“Shallow” environmentalism and utility monsters…

Max Zimmerman under a Creative Commons License
Max Zimmerman under a Creative Commons License


A couple of years ago, I was cutting up a yew tree in my parents’ back garden. As often happens when I labour physically, my mind started working too – as if to create a state of harmony between the two.

And while I hacked away at the yew-tree that my dad had just felled, a chainsaw he found in the electric chainsaw reviews I showed him. I started musing about how justified we were in killing the tree. It wasn’t producing many berries due to being overshadowed by other trees, it was starving out the plants that were growing below it, and the shelter it offered small birds could easily be provided by other, more broadly beneficial plants. These broader, ecological reasons were what lay behind our work that day. But while my mum and dad started expressing their enthusiasm for what we were doing, commenting on how much nicer the garden looked with the yew gone, I considered how – for most other people – this would be enough of a justification to get rid of the yew in the first place. The yew’s own life, how catastrophic it would be for the yew to be killed, wouldn’t even be a factor for consideration. As far as most people are concerned, if humans benefit from the death of a tree, it’s justified. The materialist logic behind this is simple – human beings are able to experience neurologically sophisticated forms of pleasure, while yew trees, as entities lacking brains, are not. Therefore, humans like my family would gain far more from chopping a yew tree down and admiring the view, than the yew tree would from continuing to live. Our big brains allow us to set the agenda of what is useful, and what isn’t – and therefore, what is morally justified.

Of course, even if you believe that human benefit is the only significant kind, that still gives you plenty of reasons to conserve our natural heritage. The human reliance on the natural world is considerable, even if only reckoned in rather narrow economic terms. Of course, this doesn’t even touch upon the level of spiritual, aesthetic and emotional satisfaction human beings derive from their environment. Nonetheless, anthropocentric forms of conservation and environmentalism have been frequently criticised by certain thinkers (such as the deep ecologist Arne Naess, Val Plumwood, and others) for being “shallow” and not addressing the underlying attitudes that lead to ecological abuse.

Such critiques reveal a basic difference of opinion in the Western world. Some people – romantics, nature writers, and Pagans – assume that ecological abuse is just simply a bad thing, something that the other camp – including most of society– simply doesn’t accept. This disagreement is utterly fundamental; the former have no reason to doubt the rightness of respecting all life, the latter need no reason to believe it. Even when you do come across conservationists of the latter view – and there are many – they see nature primarily as something that helps or supports mankind; the protection of the Earth is reasonable, because it benefits us. If the situation came down to saving the Earth or saving humanity, then the average shallow ecologist would, like Bruce Wayne from Batman & Robin in this scene, do the latter. Although Poison Ivy is clearly a villain, in smoothly remarking that “People come first, Dr Isley” – instead of treating both as a single community in need of protection – Bruce Wayne is a monster. A utility monster, to be exact.

Simply put, a utility monster is a being who derives greater pleasure from consuming a given resource than any human – they can even, for example, obtain ever increasing levels of pleasure. This pleasure-generation machine of a creature would, in theory, be perfectly justified in consuming the world, the universe, anything and everything, because the amount of pleasure it would gain from doing so would outweigh any suffering that such consumption would produce.

Capitalist society transforms humans into utility monsters – beings whose capacity to benefit from resources is perceived to be much greater than that of another other class of being, and indeed our capacity for pleasure is assumed to be inexhaustible and ever-increasing. This is codified in the so-called “fundamental economics problem” – that humans are beings of infinite wants in a world of finite resources. This is made possible by how utility itself is defined: as the sense of pleasure created by the human brain, and solely by the human brain. Narrow utility of this kind gives humans the right to consume indefinitely, even when such indefinite consumption harms non-human beings. Indeed, it renders narrow utility part of the furniture of modern day thinking.

This ultimately creates a rather bleak moral universe. In this particular vision of the world, we have a tyranny of the best-evolved to be happy. Species exist with a significantly more acute sense of pleasure than other species, and that in cases where conflicts of interest arise, the “maximally pleasurable” are able to ignore the interests of those who feel comparatively less pleasure. The outcomes would be grim. Look at the Hollywood film Independence Day. It’s very clear from watching this film that humanity are meant to be the good guys – defending their homeworld and fighting for their very survival against a fleet of uncompromising alien invaders, who want nothing less than to destroy the entire planet, consume its resources, and move on. But what if these aliens have a far stronger sense of pleasure and pain than humans do? What if they would gain much greater benefit from consuming our planet than we would from living on it? The fiery annihilation of the mother ship would be the source of massively greater suffering than the wholesale elimination of the Earth’s human population, as the beings being killed in the former have a far greater capacity for feeling than the beings in the latter case.

Looking at it this way, the scene where the US President confronts an alien pilot gains a sharper moral point. The alien is no more or less uncompromising than humans are when faced with a shoal of cod or a stretch of Amazonian rainforest. Imagine what the alien is thinking – Mine is a people that has travelled the stars for millennia. We have mastered the fundamentals of the universe. We see, feel and understand the world in ways your species could not imagine. What could you possibly offer us alive? You might consider this to be a hugely speculative example, but it has a distinct precedent – European colonisers exacted similarly parsimonious standards of value when interacting with indigenous communities. Though such interactions occurred across a much smaller gulf of experience, a moral principle is a moral principle. So long as one person experiences greater pleasure or pain than another, there is a moral hierarchy, that can be used to justify cruelty and exploitation.

The manifestly repugnant nature of such acts – from the real (colonialism) to the imagined (alien invasion) is proof against the kind of utilitarianism that underpins both the aliens’ attitude in Independence Day and shallow ecology. One merely has to ask; what sort of universe would a universe of utility monsters be like? The answer, it seems to me, would be an unpleasant one. There would always be a bigger fish – a nastier, more powerful entity out there who could destroy you utterly, and be perfectly moral in doing so, because it could derive more pleasure from the act than you would suffer from it. The aliens of Independence Day might be able to justifiably destroy us for their own gain, but they could just as well be justly devoured by a gigantic voidworm orbiting around some dark, forbidden sun. So although on a basic economistic level this stance might make sense, the sort of world it would create means that it doesn’t make logical sense for any moral agent to pursue such an approach. Of course, a world where everyone gets a chance at happiness would have less overall utility than a world of utility monsters. So why is it better?

The critical factor here is the relative nature of value. All value is relative to the person experiencing it. Therefore, just as the annihilation of mankind is catastrophic for us, but barely of consequence to the aliens, so the felling of a yew tree might be barely of consequence for the lumberjack, but be of terminal significance for the tree. Whether it “feels” pain, fear or despair as we do is irrelevant – on its own terms, dying is hideously bad news. There can never be, therefore, a universal standard of utility.

So how do we prevent ourselves from becoming utility monsters? Simple – we take the motivations of all other beings, such as they are, into account. This doesn’t amount to a crude anthropomorphism, in which trees are assumed to be humans, but instead requires a basic sense of empathy, even for those who fundamentally Other. The assumption of universal utility is replaced with a respectful acknowledgment of all existences that must always be sensitively responded to. Of course, this doesn’t mean we can no longer cut down trees, harvest crops or take antibiotics because of the lethal consequences of such acts, but we simply can’t afford to ever forget, or be cavalier about those consequences. Lest we become monsters.

Jonathan Woolley

1b&w copyJonathan is a social anthropologist and human ecologist, based at the University of Cambridge. He is a specialist in the political economy of the British landscape, and in the relationship between spirituality, the environment, and climate change. A member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, and an eco-animist, Jonathan maintains a blog about his academic fieldwork called BROAD PATHWAYS.

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4 thoughts on ““Shallow” environmentalism and utility monsters…

  1. I guess I have a problem with the idea that someone who has a greater capacity for pleasure and enjoyment is allowed to run rampant over anything it chooses–pretty much what you’re getting at, I think.

    My philosophy tends to run to “I don’t like this, more for you”, and its reverse. When one side of the equation is “it makes me sick”, I expect to have that respected, by me, or whomever is on the other side.

    In the last two homes we owned, I added a lot of trees: fruit trees, shade trees, Japanese Maples, and a couple of hazels. I also had a few pruned for their own health, and in one case, so we could actually walk there without risk of falling in the pool. Poor thing had been butchered instead of pruned. The old Golden Delicious tree in the center of the Back 49 (feet, that is) was lovingly pruned by my gay & pagan gardener. When he was finished, there was one view where you could see a heart-shaped airy space. BTW, home grown GDs are NOT the same as the ick you buy in the store. Also in that yard were two fruit trees I didn’t want, and advertised them as free for the digging–they didn’t die, they got passed along.

    I’ll admit there are two trees in this yard (we rent) that should never have been trained into trees, because they’re supposed to be shrubs. They nauseate me every spring when they bloom–smells absolutely foul to me–and I’d happily replace them with something else. But we rent, and that’s a capital investment, therefore, Something Dire would have to happen to them, and we’d tell the property manager.

    I also say, We’re in a drought. Let’s make a game of how little water we can use for ordinary chores. I do not say, I can afford the cost and the fines (which *I* can’t), to hell with the drought, I’m going to keep my XX acres lush emerald green.

    I tend to wander, when I do so, around the yard checking drip lines and the health of what’s being grown. Yes, I talk to the plants.


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