The philosopher frames environmentalism in terms of climate change and sustainable development.
Question: Why should human behavior be in tune with the environment?
Dale Jamieson: I think for me the argument really rests on a certain conception of what it is to be human. Now, other people have tried to argue that conceptions of rights and interests that I and others think apply to animals really extend further than that. There are people who argue, for example, that trees have rights or that we have moral duties that are directly owed to forest and to ecosystems and so on. I'm not persuaded of those arguments, I mean, I do think those arguments do apply to other non-human animals. I don't think we're special among animals in the kinds of interest and rights that we have. But then the next question that really arises about our relationship to nature is what is it for animals like us to have good lives and to flourish and to have meaningful lives in the environments in which we evolve and in relation to the nature to which we're so well-adapted. And there, I think, questions about what it means to respect nature become very important because just as in human society, for example, part of what it is for me to live a good life as a human being in a human society is to have respect for others around me. Now, that respect, to some extent, can be thought of as being grounded in the rights and interest of others but it also has to do with the stance that I take in the world and what it is that provides meaning and significance in my own life and I think there are similar ideas of respect for nature that apply as well. And that having a certain attitude towards nature is part of what it is for me to have a good life as a human being.
Question: Should environmentalism be economically justified?
Dale Jamieson: At some level, I'm not too concern with people's motivations in the sense that if we can figure out how to live together with nature without blowing ourselves up and destroying nature, even if we all have different reasons about why that's a bad thing, you know, I'll take them. At the same time, there has become a kind of pervasive economistization of the rhetoric in American life. If we go back to the 16th or 17th Century, if we wanted to argue about family obligations, who had rights to cut down trees and forests, whether we should help the poor, all of these arguments would be made in religious terms. The common currency of the arguments would be the Bible, it would be some conception of God and so on. And even though we were talking about something entirely different, the touch stone of all these arguments would somehow have to be in terms of this common sense of religion that pervaded the society. I think increasingly, economic rhetoric has replaced religious rhetoric in our society so somehow we make all our arguments in economic terms. If I want to argue, for example, that one of the great last wild places of the earth, the Patagonian region of Chile should not be damned, there proposals to build five huge tall dams in Patagonia now, and I say one reason we shouldn't dam Patagonia is because it's one of the wildest and most beautiful places on earth, even environmentalists then will want me to say, "Well, how can we express that value in economic terms?" and we'll try to make an argument to try to show that the economic benefits of the aesthetic value of Patagonia outweighs the merely consumptive value of producing electricity from those dams and that's how we'll make the case. Well, as I said, in some way I don't mind too much with people's motivations are as long as we can get to some collectively livable outcome but there is a kind of debasement of our language and our rhetoric and our reasoning and the fact of the matter is, aesthetics do matter to us, morality matters to us, and sometimes we do things out of a sense of wonder, out of a sense of awe, out of a sense of rightness and out of a sense of beauty and we should be willing to discuss those considerations in their own terms and not think that somehow they have to be usually, in some entirely confabulated way reduced to dollars and cents, to have any role to play in the way we think about environmental issues. That disturbs me and that I feel very much opposed to.
Question: What is the best argument for vegetarianism?
Dale Jamieson: It used to be that the case for vegetarianism was somewhat controversial because while it's the case that factory farmed animals suffer enormously and while it's the case that the conversion of grain to animal protein is extremely inefficient, there were things that people could say in the other side of these arguments. So, for example, in response to factory farming, people would say as Michael Pollan still sometimes is given to saying, "Well, what if animals have happy lives. What if they're not factory farmed? What if we can kill them painlessly?" When it comes to the inefficiency of the system, "Oh, what if we don't eat so much meat and so on and so forth," and those kinds of arguments do have some weight. But I think the mother of all arguments against eating meat now is the climate change argument. Methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide and when we eat meat we wipe away many of the good things that we do when we try to create greener and more sustainable practices in the rest of our lives. So if you add the concern for climate change with other concerns that were there. I think the case for vegetarianism is pretty overwhelming.
Now, I must say that in my own mind, I think what's important is for us, as a society, to radically reduce the consumption of meat. This is more important than some fraction of us become moral saints and become vegetarians so it would be much better if we would reduce meat consumption by three quarters of each of us as an individuals would only eat one-quarter as much meat as we do now then that half of the population should become vegetarian. We should see this as a collective challenge rather than an issue about individual, moral period.
Recorded on: April 15, 2009