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Institute of Continuing Education (ICE)


Today, 22 April, is Earth Day, a national day to celebrate the planet and raise awareness of its need to be protected.

Earth Day was born in the 1970’s, marking the start of the modern environmental movement.

We spoke to the Associate Teaching Professor for Philosophy and Interdisciplinary studies, Alexander Carter about the importance of this day, and his thoughts on how we can all become more aware of the impact we are having on our planet.

“For me, Earth Day is encapsulated by a single image: the (or perhaps it should be “a") pale blue dot. This image is in turn primarily about perspective. For most of us, we distinguish 'our home' from a 'house'. This is easy to do because we can come to know another person's house/home. "Home" is therefore similar to what, in philosphy, we call an "indexical". "Here", "now" and "this" are all idexicials. We can imagine someone pointing an index finger and syaing "here". Likewise saying "Im home refers to a specific location for each of us.

But for the vast majority of human history, “here”, and indeed “home”, have picked out locations on Earth. This makes it hard for us to imagine another “home” than Earth itself. Perhaps this is why earth-dwelling audiences were so affected when E.T. points into space and says “home”. It could also be why the word philosophers use to refer to "everything that exists" is not ‘universe’ but ‘world’. 

In short, this is my home, your home and every other human’s home. It is, of course, much more than that besides. 

We aren’t protecting the environment. Indeed, we are actively harming the environment. So, the key is to emphasise the importance of not harming our environment. 

In philosophy, we often appeal to reductio ad absurdum arguments. This involves imagining the antithesis of the case-in-point and showing that it leads to absurdity. For instance, imagine if we didn’t care about our environment. What would it lead to? 

I also worry that, whilst everyone can see the sense of protecting (or not harming) the environment, we lose enthusiasm the minute we’re asked to give something up. Imagine if we could save the environment by ceasing to rear cattle or by no longer eating shrimp. If your instinct is to say, “that seems like too much”, then this is a problem. I’m not saying we must do these things. But if these sacrifices are “beyond the pale”, then the next generation will be making more significant sacrifices. 

As noted earlier, this is something that can and should bring everyone together. Even those not convinced by the need to make sacrifices to protect the environment still value Earth. Earth is not just forests, rivers and mountains. It is chocolate, movies and money too! 

This question is useful insofar as it indicates one important problem: we don’t fully appreciate what is at stake. The planet, for instance, is not at risk; neither is the ecosystem. The former would survive the loss of the latter. Moreover, the ecosystem has, and will continue to, change constantly. 

So what are we protecting if not the planet/ecosystem? The slightly disappointing answer is: our way of life. Perhaps this is why it is hard to make sacrifices, i.e. to give up some elements of our way of life to preserve most of it. 

There is a less disappointing answer, but it is much harder to articulate. This has to do with specifying a value that nature has in-and-of itself (irrespective of what we, as humans, value). I don’t pretend to know what this value amounts to; although I am looking for it. But if such a value does exist, it exists independently of my identifying what it is. Which, to paraphrase the great bard, is to admit, “There are more things on earth, than are dreamt of in my philosophy.”

 If you would like to hear more from Alexander Carter on this topic, you can join his bitesize lecture, ‘Costing the Earth: is the environment just a commodity’ here tonight, at 7pm BST.


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