Individuals must often work toward conclusions and actions in daily life, and to do this they frequently rely on ethical stances to guide their reasoning. When working purely through ethics, people prioritize the objective, rational thought process over subjective feeling and emotion. Because ethics points toward an end without implying means, two individuals can have drastically divergent ethical views, yet still end at comparable outcomes. This divide is clear within the environmental movement. Bron Taylor, an American professor in environmental studies, discusses how ethical stance influences environmentalists’ viewpoints on why protection of the environment is worthwhile. Taylor writes that for “[anthropocentric] ethics, nonhuman life is valuable at most indirectly […while] for ecocentric ethics, human interests do not trump that of all other life forms and the well-being of the biosphere as a whole” (598). Anthropocentric environmentalists believe that the purpose of saving the Earth is to keep life tenable for the benefit of humankind. In contrast, the ecocentric environmentalists reject the idea that humans are centrally important and instead emphasize the Earth’s intrinsic value independent of any benefit to humankind. Regardless of these groups’ differing motivations, their overall goals are the same, namely, a healthier planet maintained through more sustainable methods. Two of the most formative books of the environmental movement – Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) and James Lovelock’s The Revenge of Gaia (2006) – are each written from either an anthropocentric or ecocentric ethical stance, respectively. Both Carson and Lovelock discuss harmful environmental changes caused by humans and encourage human action to address these changes. In Silent Spring, Carson focuses on the damage chemicals and pollution can cause to the natural environment, framed in terms of the negative effects that this damage could cause the human population. Aligning with the anthropocentric viewpoint, Carson focuses solutions on balancing human interests with concerns for the Earth’s wellbeing. When discussing agricultural pest control, for example, Carson hopes “to achieve a reasonable accommodation between the insect hordes and ourselves” (296). Conversely, in The Revenge of Gaia Lovelock conceives of the Earth as a single being known as Gaia, a self-regulating entity that maintains itself in homeostasis by interacting with the organisms and climatic shifts on Earth. Thus, he adopts an ecocentric viewpoint that favors addressing climate concerns because of the intrinsic value of maintaining Gaia’s balance, not just because this balance allows humans to thrive. Lovelock suggests broad and drastic actions that prioritize the environment, stating at one point that “[h]umankind comes second” (121) in importance to the Earth.
Because ethics points toward an end without implying means, two individuals can have drastically divergent ethical views, yet still end at comparable outcomes. This divide is clear within the environmental movement.
As writers, Carson and Lovelock aim to communicate urgently crucial information about the environment to the wider public in order to make an impact. Both authors liberally refer to facts and case studies, as would be expected when conveying a logical ethical stance on scientific issues. However, Carson and Lovelock also choose to incorporate emotion, in the form of fear, into their arguments. Throughout their books, the authors frame claims in terms of fears that could directly impact humans. Carson frequently depicts environmental damage through evocative words with strong negative connotations, describing the disappearance of birds in her hometown as “eerie, [and] terrifying” (104). Here Carson has chosen to characterize the loss of bird species in terms of humans’ feelings about the loss, instead of focusing on the negative consequences for ecosystem balance or species diversity. Her word choice is affective, using words such as “eerie” that have clear negative connotations and are often used in conjunction with stories and tropes of horror. Instead of describing the rational downsides of decreasing biodiversity, as in the disruption of food webs, Carson writes with words that are emotionally charged in order to begin priming evocative fear reactions in readers. Likewise, Lovelock warns emotively of the “lethal dangers that lie ahead” (147) if humans do not make significant changes to their lifestyles. Lethality and fear are almost always inextricably tied together in the human mind, as the vast majority of people have some form of fear or apprehension about death. Lovelock uses this fear to connect readers to the future consequences that he envisions, even as he argues in favor of the Earth system rather than the frightened human readers themselves. The overall focus is on Gaia, but Lovelock represents the magnitude of the danger that the Earth system faces in terms of repercussions that humans and other species should fear. It is curious that both authors should choose to evoke fear to make ethical arguments, given that ethics is the result of rational thought and consideration; fear, in contrast, is often irrational and impulsive. Why do Carson and Lovelock choose to evoke fear instead of simply using straightforward fact to convey their logical ethical thinking? I will argue that Carson and Lovelock supplement their rational arguments with fear in order to extend their pure ethics into motivation for action. If rational ethics and subjective emotion are not mutually exclusive as might be believed on first thought, this blending of the two methods of persuasion and argument might point toward ever more powerful ways for authors, scholars, and readers to communicate with each other.
Why do Carson and Lovelock choose to evoke fear instead of simply using straightforward fact to convey their logical ethical thinking? I will argue that Carson and Lovelock supplement their rational arguments with fear in order to extend their pure ethics into motivation for action.
Both Carson and Lovelock give prominent attention to human deaths that result from – or may result from – damage done to the environment. Invoking a fear of death makes the potential consequences of environmental degradation more resonant, encouraging action instead of passivity on the part of readers. However, the differing scales on which Carson and Lovelock raise fears of death directly relates to their respective ethical stances. In Silent Spring, Carson devotes an entire chapter solely to the dangers that humans face from pervasive chemical use. Carson makes humans the priority, writing that “[a]gainst these carcinogens which his own activities had created man had no protection” (220). The anthropocentric stance on environmental ethics is explicit: the use of pesticides will not only affect the health of other plants and animals, but will more importantly cause extensive disease in humans. While most chapters in Silent Spring discuss several species of plants and animals, “One in Every Four” is devoted entirely to humans. Making humans the sole focus on an entire chapter, Carson displays her belief that humans should be held above other organisms by focusing more attention on them. Continuing her discussion of cancer fears in humans, Carson states that carcinogenic chemicals “have entered the environment of everyone – even of children as yet unborn” (221). Cancer is among the most dreaded diseases for its grueling treatment and high mortality rate. This fear is compounded by an instinctive human sympathy for babies and young children. Carson uses sympathy to connect chemical use to deadly illness in one of society’s most vulnerable subsets, which evokes fears in readers who understand the seriousness of disease. Carson’s anthropocentric viewpoint is clear as she highlights the intense danger to humanity’s fragile members. In sharp contrast to Carson’s serious and concerned treatment of cancer, Lovelock’s brief discussion of the disease is blithely unconcerned. He claims that “any slight reduction [that radiation] may cause in [plants and animals’] lifespans is far less a hazard than is the presence of people” (91). Thus, Lovelock would seem to accept that earlier death for all life on Earth – plants and animals, but also humans – is of no great consequence because it will allow Gaia to sustain her homeostasis more comfortably. According to the Gaia hypothesis as described by Lovelock, the Earth system, known as a single feminine entity called Gaia, is a self-regulating system that responds flexibly to the actions of living organisms as well as to climate changes in an attempt to maintain herself at a comfortable point of balance. Recent human activities, such as the burning of fossil fuels and mass animal agriculture, threaten this homeostasis by surpassing Gaia’s regulatory capacities. Lovelock’s stance on cancer is decidedly ecocentric, as he is favoring the health of the Earth system over human longevity.
Invoking a fear of death makes the potential consequences of environmental degradation more resonant, encouraging action instead of passivity on the part of readers.
Fear of death also serves as a motivating factor throughout The Revenge of Gaia, but Lovelock uses fear on a global scale instead of on a smaller scale, as in Silent Spring where Carson appeals to sympathies and personal worries. Lovelock opens his book by writing that the earth has the power to “take some fraction of a million people to their death […which] is nothing compared to what may soon happen” (1). Not only can readers envision a large portion of the Earth’s population dying through Lovelock’s writing, but his words also indicate the frightening possibility of even more grave consequences and large-scale deaths. Fear comes both from the immediate shock of the widespread death that Lovelock explicitly mentions, and from the implied continuing degradation of human living conditions and population numbers. Mentioning death on such a large scale serves to remind readers of the massive consequences if the Earth’s system is not respected, and implies that action is necessary if widespread death is to be avoided. Instead of focusing on personal fear of death and disease as Carson does, Lovelock uses a wider scope to frame human casualties as one component among many of the damage to Gaia, rather than as the singular focus. The fear instilled comes not from a personal threat to any individual human, but from an instinctive drive shared by many animals to reproduce and protect their young. Lovelock describes human fear as part of this group mentality to highlight that humans are simply one among many species reliant on Gaia. Humans face danger, but the Earth is responsible for the threat, which is caused by “the power of the Earth to kill” (1). The ecocentric viewpoint shines as Lovelock frames the source of death as the Earth system, giving Gaia the importance and control to be able to cause the death of vast numbers of humans. Humans may be the ones damaging Gaia through practices that degrade the environment, but Gaia has active power and holds the final word in this situation, as the response to irreverent human action is ultimately the widespread human demise that Gaia has the ability to bring about. In accordance with Lovelock’s ethics, the fear that humans should feel is portrayed in reference to wide-scale damage to the Earth instead of as a personal effect from more specific, smaller changes. Through an impersonal fear of death, Lovelock shifts focus away from preserving the Earth to protect a human life toward doing so to protect Gaia herself. In his writing, Lovelock keeps fear of widespread loss of life present as a motivating factor to encourage change in environmental practices, but the impetus is the broader preservation of all life and species, not of particular humans in and of themselves.
Both Carson and Lovelock allude to the idea that the coming consequences of environmental damage are unheeded. By bringing previously ignored warning signs to the forefront in their books, both authors make it easier to take note of danger and encourage action through awareness. Evoking fear by exposing unnoticed dangers allows incentivization of action because Carson and Lovelock are able to educate readers on the consequences of their actions in an affective manner that digs into readers’ emotional states. However, the manner in which each author conceptualizes the looming danger reveals his or her respective ethical stance. Lovelock’s characterization of the danger takes a wider-scale look that examines fears people may hold about humanity and the Earth as a whole, while Carson’s description focuses on fears that individuals might have about themselves or their community specifically. In Silent Spring, the fear is personalized so that every individual can imagine the effects of environmental damage directly impacting his or her life. Carson opens her book with a “fable” of an imaginary town that aggregates all of the negative environmental consequences seen around the world so far into one fictitious place. She writes that “[a] grim specter has crept upon us almost unnoticed, and this imagined tragedy may easily become a stark reality we all shall know” (3). Describing environmental degradation as a specter calls to mind the grim reaper, a symbolic representation of death with which all readers are familiar. Already the fear is personal, as each reader can imagine a shadow of the grim reaper over his or her shoulder. Carson’s description of the fable’s doomed town personalizes the conflict between an individual and nature. The town has no unique or identifying qualities; it could be any one of thousands of communities in America and, indeed, around the world. Carson states that there have been actual towns affected by environmental changes, but she uses a generic example instead of a specific case study to show that impacts could reach any reader’s town. Environmental damage can impact any community on Earth, so individuals much each be vigilant themselves if they want to save their own communities. These fears are clearly anthropocentric, as the motivation for avoiding damage to the Earth is the preservation and benefit of existing human society.
Lovelock’s description of fear’s role in the approaching environmental catastrophes takes a wider and more global look at the issue, but the zoomed-out view still succeeds in drawing attention to unnoticed dangers in order to prompt action. Discussing humankind’s reluctance to make meaningful changes to its interaction with the environment, Lovelock writes that humans “cannot afford to wait for Godot” (13). He is referring to Waiting for Godot, a play by Samuel Beckett that centers on two main characters who are terrified to leave their place in the middle of the road because they believe that a man, who is presumably never going to arrive, will come for them. Like Vladimir and Estragon, Waiting for Godot’s central characters, humankind is reluctant to move from its current position and look forward to the dangerous reality that it faces. Unfortunately, this position is one in which humans continue to destroy the environment to avoid risking the loss of established comforts. In Waiting for Godot, Vladimir and Estragon are simple, disposable characters, without any significance besides their wait for a more important man. Similarly, humans can be seen as unimportant, mere secondary accessories to the central Earth ecosystem, in accordance with Lovelock’s ecocentric stance. Lovelock goes on to write that what is necessary to save Gaia is “that change of heart and mind that comes to tribal nations when they sense real danger” (14). Differentiating between modern societies and tribal nations points to disparities between both groups’ relationships with the environment: tribal nations are generally more connected with and respectful of the natural world than modern societies are. Instinctive fear plays a larger role in tribal societies, and spurs them to real action. Lovelock encourages a shift toward tribal mindsets in order to underscore that the fear that today’s humans should feel needs to be more primitive in order to motivate impactful change, and that current human society, with all of its comforts and accommodations, is of no great benefit or importance.
Describing environmental degradation as a specter calls to mind the grim reaper, a symbolic representation of death with which all readers are familiar. Already the fear is personal, as each reader can imagine a shadow of the grim reaper over his or her shoulder.
An objection to my argument that fear incentivizes action is that Carson and Lovelock discuss fear to show how it can have negative impacts on the way humans interact with the environment. In discussing widespread reluctance to shift to nuclear energy, Lovelock notes that “although we have the money and the means to prevent the Earth crossing the deadly threshold that will make global change irreversible, we are hampered by fear” (99). Lovelock sees nuclear power as the only fuel source that could save Gaia, but believes that it cannot currently be implemented because of humans’ fears about the dangers of improper nuclear energy production and waste disposal. In the current energy dilemma, fear is a source of stagnation and damage to Gaia, not a spur toward the cleaner energy production that Lovelock strongly advocates for. Carson mentions the negative impacts of human fears as well. Concluding Silent Spring, she writes that humankind has used pesticides to ease fears of crop damage and loss, and in this process of turning “[environmental weapons] against the insects it has also turned them against the earth [sic]” (297). Human fears have motivated the widespread use of chemical pollutants, which are a key focus of Carson’s book, that have serious detrimental effects on the Earth, rather than helping create a more sustainable relationship between humans and the environment. Both authors mention fear as a contributing factor to humanity’s assault on Earth, but this detrimental aspect of fear does not negate the larger message that fear emphasizes in both books. Carson and Lovelock write in an attempt to educate the broader population about coming environmental risks and to encourage action that can prevent environmental ruination. Their use of fear, therefore, tends to be linked to the current state of popular inaction, associating inability to change with damage to the Earth. It is quite feasible for Carson and Lovelock to acknowledge that fear can play a role in discouraging environmentalism without negating the larger influence that fear about stagnation can wield in pushing toward action.
The expected tone of scientific literature is factual and devoid of emotional affect. Emotion and feeling are generally frowned upon in scientific writing, as Carson and Lovelock would be well aware of. However, both choose to include emotion in the form of fear as a prominent part of their books on environmental damage. Fear serves as a powerful motivator and compelling factor for change, so Carson and Lovelock generate fear throughout their books in order to make their arguments more accessible and convincing. Their use of fear attempts to address an issue that Bron Taylor goes on to discuss in his essay on environmental ethics: the disconnect between holding an ethical stance and actually acting in accordance with it. Taylor writes that “environmental ethics is not only about understanding environmental values; it is also about promoting these in such a way that behaviors follow” (607). The difficulty is that while it may be simple to persuade an individual about the correctness of a particular ethical stance, convincing readers sufficiently enough to encourage sequential action may require more effort to foster deeper conviction. Carson and Lovelock choose to address this challenge through the inclusion of fear. Although Lovelock writes that “[f]ear is prevalent only in the pampered and cosseted developed world” (98) to deride some of the fears experienced by individuals living in developed countries, this audience is exactly the target of both Lovelock and Carson’s books. In communicating scientific information to a broad audience, fear is an effective and resounding method for an author to communicate his or her view on the importance of environmental change. Where Carson and Lovelock differ is in the situations and descriptions they include as fear-evoking; the fears they give precedence to directly correlate with the ethical viewpoint that each writes from. In Silent Spring, Carson’s anthropocentric fears create distress on a personal level through fears specific to each individual. The ecocentric fears offered by Lovelock in The Revenge of Gaia keep humanity level with the rest of the natural world and focus on wider alarm about the Earth as a whole. The success of both books and their continued influence display the effectiveness of fear as a motivating technique that still allows each author to frame arguments within a moral structure that identifies with his or her ethical beliefs. Carson and Lovelock have managed to push environmental ethics past pure reasoning by using fear to make their ethical viewpoints concrete and actionable to readers not well acquainted with environmental literature.
The success of both books and their continued influence display the effectiveness of fear as a motivating technique that still allows each author to frame arguments within a moral structure that identifies with his or her ethical beliefs. Carson and Lovelock have managed to push environmental ethics past pure reasoning by using fear to make their ethical viewpoints concrete and actionable to readers not well acquainted with environmental literature.
Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1962. Print.
Lovelock, James. The Revenge of Gaia. New York: Basic, 2006. Print.
Taylor, Bron. “Environmental Ethics.” The Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature. Vol 1. London:
Thoemmes Continuum, 2005. 597-608. Print.