Central to debates in environmental ethics and philosophy is the clash between instrumental and intrinsic value. Whereas viewing the environment as instrumentally valuable emphasizes the usefulness of the things of nature as means for meeting the needs and desires of human beings, recognizing the environment as intrinsically valuable grants nonhuman beings moral standing independent of any interests human beings might have in them. My research seeks to bridge the gap between these by theorizing environmental values and politics as a matter of making and defending homes for humans and nonhumans alike — for what is the environment but the places in which humans and nonhumans live?
The recognition that traditional Western philosophy largely consigns nonhuman beings to mere instrumental value sparked a revolution in the field of environmental ethics. Inspired by such thinkers as John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and Rachel Carson, environmental philosophers began in the 1960s and 1970s to critique what they called anthropocentrism, or the view that human interests and values can rightfully be prioritized above those of nonhuman beings. Debates about the basis and extent of nature’s intrinsic value rage to this day, but defenders of nature’s intrinsic value largely agree that assigning solely instrumental value to nonhuman beings results in unethical exploitation of nature, and that the solution requires respecting some sort of value or rights intrinsic to nonhumans.
However, this view has been critiqued on numerous fronts over the past few decades. First, environmental philosophers such as Bryan Norton have argued that environmentalism might achieve greater political and philosophical success if it focused less on nature’s intrinsic value and more on an enlightened anthropocentrism according to which we acknowledge the many ways in which we depend on our nonhuman neighbors for our own wellbeing, broadly understood. Second, environmental historian William Cronon has leveled a thoughtful critique of the idea of wilderness as a purely natural preserve left “untrammeled by man” (as the language of the Wilderness Act of 1964 puts it), arguing that it risks distracting us from the task of making a common home for humans and nonhumans alike. Third, Bill McKibben, Bruno Latour, Timothy Morton and others have argued that the very idea of “nature” no longer holds, with Morton suggesting that we would do better with an “ecology without nature” that focuses on the ethical entanglements between humans and nonhumans rather than putting nature on a pedestal for our viewing pleasure. Indeed, all three of these critiques have fed into a broader discourse heralding the arrival of the Anthropocene—that is, the Age of the Human as a global and geological force that makes the idea of an independent, nonhuman Nature seem quaint and even unrecognizable.
The critiques of these interrelated concepts — intrinsic value, wilderness, and nature — often touch on the danger of misanthropy, especially against the world’s disadvantaged. According to critics of environmental misanthropy, an environmental ethics and politics focused too heavily on nature’s intrinsic value may marginalize the interests of human beings, and especially humanity’s most vulnerable, thereby offending key tenets of environmental justice. As Yogi Hendlin and others have argued, making untrammeled wilderness the gold standard of environmental preservation risks erasing the claims made by poor and often indigenous populations to lands they have inhabited for generations, casting “pure” nature as a habitat for nonhumans by means of evicting humans from their homes. We might call this a politics of environmental eminent domain. In securing or restoring homes for intrinsically valuable nonhuman beings, especially those beloved by privileged inhabitants of the Global North, wilderness preservation risks foisting real inconveniences (and worse) upon our fellow humans. (Interestingly, the Anthropocene idea has been targeted with a similar critique. By attributing the End of Nature to a collective agent called Humanity, the argument goes, the Anthropocene distracts our attention from inequalities of responsibility between human beings—especially those arising from geography and wealth). Of course, most environmentalists are not consciously misanthropic, but a persuasive case can be made that their ideals and the policies inspired by them often downplay the interests of everyday people who need a home in their environment just as much as nonhumans do.
Yet perhaps the problem is not so much that wilderness preservation and nature-protection defined in this way targets humans with inconvenience, but rather that it focuses the burdens of environmental protection on the wrong humans.
A long tradition in political theory recognizes an enduring division between the Many and the Few in political life whose origins and configuration stem in large part from economic inequality. Indeed, as political theorists as far back as Aristotle have recognized, hierarchies between the Many and the Few usually collapse into the distinction between the Poor and the Wealthy. For thinkers attentive to this division, the danger of discourses on intrinsic value, Anthropocentrism, and the Anthropocene lie in their emphasis on interspecies rather than intra-species differences.
Whereas this tradition of political theory has variously been called republican, democratic, and even plebeian, I prefer a different term with obvious relevance to contemporary politics — populist. While the rise of neo-fascist populism in Europe and the United States has only reinforced a post-World War II anxiety about populism that has made the word into a pejorative, conceding the moniker of populism to the radical right is misguided.
For all their strengths, alternative labels for a needful environmental politics — democratic, republican, socialist, plebeian — fail to capture something endemic both to our present political moment and to environmentalism more broadly. Owing to its overlap with romanticism, anti-globalization, and localism, environmentalism has an enduring and peculiar relationship to nostalgia and resistance, that is to say, to the notion that its adherents are fighting to hold onto things that are dear to them — indeed, that are too dear to lose. This might range from access to clean drinking water to defending remote forests from clear-cutting to cherishing the river that runs through one’s hometown. Ecological populism seeks to defend these things from a small group of elites who benefit disproportionately from the exploitation of the environment and its human and nonhuman inhabitants.
In Trump’s America, we can either have a populism that targets a red herring — demographic and cultural diversity, obsessions of the populist right — or one that fights against the political and economic elites that bear the greatest responsibility for degrading both the instrumental and intrinsic value of the environment for both the humans and nonhumans who live in it. As thinkers as divergent as Pope Francis and Bruno Latour have reminded us, the Earth is our common home. Let us defend it as such.
Gregory Koutnik is a PPEH Fellow and PhD candidate in Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania. His dissertation explores the phenomenon of ecological belonging by showing how various modes of valuing the environment lead citizens to defend that which is often most dear to them - their environs, the places they call home.