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What Matters?

Environmental Ethics and the World in 2050

In the fall, I will be teaching environmental ethics for the first time, and one of the most informative books I’ve been reading in preparation is The World in 2050, by Laurence C. Smith.   He is a geography professor at UCLA, a colleague of the bestselling author Jared Diamond, and like Diamond has a knack for presenting complex scientific information in a comprehensible and engaging manner.  According to Smith, there are four major forces that will shape civilizations over the next 40 years:  demography, natural resources, globalization, and climate change.  By 2050, the world will have 2 or 3 billion more than the current 7 billion people, placing even more strain on resources such as oil, fresh water, and food.  The world will become even more interconnected and interdependent, and will have to deal with the growing effects of climate change, already evident in the melting of arctic ice and many other phenomena.  

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 Having been around for 60 years, I don’t expect to witness 2050, so I won’t have to face the worst of the many extremely serious problems that are likely to arise by then.  But I worry because my sons and many other people I care about will have to deal with them.   Smith expertly and clearly describes current and projected developments, but does not provide much advice about how to avoid the crises that will probably result from overpopulation, resource shortages, and global warming.    He ends with the question:  What kind of world do we want?

 This, of course, is a philosophical question, and depends on a fundamental issue  for ethics:  What matters?     Different views about what we ought to care about will determine different policies for figuring out how to produce a more desirable world in 2050.

 So I plan to start my course by discussing with the students different views of what matters.   Here are some of the answers we will consider and evaluate.

1.   Nothing.    Nihilism is the view that nothing is worth caring about, so there is no point in worrying about the potential disasters that humanity faces. 

2.  Yourself.   Egoism is the philosophical position that you should only care about yourself and make all your decisions based only on your own self interest.

3.   Your immediate family or social group.   Tribalism is the view people that do and should make decisions based on the interests of their immediate clans or nations.  

4.  All humans.   Anthropocentrism is much broader than egoism and tribalism in saying that ethical deliberation should take into account all human beings.     The major ethical theories in philosophy are anthropocentric, although they emphasize different ways of determining what ought to be done:  rights and duties, consequences, or virtues.   One crucial issue that cannot be avoided in environmental deliberations is the extent to which ethics should take into account future generations of people.  

5. God.   Many people look to religions for ethical guidance, but the problem inescapably arises:  Which religion, which gods?

6. All living things.   Some environmental ethicists attack what they see as the anthropocentric bias of most ethical theories and argue for animal rights or the claim that consideration of consequences ought to take into account the pain and suffering of animals.

7.   Everything.    Even more broadly, there is a view called deep ecology according to which ecosystems and possibly even the planet should be valued for their own sakes.   The movie Avatar seemed to me to flirt with the idea of the planet as an organism that matters in itself. 

 In my book The Brain and the Meaning of Life,  I argued for the anthropocentric position that ethical decisions should take into account the fundamental biological and psychological needs of all humans.  I look forward to examining with my class the implications of this and other views about what matters for environmental questions concerning the world we should aim to have in 2050.  

Paul Thagard, Ph.D., is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Waterloo and author of The Brain and the Meaning of Life.

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