A painting of spiralling fish in water

Words and deeds

Published on 07 December 2021 Go back to The ACU Review

When attitudes diverge, could a focus on actions help us to find common ground?

By John Mweshi, University of Zambia

For many of us who profess to care about the natural environment, it’s tempting to rush into answering the question of what our attitude to nature ought to be. It’s like a sprawling ocean with rolling waves inviting us to jump right in, either to enjoy its cooling waters or to pick up floating trash without thinking about where it’s come from or why. But perhaps it’s helpful to acknowledge that not only is the question a complex one, its answer may not matter quite as much as we think.

If philosophy, as some would have it, is an exploration of life’s most fundamental questions, then there are many still to be answered before we can begin to agree on what our attitude to nature should be. There are lingering questions about the extent to which we can say we actually understand nature. This is because the more we think we’ve understood it, the more we realise how complex it is and how it will always have something up its sleeve to surprise us.

Attitudes are also better developed or understood in relation to specific objects. It’s simpler, for example, to recommend what our attitude towards money should be because there’s a limited number of ways in which we can relate to it. But nature does not qualify to be treated or experienced like an object and treating it as such is problematic.

It’s for this reason that, in caring about nature, people may focus on landscapes or plants, others on animals or birds. This doesn’t mean that people don’t appreciate how everything in nature is connected. It’s just not possible for us to relate to nature in its bewildering entirety at any given moment. This makes it almost impossible to agree on a single concept of nature to which all of us can relate.

Even if we could come up with what might seem like a comprehensive idea of nature, relating it to our actual experiences would still pose challenges because different individuals and cultures interact with nature in such different ways. What to one person might be a majestic beast worthy of protection at any cost is to another a dangerous and destructive menace. Given these differences, is it possible to prescribe what an appropriate attitude to nature ought to be? And who indeed would be the person or organisation to do so? Can we judge one culture’s attitude to nature from the perspective of another?

Dividing lines

So why, then, do we bother with attitudes at all? It’s widely understood that our attitudes to nature have contributed to the environmental crisis we face today. We hope that alternative ways of thinking could help us to promote desired attitudes.

Of course, attitudes are often a product of culture or emerge within particular cultural contexts. We also see that cultures which promote favourable attitudes towards nature are constantly under threat from those that foster its destruction. From this perspective, it’s recognised that in some cases we have to protect a people’s culture in order to protect nature.

Yet there is a risk of becoming entangled in the dividing lines that have characterised debates in western environmental ethics. Tensions between anthropocentrism versus non-anthropocentrism – or individualism versus holism ­– may have been useful in informing particular positions on certain issues, but have often led to irreconcilable differences. Moreover, the desire to ‘choose a side’ is often at odds with our real-life multifaceted human interactions with the natural world. So, what is the alternative?

Common ground

While it’s often assumed that we need to change how people think in order to change how they act, this can also work in reverse. In fact, a focus on changing our behaviour, rather than our thoughts or attitudes, has a number of distinct advantages.

Where attitudes diverge, common ground can often be found more easily in common actions. Actions can enable us to overcome differences in belief or culture that may otherwise seem irreconcilable. This implies that we may not in fact need to agree on these challenging questions of how humans should or shouldn’t relate to nature, with the added advantage that it’s also far easier to change and assess actions than it is to change or assess a set of beliefs.

A focus on actions can also help us to deal with the human tendency to alienate ourselves – not only from nature but from things we have created ourselves such as science, technology, and economics. One of the reasons we do this is because our actions often result in unintended consequences and we do not like to accept responsibility for these. Alienating ourselves from the natural world may allow us to distance ourselves from the consequences of our actions – and perhaps from our sense of responsibility.

Most importantly, perhaps, it’s much easier to come up with principles that guide policy or actions than it is to steer people’s complex and varying attitudes. One such principle is to assess any action affecting the natural environment in terms of whether it is appropriate and proportionate. The overall goal here is harmony and balance between nature and humans. Let me illustrate this idea with some examples.

Harmony and balance

One evening I heard my mum exclaim in surprise and I went to the room where she was watching television to find out what had happened. I could see that she was still astonished as she began narrating to me what she had seen and I decided to hit the rewind button on the remote to see for myself. A group of men were fishing in a boat. One of them was holding a big fish he had caught and, after posing with it for a few moments, he kissed the fish and put it back in the water. Again, my mum sighed with dismay: why, she asked, had the man had put such a nice big fish back in the water? My answer was short: it’s called ‘catch and release’.

Momentarily impressed by the man’s gesture, I felt a little ashamed at my mum’s reaction. I knew that in her mind she’d gone as far as contemplating the best way to prepare such a fish. So, I asked myself: was the man’s action appropriate and proportionate? With a conservation bias, I quickly decided that there was nothing wrong with the act of putting the fish back into the water – indeed perhaps it was even admirable, as well as appropriate. But was it proportionate, I wondered? One might ask why they were fishing at all if the fish were to be thrown back! Noting that these men had flown from one continent to another and had burnt significant litres of fuel using both motor vehicles and boat engines, I concluded that it wasn’t. The moral of this story could be that a seemingly favourable attitude to nature may mislead us to engage in activities that, overall, turn out to be harmful to the environment.

But how do we determine whether an action is proportionate or not? As we saw with the fish, it also depends on other activities connected to the act in question. For example, based purely on the view that ‘nothing goes to waste in nature’, we would wonder why people complain about the huge amounts of food that goes to waste every day, particularly in wealthier countries. If the sole concern was rotting food then making compost would be an adequate solution and nature does this very well. But our concerns go far beyond the principal of waste to include wider issues – consumerism, food security, the short shelf life of food, and the cost of producing, storing and transporting food that goes uneaten.

As these examples demonstrate, the principles of whether an act is both environmentally appropriate and proportionate can be applied at an individual or industry level. While you may not find the above examples convincing, that needn’t take way from the usefulness of the two basic concepts of appropriate and proportionate in assessing our interactions with the natural environment and what is at stake.

Whatever our position might be, it’s abundantly clear is that we cannot stop striving for harmony and balance if we are to live sustainably and coexist with other species and elements in the natural environment. The consequences for the planet of human’s destructive actions can hardly be denied. Unfortunately, acknowledging the problem does not itself lead to a change in actions. Our relationship with nature and our concept of it are overshadowed by the fact that much of our behaviour is guided by habit rather than considered beliefs, while our dependence on the natural world is heavily obscured by our reliance on machinery and technology in every facet of our lives. So, although mindsets and behaviours are symbiotic and not mutually exclusive, it is arguably through our actions that we will most easily find common ground.

Dr John Mweshi is a lecturer and researcher in the Department of Philosophy and Applied Ethics at the University of Zambia.

Image by Sabena Jane Blackbird at Alamy