Aristotle taught that every virtuous act or attitude is a balance, or mean, between two extremes. In order to achieve an ethical balance, one should strive neither to have too much of, nor too little of, certain qualities. A courageous person, for instance, is neither rash (excess) nor cowardly (deficiency). A generous person is neither wasteful (excess) nor stingy (deficiency). While one might argue that there are certain acts or attitudes that fail to fit in this model — who, for example, can love excessively? — the idea seems applicable when considering one’s attitude towards the environment.

The excessive side of the conservation argument — the most extreme form of environmentalism — is often self contradictory. In one breath it asserts that the smallest microorganism has the same inborn right to life as a human being (be careful where you step!), placing all life on equal moral grounds. In the next breath it seems to assert that humans are of such importance that their wasteful fossil-fuel-consuming behavior can bring the world to ruins, as if they were higher than any other power or influence, natural or supernatural.

The deficient side of the conservation argument, while perhaps not as self-contradictory (there usually isn’t enough thought to give rise to contradiction), is equally, if not more arrogant than the excessive side. Rather than being too careful, the deficient side of the argument is too careless. It asserts that regardless of what scientists say, one’s behavior will not change. It laughs at reason, often with a drawl, and relies on populist masses and rhetoric for its support.

If a virtuous balance, or temperate view of the environmental issues of the day, can be found somewhere in between these two extremes, it seems worthwhile to pursue.

8 Thoughts on “A Temperate View of the Environment”

  • I read you blog post about A Temperate View of the Environment. i probably lean right and think that almost all people want clean air, clean water, forests, and prairie land. They want to live in their cities, towns, and rural areas and enjoy nature when they can and want. This is a view that I think is commonly ignored in considering environmental issues and should be the foundation for discussion. It is the cost and priority that is hotly debated.

    • Paul, thanks for your comment. You raise a good point about the cost and priority of environmental stewardship being highly debatable issues. Many have pointed out, for instance, that those who struggle to meet basic human needs are less inclined to discuss pollution, especially the pollution that may result directly from their efforts to meet those needs (see Guha, How Much Should a Person Consume?). I certainly don’t place judgment on them.

      What concerns me is that many of us have long since met our basic needs (and reasonable wants) — we are, by all measures, living in the most prosperous period in the history of the world — yet rather than turning our attention to helping others to meet their basic needs and learning to live peaceably in our communities, we want still more and more “stuff,” convinced somehow that there isn’t enough to go around. There is enough and to spare.

      Several months ago CS Monitor ran an article stating the following (for whatever stock you place in statistics of this nature, but it gives you the idea.):

      “About 1,000 billionaires exist in the world today, with a combined wealth of over $3.5 trillion . . . if they pool half this money and contribute just the interest gained on it every year – none of the principal – there would be more than enough to fund the basic needs of humanity.”

      Here’s a link to the complete article:

  • Clay, what a beautifully written article. You have such a persuasive and gentle way of expressing your ideas, views and visions. I respect your insightful and intuitive wisdom. :) Carol

  • In regards to the environment, I feel that the “excessive” side of the conservation argument tends to be the side that is overly extreme. In my experience, most of the people I know that are on the opposite side of the issue from the “excessive” side — those you call “deficient” — are, in fact, not deficient at all.

    Take me, for example. I am one who would probably be lumped in the “deficient” category. But I am one who respects the environment. I live my life in a way that respects the environment — I conserve water, I recycle when possible, I despise littering, I pick up trash that I encounter in the wilderness, I purposely bought a home close to my work so I have a short commute, my vehicle is a compact with great gas-mileage, I support conserving natural resources, etc.

    I simply don’t get roped into the Great Environmentalism Machine that often times has ulterior motives behind their “protect the environment” front. There are those that would just as soon take down the nation’s economy and all of our jobs with it in the name of saving the environment.

    I am all for being a wise steward of the environment, just not taken to the extreme.

    • Jeff, thanks for your comments. The behaviors you list in the second paragraph very much reflect what I (and I would argue most) believe our environmental stewardship should entail.

      Regarding the environmentalist movement, we always need to be on the lookout for ulterior motives, including our own — they are so much easier to see in others than in ourselves.

      (Two that come to mind — one from the left, one from the right — are 1. Environmental NGOs employ a huge number of well-paid individuals, the funding for which depends on the existence of environmental threats, real or perceived, and 2. Big business claims that it cannot be profitable and comply with increased environmental regulations despite that fact that profits and executive pay are at unprecedented levels.)

  • We civil engineers are in a tight squeeze here. The very core of civil engineering changes the environment from the natural state to another state that is useful for mankind in some way. We can’t be both. For instance, if a developer comes to me with a wad of cash and says “I need a parking lot”, I can’t tell that him or her that it would be better for the Greater Good that the parking lot not be built, but instead give the cash to the poor [Matt. 19:21]. I’m in business to make a profit and a living, so I take the fee and give him a nice parking lot design that complies with all the rules and regulations we professionals have thought of so far. No matter how “green” you make it, you’re still an instrument of that developer’s cash and desire to knock down some trees. So, if you’re looking for someone famous to quote, try “Money makes the world go around”, “Follow the money”, or “It’s the economy, stupid.” You are either a cave man or you live in the civilized (Civil Engineer-ed) world. There is no middle, balance, or mean.

  • Joseph, thanks for your thoughts. I had to smile as I read your comment because of how much you sounded like my big brother. It also reminded me how so many conflicts come down to idealism vs. realism. It goes without saying which -isms inform each of our approaches to this particular issue. That said, it’s always interesting to test, if not validate one’s ideas with others in the engineering profession.

    We certainly are in a tight squeeze as civil engineers and I concur that altering things from their natural to man-made state is the essence of what we do. This is something that I take great pride in and strive to do with great care.

    However, I contend with the notion that our only responsibility as engineers is to take the cash and provide the minimum service, acting merely as pawns in the hands of the owner/developer. Many owners today are extremely thoughtful about their projects and want their design teams to help them shape the outcome by implementing best practices, especially when projects are still in the schematic design phase. (Of course, there are some lacking in this department, e.g. one developer early on in my career fought for every last lot on a beachfront development on California’s largest fresh-water lake over an Indian burial ground — I learned my lesson to avoid these types of projects.) One of the frustrations that I have experienced, usually on structural jobs, is that projects are well into design development by the time we even see them, leaving us with very little influence on important design decisions dealing with structural efficiency. Then there are those who know from the outset that all they want is a tire swing and in those instances, where it cannot be improved upon, we give them what they want.

    Your comment about being “in business to make a profit and a living” is very pragmatic. All I can say is that some days this is exactly the way I feel, but if all I wanted was money, I wouldn’t have become an engineer. The idealist in me believes that what we do — providing the basic infrastructure for humanity — is, or at least can be, extremely gratifying, noble and pure. We can make a difference and improve the way our world gets built.

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