10 Backward or Forward?

A man with a half volition goes backwards and forwards, and makes no way on the smoothest road; a man with a whole volition advances on the roughest, and will reach his purpose, if there be even a little worthiness in it.

—Thomas Carlyle (1899, p. 331)

The wind was whistling through the oaks when I took Sarah outside so she could urinate. There was just a glimmer of light in the southeast, so I knew it must already be around 6 a.m. As I attached the yard-lead to Sarah’s collar, the freezing wind gusted, howling in the tree branches. Sarah grunted in disgust. She hates going out into the cold to pee first thing in the morning. But she is 15 years old now, old even for a cocker spaniel (which are long-lived dogs). She has an enlarged heart, liver disease, and kidney disease, which means she has to drink a lot and pee a lot. She cannot hold on until morning anymore, so she comes and wakes me up. She does not want to pee in the house, and she knows she can count on me to let her out. I’ve told her, by hand as it were, that she is welcome to come to me at anytime day or night and I will let her out. Whenever she wakes me up to be let out, I always pet her, no matter how sleepy and grumpy I may feel. I don’t want her to pee in the house, which she surely will do, as she has done in the past, if she cannot get anyone up to let her out. I ducked back inside to watch her through the window, while the wind blew so hard outside that it ballooned her little pullover up over her shoulders. She got the pullover as a Christmas present from her nominal owner, my daughter, whose present she once was. The Christmas lights on some trees down the street shook and swayed as Sarah finished and came trotting up to the door, her tiny stump of a tail wagging with relief and joy to see that I was there to let her back in.

The scene was filled with tension between the natural and the artificial. On the one hand it was completely natural. To begin with the obvious, I am an animal, a largish ape, living on the urban steppes now that the African savannahs that bred my species are only a spot on a map for most of us today. It is natural for Homo sapiens to form symbiotic relationships with other organisms. Even as stone-age hunter-gatherers, Homo sapiens fed their scraps to their dogs and let them pee around the camp. We know that thousands of years ago, long before the dynamo and long before the wheel, our ancestors marked the winter solstice, perhaps with the giving of presents and a big, bright fire. On the other hand, their fires were not brightly colored electric lights, and if they gave a present to the dog, it most definitely was not a pullover made in Nepal. Is it possible that somehow, simply by following its instincts and using its own natural intelligence, Homo sapiens has become unnatural? Is our house not just a really fancy den? It is unlike any other animal’s den: It is heated to a preset temperature, supplied with water and sewage, has doors and windows to look out of, and is decorated with Christmas lights. Could it be that our brains have become overdeveloped, hypertrophized by natural selection gone wild? Has Homo sapiens become an unnatural species: the postindustrial, alienated ape? Have we become artificial, products of our own cultural fascination with energy-burning technology, and in that sense not natural?

Certainly Sarah, my dog, is a completely artificial sort of canine: nothing like her exists in the wild, and for good reason. Her larger face, shortened muzzle, and frontward-facing eyes make her look more human than other dogs, and probably have a lot to do with the biological success of her specific genes, since they make her more attractive to some humans as a pet. These same features, however, would be handicaps in the wilderness—as would her cute, floppy ears. But Sarah’s poor adaptation to the wilderness does not make her unnatural. Every plant or animal that ever existed was poorly adapted to some environment or other. Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, domestic dogs have to hang around humankind. True, Sarah’s genetic makeup has been directly influenced by another species, Homo sapiens, but that does not make her unnatural either. Animals influence each other’s genetic makeup all the time. The antelope is fast because the slowest antelopes are chased down and eaten by speedy predators. Thus, the coyote and the cougar are in the animal-breeding business, whether they know it or not, tirelessly working to improve the speed of antelope breeding stock. The antelope, for their part, return the favor by preferentially feeding the faster predators and thereby improving the speed of coyotes and cougars. So there is nothing unnatural in humans influencing the genotype of organisms in their environment. When other animals do it, we call it natural selection—how could it become unnatural selection just because we do it?

But was it not unnatural that this canine, Sarah, had been taken out of the environment it had been adapted to by natural selection? She was bred to be cute for humans, after all, bred, among other things, to fill the emotional niche left in the Homo sapiens behavioral repertoire when its offspring grow old enough to move out of the family shelter. She, a canine, was bred to fill a role in the social life of a different species. Is that not unnatural? Well, I for one will not contest the child-substitute theory of dog ownership, even though I doubt it is the full story since I have looked after dogs since I was a boy. Nevertheless, I confess that I baby talk to this little dog, just as my daughter did, perhaps the surest indication it plays the role of child substitute for me. I admit that I do feel a need to nurture someone or something, and that I have chosen to satisfy that need, in part, with Sarah. But I do not feel that this need is in any way unnatural. It is the most natural thing in the world.

My ancestors, noble savages that they were, began entering into symbiotic relationships with dogs many thousands of years ago. Dogs, like us, are social animals. They look you in the eye and listen when you speak. Their emotional tone is the same as ours, so there is intuitive understanding at the level of preverbal vocalization. Even small children can tell when a dog is happy and when it is angry, and puppies have the same innate understanding of human moods. The dog–human relationship goes beyond symbiosis on the purely biological level into the social realm. Household pets are domesticated to be companions. And, lest we forget, Homo sapiens is not the only animal that domesticates other species. I have watched the ants tending aphids in the garden, bringing them out of their nests in the morning on fair days to guardable spots on the flowers so they can suck back the sweet sap and make honeydew for the ants.

The only reasonable conclusion is that the artificial is part of the natural. It is natural for organisms of all sorts to engage in artifice, the artful making of things. The commonplace distinction between the artificial and the natural is an expression of a commonplace prejudice, like the signs on supermarket doors which say that no animals are allowed inside. If no animals were allowed inside, people would not be allowed inside either. The sign works because we are used to distinguishing ourselves from animals. Darwin’s lesson has not been fully absorbed. If it were, we would see clearly that the artificial is not unnatural. There is nothing unnatural under the sun. To put this point loudly, the artificial is perfectly natural. And to bring the point home, we do not feel unnatural looking after domestic animals, and the fact that, unlike the ants, we do it not for food but rather for companionship only makes the relationship more genuine. We are connected to nature through our house pets and house plants. They are bits of nature that we nurture because we have affection for them. They are the media of our affection for the natural world. Like the Christmas lights, they mark our respect, our thanks, and our joy for the rhythm and harmonies of nature. Surely our caring for animals and plants is the furthest thing from our supposed alienation from nature.1


Why, then, do environmental ethicists have such disdain for domestic plants and animals? To answer this question we can do no better than study the works of J. Baird Callicott. His is surely the purest, most philosophically complete and persuasive expression of the thesis that humankind must return to a closer relationship with nature. He has taken the writings of Aldo Leopold, the author of the famous land ethic, elaborated them into a complete ethical system, provided arguments in their favor, and defended them against criticism. Callicott’s philosophy is classic environmentalism since it implicitly sets up the good of the environment as a transcendent objective (as defined in Chapter 3). Explicitly, he says that his is an “environmental ethic which takes as its summum bonum the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community” (Callicott 1980, p. 62). In other words, the only thing that is good in itself, or intrinsically good (see the box “Nature and Intrinsic Value” in Section 9.1), is the health of the biological environment. All other things, insofar as they are good at all, are good only instrumentally, as a means to the unique intrinsic good: the integrity, stability, and beauty of the environment.

Now this in no way entails, for example, that such an environmental ethic will deny human rights or interests. It is logically possible, for instance, that human interests will converge smoothly with those of the biotic community. This is not a matter of logic alone, but of other facts and values as well. Whether Callicott’s environmental ethics conflict with human interests depends on the relevant facts and values as he sees them. The stability and integrity of the biotic community, the first two-thirds of the summum bonum, are sufficiently well defined, perhaps, to count as mainly factual matters. The last third, by contrast, the beauty of the biotic community, is clearly a matter of values. So too, let us not forget, is his choice of the integrity and stability of the biotic community as the first two-thirds of the ultimate good. We have pretty good reason to believe, for example, that the evolutionary leaps that made the current state of nature possible required disruption of the integrity and stability of the natural order by such things as climate change or comets nearly destroying the Earth. Unless the old is destroyed, the new cannot emerge. This is ironic inasmuch as Callicott, Leopold, John Muir, Ruth Harrison, Dave Foreman, E. O. Wilson, Niles Eldridge, and uncounted other philosophers who lionize the wilderness are absolutely outraged by any stress placed on the current wild environments. They are arch-conservatives from an evolutionary point of view. Stability, not change, is their goal; the warm and familiar past, not the unknown and unsettling future, is their ideal.

As Callicott sees it, not only the industrial revolution, and before it the agricultural revolution, but civilization itself is contrary to the integrity and stability of the biotic community. According to his ethics, no one would ever let their pets live in the house, for neither the house nor the animal would be permitted to exist. It follows, as Callicott draws out in some detail, that human beings like those of us who read this book would cease to exist as well. Humankind must be transformed in order that the wilderness can be reborn, and the needed transformation will take us back, not forward.

Callicott’s work is the most philosophically complete in part because he does not sugarcoat his vision of the environmental ideal. His honesty is bracing, and the clear, heroic outlines that he draws of the natural life are beguiling—indeed, they are romantic. He also takes time to address topics that other champions of the wilderness skirt. For example, we noted at the start of Chapter 5 that what is good for the prickly pear cactus is bad for the pronghorn antelope (the cactus prefers less rainfall, the antelope more), and that what is good for the lynx may be bad for the rabbit (the rabbit prefers not to be the meal desired by the lynx). To put it bluntly, the interests of animals within what Callicott calls the biotic “community” are hardly communal: Everything is either being eaten, or crowded aside, or both, all of the time. The paradigm of a community with the full panoply of biological, social, cultural, and artistic aspects is the human community, not the wilderness. In the wilderness survival is the struggle of living things with each other and with the elements. In this struggle there are no rules: Everything is fair. That is the definition of war—the polar opposite of community.

Environmentalists such as Callicott romanticize the intrinsic violence of nature, and praise the masculine virtues of living bravely within that violence without complaint or regret. They do their best to reconceive the constant hostilities as a form of community, although they cannot deny the fact that organisms are ever vigilant to take advantage of each other without the slightest care for each other’s joy or suffer- ing. Leopold himself was a hunter, and a sport hunter at that, since hunting (perhaps augmented by gathering) was not his sole source of food. That the animals he killed suffered is of no ethical interest to either him or Callicott. The suffering of individual animals is irrelevant from the point of view of the good of the environment as a whole. The good of the community as a whole serves as a standard for assessment of the relative value and relative ordering of its constituent parts and therefore provides a means of adjudicating the often mutually contradictory demands of the parts considered for equal consideration (op. cit., p. 62).

The good of the biological “system” (for it is certainly not a community) is its integrity, stability, and beauty. Apparently, there is nothing beautiful about equality or equal consideration. If the suffering and death of rabbits and moles were in the balance against the unsuffering death of bees (they simply do not have the nervous systems required for pain), the bees should win. Callicott’s argument for this is substantial and persuasive, as far as it goes: The bees play the important role of pollinating plants, the basic food supply of the entire biological system, while rabbits and moles do nothing as important. So much for integrity and stability, but can we not also recognize, at least, that the suffering and death of rabbits and moles is ugly? Apparently not. To the contrary, agonizing death is to be conceived as beautiful simply because it is natural. Nor is even human suffering to be seen as ugly. It, too, is natural and beautiful, and humankind has no claim to equal consideration either: “The land ethic, on the other hand, requires a shrinkage, if at all possible, of the domestic sphere; it rejoices in a recrudescence [sic]2 of wilderness and a renaissance of tribal cultural experience” ( op. cit., p. 66).

The domestic sphere is precisely the subsphere of Earth rearranged by human beings, including not just our houses, but all our buildings, highways, fields, plantations—and all of the domestic species of plants and animals. The sorts of plants that we grow in our gardens and buy in our markets are not found outside human cultivation. The sorts of animals that we farm are also not found in the wild. Sometimes the same species exists in the wild but not in the same form, as in the cases of the common carrot and the cocker spaniel. Sometimes the domestic species simply does not exist in the wild at all, as in the cases of wheat and sheep. Some species, like the common rat, are never found far from human habitation and have come to depend on human beings, although we see them as vermin, pests, weeds, or infectious agents. All of the apples, pears, roses, onions, pumpkins, pigs, chickens, and pickles that have been the pride of street markets and county fairs over the centuries are part of the domestic sphere. All of this “requires shrinkage.” In fact, it would be best if it could disappear entirely, and we could return to our hunter-gatherer roots in a “renaissance of tribal cultural experience.” Why? Because it would make more room for wilderness, allowing it to reconnect as a single all-embracing entity, thus regaining its integrity, stability, and beauty. We have shattered the wilderness, and this wrong will be righted only when the wilderness regains its territory.

A host of questions arise. Why did these very same noble savages whom we are to emulate create a new stone age, agriculture, and civilization in the first place? If we become like them once again, why would we not do just what they did once again? If they are our ideal, why would we not accept their ideals, including a settled and civil form of life? What, aside from romantic notions, was so wonderful about “tribal” life? Preagricultural technology, culture, and lifestyle were, after all, technology, culture, and lifestyle in the full sense of the term. The suggestion seems to be that early humans were better than us because they were innocent (or nearly innocent) of the taint of technology. That is simply false. There were no pretechnological Homo sapiens. We had fire and stone tools right from the start. We had language, culture, religion, poetry, myth, explanation, and an intelligent interest in the world around us right from the get-go. So we cannot prefer the earliest ways of humankind to our own on the fanciful grounds that they were untainted by technology. Instead, we must show that their religion, poetry, myths, and explanations were better than ours. This is never done.

Instead, the physical closeness of earlier people to nature—which is nothing but their inability to defend themselves against natural predation, disease, and the elements—is taken as proof of their superiority. Their inability to overpower other contestants within the natural agonistic sphere, the sphere of the battle for existence, explains this “proof.” It is the inability of our ancestors to have much influence on the wilderness that is their virtue in the eyes of the environmentalists. So human values are inverted within environmentalism: Weakness becomes our strength, and power becomes our weakness. This not only flies in the face of everything that one ought to teach one’s children, but flies in the face of biology as well. Every organism, plant or animal, gets to play a role on the evolutionary stage only for as long as they remain strong enough not to be pushed aside. Little rabbits should be fast and quick to learn the wily ways of the lynx. Similarly, little human beings should be clever and quick to learn the state of the art in human technology. The question is not whether humankind will have an impact on nature, but what that impact will be. Although Callicott says that less impact is what we should aim for, really he wants us to make a bigger impact by withdrawing from the scene, which would result in a stunning resurgence of wilderness.


It is a brute fact that all species have a significant influence on the form and genes (phenotype and genotype) of the species with which they come in contact. Why are we to believe that every change we have effected within nature, and in particular every change on the forms of life itself since we adopted farming and settled down in durable buildings, is wrong? This sounds more like a romantic curse than anything to do with biology. At bottom, the logic of pure environmentalists such as Callicott is that the natural is opposed to the artificial. Every single domestic strain and species is in some sense a witting or unwitting human artifact, and hence unnatural, hence an enemy of the environment. The lovely sweet-pea perfuming the evening air, the plump potato humbly hiding underground, and the pet canary are, one and all, Frankenstein creations. They are domesticated, hence tamed, hence unfree. Like us, they are alienated from nature and their own nature. We see this logic at work in Callicott’s reference to the philosopher who devised the land ethic, the idea that human beings have recognized an expanding sphere of rights (e.g., my kin, freemen, slaves, women,) that would eventually expand to include land itself. The surface of the planet should be, and indeed would eventually be, recognized to have rights. Leopold mused about how this change might be realized or at least facilitated. Among the last philosophical remarks penned by Aldo Leopold before his untimely death in 1948 is the following: “Perhaps such a shift of values … can be achieved by reappraising things unnatural, tame, and confined in terms of things natural, wild, and free” (Leopold, 1949, p. 64).

From this point of view, sheep and dogs are just as ugly an assault on nature as a fleet of all-terrain vehicles careening through the wilderness. Domestic animals are said to be only “half alive”! Callicott (1980, p. 64) praises John Muir for having devised this notion—although surely it makes no sense. Whatever problem the environmentalist has with the cow, the chicken, and the pet dog, it cannot be that they have only a half-measure of life—they are just as alive as the moose, the goose, and the wild dog. It is rather that their life is tainted by the influence of our species, an influence which by definition turns them into artifacts, hence making them unnatural. In Callicott’s words, “There is thus something profoundly incoherent (and insensitive as well) in the complaint of some animal liberationists that the ‘natural behavior’ of chickens and baby calves is cruelly frustrated on factory farms. It would make almost as much sense to speak of the natural behavior of tables and chairs” (ibid.). Indeed, long before tables and chairs existed, humankind was already working its dark and diabolical magic of turning the natural into the unnatural. “Animals, beginning with the Neolithic Revolution, have been debased through selective breeding, but they have nevertheless remained animals. With the Industrial Revolution an even more profound and terrifying transformation has overwhelmed them. They have become, in Ruth Harrison’s most apt description, ‘animal machines’” (op. cit., p. 66).

Ruth Harrison and Mary Shelley obviously share an unnatural horror of the modern realization that life is indeed a matter of physics and chemistry. Like Byron, they are fascinated with the idea of the “undead,” the quasi-life of such things as vampires and Frankenstein’s monster. In their unscientific metaphysics the organic is diametrically opposed to the mechanical. When the undirected wanderings of natural chemistry—that is, evolution—animate the human form with life, it is genuine life, but when the same chemistry is influenced in any way by the intentional actions of human beings, we get undead monsters. There are only Franken-chickens and Franken-cows, there are no real chickens and cows. We have also “debased”—polluted—natural animals with our artificial, hence unnatural taint. There are no truly wild—hence truly good—animals anymore. The entire natural kingdom is under our curse, since our effects (like those of many other organisms) are not constrained within any particular boundaries. But at least the formerly wild animals are still animals as such. This (paradoxically) is not true of domestic animals, which, like Frankenstein, have only a semblance of life, the twilight-zone subsistence of the undead.

The metaphysical dichotomy between the natural and the unnatural cuts off domestic animals from the moral realm. Although it may seem that the horse laboring under the whip is our brother-or-sister-in-suffering, this is a dangerous illusion. Should we find ourselves sympathizing with their plight and making an effort to prevent cruelty to domestic animals, we should remedy this wanton spread of natural human affection by noting a disanalogy (or, rather, a metaphysical gap) between them and us: “Here a serious disanalogy . . . becomes clearly evident between the liberation of blacks from slavery . . . and the liberation of animals. . . . Black slaves remained, as it were, metaphysically autonomous. . . . But this is not true of cows, pigs, sheep, and chickens” (op. cit., p. 64). Those of us with any interest in autonomy or metaphysics are, upon reading this passage, anxious to hear all about metaphysical autonomy. There is a great divide running through nature separating those animals that have it and those that do not. On one side there is Homo sapiens and wild animals, all of whom are metaphysically autonomous, and on the other side are domesticated animals, all of whom are not. How disappointing to discover that this great divide consists merely in the fact that domestic animals “have been bred to docility, tractability, stupidity, and dependency” (ibid.). Who would have thought that metaphysical change was so easily achieved? Our ancestors wrought a metaphysical change simply by influencing the breeding of other animals. Wild animals are metaphysically autonomous, but when we domesticate any of them it becomes “literally meaningless to suggest they be liberated. It is, to speak in hyperbole, a logical impossibility” (ibid.). I suggest that once Callicott says it is literally meaningless that domestic animals be liberated, further hyperbole is clearly unnecessary—if it is even possible.

The romantic rejection of science rises to a crescendo in passages such as these. What has become clearly evident is Callicott’s state of denial of a crucial discovery of biology: We are firmly, completely, irrevocably part of the animal order. The main reason that Darwin was so heatedly and loudly rejected by the moral authorities of the day is the humble place he envisioned for humankind: We do not transcend the natural order. We are part of it. We might expect that this rediscovery of pagan wisdom would be welcomed by environmentalists—but no. As far as freedom is concerned, the evidence shows that all complex life-forms are chaotic, and hence unpredictable. Whether they are wild or domesticated makes no difference. A domestic horse is no different from a wild horse in this respect: Both are unpredictable systems. A postindustrial, modern human is just as unpredictable as the noble savage of yore. To speak of wild animals and human beings as being “metaphysically autonomous” is simply to engage in metaphysical posturing. As far as the evidence is concerned, they are no different from us. Theoretical notions such as “metaphysical autonomy” may be advanced in order to draw a line between the good and the bad, between wild animals and humans on the one hand and between domestic animals and humans on the other, but advancing invisible marks of moral superiority is the visible mark of prejudice, no matter how it is dressed up.

Freedom for Callicott consists in the metaphysical potential for autonomy, or self-rule, rather than in the ability to avoid suffering and death. It is a matter of fact, not metaphysics, that a domestic pig or domestic dog will run free if not restrained by a pen or a rope. Anyone who has sympathetically observed these supposedly artificial animals will see that they are no different from wild animals. Although they are more used to captivity than animals that do not experience it as their daily norm, they still do not like it. They do not voluntarily remain in captivity once the barbed wire and bonds are removed. It is a matter of fact that their suffering is practically the same as our own. Unless we are willing to discount human suffering itself as morally insignificant, consistent values would require that we do not discount their suffering either. Again to his credit, Callicott does not shy away from the unpleasant consequences of taking the good of the environment as the only intrinsic good. This does indeed entail dismissing the moral relevance of human suffering even as we dismiss the suffering of animals: “Pain and pleasure have nothing at all to do with good and evil if our appraisal is taken from the vantage point of ecological biology. Pain, in particular is primarily information . . . ” (Callicott 1980, p. 65). While it is nice to see Callicott assume a more scientific point of view, he immediately jumps to an ethical conclusion, as though the logical distinction between fact and value did not even exist: “The doctrine that life is the happier the freer it is from pain and that the happiest life conceivable is one in which there is conscious pleasure uninterrupted by pain is biologically preposterous” (ibid.). Much as we may think that eating an apple or dancing just for the sheer pleasure of it is a good thing, this implies a biological absurdity. Preferring such pleasures to things like toothaches and tearing one’s flesh on a thorn is preposterous according to “ecological biology.” Pain is morally irrelevant, simply because it is information. The ethicists among us will be shocked and pained by this inference should it somehow turn out to be valid: Torture will be morally irrelevant simply because it is merely the information that we are being biologically damaged.

Of course, it is biologically preposterous that life have more pleasure than pain. We have already considered the reasons that evolution will design organisms in such a way that bodily pain (which does not include all pain, only pain that has a bodily location) outweighs bodily pleasure (Case Study 10, Section 9.1). Callicott, whose discussion of the pain experienced by animals presupposes that it is bodily pain he is talking about, agrees: Pain has a vital biological function, so it cannot be removed. And nobody, so far as I know, has suggested that happiness involves constant bodily pleasure. Happiness is certainly connected to bodily pain and pleasure, however, despite what Callicott avers, although the connection is complex. The way we use the words pain and pleasure (and cognate terms) indicates a continuum between bodily pain and emotional pain. News, for instance, can be very painful, although the pain is not felt in one’s ears. It would be very painful for you to hear that your daughter was burned to death in an accident. Your pain is not identical with whatever unpleasant bodily sensations are caused by the emotional shock of learning this painful fact. You would eagerly trade ten times that pain if you could undo the horror that has occurred.

Being burned alive is a horror, and it is a horror precisely because of the enormous bodily pain it causes. Death is a mercy in such a case, although death in itself is bad enough. You cannot be happy with the fact that your child died in this way. Your child’s painful death prevents your happiness. If she had been happy up to the point of death, certainly dying in such pain spoiled her happiness—and not just the happiness of her final moments, either. The happiness of her whole life is diminished by its intensely painful last minutes. It is now harder to say that she lived a happy life. A happy life is one that you would choose for yourself or your child, and who would choose a life that ends in screaming agony? The horror of your daughter’s death is not just a matter of its painfulness, but also of the uselessness and injustice of that pain. Dying from burns suffered while rescuing a friend or fighting for a just cause may leave one’s happiness intact. Suffering that is voluntarily accepted or risked may be tolerated as the cost of achieving one’s goals and in that way is consistent with one’s happiness. Dying painfully for a cause can complete one’s life by bringing it to a meaningful conclusion. But your daughter’s death was an accident. It did not complete her life’s plans, but destroyed them. The meaninglessness of her death denies her life full meaning. Her potential was wasted.

So pain certainly does have something to do with happiness. Pleasure does, too, although the connection is more subtle, so we cannot look into that connection here. Pain also has something to do with good and evil. To see this, all we need do is change the previous example from the accidental death by burning of one’s child to the intentional torture and murder of one’s child. Such torture is evil, if the term evil is to have any use at all. Torture is the intentional infliction of pain. It is the infliction of pain that makes torture evil. Clearly, this evil would be inconceivable if there were no such thing as pain. So to say that pain and pleasure have nothing at all to do with good and evil is plainly false, since pain clearly has everything to do with the sort of evil we have just considered. Once again, pleasure, too, is connected with good and evil, although the connections are more subtle and cannot be looked into here. Of course, Callicott does not deny that pain and pleasure have anything to do with good and evil at all, but rather, that they have nothing to do with good and evil from the point of view of his environmental ethics. This is true, of course, and it implies that environmental ethics are incomplete, that they leave out entire dimensions of right and wrong, justice and injustice, good and evil. The only other option is to conclude that they are unacceptable, since taking the presumed good of the environment as a transcendent objective has horribly immoral consequences.


Callicott himself does not admit that environmental ethics are incomplete. This would be inconsistent with his goal of increasing the domain of wilderness. He is arguing that we ought to retreat so that the wilderness may advance, and this is not easily done if he admits legitimacy to normal human ethics. Normally, we think that those who feed the poor, tend the sick, and bind the wounds of the suffering are doing a good thing. But once this sort of good and evil is taken seriously, it becomes obvious that increasing the extent of wilderness is but one good thing (assuming that it is a good thing) among others that call for our attention. It also becomes obvious that we must choose which goals are more important and that these goals may be in tension with each other. For example, enlarging the wilderness may increase hunger. Rather than engage in this very complex and difficult discussion, and rather than help us decide how to harmonize the tensions between different ethical dimensions, Callicott restricts himself to promoting the good of the environment, period. So he argues against human values and interests in general. People have attempted to exempt themselves from the life/death reciprocities of natural processes and from ecological limitations in the name of a prophylactic ethic of maximizing rewards (pleasure) and minimizing unwelcome information (pain) (Callicott, 1980, p. 65).

This insinuates that we civilized people are all shameful pleasure seekers without a care for what is really important in life. No doubt there are too many people wasting their lives on drugs and other sources of pleasure, but if Callicott means to imply that administering morphine to a burn victim is an ignoble attempt at “minimizing unwelcome information (pain),” this is nonsense. Identifying pain as “information” does not make it one bit less painful, so cannot transform it into something that has nothing to do with happiness or good and evil. From the scientific point of view, all states of consciousness whatever are information states of the brain. Assuming that this is true, it does not change anything. We are used to being told that we should be tougher and that we should not seek relief from pain, but surely enduring pain for no reason at all is irrational. An aging relative who is suffering agonies because his spine has collapsed due to osteoporosis deserves relief, not a lesson in bravery. Since the pain is largely intractable, and he is suffering it, he is the one to teach us lessons in bravery and toughness, not the other way around. If there is a pill that lessens his pain, he should have access to it. Denying him the medication is tantamount to torture.

Callicott disagrees. As he sees it, providing relief from pain is wrong because it alienates us from nature: “Civilization has insulated and alienated us from the rigors and challenges of the natural environment” (op. cit., p. 66). But what is this “alienation”? Yes, civilization has insulated us from wind, rain, cold, biting insects, famine, disease, suffering, and death—thank goodness! Certainly, this insulation appears to be a good thing, the same good thing discovered by the bees in their hives and the rabbits in their burrows. Is “alienation” something in addition to the insulation, and if so, what? In what mysterious way does the relief of our pain injure or insult the natural environment? To be frank, it is difficult to construct a story in which this mystery is revealed. It seems that the insulation is the alienation. To relieve someone’s pain is to distance them from what would naturally occur, and this is the sin or crime of alienation. The relief of pain requires artifice, and the artificial is the opposite of the natural, hence is wrong.

This alienation is compounded when we extend our concern for the suffering beyond humans to include other animals. If, heaven help us, we should be so “soft” (a term Callicott uses to describe the civilized ethos) as to administer analgesics to a wild animal with osteoporosis or burns, we not only perversely persist in our own alienation, but we “impose” it on other innocent creatures, as though we were addicts spreading our addiction: “Rather than imposing our alienation from nature and natural processes and cycles of life on other animals, we human beings could reaffirm our participation in life as it is given without a sugar coating” (op. cit., p. 65).

How does this alienation work when we provide relief from suffering to the merely “half alive” domestic animals such as our farm animals and our pets? These animals themselves are embodiments of the unnatural and the alienated. Being so fully alienated from nature already, presumably they could not be further alienated by us when we give them analgesics. A pet dog undergoing a surgical operation is already so unnatural that not much further harm is done by administering an anesthetic during the operation.

We are lucky to have the works of Callicott, for they illuminate just what is implied in the classical environmentalist ethic, in which the good of the natural world (however that is conceived) is seen as intrinsically good in and of itself. It helps us to understand why environmentalists have pressed continually for the total elimination of DDT, even though this has resulted in a recrudescence of malaria and the deaths of millions of children. If DDT is bad for the “biotic community,” it is bad, period. Thus, it must be eliminated. Millions of human deaths by malaria, on the other hand, are part of the “natural processes and cycles of life” and should be accepted “without a sugar coating.” In any case, lower human population will advance the domain of wilderness, too. Within the ideal of the natural as good, there is the ideal of the natural human being. Natural human beings willingly accept the suffering and death meted out by the fickle finger of nature, as if they were, like other animals, unable to avoid them. This keeps their population small, and this is good for the environment. This ignores the fact that the ability to prevent suffering and death makes us responsible for them when we choose not to prevent them. It ignores this responsibility because human suffering and death are irrelevant to the summum bonum of the environmentalist. It is not even that such human costs are thought reasonable in order that the good of the environment may be achieved, but that they are not even recognized as costs at all, given that the only thing good in itself is the health of the environment.


In its boldest outlines, we face a choice between two alternatives: going backward to a state of submission to nature, or going forward to accept our responsibility for nature. I believe that we must go forward, not backward, both for our good and for the good of the planet. The most efficient way to define our responsibility is by way of an image: We are emerging as Earth’s nervous system. Just as the nervous system of an animal has a specific role to play within and for the animal as a whole, we too have a specific role to play within and for the Earth as a whole. Indeed, one of the roles of the nervous system is to make a whole out of the parts of which the animal is constituted. The nervous system of an animal orchestrates the activities of the digestive system, circulatory system, musculature, sensory systems, and so on, in order that they act as a whole. The nervous system identifies the self of the animal whose existence it supports and partially comprises. At this moment in history, Earth is not a biological entity in its own right; Earth is neither a plant nor an animal. In a purely formal sense, the Earth contains or houses a biological system, but this system is nothing more or less than the sum total of all living things on the planet. But a total is not an entity. We have the unique potential to transform Earth into an entity with its own coherence and integrity—its own self. This is something we should do, both for our own sake and for the sake of the natural planet.

Making an organic entity out of the sum of living things on the planet is essentially a matter of resolving tensions between opposites. To that extent, it requires thinking through what to the casual glance may look like contradictions or paradoxes. For example, we are clearly only part of nature, and a tiny part at that, so it may seem impossible or paradoxical that we at the same time take charge of the whole. We can help ourselves see through this apparent impossibility by reminding ourselves that the nervous system of any animal is a mere fraction of the whole, and that the paradox is resolved in a harmonious resolution of tension. Biological entities are organic, organized: Their parts, all of which have interests of their own, come together to serve their various interests cooperatively. This cooperation presupposes a primary tension between the interests of the individual cells in the first place, as well as a way to resolve these tensions for the mutual benefit of all. Thus, the cells of the kidneys, for example, are both servants of the body as a whole, their job being to cleanse the blood, and are served by the body as a whole, which provides their food, water, and oxygen. Similarly, the cells of the nervous system are both served by the body and are servants of the body: both masters and slaves.

This is no magic involved in this; nothing supernatural is required. Nervous systems have provided animals from time immemorial with an advantage in the evolutionary race: the advantage of cooperation. Nevertheless, there is a tension. Seeing how a whole can be made of its parts requires looking past apparent clashes of interest to the underlying unities. Environmentalism thinks in terms of the clash between humankind and the rest of the natural order. Environmentalism has witnessed the manifold injuries inflicted on nature by humankind, and it recommends that we repent, assume a posture of humility, and try to make ourselves as small as possible (try to reduce our ecological footprint as much as possible), so that nature can reassert its power over us. In this vision one side or the other must triumph. Callicott does us the service of sketching what a victory of nature over humankind would look like. I suggest that as long as the conflict between human interests and nature remains at center stage, the conceivable solutions to our “environmental” problems (whether or not they amount to a crisis) will be restricted to victory of one side over the other. We must instead learn to see tensions, rather than clashes, between nature and humankind. We must look beyond victory for either side to a unity of the two sides. In this unity, there is a special role for us to play: we seek the harmonious resolution of tensions between humankind and nature. Just as a nervous system enables your billions of billions of individual cells to be the single entity that you understand yourself to be, so too we can become the unifying information-processing system of the planet as a whole.

Years ago, while pondering climate change and wondering what, if anything, could be done about it, John Latham (1990) identified a mechanism whereby human beings could gain a large measure of control over climate: by controlling the amount of sunlight that Earth reflects back into space, that is, by adjusting its albedo. Global temperatures depend to a large extent on the fluffy cumulus clouds that float above us in the skies. They have a large cooling effect because they are very white and therefore increase Earth’s albedo. This is readily seen in photographs of Earth from space: The big white patches are composed primarily of cumulus clouds. Since most of the global surface is ocean, and the ocean spawns clouds because of its moisture, most of the cumulus is over the oceans: marine cumulus clouds. Latham realized that it might be possible to influence both the amount and the albedo of Earth’s marine cumulus, and that this would provide a way of getting a measure of control over global temperatures. In other words, Latham had identified a pressure point in the natural system that would enable us to subdue global warming.

The reflectivity of a cloud depends on the size of the cloud’s water droplets: The smaller the droplets, the more sunlight it reflects (Twomey 1977). Droplet size depends on the number of cloud condensation nuclei, the microscopic bits of matter around which moisture condenses to form clouds. Stephen Salter, an environmental engineer who designed wind and tidal power generators (as well as a computer engineer who invented the touch screen computer), teamed up with Latham to devise a way to increase the numbers of cloud condensation nuclei available for marine cumulus cloud formation (Salter and Latham 2007). As it turns out, a main natural source of condensation nuclei is the evaporation of sea spray, which creates innumerable tiny particles of salt that are left suspended in the air and enable clouds to form.

So Salter went to work and designed a seagoing mechanism for creating huge numbers of sea salt condensation nuclei that would increase the amount and albedo of marine clouds. He also designed ships to carry these mechanisms that would be powered solely by the wind, and a global communications and control system to control the ships and direct them to just the right places to create superfine sea spray droplets and blow them upward above the layer of stagnant air near the sea surface. These microscopic droplets would then evaporate, creating condensation nuclei when and where they might be needed. The process this employs, moreover, is precisely the one that nature uses to make marine cumulus form in the first place. The Salter ships would not introduce a new and foreign process into the global climate, but merely enhance the natural process already occurring.

A change of 3% in the albedo of marine clouds would reverse the current level of warming estimated by global warming theory, and Salter calculates that “50 spray vessels costing a few million pounds each with a life of 20 years could cancel the effects of a one-year increase in world CO₂.” This is an extremely cost-effective solution to the climate-change problem. By comparison, the direct costs of the Kyoto accords plan are generally reckoned to be on the order of $50 per ton, or some $450 billion per year. But that is just the tip of the Kyoto iceberg, so to speak. The Kyoto expense would not represent an investment in the economy, but rather a tax (an entire scheme of carbon taxes, to be more precise) placed on it. Rather than an economic engine the $450 billion that Kyoto costs would instead be a brake on the world economic engine, and a drag on world economic progress. Just how bad this braking effect might be is a matter of intense dispute, but decades of ongoing recession and depression are clearly possible.

Question: Should we investigate the Salter–Latham plan (SLP) with the intention of trying to realize their design goals and thereby gaining control of the climate?

No: The Environment Ministry of the United Kingdom has refused to provide funding to even test SLP, pointing out that it may cause more problems than it solves. For example, by increasing marine cumulus by some 3% or so, SLP probably will increase marine rainfall as well. It will also have effects on marine life by producing more shade over the oceans along with the increase in rain. We do not know just what these effects may be, but the chances are that they will be serious. Thus, SLP has the usual characteristics of the techno-fix, and should be rejected. The environmentally correct way to proceed here is for us to undo the harm we are already doing by our unrestrained use of fossil fuels. Trying to find some techno-fix for the problem that lets us continue dumping ever increasing amounts of CO₂ into the atmosphere means that we will eventually but inevitably have to face two sets of problems rather than just one: the as yet unforeseen environmental impacts of steadily increasing CO₂ and the unforeseen environmental impacts of SLP. That is why the UK Environment Ministry has correctly chosen to stick by its commitments to carbon trading (which are legally required by the Kyoto accords in any case) as a means of countering global warming.

Yes: If we grant for the sake of argument that global warming theory is right, then obviously we ought to be trying to make SLP a reality. The status quo response to the global warming problem has been to demand penitential action on the part of humankind, as though its use of fossil fuels has been a sin. We are being told that if the economy suffers, that is just what we deserve, since our greed and self-centeredness is what caused the problem in the first place. But all we have been trying to do is earn our food, clothing, and shelter without relying solely on muscle power. It is not greedy to want enough to eat, a place to live that is warm and dry, and a means of transport. Now that we have managed to achieve these entirely reasonable improvements in the human condition and at last have the chance of offering them to humankind as a whole, we are being told that the entire attempt has been immoral all along and ought to be abandoned. Granted, there is a down side to everything, and human progress is no exception. But let us not throw out the baby with the bathwater. The intelligent thing is to deal with the problems that arise and continue to improve the conditions not only for human beings but for all living things on the planet. SLP represents just that sort of intelligence.

No: This sort of thinking has gone on for too long. Every technological trick we have devised to evade the realities of biological life has created its own problems, problems which we then solve with another technological trick, and so on and so on, and our problems have just gotten bigger and bigger. Now that they have finally gotten so huge that they threaten global catastrophe, you suggest more of the same. This is nothing other than outright denial, the inability to face up to the nature of the problem, and an attempt to dodge responsibility once again. SLP just raises the stakes in a game of chance the human race has been playing and losing for generations. Rather than waiting for our luck to run out finally and catastrophically, we should quit playing this game altogether. Rather than gambling with the life of the planet as a whole, we should quit gambling altogether and go back to honest work and earning a modest, but honest, living.

Yes: This issue should not and cannot be decided at this level of grand and sweeping metaphor. Interesting as the environmental morality of the human species may be as a philosophical issue, the threat posed by global warming theory (GWT) is based on scientific facts, not global generalizations about human environmental ethics. Assuming that GWT poses a real problem, it does so because it has added up thousands of bits of data and has gotten its addition right. SLP is no different. Assuming that it presents us with a solution to the problem, it does so because it has added up its data and has gotten its addition right. The case we are studying is whether or not to go through the data more closely, with a fine-toothed comb as it were, to see whether it really has a chance of working.

No: And then do what? You are not proposing a program of mere scientific research, but to take control of global climate. You are proposing a massive and historically unprecedented intrusion into the planetary ecosystem, nothing less, and that goes beyond mere science to a style of thought and action that can only be characterized as arrogant.

Yes: Again, I urge us to stick to the facts rather than cast grand moral generalizations over the issue. And the fact is that GWT says that we are already controlling climate through our influence over CO₂ levels. The Kyoto accords, in fact, propose to control climate as well, by means of those same CO₂ levels. Assuming that GWT has identified one of the levers that controls temperature, the people behind the Kyoto accords are attempting to grab that lever themselves. So let us not pretend that the issue is the environmental morality of whether or not to control climate. The only question is how to control it.

No: In that case, the answer is perfectly clear: Put the CO₂ lever back where it was before we began to fiddle with it in the first place.

Yes: That is not at all clear. The fate of humankind depends on that lever—a fact that I am sure is not lost on the people behind the Kyoto protocols. If you can control the CO₂ lever, you can control humankind. We have every reason to worry about putting control of humankind in the hands of any particular political structure or regime. But even if we put those worries aside, putting that lever back where it was, given the present state of technology, will cause hardship for billions of our fellow human beings. What SLP does is identify another lever, one that can be adjusted without sad consequences for humanity—or for the other organisms that enjoy life on this planet.

No: Your fear seems like paranoia to me. In any case, even if we grant that one way or another controlling climate is the issue, the onus is upon SLP supporters to show that it will not have dire consequences for the environment. This simply has not been done.

Yes: Granted. That is why it is important to continue investigating SLP.


We are part of the totality of life on the planet, so total victory for humankind is impossible. Surely it is true that we have been in a contest with nature to survive and hopefully flourish. Like every other species on the planet, we have struggled to obtain the necessities of life and avoid the dangers that the world presents us. We cannot make the mistake of thinking that because we are engaged in this ongoing struggle, our goal is total victory or unconditional surrender of the planet to our desires. Instead, we must realize that there is a deeper unity between ourselves and the natural order, come to appreciate the tension between the unity and the struggle, and start seeking a harmonious resolution. Humankind comprises a system in an even stronger sense than the rest of the natural order. No man is an island, the poet tells us, and we can see the manifold ways in which that is true. We are social animals who have spun a global clan, driven by the instinct to communicate and cooperate in projects of mutual benefit. We are linked to each other in our cities, and our cities are connected to each other by flows of materials and information. We have very slowly begun to realize that we are a global village (McLuhan 1962, p. 32), that we have a global political identity. In fact, the current surge in global political activity centered around the threat of global warming is but one element of the emerging planetary polis, the Earth aware of itself as such.

For all of its beauty and awe, the order of nature considered in itself and separate from a relatively recent species, Homo sapiens, is an unconscious giant. We are by no means the only conscious organisms within nature. There is no doubt that lynxes and rabbits are conscious, as are thousands upon thousands of other species. Perhaps all organisms have some version of consciousness. Paul Churchland plausibly argues that life and consciousness differ only in degree, not in kind (1988, chap. 7). In this view, a conscious being is simply an organism equipped with sufficient information-processing and behavioral plasticity to be able to adapt to its environment within its own lifetime instead of having to wait for the geologically slow process of natural selection. The lynx is capable of learning to hunt different prey in different habitats offering different opportunities for shelter and reproduction, as is the rabbit.3 But both the lynx and the rabbit are unconscious of the order of nature as such. They have no idea of, and no care whatever for, the health of the environment. They live and die in a world of much more pressing and immediate concerns of feeding, fleeing, fighting, and reproducing. Only human beings, alone among all of the species on Earth, has any comprehension of the natural order or any sense of its beauty and awe.

Rabbits are not in danger of extinction, but even if they were, the extinction of their species would not hurt any actual rabbit. Even if rabbits were disappearing from the face of the Earth, each individual rabbit faces life prospects that are perfectly normal for rabbits. If, for example, a plague were gradually killing all of the world’s rabbits, each individual rabbit would then die of disease, not an uncommon end for a rabbit nor one that subjects a rabbit to uncommon hardship or pain. No rabbit would ever mourn the loss of its kind, or recollect the illustrious history of rabbit-kind, or feel its heart overflowing with grief that rabbits would nevermore burrow in the sweet soil of Earth. We human beings would do all of these things if we knew about the plight of the rabbit species, although this would be entirely beyond the comprehension of rabbits. A species is an abstraction. A real rabbit has real ears and paws, but the species of rabbit has neither, and indeed is invisible. A species is not capable of digging or eating anything, and cannot possible suffer or enjoy anything. So neither the species of rabbit nor any individual rabbit cares one bit whether the species becomes extinct. We alone are capable of such subtleties. We can understand what a species is and the interlocking role of species in a system of life. We can grieve the extinction of a species—or take action to prevent it.

Our special abilities and potentials mean that there is a special role that we can play in the order of nature, a role that serves the entire order. Just exactly what that role may be is part of the question we face. Be assured—indeed, be warned— that we will indeed play a role of some sort or other. The real question is just what that role should be. I am presupposing that we must gain an understanding of ourselves and of nature in order to answer that question. I am proposing that one way to gain an appreciation of the best role for us to play is by taking a lesson from nature itself, in particular from the history of life on the planet. Given our nature, we can play the role of the information-processing system of the planet. Moreover, this would be a good thing to do. In particular, it would be what the enlightened environmentalist would want. What nature teaches us is that the role of the nervous system is threefold: to gather information, to understand it relative to the needs of the organism, and to coordinate the actions of the entire animal on the basis of that understanding.

Note well that the nervous system does not act on the basis of its own needs, but on the needs of the organism it enervates. Our role would be to serve as the eyes and ears of the planet, its power of understanding relative to its own needs, and the coordinator of its actions as an entity in its own right. Alone among the species of the world, we have the ability to play this much-needed role. As the romantic environmentalist insists, we can withdraw from this challenge, shunning the very thought as the pride that goes before a fall. Or we can humbly, cautiously, and with due circumspection realize that we must begin to serve not only the interests of Homo sapiens, but of life itself. Life itself arose before any of us was born, and we would like to see it continue after each of us has died. Human beings are capable of consciously serving a purpose that we know goes beyond the interest of any one of us, although it is indeed in the interest of all of us. This is not a matter of either–or: either choosing our own interests or choosing the interests of the totality of living things. It is, rather, the recognition of our common interests.

Although the natural order transcends us as individual beings, its good is not a transcendent objective, a goal that is to be achieved regardless of our good. Contrary to what environmentalists profess and presuppose, we are not to disappear or minimize our environmental impact or marginalize ourselves. Instead, we are to realize our goals as a component of the goals of the entire living system. We are to conceive of our own good as a strand in the good of the whole, and to conceive of the destiny of the planet in such a way that it fulfills our own destiny. We are to serve life, and to create an entity, something larger than ourselves, something that flows through us and into subsequent generations. This is both a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing to each of us because we each have life. It is a blessing to humankind because we collectively get to pursue our destiny as a species. It is a blessing because as a global clan we will witness and partake in the ongoing drama of life on Earth. It is a curse because our intelligence not only qualifies us for our special role, but forces us to know that each of us must die, that each of us has a responsibility simply by virtue of our unique nature as human beings, and that we never see more than a fraction of the whole.

Yes: Whether or not a scientific hypothesis should be accepted is a function of what hangs on its acceptance. Suppose, for example, that you were driving your family to a movie and a funny noise made you suspect that a tire was going flat. How should you react to the hypothesis that you have a flat tire? Since it would be very dangerous for you to keep driving with a flat tire, and since the lives of your family members hangs on your decision to accept or reject the hypothesis that you have a flat tire, it would be completely rational for you to accept the hypothesis even if its probability was quite low. Even if the probability of the flat tire is only one in ten (0.10), you would be rational to accept it, pull over, and check the tire. This is a perfect example of the precautionary principle: The hypothesis of danger to someone or something that is precious (i.e., of very high value) can be accepted even when its probability is low, just to be on the safe side. An ounce of precaution is worth a pound of cure, as they say.

GWT is not simply a matter of pure theoretical science, but also a matter of global public policy concerning a deadly risk to something even more precious than any one person’s family: the health of the environment. If GWT is true, the harm not only to human beings, but to all life on this planet, would be a disaster of such devastating proportions that it is perfectly rational to accept GWT even if its probability is only one in ten, or even one in a hundred. Human beings have a sorry history of environmental degradation caused by throwing caution to the winds in the greedy pursuit of economic growth. It is high time this historical trend is reversed, before we destroy the planet for our children and their children. It is high time to approach these issues more rationally, and rationality demands caution. So, for safety’s sake—or, in other words, by virtue of the precautionary principle—we must accept GWT.

No: Your argument involves a dangerous error in logic. I agree that it is perfectly rational to pull over and check to see whether you have a flat tire, but this does not in any way require that you accept the hypothesis that you have a flat tire. You do not need to fool yourself that the tire really is flat in order to pull over. Even though you think that the chance of a flat tire is only one in ten, it is still rational to stop and check the tire, but this does not mean that you have suddenly come to believe that the tire is actually flat. You still believe that the probability the tire is flat is one in ten (0.10), but you still stop and check the tire, because the cost of not stopping should the tire actually turn out to be flat could be enormous: injury or death of your family. The logically correct way to think of the situation is that you should pull over because of the risk you face. The risk alone is enough to make you pull over, given its cost. At a first approximation, the cost of a risk is given by the product of its probability times the potential loss (i.e., multiplying its probability by its value, which in this case is negative). So even if the probability of a flat tire is one in a hundred (i.e., 0.01), the injury or death of your family would be such an enormous loss that even one one-hundredth of that loss (i.e., the product of that loss multiplied by 0.01) is a cost you quite rationally are not going to accept. So you should stop the car and check the tire, even though you do not believe the tire is actually flat, only that it might be.

Yes: I see what you are saying. I agree that you do not actually have to convince yourself that the tire is flat before it makes sense to pull over. But that does not make any difference in the case at hand. All that it means is that even if the probability of GWT is low, we should take precautionary action to protect ourselves and the planet against global warming. In fact, your logical clarification actually strengthens my case, for you have shown that we never have to accept GWT at all in order to take steps to stop global warming—and that this is perfectly rational.

No: I am gratified you see the logic of precautionary action more clearly. However, your application of this logic to GWT is hasty and incomplete. Suppose that you are not driving your family to see a movie, but are instead driving to the hospital because your child has a life-threatening injury and needs immediate medical attention. Now when you hear the funny noise that you fear is made by a flat tire, you do not immediately pull over to check, but instead keep driving to the hospital. You might slow down and grip the steering wheel more firmly, but you keep on going. This is also perfectly rational, and it shows that when you consider precautionary action you must take all of the significant costs and benefits into account. In this case you have to weigh the risk of the flat tire against the risk of your child not getting to the hospital in time. If, say, the probability of the flat tire is one in ten and the probability of your child dying because you get to the hospital too late is also one in ten, it is more rational to keep on driving to the hospital. A flat tire does not necessarily lead to an accident, after all, and an accident does not necessarily lead to a life-threatening injury. On the other side of the balance, your child already has a life-threatening injury and faces a high risk of death, so stopping to check the tire increases the risk to your child’s life. So under these circumstances it is rational to keep on heading for the hospital despite the funny noise.

The situation with GWT is like the case where you are driving your child to the hospital: There are very serious risks on both sides. On the one hand, there is the risk of environmental and human harm associated with a temperature rise of 2 degrees over this century, while on the other hand there is the risk of harm to billions of the world’s poorest people due to economic stagnation. The question comes down to the relative costs and the relative risks of these costs. As for the human costs, the IPCC itself does not predict widespread suffering or famine due to global warming (2007b). Instead, the results it foresees for us are mixed. Some agricultural lands will be lost in lower latitudes, but even more will be gained in higher latitudes; some areas will experience more drought, but overall there is an increase in rainfall that is good not only for human beings but also for the environment. So the effects for the environment as a whole are also mixed. The biggest problem is that some species face an increased risk of extinction, but it is also clear that some species face a decreased risk of extinction as well.

So we face two possibilities. On the one hand there is global warming, which brings both costs and benefits to us and the rest of nature gradually over this century. On the other hand there is the immediate reduction of fossil-fuel use and all of the human costs that will occur right away and which will have negative effects through the rest of the century, including negative effects on the environment as well. Poor and hungry people will not be much inclined to worry about the natural environment or work to improve it. Hunting wild plants and animals for food, or clearing forests to grow crops, will seem preferable to starvation for oneself or one’s children. Under these circumstances, it seems there is more risk for the environment in abandoning fossil fuels than there is in global warming. We must conclude that the precautionary principle is actually in favor of maintaining our use of fossil fuels if that is what is required to maintain the health of the economy.

Yes: We have faced this choice before, and we do not want to make the same mistake again. We have chosen our own economic progress, our own comfort and luxury, over the health of the environment, and the result has been environmental devastation and, ultimately, damage to ourselves as well. Our bodies are laced with traces of every chemical and toxin known to chemistry—isn’t that proof enough that the course you suggest—maintaining the status quo—is the wrong one?

No: I am suggesting no course. The question is whether we should accept GWT on the basis of the precautionary principle, and I am merely concluding that we should not. In any case, you have already admitted the most important point, which is that we can logically separate the question of the truth of GWT from the question of what we should do concerning that threat. Given that both global warming and stalling the economy in an effort to prevent it pose very serious threats, we can agree that the question of whether or not GWT is right is extremely important and must be taken very seriously. To do so, however, we must address the probability that the theory is right on its scientific merits alone. We cannot judge the risk GWT confronts us with until we have made our best estimate of its probability. This leaves us with no shortcuts. We cannot just accept the theory just to be on the safe side. We must instead face the scientific case for GWT head on, and make our best judgment of its credibility.

  1. Sarah died a few months after this passage was written.
  2. It is ironic in the extreme that Callicott chooses to use the word recrudescence at this point, a term which literally means the renewed breakout of a disease that had waned or been brought under control. Callicott presupposes that wilderness is hostile to human beings (perhaps because human beings have tamed, hence damaged, the wilderness), and that for wilderness to prosper, humankind must suffer. Apparently, he cannot fully and clearly conceive of a confluence of the health of the environment and human interests in which wilderness does not regain its ascendancy over humankind. To put it another way, it is not enough, given his ethics, that wilderness thrives—it is also necessary that humankind sink in submission to it. He views history as a battle between us and the wilderness which we have won through an unfair technological advantage. He wants us to surrender this advantage. He assumes that it is a matter of humanity versus the wilderness, and it is clear that his sympathies do not lie with us but with the wilderness.
  3. If we add to this Churchland’s view that life and negentropic entities differ only in degree, not in kind, it seems to be implied that he has some sympathy with the Gaia hypothesis (Lovelock 1991, 1995). A negentropic entity is one that extracts order out of its environment, that is, one within which entropy decreases at the expense of increasing entropy in its environment. Physicists who study dynamical systems sometimes refer to this as the spontaneous creation of order within dissipative systems. In a dissipative system there is a continuous throughput of energy, resulting in the evolution of self-sustaining, even self-replicating processes. Common examples include such simple things as a candle flame and such complex things as a giraffe. The Earth itself is just such a negentropic system. Energy flows into it continuously from the Sun as white light and out of it into empty space as infrared light, and in the process creates the complex systems we know as life. Thus, Churchland envisions a continuum between continuously moving physical matter on one hand and consciously thinking intelligent organisms on the other. In between lie only faintly conscious living beings such as trees. Churchland is not alone in this respect, since philosophers of such different persuasions as Dennett (1991) and Chalmers (1996) recognize the fact and the import that there are no fissures running through the natural world to separate life from mere motion, or consciousness from mere life. Aristotle, I fancy, would be pleased.