The Whole is Greater than the Sum of its Parts

This week’s blog post will be a little more phiosophical, dealing with a topic that’s been debated for a very long time, animal rights. I’ll be taking some well-known opinions that we have been analyzing in school and extending them to whole ecosystems. Enjoy!

The issue of animal rights is no new concept. Animals are deeply integrated in our modern lifestyles to the point where interactions with them are inevitable and occur on a daily basis. Decisions regarding how each individual human interacts with non-human animals are made each day by the consumption of cosmetics, food and other objects (Korsgaard, 2009). On a broader scale, the Western world faces problems of overconsumption and many unsustainable practices that are wreaking havoc on the Earth System. Human population is growing at an alarming rate, leading to the destruction of habitats and ecosystems that are vital to the functioning of the Earth System. The question at hand is that if we have moral duties toward non-human animals, then what are our moral duties regarding the whole ecosystems to which these species belong? We need to look at the whole, and not just the parts.

Korsgaard’s views can be extended to ecosystems in general. She argues that the difference between humans and non-human animals is that humans understand the implications of their actions and can therefore evaluate situations and make decisions about whether or not to act on their emotions, instincts and desires. In other words, humans have the capacity to self-govern. It is natural for life to prey on life, however our human nature obliges us to hold ourselves to higher standards than nature has given us. If we are considering ourselves superior to animals in this sense, then we should not act savage like them, we have duties to respect them (Korsgaard, 2009).

Extending to ecosystems, Korsgaard’s views and reasoning can give insight as to why it is our duty to respect and protect whole ecosystems. Korsgaard argues that it is a uniquely human characteristic to have the capacity to recognize the implications of one’s actions and base our decisions as to what is right and what is wrong on that (Korsgaard, 2009). Through this, we have the duty to protect the ecosystems to which the species that we owe moral standing to belong. Ecosystems, are just that, systems. All components interact, and everything affects everything. By disrespecting and destroying the physical environment, we are disrespecting and destroying every other component of the ecosystem, including the non-human animals. If we as humans are able to realize this we can evaluate our actions that cause destruction to habitats and ecosystems. In order to respect the parts, we must preserve and respect the whole.

Finally, Korsgaard argues that it is difficult to treat animals rightly, as their harm is deeply embedded in our lifestyles. She also states that is this is no reason to not try harder to do so, and this can be applied to whole ecosystems as well (Korsgaard, 2009). Our culture is built heavily around the destruction of the environment and the modification of the Earth System that it is extremely difficult to change one’s lifestyle to treat animals and ecosystems rightly, having no negative impact. If we use this inconvenience as an excuse to continue on with our unsustainable practices, then we are not moral and we cannot advance. The Earth as a whole, has given us life and allowed us to become what we are. We realize this as humans, and thus it is our duty to respect and protect the whole, if we wish to respect the parts to which we owe moral standing.

 

 

Korsgaard, C. M. (2009). Facing the animal you see in the mirror. The Harvard Review of Philosophy, 16(1), 4-9.

 

Back of the Envelope

I started this semester with what I would consider to be a very interesting class, but I couldn’t seem to make the connection between the goals of the course and the theme of this class.  It was three agonizing hours of “back of the envelope calculations”, which are rough calculations using common knowledge that can be done on the back of an envelope. I mean, sure, it’s interesting, but I don’t see how the rough calculation of how many dentists are in the Greater Montreal Area is relevant to Earth system modelling. 

There were some questions in our assignment that were quite striking. They addressed real-life environmental topics. The first was “how many pairs of shoes can be made with one cow?” My first instinct was to write “None. Make your shoes with something else” because I’m a strong believer in animal rights and veganism. But my classmates and I went ahead and somehow came up with answers ranging from 6 to 40 pairs. Regardless of what the real number is, just think about this: picture a cow and a class of 40 people. If they all had one pair of leather shoes, that’s (potentially more than) one cow. This means that to give everyone in Canada one pair of leather shoes, we would need at least 900 000 cows. I’m not trying to push my views on anyone, but just keep that image in your mind, and take into consideration that these shoes don’t last very long. 

The next question would have been incredibly interesting if I was allowed to do some research first, but we were only allowed to use our brains. It asked what area of watershed is required to meet the water needs of Montrealers. From what I know, the area of the island seems to be large enough. This assumes a yearly consumption of 300L of water and 40 cm of runoff, which in my opinion is on the low-end of consumption and the high-end of precipitation. Don’t be fooled by these numbers, because most of this water is not even usable because a lot of it is snow, or doesn’t fall in useful places. We are fortunate enough in Montreal that we have other water sources, but this does not mean that we should be careless with our water consumption. Here is a link to a list of over 100 ways that you can reduce your household’s water consumption. I cannot stress enough the extreme importance of depleting freshwater sources on Earth today. We should almost treat water as if it were gold or platinum; not expensive, but very precious.

This last question left me in a state of panic for a moment. It asked how long it would take for the livable surface of Earth to be covered in two metres thick of garbage. Just the thought of that actually happening was terrifying enough, but then I had to go ahead and attempt to estimate it. I started by looking at my own garbage production, imagining my daily waste sprawled out on the floor, and worked from there. I used a vague estimate of how many Canadas could fit into all the land on Earth since that’s the only country I roughly knew the area of. It came out to be 56 000 years. Although that may sound like a lot of time, that’s also an insane amount of garbage, meaning that that’s actually a very short amount of time. The rate at which we, in the developed world, produce waste is incredibly quick, hence why the term “overconsumption” is often used to describe our way of life.

I’m just about ready to go on a full-blown rant about overconsumption and deprivation on Earth, but I think I’ll save that for another post.

These back of the envelope calculations are simply fascinating, but after doing them, I really wish I could know the real answer! They really got me thinking about my own water consumption and waste production. Although I might think that it’s really not all that much, I now know that I should really consider the population as a whole having the same or similar impact. Just a small reduction from each person can have exponential results. I don’t live alone here on Earth, and neither do any of you. I’ll leave you with that, and all the above striking numbers up there in hopes that it will also get you thinking and consider your own consumption.