Are you expecting there to be another Earth?

By Lauren Naughton

It is an undeniable fact that the environment has been altered by humans. We have released gas pollutants, used harmful levels of pesticides, and dumped toxic waste. In addition to this careless exploitation, humans have held a general apathy when it comes to solving the issues created by their actions. It is this apathy and disinterest which suggests that environmental issues are not the problems themselves, but merely a symptom of poor human character.

To explain, consider the following example. This exam period, as in preceding years, was rounded off by some students throwing plastic confetti outside exam halls, cracking eggs on windows and coating the pavements with white flour. Behaviours such as these actively harm the environment; plastic confetti is non-biodegradable and cracked eggs must be cleaned from windows with contaminant chemical products. Knowing this, what type of person would choose this destructive behaviour anyway?

Our actions reveal a selfishness and recklessness

From an environmentalist perspective, such actions reveal a selfishness and recklessness that prioritises one’s own pleasure. However, if these poor traits were replaced with positive traits such as benevolence and stewardship, destruction of the same kind would not take place, as individuals’ behaviours would naturally be more considerate.

Unfortunately, combating the issues of character are often neglected in favour of small-picture solutions, like bans and substitutions. Banning plastic bags and encouraging people to switch to public transport does nothing to affect underlying human selfishness. Even if plastic bags are banned, people still opt to use takeaway cups and other one-use plastics, thereby continuing the problem.

Problems with the environment are symptoms of poor human behaviour

An alternative approach places human character front and centre. This approach is known as Environmental virtue ethics. The moral theory promotes the view that we should encourage people to develop positive character traits and to avoid negative character traits. Positive traits, or virtues, such as respect and gratitude, would allow individuals to appreciate the worth of the environment, and therefore seek to preserve it. Negative traits such as indifference and exploitation would be heavily discouraged.

By altering underlying traits rather than specific destructive behaviours like using one-use plastics, there may be no need for bans, as people would manage their own behaviour in line with the environment. Problems with the environment – the symptoms of poor human behaviour – would therefore reduce. The suggestion is of course ambitious. Human behaviour is unlikely to change quickly, and it would be even longer until virtue could be seen as usual. Complex systems of moral education would need to be implemented, and conservation would have to be prioritised over capitalistic norms. But, perhaps keeping in mind the shift as a long-term goal would be a useful development in preserving the environment.

Image by European Parliament via Flickr

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