On the Morality of: Conservation

Today’s post on morality concerns environmental conservation and sustainability. Human civilization has historically behaved (and many still do behave) as if the Earth was there to be conquered and natural resources were limitless. Environmental devastation is not solely the product of industrialized society; ancient cultures did the same thing, even those with tools no more sophisticated than the hand ax. For instance, as Jared Diamond wrote in his book Collapse, the reason for the disappearance of the Easter Island civilization was that the natives completely deforested the island (in part to make the log rollers used to transport the moai, the massive stone heads they are famous for), resulting in severe soil erosion and the collapse of agriculture.

But, of course, environmental destruction is most serious in industrialized societies with the technology that gives them the power to do the most damage. The damages we are still inflicting on the planet are legion: the collapse of fisheries and the mass extinction of species, tropical deforestation and the destruction of vanishing habitats, pollution in the air and water, the exhaustion of fresh water and the spreading of desert, and last but not least, the emission of greenhouse gases that accelerate global climate change, with potentially catastrophic effects worldwide.

The secular moral system of universal utilitarianism offers a set of principles through which to judge these actions. UU’s main tenet is that we should maximize opportunities for human happiness over time. This leads directly to the conclusion that any use of natural resources which can be sustained indefinitely should be preferred to a use which destroys, or exhausts, the thing being used – for destructive use offers at most a single opportunity to improve human welfare, while sustainable use offers unlimited opportunity. This sweeping conclusion applies to everything from the preservation of species, encouraging the protection of living things and habitats threatened with extinction, to energy, where we should prefer indefinitely renewable energy sources such as solar and wind and immediately begin to phase out those that are not renewable.

Although conservation has numerous benefits for people who are alive today, its greatest repercussions will be felt by those in the future. As I wrote in a past comment, we cannot rationally apply UU to the desires of merely potential people – for there are a limitless number of these, and trying to anticipate their wants would result in paralysis. But there is a special case: we should try to anticipate the desires not of individuals, but of the next generation as a whole, because barring some unprecedented disaster, we know that there will be a next generation. This means that the impacts of our decision will be multiplied “down the line”, affecting all our future descendants, which makes it all the more vital that we use the earth sustainably, with an eye to the future, rather than sacrificing it for short-term gain.

For cases where wealthy nations destroy the environment for the sake of convenience or luxury, all this should be uncontroversial. But one of the complicating issues is that environmental degradation is usually linked to overpopulation, as increasing numbers of people have an ever heavier footprint on the natural world. UU entails the pragmatic principle, that we cannot reasonably make some rule a moral obligation if it would impose unrealistic burdens on the people asked to follow it. By this principle, we cannot ask people to preserve the environment – it would be immoral to ask them to preserve the environment – if that required them to sacrifice their lives or the lives of their loved ones, or to give up hope of attaining a standard of living that many wealthy nations enjoy.

Defeating this problem requires tackling it from both ends. The world’s wealthy nations absolutely should give up their use of unsustainable luxuries to show that they are making a sacrifice in this effort (although in the long run, most of those sacrifices will pay for themselves). Moves to reduce urban sprawl, increase the amount of protected habitat, and migrate away from fossil fuels are essential. In the meantime, we should initiate an aggressive effort to stem the tide of global population growth, through female empowerment, education on family planning and the distribution of contraception. Helping these societies to become industrialized will also help in the long run to reduce family sizes and level off population growth. All these measures will put a stop to the necessity of colonizing previously uninhabited land for survival.

In the long run, the interests of humanity are not opposed to the goal of protecting nature. Safeguarding species and habitat, fighting pollution and global warming, and investing in a sustainable infrastructure that treads more lightly on the planet will lead to stability, security and good lives for billions of human beings. Only in the near term, driven by unsustainable growth and short-sighted profit motives, does the conflict arise. And if we let the short term win out over the long term, the consequences will be disastrous. Rising seas and shifting weather patterns could turn cities into deserts, lead to staggering mass exoduses and catastrophic natural disasters, and trample the few remaining untouched parts of the planet underfoot. Global poverty will explode, as will famine, disease and drought; and we will enter into what E.O. Wilson called an “age of loneliness”, when the beauty and the grandeur of biodiversity has been all but erased.

This is one track. Down the other lies a quieter, richer and more beautiful world: a place where we have learned from our mistakes, where we have drawn back and allowed nature to recover, and where human beings live within the world and not at its expense. Even beside its freely given beauty and grandeur, nature provides us with countless services we rely on, yet often take for granted: waste recycling and remediation, fresh air and clean water, productive soil and crop pollination, and many others as well. It still remains to be seen which of these two worlds we will bring into existence.

Other posts in this series:

Erasing the Past, Denying the Future
Atlas Shrugged: The Hippocratic Oath
Atlas Shrugged: The Post-Scarcity Economy
Atlas Shrugged: One Steve Limit
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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