The New Statesman Essay - Towards a green common sense

Must our affection for songbirds depend on deep, foggy metaphysics? Ben Rogers argues for a more sec

New Labour has shown a dazzling ability to create new discourses on a wide array of issues, from constitutional to welfare reform. Yet on the environment it has little new to say. Andrew Marr is exaggerating only slightly when he says that our government still sees green issues as "sissy, big girl's stuff, fit for strange men in corduroys". The subject hardly figured in the election campaign and no leading government minister has championed it. Tony Blair more or less forgot to mention it in his pamphlet on the Third Way; John Prescott insists ever more loudly that he is "not anti-car". As Michael Jacobs, general secretary of the Fabian Society, argued in a recent Fabian pamphlet, Labour has nowhere "presented a simple account of its values and purpose in a form which the public can grasp and recognise. There has been no 'ideological narrative', no 'story to tell' as there has been in other fields." Environmental issues make this government uneasy.

Yet stories about BSE, genetically modified crops and food safety, about transport and congestion, about global warming and its possible relation to cyclones and floods around the world, crowd the front pages. Even those who support fox-hunting or oppose monetary union try to persuade us that they are really fighting the environmental cause. Environmentalists have been sounding off warnings about the short-sightedness of government policies and the dangers inherent in them for decades. They have been proved very largely right. The songbirds have gone, but the pigeons are coming home to roost.

At the same time, environmental values have become almost a mainstream philosophical topic. Where 50 years ago no "serious" philosopher bothered with the subject, Roger Scruton, perhaps the most widely read contemporary philosopher, has often returned to it. Peter Singer's defence of animal rights has made him about the most famous, not to say controversial, philosopher alive. R M Hare and Bernard Williams have written on it. And when David Wiggins, Oxford's professor of logic and one of this country's more influential philosophers, took over the presidency of the august and fusty institution the Aristotelian Society last year, he launched a heartfelt attack on mainstream thinking about the natural world.

Can these philosophers help new Labour to find some kind of environmental direction? It is surely right to start from a rejection of the metaphysics of "deep ecology", the mystical, romantic, Orientalising conceptions of nature, to which environmentalists - including the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess - have often resorted. Such conceptions are just too contentious to form a basis for a serious, influential green philosophy. Instead, as Wiggins has put it in a recent article, we need to start with "the simple secular view that human beings are natural beings and a part of Nature" - albeit "a part that acts more and more as if its destructive and colonising capacities amounted to omnipotence on Earth".

But there is a reason why environmentalists have so often been tempted into their foggy metaphysical speculations. They fear that without a belief in "a whole that is greater than us" we have no reason to value nature "for itself". We not only care about the interests of human and other conscious animals but about the conservation of species, of mountain ranges, valleys, lakes, rivers, gems and fossils. "How can a purely secular ethic," the worry goes, "do justice to these concerns?" As Williams and Wiggins have argued, however, this worry is misplaced. True, we are bound to care only about things that matter to us, but that is not the same as caring only about human matters. We just are the sort of creatures who value things for their own sake. "The human scale of values," as Wiggins puts it, "is not human centred . . . Nature simply entrances, moves or disturbs us independently of our concern for our own welfare or contentment."

The distinction in question here - between what matters instrumentally and what matters intrinsically - is a central feature, some would say the central feature, of our nature as ethical, valuing beings. As the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has often argued, our valuations fall into two categories, "weak" and "strong". An end is weakly valued when it derives its value entirely from its use to the valuer. It is strongly valued when "we acknowledge that its being an end for us is not just contingent on our happening to desire or need it", when in other words, we allow that we would be lesser beings if we should cease to want or need it. "The ice-cream cone I now desire is weakly valued," as Taylor puts it, "because should I lose my interest in it, it would no longer have any claim on me. But I do not think of my commitment to Amnesty International in these terms. Someone who refused to contribute to this cause because they were not 'into' torture victims this week would seem unbearably frivolous. Their change of interest does not reduce the claim, but rather shows them in a poor light." In Taylor's terms, it is clear we value skylarks, rainforests and unpolluted rivers strongly.

None of this is to deny that the natural environment has a vital instrumental value to us as eating, breathing human beings. We are already paying a heavy cost for the policies of the past 50 or 100 years, and prospects for the future are deeply alarming. (The US National Climatic Data Centre, the world's best authority on this, has found for September 1999 average global land temperature up 0.65 per cent on the mean, the second warmest anomaly on record.) It is just that the environment's instrumental value does not exhaust its value.

Seeing it this way captures the special place that nature, along with certain other intrinsically important goods, occupies in our scheme of values. It also points to what might be wrong with the orthodox economic approach to the environment: cost-benefit analysis. The idea is that we can fix a monetary value on nature's goods by asking how much we would be prepared to pay to preserve a natural phenomenon, or to accept as compensation for its destruction. The result is then compared with benefits, also assessed in monetary terms, that might accrue from its destruction. So one might weigh the loss of a certain sort of wild flower that results from applying a chemical fertiliser against the gains in crop yields. The approach, its advocates say, offers a value-neutral "scientific" basis to environmental policy.

It is hard not to feel that this gets something wrong. Cost-benefit analysis locates the value of things in the wrong place - not in the things themselves, but in us. It accords them, in other words, a "weak" or instrumental value. There is, indeed, something wildly inappropriate, not to say grotesque, in any attempt to put a price on a rare species or a natural landscape. It is essential to our understanding of unspoilt moorlands and unpolluted lakes and the like that they are priceless, by which we mean not that we would never sacrifice them (we might have to in a desperate situation), but that they are not ordinary commodities to be traded on a market. Wiggins puts this by saying that human and non-human values are "incommensurable"; the claims they make upon us are utterly diverse, so that there is no fixed "degree of preference" between them. That is why the appropriate response to destroying a valued natural object in the cause of some greater good is not the feeling of a job well done, a rational decision made, but of ineliminable regret, or, in the extreme, of inconsolable loss. The environment is not ours to preserve or destroy. It is not a commodity.

I think this argument accords with secular common sense. It is when environmentalists, including Wiggins, want to go further that I part company with them. They suggest that the claims of conservation should trump all but the most urgent of other claims. They would like to see us put a fence around nature - place it out of bounds, except in emergencies. We are not to take anything that we cannot replace, or institute any changes that are not in some sense reversible. We need, Wiggins suggests, to recover a properly humble sense of nature as an extremely sensitive, volatile and dangerous thing. Indeed, Wiggins (despite his strictures against metaphysics) ventures a little into cosmology, arguing for the resuscitation of a Roman sense of Religio or "holy dread" - a "God fearing" awe that sees nature as some sort of limitation on our will.

This too might, at least at first glance, sound reasonable enough. Its implications, though, are far from commonsensical. Humankind has always "interfered" with nature and on a daily basis. The crops and breeds farmers use now are the product of centuries of cultivation. Many of the landscapes we value - for example, the stonewalls of the Lake District - have been improved by human artefact. Beautifully constructed buildings can add to a grim or drab landscape. Just image Venice Lagoon without Venice. Perhaps environmentalists will say, with Prince Charles, that in these cases human beings have worked with the "grain of nature", but there are many aspects of nature that, rather than cultivating, we quite reasonably try to annihilate. Cancerous tumours, malaria-carrying mosquitoes or the HIV virus are obvious examples. An earlier philosopher of nature - and one of the profoundest - J S Mill, put it neatly when he observed that "nearly all the things which men are hanged or imprisoned for doing to one another are nature's everyday performances. Killing, the most criminal act recognised by human laws, nature does once to every being that lives, and in a large proportion of cases after protracted tortures such as only the greatest monsters whom we read of ever purposely inflicted on their living fellow creatures . . . Nature's explosions of firedamp are as destructive as human artillery; her plague and cholera far surpass the poison cups of the Borgias."

Those who want to defend the principle of nature's inviolability will say, no doubt, that they don't mean to rule out any, or at least most, of these sort of "interventions". Perhaps not (although I note that it might be hard to justify many of them as being necessitated by "emergencies", "dire vital needs" and the like). But if not, then talk about the sanctity of nature risks becoming rather empty.

There is, however, a greater problem still. Too many greens, including Wiggins, assume that what is generally at stake in decisions that affect the environment is a simple choice between "rather trivial benefits" to human beings and profound environmental imperatives. Yet this is not generally how the decision appears to us. There are things we value for themselves, other "ultimate goods", such as human health and life and artistic expression, and it is these that often are, or at least seem to be, in conflict with the preservation of a natural good. Cost-benefit analysis is rather too profane a discipline, but we are polytheists, not monotheists. Many things are subject to "strong" evaluation other than valued natural objects - political principles, for instance, or personal projects, works of art and familial relationships - and we often have to sacrifice one for another. The decision to limit the building of homes on greenfield sites at first looks like the defence of an ultimate good against "a trivial benefit". But that is just too simplistic. The high cost of housing in south-east England, which might be relieved by building ecologically designed new towns on greenfield sites, places strains on families and weakens the economy. This in turn affects spending on health, education and the arts.

Likewise, a new bypass may save lives. Wind-turbines might destroy a beautiful piece of countryside by providing environmentally friendly fuel. Genetically modified crops might offend against "nature" but they might also contribute to the fight against malnutrition, or offer a better way of treating burn victims. To acknowledge that these sorts of value-conflicts are endemic to politics is not to concede anything to the partisans of cost-benefit analysis. The only way to arrive at decisions when "ultimate" goods conflict is on a case-by-case basis, after a thorough and collective exploration of the issues at stake. It is, however, to insist that nature can't simply be fenced off.

It might seem counter-productive to attack those like Wiggins - or, for that matter, Prince Charles - who want to render nature absolutely inviolable. They are dismayed by the terrible damage done by industrialised farming, thoughtless town planning and the senseless promotion of the car - and rightly so. The issues at stake, however, are important. Though Blair's government has not, alas, embraced environmentalism, there is no reason why it should not.

As Michael Jacobs and others have argued, environmentalism, properly conceived, is adaptable to mainstream political concerns. Most green values and goals matter to everyone. Green policies are not necessarily detrimental to the economy. The Labour Party claims to care about inequality, or at least "social exclusion", but many of the worst sorts of inequalities in our society result from the way the poor are forced to suffer the effects of environmental degradation in the form of pollution, noise and squalor.

One of the reasons, however, why environmentalism has made relatively little impact on mainstream political thinking is that it is too often seen as a fundamentalist cause. It remains associated with alternative philosophies and lifestyles, with the wholesale rejection of "western" or "capitalist" values, of "modernity". For as long as environmentalists insist on seeing every difficult decision touching on the environment as posing a simple choice between "sacrosanct" and "trivial" goods, for as long as they call for a complete prohibition on "interfering" with nature, that is the way their cause - our cause - is destined to remain. Pure but impotent.

The writer's biography of A J Ayer was published by Chatto and Windus last year