(This is cross posted on my personal site)
A couple of times on my blog I’ve taken the position that all environmentalism can be defended on selfish grounds. Basically, screwing up the environment is bad for the long-term economic health of the world. Top-soil is good for the American economy and so is a corn belt that’s located here and not in 5 square acres of Canada. Similarly, every extinction is like a million year lab experiment thrown away before we’ve had a chance to learn from the results.
It’s pretty obvious that this argument works for short-term stuff like that affects people’s health right now and in direct ways but I’ve come to realize more and more that it’s not really a useful way of arguing for environmentalism generally. People just don’t get invested in environmentalism for selfish reasons; maybe their selfishness just doesn’t operate on long enough timescales. Instead, I’ve found that most people who favor environmentalism do so for non-selfish "emotional" reasons: a love of the unspoiled outdoors and empathy for the creatures who are killed by environmental neglect and so on. I don’t think I ever appreciated those reasons till I went hiking out by the house I grew up in with my girlfriend Lisa.
Here’s our hike.
When I was a kid I remember the trail feeling wild. This time it just looked abused. There was trash everywhere and the view from the top that used to be inspiring just looked like a view of a lot of sprawl. Developments replaced chaparral, the horse ranch is now a shopping mall, and the clearing where I saw a group of wary roadrunners in my youth now has a driveway in the middle of it. I took Lisa there a couple times but I’ve never been able to show them to her probably because they just don’t go there anymore.
Obviously my family’s complicit in all this. The house we moved into was once a new development which no doubt replaced wild country. But I’m an adult and can recognize the difference between capitulating to the realities of a housing market which doesn’t value lost wilderness and not valuing wilderness in the first place. And I can also recognize that the “realities of the housing market” don’t just appear out of nowhere: they’re the result of government policies (or lack thereof) that we can change.
See, I’m getting emotional.