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Urban Wildlife and Selective Moral Agency

I’m constantly amazed by the fact that people are not the only creatures living and thriving in the modern urban environment.  For all the effort that people have put into shaping our environment (an act which is, in itself, quintessentially human) we’ve managed to provide a thriving ecosystem that supports tons of other species in ways that no one could have predicted at the outset.

Just in my city (a metropolis of just under 500,000 people), I’ve seen a huge number of species in the heart of town.  A partial list includes raccoons, foxes, marmots, skunks, geese, ducks, mice, rats, coyotes, pigeons, hawks (several species), and crows.  On a recent walk down to the river and back, I counted eight different sorts of non-human animals living, apparently comfortably, in the city.  These are all animals that have adapted from their natural environments to thrive in these new, artificial1 ones.

What struck me on this particular walk, is that this phenomenon, i.e. species adapting to a change in environment, is the fundamental driving force of evolution.  And human beings have instigated these changes in environments all around the globe. Both intentionally (e.g. through urbanization) and unintentionally (e.g. pollution). This lead me to thinking about epic climatic and environmental shifts and the fact that all of the environmental changes that we’re seeing all around the globe have qualitatively similar analogs in geological history. Temperatures have swung wildly just in human history, and have done even more so in the millions of years that large animals have been wandering the earth.

These historical changes in environment have caused the extinctions of many species and the adaptations of others. Indeed, there’s good evidence for the notion that we have one or more of these environmental changes to thank for many facets of our biology, including our giant brains, our upright gate, and our mostly hairless bodies.2 These changes, and transitively the extinctions and evolution they elicited, have been caused by a wide range of factors, from the impact of celestial objects to volcanic eruptions to tipping-point changes in the amount of plant life on the planet.

And yet the only environmental changes in the history of the planet, which people ever talk about in moral terms are the ones that we credibly have a hand in. Now this is undeniably due to the fact that we are moral agents. One simply can’t hold an asteroid responsible for changing the earth’s climate.

But to simply make the distinction that human-caused ecological changes are moral issues and other kinds aren’t doesn’t really capture the way people think about climate or environmental change. We seem to only be willing to cast a certain subset of these changes in moral terms. We seem willing to accept our agency and take the blame for big, abstract changes to the environment that don’t really have any personal impacts, but not to smaller, concrete changes which many of us find personally convenient. After all, not even the staunchest adversaries of global warming seriously suggest that urbanization is a moral issue. And those that due tend either to be derided as nutjobs or just ignored like the crazy uncle at Christmas.

Urbanization has changed the environment (at least in a local fashion) all over the globe. What’s more, it’s done so to a much greater extent than has global warming. As of a few years ago, half the people on the planet live in large urban centers. About two dozen of these urban centers now have populations over ten million people. The largest of them, the megalopolis of Tokyo, has over thirty million.3 Many of these urban centers cover thousands of square miles of territory, with suburban sprawl spreading for many more miles outward from them. All of these radically changes the local environment, putting huge stresses on species, ecosystems, and even local weather.4

And yet no one seriously suggests that the existence of Tokyo is a moral problem. And if anyone did, they’d immediately be pushed to the margins of the conversation. We seem to simply accept radical shifts of local environment. Huge environmental changes that we see every day (e.g. roads, sky scrapers, suburban sprawl) are considered fine, dandy, business as usual. But take a few abstract steps back and say that the globe is warming (a phenomenon that none of us can really experience directly), and suddenly, it seems, people are far enough removed from the issue to talk about it in terms of moral outrage.

Tell me that my house is an environmental change and therefore evil and I’ll ignore and deride you. Tell me that my “carbon footprint” is evil and I’ll go right out and buy a bicycle. The only real difference, it seems, is one of abstraction. It can’t possibly be one of scope, after all, since the building of a house does far more damage to the local ecosystem (effectively obliterating a portion of it) than one car does to the global ecosystem.

It seems to me, then, that it’s the abstraction that allows us to consider environmental changes in moral terms. To consider the small, concrete changes that human beings make and benefit from every day (and have been for as long as we’ve been human), seems to just cut too close to home. Sure, my modest city of a half million people displaced hundreds of square miles of natural environment, drove out many species, and dwindled the numbers of some that are decidedly imperiled. But no one in their right mind is going to say that Spokane is Evil.

“And really”, we seem to say, “what does it matter? We still have hawks in the sky, geese in the river, and raccoons in the garbage bins. Sure we changed this environment, but it’s convenient, and anyway, some of the critters seem to be doing alright by the change.

Now if only we could do something about those accursed SUV drivers and their carbon footprints, everything would be just fine.”


1The term “artificial” here is used only in the sense of “a work of artifice”, and is not intended to convey any moral judgment.
2For an interesting, if highly speculative, article on this topic, see Scientific American’s Feb. 2010 issue. The article, by Nina G. Jablonski, is entitled “Why Humans Have No Fur”. Here’s a link to the article online, though most of it sits behind a pay-wall.
3According to this excessively long and extremely cynical article about Japan, there are 60 million people living within a one-hour commute from the center of Tokyo.
4Urban Heat Islands are probably the handiest and best known example of urban centers changing local weather systems.

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Realtime Autobiography.


2 Responses

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  1. leisurelyviking says

    Interesting post; thanks for writing it. I think that outsourcing our moral outrage to issues far from our daily experience extends beyond environmental concerns. It seems way more popular (and easy) to talk about poverty and human rights issues in exotic third-world countries than to do something about homelessness and housing discrimination in our own backyards. I do sometimes hear about how urbanization is affecting endangered species, but only in those backwards third-world nations where everyone’s too busy chopping down the rainforest to care about habitat loss. The mind of the public gets much more conflicted when someone finds an endangered prairie dog in their own backyard and someone steps in trying to implement the endangered species act. Heck, I sometimes think the only reason the public is attempting to combat global warming (mostly by using CFLs and reusing shopping bags) is because it’s become a status symbol and people will guilt trip you about it.
    – Sarah R.

  2. The Tarquin says

    Sarah, thanks for the comment. I definitely agree with you that this moral phenomenon isn’t limited to environmental issues. (I love the image of “moral outsourcing” by the way.)

    And you really hit the nail on the head with it becoming a status symbol. Big, abstract things can be turned into status symbols better than small, local, concrete ones. It’s hard to turn “I built my house here instead of there because of environmental concerns” into a bumper sticker or a sense of casual smugness. Recycled shopping bags and hybrid vehicles, on the other hand, those are things that one can readily incorporate into one’s “image”.

    This also gets more interesting when you take into account things like “moral licensing”. The fact that we’re doing activities that we THINK are moral goods can make some people more willing to commit moral transgressions later: http://www.smartmoney.com/spending/deals/buying-green-makes-you-do-bad-things/ So big, abstract, low-cost activities with negligible benefit end up making people feel like they have license to be jerks in other areas of life.

    Thanks again for your comment!

    ~Aaron