Wednesday, March 11, 2009

You're the Historian: Justice, in assessing environmental change

As I mentioned in my last post, one of the major questions that continues to confront environmental historians is how to assess environmental change if we acknowledge the deep roots of human manipulation of the landscape, if we give up the idea of Clementsian ecology (that there is some stable state that natural systems revert to in the absence of human interference), if the science of ecology can't offer us a clear way of describing a "healthy land." Upon taking a second look at Andrew Hurley's Environmental Inequalities: Class, Race, and Industrial Pollution in Gary, Indiana, 1945-1980 today, I realized that he offers a simple, but powerful new answer to this question, through the lens of environmental justice. Hurley writes in his preface:

"Thinking about environmental history in terms of social divisions also invites us to reconsider the way we assess environmental change. Environmental historians are well aware of the pitfalls encountered in evaluating ecological change. Recently, ecologists have thrown the concept of equilibrium into question, thereby making it difficult for historians to measure environmental change against any objective standard. The concept of social equity provides historians with an alternative. Thus, we can attempt to determine who benefited and who suffered when a particular society altered its relationship with the surrounding natural and built environment" (Hurley, xiv)

So, rather than worrying about, for example, whether we can call mountaintop removal coal mining "bad" because of the effects it has on native hardwood forests and on riparian ecosystems, we can just call it "bad" because it damages nearby homes beyond repair and decreases the value of surviving homes, because it undermines the local employment base by replacing labor with ruthlessly efficient explosives and machinery, and because it erodes the Appalachian culture. That is, rather than trying to convince others of the value of the natural environment--something which varies depending on individual viewpoints--historians can appeal to the value of human life, something which is more universally agreed upon (although not necessarily for any coherent philosophical reason).

I know that a lot of environmentalists don't like this sort of argument because they do, in fact, want to argue that the natural world has its own moral worth. But in absence of any clear explanation of where this worth comes from (a philosophical discussion not many historians want to get into), it seems that an appeal to human value is a pretty safe bet.


  1. Wow. It's interesting how big of a role philosophical views seem to play in all of these issues!

    I enjoyed this discussion of different possible foundations for making moral judgments about environmental policies. I wonder, though, if the best "lens" isn't a middle way between the two extremes you sketched.

    One doesn't have to be a sentimental environmentalist to accept the following simple evaluative principle: suffering is bad. If we look at things from the perspective of suffering, it seems we can draw the line of moral consideration in a very different place from either the broad ecocentric view or the narrow anthropocentric view you discuss. Trees can't really suffer (or so I claim), so perhaps we can set aside the question of their "intrinsic worth." But certainly there are lots of sentient beings whose lives can go better or worse and are deeply impacted by our environmental decisions. So maybe we should include not only damage to human homes in our list of harms, but also damage to the homes of birds, squirrels, deer, etc.? One might hope that this approach avoids any deep philosophical problems about where worth "comes from." After all, we all know from experience that suffering has disvalue, and enjoyment has value. Why think these things only matter when they are possessed by humans?

  2. I'm surrounded with philosophical books and brains--I guess osmosis is doing its thing!