Environmental activism has attempted to gain legitimacy through an appeal to scientific rationalism and objectivity, while maintaining a sometimes uncomfortable alliance with ethical concerns, considered by some to be subjective and thus outside the realm of verifiable fact. Ethical and philosophical issues regarding consumption center on empirical studies of sustainability and increased carrying capacity. Ethics is relegated to the realm of values, and values are believed to deal with personal biases and, as such, are unsuitable to scientific study and rigorous analysis. Why one should consume beyond sustenance levels is a question often believed to be outside the province of environmental study. Yet, we argue in this paper, no environmental ethic is complete without an analysis of consumption, its causes, reinforcements, and consequences. Further, to ask “why?” is an ethical concern, and situates ethics central to any discussion of consumerism or environmental activism. A body of environmental protection laws has been constructed, with various agencies promoting ecological, historical and scenic values, as well as scientific, geological and educational ones. Such laws aim to reinforce our role not merely as consumers, but as citizens with ethical claims on our environment as well.
Legislation protecting the environment incorporates a variant of the following three ethical positions; Utilitarianism, in which the greatest good for the greatest number is sought through appealing to environmental conservation as means of protecting the “commons” for current and future generations. Implicit in this argument is the ideas that the common good is correlated with limits to consumption, so that finite resource management is the mechanism of ensuring the common good. Laws derive their legitimacy through appeals to ethics and a presumed common value. Utilitarianism’s limitations derive from its assumption that pleasure/happiness equals good, so that one could argue against conservation on the grounds that profligate exploitation of the environment often brings short-term “pleasure.” Because of this, utilitarianism alone is inadequate as an environmental ethic or as the basis for legislation. Correspondingly, it is most often combined with a form of pragmatism that defines the common environmental good in terms of its utility.
Pragmatism elevates the idea of instrumental value (as opposed to intrinsic value), arguing that benefits derived from environmental conservation trigger instrumental feelings of pleasure, and are thus good independent of any intrinsic, aesthetic appeal. Yet, this view is also problematic when applied to a limited consumption view. If value is equated with instrumental pleasure, surely more and more instrumental pleasure yields more and more value. It is precisely this exponential increase, which results from growth, that is at odds with a vision of limited, sustainable consumption. Clearly, net gains in instrumental pleasure do not add up to net value gains when resources are limited and consumer desires multiply. As a result, an environmental ethic that appeals to limited consumption and increased conservation cannot count on either utilitarian or pragmatic approaches to advance its argument. Thinking merely in instrumental terms, or in terms of the common good, leaves an essential element missing. Ethicists have responded that nature, like individuals, have value for their own sake, and as such are entitled to “rights.” Species rights are an important component of legislation, for they postulate that individuals act to preserve and protect species as a whole. Individual species members are often accorded rights based on their membership in a category considered “endangered.” The larger problem with the “rights” argument is that it is based on sovereign individuals with free will, and does not transfer well to abstract concepts such as the “environment.” In what sense can the non-sentient, inanimate world be said to have rights? If such rights can be established a priori, then humans have a corresponding obligation to honor those rights, and it makes sense to speak of conservation and limited consumption as a vehicle of honoring the rights of the inanimate world.
As Eugene Hargrove, in an essay entitled “Taking Environmental Ethics Seriously” has noted, it seems unlikely that an effective environmental ethic centered around limited consumption is possible if the notion of “nature ought to have rights” is discarded. What is left, then, is the hope that nature will come to be valued intrinsically, aside from any legislative obligations to honor rights, aside from any pragmatic appeals to instrumental value, and aside from any utilitarian claims of pleasure maximization. If the environment has intrinsic, or inherent value, then limited consumption as an ethical response has great appeal. Yet, an appreciation for the intrinsic value of the environment cannot be legislated, unlike limits on consumption of, say, fossil fuels. Recognition of intrinsic value is a personal act, and in this sense environmental ethics are an individual activity, manifesting itself in hundreds of daily decisions. Recognizing our individual consumptive patterns, and delineating the difference between what we want versus what we need, is an ethical choice with environmental consequences extending well into the future. In this paper, we seek a foundation of awareness regarding our own consumption, and look at ways in which individual and societal consumptive patterns affirm and displace environmental concerns.