Some discussions about sustainability take so long that it seems that they will never come to an end. In such discussions you hear people repeating their views and arguments, but it doesn’t come to a solution or decision. The reason for discussions on sustainability get stuck is that views and arguments have certain underlying principles that can cause unbridgeable differences.
Resolving these differences (also called dichotomies) is often difficult, because these principles are unknown or not formulated explicitly. If you’re in a discussion about sustainability, check if you’re dealing with these dichotomies.
1. Intrinsic Value versus Instrumental Value
If your arguments refer to the usefulness of nature to humans, you give nature an instrumental value. Nature is seen as an instrument to be used by humans. Nature serves humans. Nature itself has no intrinsic value.
Intrinsic value is when you value nature for itself. Nature is not a means for humans. Nature doesn’t have to have any practical value. It’s about what nature means in itself.
2. Individualism versus Holism
When you think individuals are independent of a system, you’ll argue from an individualistic perspective. In case of sustainability an individual is seen as independent of nature. Most people who give nature only instrumental value, also see individuals separate from nature. Nature is only used to assist the individual.
A holistic perspective emphasizes the connections between the parts of the whole. Nature is a whole and the totality of the parts is considered more valuable than the sum of its parts. According to holism, the interdependence, cooperation of the parts and the processes are the most important, not the individual separate from the whole. Holism is generally seen as connected to seeing the instrinsic value of nature. It’s not about valuing the individuals, but value the system
3. Anthropocentrism versus ecocentrism
If you place humans in the center, then you use an anthropocentric perspective. Only man has value in itself and nature, animals and ecosystems would have to be sacrificed for the welfare of people. Nature, animals and ecosystems are also tools for humans.
Ecocentrism centralizes the ecosystem. The ecosystem should be regarded as valuable in itself. People don’t have more value, they are a part of the whole.
To make it easier to understand, these 3 divisions are often closely linked. But do be careful, because people are not always aware of their underlying vision, and use different principles and visions together.
Why do these contradictions block debates?
Because these fundamental differences are seen as insurmountable. Which is not necessarily the case. Take for example ecotourism. Ecotourism is developed to continue tourism while nature is not affected and the next generation can also enjoy nature. Moreover, it is good for the local population. Ecocentrists might disapprove of ecotourism because it focuses too much on humans, and nature is used for the welfare and happiness of man.
You see that there’s much discussion on such fundamental principles. Nothing happens because the different parties can not agree what to do because of these underlying visions. In environmental and sustainability issues, however, quick action is needed. If multiple parties have the same goal and quick action is needed, then action shouldn’t unnecessarily stay stuck on matters of principle.
As a philosopher I would never see fundamental discussions as unnecessary. But sometimes you have to be pragmatic. Find common ground in the visions and solutions. When ecotourism works against pollution by tourists, is it really important that everyone sees the intrinsic value of nature?