Pause and reflect on what really makes wilderness valuable. John O'Neill/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA
Let us imagine that humanity has almost died out and only a few people remain. Out of resentment or despair, the survivors cater to their destructive urges by destroying as much of the natural world as they can. They poison rivers and lakes, drop napalm on forests, set off a few nuclear warheads. They are at ease with their conscience because no one will ever be in the position to use or appreciate the nature they are destroying.
They are harming no one. But surely what they are doing is wrong.
The Australian environmental philosopher Richard Sylvan used this story to try to persuade us that nature has a value that is independent of our needs and desires, even our existence.
The predicament he imagines is a fiction. But the ethical problem is very real. Experts tell us that human activity is causing the world’s wilderness areas to disappear at an alarming rate. In 100 years there may be no wilderness left.
Those who deplore this development usually focus on the negative implications for human well-being: increasing environmental dysfunction, loss of species diversity and of the unknown benefits that wilderness areas might contain.
But Sylvan’s thought experiment – involving the last people alive, and therefore removing the consideration of humans’ future well-being – shows us that much more is at stake. It is morally wrong to destroy ecosystems because they have value in their own right.
Some philosophers deny that something can have value if no one is around to value it. They think that ethical values exist only in our minds. Like most philosophical propositions, this position is debatable. Sylvan and many others believe that value is as much a part of the world as matter and energy.
But let us assume that those who deny the independent existence of values are right. How then can we condemn the destructive activities of the last people or deplore the loss of wilderness and species for any other reason than loss of something useful to humans?
The kind of experiences that something provides can be a reason for regarding it as valuable for what it is, and not merely for its utility. Those who appreciate wilderness areas are inclined to believe that they have this kind of value. Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden: “We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life posturing freely where we never wander.”