Virtues of an Environmentalist

An Asphalt Garden

Think for a moment, living next to a house with an incredibly vibrant garden. Filled with blooming flowers and budding trees, the area attracts an abundance of natural wildlife. Bees would come to pollinate the flowers, and bring honey to their hives, birds and creatures would come to feed off the fruits and to nest in the trees. However, such a space also needs maintenance; the grass tamed, the trees trimmed, and the flowers cared for. One day your neighbour tells you that the trees have blocked out the sun, and the maintenance is tiresome. He says he plans to cover it up with asphalt so as to save him time and open his house to more sunlight. A week passes and workmen come to uproot the trees, hack the bushes and pave over the garden. And so, the animals flee, the birds fly off and the bees die out, leaving a hollowed house in their place. What was once a thriving menagerie has stagnated to a plain asphalt ground.

What would we say to such a person, were we faced with this scenario? Thomas Hill recounts this very event in his essay Ideals of Human Excellence and Preserving Natural Environments, going on to say,


“the moral uneasiness which [this] arouses is explained more by our view of the agent than by any conviction that what he did was immoral”
[i]

If such a pristine environment were to be destroyed and disregarded, we might be less inclined to ask for the motivation of our neighbour. Instead, Hill suggests we should be asking what kind of person would do such a thing? After all, it’s the character of a person that so often leads to such disregard of the environment; someone that identifies the destruction of the natural world as a cost/benefit analysis and less for the intrinsic value it has. If we can identify the vices of such poor behaviour, perhaps then we can start to imagine the virtues we want to encourage in people to achieve a sustainable future.

Why Virtues?

It’s in striving for a more sustainable future that virtues should be encouraged. After all, virtues not only arise out of habituation but are consistent behaviours in our character. They are a reliable way of acting, regardless of the circumstances. Let us take the virtue of honesty, for example. When we think of a truly honest person, we imagine them to be consistent, almost unwavering in their honesty. If we need to ask them something or come to them with a concern, we do so with the knowledge that we will receive a truthful response regardless of what we ask. We do so because we see this person as having honesty as a consistent and intrinsic part of their character. So, when we identify environmental virtues, we are looking at those virtues that encourage and maintain the preservation of our natural world.

Issues such as environmental degradation, climate change and rising sea levels are all concerns that rely on the consistent and reliable behaviour from citizens all over the world. When people decide that they want to try to mitigate these issues through their own personal actions, there comes an understanding that the efforts needed are not a ‘one off’. They require consistent action, and fundamental changes in our habits, mentality and values. No environmentalist would ride a bike once, instead of driving a car and think he’s made a difference. It involves the consistent effort to ride the bike day in and out, knowing that the accumulated benefits make some fraction of a difference.

Some may claim that one person riding a bike does little to offset the tonnes of carbon spewed into the air every day. However, it is here that the benefits of environmental virtue come to light. An environmentally conscious person doesn’t ride the bike because they think it will fundamentally change the world, they do it because it is the right thing to do. More than simply doing what they can to offset their own carbon emission, an environmentally virtuous person takes pleasure in doing the right thing. As Aristotle, one of the first philosophers to put forth the idea of virtue ethics has claimed: “no one would call a person just if he did not enjoy doing just actions”[ii]. Likewise, would we call someone an environmentalist, if they did not truly enjoy and believe in acting sustainably?

Its these unique traits of virtue that make them fundamental to the shift toward a sustainable future. Beyond policies and law, the encouragement of environmental virtue in people allows for a more fundamental shift in the way we view a sustainable future. It’s not about making a change because we have no other option, it’s about making a change for change’s sake. It’s about acting sustainably because it is the moral thing to do. Unlike certain policies or law, encouraging virtue in citizens allows for a lasting difference in both the actions and beliefs of the people who embody them. So much so that when faced with even greater environmental concerns, they will more readily adopt the habits needed to combat these issues, as both a citizen and an environmentalist. If we come to this conclusion, and understand the environmental virtues as a fundamental part of a sustainable future, then the natural progression of questioning is: what are virtues of an environmentalist?

Identifying the Virtues

The conversation of virtue is an ongoing one. Beyond environmentalism, what we define as a ‘virtue’ is an ongoing discussion. Whether we subscribe to more traditional ideas of virtue rooted in the Aristotelian ethics or identify more with the findings of ethical psychology, the conversation of virtues an intricate one. Such a discussion deserves its own space to be properly understood, beyond this article. Nonetheless, there are some definitive environmental virtues that we can identify today, to act as a beginning framework for the type of behaviour we should all strive for.

Sense of Wonder

With environmentalism, and an appreciation and respect for nature come many different character traits. Perhaps one of the most crucial being wonder. Rachel Carson emphasizes the need for wonder to cultivate an appreciation for the beauty of the natural world.


“It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood”[iii]


When we look back to the example of our neighbour’s yard, it would be hard to imagine someone holding a sense of wonder as a core virtue to then destroy the vibrant garden outside their door; especially one that housed such flora and fauna. It’s this sense of wonder for the natural world that isn’t conducive with a lust for destruction[iv], and as such is preeminent to the other virtues in the eyes of Carson.

Temperance

Complimenting this sense of wonder is an amount of temperance; a virtue that contrasts greatly with our current economic lives of material possession. When we look upon the overall impact of our consumption in the western world – whether it be through clothes, single-use plastics, or electronics – it is evident that it has caused massive environmental degradation to our ecosystems.  We see environmentally virtuous people enact a ‘voluntary simplicity’, one in which material goods are minimized, or abstained from altogether. Exercising this virtue of temperance was central to the world of Henry David Thoreau, an American philosopher who intentionally lived a quiet and simple life, near nature. He states,


“Most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind”[v]

Echoing the ideas of Carson, Thoreau held a sense of wonder toward nature. This temperance he exemplified allowed for a more spiritual connection to nature and the value that it held. While Thoreau was not faced with levels of environmental degradation, we see in the 21st century, the idea of conservation through temperance and limiting our material goods, is an essential part of living a more sustainable lifestyle. Much of the overconsumption of clothing, food and material goods is due to the consumeristic habits of the western world. These habits are ingrained in our economic system, the way we live and even our identities as symbols of status. Understanding this and overcoming these norms to live more sustainably and ethically is not an easy task though.

Humility & Integrity

It’s for this reason that the idea of humility is needed from an environmentally virtuous person. To willingly adhere to a simplified life, with few luxuries and material goods comes a humble attitude of one’s own importance. When the use of material goods is so often tied to status and wealth, the need for humility to actively forego such luxuries is a necessary component of environmental virtue; one that compliments a sustainable lifestyle. However, even this is not always enough. Between social norms, peer-pressure and excessive advertising, a large amount of discomfort can form even in the most virtuous of people. To hold to these ideals, and practice a sustainable and environmentally virtuous life, involves an intrinsic sense of integrity; an integrity to ones owns environmental beliefs, and to hold them at the forefront of our mind when influenced by external pressures. Such a virtue – as far as I see – is paramount to maintaining the habits and practices of an environmentally virtuous person. If virtue is seen as the consistent behaviours of one’s character, it is the integrity in our beliefs that allow for these ideals to persevere in times of hardship.

A sense of wonder, temperance, humility and integrity are just some environmental virtues. They are crucial components to living environmentally virtuously and respecting the natural world. This is in no way an exhaustive list, with the conversation of virtue progressing so too do the virtues themselves. Beyond the few mentioned here, environmental virtues encompass multiple ideals and compensate for an array of environmental considerations – too many to count here. The ideas of courage, perseverance, generosity and benevolence are all possible environmental virtues that allow for even greater environmental preservation to be made. More than that, they allow for greater sustainable habits to grow within individuals and communities; habits that are solidified not simply by their necessity, but by their moral rightness.

As we face greater ecological threats and adverse effects on our climate, the need for such virtues only increases. Whether it be to address issues of climate change, plastic pollution, species extinction or the continuation of humanity, environmental considerations and the virtues associated with that are paramount. To create a long-lasting and fundamental change in our behaviour and practices, we need to encourage such virtues. Not only in ourselves, but all of those around us. In striving for a sustainable future, we must encourage a virtuous one.

[i] Thomas Hill, Ideals of Human Excellence and Preserving Natural Environments, p.9

[ii] Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, (619§12)

[iii] Rachel Carson, 1956, The Sense of Wonder, p.42-3

[iv] Rachel Carson, 1999, Design for Nature Writing, p.94

[v] Henry David Thoreau, 1854, Walden,