Reasoning Conservation: Prudence, Justice and the Good Life

This week I had the pleasure of attending a lecture by Uta Eser on the PopeWHY of nature conservation. It seems a stupid question in our field of research and is actually seldom questioned. Moreover, even the pope is fighting climate change nowadays! The story on climate change and extinction of species is well-known. The facts are known. However, there is often an implicit task in this story: an urging plea to do something about it. For action nevertheless, one needs to rationalize and justify why the facts are worth doing something about.

Uta Eser discussed that the rationality of protecting nature, biodiversity and traditional landscapes can be divided in three pillars: Prudence (Intelligence), Justice and the Good Life (Happiness).

Prudence has been mostly used and is referring to the existential need for nature; it serves us in the basic needs to survive. In communication, one often uses the picture of the guy sawing the branch on which it is sitting: you must be out of your mind to saw the very branch which is supporting you! The analogy holds for the sustenance and insurance of the human inhabitants of planet earth. One could think of the scientific approach on ecosystem services and its (monetary) value. However, we get into a pitfall: the collective WE does not always have the same values and wishes as the individual WE. The WE is becoming a generalization and its rhetoric is concealing important issues.Branch

Justice is the second pillar and one of these issues. It might help to redeem the pitfall of prudence. Justice is looking at who is sawing the branch and who will fall out of the tree when the branch is cut. It goes without saying that industrialized western countries are very active in handling the saw, mostly indirect. Our needs (USA is needing 4 planets, while India is needing 0.4 planet!) are being supplied by developing countries, where resources and cheap labour are available. Their branch is being sawed through (think of oil palm plantation, open pit mining and oil exploitation in the Amazon to name a few). In a broader spectrum one could also call upon human being within the chain of living species (biodiversity) or the future generation, who will not have much left over from planet earth. What is justifying us to exploit its resources in such a way? This justification is also used by the pope. However, justification gives us an obligation and people start to rethink the thesis and actually question whether we really need all this nature to survive as a species.

At this point the third pillar comes in: Happiness for All. This appeals to our subjective reasoning of feeling good and comfortable. As the Club of Rome stated in 1972, the crux is not whether human species can survive, but whether its existence will be worthwhile. By protecting nature we provide a better life, improving our relation to ourselves, human kind and earth, involving values, ethics and happiness.

More reading?
Eser, Nuereuther, Seyfang and Muller (2013): Prudence, Justice, and the Good Life. A typology of ethical reasoning in selected European biodiversity strategies


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