First, there is intrinsic value in saving the environment. Arnae Naess for example argues that the environment is worth protecting because of itself– not because of its importance to us as humans for survival, but rather because it is something worthy of protection. The logic or proof for this is offered at face value and assumed a priori, without reasoning and therefore on unstable ground. On the other hand, anyone who has been on a hike in the middle of a beautiful spot of nature may see this as self-evident and in no need of reasoning.
Second, even if nature is not actually intrinsically valuable, it has functional value or utility: its worth is equivalent to its ability to make humans happy. We are alive because of nature: because of water to drink, air to breath, produce to eat, plants to give us medications, and everything else that it produces for us. There is symbiosis, and the disturbance of this balance manifests itself in the form of environmental problems that often threaten human lives and future generations. Thus, we have two competing lands on why nature is important: for itself or for its use to humans. Some people accept both perspectives and consider them non-contradictory.
The next question requires piecing these puzzle configurations together: even if we can offer a causal link between current factory farming practices and environmental degradation and we agree that the environment should not be degraded, why then should we stop or reform current farming practices? Why not stop other practices, such as paper making and driving, that cause just as much if not more harm than cow farms, chicken coops, and fishing? Another way of putting this is why should we sacrifice our meat consumption for the sake of environmental protection?
My answer is as follows: (1) we can survive without meat, (2) we cannot survive without a healthy environment, (3) therefore the environment has more utility than meat, and (4) the environment is more important than our satiation and desires for flesh. That being said, there is still the concern that we are sacrificing a pleasure in society unnecessarily because we could sacrifice other industries’ utility and achieve the same desired results of protecting the environment. Well, for one thing, that is not necessarily the case: we may reduce oil consumption but that does not mean that the environment will become better, it takes sacrifice in many many aspects of life to attain the desired results. Furthermore, this takes the discussion down a dangerously utilitarian road that demands calculating the utility of each and every action and spheres of public and private life in order to conclude something about aggregate utility and thus form our policies and perspectives based on how useful something is to us. I argue that this is dangerous because (1) it is very hard to do (who has an algorithm for usefulness?) and (2) different things have different utilities to different people. The ensuing debate would necessarily therefore increase inequality gaps, creating even greater conflict and strife. Therefore, the environmental argument for vegetarianism argues that current meat industry practices must be changed, and changed drastically.
By: Naomi Scheinerman
(Photo by sneakerdog under a Creative Commons license.)