One of the main problems with consumption and waste in industrialized economies today is the idea of planned obsolescence. Products since the earliest Ford models have been designed specifically not to last for extended periods of time, but rather to become inoperable or obsolescent in a timely manner so as to encourage re-consumption of the product. It is the reason why auto manufacturers put out new models yearly and why smart-phone manufacturers constantly remake and update their phones. The idea of planned obsolescence goes hand-in-hand with a large market for disposable goods and with the constant search and longing for something new and better. Another aspect is that once the new product is released, the old, obsolete one can be tossed in the trash can and forgotten. Not only is consumption encouraged but so is excessive waste.
A solution to at least this aspect of the problematic consumption-driven economy would be to encourage companies which manufacture long-lasting goods. OEP Electronics manufactures light bulbs which aim to last for 25 years. Adopting their philosophy of “without planned obsolescence” with other products and markets would reduce waste and consumption, but also open up a new economic market for second-hand goods and repairs. This, in turn, would do much to change the notion of bigger and newer as better in consumers’ minds, as well as reduce waste and overall consumption toward sustainable levels.
The arguments against environmentalism on an economic basis have not been convincing. Although there has been a general push for deregulation in many areas of the economy recently, it has yet to be shown that this is the best direction in which the country should go. Environmental concern and regulation probably has less damage to deal to economic productivity as a whole than to certain wealthy and empowered economic institutions which heavily influence energy policy in the US. If you’ll agree that first and foremost, environmentalism is concerned with energy policy – renewables over fossil fuels – then it isn’t much of a stretch to see how biased these arguments against environmentalism are. The Ayn Rand piece stands out as pure propaganda, but the real arguments from Republicans, Democrats, and oil companies alike can be seen as institutions looking out for their own self-interest. It is as unsurprising as it is infuriating.
Often it seems that environmental concern cannot be combined with the strive for infinitely increasing profit. But the EU, specifically Germany, provides a great counterexample – one where businesses and politicians argue for the benefit of environmentalism. In Germany, Solar power and other renewable energy has been heavily subsidized by the federal government since the passing of the Renewable Energy Act in 2000. As a result, solar power has become economically viable, even in a place as cloudy and rainy as Germany. Compared with the potential of the vast, calm, and sunny deserts of the US southwest, Germany’s solar potential is laughable. If this overcast country can make renewable energy economically viable in the span of a decade, it begs the question about the US’s ability to do the same or better. It also gives strength to the argument that anti-environmentalism in the US is heavily influenced by the economic interests of the fossil fuel industry.
Businesses in Germany and the EU are even beginning to call for self-regulation and to point out that perhaps not only governments, but businesses themselves should take on the responsibility of looking after their environmental impact. Those that believe in the ability of the private sector to innovate see an even greater potential for environmentalism in businesses themselves. If this perspective can exist in economies just as strong, if not stronger, than the US, then how can it be that environmentalism must have adverse economic impacts? More and more, the argument from US politicians that environmental regulation would adversely impact the economy seems dishonest and self-interested. At best it is a misguided and narrow perspective, but at worst it is willful advocation of environmental destruction for profit.
At first glance, Bryan Norton’s argument for weak anthropocentrism comes off as quite weak itself. He is also careful to point out the very narrow scope of his argument. But upon reflection, one can see how a weakly anthropocentric view of environmental ethics could be used to argue convincingly for the health and preservation of the natural world.
A fact that Norton does not explicitly acknowledge is that the environment is overwhelmingly understood to be a stockpile of resources for humanity. Stated generally, the natural world exists for human benefit. If this is a common understanding of the natural world and humanity’s place within it, then it may be more useful to continue to argue from this viewpoint of human benefit. With Norton’s argument, we do not have to move far away from common conceptions of the human-nature relationship in order to argue strongly for more environmental concern. We must only begin to understand that the health of the human species is dependent upon the health of the environment, and that if we value our existence then we must also value the health of the environment.
It takes no great leap of understanding, no radical change in thought. It isn’t even a widening of the moral scope. Intrinsic value is still only a human characteristic. Norton’s ethic fits with the way that many people already see the world, but it turns that arguably problematic view into a positive one for the natural world. It does not try to stop people from valuing the environment instrumentally, but it can still be used to make strong arguments for the importance of the health of ecosystems. As Norton states, “within the limits set by weak anthropocentrism… there exists a framework for developing powerful reasons for protecting nature.” In this sense, the natural world does not need to be valued intrinsically in order for compelling arguments to be made in support of it. In terms of practicality, Norton’s understanding of environmental ethics could have much more of a positive effect than radical approaches to ethical issues surrounding the environment.