(This is an essay I wrote for my environmental ethics class in Fall of 2016. I hope you enjoy!)
Over the summer, I was a camp counselor at Lutheridge, an Evangelical Lutheran Church camp located right outside of Asheville, North Carolina. The camp is located on a forested “mountain” (it’s more of a glorified hill), and campers and counselors sleep in small cabins located throughout different areas of the property. The area is just nature-y enough to make you feel like you can connect with the environment without distractions, but not too nature-y that campers complain. (Unless you have middle school girls who have to shower every day no matter what, but that’s a different story.) During my first week of camp, I had a group of third grade girls who were so excited to be away from home and couldn’t wait to experience everything Lutheridge had to offer. One of these girls was Emily, a short, beach-blonde, energetic child (arguably my favorite camper of the summer) who loved animals. Emily loved all animals — cute ones, ugly ones, big and small animals, and, namely, insects. She had the courage to pick up any crawling thing that made its way into our little cabin and subsequently place it back outside where it belonged. One day, however, we had an incident. Addie, another camper who was not a big fan of nature, squished a spider in the cabin. “Kill it!” she screamed from her top bunk. “No!!! Don’t kill it, it’s just a spider! It’s not going to hurt you!” Emily shouted back. Taking her Bible from behind her pillow, Addie dropped the heavy book on the spider.
Emily burst into tears.
Taking Emily outside, we sat on the gravel and talked about what happened and why she was so upset. Emily explained that after reading Charlotte’s Web, she couldn’t understand why anyone would want to kill any animal or insect ever. She said that they deserved to be treated the same as humans, and that humans should protect them at all costs.
Emily, my eight-year old camper, is an animal liberationist.
Careful not to step on Emily’s toes, I told her how her passion for animals made me so happy. However, I explained to her that lots of animals eat spiders, and even though that causes harm for the spider, it benefits the other animals. I then went through a brief explanation of natural selection and the food web and pointed out that she seemed to really enjoy her ham sandwich that she ate earlier that day. I told her that even though we might want to save every individual spider from every source of harm, it’s just not practical; however, we can make choices that benefit the ecosystem as a whole.
That is how to explain environmental holism to an eight-year-old girl. But that’s not what this essay is about.
As much as I’d love to fill the rest of this paper with stories from camp, that would quickly turn into a book. The point of this anecdote is to show that while initially we may think that an individualistic approach to environmental ethics is the best choice, we quickly see that it has its flaws. In this essay, I will argue that a holistic approach, rather than an individualistic one, to environmental ethics is the most logical way to prevent ecological destruction and improve the standard of living for all human and non-human life.
Holism is the idea that systems (in this case, ecological) and their properties should be viewed as wholes rather than a collection of parts. Simply, environmental holism focuses on the ecosystem rather than the individuals of that ecosystem. This can mean the entire biosphere; however, it can also refer to an entire species or a particular ecosystem within the biosphere. Holism argues that the system is morally considerable, and that the system itself has moral priority over the parts of the system. According to holism, the parts are relatively insignificant; the survival of an individual deer does not hold as much value as the survival of the deer species. In his book A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold describes the land ethic as an ethic that “enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land” (Leopold). He also states that humans are plain members of the ecological community and that we should take a biocentric approach towards the biosphere rather than an anthropocentric one. Being plain citizens of the land-community “implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such” (Leopold).
Individualism, unsurprisingly, argues against the idea of holism. This is a type of ethic or worldview where only individuals are valued and the whole system is considered to be no more than the “aggregate of the parts.” In this case, the spider itself holds more value than the spider species. There are many types of individualist theories, such as the animal liberationist theory and biocentric individualism; however, they both hold the idea that the individual being, whether it is a non-human animal or a shrub, have moral priority over the species or ecosystem they are a part of.
To understand the differences between holism and individualism and why holism is a more practical method for ecological preservation, we’ll look at the economic, speciesist, and natural implications of each of these theories.
In his essay “Animal Liberation and Environmental Ethics,” Mark Sagoff argues that “the liberationist must morally require society to relieve animal suffering where it can and at a lesser cost to itself, whether in the chicken coop or in the wild” (Sagoff). My camper, Emily, if she knew what all those words meant, would most likely agree with this concept. However, if we as a society were to adopt this ethic, we would be required to go out of our way to prevent all animal life from death, especially in nature where they are subject to “predation, starvation, disease, parasitism, [and the] cold” (Sagoff). The economic cost of this proposal would be astronomical. Peter Singer, an animal liberationist, suggests that animals might be fed contraceptive chemicals so that “fewer will fall short to an early and horrible death” (Sagoff). Considering that contraceptive care for women isn’t covered by most health insurance companies, finding money to provide birth control for non-human animals might prove to be somewhat difficult. Because holistic environmental ethics isn’t concerned with individuals, they are not concerned with relieving individual animal suffering. Instead, they are concerned with the preservation of species. Nature, if left to its own devices, will preserve itself. Species A will never overexploit species B because A’s survival depends on B. Therefore a holistic environmentalist will not look to interfere itself in natural selection because of the suffering of another animal; humans are plain members of the society and must respect the rest of nature.
There are other economic consequences to the individualist perspective; Tom Regan, for example, is against all slaughter of animals for human consumption because by doing so we use animals as a means to our own end. Policy following Regan’s ideals would result in shutting down not only all of the corporate-owned farms but family-owned and local farms as well. This would cause an economic catastrophe that would be felt by every individual throughout the United States. Also, where would these liberated animals go? Assuming they would be released into the wild, they would be subject to the violent causes of death described earlier and could potentially cause a disturbance in pre-existing ecosystems. Instead of shutting down all slaughter of non-human animals, a holistic environmentalist might suggest breaking up large corporate farms into smaller entities, enforcing sustainable and environmentally-friendly farming practices, and increasing education for farmers and the general public about these farming techniques and their importance. This would provide economical benefits (sharing wealth and increasing jobs), ecological benefits (less stress on animals, surrounding ecosystems, and the land), and social benefits (more people see farming as an accessible and profitable career).
Finally, in his essay “The Conceptual Foundations of the Land Ethic,” J. Baird Callicott argues that the individualistic basis for moral standing isn’t ethical. The egotist assumption that many individualists base their theories off of is the idea that “I should treat others well because I want others to treat me well.” We find some feature in ourselves that we believe deserves moral standing and then test this feature on other members of ecological society to see if they deserve moral standing. Callicott believes this is a flawed basis of ethics. He is trying to remove the so-called “measuring stick of moral standing” away from humans and claim that ethics rests upon sentiments, emotional reactions towards an action by someone or something else. Callicott claims that all plain members of the land-community have sentiments and therefore have a basis for ethics. He also argues that while humans are still plain members of the community, we have removed ourselves from nature but still have moral obligations to it due to our existing sentiments. This interpretation of Leopold’s land ethic allows us to benefit the entire ecological community while still acting as plain members of its society.
If I had attempted to explain environmental holism like this to Emily, it would have gone right over her little head. Admittedly, it can be easier to explain an individualistic ethic to a child because children tend to think mainly of themselves, the individual. They aren’t used to thinking of others and how their actions will affect the group; rather, they want to do what they want to do, and that doesn’t always line up with what everyone wants to do. But when we teach children that we shouldn’t harm animals because “we wouldn’t want to be treated the same way,” they don’t see themselves as part of the biosphere, and it can cause them to think some actions towards the ecosystem are okay because they would be okay if it happened to them. If environmental conservation and preservation starts with education, then we must start educating children the right way. We need to teach children that they are plain members of the ecological community and that we have a moral obligation to treat it with respect. They need to understand that environmentalism isn’t just about saving individual spiders from the wrath of screaming third-graders (or college students, for that matter) but rather making significant changes in our community that benefit the entire biosphere.