In the book ‘The Wild and the Wicked,’ Benjamin Hale argues that because people have the unique capacity to care for the environment, they have a moral obligation to do so
2016 was especially hot. A strong El Niño event spiked global temperatures and made the year one of the Earth’s warmest on record, yet the heat did not inspire action from Congress, whose skeptical majority claimed that climate change was a hoax meant to diminish freedom and disrupt a stable economy.
In December of that year, while many environmentalists were producing studies of the economic costs and benefits of conservation, Benjamin Hale’s book The Wild and the Wicked presented an entirely different reason to care for the natural environment.
Hale contends that economic and value-based approaches to environmentalism—claims about nature’s beauty, intrinsic worth or market value—can provide a morally precarious basis for environmentalism. These arguments often assume that nature is inherently valuable and lovable—a portrayal that ignores the ways in which nature can harm humans and that much of humanity’s history has been spent keeping nature at bay.
“I am challenging what you might consider to be the status quo in the pro-environment discourse,” says Hale, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado Boulder. “Not because I’m anti-environment at all, but because I think that, to an extent, we in the environmental community fall easily into turns of phrase and ideas that otherwise go uninterrogated just because they are commonplace within our community.”
I’m trying to re-inflate a commitment to critical thinking and, ultimately, to democracy by suggesting that the burden is on us to offer justifications for taking actions, whatever they may be.”
Instead, Hale argues, people should care for nature because they are uniquely capable of doing so. When human beings are environmentally conscientious, they live up to one facet of their moral potential as human beings.
“I’m trying to re-inflate a commitment to critical thinking and, ultimately, to democracy by suggesting that the burden is on us to offer justifications for taking actions,” Hale notes, adding, “whatever they may be.”
When nature is wicked
Hale’s argument took shape when he worked as an environmental activist. While camping with other environmentalists, he heard many enthusiastically praise vistas and forests, as if this alone were the primary reason to protect nature. The praise, though, felt incomplete to Hale because he also thought about the harshness of nature—of mountain lions, forest fires and the steep drop of cliff faces.
At roughly the same time, he studied natural resource policy at the University of Arizona and worked on water policy in Washington, D.C., at the Congressional Research Service in the Library of Congress. Hale was disheartened to see that the democratic process boiled down to the pushing of individual agendas.
Those experiences helped him see the problem of environmentalists’ seeking to convince members of the public to protect nature either because it is sublime or contains valuable resources.
In 2004, he earned his PhD in philosophy from the State University of New York at Stony Brook and dove into research integrating the practical observations he’d made while working in environmental policy with the much more abstract conceptual insights in ethical and political theory.
Some of these observations grew into The Wild and the Wicked. In the book, Hale asks readers to observe the ways that nature can upend people’s lives by noting a series of natural disasters and bad events, some from his life and others more generally.
In the book’s first section, he sets the horrific 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami in the Indian Ocean beside the 1945 nuclear bombing of Hiroshima, Japan. Hale notes that both events caused equivalent, devastating human loss and economic damage, but to say they are the same ignores that the latter event was human-caused.
The distinction is important because, as an act of humans, Hiroshima can be understood as morally right or wrong. When environmentalists try to defend nature using value-based arguments (e.g., that conservation offers some economic gain or is fundamentally “good”), they overemphasize instruments of measurement.
Hale writes in his book, “If we think that we can pass judgment on an action simply by appealing to the end state of the world (or even the expected end state of the world), we become little more than moral mathematicians, assigning values of good and bad, better and worse, to possible outcomes. … The human project of ethics is reduced, then, to a simple actuarial project of crunching the numbers. If that’s the case, the mathematics of morality must be a funny math indeed.”
The book’s punchline is that the reason we should protect nature is because we are able to. It places the burden on the shoulders of each one of us to offer clear justifications to one another when making decisions about what to do. We need to have a clear discussion about what's permissible and what's not permissible.”
Hale steadily builds a case that human beings are uniquely able to care for the environment. Because they have the capacity to make judgments and decisions with clear justifications, people have a moral obligation to protect nature.
“The book’s punchline is that the reason we should protect nature is because we are able to,” Hale argues. “It places the burden on the shoulders of each one of us to offer clear justifications to one another when making decisions about what to do. We need to have a clear discussion about what's permissible and what's not permissible.”
Away from economic decision-making and toward a better democracy
Hale says he believes this shift in thinking would change environmental discourse. Rather than forming policies by weighing the intrinsic, extrinsic or instrumental interests of individuals or groups, people could choose the best policies through democratic processes, guided by a moral compass.
I'm laying groundwork for some form of democratic decision-making to take priority or precedence over economic decision-making, which is one of the preferred ways in which policy is set nowadays, and particularly environmental policy. What should have precedence is that discourse, that democratic discourse, and not the spreadsheet or the ledger of costs and benefits, which is the way that we often do it now.”
“I'm laying groundwork for some form of democratic decision-making to take priority or precedence over economic decision-making, which is one of the preferred ways in which policy is set nowadays, and particularly environmental policy,” Hale says. “What should have precedence is that discourse, that democratic discourse, and not the spreadsheet or the ledger of costs and benefits, which is the way that we often do it now.”
By emphasizing discussion and the capacity of communities to come to shared understandings, people can work democratically to bring about positive change. For Hale, this is a far more optimistic outlook on humanity’s ability to make morally right decisions. Rather than insisting that all people are inherently selfish, he says he believes they can come together and make decisions that improve their communities.
“It’s a problem to believe that democracy, well done, is just aggregating the wants of every person,” Hale says. “To be living in a democracy like we live in now, we should be making decisions about what’s good for the community, even if it flies in the face of some of the things that we want.”
“We need to act with reason that is good and justified.”
Top of page: Hale, an associate professor of philosophy, is the author of The Wild and the Wicked. Photo by Benjamin Hale.