philosophical ideas for environmental problem solving


Sometimes we should protect nature because we’ve promised to, because it’s beautiful, or just because it’s the right thing to do–regardless of the consequences. A recent Environmental Thought touched on this idea, but we felt it deserved a bit more airtime.

A current Center for Biological Diversity call-to-action declares: “Tell Trump: There is No Safe Drilling in the Arctic.” The call aims to stop a Hilcorp effort to construct an artificial island and drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean. If the “Liberty Project” moves forward, the Arctic environment could be forever altered. Dangers of a spill loom catastrophic; development would fragment the land. The payoff would also be huge: local economies would grow and domestic energy security would advance. To the extent that possible outcomes are predictable, they are likely to be both good and bad. But are possible outcomes the only guide for decision making?

Orienting the conservation argument around oil leaks or potential impact on wildlife gives a path forward for development. If the problem is safety, then the solution is safe technology. If the problem is disrupting wildlife, then the solution is to mitigate impacts on wildlife. When we argue “there is no way to drill safely in the Arctic,” others respond, “yes there is,” or “that’s why we are taking these precautions.”

Imagine for a moment that Hilcorp perfects drilling technology so as to eliminate all risks to wildlife and wilderness. The company can guarantee no spill will ever take place, no animals will be harmed, and no pollution will result.

Would we approve?

The answer is sometimes still ‘no.’ Even if drilling could be done safely, there are good reasons not to.

Consequentialism is the view that actions can be judged as right or wrong based solely their consequences. Consequentialist reasoning asks us to weigh outcomes and estimate if the good outweighs the bad. This view is both a branch of philosophical ethics and a popular tool in environmental decision making. In fact, consequentialist reasoning is required by national environmental policies through mandated cost-benefit analysis. Such analysis suits questions defined by economics, but gets murky when weighing values beyond economic measure.

How many caribou is a barrel of oil worth? Are economic security and ecological security comparable? Conservation ideals do not fit neatly on a scale measuring consequences in the real world.

We need to talk about our values, commitments, promises, and deliberate openly about our collective choices. Such discussion gets lost in the language of consequentialism.

The Liberty Project proposes to build a 9.3-acre island to facilitate drilling in Foggy Island Bay. The project presents real challenges for the environment, but it is not inconceivable that significant measures could mitigate those risks. Do millions of barrels of oil justify building an island in the Arctic Ocean? Before we can say how possible impacts matter, we need to clarify our obligations regarding these waters.

Consider in contrast the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). The U.S. government established the ANWR as a ‘refuge’ for wildlife–a vast swath of coastal plain to remain free from development. Ongoing efforts aim to protect the Refuge from renewed interest in opening up the area to drilling. A democratic process going back 80 years led to the designation. Agreements with native Gwich’in communities living in the refuge further promised protection. The United States took on a collective responsibility for the refuge, a moral commitment that seems fundamentally incompatible with drilling–even if drilling would mean great economic benefit and minimal environmental harm.

If we ought to reconsider this restrictive management, perhaps too we ought to reconsider areas of unrestrictive management?

The nearby National Petroleum Reserve (NPR) was set aside with resource development as an explicit goal (originally for the Navy). The area supports hundreds of thousands of caribou and a rich ecosystem. Here, however, safety, economic returns, and other considerations may do adequate moral work--it is, after all, the “National Petroleum Reserve.” If drilling proponents call for opening ANWR to development, should environmentalists call to expand ANWR to include the NPR, closing it off, too?

Consequences bear different weight in different places. An effective conservation debate requires moving past a tit-for-tat argument over consequences to broader engagement with what we owe each other. The moral impetus to conserve nature shifts with historical commitments, democratic process, politics, social conventions, and other aspects of circumstance. Teasing apart all the reasons regarding our conservation imperatives better serves conservation ends.

A more productive conversation starts by telling Trump: even if there is safe drilling in the Arctic, you don’t always want it.

Thoughts by ComET members Alex Lee, Jordan Kincaid, & Adam Amir