Friday, December 26, 2008

On the Plight of Polar Bears

For a moment, I'd like to take as a premise that some Taylor-esque "attitude of respect for nature" on steroids is actually the correct approach to environmental ethics, and that we therefore have an enforceable obligation to treat all teleological centers of life (including non-conscious organisms) with respect for their intrinsic value as living things, not to be interfered with or harmed without amply justificatory reasons for doing so. I don't actually believe this to be true, but I do think that if we want to discuss environmental ethics in a way that doesn't get a whole class of people up in arms right from the start, my interpretation of Taylor's system is a great departure point for two reasons. First, it deals with moral significance in a way that's immediately accessible to me -- that is, it insists that we take certain things into account, but allows that certain reasons would justify our sacrificing those things without implying that we were failing to properly take them into consideration. And second, it would satisfy a wide range of different classes of people with concern for the environment (though I will leave out the notion that ecosystems and other spontaneous orders are the proper objects of moral concern, as I see them as being morally equivalent to human economies). So for the sake of this discussion, we'll simply grant that this system is correct and move on.

In this post, I want to begin to explore an issue that I feel to be central to the issue of climate change. Much of the concern surrounding climate change is focused on the probability that a rapidly changing climate system would create conditions in which ecosystems, as they exist today, might be thrown irreparably out of balance. This is quite reasonably expected to result in a large number of species' having a harder time with life than they would if climate change had never occurred.

One clear example of this theme in public discourse today is the concern being expressed about the future of polar bears. I feel that this is noteworthy because a) No one is actually going out and killing any polar bears, and b) Each of the polar bears that are dying are living lives which not particularly unusual in the scheme of polar bear existence, though no doubt they are on the worse end of the range of typical polar bear lives. This seems especially true in light of the solitary nature of a normal polar bear's lifestyle; it's not as if close-knit polar bear communities are being torn apart or anything like that. Polar bears are living their daily lives in the way that they would under any other conditions, except they are increasingly finding themselves in environments that are not particularly well equipped to support polar bears. To be clear, this happens all the time to animals -- most notably those living on the dynamic edge of their species' natural range. It's just that in this environment, there are more polar bears living this sort of life, and in many places, no new polar bears are successfully making it into the species' active population.

So the question I want to pose here is, ought we to be concerned about this sort of thing from a moral standpoint? There are two reasons that we could answer in the affirmative, given the moral framework we've adopted. First, because these sorts of problems will make people worse off, and we care about people. As John Broome writes:
As the ice retreated at the end of the latest ice age, forests migrated northwards at perhaps 1 km per year. This appears to be about the maximum they are capable of in uncultivated country, and they will certainly not be able to manage the much faster movements required by the present global warming. Furthermore, many ecosystems have become isolated by human activities, so they will only be able to migrate much more slowly, if at all. The natural world is therefore likely to be very much impoverished. And this will impoverish humanity. One might hope that the progress of technology has made agriculture more independent of the natural world: agriculture can migrate faster than nature ecosystems, and new crops can be matched to new conditions. But it seems overoptimistic to believe that agriculture can be restructured on this scale throughout the world without major costs. And in any case, we all need the natural world around us to make our lives rich and worthwhile. Life will not be so good in a more barren world.

Though extremely important, I want to set that kind of concern aside for now in order to focus on the second reason that we might object to the impacts of global climate change: that we would be disrespecting non-human nature by allowing things like the polar bears' plight to transpire.

Now, remember that no one is doing anything to the polar bears. What is happening is that the bears are being put in a context where they will likely and predictably fail to flourish on account of the actions of people. And although the plight of the polar bears can surely be foreseen by the people causing it, it's important to acknowledge that no one is acting maliciously; the contributors to climate change are simply living their normal lives. If these people respected the polar bears, some might argue, they should not only avoid actively harming the polar bears, but also modify their lifestyles to avoid the destruction of the bears' environment.

But is this right? Does it disrespect the polar bears to bring about the destruction of their environment by pursuing our own ends? It seems to me that a decent place to start would be to think about a similar example in human affairs, to determine what we would say if the polar bears were people, and then ask whether the example really captures the situation in which the bears find themselves. In another post, I asked whether individuals like farmers and fishermen could have rights to environmental conditions. I wrote:
Many individuals, notably farmers and fishermen, may be adversely affected by the effects of shifts in their regional climates for the organisms on which they rely. So far as these individuals have a right not to be interfered with in pursuing their livelihoods and wellbeing with the aid of resources which are naturally available to them, it would seem to constitute an infringement of their rights to push their climate systems out of their previous states, bringing about environmental conditions which are injurious to their interests and livelihoods.

It may be objected that the preceding discussion assumes that individuals have a right to certain environmental conditions, where no such right exists. I believe, however, that such an argument would fail to take into account our earlier discussion of rights. Conceivably, an objector would point to the inherent instability and variability in the climate system, and argue that clearly we are not entitled to complain about such changes. But as we noted before, to have the right to something means only that we are entitled to certain things from other moral agents.

For example, no rights violation would occur if a naturally occurring shift in your regional climate were to produce temperatures too high for you to continue to grow wheat on your land. But if your neighbor installed an enormous heater on the edge of his property and blew warm air onto your property, killing your wheat crop, we might find good reason to object. And it seems that the reason that we would object would be that you have the right to certain environmental conditions, of which you were being deprived by your neighbor’s actions. I think that this objection does reflect something which we have an entitlement against being deprived of in the absence of morally significant reasons, and so far as climate change does inspire this objection, it constitutes an infringement of rights of this kind.

So if we think that the polar bears are in the same kind of situation as farmers and fishermen whose environmental conditions are being destroyed, I think we might have some reason to think that we would be disrespecting the bears to continue to destroy their habitats. But are polar bears really like farmers and fishermen? At first glance, the comparison seems sound: both groups rely on the natural environment to provide them with the things they need to survive, and both are being put in a situation where their environmental "life support systems" are being compromised because of others' actions.

One issue arises here which is pretty much endemic to any problem dealing with justice and animals: Do polar bears really have the same kind of relationship with their life support systems as humans do? Do polar bears really think of their environment as producing their livelihood? And when conditions deteriorate, do they notice that this has happened? The relevance is this: Do we mistreat polar bears when they are never aware that anything has gone awry? I think the answer may well be yes. If I push a rock down a mountain onto your house, I am not absolved of guilt if you think that the rock fell naturally.

So, then, are we committed to the position that if we accept the truth of Taylor's attitude of respect for nature, it would be wrong to cause global climate change because of what would happen to polar bears? I'm not sure. Taylor is quick to point out that there are other considerations that come into play when taking non-human animals into account which can justify sacrificing them or their interests to ours. Taylor's own account is sort of sketchy, but the point is more or less that if the reason you're doing what you're doing is sufficiently significant, then it can be permissible to sacrifice an animal's interests to your own. But would the actions which contribute to climate change satisfy this criterion? Would they justify infringing on the farmers' and fishermen's rights? I'm not entirely sure. But what I think I have done is to establish that if we adopt the attitude of respect for nature, there's at least some reason to believe that contributing to climate change is disrespectful to the polar bears, and that's sort of what I was hoping to find out.

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