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The question of justifying environmentalism might seem a bit silly at first. To everyday environmentalists, the idea of having to explain his or her lifestyle might even seem a bit exhausting—if not to themselves, then perhaps for the listeners (kidding). But what if there was a new reason to care for the environment, and it brought more people to the environmentalist cause?
Enter Benjamin Hale, an environmental ethicist at the University of Colorado-Boulder. In his latest book, The Wild and the Wicked: On Nature and Human Nature, Hale argues that ethics should guide our actions toward nature. He says we shouldn’t care about nature because of its beauty or glory, or because of basic survival. Hale even suggests that nature is not always awesome—it can be harmful at times. We caught up with him to see just what he means by that.
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5280: First things first, Mr. Hale. What’s your problem with nature? Why can’t we celebrate the good stuff?
Benjamin Hale: (Laughs) I think it’s totally fine to think of the happy stuff, I have some of the same associations with nature. But I want to turn the environmental conversation away from what can sometimes be an overly romanticized picture of nature in an attempt to get a wider community of people thinking about environmental issues. There’s nothing about environmentalism that requires loving nature. We should care because we are human and have a capacity to act morally. We are the kind of creatures that are capable of justifying our actions. That’s what I’m trying to encourage people to do.
You’re relying on people acting morally and reasonably. That’s a bit idealistic, no?
I happen to think that, if presented with facts that aren’t corrupted by political or economic interests, people will decide to save the planet.
Do you think recent political events have made this more difficult?
I mean, our recent political climate has complicated things a bit. In one respect, it does feel like the threats to the environment are much more amplified now than they were a couple of months ago. But, in another respect, it does feel like people are more engaged than they have been in the past—so that is sort of a nice upside to the current state of affairs.
What about people who feel they’ve been attacked because perhaps they’re not as “green” as their neighbor or family member; what appeal might this have to them?
This is the target of the book. I’m trying to get people who think they don’t have any responsibilities to others to act ethically. What resonance could the argument that “nature is beautiful” have with someone who thinks it’s their right to wreck the environment? That’s the issue. But the reason we should care about nature has almost nothing to do with the beauty of nature or with whether you like camping.
What gives you hope that moral reasoning can succeed?
I’m inspired by the uptick in discourse over environmental issues. I think we’ve entered a new phase where people are paying attention to what’s happening on the political scene. I think the kind of civic engagement we’ve seen is very positive for our country, and hopefully it will be positive for the environment.
Benjamin Hale will be speaking at Boulder Book Store Wednesday, April 5 at 7:30 p.m. Admission is free. The Wild and the Wicked will be available for purchase for $29.95. Call 303-447-2074 for more information.