Environmental values

What do we value in the environment and how do we decide what we need to preserve, to foster or improve? At the basis of our discussion so far have been several assumptions regarding the value or importance of different fundamental attitudes or actions, some of which I have associated with ideas that come from the underlying environmental science. Is it legitimate, however, to make connections of this kind between science and values? It is often argued that science itself is value free. But science is not an activity in isolation. As Michael Polanyi has pointed out, the facts of science cannot sensibly be considered apart from the participation and the commitment of those who discover those facts or incorporate them into wider knowledge.24

In the methodology and the practice of science are many assumptions of value. For instance, that there is an objective world of value out there to discover, that there is value in the qualities of elegance and economy in scientific theory, that complete honesty and cooperation between scientists are essential to the scientific enterprise. Further, progress in science demands a balanced view of all the data relevant to the area of investigation, not distorted by vested interests or personal or political agendas.

Values can also be suggested from the perspective of the underlying science as we have shown earlier in the chapter.25 For instance, we have described the Earth in terms of balance, interdependency and unity. Since all of these are critical to the Earth as we know it, we can argue that they are of fundamental value and worth preserving. We have also provided some scientific evidence that humans have a particular place in the overall scheme of the natural world, that they possess special knowledge - which suggests that they also possess special responsibility.

Moving away from science, we have already referred to values related to the environment that come from our basic experiences as human beings. These are often called 'shared values' because they are common to different members of a human community - which may be a local community, a nation or ultimately the global community taking in the whole human race. An outstanding example is the conservation of the Earth and its resources, not just for our generation but for future generations. Other examples may involve how resources are used now for the benefit of the present generation of humans and how they are shared between different communities or nations. Holmes Rolston shows that in these areas of shared values, natural values (valuing the natural world) and cultural values (interpersonal, social and community values) belong together. He writes of 'a domain of hybrid values ... the resultant of integrated influences from nature and culture'.26

When shared values are applied to real situations, however, conflicts often arise. For instance, how much should we forgo now in order to make provision for future generations, or how should resources be shared between different countries, for instance between those in the relatively rich 'North' and those in the relatively poor 'South'? How do we exercise our responsibility as humans to share the Earth with other parts of the creation? How much resource should be deployed to maintain particular ecosystems or to prevent loss of species? How do we apply principles of justice and equity in the real world? Discussion within and between human communities can assist in the definition and application of such shared values.

Many of these shared values have their origins in the cultural and religious backgrounds of human communities. Discussions about values need therefore to recognise fully the cultural and religious traditions, beliefs and assumptions that underlie many of our attitudes and reasoning about ethical concerns.

An obstacle to the recognition of religious assumptions in the attempt to establish environmental values is the view that religious belief is not consistent with a scientific outlook. Some scientists maintain that only science can provide real explanations based on provable evidence whereas the assertions of religion cannot be tested in an objective way.27 Other scientists, however, have suggested that the seeming inconsistency between science and religion arises because of misunderstandings about the questions being addressed by the two disciplines and that there is more in common between the methodologies of science and religion than is commonly thought.28

Scientists are looking for descriptions of the world that fit into an overall scientific picture. They are working towards making this picture as complete as possible. For instance, scientists are looking for mechanisms to describe the 'fine-tuning' of the Universe (these are known as 'Theories of Everything'!) mentioned earlier. They are also looking for mechanisms to describe the inter-dependencies between living systems and the environment.

But the scientific picture can only depict part of what concerns us as human beings. Science deals with questions of 'how' not questions of 'why'. Most questions about values are 'why' questions. Nevertheless, scientists do not always draw clear distinctions between the two. Their motivations have often been associated with the 'why' questions. That was certainly true of the early scientists in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, many of whom were deeply religious and whose main driving force in pursuit of the new science was that they might 'explore the works of God'.29

That science and religion should be seen as complementary ways of looking at truth is a point made strongly by Al Gore in Earth in the Balance30 which lucidly discusses current environmental issues such as global warming. He blames much of our lack of understanding of the environment on the modern approach, which tends to separate scientific study from religious and ethical issues. Science and technology are often pursued with a clinical detachment and without thinking about the ethical consequences. 'The new power derived from scientific knowledge could be used to dominate nature with moral impunity,' he writes.31 He goes on to describe the modern technocrat as 'this barren spirit, precinct of the disembodied intellect, which knows the way things work but not the way they are'.32 However, he also points out that 'there is now a powerful impulse in some parts of the scientific community to heal the breach'33 between science and religion. In particular, as we pursue an understanding of the Earth's environment, it is essential that scientific studies and technological inventions are not divorced from their ethical and religious context.

0 0

Post a comment