Since the 1990s, the focus has been on ecosystem management. This approach appeals to both scientists, who see the need for an objective understanding of ecosystems and applied technologies, and humanists, who find humans to be cultural animals that reconstruct their environment and desire benefits for people. The combined ecosystem/management policy promises to operate at a system scale, presumably to manage for indefinite sustainability, like ecosystems and their products. Such management joins the idea of nature as a “natural resource” at the same time as it has a “respect for nature” dimension.
Pristine natural systems no longer exist anywhere on Earth (the insecticide DDT has been found in penguins in Antarctica). Perhaps 95% of a landscape will be rebuilt for cultivation, given plowed and grazed land, managed forests, dammed rivers, etc. Yet only about 25% of the land in most countries is under permanent agriculture; a large percentage is more or less rural, with some wilderness processes still going on. The 21st century promises an escalation of development that threatens both the sustainability of landscapes that support culture as well as their intrinsic integrity.
Scientists and ethicists have traditionally divided their disciplines into “is” and “should” domains. No study of nature can tell humans what should happen. This sharp division has been challenged by environmentalists and their philosophical and theological interpreters. The analysis here first distinguishes interhuman ethics from environmental ethics. The claim that nature should sometimes be considered the norm in environmental ethics should not be confused with a different claim, that nature teaches us how we should behave towards each other. Nature as a moral guardian has always been and remains a dubious ethic. Compassion and charity, justice and honesty are not virtues found in the wilderness. There’s no way to derive one of nature’s familiar moral maxims: “You must keep your promises.” “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” “Do not cause unnecessary suffering.” But, continuing the analysis, there may be goods (values) in nature to which humans should conform.
Animals, plants and species, embedded in ecosystems, can embody values that, although not moral, matter morally when moral agents encounter them. Admitting that morality emerges in human beings from the non-moral nature does not settle the question whether we who are moral must sometimes direct our conduct to it in accordance with value. Theologians will add that God ordered the Earth to produce its teeming species and found this genesis very good. Palestine was a promised land; Earth is a promising planet, but only if its ecologies together form a biosphere.
Environmental science can illuminate environmental ethics in subtle ways. Scientists describe ‘order’, ‘dynamic stability’ and ‘diversity’ in these biotic ‘communities’. They describe ‘interdependence’, or speak of ‘health’ or ‘integrity’, perhaps of their ‘resilience’ or ‘effectiveness’. Scientists describe the “adaptive fit” that organisms have in their niches. They describe an ecosystem as “thriving”, as “self-organizing”. Strictly construed, these are descriptive terms only; and yet these are often already quasi-evaluative terms, perhaps not always but often enough that by the time the descriptions of ecosystems are there, certain values are already there. In this sense, ecology is more like a medical science, with a therapeutic aim, seeking such a flourishing health.
(The author is a writer and social activist)