September 12, 2008

Our obligations toward the environment

I once read that an important difference between Western cultures and at least some traditional African cultures is that the latter internalize the idea that humans are animals and are part of nature, while Westerners hold a dualist view of our place in the world - it is us on one side and nature on the other. Tyler Cowen exemplifies this dualism when he asks "What are our personal obligations toward the environment?"

We are part of the environment. Other people are part of my environment. I am part of the environment of other people and of many other organisms such as the bacteria that live in my gut, the birds that nest in my building, or the plants that live in some distant rainforest. The question whether we have obligations towards "the environment" doesn't make sense.
Climate change is not the last environmental burden we will place on the world and probably not even the biggest such burden, but fewer people does mean less human pressure along many environmental dimensions, present and future.
"Burden?" "Human pressure?" I understand that these are just metaphors, but metaphors for what? The choice of words suggests a world in which "the environment" is better off if not touched by us the outsiders, and the well-being of "the environment" is above our well-being. Maybe Cowen and those who speak in similar terms mean some other thing. If so, why don't they choose other metaphors?

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