Apart from the time I substituted a cup of salt for a cup of sugar, one of my first cooking misadventures occurred in the early 1990s, on a Thanksgiving trip home from college. Filled with an arsenal of ideas and a mind for social change, I was home to proselytize, eager to persuade my family that a vegetarian diet was not only the right diet but the tastiest diet as well. It was my view then that each of us is obligated to do our part to undermine the negative impacts of factory farms. Not only are such farms cruel to animals, I thought, but they are also an extremely inefficient way of providing food. I was of the mind that each American bore the burden to change his or her behavior to help put factory farms out of business. And so I took it upon myself to demonstrate that a good, healthy holiday meal needn’t be propped up by honey-baked hams and richly stuffed turkeys. 

The avoidable disaster, I believe, was attributable as much to my undeveloped culinary ability as to my ideological exuberance. My fatal mistake? Serving the tofu raw.

Of those around the table, my mother gave the most visceral feedback. Where I so eagerly hoped that the meal would prove persuasive, I remember watching her closely for any indication of resistance or rejection. She cooperated fabulously. “Looks delicious!” she said. Taking her fork, she first poked and then scooped up a sizable triangle of tofu, clamping her lips around it with confidence. Moments later her eyes shifted from side to side, her cheeks grew concave, and she vigorously though valiantly forced a smile and a nod. Casually, she brought a napkin to her lips as if to wipe them. It was clear to me, at least, that what had moments ago entered her mouth as something delicious was now being smuggled out in a tidy little paper package.

So much for tofu.

Since then I’ve sharpened my game considerably. Indeed, as an environmental ethicist at one of the premier environmental research universities in the United States, I’ve focused my research on arguments that aim to justify environmentalism—why we should preserve, defend, or protect nature in the face of so many other challenges like poverty, hunger, injustice, disease, and so on. Over time I’ve noticed something pretty remarkable: Many people think exactly as I used to. They think that in order to argue that environmentalism is right, they must also show that nature is good, that being green is good. Their thought, then, is that to be green, one should embrace all things natural. One should buy granola and drive a hybrid and drink tea and cook tofu. In effect, one should start hugging trees. Unfortunately, this view belies a deep-seated intuition that nature is not as precious as some claim, which in turn begets a big problem. Antienvironmentalists are left with a gargantuan opening: What if it turns out that nature isn’t the precious Eden that some environmentalists claim? What if, as many suspect, nature has a dark side?

Consider this: In the wee hours of a warm September night, not long after my wife and I moved to Colorado from New York City, I lay in a deep sleep in my bedroom at the mouth of Boulder Canyon. If you’re not familiar with the geography of Colorado, Boulder is a bustling university town at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. It is flanked on one side by hundreds of miles of prairie and on the other side by a mountain range that shoots up out of the prairie just four blocks from where my house then stood. Long before daybreak, I was startled awake by a violent, visceral screech outside my open window. The sounds sent chills through my skin. I heard chesty growling, bones crunching, bark tearing from a tree, and a gurgling shriek so prolonged that I half wondered whether I had woken from a nightmare or whether my nightmare had just begun. Within a few moments the sounds diminished to nearly nothing. I heard only muddled grunts, whimpers, and snorts, peppered with that memorable chesty growl. As if by instinct, rather than hiding under the covers to secure my safety, I leapt from the bed, approached the window, and stuck my face to the screen. What I saw, or what I think I saw, in vague outline, was a bobcat tearing the flesh from a now limp, now twitching, small animal; a squirrel probably, but possibly a house cat. I recoiled then, in mild horror.

Was this event bad? Was this good? Was it right? Or wrong? Was it evil? It was disgusting, to be sure. Terrifying, in a way. But was it right or wrong?

Nature is a cruel mistress. She will send her minions to gobble up your pets, sweep away your belongings in the middle of the night, assault your neighbor with a terminal disease, and sucker punch your family members with a dose of their mortality so brutal and cold that you may wonder whether life is worth living. She sends us hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, and tsunamis; cancer, plagues, bird flu, Ebola, malaria, typhoid, meningitis, and even rogue, killer asteroids to pull the dark sheets of death over life just as quickly and fecklessly as she will, with the other hand, breathe life into our newborns and our gardens. It is therefore appalling, to some, that anyone would ever deign to be an environmentalist, that anyone would ever deign to love nature.

I suspect that a great number of people have been turned off from being green exactly for the reason that my mother was turned off from tofu and vegetarianism. Though greening one’s lifestyle may be appealing in principle, making dramatic changes can be uncomfortable, off-putting, and even unpleasant. A very intuitive way of trying to combat this discomfort is to batten down the hatches, to strengthen one’s commitment to the value of nature. Many nascent environmentalists think that if they just insist that nature is something to cherish, that it is something we should adore, then everything else will fall into line. Everyone will suddenly do the right and the green thing. This would be fine, except that once we get to the airport to find that our flight has been delayed, thanks to a snowstorm, or we arrive at the ballpark to find that the game has been rained out, the harsh realities of nature suddenly seem extraordinarily inconvenient. So this is where it gets very, very sticky.

It is my view that no matter how much one reveres nature, no matter how much one loves sunsets and beautiful vistas, no matter how poetically one makes the case for preserving this green globe of ours, it is an ongoing struggle to remember these feelings when making day-to-day decisions. The reason for this? Tofu is terrible. Tents are cold. Ticks and termites are a nightmare. Most of us beneficiaries of modern industrial civilization say “no thanks” to these things. Give me a movie, a beer, and a bowl of popcorn any day.

My aim in this book is to argue that environmentalists needn’t be so concerned to defend the value of nature; that we needn’t grow weary when opponents mock us for being idealistic sissies; indeed, that we needn’t necessarily even adopt the attitude of tree-hugging nature lovers. The problem for environmentalists isn’t one of isolating and defending the value in nature. The problem is that many nonenvironmentalists don’t see the need to isolate the value in nature. Many nonenvironmentalists think that their actions can be justified by appeal to other ends—money, jobs, welfare, lives, etc. Put a little differently, the problem for the environmentalist isn’t a problem of having the right values; it’s a problem of having the right theory of justification. Here I offer such a theory.

I argue this position by taking as my starting point exactly the opposite presumption—the idea not that nature is grand and wonderful and awesome, as many of us believe it to be, but instead that nature is nasty and horrible and cruel. My ending point, my conclusion, will be that even if nature is cruel, we still need to be environmentally conscientious in our actions and policies. It’s not that I necessarily believe nature to be so cruel, it’s just that adopting this strategy will help me illustrate my fundamental point: that we don’t need to love nature to be green. We needn’t necessarily extol nature’s wonders, I will argue, because what really ought to be driving our environmentalism is our humanity, not nature’s value.

Nature’s Value, the Choices We Make, and the Lives We Live

There should be no illusions: this argument about nature’s value, about nature’s preciousness, remains at the center of it all.1 Anybody who has ever gotten a solicitation letter from the World Wildlife Foundation, or the Nature Conservancy, or the Sierra Club, or any of the many other related conservation organizations, is familiar with the awed and reverent tones often used to describe the natural environment. Anybody who has ever hunched in the corner of a bookstore, sipping coffee underneath a silvery Ansel Adams print, will recognize the same sentiment. They know, deep down, the amount of ink that the luminaries of environmentalism—authors, politicians, business owners, park rangers, outdoor enthusiasts, and filmmakers—have spilled seeking to demonstrate how superb and fantastic nature is, how beautiful it is, presumably to persuade others that there is magic there. Thoreau’s Walden, Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, as well as works by Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Muir, Thomas Berry, Annie Dillard, Diane Ackerman, James Lovelock, and John McPhee, among many others, all carry strains of this romanticism. Even Joyce Kilmer’s famous poem begins “I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree”—a schmaltzy serenade if there ever was one. A good portion of the literature characterizes nature as the most precious gift in the world, as if polar bears and baby seals, as if penguins and prairie dogs, as if snail darters and spotted owls, were the very kin of Bambi.

Oh sure, many of these authors are also realistic about the dark side of nature. Many, in fact, struggle with the tensions between the beautiful, the wild, and the horrific. But the fact remains that many, if not most, of them emphasize, and in some cases romanticize, the beauty of nature, presumably in hope that you too will be carried along with them in their appreciation for the environment. The irony here is that it is precisely this romantic picture of nature that turns many otherwise good and well-meaning people away from environmentalism. Its cloying sappiness has never been successful at masking the significant perils of nature. How is one to be persuaded by a peripatetic glass-half-fuller when one’s mother dies of cancer or one’s child dies of malaria?

Lest you think that I am starting from a bad place by picking fights with environmentalists, it may be important to identify the romantic picture’s most pernicious incarnation: not its appearance in the canonical environmental literature, but its prominence in politicized caricatures of environmentalists. The examples are legion. Radio and television personalities Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck routinely depict “environmentalist wackos” as those who think of humanity as a “disease” and would rather return us to the Dark Ages than to permit technology to move us forward. Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens has suggested that the climate crisis is a liberal phantom that distracts from much more pressing issues like terrorism. Senator Ted Cruz has claimed that “global warming alarmists are the equivalent of flat-earthers.” Karl Rove, in response to the 2015 Paris Agreement, proposed that idealistic environmentalists are insensitive to the plight of the developing world: “What we are now saying to emerging economies [is], ‘Keep your people poor, keep them in poverty because you cannot use cheap fuels, namely natural gas, coal and other fossil fuels to power your economy.’ And it’s ridiculous.” And even the slightly less polarizing (!) Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer once implied that environmentalists so value nature that they are willing to sacrifice the health and well-being of humans over the needs of caribou and seals.4 And this is just the beginning. Many politicians and pundits before and after these folks have forged campaigns by spinning the suggestion that the environmental community fetishizes wildlife and nature to the negligence of economic considerations.

Environmentalists, of course, are well aware of this tension. We’ve been struggling to find a foothold in the political discourse since Silent Spring. Our current alternative—making the case that each of us has a personal interest in ensuring nature’s survival—isn’t much different from its early instantiations. Climate change offers a particularly simple example of the problem that comes with affixing our long-term self-interest to our current practices. As it has been for decades, the emphasis is on the value of nature—specifically, its value for our survival. Strategically, it seems to be working. It’s abundantly obvious that the threat of climate change has motivated millions to think more conscientiously about the way they live. Should be a good thing, right? But ethically and politically, these are much hazier gains. 

Ethically, the environmental community’s preoccupation with climate change has diverted most of the discussion from the concern for nature that initially inspired environmentalists. As environmentalists take their eye off the ball and fret over alternatives to energy consumption, animal and plant species continue to disappear. Less evident is that since climate change is primarily a problem with emissions, it appears to require only a technical solution—and in the current case we’ve turned to focusing attention mostly on carbon reduction. Meanwhile, this technical emphasis invites extraordinary global environmental interventions like geoengineering—radical proposals to steer the earth’s climate toward stability—and subverts some of the founding impulses of the environmental movement.

Politically, it’s also a problem. Boiling down a complex ethical problem to a simpler Chicken Little–style campaign opens the door for simple political rejoinders. Where Paul Crutzen and Eugene Störmer coined the term Anthropocene to describe the current interval of the Holocene epoch during which human activities have left their mark on the planet’s ecosystems, many have responded in ways that do not please environmentalists. Well-positioned conservation biologists like Peter Kareiva and Michelle Marvier have developed a “New Conservation Science,” which employs the tactic of triage to prioritize species that benefit humans. Emma Marris, in her fantastic book Rambunctious Garden, suggests that we should rethink our relationship to nature, abandon the idea of the wild as pure and untrammeled, and instead reconceive of ourselves as nature’s gardeners. The new Ecomodernist Manifesto—spearheaded by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, but endorsed also by enthusiastic geoengineer David Keith, my colleague Roger Pielke Jr., philosopher Mark Sagoff, and many important others—suggests abandoning the traditional environmentalist insistence that humans harmonize with nature and in its stead adopting a more “pragmatic,” technology-embracing, future-forward environmentalism.

Such redirection rightly worries environmentalists, as these proposals threaten to upend the few gains that have been made through the climate change debate. These proposals are all at once a simple call to reorient the objectives of environmentalism and a challenge to commitments that many environmental stalwarts hold dear. The instinctual step for many is to return to old and tired tropes—to try even harder to tie global environmental collapse to the precious value of nature. Witness the weepy pictures of lone polar bears desperately clutching remnant ice floes. Far from a satisfactory response to the critics of environmentalism, however, this strategy is the same hackneyed appeal that environmentalists have been making for decades—an appeal to the value and fragility of nature—in an effort to bring the rest of the world around to doing the right thing.

Fortunately, there is an alternative. There’s no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. We can accept many of the commitments that have motivated environmentalists for decades without insisting that we prioritize human interests, that we become nature’s gardeners, or that we embrace technological solutions to our problems. To go this way, however, it’s important for environmentalists to stop emphasizing the value of nature and to focus instead on our ethical obligations to justify our actions. It is important for the environmental community to acknowledge that nature isn’t necessarily all that it’s cracked up to be; for us to acknowledge that, at times, nature can be pretty brutal. Nature is a mixed bag. Many times nature can be good…for us, for others; many times nature can be just plain awful. This may sound like heresy, but if you feel this way, I hope that you will hear me out. Like many people, I consider myself an environmentalist, and I have taken many actions, and written many papers, in defense of nature.

Do I love nature? In a way, I suppose. I’ve even hugged a tree or two in my time. But I’ve certainly been miserable while camping, and I most definitely don’t love mosquitoes, feeling water in my boots, or tasting sand in my stew. And I don’t like snow, or cold, or bad weather. I’ve cursed cats when they’ve scratched me and I’ve even smashed a few spiders with my shoe. I hate cancer, and I have a vintage bottle of wine saved up for the day on which the disease is eradicated from the earth. But environmentalism is not about love. And I don’t think it’s fundamentally about self-interest either. I think it’s about reason and rationality. It’s about being human.

We should be environmentalists because it is right, because we have the capacity to be better than nature. What I mean by this is that we human beings have the unique power to be moral, to justify our actions, to evaluate the reasons that we have for acting, and then to take action. We’re not like lions or rats or pigs.5 We’re human—a fact that carries with it special burdens. Namely, human beings can guide their actions by reason; they can justify their actions. According to the same logic that has us chastising people who “act like animals,” we ought to recognize that it is our responsibility not to act like animals. In order to do this, we need to have reasons behind us, good reasons. A man who wanders into the woods and kills a dog just to see it die, we might rightly condemn as loony, beastly, or immoral. But we might feel differently if that same man kills a dog that is attacking him. His reasons, we might say, are justified. Our unique burden as human beings is that we can act for reasons, good or bad, and thus we fail to live up to our potential if we act as brutally as nature. These reasons I speak of? They inform everything we do.

Consider the variety of choices we face. Consider, in particular, the way in which we reason through these choices. What should we do? Should we buy a hybrid or a gas guzzler? On one hand, buying a hybrid seems like the right thing to do. No one wants to be a part of the climate change problem. On the other hand, for many people the cost of a hybrid is prohibitive. It would be much cheaper and easier to buy the $3,000 used car advertised on Craigslist. Is there anything wrong with this sort of calculation?

Consider also our choices at the grocery store. There, on the shelf, are several cartons of eggs. One is cheap, at $1.49. Another is twice as expensive. Free-range organic, a label screams from the more expensive carton, soy-ink practically bleeding through the cardboard. It’s a small extra cost, by itself, but it’s significant when paired with the pricey organic milk right beside it, as well as the many other things we must purchase on any given shopping trip. Why should we choose one over the other?

Most of the time we get very little guidance in such decisions. Either we are left to our own devices, basing our choices on our private repository of knowledge and desires, or we are steered by others, basing our choices on paths laid out by self-anointed experts: our parents, our friends, the billboard down the street, the hotshot how-to-green-your-lifestyle manual of the year, or the trendsetting superstar. We hold fast to the idea that our decisions are ours to make, our actions are ours to take. But this is the perplexing and inconvenient conundrum of environmentalism: our decisions and actions impact an enormous and global spectrum of others, human and nonhuman alike. If we take time to consider the implications of our decisions before we even get to the grocery store, before we force-feed ourselves disastrous meals of unseasoned and uncooked tofu, we will be in a much better position to say that we have lived an ethical life.

Many environmentalists operate under the mistaken presumption that their arguments for the value of nature, if made well and strongly enough, will through sheer force of reason persuade other nonenvironmentalists to become environmentalists. Much to their chagrin, this generally doesn’t pan out. The reason for this, I believe, is that the justificatory train has already left the station. In other words, the problem for environmentalists isn’t that people don’t value nature; it’s that many people don’t see the relationship between the value of nature and the justifiability of the actions they take. Many people seem to think that an action is justified so long as it fulfills a need, a want, it is lawful, or they have the resources to make it happen. “It’s a free country,” after all. This default position stems from a particular set of ideas about human freedom, not about value. Therefore, if environmentalists are sincere in their efforts to change how people think and act, what must be advanced instead is not another theory propounding the value of nature, but a theory of justification that is not rooted in value—a theory that explains why we humans must scrutinize and analyze our actions to be sure that we are not destroying our world. That’s what I offer here.


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