Ecological Ethics and Economics: A Clash of Worldviews

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This paper was originally written as an assignment for an Environmental Ethics course in the Environmental Practice program at Royal Roads University. However, I loved the paper so much I decided I would like to include it as a blog post.

The paper examines the economic problem BC logging is facing from the biocentric and ecocentric ethic perspectives, to challenge people to “see goodness as more than economic and selfish conceptions of value”.


In 2022, B.C. lumber exports totalled 7.3 billion dollars. A high number, but not high enough for those in the forestry industry. The provincial government has attempted to address the situation by encouraging “higher value-added manufacturing – engineered wood products, for example – and using more wood in construction”, and by offering grants to some businesses to “upgrade [their] sawmill to process multiple species of timber simultaneously and produce a wider range of wood products.” (Bennett, 2023).  However, “facing a declining timber supply, high operating costs, a moratorium on cutting old-growth trees, [and] new caribou habitat protection measures… the industry appears to be in reset mode, as it tries to figure out how – or if – it can continue to do business in B.C.” (Bennett, 2023).  

The declining forest supply means much more than just its economic implications. Our demand for lumber and consequential treatment of the forests raises questions about how society relates to nature. The logging of ancient trees demonstrates a lack of respect and reverence for beings that not only existed long before us but could have continued to do so, and their important role in managing the abiotic systems of the world. It also shows society has little concern for the animals who depend on the forests directly, as implied by listing caribou protections as a challenge to the forestry industry. To properly address the forestry industry situation, biocentric and ecocentric ethics should be included in analysis and policy making. 

A Biocentric Approach to Forestry

There are few things as awe-inspiring as being placed in an environment where we are suddenly faced with how small we are, and how young as a species we are, but in the presence of towering trees that are hundreds of years old, we can feel it. Because of this awe, it is hard to imagine approaching forestry without some consideration of a biocentric approach. Erazim Kohák summarizes the biocentric approach very neatly: “Life gushes forth daily around us, constantly renewing itself, it is the force of all living. Ethically there’s no distinction among us: we all are one life” (Kohák, 2000, P. 81).

A biocentric approach to forestry can challenge the worst parts of an anthropocentric approach (greed and our sense of superiority) which so often shapes our economic policies because it asks us to place ourselves back as a part of the natural world, rather than looking at the natural world from afar as merely a resource, and consider our responsibility to take care of it rather than master it. With this lens, the issue of decline in forestry cannot be seen purely as economic, it must be seen as a fundamental flaw in how we are relating to the natural world. We see trees as nothing more than resources, and don’t even provide them the courtesy of taking care of them so both the forests and all depending on them may coexist with humans for years to come.

The view of species protection as a challenge to forestry sheds light on how classical economics views wildlife: as either a useful resource or something to be dealt with. There is little room in the middle. So it’s unsurprising that in the name of the economy:

“The B.C. government, despite criticism from biologists and conservation groups, continues to promote industrial logging in forests that federal scientists deem essential for the [northern spotted] owl’s survival and recovery.”

(Cox et al., 2023). 

Under a biocentric ethic, this attitude can simply not stand. Not only are the trees being destroyed, but direct harm is being done, knowingly it would seem, to endangered species — the ones in most need of our help. What does it say about us, with all our modern science, with evidence of the direct harm our consumption causes, when we choose to press on in the name of the economy — a system that will go extinct with us? And as Rolston puts it, “who deserves a privilege he will not grant?” (Rolston, 1975, P 123) 

An Ecocentric Approach to Forestry

While Mary Midgley (2003) suggests moral isolationism dictates we refrain from judging other cultures out of politeness, and to judge ourselves we must be able to judge others, when it comes to resource extraction it seems we have no qualms on judging others.  Take for example the observations of one British zoologist and wildlife filmmaker, Bertie Gregory, upon visiting Vancouver Island and seeing our clearcuts: 

“I guess the first thing to say is that all of this is entirely legal, there is nothing illegal about this. …We’re all part of this. We all use wood, we all use paper. So many animals live here… this ecosystem is home to bears, eagles, otters, tons of coastal birds, and I’ve seen signs of wolves, but logging does much more than just destroy their habitat. Predators suddenly have high ways to travel long distances throwing the whole ecosystem out of balance.”

(Gregory, 2016).
Screenshot of Bertie Gregory looking at clearcut area on Vancouver Island

And we here in Canada make the same cries as Gregory about the Amazon rainforest, often blind to the effects on the ecosystem due to our own deforestation, unable to acknowledge our own role as Gregory has. Gregory also raises an important point on how disturbing the wolves can throw the ecosystem itself out of balance: in Yellowstone when the wolves were eliminated, not only was the balance of prey disrupted, but “streams began to erode and degrade the conditions willow trees needed to grow” (Clark, 2020). While it remains to be seen what the implications of “clearcut highways” for wolves will have, it seems we didn’t learn any lessons about their role in ecosystems after having to reintroduce them to Yellowstone. 

If all of the relationships in the forest are considered, it is clear our activity is disturbing something far bigger than the trees, so perhaps an ecocentric ethic is far better suited for addressing how we relate to the more than human world. As Rolston says, “When a hiker who has seen all the trees asked next, ‘show me the forest,’ some will reply that the forest is nothing more than the collection of trees. Only the trees are real. … There seems little reason to count one pattern (the organism) as real and another (the ecosystem) as unreal.” (Rolston, 2020, P. 183). 

Indeed, our forests house so much more than just trees, and each element, biotic and abiotic,  is worthy of consideration. In addition to providing habitat for fauna and shade for low-light dwelling flora, forests are important to fundamental parts of life: they keep water clean by “[catching] rainfall, [regulating] storm runoff and [pulling] pollution from the soil rather than allowing it to make it back to waterways” and clean the air “both by directly intercepting particulate air pollution and absorbing dangerous gases like nitrogen dioxide and ozone” (The Wilderness Society, 2022).

Opponents of the moral consideration of ecosystems will ask: why should we care about these things beyond their economic purpose to us? Others, such as Harley Cahen (1988), would argue that since the air or the water does not have interests of its own, and cannot be harmed, there is no need to be morally considerate towards them. To this, the logical response is: 

“Life is a system-based phenomenon … the living individual not only has ethical value because it is alive and striving to live but because the system that gives rise to life itself is valuable and so it too must be seen as morally considerable”

(Dunham, 2022).

A complete understanding of the natural world’s goodness best occurs when we consider its place in the whole because the removal of one part of the system, living or not, can have catastrophic consequences on all else. With our increasing demand for more old growth to be logged, we are finding out what it means when we let economics dictate what is removed from the system, and based on the path we have put ourselves on, it will be far too late by the time the economists wise up to the damage they encouraged.

Conclusion

The economy and policies we create for its sake should not be separated from understanding the moral sense of nature, preferably from an ecocentric perspective but at the minimum a biocentric one. To do so is proving to be disastrous for all parties. We must learn and incorporate into our relationships with the more than human world that “we gain what we give: to be whole, [we] must leave the earth whole” (Rolston, 1975, P 123) and work towards finding ethical and sustainable solutions to meet our lumber needs and no more than that.

References

Bennett, N. (2023, October 31). B.C. forestry industry is dealing with death by a thousand cuts. Business in Vancouver. https://www.biv.com/news/resources-agriculture/bc-forestry-industry-dealing-death-thousand-cuts-8293900

Clark, J. R. (2020, March 21). We Were Wrong About Wolves, Here’s Why. Defenders of Wildlife. Retrieved March 6, 2024, from https://defenders.org/blog/2020/03/we-were-wrong-about-wolves-heres-why

Cox, S., Simmons, M., Anderson, D., & Griffin, N. (2023, October 11). Canada rejects emergency order to save spotted owls. The Narwhal. https://thenarwhal.ca/spotted-owl-emergency-order-rejected/

Dunham, S. (2022, July 29). Ecocentrism [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qbpSnvNTqFs

Gregory, B. (2016, September 21). Wolf Prints (Episode 9) [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZhbSOgL6gSU&list=PLNxd9fYeqXeb7vxi2k3Fg5Xm-kh8KMC7e&index=9

Kohák, E. V. (2000). The Green Halo: A Bird’s-eye View of Ecological Ethics. Open Court.

Midgley, M. (2003). Heart and Mind : The Varieties of Moral Experience (3rd ed.). Taylor & Francis Group. https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/royalroads-ebooks/detail.action?docID=181662

Rolston, H. (1975, March-April). Lake Solitude: The Individual in Wildness. Main Currents, 31(4), 121-123. https://api.mountainscholar.org/server/api/core/bitstreams/b5e32198-23c3-4f38-9556-1800bd8a6626/content

Rolston, H. (2020). Chapter 6: Ecosystems: The land ethics. In A New Environmental Ethics: The Next Millennium for Life on Earth. Taylor & Francis Group. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781003036746

The Wilderness Society. (2022, May 12). 6 reasons old-growth forests are really important. The Wilderness Society. Retrieved March 6, 2024, from https://www.wilderness.org/articles/blog/6-reasons-old-growth-forests-are-really-important