February 24, 2012

What Does the Earth Want?

This seems to be the fundamental question of environmentalism and it's often ignored, assumed, or not even asked. I feel like Camus, who first really put the emphasis on whether life was worth living, and put forth a fundamental question that should have been answered or at least defined before people went to work on solving problems. The cart is years ahead of the horse, and people trying to upgrade the cart to see if they can make it work better.

Now it may be argued, correctly even, that any answer given to this question will be anthropomorphizing the earth, but that doesn't diminish the value in asking the question in the first place. How the question is answered is still important because it defines your starting place and the bias's that were applied when asking the question.

Bias isn't a bad thing, its a natural omnipresent condition that affects any judgement and it is best to be aware to keep it in check. Physicists are biased with preconceptions that make it easier to believe that light is the cosmic speed limit, but that doesn't make the fact any less true. 

I've came up with 4 answers to the question of what the Earth wants and will describe them and what they show.

1. The Diversity Argument - Perhaps the best thing for the earth is to be as diverse biologically as possible.  A world built this way would provide for the greatest range of niches being filled and quite possibly the greatest range of the 'enjoyment' of the earth. This is to say that a mole enjoys the earth in a different way than a bat does, but doesn't say anything more than that. 

If that is the goal then all species should be attempted to be saved and the importance of the preservation  of different animals would go up exponentially as the number of the members of a species went down. This again wouldn't have to be limited to animal life and seems readily applicable to plant life as well.

Yet, if the greatest diversity is the core goal than people should also be trying to create new species through genetic modification and separating breeding populations to obtain quick changes in animals so that new species are created. Sure, some of these new species might expand their bounds and compete with the existing species, but than people can manage populations in an attempt to keep the greatest amount of different species alive.

This idea may sound far fetched, but at the heart of the idea that genetic diversity is important and that animals should be saved, even as their habitat disappears or in some cases becomes non-existent.

2. The Most Life - Sheer number of animals and plants could be the most important factor, as it wouldn't matter what species exist, so long as the Earth is supporting the greatest amount of life it could. A maximal mother earth wouldn't be a monoculture that is often criticized,as many more plants are able to live in a untouched forest than one where a single species has been planted, but it wouldn't be against the idea of a monoculture in principle either. 

One life would be just as important as another and there would be no favorites. This would probably mean a vastly more integrated human life where nature would be intertwined with life, and where pests, would be as valuable in principle as pets and it would also be highly unrealistic and unpopular.

3. The Human First - Egoism as expressed by the bible and more recently by Rick Santorum. As the bible said the world was created for man and he got to name all the animals. Than in Genesis 1:26 "Then God said, 'Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.'”   

This is the most popular view of nature, that humans matter and everything else matters as compared to what human value it has, but it's probably popular because of human exceptionalism and ignorance. 

Animals can be seen as stupid or unfeeling and thus can be morally written off to have no consideration, or people can just not think of the problem and act in their own self interest. Either way results in an exclusively human perspective.

4. Earth as an ecosystem - The common solution for environmentalists is that the earth wants to be an ecosystem. The earth only provides life by the inter-dependance of the earth, water, weather system, plants and animals working together to form a cohesive self replenishing system. 

Everything has value because everything functions in an integrated way.

Whats the answer to what the Earth wants? Just to restate is depends totally on what your view is and the question is only a canvas for what you believe. That's about the only thing conservatives get right about the environment, the earth may not have been put here under our dominion, but it surely doesn't care if we use up all the oil, kill all the polar bears (apology's the the bear pictured above), or turn it into a planet like Mercury.

Yet, animals, plants and people all must live here in some sort of balance and what that balance is important. The key is not to think that what exists now is perfect,  that what naturally happens is the best balance or that there is any one solution to the question.

Sam Harris points out that there can be many peaks and valleys in the ethical treatment of people, and this holds for the environment as well. That's why I enjoyed the Skeptical Environmentalist so much, because Bjorn thinks things are good now, but is willing to ask the question, will things be better in the future if we say the course we are on? Whether you agree with him about whether he got the right information or draws the right conclusions isn't as important as starting the conversation and being willing to ask the question. He is a man looking for many peaks.

The point is that there are many environments that work, and the answer isn't the steady state that we need to keep everything as it was found when people first entered the area, or that we need to terraform everything to make this world any particular way.

All the points of view have some value, and although I think it isn't usually the case that everyone see's a different piece of the truth, this time all the views have something important to say.

1. The value of diversity of life and captures the understanding and wonder when we find something new and the shame and feeling of loss when something goes extinct.

2. The amount of life is also important as it lets species overcome tragedies that may happen to any number of the individuals, but this seems like a lesser core value than the other three.

3. The egoist view has ever present importance of humans in ethical considerations. Any environmental philosophy that doesn't take that into account is going to be impossible to follow, as even the people who want to preserve nature for it's own benefit don't want to preserve nature as it was during any of the numerous ice ages the earth has had. Anything calling for mass human death, or your mother to have the value of a tree just is unsupportable.

4. Shows how the earth works as a system and how nothing exists on its own.Yet, this view does have a bias to what exists now against what could exist in the future, which is the topic of another post.

What does the Earth Want? A ecosystem that functions well, values life's diversity/volume, and still keeps a prominent place for human beings. I know that's not really an answer, but what it is a rubric for what the answer should look like.

Thanks for reading,
- the moral skeptic 


  1. What does the earth want? Um.. this is a planet, please try to not anthropomorphise. This planet thinks not.

    Better to ask what do WE want.

  2. Hah, I'm going to go ahead and wager that you didn't read the post, as that's addressed about 5 times.

  3. What does the earth want?. The mother earth wants to stop the people from destroying her. Our planet is in jeopardy. With constant pollution from factories,cars and etc. I think there's only little time before the earth will be unlivable.bohol packages

  4. Awesome work.Just wanted to drop a comment and say I am new to your blog and really like what I am reading.Thanks for the share