Our Place in the World: A New Relationship for Environmental Ethics and Law

By Purdy, Jedediah | Duke Law Journal, January 2013 | Go to article overview
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Our Place in the World: A New Relationship for Environmental Ethics and Law

Purdy, Jedediah, Duke Law Journal


In at least three areas of contemporary environmental law, there is new openness to changing values. These areas find people unsure of what to make of key encounters with the natural world, and experimenting in the face of that uncertainty. These experiments might produce a change in ethical vocabulary. They also present an opportunity to reflect on how law can foster, or inhibit, this ethical development.

A. Food, Agriculture, and the Value of Work

What is sometimes called the food movement swirls around diverse ideas and has no organizational center. (204) It does, however, express definite values, new perceptions of people and nature that are strong enough to shape choices about how to live. (205) The food movement comes from a picture of the world, and tries to square reality with that picture.

In the view of the food movement, some physical work, including cooking, gathering food, and raising livestock, is an affirmative source of satisfaction. (206) One of the satisfactions of such work is knowledge of the ecological, chemical, and other processes that make the work a successful engagement with the natural world. Work done with this informed appreciation is qualitatively better than work that is less informed and comprehending, even if the latter may be more efficient if measured, for instance, by calories produced per unit of input. (207)

Another value for the food movement is work that preserves, even enhances, natural processes, rather than tending to exhaust them. (208) This value implies embracing an integrated agriculture that returns crop and animal waste to the soil to preserve the cycle of fertility. It also means lamenting the industrial farming that makes animal waste a water pollutant while, at the same time, drawing soil fertility from chemical fertilizers that must be separately manufactured and, in some cases, literally mined to replace the fertility lost through discarded animal waste. (209) To boot, rainfall washes artificial fertilizer off of fields as water pollution. These contrasting images of farming are paradigms of two kinds of systems: a virtuous one that maintains a sustainable cycle of life and a vicious one that supports itself by offloading waste onto other systems--such as polluted waterways--while drawing its sustenance from often harmful sources such as mining. These contrasts can also matter to those who use but do not grow their food, which is, of course, the more common experience. Knowing the food's source and how it was grown can be near the heart of the satisfaction one takes in it.

The food movement represents a new attitude in environmental values. Although American history has seen intermittent back-to-nature movements, the shapers of environmental imagination usually saw farmers as figures of plodding utilitarian labor. Thoreau portrayed his neighbors as slaves to their land, labors, and conventional ideas. (210) Emerson complained that the poet's satisfaction in a landscape was ruined by the sight of farmers working on it. (211) When Thoreau famously reflected on hoeing weeds in his bean field at Walden Pond, he concluded that his next harvest should be left entirely for the birds. (212) As for eating, he wrote the most ascetic and self-revolted passages of Walden on repugnance at the body's need for nutriment. (213) John Muir took as a foil a dirty shepherd who was resolutely obtuse to the wonder of the Sierra Nevada. (214) Moving from the shapers of environmental imagination to the laws they helped inspire, it is telling that statutorily protected wilderness is devoted to scenery and strenuous recreation--admiring the landscape and powering one's own way across it--to the complete exclusion of procuring food. The wilderness movement worked to preserve conditions for the most elemental human transactions with nature, but left eating out of that picture.

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Our Place in the World: A New Relationship for Environmental Ethics and Law


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