Moral Meaning & Morally Mending (Nature)

THIS POST IS THE WINNER OF THE PRIZE FOR BEST ESSAY BY A GRADUATE STUDENT ON THE QUESTION, “HOW DID THE ANTHROPOCENE BIOSPHERE PROJECT AFFECT THE WAY I UNDERSTAND THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN HUMAN BEINGS AND NATURE?” CONGRATULATIONS, ARIELLE!

The Anthropocene Biosphere Project has changed the way that I view the relationship between humans and nature. Generally, there are two prevailing beliefs about the role that human beings play or ought to play regarding the environment. We are either a completely destructive force, exerting our dominance over natural domains or we take a hands off approach and believe that noninterference will help in our conservation efforts. We are either masters of nature or we just act as passive observers. We should consider a third way of thinking about our relationship with nature—being active and immersed in it taking on a stewardship role.

In his lecture, Ellis described how we actively shape nature and transform the natural world to fit our needs. We engage in niche construction, social learning, and sociality. Niche construction is when we engineer the ecosystem to fit our needs. We also inherit what we socially learn. Our social learning accumulates over time. We also engage in sociality which is generally genetic. We cooperate with those like ourselves and we cohabitate with others.

There is one distinct feature about human beings though that makes us different from other creatures that interact with nature. We are ultrasocial. We have culturally defined social organizations and we partake in exchanges with others who are not our kin. Our cultural evolution increases our ability to transform the environment. We force the environment to adapt to us. We create cultural niches and we try to adapt culture with more culture. Ellis describes our transformative power is described as a human climate. This does not seem like a viable solution and only exacerbates the tension between human beings and the environment.

Ellis believes that there are ways that we can interact with the environment that are neither destructive nor passive. We can engineer buildings, roadways, and other infrastructure to be cooperative with the environment. We can think about how we design our spaces in such a way that helps to restore the environment and ecosystems that we have already influenced. We can use our ability to rapidly transform the environment in a positive and constructive way. We can be active in restoring our environment. We should see ourselves as stewards of the environment and as immersed in the natural world—not separate and detached from it.

This leads me to question the internal/external relationship of human culture and how it affects the environment. Trachtenberg highlights this matter in a March 14 blog post. Concerning the sociability of human beings and evolution of culture, Trachtenberg states:

Those “cultural traits” must have to do with the ability to take in and respond appropriately to shared information; having language is obviously at the core of things. But with human beings information is internalized—it is experienced subjectively, as having meaning. We cannot treat culture as a black box which generates patterns of behavior. For the content of culture—the ideas members of a culture experience—help explain the patterns of behavior that are generated.

The internalization of information and meaning might help us figure out a way to approach and alter our relationship with the environment. By attempting to extract our internal meanings associated with culture, we may be able to better accommodate our sociocultural niches to nature. If we can generate ideas and attitudes that are not only meaningful, but that also change our behavior, I think that we can effectively revise our relationship with the environment. If we can understand the relationship between internal meaning and external behavior, we might be more well equipped to adopt policies, architecture, and other aspects of our sociocultural niches that help to situate us as immersed in the environment rather than detached from it.

Mental content of agents is an important piece of the puzzle that seems to be ignored in Ellis’ theory. This is not only true in the evolutionary sense, but also in a moral sense. We can understand the damaging effects that our destructive and passive approaches have on the environment, however, we probably cannot bring ourselves to bring these concerns to our mental foreground most of the time. We have other moral concerns and considerations—sometimes environmental awareness takes a back seat.

I do think that there is a way to bring our environmental concerns to the foreground of our moral concerns. Since we cannot (as much as we’d like to) take an all things considered approach when think and act, instead we need to reframe the way we think about the environment. We need to shift our environmental concerns and attach a moral meaning to them. We need to see the environment as explicitly tied to social, economic, racial, and gender justice. We should aim to shift our internal cultural meanings to reflect these concerns as all in one. This would then affect our behavior and alter our relationship with nature. The internal/external debate extends past what is evolutionary adaptive or maladaptive, but also what we should consider to be grave moral concerns. The morality of situating ourselves in nature is a matter of survival.

While I believe that the Anthropocene Biosphere Project helps us begin to reframe our conception of our place in nature, it doesn’t really give us an answer to how we can move human beings to act collectively and take a vested interest in changing how we use our ability to transform in a more immersive, positive way. It seems to me that currently those in both developed and developing countries have economic interests in keeping our relationship with nature the same.

With that being said, I don’t think that this means that we should throw our hands up and abandon hope. We should all take an interest in restoring and transforming our environment for the better. Difficulty should take a back seat to problems that our current relationship with the environment will cause in the foreseeable future. Environmental issues are social, economic, racial, and gender issues. We need a more internally meaningful morality that addresses the environment in this all-encompassing manner so that we may affect our external behavior in a positively transformative way.


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ARIELLE RODRIGUEZ is currently an MA student in Philosophy at OU. After finishing her MA, she hopes to pursue her PhD in philosophy. Her main research interests are ethics moral psychology, and feminist philosophy.
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