Climate Change and Our Relationship to the Environment

By Timothy Weidel

We live in two ages. The first is the Anthropocene, where human activity is the primary catalyst of climate change, and concerns for human well-being are put at the forefront of discussions on the environment. The second is the tumultuous American election season. In recent weeks the issue of climate change has finally come to the forefront of the campaign. While Hillary Clinton has averred that she believes climate change is “real,” Donald Trump has moved in the opposite direction. At times he has painted the issue as a nefarious plot cooked up by the Chinese government, and repeatedly stated that he sees it as a hoax. Trump’s campaign has stated that Clinton’s proposed actions on climate change would “destroy millions of jobs and force millions more into abject poverty.” Campaign spokesperson Jason Miller claimed furthermore that supporters of action on the climate issue celebrate “the loss of countless, good-paying energy jobs for American workers.”

As one who believes in the soundness of climate science and the need to act swiftly to address our emissions, I find it easy to dismiss these positions as naïve or misguided. Yet while I disagree with their conclusion, these perspectives reveal an important facet of the moral problem of climate change: the relational aspect. Trump’s concern is about the workers in oil and gas industries who would lose their jobs or livelihoods if stark policies on climate change were adopted. Thus from the moral standpoint of a person potentially acting to do something about climate change (e.g. supporting a ban on coal extraction), the relationship seemingly at stake is between this potential actor and others persons who may be negatively impacted (e.g. a coal mine worker). Clinton’s approach echoes concerns for these persons, focusing on avoiding a carbon tax and redeveloping coal-mining communities. She also appeals to a moral obligation to act based on our relationship to future generations of persons who will be harmed. In either case, the concern for our relationships leads us to some justifiable action or inaction: it is in the interest of those with whom we have a morally salient relationship to do (or not do) something.

Despite focusing on some morally significant relationship, these arguments omit one of the other parties in the question of climate change, one whose interests are bound up with our own. This “party” is the “climate,” our environment. Considering the perspective of the environment reveals not only an alternative perspective to the moral question of climate change, but also the ways in which it is in our interests to act for the sake of nature.

On what basis can we claim that we have an ethical relationship with our environment? Our environment can seem as merely a backdrop to which human life unfolds, a passive collection of flora and fauna with which we occasionally interact to pursue our own human interests. Yet some recent perspectives explore compelling alternative views on the environment that challenge the passivity of nature and our relationship to it.

Pope Francis
Pope Francis

A renewed focus on the environment as an entity with which we have a relationship is a major theme of the recent papal encyclical of Pope Francis, Laudato Si. Pushing back against viewing our environment as passive raw materials for unlimited human consumption, Francis argues that the biblically founded mandate to have “dominion” over the earth has been misinterpreted. Instead, he makes primary a concern to “till and keep” it: “’Tilling’ refers to cultivating, ploughing or working, while ‘keeping’ means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving. This implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature” (§67).

Notice here the claim of “mutual responsibility” between humans and nature; Francis does not contextualize the environment as a passive backdrop, but rather an “other,” a fellow actor in our world with interests and potential all its own. On this view nature has intrinsic value that is in no way necessarily tied to the interests of human beings. He speaks of nature as our “sister with whom we share our life” and “among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor” (§1-2). This last metaphor is striking, calling into question how we treat poor human beings. Given our propensity to neglect them and their interests, Francis pushes us to consider the ways in which we subjugate and neglect the interests of our environment. This alterity relationship is an ethical one, which places demands upon us to consider the impacts of our actions on the environment.

In one way, these ethical demands may be couched in theological terms, ones that may not be taken up by all persons; Francis’ argument does have this potential limitation. Yet our relationship to the environment and a moral imperative for its interests comes from non-religious perspectives as well. Nancy Tuana’s recent work develops a symbiotic ethical relationship between humans and the environment.

Comprising what she deems a “relational ontology,” the very constitutive elements of human beings and the natural environment are created and recreated based upon interactions between both entities. Rather than being static, all are entities in the act of becoming, constantly in a state of open exchange (a conception she refers to as “viscous porosity”). As an example she cites the use of synthetic fertilizers; not only have they increased crop yields (as intended), but have also led to alterations in farm practices, population growth, and leaching into the water table which has in turn led to dramatic changes in variety, lifespan, and lifecycles of numerous species. What we are, what other species are, and what comprises our natural environment is constantly altered by the actions and reactions that occur.

At a fundamental level, this approach also makes central a relationship with the environment. As Tuana puts it, “It is the porosity of bodies that allows for these exchanges. Understanding that we are affected by this porosity is key to accepting our inexorable interconnection with he world we are of and in.” Thus she argues that this relational perspective “has the potential to provoke new affective dispositions and habits of thought.”

This last point belies what I consider the most significant upshot of showing a concern for the interests of our environment as an other: motivating us to do something about the problem of climate change for moral reasons distinct from concerns of duty to current or future persons.

Naomi Klein's new book
Naomi Klein’s new book

In today’s world our relationship to nature is not considered as reciprocal in most cases (when the environment is considered at all). As Naomi Klein puts it in her recent book This Changes Everything, we have moved to a relationship of “extractivism.” According to Klein this approach is “a nonreciprocal, dominance-based relationship with the earth, one purely of taking…it is the reduction of life into objects for the use of others, giving them no integrity or value of their own.” She goes on: “the interconnections among these various objectified components of life are ignored; the consequences of severing them are of no concern” (169).

What are these consequences of neglecting the intrinsically valuable environment and our relationship with it? Climate change and ecological degradation, no doubt, but to whom does this cause harm? Taking the perspectives offered above, we see that both parties in the relationship are harmed when we humans act with regard for only one side of the equation. In other words, neglecting our relationship with the environment causes harm to it and us.

Tuana’s relational ontology links in some ways to an Aristotelian conception of human beings, one that is highlighted in the early Marx’s concept of species-being. We require contact with nature not merely to sustain ourselves, but to further develop our capacities as human beings. Francis’ characterization of the earth as one of “our poor” rings true here as well. Just as we have a need for interacting with other human beings, we have a need for our environment. This need goes to a pragmatic level as well: if we do not consider the effects of our actions on nature, we are not long for this world. With rising temperatures, increasing sea levels, and less potable water, we make our world one where it is less likely that we will survive. Thus it is not merely in the interest of our environment for us to consider a relationship with nature as morally salient, but in our interests as well. To further develop ourselves as human persons and to develop our world as one that is amenable to our being able to be such persons, it is imperative that we consider the environment in our climate policy calculations.

So while Trump and Clinton are justified in considering how it will impact us and other human beings to whom we are related, they both miss the morally significant relationship between the environment and ourselves. We need to do something for ourselves, for the environment, and thus for us.

Timothy Weidel is Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Gonzaga University.  He works in social and political philosophy, global poverty, applied ethics, and Marxism and critical theory.

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4 thoughts on “Climate Change and Our Relationship to the Environment

  1. “Despite focusing on some morally significant relationship, these arguments omit one of the other parties in the question of climate change, one whose interests are bound up with our own. This “party” is the “climate,” our environment.”

    While I am in overall sympathy with this essay, I question the need to consider only “the environment,” as a mass term. There are some billions of living creatures being erased from consideration here, organisms of many different forms, some with highly evolved cognitive capacities both similar and different from our own, with whom we can recognize ethical relationships. When these beings share our “environment,” empathic bonds can form that may prove highly motivating of more appropriate responses to climate change than are evidenced in the present political arena. Keeping the lives of these other beings out of the picture seems either a peculiar intellectual oversight or an intentional omission unworthy of our contemporary state of awareness.

    • Hello Ronnie…thanks very much for your comment. I use the term “environment” for a number of reasons, but not necessarily to exclude our relationships with living creatures. I’m happy to follow Francis’ lead here, insofar as he refers to “creation” in a way that includes a multitude of relationships. I don’t mean to “erase” such creatures and relationships from consideration in terms of saying said relationships do not matter. What I do want to point towards however is a morally salient relationship between us and what we more colloquially call “the environment” or “nature”…that which does not get encompassed when we talk about the relationship between humans and other living creatures (e.g. sentient beings such as dolphins, polar bears). I don’t disagree that these empathetic bonds can form and can be motivating factors as well. What I want to explore here and elsewhere in my research is the potential for such a relationship between human beings and the natural world (one that I think is distinct from empathy, but that’s a separate issue I take up elsewhere). I do take your point however that this may not be one relationship, but rather a set of them. But focusing on one of those relations between us and the natural world does not I think necessarily preclude other relations between us and sentient animals (for example) in said natural world.

  2. Hi Ronnie…thanks very much for your comment. When I use the term “environment” here I am talking mostly colloquially about what we refer to as “nature.” I’m happy to follow Francis’ lead here (when he refers to “creation”) to take into account the fact that this environment encompasses not only trees, ozone layer, the water table, but also other sentient beings with whom we interact. So I’m similarly sympathetic to your point that considering our connection to these beings (e.g. dolphins, polar bears) might evince in us what you call an empathetic response that spurs us to combat climate change. (Elsewhere in my research I’m interested in exploring the content of such relationships and the motivating factors involved, and I am unsure about using empathy here, but that’s another issue.) But that being said, I am not trying to “erase” these relationships by focusing on one in particular; these other relationships can co-exist and be morally salient as well. What I wanted to get at with this post is a relationship that is distinct from (albeit related to) the ones we have with other beings in the natural world. Our relationship with polar bears, even if it spurs us to combat climate change, is something I think distinct from our relationship to “nature.”

    • Hi Timothy–
      Thanks for getting back to me. I do appreciate your interest in working out ways that we can appreciate being in a moral relationship with nature–a term that I consider preferable to “the environment,” as in that which surrounds us, still putting us human beings at the center of everything. I would be interested in hearing how you conceive of such a relationship, which I agree would be somewhat different from the empathy we may feel for individual living beings. When I try to analyze my own moral concerns vis-a-vis nature, I have to start with an effort to envision the great systems at work, and in particular the system described so poetically by Aldo Leopold, the “fountain of energy” that flows “upward” from the green plants–whose photosynthetic activities power virtually all Life on the planet– through an ever-diminishing “pyramid” of living flesh, through herbivores, omnivores and carnivores in food webs often of great complexity. It’s a beautiful image to conceptualize, and I think it should take center stage in our common ontology, since our lives are completely dependent upon it. When I reflect on this and other dynamic processes of nature, I experience respect and even awe, and also a sense of humility with respect to our human place in this grand scheme of things, something that I agree is different from what I experience when I interact with an animal or other organism in the wild (or in the domestic sphere, for that matter). The fact that our burgeoning human activities are pushing so many nonhuman beings of many different kinds into extinction, however—as we co-opt somewhere between one-forth and one-third of the yearly productivity (NPP) of the Earth’s vegetation–is something that we ought to try to grasp in both a theoretical and an immediate way, since we know anthropogenic species extinction is unraveling the biosphere–a great, vibrant network of life–at a terrifying rate, and many of us can see it happening right in front of us as yet another mall, housing development, extractive project or expansion of industrial agriculture wipes out vital habitat. I think we need to include all these levels of analysis in our moral considerations.

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