For a short while humans ruled the earth that they walked. Placing flags in the soil, and fences around land they claimed was theirs. They reaped and sowed this land for all it was worth, raising the soil, logging the trees, harvesting the plants and rearing the animals. And here they stayed until their last breath. For while they were granted dominion over the fowl and the livestock, they did not notice the trees ablaze.
For over a month we have seen unprecedented fires ravage the Amazon rainforest. Gaining international attention, political leaders are condemning the Brazilian president Jean Bolsonaro for the events that led to this catastrophic event. Media outlets have reported on the consequences of illegal logging for animal agriculture and the threat it poses to climate change. People are outraged with what little power they have to change the fate of the world’s largest rainforest. And yet, we as a population will no doubt condemn other parts of nature to the same fate. If not the Amazon Rainforest, perhaps the Miombo woodlands of central Africa. If not forests, perhaps coral reefs are next at risk. For while we can blame the destruction of the Amazon on the politically corrupt and the greed of agrobusiness, perhaps the problem lies in how we currently view nature.
Much of the way we currently view nature has been dominated by humanities self-importance. We have always figuratively – if not literally – been at the centre of the universe. We have placed humans at the forefront of our moral considerations, drawing a line between humans and the rest of life on earth. Whether it be religious in nature or informed by humanistic ideas, this view has always been justified by our ability to reason.
We see Descarte put forth a mechanised view of life in which animals – and anything below them – are nothing more than mechanised beings. What humans have as an incorporeal soul that was granted to us by God, animals and the rest of nature simply lack. It was this soul that allowed us to speak, think and more importantly have moral standing. Separate from man, the behaviours of animals and the natural world were nothing more than mechanised actions abiding by the deterministic laws of physics.
Such a view – whether conscious of it or not – can lead many to view the natural processes of the world as opportunities for ownership, exploitation and accumulation. Since we do not grant them moral consideration, we can understandably use them for our own ends. We go so far as to call these natural processes resources, so as to legitimise our claim over them. This view of resourcism and our ownership of the natural world, is best understood in the works of John Locke.
It was the view of Locke that God had granted us the earth on which we walk, and so too the fruits of that earth were for the common use of all people. However, in his essay Of Property Locke goes on to justify how we claim these fruits of the land to be our own private property. Locke suggested that if nothing else, we had a right to our own body; something that no other person can have a claim to. So too, we had a right to the labour that that body creates. When we cut down a tree or collect berries from a bush, we are the only person who can own the labour involved in doing these things. It follows that if we own our body and its labour, we too own the fruits that labour creates. Those same berries and logs that we collect, become our own through the labour we put into collecting them. So, while the earth and its fruits were granted to us by God for our common use, the labour by which we obtain those fruits rightfully make it our private property. [i]
It does not take much to see how this view that influenced our current conception of private property within the western world could easily be perverted to abuse the natural world. In dividing humankind and nature in two distinct categories – one worthy of moral standing and the other not – we start to understand how the continuous exploitation of nature that has occurred since the industrial revolution has continued, despite the ethical repercussions. And so, when we look to the Amazon and the consistent logging, burning and harvesting of the forest for profiteers, it is not enough to simply claim that it is a result of greed. Perhaps, it is a misunderstanding of the morality of nature itself.
While an anthropocentric view is an intuitive one, we have no reason to believe that nature should be void of moral consideration. As we see with our current treatment of the Amazon Rainforest and ecosystems all over the world, much of our concern stems from a human need for these systems. The ongoing destruction of the natural world is met with concerns over climate change and the threat it poses to society. Or how the Amazon is necessary for continued human life on earth. We frame the destruction not in terms of the moral standing the forests themselves have, but by how they benefit us as humans. No doubt this is of great concern, but such a view still allows the possible exploitation of nature when such threats are less obvious. Prior to our knowledge on climate change the perverse use of the Earth’s resources for industrial gain was permissible, simply because the consequences towards humans were unknown. By emphasising the need to consider the moral standing of forests independent of humans, we can avoid such exploitation moving forward.
In fact, many that hold an ecocentric view – in which nature has moral standing independent of humans – emphasise the unity between man and nature. Much like Henry David Thoreau who regarded humans “as an inhabitant, or part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society”, we have seen a divide between the western world and the natural one. Thoreau recognised a psychological need for Wildness, as a return to the natural world from which we came; something that is lost in modern culture.
Similar to Thoreau, Aldo Leopold put forth ideas of a Land Ethic, in which moral consideration is given to entire ecosystems. Where humans, animals, plants and the soil in which we all stem from are given intrinsic value in what is termed a biocommunity. Humans may very well be a part of social communities, but we are just as much a part of biocommunities too. The soil we walk on, the trees that surround us, the plants we use for food and the animals we decidedly cull are all among these communities. No matter how many concrete blocks we build, or the distance we put between us and nature, we are nonetheless intrinsically tied to it. Eclipsing the ideas of resourcism and mere economic worth, a land ethic goes beyond the human oriented views of the past and recognises the everlasting relationship between humans and nature. Much like we are starting to recognise the moral status of animals in the 21st century, so too we should recognise the moral standing of trees and the natural world. In a response to Leopold’s Land Ethic, J. Baird Callicott says,
“future generations will censure today’s casual and universal environmental bondage as today we censure the casual and universal human bondage of three thousand years ago”[ii]
However, these views are yet to be widely adopted. Our immediate concern for the Amazon is nothing more than a reactionary response to the consequences of it’s destruction. As we move toward a more uncertain future in the face of climate change and see the continued destruction of the Amazon, perhaps we should start to adopt the views put forth by Thoreau and Leopold.
Beyond simply recognising the importance of nature for the continued existence of humankind, what we may consider doing is understanding the importance of all life on this earth. We may decidedly bring nature and some wildness back into our lives and recognise the consequences of our presumptuous behaviour. Perhaps what is needed is an ecological education in which we are taught of the interconnectedness of the ecosystems we inhabit, despite the asphalt ground we create. To look out into the world and understand the branches from which humans and all life stems from; from the cattle we rear and the fowl we behead, to the trees we burn and soil we spoil. Perhaps if we can do this, we will be concerned not only with the future of humanity but also of nature itself. So much so that when we see the Amazon on fire, we weep for the trees.
[i] Locke, John. 2010. “Of Property.” In Environmental Ethics, by David Keller, p.78. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.
[ii] J. Baird Callicott. 2010. “The Conceptual Foundations of the Land Ethic.” In Environmental Ethics, by David Keller, p.201. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell