We ARE lords of the planet – that’s the problem

The lord of the manor is not a typical peasant, and doesn’t have the same responsibilities. Nowadays, it is quite fashionable to see humans as part of the natural world, part of a cycle of life, dependent on a nature that could eradicate us in an instant if it chose to. The truth is far less comforting.

We are the lords of the planet. Some have made the entertaining claim that we are not even a very successful species, that technological intelligence isn’t evolutionarily very useful. Yes, viruses and bacteria are wildly successful, cockroaches and beetles have the numbers and the resilience, and all our client species – species that profit from human existence, such as dogs, rats, cattle, wheat and rice – are doing well. We are not the Earth’s only evolutionary success story. But we are a success; we have a population of over 7 billion, dwarfing that of any other wild large mammal. We are reshaping the world on ever larger scales, changing the appearance of the whole planet (rarely for the better, of course). We’ve depopulated the oceans and lit up the sky at night. We’ve put men on the moon, and already have started building space stations, thus claiming an empty but huge ecological niche.

Yes, of course, if the whole natural system turned against us, if our agriculture collapsed or the Earth’s climate disintegrated, we couldn’t ride that out (though some day soon, we could probably even survive that). But the fact that the lord of the manor couldn’t survive if all the peasants revolted at once didn’t make him any less a lord, and them more than peasants.

I understand why people would wish for us to be part of the natural cycle; for if that were the case, then conservation and sustainability would be in our enlightened self-interest. And we could certainly make great improvements in how we log, mine and fish, thinking for the long term rather than the short. But a world in which humans followed their selfish but enlightened self interest, kept their own resources sustainable, their air breathable and their water drinkable, is still a world in which most natural species would be annihilated, and anything of not explicit worth for humans was destroyed. Human self-interest won’t save much of the planet.

Instead, we are the lord of the manor, with no possibility of shrugging that off or of calling a council of villagers to devolve power and decision-making. We need to explicitly decide what gets saved and what dies, what the limits of our exploitation will be, and what costs we are prepared to pay for that. Nature is now our responsibility.

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13 Responses to We ARE lords of the planet – that’s the problem

  • Dave Frame says:

    I think you make the mistake of positing a central entity who "we" somehow form in a meaningful way. It reminds me of the Bosse cover of Hobbes's Leviathan – the one with people making up the body but the king making up the (decision making) head (http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/db/Leviathan_gr.jpg). Globally, there is no central, decision maker, and there is certainly none imbued with the characteristics of the rational agent (well-defined utility function, coherent preferences/beliefs, etc). In the world as I see it, there is no "we" any more than there is a "we" among the world's ants, goats or sharks.

    "But a world in which humans followed their selfish but enlightened self interest, kept their own resources sustainable, their air breathable and their water drinkable, is still a world in which most natural species would be annihilated, and anything of not explicit worth for humans was destroyed. Human self-interest won’t save much of the planet."

    These are strong claims, for which you provide no argument or evidence.

    • Stuart Armstrong says:

      >In the world as I see it, there is no "we" any more than there is a "we" among the world’s ants, goats or sharks.

      Humans have systems of collective decision making on a much greater scale than any of these. Countries, mega corporations, transnational confederations – these agents number in the hundreds, and are pretty centralised in how they decide things. And there are norms and standards for how these agents interact with each other, so they don't exist in a pure state of nature. I'd say my claim, in the plural, "we are lordS of the planet" fit nicely. But it is only an analogy, so don't put too much weight on it – the point being that (some) humans/human organisation have immense power over the planet.

      >"But a world in which humans followed their selfish but enlightened self interest, kept their own resources sustainable, their air breathable and their water drinkable, is still a world in which most natural species would be annihilated, and anything of not explicit worth for humans was destroyed. Human self-interest won’t save much of the planet."

      >These are strong claims, for which you provide no argument or evidence.

      In some ways my claims are tautologically true: if we only value things of explicit worth to humans (selfish enlightened self-interest) and have great power, then anything not explicitly valued will vanish. On a more serious note, my previous post http://blog.practicalethics.ox.ac.uk/2011/11/we-dont-have-a-problem-with-water-food-or-energy/ looked at how much of the planet we really needed (not much). Look at previous extinction: do we need the dodo, the sabertooth tiger, the mammoth today? (and all the other species that went extinct). Why would we need the vast majority of the species that are going extinct today?

      If seeing them in zoos is a need, then a small breeding program for the most photogenic is all that is required, maybe with a few nature reserves. Even if there is some need for a lot of these species, we can surely organise things better, cut down the number of duplicated species, engineer more efficient habitats, set their population to the rational ideal, etc…

      I personally want to save these species and habitats, but human self-interest isn't going to get us there.

      • Dave Frame says:

        Stuart wrote: "In some ways my claims are tautologically true: if we only value things of explicit worth to humans (selfish enlightened self-interest) and have great power, then anything not explicitly valued will vanish."

        Empirically I think you're wrong about this. Think of weeds. We assign them negative value, yet they persist because they are resilient. They will not die out through neglect alone – the only way to kill them off is by actively going after them. Given that humans struggle to manage even the environments they dominate (my guess is you're not a gardner…) I see no reason to think that most species (or most members of species) have much to fear from us. [They have much more to fear from large igneous provinces, which are heavily implicated in mass extinctions.] Some species, in some places, no doubt have plenty to fear from humans. But most don't. So I don't think I accept the premise that our power is anything like as great as you suggest.

        "the point being that (some) humans/human organisation have immense power over the planet."

        I'm still not quite at ease with this. For one thing, I still think your analogy begs a bunch of really important questions in international relations – the idea that countries or corporations or other entities form anything like a "society of states" that is materially capable of wielding power towards an end strikes me as fairly controversial. The people I've known who've worked for the sorts of entities usually supposed to be the sort of powerful agent you posit (UN, US govt, Monsanto…) usually spend a lot of time lamenting their powerlessness in the face of suffering/environmental degradation/etc. Real organisations aren't that organised, and real humans actually aren't that powerful, so I kind of disagree with two aspects of your claim here.

        Your claim that human self-interest is badly aligned with environmental protection seems reasonable enough in a lot of settings, but I think a bit of work needs to be done on "human self-interest" – to what extent is the idea of (a presumably emergent) "human self-interest" a meaningful concept? It seems to me plausible if you're talking about an issue such as smallpox or bubonic plague. It seems far less plausible if you talk about things like climate change (where the primary problem is strategic and the threat is (almost certainly) not existential).

        • Stuart Armstrong says:

          >Empirically I think you’re wrong about this. Think of weeds. We assign them negative value, yet they persist because they are resilient.

          Even weeds have mainly been driven from our fields (just like we've eradicated few diseases, but controlled a lot more). We're lords of the planet, not gods of the planet. And we are causing extinctions all over the place, for the less resilient species (http://www.cbd.int/gbo/gbo3/doc/GBO3-final-en.pdf). The famous photo of the border between Haiti and the Dominican republic (http://therogersinhaiti.wordpress.com/2009/12/10/haiti-and-the-environment/) shows just how much power we have. And those are pretty small economies.

          Basically, short lived, fast evolving and adaptable species are pushed to the margins, not eradicated (some, like rats and urban foxes, even benefit from our waste products more than they are harmed by our attempts to kill them). Long-lived inflexible species are for the chop.

          >Your claim that human self-interest is badly aligned with environmental protection seems reasonable enough in a lot of settings, but I think a bit of work needs to be done on "human self-interest"

          Well, let's break it down: preferences can be short-term/long-term, individual/collective, selfish/non-selfish. The first division is easy to see. Collective preferences are just aggregation of individual preferences, through some mechanism (markets, governments, negotiations) with externalities resolved. The last one is more tricky, but we have a clear intuitive understanding of it: "I want a cookie": selfish; "I want starving people in Africa to have cookies": non-selfish. Yes, some people make the point that all preferences are selfish, because they are preferences, but that's to drain the concept 'selfish' of any meaning – and everyone does roughly understand what it means, even if it's not rigorously defined.

          (Because of quirks of human social interactions, collective preferences tend to be more long-term and often less selfish.)

          My point is that satisfying long-term, collective, selfish human preferences will not, as environmentalists often argue, save the parts of the planet they value. They need to make the point that "we should save these lions/tigers/spotted zebras/fruit flies/whatever because we value them, not because they benefit us", and try and convince people to agree with that.

          • Dave Frame says:

            Stuart wrote: "Even weeds have mainly been driven from our fields (just like we’ve eradicated few diseases, but controlled a lot more). We’re lords of the planet, not gods of the planet. And we are causing extinctions all over the place, for the less resilient species"

            It has ever been thus. The vast majority of species of life on earth are extinct. Maybe we're hastening the process a bit, given an otherwise quiet period, extinction-wise.

            "Basically, short lived, fast evolving and adaptable species are pushed to the margins, not eradicated (some, like rats and urban foxes, even benefit from our waste products more than they are harmed by our attempts to kill them). Long-lived inflexible species are for the chop."

            I think you're wrong to be so cavalier about this – you're ignoring the fact that most species are not threatened. We've found it hard and expensive to eradicate even a few species of bacteria. Even the dozen or so that are being proposed will take a while and a lot of effort. It's true that local environmental change and maybe even climate change will stress a bunch of stuff, and no doubt hasten the demise of some species and destroy other species which would otherwise be viable. But there are tens of millions of species on earth, of which we know and name a couple of million. A few tens of thousands might be threatened. I don't think this backs up your stong-ish assertions… I'm not saying we have a light footprint on the earth – what I'm doubting is the claim you made that following our own self-interest would lead to a world in which "anything of not explicit worth for humans was destroyed." I think you'd need lots more threatened species to be able to make a case for that.

            "(Because of quirks of human social interactions, collective preferences tend to be more long-term and often less selfish.)"

            Errr… I'm not sure I buy this as a generalisation. There are plenty of good policies that democracy precludes, precisely because collective preferences are selfish and short-sighted. Example: try raising fuel taxes/the price on carbon; example 2: try getting people to save adequately for their retirements; example 3 try getting them to agree to pay for the services they use… etc. There may be occasions when collective preferences are more far-sighted and altruistic than individual ones, but I wouldn't use it as a rule of thumb.

  • Peter Wicks says:

    Having worked for 15 years in an environment department (specifically DG Environment at the European Commission, from which I am currently on unpaid leave), I very much welcome this analysis. Stuart is right: we want to believe that our self-interest and our feeling that we "should" be protecting nature are closely aligned, essentially to avoid the cognitive dissonance involved in making up our minds. That's also why so many people tend to be moral realists despite the lack of any real evidence for that position. Believing that we are less powerful than we are serves that purpose in two ways: first (as Stuart points out) by making us believe we are more dependent on nature than we are, and secondly by diminishing our sense that there is much we can do about it anyway.

    The hubris of believing we are more powerful than we are can be dangerous, but so can the defeatism of believing that we are less.

    • Dave Frame says:

      Peter wrote: "Having worked for 15 years in an environment department (specifically DG Environment at the European Commission, from which I am currently on unpaid leave), I very much welcome this analysis. Stuart is right: we want to believe that our self-interest and our feeling that we "should" be protecting nature are closely aligned, essentially to avoid the cognitive dissonance involved in making up our minds. "

      Hmmm… isn't this a subset of a uniquitous conversation about the role and scope of government? I mean what is the alternative to the meandering stream that is "self-interest"? Presumably, if you think that people following their noses is a bad idea, then you think there is one nose we should all follow, or that there is some process through which a legitimate nose to follow might emerge, that would be superior to everyone following their own nose. Maybe it's the fact you mentioned the European Commission that makes me think of this… but basically isn't this just one flavour of a generic market failure argument? [One common political framing of this - which Stuart calls on here - is to assert two things: (1) that there are powerful forces at work that (2) threaten something of value.** It could be an objection to laissez-faire labour markets (where the powerful forces are presumably multinational companies and the thing of value is human welfare or human dignity or whatever) or it could be an objection to pharmaceutical markets, or whatever. Make up your own fanciful examples or read Chomsky's - I'm sure you can see what I mean.]

      **Elites who make this claim are usually quick to add a further claim: that of a mandate to protect that thing of value/shackle those powerful forces.

      For my part, I don't think humans are anything like the Lord of the Manor. We're good at manipulating, or even dominating, some environments – rivers, coasts, quite a few temperate climate zones and a few other climate zones – but most of this planet remains unconquered. On my view, we're not the Lord of the Manor with absolute power and something resembling seignorial rights, we're more like an earnest but feeble Guardian reader/bilious Daily Mail fan: not as intelligent as we presume, smug and anxious in equal measure, quick to tell others how to live (=quick to regulate that horrible self-interested behaviour we see in everyone around us). So I agree we're not very nice, but I don't think the problem is power.

      • Peter Wicks says:

        "What is the alternative to the meandering stream that is "self-interest"?"

        The sense in which I'm using "self-interest" here is, basically,, "how can we ensure that our material needs are taken care of". Of course you can say that, once we've decided we want to protect nature for other reasons, that *becomes* part of our "self-interest". But that's not what I meant. I meant "narrow, material self-interest".

        So no, I don't think this is primarily about the role and scope of government. It is about perception of power, and the dangers of defeatism or excessive humility. I don't say – and I don't think Stuart intended to say either – that we have seignorial "rights". What are rights anyway? It may be that, as Stuart points out, the peasants are about to revolt. Push them too far, or simply let down our vigilance, and that's what they do.

        Stuart wrote: "We are the lord of the manor, with no possibility of shrugging that off or of calling a council of villagers to devolve power or decision-making".

        This is giving me an idea. What if the global ecosystem *is* actually speaking some kind of language, in which we have yet to become fluent? What if, if only we learned that language, we actually *could* devolve decision-making to the global ecosystem, perhaps with the help of technology?

        "I agree we're not very nice, but I don't think the problem is power."
        If we didn't have power, why would it matter how nice we were?

      • Stuart Armstrong says:

        >Hmmm… isn’t this a subset of a uniquitous conversation about the role and scope of government?

        That ship has already sailed, I'm afraid. We live in a world saturated by government power and decisions, but it's mainly invisible to us. For instance, you can't burn dirty coal fires in UK cities (since the great smog of London), and you can't put lead in petrol – but unless you had an odd desire to do either of these, you'd never notice the rules. Uniformisation of measures across countries and continents, international postal rights, banking regulations, corporate regulations, contract law, laws promoting free-trade, protectionist laws, the legal underpinings of market economies, health, safety and environmental standards – they're everywhere.

        The only real way of noticing them is to look back into the past, see the problems that the rules were meant to solve, and realise "ah, so they didn't have rules on burning sulphurous coal/working children age 10 back then", and then realise that this means that we currently have these rules. And there are so many of them that adding or repealing any of them will have but the tiniest influence on the "role and scope of government".

        My own position (for what it's worth) is that the most successful countries in modern history, by nearly every measure, are market economies with large governments (and, to some extent, flexible labour laws). I know this isn't anything like a controlled experiment, but it's the what we've got; we can't rely on counterfactuals.

        >is to assert two things: (1) that there are powerful forces at work that (2) threaten something of value.

        You forgot the bit where the powerful forces are mustache twirling overlords of corporate eeeeevil (or governmental eeeeevil – sometimes both). Choosing "everyone" or "us" as the powerful force is completely the wrong approach.

        But yes, I do argue that humans are very powerful, and that they/we threaten somethings that *I* find valuable. If the first part is true (a purely empirical question), and enough people agree with me on the second part, then I would like to have something done about it. And I hope you are open to the possibility that of being wrong on that empirical question, because I certainly am – a few decent studies (selected evenly from the available literature) which quantify these factors and conclude that humans and human institutions have very little influence over the planet, is all that it would take.

        • Dave Frame says:

          "That ship has already sailed, I’m afraid. We live in a world saturated by government power and decisions, but it’s mainly invisible to us. "

          Sure. But I still think that claims to the effect that "self-interest cannot preserve X, and X is of value" are usually (and reasonably) interpreted as claims that something like a government ought to intervene, which is a question about government. Often, claims like this are pretty uncontroversial, as they are when we outlaw obnoxious markets (child labour, dangerously addictive drugs, etc). But often they're more controversial, and sometimes we actually decide they're not as strong as we might have thought (most developed economies have retreated from trade protectionism because it isn't a good idea in the long-run (in spite of the frequent collective – short-term, selfish – preferences to play that game). My point was really just that environmental claims about self-interest and its effects should maybe be thought of as such an argument.

          "My own position (for what it’s worth) is that the most successful countries in modern history, by nearly every measure, are market economies with large governments (and, to some extent, flexible labour laws). "

          Completely agree. Developed countries tend to have the government share of the economy in the range of 30-50% (tax/gdp). I'm inclined to think that probably helps countries quite a bit with political stability.

          "But yes, I do argue that humans are very powerful, and that they/we threaten somethings that *I* find valuable. If the first part is true (a purely empirical question), and enough people agree with me on the second part, then I would like to have something done about it. "

          I argue that humans are powerful in some places and impotent in others. But I agree that that power can and does threaten some things of value. Funnily enough I don't hear environmentalists argue that self-interest will save us. I hear them argue for government protection. [I know of comparatively few libertarian environmentalists. I guess I do know a couple, when I think about it, but their numbers around Oxford are paltry** compared to the number of environmentalists who think that the state ought to expand its role to protect those things of value.]

          **A threatened species, even.

          • Stuart Armstrong says:

            >Funnily enough I don’t hear environmentalists argue that self-interest will save us.

            I've heard it argued often that it is in our own long-term self interest to be environmentalist (and that the gov is needed to bridge the gap between short term and long term).

    • Budi says:

      yet there are anourd 100 million sharks killed a year for food (their fins) i am not making excuses for sharks but i will also not make excuses for humans when sharks get to killing anourd 100 million people A YEAR instead of the small amount that they do kill then yes i will begin to have issues with sharks until then..be careful in the ocean..know your risks or don't go in the ocean in the first place

  • Andrea Battaglia says:

    I’ve recently been in ethics discussions related to culture, but this framing was an unexpected surprise. Humans vs. non-humans and the ethics related to this notion.

    It seems that your “we” is a large generalization for a limited population of the true “we.” We as individuals in an industrialized nation are “lords of the planet” as you call it. We are harnessing or destroying the planets power with each new technological advance and population growth.

    As Joanne Myers (2002) puts it, “While communication ethics expansively incorporates diverse cultural values and transcends particular differences on the ground, they remain embedded in a ‘capitalist system and globalization theory which speak of ethics’ but hide the fact that their ethics are those of the marketplace and not the universal ethics of the human person.” (Freire, 1998, pg. 114).

    I wonder if you’d say the same “we” generalization about non-industrialized societies? I would agree that many, and probably most, are part of the “we” that is destroying the planet and using many of the natural resources into non-existence. But it would seem that there are a few, and maybe just a few today, societies that are not in our “we” category? (Or are they, but to a much lesser extent? Maybe “we” is a graduated scale? So interesting . . .)

    I love your ideas of sustainability and a more mindful life. It coincides well with and brings new light to Qing Cao’s (2007) “opening up spaces for new voices or different truths to be in dialogue with existing, often dominant ones, represents a productive and empowering engagement in resisting essentialist representation” (pg. 117) Would we act the same if animals, oceans and the earth could communicate with us equally and as loudly as we regularly do? Would we continue to act the same if we were equal (or even lesser!) partners in our global society.

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