a couple of reasons.

First, though we're far from perfect, the USA has a much better track record when it comes to environmental issues than countries like China, India, and some others who have leaders who have to worry far less about their decisions being popular with the people.

Second, governance requires that you balance between what is happening right now with any long term plans that you have. People have to put food on the table right now, and have to keep the light and the heat on right now; they cannot wait for long term plans to come to fruition. And, if a lot of people are out of work right now and have to depend on government assistance, that has a direct impact on any long term goals that you have.

Finally, the USA really isn't a democracy so much as an oligarchy. Our leaders don't typically reflect the will of the people... rather, they reflect the people making the least worst choice from the options placed in front of them by the various wealthy groups and individuals that control the media and the money. Note for example that countries (think most of Europe) that have better controls on their electoral processes tend to have even better environmental track records than we do.

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Re: Ethical basis for environmentalism

Postby morriswalters » Fri May 02, 2014 10:30 pm UTC

The problem is people. We want what we want. We are fully prepared to have someone else sacrifice if we don't have to. Tragedy of the Commons writ large. A group of "scientists" asked themselves why we had never been visited from space. One conclusion was that at the point where it is starting to become possible to travel to the stars in some manner, that the races that can go extinct for some reason. Consider it.

A certain hubris is involved, when we think we can do whatever we want, and be able to escape the consequences with our intelligence. Or put off doing what it is that needs to be done, because it is inconvenient or expensive. If you do this with a house it comes apart around you. Our house seems to be coming apart around us.

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Re: Ethical basis for environmentalism

Postby Zcorp » Fri May 02, 2014 11:47 pm UTC

cphite wrote:
speising wrote:the problem is democracy. leaders elected for 4-year terms are really shitty for long-term decisions. they rather "boost economy now" than take unpopular measures whose benefits will only be realized in 20 years.


Yes, what a wretched system democracy is, the way it gives common people an actual say in the direction of their lives...

While he did say 'the problem is democracy' from the rest of the post it is pretty clear he sees a problem with how the American democracy functions.

If our presidents had one 10 year term it seems we might have a much better system for a variety of reasons.

First, though we're far from perfect, the USA has a much better track record when it comes to environmental issues than countries like China, India, and some others who have leaders who have to worry far less about their decisions being popular with the people.

The US, a country much further ahead than China and India in development has a better track record than countries who are trying to catch up have 3 times its population, oh and all they make all our stuff. While it is certainly a problem this is not an example of what is wrong with his premise.

Second, governance requires that you balance between what is happening right now with any long term plans that you have. People have to put food on the table right now, and have to keep the light and the heat on right now; they cannot wait for long term plans to come to fruition. And, if a lot of people are out of work right now and have to depend on government assistance, that has a direct impact on any long term goals that you have.

The needs of right now certainly have to be addressed, but the desires of right now should often be overcome for the needs of tomorrow, if we care about there being the day after tomorrow. This also has nothing to do with his premise.

Finally
Not finally, you don't have a single part of your 3 part response that address his concern at all.

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Re: Ethical basis for environmentalism

Postby EMTP » Sat May 03, 2014 2:26 am UTC

leady wrote:I agree its a hard decision, when faced with "do nothing = uncertainty" or "do something = uncertainty" I side with do nothing, because humans being falible always manifest their biases in predictions :)


We just have to hope the public as a whole has better decision-making skills than you do.

As a general hint if anyone (and I mean anyone) suggests a 3600% profit rate on anything - they are lying


Yeah, no. You're wrong. Sorry.
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Re: Ethical basis for environmentalism

Postby Derek » Sat May 03, 2014 2:54 am UTC

speising wrote:the problem is democracy. leaders elected for 4-year terms are really shitty for long-term decisions. they rather "boost economy now" than take unpopular measures whose benefits will only be realized in 20 years.

The track records of autocracies is even worse.

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Re: Ethical basis for environmentalism

Postby speising » Sat May 03, 2014 10:30 am UTC

Derek wrote:
speising wrote:the problem is democracy. leaders elected for 4-year terms are really shitty for long-term decisions. they rather "boost economy now" than take unpopular measures whose benefits will only be realized in 20 years.

The track records of autocracies is even worse.

i didn't say i know a better system :p

It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.

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Re: Ethical basis for environmentalism

Postby Heisenberg » Mon May 05, 2014 6:24 pm UTC

leady wrote:I agree its a hard decision, when faced with "do nothing = uncertainty" or "do something = uncertainty" I side with do nothing, because humans being falible always manifest their biases in predictions :)

Cool, then you won't mind doing nothing which would release harmful gases and particulates into the atmosphere. You won't mind doing nothing which pollutes our shared streams, rivers, oceans, and groundwater. You won't mind doing nothing which could threaten the local flora and fauna.

That would be the safest option, since as you said, there is so much uncertainty surrounding what might happen if you continue poisoning the air, land, and sea. That's a really strong argument for environmentalism. Thanks for sharing.

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Re: Ethical basis for environmentalism

Postby Tyndmyr » Mon May 05, 2014 7:22 pm UTC

Heisenberg wrote:
leady wrote:I agree its a hard decision, when faced with "do nothing = uncertainty" or "do something = uncertainty" I side with do nothing, because humans being falible always manifest their biases in predictions :)

Cool, then you won't mind doing nothing which would release harmful gases and particulates into the atmosphere. You won't mind doing nothing which pollutes our shared streams, rivers, oceans, and groundwater. You won't mind doing nothing which could threaten the local flora and fauna.

That would be the safest option, since as you said, there is so much uncertainty surrounding what might happen if you continue poisoning the air, land, and sea. That's a really strong argument for environmentalism. Thanks for sharing.


Doing nothing isn't a real option. Merely by existing, we affect the environment.

Knowledge is always finite. Gotta make decisions based on existing knowledge of costs, benefits, etc, discounted for uncertainty.

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Re: Ethical basis for environmentalism

Postby cphite » Mon May 05, 2014 8:25 pm UTC

Zcorp wrote:
cphite wrote:
speising wrote:the problem is democracy. leaders elected for 4-year terms are really shitty for long-term decisions. they rather "boost economy now" than take unpopular measures whose benefits will only be realized in 20 years.


Yes, what a wretched system democracy is, the way it gives common people an actual say in the direction of their lives...

While he did say 'the problem is democracy' from the rest of the post it is pretty clear he sees a problem with how the American democracy functions.

If our presidents had one 10 year term it seems we might have a much better system for a variety of reasons.


And a worse system for a variety of other reasons. A president who doesn't have to care about what the people want once he's in power isn't a president I'd like to have.

That being said, the laws are written by congress, not the president. The president enforces the laws, and sets policy according to the law - at least that's how it's supposed to work. Changing the term of the president doesn't change the laws, or how additional laws are written.

First, though we're far from perfect, the USA has a much better track record when it comes to environmental issues than countries like China, India, and some others who have leaders who have to worry far less about their decisions being popular with the people.


The US, a country much further ahead than China and India in development has a better track record than countries who are trying to catch up have 3 times its population, oh and all they make all our stuff. While it is certainly a problem this is not an example of what is wrong with his premise.


On the contrary, it addresses his premise directly. He's claiming that a system where elected officials had to worry less about popular opinion would come up with better long term solutions. I am pointing out that the real world does not appear to support this premise.

Further, your own premise that China and India have a lot of pollution because they make all of our stuff is backwards; the reason they make all of our stuff is because it's so much cheaper for them to make stuff, due to their much more relaxed pollution policies.

Second, governance requires that you balance between what is happening right now with any long term plans that you have. People have to put food on the table right now, and have to keep the light and the heat on right now; they cannot wait for long term plans to come to fruition. And, if a lot of people are out of work right now and have to depend on government assistance, that has a direct impact on any long term goals that you have.


The needs of right now certainly have to be addressed, but the desires of right now should often be overcome for the needs of tomorrow, if we care about there being the day after tomorrow. This also has nothing to do with his premise.


It has everything to do with his premise. Governments can't just wave magic wands to make things happen - projects take money. If the economy sucks, that means less money for long term projects. If people need government assistance, that means even less money for long term projects. Governments that place long term planning over the immediate needs of their people usually end up defunct long before those plans are ever met.

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Re: Ethical basis for environmentalism

Postby speising » Mon May 05, 2014 8:31 pm UTC

my statement was more or less in reply to this
EMTP wrote:Historically, the benefits of efforts to conserve the natural environment have radically outstripped the costs; the Clean Air Act, for example, is estimated to have brought $26 of benefit for every dollar of the cost. Preventing water pollution, similar ratios. Japan and the Dominican Republic have realized huge economic and social benefits from stopping deforestation.


which implies that environmentalism would be economically advantageous, but only in the long term.
and some cleanup programs doesn't mean people will starve and freeze. short term surviveability of the population is not endangered.

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Re: Ethical basis for environmentalism

Postby Tyndmyr » Mon May 05, 2014 8:44 pm UTC

cphite wrote:
First, though we're far from perfect, the USA has a much better track record when it comes to environmental issues than countries like China, India, and some others who have leaders who have to worry far less about their decisions being popular with the people.


The US, a country much further ahead than China and India in development has a better track record than countries who are trying to catch up have 3 times its population, oh and all they make all our stuff. While it is certainly a problem this is not an example of what is wrong with his premise.


On the contrary, it addresses his premise directly. He's claiming that a system where elected officials had to worry less about popular opinion would come up with better long term solutions. I am pointing out that the real world does not appear to support this premise.

Further, your own premise that China and India have a lot of pollution because they make all of our stuff is backwards; the reason they make all of our stuff is because it's so much cheaper for them to make stuff, due to their much more relaxed pollution policies.


I suspect that part of this is that an elected government has to at least pretend to be upholding the will of the people and all that. Plenty of authoritarian governments barely bother to hide their self-serving nature. Terrible dictators seem to be a common issue. Now, a dictator that really did care about the environment and valued long term planning over his short term desires would probably be able to do a lot...but dictatorships appear to select against those people.

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Re: Ethical basis for environmentalism

Postby Zcorp » Mon May 05, 2014 9:01 pm UTC

cphite wrote:And a worse system for a variety of other reasons. A president who doesn't have to care about what the people want once he's in power isn't a president I'd like to have.
This wouldn't create that.

That being said, the laws are written by congress, not the president. The president enforces the laws, and sets policy according to the law - at least that's how it's supposed to work. Changing the term of the president doesn't change the laws, or how additional laws are written.

I don't agree that it was supposed to work that way, but besides that, why are you talking about how it is supposed to work? When it obviously doesn't work that way?

On the contrary, it addresses his premise directly. He's claiming that a system where elected officials had to worry less about popular opinion would come up with better long term solutions. I am pointing out that the real world does not appear to support this premise.

He is claiming that a system where elected officials had more opportunity to enact and care about long term solutions would lead to more long term solutions. Which is certainly represented in how the real world behaves Pollution is not what China and India have chosen to be their highest priority long term problem right now.

Further, your own premise that China and India have a lot of pollution because they make all of our stuff is backwards; the reason they make all of our stuff is because it's so much cheaper for them to make stuff, due to their much more relaxed pollution policies.
No, mostly it is due to having cheaper labor.

It has everything to do with his premise. Governments can't just wave magic wands to make things happen - projects take money. If the economy sucks, that means less money for long term projects. If people need government assistance, that means even less money for long term projects. Governments that place long term planning over the immediate needs of their people usually end up defunct long before those plans are ever met.

This still has nothing to do with the premise that American democracy is failing to care about long term goals, while others are succeeding at doing so.

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Re: Ethical basis for environmentalism

Postby Tyndmyr » Mon May 05, 2014 10:26 pm UTC

My largest concern with ethics w/regard to environmentalism is a substantial luddite/anti-technological bent in the movement. Sure, this isn't universal...but there's a significant portion that seems to view progress as the enemy, and has strange ideas about us all being better off going back to some sort of pastoral living conditions or a hunter/gatherer lifestyle. This is perhaps most notable with regards to nuclear power. That stuff is pretty green by most standards, and could be much more so if we embraced it properly, instead of treating it as some sort of horrible danger to humanity. Three Mile Island wasn't really that bad, yet it's constantly mentioned as if it were horrible. Meanwhile, other sources of power have very, very real dangers(a non-trivial body count could be assigned to coal, for instance), but those are spread out, so, meh. Hell, wind power is pretty good, but every time they try to build those, at least some environmental groups flip out. The danger in protesting everything, it seems, is that we end up stuck with the bad old options instead of the somewhat less bad new ones.

Nothing is perfect. We will impact the wild regardless. Humanity has ALREADY changed the world significantly. It just seems like some people have this unrealistic image of perfection that is wholly unattainable, and which gets in the way of realistic action.

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Re: Ethical basis for environmentalism

Postby Heisenberg » Tue May 06, 2014 2:50 pm UTC

Tyndmyr wrote:My largest concern with ethics w/regard to environmentalism is a substantial luddite/anti-technological bent in the movement. Sure, this isn't universal...but there's a significant portion that seems to view progress as the enemy, and has strange ideas about us all being better off going back to some sort of pastoral living conditions or a hunter/gatherer lifestyle. This is perhaps most notable with regards to nuclear power. That stuff is pretty green by most standards, and could be much more so if we embraced it properly, instead of treating it as some sort of horrible danger to humanity. Three Mile Island wasn't really that bad, yet it's constantly mentioned as if it were horrible. Meanwhile, other sources of power have very, very real dangers(a non-trivial body count could be assigned to coal, for instance), but those are spread out, so, meh. Hell, wind power is pretty good, but every time they try to build those, at least some environmental groups flip out. The danger in protesting everything, it seems, is that we end up stuck with the bad old options instead of the somewhat less bad new ones.

Nothing is perfect. We will impact the wild regardless. Humanity has ALREADY changed the world significantly. It just seems like some people have this unrealistic image of perfection that is wholly unattainable, and which gets in the way of realistic action.

I think that's going by the wayside as the hippies die off. Lots of folks are now taking realistic action towards reducing impact, knowing that eliminating impact would be impossible. I know plenty of folks who use public transportation, efficient vehicles, make good food choices, and recycle all in the name of reducing impact. Now, the loudest voices will always be the crazy people, but I think the younger generations are more likely to make reasonable choices which limit impact. Which coincides with my counter to leady's contention that in the face of uncertainty, I should do nothing. In the face of uncertainty, I should try to reduce my impact.

Nuclear power is certainly awesome and I'd much rather contain my waste safely under a mountain than pump mass quantities of it into the air. Unfortunately, there is still a very small gap between nuclear power and nuclear weapons, and that fact coupled with a fear of nuclear weapon proliferation has certainly had a harsh impact on nuclear power proliferation.

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Re: Ethical basis for environmentalism

Postby morriswalters » Wed May 07, 2014 12:12 am UTC

The problem with nukes is not the technology, it's the people. TMI, the accident in Russia, and the one in Japan were all failures were all due to human factors or exacerbated by them, either in operation or in the decision making process when money is being spent.
Heisenberg wrote:I think that's going by the wayside as the hippies die off. Lots of folks are now taking realistic action towards reducing impact, knowing that eliminating impact would be impossible. I know plenty of folks who use public transportation, efficient vehicles, make good food choices, and recycle all in the name of reducing impact. Now, the loudest voices will always be the crazy people, but I think the younger generations are more likely to make reasonable choices which limit impact. Which coincides with my counter to leady's contention that in the face of uncertainty, I should do nothing. In the face of uncertainty, I should try to reduce my impact.
Your heart is pure, but I suggest that people care only as long as it doesn't cost anything. However misguided leady might be he belongs to a group of people who don't want to see there own ox gored, and who will always complain that you might be wrong and we should wait. Not new behavior. .

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Re: Ethical basis for environmentalism

Postby BattleMoose » Wed May 07, 2014 3:21 am UTC

morriswalters wrote:The problem with nukes is not the technology, it's the people. TMI, the accident in Russia, and the one in Japan were all failures were all due to human factors or exacerbated by them, either in operation or in the decision making process when money is being spent.


This could be said of any aspect of human engineering. Accidents happen, we learn form them and make the technology safer. Where would we be if we stopped building bridges after the first bridge fell down? Or first dam failed? Or first aeroplane crashed?


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