The Place of Intrinsic Value in Environmental Politics

The news this year on the climate front continued to be alarming, especially the record low extent of summer sea ice in the Arctic.  The anthropocentric case for doing more to combat climate change seems self-evident.  A changing climate is very likely to be less hospitable to human needs than a stable one.  Arguments solely from self-interest therefore appear fairly quickly in the discussion of what to do.

But what of arguments not based on self-interest?  What place is there in the environmental discussion for a non-self-serving ethic, based on the idea that the natural world has intrinsic value, independent of human needs or human culture?  In fact, these ideas have been elaborated since the early days of the Does nature have its own intrinsic value?movement by Arne Naess and many others.  The notion of intrinsic value has seen its most prominent political expression in the discourses around parks and protected areas.  Groups like the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society continue to be  influential in establishing that ecological integrity should be a guiding principle of parks governance.  Protected areas symbolize many things, but one of the impetuses for protection is the awareness and recognition of a natural world with its own logic, its own measures, and its own ethical integrity, independent of the human.

Arguments that go beyond human self-interest, however, have not made a huge impact in the climate debate.  One problem is that an ecocentric ethic has been too closely associated with wilderness preservation.  Wilderness preservation is a legitimate basis for political action, however, wildernesses today are too physically remote, too closely managed, and too narrowly defined to be a solid basis for elaborating a larger argument about intrinsic value.  Biodiversity holds more promise, since natural biodiversity can be understood to operate from non-human principles.

Searching for intrinsic value.But what if the biosphere changes radically in response to climate change, what then becomes of an ethic of static preservation and intrinsic value?

In fact, I would argue that the best way and most effective way to integrate an ethic of intrinsic value in political decision making is to use an expansive and embedded approach. Such an approach would first of all recognize that intrinsic value and use value are not mutually exclusive ideas, and that something can be valued both for its usefulness to humans, and for itself.  Aristotle used the example of eyesight.  We value our eyesight both for its usefulness (we can see things and interact with the world more effectively with sight) and for its intrinsic value (we can appreciate sunsets and see the faces of loved ones).   The key test is not whether it would benefit humans to protect it, but would we miss it if it were suddenly taken away?  We can all imagine the sense of loss we would feel if our eyesight were suddenly removed, and we can all imagine the sense of loss as species disappear from the tree of life and the biosphere becomes irrevocably changed and even degraded.

This is a basis for building political action because of its universality.   Cultures may not agree on the value of any individual species but they can agree on the big picture of loss.  Practically speaking, the notion of intrinsic value for Canadians can be easily compared to the language of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Just as rights require entrenchment and defence by government and ordinary citizens, so, too, does nature.

Let’s not be afraid of the language of intrinsic value.  It is already all around us in political discourse.  Arguing that nature should be protected for its own sake makes a more robust position in favour of protection possible.  For example, it puts the onus on oil pipeline companies and developers to prove the worth of their activities, rather than on nature to prove its worth in human terms.