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Fundamental approaches to environmental ethics currently seem polarized between two broad varieties: the “conservationist” approach on which we should conserve the environment when it is in our interest to do so and the “preservationist” approach on which we should preserve the environment even when it is not in our interest to do so. The first approach obviously has a broader potential audience and is invoked even by preservationists when they seek to marshal the broadest possible support for environmental protection. For preservationists, however, the conservationist approach has obvious limitations. It permits damage to the environment whenever required by the balance of human interests. It does not express the real reasons we must protect nonhuman animals, streams, or forests. Preservationists believe that harm to sentient beings, to teleological centers of life, and even to ecological communities should be prevented independently of whether of not it also harms our interests. To conservationists, the idea that the environment ought to be preserved even when it is not in our interest to preserve it often appears inscrutable or flaky. They believe that nature is a precious resource that we should use wisely but when it is not in our interest to conserve nature they do not believe we must do so. Preservationists would object that consideration of human interests does not amount to due consideration of everything that has value. But, it is unclear what preservationists can say to change conservationists’ minds on the matter. In this essay we deploy a third approach to dealing with environmental problems “relationalism.” Like conservationism, this approach tells us to conserve nature when doing so is necessary to respect people in the right way. Unlike conservationism, it does not so prescribe on the basis of a cost-benefit analysis of what would best satisfy our current interests. Like preservationism this approach tells us to preserve nature even when it is not necessary to do so to protect human interests. Relationalism, rather, tells us to preserve nature as part of what makes us who we are or could be. Relationalism starts from a relational conception of human identity. The basic idea is that the nonhuman world may enter into who we are, just as other human beings and communities may enter into who we are. If we, as persons, have value, whatever is bound up with us in positive ways ought also be valued and this gives us reason to conserve or preserve nature. After setting out the relationalist account, we argue that it can explain key preservationist and conservationist intuitions, though its policy recommendations in particular cases may coincide with neither.


This is an electronic version of an article co-authored with David Wong to be published in the Journal of Chinese Philosophy.

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