Golden Rule and Environmentalism

Golden Rule and Environmentalism

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Golden Rule and Environmentalism


Intelligence, humor, simplicity, common sense, lack of philosophical jargon, perspective, wit, answer to questions. In the style of a popular scientist, not a philosopher, Stephen Jay Gould announces his view of an appropriate environmental ethic following the simple, but forever elegant, golden rule. "If we all treated others as we wish to be treated ourselves, then decency and stability would have to prevail"(216), he states.

In the spirit of Karen Warren, Gould's perspective on environmentalism 'feels right' to me, as I can connect with acts of respect and benevolence towards humans and can easily extend that feeling to the rest of the earth (especially on a personal level where I see the golden rule as the basis for my religious beliefs). However, upon closer examination, I find the suggestion to 'just follow the golden rule' as an environmental ethic problematic when examined in a practical, non-idealized light. Harkening back to the problems encountered in previous discussions of biocentric and ecocentric ethics, I am troubled by the potential outcomes of an environmental ethic such as this.

In searching for a practical example with which to apply the golden rule ethic, let's examine Martin Kreiger's example of what to do in the case of Niagara Falls. Kreiger discusses three options for managing the Falls which were devised by the International Joint Commission Fallscape committee: 1) converting the falls into a monument, i.e. spending money and resources to keep the falls the way they are now; 2) making the falls an event, i.e. allowing the falls to continue to evolve, monitoring for rockfalls, and 'selling' their occurrence to the public to watch; 3) treating the falls as a show, i.e. giving a director complete power and discretion over the amount of water flowing at a given time, the size of the pool, and the amount of debris, along with lights and music, of course. Where would the golden rule ethic lead us in deciding the appropriate action for Niagara Falls?

The first question in trying to apply this ethic is, who determines how "we" would want to be treated so that it can be determined how Niagara Falls would want to be treated? Should 'the public', as Kreiger thinks, have the say in what happens to Niagara, and therefore, decide its fate? I don't think that the public is in an appropriate position to decide the fate of this, or many other, environmental entities.

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An analogy to our electoral system comes to mind when thinking about this issue. There are many people who voice the opinion that the theory of true democracy is great, but who are really glad we actually live in and operate under a republican system of government, because they don't want everyone to be able to have an equal say. The reason is that 'the public' is often misinformed and fickle. Similarly, I do not necessarily think that the public should be the entity responsible for deciding how Niagara is treated, but if not them, who? This poses a problem for me.

The next question in applying the golden rule environmental ethic, is: can one make a good decision based upon that rule? I argue that it is not actually possible to make a reasonable decision about how Niagara would want to be treated as it is beyond human experience. When thinking about treating someone else as you would want to be treated in terms of other people, at least one has some perspective and framework within which to evaluate. When dealing with nature, certainly with inanimate nature, one really doesn't have enough information to evaluate intelligently. When considering animate non-humans, such as animals or perhaps ecosystems, it may be more feasible to think about want in terms of need for survival as proposed by a previous author, however, I do not see a solution like this for this waterfall. Additionally, when applying the golden rule to humans, one is able to conceive of many of the potential effects of any given action on the future. We just do not have enough knowledge at this point to be able to predict the effects on a system of "treating something the way we would want to be treated".

Finally, in my view, the real test of the ethic is, if applied, would I agree with the outcome? It is conceivable, if one were to able to project one's personal "likes" onto Niagara, that one might say ' I would want to be beautiful and please lots of people without really hurting myself, so, sure, I would want to be manipulated for show'. One could also say, 'I would want to be left alone in as natural a state as possible, so don't even think about changing me for anyone's benefit'. I do not think it is the case that either of these reasonings can be easily discounted. It may sound fickle to say 'I would want to be pretty', but I think that is a legitimate claim, especially if thought of in terms of 'I would want to provide pleasure and enjoyment to lots of people'. Since it is not known if there would be any negative consequences spurring from this decision in the future, there is not a clear ecological answer to that opinion, either. As for wanting to be left alone, perhaps to continue evolving at its current pace, through what avenues would one dispute the legitimacy of such a desire, especially if the current existence in not in any way harming other beings?

Essentially, we are at a dead end. The golden rule is falling prey to personality and the inability to project effectively onto an inanimate object, however large and dynamic that object may be. Therefore, as wonderful as it sounds in a romantic sense, it does not seem that a golden rule environmental ethic will prove particularly useful.

However, with or without the golden rule ethic, all is not lost in the way of finding some simple practical measure for treating the earth appropriately. Christopher Stone has formulated an intelligent argument for something that frustrated me throughout my semester of Constitutional Law. In this attorney- and court- based culture in which we currently live, it probably does not help to add fuel to the fire, but granting environmental entities standing would allow for a more practical formulation of the idea of the golden rule - and allow for retribution when it was not followed.

In the present day and age, it seems that there are three major ways significant changes occur in our society. First, changes are made through alterations in public opinion and action (the latter being extremely difficult to facilitate). There seems to be a definite trend in people's increased concern for the environment and its importance on a relative scale with those who destroy it most regularly (typically perceived to be big business). However, until consumer pressure is such that people's money is where their mouths are, i.e. they choose to purchase more expensive, but ecologically sound products in daily life, and there are more options for direct control over what we are supporting (such as knowing what kind of silvicultural methods are being used to produce the lumber we are considering buying), the idea of public opinion making meaningful change is not going to be successful as businesses and industries do not change due to public opinion alone.

The second major avenue for change is through legislation, where public opinion is supposed to be able to effect the ways things happen. The problem is that the influence (read money) of industries who benefit from environmental degradation (at least in the short run) is so great that few environmentally sound laws or policies get passed. As such, until 'the public' can come up with a formidable cash flow, or there are major reforms in Congress, this does not seem to be the most effective means for change either.

The third avenue that is often used to elicit changes in behavior and practices is the legal system. Devised to reduce inequities, it has also been used throughout history to get at reform of various sorts when legislature is not working for particular groups of people, as money is much less of an issue and the judicial system can be (relatively) faster and very effective in eliciting change. As such, environmentalism could profit tremendously if trees were granted standing and environmental decisions could be based upon benefits and detriments to ecosystems, in addition to the people who are directly effected by their degradation. This approach would demand the 'how it (a natural entity) would like (need) to be treated' to be determined by people who know something about the system being debated, as scientists would doubtlessly be called on in court, and applications of the golden rule would be determined with much broader sweeps in trend-setting decisions.

An issue such as that surrounding Niagara Falls would not be covered by giving environmental entities standing, however, because it only applies to situations where an injustice is being/has been done - after the decision to act has been made. To grant standing would only help "after the fact", unless the probability for being forced to compensate for inappropriate practices were raised in frequency to the extent that it served as a deterring mechanism. Following, increasing standing does not qualify as an environmental ethic, but a practical approach to problems identified by environmental ethics. Without discounting the importance of devising an appropriate environmental ethic for oneself, as Gould and many, many others (including ourselves) are attempting to do, I think that it is extremely important to determine and execute practical ways of addressing concerns which are agreed upon by members of many different ethics . . . and this is an excellent one.
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