Environmental Ethics and Nature: Is All Nature Natural?

By: Michael Menconi

Dr. Gregory Kaebnick at Fordham University
Dr. Gregory Kaebnick of the Hastings Center giving a lecture at Fordham University

What exactly is nature? Is nature defined by sprawling man-made public parks at the center of the world’s largest cities, or by vast acres of vegetation in the most remote parts of the Amazon Jungle, supposedly unaltered by human action? Dr. Gregory Kaebnick of the Hastings Center addressed these questions during a Center for Ethics Education lecture in the Special Collections Room of Fordham’s Walsh Library, entitled “Humans in Nature.” Kaebnick utilizes a preservationist approach to environmental ethics in an effort to unwind the complex ethical dilemmas involved in defining the intricacies of the natural world.

Firstly, it is necessary to understand the status of humans on earth with respect to nature —is humanity part of nature, or are humans separate entities that manipulate the natural environment? Kaebnick draws upon the work of historian and environmental philosopher William Cronon in an effort to challenge the common misconception that a “pristine nature” exists. Cronon’s argument put forth in his provocative essay The Time Has Come To Rethink Wilderness, is comprised of two arguments which seek to discredit the long-held conception of a dualistic interpretation – a binary separation of humanity and nature – of the natural world.

Cronon begins by arguing that everything conforms under the law of nature – a set of moral principles derived from nature and grounded in reason – which he describes as “transcendental and a product of our civilization.”  He explains, “it is a stated regularity in the world that holds, under a stipulated set of conditions, either universally or in a stated proportion of instances.”

The second, more specific and controversial premise of his argument is the notion that all human action is natural. Our actions, in other words, are part of the essence of nature and therefore any human intervention in the environment is morally sound. Critics of Cronon and Kaebnick, maintain that an “uninhabited wilderness” exists, suggesting that human action and nature are separate entities. Kaebnick supports Cronon’s assertion that all human action is natural, maintaining that the debate over the relationship between natural and artificial entities is not a valid topic of ethical, political, or moral discourse without first defining the place of humanity in nature.

There is a danger in placing too much focus on an ideal of pristine nature, according to Kaebnick. Overemphasis of wilderness as a purely natural entity may lead to “irresponsible reactions to both social and environmental problems” among society. The notion of the true existence of a pristine natural world—untouched by humans—can lead to the perils of overlooking necessary resources required to actively protect the environment. Perhaps more significantly, Kaebnick argues that this dualist ideology may “lead us to accept social injustices, not only by preventing us from recognizing the claims that natives have to lands that we pretend they never inhabited, but also simply by distracting us.” Instead of considering nature as a distinct entity—separate from human influence—Kaebnick proposes we consider humans and their respective actions as an integral part of the natural world.  

If this premise is valid, does this mean that everything in nature—in one way or another—has been influenced by human action? Similarly, does this mean that everything on earth is artificial, and truly natural entities are simply extinct? Kaebnick argues that this rationale is too absolutist. He asserts that one does not need to possess an understanding of nature and wilderness as independent concepts in order to classify matter as artificial or natural. He emphasizes that we as a human race need to understand “ourselves” as part of the natural world—a concept contrary to the traditional philosophy of dualism promulgated by Descartes in the mid-17th century.  The antiquated metaphysical distinction between humanity and nature fails to take into account the ways in which humans have altered the environment for thousands of years.

In an effort to clarify Kaebnick’s intricate philosophical approach to environmental ethics and nature, I had the opportunity to question him on the concept of climate change following his lecture at Fordham. For the sake of argument, consider a remote ice glacier situated at the farthest edge of Antarctica, where the possibility of alteration by the Homo sapiens species is nonexistent. The species living on this glacier, if any, are members of the original, natural ecosystem. If the species living on this glacier are members of the original natural ecosystem, could this be called natural?

Now let us consider the contemporary phenomenon known as global warming, or climate change. Human consumption of fossil fuels has produced a thickening ozone layer that sits atop the earth’s atmosphere, quarantining the sun’s heat while simultaneously raising the temperature of our environment. Consequently, this glacier has melted, dwindling in size while raising the sea level of the surrounding ocean.

This effect is a direct result of human pollution—and therefore I challenged Kaebnick in stating that even this remote glacier situated in a desolate corner of the world is no longer in its natural state. If humans did not exist—meaning the temperature of the atmosphere would not be rising due to pollution—the glacier would be significantly larger, and the surrounding sea level unchanged. Although the glacier may never have been physically manipulated by human action, human behavior has undoubtedly altered its natural state.

Kaebnick’s response to this situation was clear—he maintains that it is simply impossible to draw clear distinctions between natural and artificial entities in our environment. Some examples are obvious—using a Roman Catholic Cathedral to illustrate an entity that is clearly artificial, or man-made. However, in the case of the glacier, he argues that the glacier itself is a natural entity, while the process of melting is artificial. If one considers the interactions between humans and the environment a part of nature, then it seems as though nothing can be classified as artificial.

What if the process of building the cathedral was natural—something predestined and “meant to be?” As Kaebnick asserts, “we can stand in relationship to nature, for we deny that the only acceptable human relationship to nature is not to have anything to do with it.” Perhaps it is only possible in contemporary society to investigate how we as a human race fit into the dynamic continuum of nature, regardless of whether this conclusion is formulated from philosophical, metaphysical, or scientific beliefs.

Michael Menconi (FCRH ’15) is currently completing a B.S. in Cognitive Psychology, with minors in Bioethics and Sociology. An aspiring physician and public health professional, Michael’s research interests include public health and community medicine, with particular emphasis on the social mechanisms behind child abuse and the consequent effects of toxic stress on child development.

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