Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Is pollution bad for the earth?

A curious thought hit me today: What could it mean for something, say pollution, to be bad for the earth? We have, I think, a fairly good idea of what it is for something to be good or bad for a human, a dog, a wasp, a tree and maybe even a bacterium. But for a planet? For humans, dogs, etc., there are roughly three accounts of well-being: (a) the hedonist account that well-being is pleasure and absence of pain, (b) the desire account that well-being is (roughly) fulfillment of desires and lack of frustration of desires, and (c) the flourishing account. Now, (a) requires consciousness and (b) requires mind, so neither is applicable to a tree, a bacterium or the earth.

That leaves the flourishing account. But while I have some idea about canine and waspish flourishing, I have very little idea about planetary flourishing. For instance, does hosting life make a planet flourish, or to the contrary, do planets flourish more when they are devoid of life? After all, if the average member of a natural kind is likely to have a normal degree of flourishing, it appears that lifeless planets have a normal degree of flourishing. So as long as we don't literally blow the earth into pieces, it seems that whatever pollution we inflict on it, we won't push it below the normal level of well-being.

But perhaps we need to distinguish different kinds of planets, and different kinds of planets have different kinds of flourishing. Thus, maybe, a planet in a "habitable zone" in a stellar system has the support of organic life as part of its flourishing. But what kind of organic life is needed for flourishing? Is the planet better off for hosting more complex life-forms? (Is a house better off for having people rather than geckos in it?) Or for a greater diversity of life-forms? (Is a house better off for having people and cockroaches rather than just people?) It seems plausible that unless we have a metaphysical teleology, either of the Aristotelian or the theistic sort, for planets in the habitable zone, these questions have no answer. And even if we have such a teleology, the epistemology of that teleology will be difficult, because the earth is the only habitable planet we know of, and typically we learn about the teleological properties of a natural kind by observing multiple instances.

But perhaps it is a mistake to think of the earth as rocks, water and atmosphere. Rather, the suggestion goes, the ecosystem is not just hosted by the earth, but is a part of the earth. I am not sure we should buy that. While parthood might not in general be transitive, it seems plausible that since we are parts of the ecosystem, then if the ecosystem were a part of the earth, we would be parts of the earth. But surely we are not parts of the earth. We live on earth, but we are not parts of it any more than we are parts of the galaxy (though the earth is a part of the galaxy).

But let us grant that the ecosystem is a part of the earth—or maybe that "the earth" is sometimes a metonymy for the ecosystem. In that case, pollution that causes destruction of a part of the ecosystem without a compensating growth elsewhere does seem to be contrary to the flourishing of the earth. But more detailed study of flourishing still seems mired in epistemic problems. It is very hard to figure out the teleology of the ecosystem as a whole, unless we accept revelation and say that the teleology is the support of humanity.


Heath White said...

This is a good set of questions. I have always taken "the planet," in environmentalist lingo, to mean "the living things on the planet," together with an acknowledgment that the good of each depends heavily on the good of others, a kind of ecological common good.

(It is not very plausible that any amount of pollution is going to harm the tectonic plates or the magma core of the planet. While we do sometimes speak of harming the ozone layer or the oceans, I take this to be short for harming the living things that depend on the ozone layer or the oceans.)

A different set of questions is why we should care about the good of species other than our own. (After all, I don't much care what happens with cockroaches or plague bacilli. Or rather, I care, but not in a positive way.) Roughly, you could say that we should care about it for our own sakes, or for their own sakes. The epistemology of this might be hard but one place to start is with the parallel question of why we should care about other people or societies than our own.

Alexander R Pruss said...

This is basically "earth" as "ecosystem". I am still not clear on what the flourishing of an ecosystem consists in.

Here is an interesting question: The occurrence of evolutionary processes is a constitutive part of the flourishing of an ecosystem over any significant amount of time. But evolutionary processes can involve species extinctions. If so, then is species extinction a bad thing? Maybe it's always bad in itself but sometimes not instrumentally bad. (But species extinction may be a constitutive part of the evolutionary processes, so instrumentality may be an inappropriate concept to invoke.) If evolution led to a stable equilibrium between two extremely large bacterial populations, and the extinction of all other organisms, would that have been a good or a bad thing for the planet?

The interconnection between the goods of all the critters on earth is also questionable, at least within a naturalistic framework. The vast numbers of species extinctions over evolutionary history seems to be evidence that sometimes the good of some species involves or implies the extinction of another species. (Outside of a naturalistic framework, one might suppose some kinds of mysterious goods, whereby the ants are better off for the existence of anteaters, because it is a part of the ants' flourishing to feed anteaters.)

Alexander R Pruss said...

It occurs to me on re-reading the post and the comments that while it's true that we only have one earth to observe, we also have diachronic information which we might want to use for figuring out what the earth's flourishing consists in.