Is it wrong to wreck the earth?

15 December 2011


This week's topic is, "Is it wrong to wreck the earth?" 

I suppose the obvious answer is “yes”. The answer may be more obvious than the meaning of the question.  We’re not asking if it’s wrong for me or you to wreck the earth for everyone else, but something more like whether the people that are currently alive and busy polluting the streams and rivers and oceans, warming the globe, killing off species, and the like, and thus making the earth a less agreeable place for future generations, are doing something wrong.

Is it really so obvious that the answer is Yes?  Suppose we frame it like this.  Those currently alive will somehow collectively decide between two options:  

(i) Make minimal changes to the way we live, and leave future generations a very polluted, warm, earth.  Or

(ii) make substantial changes to the way we live, at great cost to our own comfort levels, and leave a much less polluted, and less warmed up world to future generations.

There is a tradeoff; we live better, they live worse; they live better, we live worse.  Why is it clear that it’s better for us to sacrifice and leave them better off?  Here’s an analogy.  A person is seventy years old, has a million dollars, and a disease that gives him five years to live.  He has a struggling forty-year old daughter.  He can live well for five years and leave his daughter a small amount, or he can scrimp and save his final five years and leave her comfortably well-off.  It would be very nice of him to do the latter, but it’s not clearly wrong for him to do the former.

There is an important dis-analogy, however.  The man might think that if his daughter works hard, she can earn enough on her own to be well off.  He may pass up the opportunity to make her life comfortable.  But he hasn’t thereby deprived her of the means of doing so herself.

But the damage we do to the earth can’t be undone.  The parts of the world made uninhabitable by global warming can’t be recovered.  The species that disappear can’t be brought back into existence.  It’s one thing for a man not to share the money he has earned and saved with his daughter.  It’s another for him to destroy the possibility of her doing as well for herself.  And that’s what we’re doing, by wrecking the world the way we are.

There is another disanalogy, that perhaps points in the other direction.  The people who will be most disadvantaged by the damage our generation is doing to the earth, the ones who will be grappling with inundated cities and a non-working gulf-stream toward the end of our century, haven’t even been born yet.  They don’t exist.  Do we really owe anything to people that don’t exist?  That’s a rather puzzling sort of obligation, isn’t it? 

Maybe so. But I think it’s wrong to suppose that the wrongness of wrecking the earth is a matter of mistreating some person or persons.  I mean we have this whole big system, the ecosystem, the system wherein life of all sorts including human life evolved.  Isn’t there something intrinsically wrong about harming the system that’s the ground of our very existence?

I think there is.  Basicially, I think we should worship the earth.  Wrecking it should be taboo. 

But then, what if it turned out that the best thing for the system, considered as a whole, was for humans to disappear and quit screwing it up?  Would I advocate that?

I’d have to think about it.

Our guest is Kathleen Dean Moore, a professor at OSU, where Sunday’s program was recorded.  She’s co-edited a book called For All Time: Our Obligation to Save the Future---so I think we know where she stands.  By the way, I have an article in it called, “Worship the Earth.”

Photo by The New York Public Library on Unsplash

Comments (12)

Guest's picture


Thursday, December 15, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

i don't think the example of

i don't think the example of father and daughter fits the situation in wrecking the earth. we need to wreck the earth and we should wreck it according to our needs, not to miss-use the opportunity of living before the future generations. .e.g "i have seen many people are born with no upper lip, so what the doctor or surgeon does is that he cuts some part of his body mostly *thigh* and use it in healing the incomplete part" so, i don't think its wrecking. its wrecking for the greater good. same is the case with our earth. we need some resources for the development. future generations may blame us for wrecking the earth, but they must not forget we are gifting them a ready made development, science, technology etc. so, according to me the conclusion is " wreck it as much as it is needed"

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Thursday, December 15, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

I suppose there will be some

I suppose there will be some comments on this post. Some of those will center on mankind's obligations, based upon his/her consciousness of being. Inasmuch as I treat our existence as a fluke of evolution, rather than divine interventionism, I find any pontifications about the wrongness vs. rightness of "wrecking the earth" moot. I have written some things about this---but no one is listening----much, or yet. Pontifications can go either way, it seems.
Here is my own synopsis of the wrecking of the earth, in 500 words or less:
1. We will wreck the earth (for a time, anyway), because we can. Consciousness is our advantage, and our probable doom.
2. Carrying forward #1 a bit, our human consciousness, with all its advantages, carries particular disadvantages, among those denial, rationalization (are they the same, essentially?), arrogance and vanity. We seem to believe we can DO anything; FIX anything---some seers in faith have called these things vain imaginings. I agree, although not for the same reason(s).
3. The things that live on earth are but a fraction of those that have ever lived here. Mankind's centuries(?) are numbered, for the above-enumerated reasons and more. This is why science is searching for a way out; a place to go; and some way to get there. Scientists are realists and smarter than most of us---if anything can preserve the human species, science will do so.I'm not counting on it, though. I won't be here. And you won't either.
Dinosaurs had no say in their demise. We have all kinds of say, but it won't matter a flip. Chris Hitchens has died. I am sorry for that. Everything changes. Except human vanity-and rationalization...

Guest's picture


Friday, December 16, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

When we harm nature, be it

When we harm nature, be it the air, water, plants, animals, the dirt ourselves,
We truly harm only ourselves.
There are 7 billion of us now and we the Earth can't handle the load.
Global warming is a sign of the load, a fever, we are burning it up, ourselves up.
When the planet gets hot we get hot.
When the planet gets sick from the toxins and poisons we create,
We poison and get sick ourselves.
Nature's destruction is Self destruction.
The only cure for our illness is not what they, our governments, and other countries (kyoto) and protocals, or even future technologies are going to do,
The solution is accepting our own true Oneness,
And not so simply: Self-control.

Guest's picture


Friday, December 16, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

Wrong to wreck the earth?

Wrong to wreck the earth? Hmmmm. Wrong according to who? Or what? I am drawn back to an elder statesman of biophilia (his characterization), and his book, Biophilia, published in 1984, an enigmatic year in literature, yes? E. O. Wilson has won two Pulitzers---not bad for a geezer born in 1929. I suppose it boils down to this: if morality meant anything to anyone, we would not need to have these kinds of discussions. Indeed, if morals were universally valid, to any degree, there would be no basis for such discussion. Relativists might argue the rightness or wrongness of anything---or nothing. But, there it is: there is no absolutism about anything. When truth, itself, is argued as relative, there can be no agreement upon what constitutes truth. Which has led us to post-modernists, such as John Barth...hmmmmmm???

Guest's picture


Friday, December 16, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

Hey, is this a trick question

Hey, is this a trick question? How long do we want to be here, or perhaps more pointedly, do we care about how long we MIGHT be here? There is some thinker out there who believes there is something he calls Historionic Effect. As I understand his synthesis, we have brought stuff upon ourselves. Not a novel notion, certainly. But, philosophy does not always address this notion, because to do so would insult the inherent superiority of human consciousness. Hmmmmph. There is an old hillbilly adage which applies to a variety of situations: don't shit where you eat. Quaint? Perhaps. But, it is your world---pretty much. I've got maybe, ten more years. So, WTF?
Yawn? OK---have a nice night. The world will not end tomorrow. But, if it did, would it matter? (see: Graham Martin)

mirugai's picture


Saturday, December 17, 2011 -- 4:00 PM


Ken the optimist sees in the trials and tribulations of the present (and the future), the opportunity for philosophers to play an active role in solving the problems because of our unique thinking abilities and rationality and openness to other points of view. John makes a few off-handed remarks criticizing the abilities of a democracy to solve its own problems. Every time the guest philosopher was asked about this, she avoided the question.
Democracy, and even the quasi- or ultra- democracy we have in the USA, will never ask for the help of philosophers; the principle of democracy being that wisdom resides in the majority opinion, with certain limited protections designated worthy by the majority allowed for minorities. And critics of democracy see its nature as a subterfuge to pull the wool over the eyes of the majority so as to manipulate them, and let the ruling group get away with its agenda.
Philosophers are interested in points of view different from their own, as a way of testing and improving themselves, and to get closer to their elusive goals of truth and justice and morality, etc. Members of democracies will not tolerate such people in leadership or advisory positions.
Sorry to tell you folks, Communism is the only state system where a philosopher might be consulted on state issues and policies, because only in that system is expertise solicited and it can become policy. Communism is about the state planning the path of progress, for the benefit of the society as a whole. To this end, the planning needs to be rational and thought out. These are the domains of the philosopher.

Guest's picture


Saturday, December 17, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

I think it is a bad idea--

I think it is a bad idea---wrecking the earth, I mean. I thoroughly enjoy reading the musings of thinkers and other examples of human exaltation, while many of my younger friends are still caught up in the fascinations of popular culture and wonderous technology. One of my favorite mavericks has died. I shall never forget the man who was a curmudgeon, before it was time: Christopher Hitchens. Goodbye, friend. In reading E.O. Wilson's BIOPHILIA, I was struck be the last sentence of the first chapter/essay of that little book: "Humanity is exalted not because we are so far above other living creatures, but because knowing them well elevates the very concept of life." Whether Wilson is a genius, or just a hard-working man of science matters not. What matters is his keen insight into the intricacies of planetary balance and awareness of how things are are related. Entomologists are supposed to have an eye for bio-complexity. EOW has such an eye.
The little quote I cited above means little to anyone who has no notion of the big picture---no comprehension of deep time. Is the OSU of Dean's association Ohio State University or Oklahoma State University? I did not see a specific ID in your post. It's OK, though---I can look it up, with all our wonderous technology and all.

Guest's picture


Monday, December 19, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

Hmmm, mirugai, I just don't

Hmmm, mirugai, I just don't know. Communism doesn't seem to have worked out very well so far - and to relate it more specifically to the topic at hand, communist societies created the worst environmental disasters on earth so far. What used to be Lake Baikal is just one example.
For me, the question on wrecking the earth is very simple indeed. Do you spend your days wrecking your house, or do you care for it carefully and maintain it? Simply wrecking the earth is a lot like setting fire to your own living room. One can debate morally defensible positions, or even the existence of morals, or the relative value of current vs future vs past generations - but practicality invades. Wrecking the earth wrecks us, and that can't be anything but wrong.

Guest's picture


Wednesday, December 21, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

This is really difficult

This is really difficult question, becaouse the way we all function in everyday lives is so dependent on exploring fossil fuels that's it's hard to imagine how we could live without them. Of course it's very easy to say 'we just should use solar panels, and everything will be fine' but the truth is that it's all much more complicated. We should find some harmony between exploring nature and saving environment clean untouched.

Fred Griswold's picture

Fred Griswold

Thursday, December 22, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

Is it wrong to wreck the

Is it wrong to wreck the earth? Should this be seen as a moral issue? I don't think so. It's not that climate change is not an important problem. It came out of that climate summit in Copenhagen a couple years ago that if the earth warmed up by, I believe it was 1 1/2 degrees centigrade, half a billion people in Africa would be displaced. That's "billion" with a "b". Now, who needs half a billion suicide bombers? So it's hard to think of a much more important question than climate change. Shouldn't it be made a moral precept, then? If that's not important enough, what would be? Maybe it's not in the Ten Commandments, but that's because global warming was not an issue in those pre-scientific days.
Moral precepts tend not to allow for exceptions. Maybe that's because they are distillations from many years of trial and error. "Thou shalt not steal", for instance, does not allow for any exceptions. But if you needed a loaf of bread to feed your family, you would probably be willing to make an exception, just for once. Now, climate change is not a simple issue. But making this into a moral issue would be a simplification, almost a compromise. To take one facet of this issue, saving energy, it's often said that we should all save energy - wasting energy puts more CO2 in the atmosphere, and that contributes to global warming. But I have my doubts about this; it sounds like oil company propaganda to me. The more time we spend saving energy rather than transitioning to better forms of it, the more the oil supply will keep dwindling, the more the price will go up, and the more profits the oil companies will make. If we relied only on clean, renewable sources, then Europe and China and everyone else could waste just as much energy as we do, and everybody would be happy. The only limiting factor would be how much you felt like paying for it. Now, opinions can differ on things like this; the point is that the issue is too complicated to raise it to the moral level.
I suspect that making something a moral precept tends to be a way of saying you just won't listen to any counter-arguments. But practical problems like this are full of twists, turns and surprises. Science and technology bring up so many new facts, questions and possibilities that trying to reduce a problem like this to a taboo just wouldn't work.

sheldon's picture


Thursday, January 26, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

Dear John and Ken,

Dear John and Ken,
You know you guys annoy me. You say you "question everything" but you don't. You guys always take capitalism for granted. Even though you might describe yourselves as leaning left, you take capitalism for granted as a good thing. I could go back to several shows I have listened to, including this one, and this would be the case. Find some radicals and Marxists to interview.

Guest's picture


Saturday, February 11, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

I think such questions would

I think such questions would arise as long as we undermine our consciousness and create an artificial clash based on our reason which in turn is founded on our general materialistic behavior.
However, such conflicts are quite natural because there is an inherent conflict between human desires and damage to the Eco-system.