Joseph Winters, College ’20According to British ethicist Alisdair Cochrane in his entry for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “environmental ethics concerns human beings’ ethical relationship with the natural environment.” “What duties,” he goes on to ask, “do humans have with respect to the environment, and why?” Environmental ethics seeks to prescribe an ethical rationale to environmentalism. In doing so, it must define the relationship humans have with the environment in relatable terms, which—according to some environmental ethicists—is made difficult by the very nature of ethics itself. Cochrane points out that anthropocentrism permeates “all ethics.” “An anthropocentric ethic claims that only human beings are morally considerable in their own right, meaning the direct moral obligations we possess […] are owed to our fellow human beings.” Effective environmentalism, therefore, must pander to human-centric concerns, or so it would seem. John Benson, another ethicist, describes this problem in his book Environmental Ethics: An Introduction with Readings. Ethics, he suggests, has “traditionally […] been most concerned with human beings as subjects and objects of doings,” rather than with the environment (10). This kind of anthropocentric outlook, however, may be seen as a powerful way to assign significance to environmental issues. Put differently, while the relationship between human and nature is abstract and difficult to comprehend, inter-human relationships, by contrast, are not because they are prominent and numerous in everyone’s life.
In trying to legitimize an ethical call to action to protect the earth, environmentalists can and in fact often do employ metaphors and analogies of familiar inter-human relationships to make our relationship with nature more relatable. Donald Davidson has described metaphor—which is closely related to analogy—as a way to “make us see one thing as another” (qtd. in Mikics 180). This can be useful when one idea is abstruse and the other is more concrete. The example provided by literary scholar David Mikics in A New Handbook of Literary Terms is the metaphorical phrase saying that faith can move mountains. “We are meant to think of—to picture—mountains in order to understand the enormous, unprecedented achievement of faith” (Mikics 181). Here, the mountains are the concrete idea that help people understand faith. This same kind of comparative language is useful when it comes to proving the ethical relevance of our current environmental predicament. Since environmental ethics is a relatively new academic field that did not emerge until the 1970s (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy), it lacks a large vocabulary to lend immediacy or relatability to its arguments. However, we can deal with this shortcoming through analogy. By articulating the importance of environmental conservation through the expressive potential of analogy, we don’t need a whole new vocabulary. Rather, we can use familiar ethical reasoning—for example, the ethical obligations we have in our daily personal relationships—to help readers understand our ethical obligation to nature.
By articulating the importance of environmental conservation through the expressive potential of analogy, we don’t need a whole new vocabulary. Rather, we can use familiar ethical reasoning—for example, the ethical obligations we have in our daily personal relationships—to help readers understand our ethical obligation to nature.
Since the Romantic Era, writers have drawn on the power of analogy and metaphor to describe their unique appreciation for nature. Rachel Carson and James Lovelock have continued this tradition by establishing humans’ duty to the environment along highly ethical lines. Carson was an American scientist and nature writer whose book, Silent Spring (1962), exposed the unintended environmental consequences of chemical use in agriculture. Readers learned about dying bird populations, soil contamination, and declining water quality in rivers. James Lovelock, a maverick British climate scientist, wrote The Revenge of Gaia (2006), taking a much more urgent, dramatic view of the stakes of environmentalism. He characterized the earth as a mother figure, named after the ancient Greek deity Gaia, who would rebel against her inhabitants if they displeased her. According to Lovelock’s theory, Earth is a system that will return itself to equilibrium if upset by human interference. The Revenge of Gaia relies much more heavily on metaphor than Silent Spring does—Lovelock’s entire concept of Earth as a sentient being is a personified metaphor, after all—but both contain elements of analogizing figurative language that help make their ethical arguments more understandable. Explicitly, both books frequently and overtly present readers with moral questions and opportunities for moral judgments. More subversively, however, they do this by appealing to humans’ ethical responsibilities to other humans by analogizing human-nature relationships with familiar human-human relationships. These analogies help readers to recall a recognizable situation—in particular, the wrongness of exploitative human relationships—and apply familiar moral connotations to abstruse environmentalism. As a result, I will argue that ethically anthropocentric representations of human relationships throughout Silent Spring and The Revenge of Gaia can be effective ways of connecting with readers and making environmentalism more understandable.
Explicitly, both books frequently and overtly present readers with moral questions and opportunities for moral judgments. More subversively, however, they do this by appealing to humans’ ethical responsibilities to other humans by analogizing human-nature relationships with familiar human-human relationships.
Silent Spring ethically engages readers through a particular anthropocentric metaphor that resonates throughout the book, namely humankind at war with the environment. “The question is whether any civilization can wage relentless war on life without destroying itself, and without losing the right to be called civilized,” as Carson asks in the chapter “Needless Havoc” (99). After accusing humankind of being the instigator of an unjust war, the book demands an explanation for this departure from human ethical standards. Obviously, there’s no literal war between humans and nature, not in the traditional sense. But by analogizing our relationship with nature to the phenomenon of war, Silent Spring brings to mind an easily understandable human-human conflict with highly ethical implications—conventional ethics regarding killing are suspended during wartime, creating a complex moral situation. Interestingly, even when war is not explicitly invoked, bellicose language throughout Silent Spring connotes an unjust human-centered relationship in which a powerful antagonist takes advantage of a weaker enemy. “Needless Havoc,” for instance, opens with an elaborate scenario in which “man proceeds toward his announced goal of the conquest of nature,” having “written a depressing record of destruction […] against the earth” (85). Carson describes humans’ “slaughter of the buffalo, […] massacre of the shorebirds, […] near-extermination of the egrets” and our “crusade against insects.” The “relentless war” metaphor, cued by the emotive words “massacre,” “slaughter,” and “crusade,” puts us in combat with birds, plants, and the soil, giving environmental relevance to an ethically fraught human conflict. Should moral guidelines be suspended in this human-nature war, as with human-human war? Or, as a war in which the sides are on unequal footing, are humans implicit in breaching ethical guidelines? While these questions have no simple answer and are difficult to understand, it’s much easier to discuss them in the familiar context of anthropocentric war. Here, Carson uses metaphor and analogy to help her audience relate to the questions of environmental ethics, and her accusative tone suggests an answer to those questions: that humans’ war against nature is ultimately unethical, being both deeply wrong and harmful.
…by analogizing our relationship with nature to the phenomenon of war, Silent Spring brings to mind an easily understandable human-human conflict with highly ethical implications—conventional ethics regarding killing are suspended during wartime, creating a complex moral situation.
The Charles River, Cambridge. Photo by Martin Greenup
In The Revenge of Gaia, as well, James Lovelock uses the anthropocentric metaphor of adversarial human relationships to make environmental destruction more applicable to human interests. “We are,” he warns, “unintentionally at war with Gaia, and to survive with our civilization intact we urgently need to make a just peace with Gaia while we are strong enough to negotiate and not a defeated, broken rabble on the way to extinction” (Lovelock 153). Here, Lovelock explicitly equates human-nature relationships with war, as Carson did when she chastised humans for their unjust treatment of the environment. Of particular note, Lovelock’s insistence that we make a “just peace” with Gaia implies that there is something unjust about our relationship with Gaia or the earth, which is strongly reminiscent of Carson’s argument. However, Lovelock’s relatively pro-war stance in The Revenge of Gaia differs from the anti-war sentiment expressed in Silent Spring. First of all, Lovelock doesn’t accuse humankind of being a purposeful aggressor against a defenseless enemy; the war he describes is “unintentional,” and must be fought out of necessity, or else Gaia will destroy us. He calls for a “group of strategists, who, as in wartime, will try to outthink our earthly enemy and be ready for the surprises bound to come” (153). Lovelock’s analogy seems to pit humans against the earth, but it also implies an ethical need to band together in a way that could ultimately lead to an enhanced sense of environmental awareness. By contrast, Carson describes nature as “innocent of any harm to man,” and chastises humans for starting a war against an undeserving victim (99). The interesting thing is that both authors are essentially arguing the same thing: that humans find a way to exist peacefully and sustainably with the earth. It’s just that they do this in radically different ways, either relatively anti-war or pro-war. While The Revenge of Gaia certainly doesn’t advocate war against Gaia, it compels humans to work together to solve environmental problems by calling on the responsibility that members of the same side during wartime have to one another in order to apply ethics to an argument to environmentalism. Carson, on the other hand, rejects war on ethical grounds, convincing her audience that a war on nature is intrinsically unethical.
The interesting thing is that both authors are essentially arguing the same thing: that humans find a way to exist peacefully and sustainably with the earth. It’s just that they do this in radically different ways, either relatively anti-war or pro-war.
Human relationships take various metaphorical forms other than war throughout The Revenge of Gaia to give environmental problems ethical importance. Lovelock uses greed to illustrate humans’ relationship with the environment, painting a metaphor that invokes the ethicality behind unjust human (rather than ecological) relationships. Fuel is burned at an excessive rate, he writes, “for our bloated, energy-intense civilization” (Lovelock 72). The word “bloated” is an interesting one, as it brings to mind gluttony, a human sin. Lovelock goes on to equate the continuation of modern, gluttonous lifestyles with theft from the earth: “We have taken more from the earth than it could provide,” Lovelock writes, and what have we given in return (79)? He accuses us of having a false belief that “Earth is a property, an estate, there to be exploited for the benefit of humankind” (135). At first glance, these phrases may seem to decry anthropocentrism as a selfish way to view the world. Instead, as Lovelock writes, “our task […] is to think of Gaia first” (143). But the effectiveness of Lovelock’s anthropocentric comparisons stems from the fact that they provoke the feeling of guilt. Exploitative human-human relationships are intrinsically unethical, and by illustrating a scenario in which humans are the exploiters, Lovelock implicates his readers in a sort of ethical crime. The problem is less that the earth has been treated unfairly, but that humans are implicit in a one-sided act of unjust treatment. Despite Lovelock’s explicit claim that we must put the earth first, this is simply too abstract to comprehend fully. Instead, Lovelock’s argument really calls for thinking of humans’ relationship to Gaia first. Ethical judgments associated with greed cause readers to evaluate the impact of their actions on their human self-worth rather than on the health of the environment for the environment’s sake. That is, Lovelock makes readers question their innate moral standing, rather than the morality of their actions toward the environment. This reasoning may be anthropocentric, but it highlights the personal importance of Lovelock’s ethical suggestions. The anthropocentrism of this argument does not weaken it—on the contrary, it makes it more potent by giving readers a stake in the ethical question.
Ethical judgments associated with greed cause readers to evaluate the impact of their actions on their human self-worth rather than on the health of the environment for the environment’s sake.
Carson, unlike Lovelock, doesn’t blame her readers for causing environmental problems. Rather, she highlights an interesting relationship between the general population and a hazily-defined group that is responsible for proliferating the existence of chemicals in everyday life (perhaps this means lab coat-wearing mad scientists, corrupt lobbyists, etc.). Carson’s explanation of this relationship creates a power dynamic in which normal consumers are the victims of a kind of exploitative relationship, “lulled by the soft sell and the hidden persuader, […] seldom aware of the deadly materials with which he is surrounding himself” (174). Instead of trying say humans have done something unethical to the environment, Carson appeals to ethics in this conspiratorial scenario by implying that an unwitting majority of humans are being taken advantage of by some shadowy entity. This representation of a human relationship—an anthropocentric appeal to humans’ sense of justice—is arguably more compelling than any pure biological argument against the pesticide industry’s products. In fact, by never explicitly claiming who is duping such vast swaths of her readers, Carson foments a sense of ethical indignation in her audience. This human unjustness demands a scapegoat, but Carson never defines one, instead using a passive voice to describe human tragedies: “Little is done […] to warn the gardener or homeowner that he is handling extremely dangerous materials,” she writes (174). “So thoroughly has the age of poisons become established” that the “use of poisons in the kitchen is made both attractive and easy” (176). Readers continue with the book, engaged by the ethical scandal, only to find that there is no single perpetrator of these crimes, their outrage mounting as they hear examples of physicians or gardeners who “suddenly collapsed and [were] hospitalized” after being exposed to some chemical they had been made to believe was inane (177). All the while, as readers are drawn in by this description, the importance of environmental preservation as a goal in itself is lost because the focus of Carson’s argument has entered the anthropocentric realm of the ethics of inter-human relationships.
The human relationship between physician and patient is another interesting way to apply, by metaphoric analogy, ethicality to environmentalism. At the beginning of The Revenge of Gaia, Lovelock invokes the ethical responsibility of his role in this kind of relationship: “I speak as a planetary physician whose patient, the living earth, complains of fever; I see the earth’s declining health as our most important concern, our very lives depend upon a healthy earth” (1). Here, Lovelock no longer portrays Gaia as an all-powerful deity, but as a frail, sickly hospital patient. The representation of this relationship effectively creates a nearly universally understandable ethical reason for our responsibility to the environment—we’ve all been part of a physician-patient relationship. A physician is ethically bound to protect the patient, to do no harm. If Lovelock—or, as he suggests later, his audience—is the earth’s physician, there is a clear ethical rationale behind his obligation to protect the environment. Towards the end of The Revenge of Gaia, Lovelock brings the physician-patient metaphor back in a slightly different way: the “first priority is to keep the patient, civilization, alive during the journey to a world that at least is no longer undergoing rapid change” (152-53). While the roles are slightly changed in this version of the metaphor, it still cites the existence of human life, not a diverse biological community or the health of the environment for its own sake, as the reason for our ethical responsibility. He justifies the need to “treat” the suffering earth by saying that “our very lives depend upon a healthy earth,” and that our first priority isn’t to save Gaia, but to keep “the patient, civilization, alive […]” (1, 152). Notably, this contrasts with the biocentric arguments that appear in other parts of The Revenge of Gaia. This could be because it is difficult to make people feel ethically invested in an abstract human-nature relationship. Instead, Lovelock appeals to the ethical responsibility we have to other humans to indirectly advocate environmental preservation.
Someone might read a biocentric environmental manifesto and set it down immediately if it doesn’t develop stakes that are personal to them. Arguably, readers can’t be expected to save the earth for the earth’s sake unless they’re given a motivation they can relate with. Anthropocentric arguments are often more compelling to the everyday audience than purely biocentric arguments, and are more likely to resonate with readers.
Perhaps Alisdair Cochrane in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a bit too bold in claiming that all ethics must be anthropocentric. It might be more accurate to say that it is easier to conceptualize ethical dilemmas in human-human relationships than in abstract human-nature relationships. This is where anthropocentric analogies have helped Rachel Carson and James Lovelock make Silent Spring and The Revenge of Gaia easier for readers to connect with. We are exposed to human-human relationships every day—with our parents, our siblings, friends, teachers, etc. Human relationships have simple and immediate importance to everyday life in a way that environmental causes don’t always have. Relationship with nature—like the relationship between a human and a tree, or more broadly, a human and an ecosystem—might be too far removed from quotidian life to create a sense of applicability. Someone might read a biocentric environmental manifesto and set it down immediately if it doesn’t develop stakes that are personal to them. Arguably, readers can’t be expected to save the earth for the earth’s sake unless they’re given a motivation they can relate with. Anthropocentric arguments are often more compelling to the everyday audience than purely biocentric arguments, and are more likely to resonate with readers. Although biocentrism may be many environmentalists’ claimed goal, it would have a much harder time accomplishing anything without anthropocentrism. In spite of Lovelock’s most explicit denunciations of anthropocentrism, his ethical arguments play out on a human scale. He demands we fight to save the earth—to save ourselves, both literally and ethically. Without a healthy earth, we have no home, and without fighting for our self-preservation, we are morally bankrupt. Silent Spring uses much of the same anthropocentrism. Carson calls for humans to stop assaulting the environment—because it makes us unethical. Both Carson and Lovelock are ultimately able to make environmentalism important not by emphasizing the ethics of man’s relationship with the environment, but by equating environmental struggles with exploitative, greed-based, or war-like human relationships. Choosing to avoid partaking in these relationships is an easy choice, from an ethical standpoint—no one wants to be exploitative or greedy. The choice isn’t whether humans want to save the earth, but whether they want to retain their ethical standing. In this way, the message delivered through Silent Spring and The Revenge of Gaia becomes more multi-dimensional, advocating two things: to save the earth and to better ourselves. Who would choose not to better themselves? By combining environmentalism with anthropocentric ethicality, Carson and Lovelock make an even stronger case for protecting the environment, one that will hopefully be heeded by everyone who reads their books.
The choice isn’t whether humans want to save the earth, but whether they want to retain their ethical standing. In this way, the message delivered through Silent Spring and The Revenge of Gaia becomes more multi-dimensional, advocating two things: to save the earth and to better ourselves.
Benson, John. Environmental Ethics: An Introduction with Readings. London: Routledge, 2013. Print.
Brennan, Andrew and Lo, Yeuk-Sze, “Environmental Ethics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).
Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. 1962. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2002. Print.
Cochrane, Alasdair. “Environmental Ethics.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Oct. 2016.
Lovelock, James. The Revenge of Gaia: Earth’s Climate Crisis & The Fate of Humanity. New York: Basic Books, 2006. Print.
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