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Beef Stew, my biological father, when catching me reading and trying to understand a college philosophy textbook I found in an empty apartment we were painting in Houston told me his school of philosophy, the Dog Philosophy.
"That’s all bullshit, boy," he said.
Son, if you can’t screw it or eat it, then piss on it. I was young and idealistic back then and I thought he was wrong. But after reading David Quamman’s The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, I finally got natural selection.
The thing that got me thinking was the term intrinsic values, and the debate always devolves into a name calling match with one side accusing the other of caring too much about people and the other side being accused of not loving nature "for its own sake." And see, this is my problem with the Deep Ecologists; nobody can explain to me what an intrinsic value is when it comes to nature.
I once asked Paul Ehrlich to give me his definition after he used the term in a talk and he said that he was still working on that. I wish him more luck than I’ve had.
Immanuel Kant, once said that an intrinsic value is one that can neither be added to, nor subtracted from; it was just good because it was good. The only thing he thought had intrinsic value was free will. I can agree with him here but it does not get me any closer to the answer I’m looking for. What the fuck does it mean when we say nature has value for its own sake? And more importantly, what do we mean by nature?
Well, nature is the most loaded term in any language. Nature usually means, in a loose sense, as David Brower was fond of saying "Not man apart". How we are supposed to say that I don’t know, but I actually went to a number of meetings on that very subject, and which lasted until the award winning Friends of the Earth magazine by that same name folded. New information has come to light since the late poet Robinson Jeffers penned those mortal words. DNA studies have shed a lot of light on the process of evolution. It buttresses Charles Darwin’s principle theory of natural selection, that it is random and values, other than favoring survival over all other attributes. Beauty is a by product, it is derivative and therefore not intrinsic; The Dog Philosophy.
My guess is that evolution has no need for intrinsic values. Beauty is not an evolutionary process, it would be a useless luxury and far too abstract for natural selection, unless you use Buckminster Fullers definition of beauty, if it’s functional, it’s beautiful.
Again, the Dog Philosophy.
But there is beauty in the Dog Philosophy, and you don’t have to be a dog to appreciate that. The verbal jousting, chest thumping and moral posturing that has erupted over resource planning verses biocentrism vision is a distraction that we don’t need right now.
Huey Johnson always said he never saw an environmental issue where the economics were not in our favor. The trick, he stressed, was using the media to get the public not only on your side, but riled up. But economics, too, is a tricky term, and that gets us back to values, and of course the Dog Philosophy.
When I was four yeas old, I was kidnapped by Catholic Nuns in Memphis who held me in a Monastery for two years. They convinced me once and for all that moral principles were to be feared. I went over to the Devil. Don’t take my word for it, just take a look at my rap sheet. My choice to eventually become a law abiding was not a moral choice. I did not want to go to jail. Similarly, my main motivation for protecting nature was because it was necessary for the survival of our species. I reasoned after reading Ehrlich’s groundbreaking book Spaceship Earth that survival depended on preventing a mass extinction event. Having lived in a Medieval Cathedral for an extended period of time, I was never comfortable with the neo-pagan theory of Wilderness as Church, which itself is a derivative value of nature.
I will be sorry to inform you that one’s need for religion is not an intrinsic value. We may have the right to practice our religion in the Wilderness, but it is just another special use, of no more or less value than picking fruit because you are hungry.
That’s right, Dog Philosophy.
I have no need for religion but like anyone else I see beauty in nature. I enjoy it so much I don’t like to step on it. I like river trips because travel on rubber boats does little harm, although the thousands of us who float rivers have certainly diminished the wilderness qualities. Do we diminish the intrinsic value of the river when we float it? Do we diminish nature when we walk through it? Well, according to Kant if there really were intrinsic values, that answer would be no.
How about economically? Have we economically damaged the river by our passing? This gets us back to values. A pristine river has more economic value to a river guide. If the river has more people on it the river guide makes more money. In other words. No free lunch. Everything has a price and the question is will you lay your money down. That alone determines value. Wilderness advocates of all stripes lay their money down to protect what is left of our high value natural areas. Their motivations are as important as the fact that they show up. The question on how much wilderness to ask for, or how much we need, is a political question and a scientific question as well as and economic question. But is it a moral question?
Al Gore said when he picked up his Oscar that stopping climate change was a moral issue. I can agree, because he means the survival of our species. If Ehrlich was right, and I believe he is, then preventing a mass extinction event, arresting climate change, and protecting large areas of wilderness are all the same thing, and whether you see this as a moral, legal, religious, social or economic issue shouldn’t matter.
So I like wilderness, whatever that is, and I’m still wiling to put my but on the line and go to jail once in awhile because I think it is a fight that will never end. More is always better that less. We have already lost too much and cannot afford to compromise, yet we watch as millions of acres around the world are lost for a host of reasons. If we believe that they are all of the same importance, we can ascribe intrinsic value if we please. If we practice triage, it is not about values, but chances for survival. And if we are wheeling and dealing, making tradeoffs and compromises, it just shows how weak we are.
My real problem with this question is that in having this debate we are fighting the last war, using the same tactics. There is a new way to talk about this, or perhaps its just the old way repackaged. It’s survival, dummy. I wouldn’t know an intrinsic value if I stepped in a warm fresh pile of it, and neither, I suspect would alot of other people. But that does not mean we cannot assign all kinds of other values to nature, what ever we believe that is.
Randy Hayes has been doing a lot of thinking on what he calls Ecological Economics. I don’t know if I really understand it but that does not mean I do not like it. It seems to mean that if you quantify all the values of ecological systems except the intrinsic values, the balance always favors sustainability. In this case sustainability is a goal and a process rather than a fixed target. Get the indicators all pointing in the right direction and don’t worry about the philosophy. At least here we have framework so we can quantify and assign value to ecological services, which are tangible and useful.
How much is it worth to save our own ass. Quite a lot, I believe. Why do we love wilderness? It doesn’t matter. It matters only that second to climate change, wilderness preservation will always be the single most important hedge against mass extinction, and that the destruction of wilderness is worsening climate change, with deforestation in the tropics alone counting for 25 percent of the carbon now being released into the Earth’s atmosphere.
When one talks about wilderness in the tropics, one is also talking about people. If you go somewhere and you don’t see any people, that almost always means that something bad happened to the people who used to be there. Few places on this planet are not habitat for homo sapiens and humans have made most regions of the planet home long before the development of agriculture. But these migrating hunter gatherers were not deep ecologists. They were looking for things to eat, I guarantee it. An ecosystem with more food had more value.
That’s right, Dog Philosophy!
MIKE ROSELLE, columnist at Lowbagger, can be found laying around, urinating, or feeding.