A few years ago, I saw an extremely powerful video that has been ruminating in the back of my mind. Our class discussions and readings about media and the role it plays in our lives sparked my interest in looking a little further into it. It’s called Nature is Speaking (link here, I highly suggest watching it. It’s only two minutes long), and it was produced and released by Conservation International, a non-profit organization founded in the 80’s. Since discussing resources and their intent and agendas, I wanted to look into Conservation International further, and understand a little more about the video and it’s intentions.
Conservation International was founded with the intent of supporting, promoting and starting conservation initiatives. My initial question about the video and its source was how it could obtain such a large celebrity presence. Like “Mother Nature”, there are twelve other videos within the #NatureIsSpeaking initiative. Each is narrated by A-list celebrity, including Robert Redford, Penelope Cruz, Liam Neeson, and Ed Norton to name a few. Aside from the usual willingness to participate in activism projects, how could so many prominent actors be involved in this single project? Hardly scratching the surface of CI’s history and leadership led me to the explanation: the Vice Chair of the organization is Harrison Ford. This is an excellent example of how with leverage, resources and undoubtedly privilege, there is a whole world of opportunity unlocked, but only for those with a key.
Over time, with criticism from environmentalists, Conservation International’s scope has changed. Rather than concentrate on conservation alone, CI’s mission now involves sustainable development for productive and sustainable use of the environment, rather than total avoidance of use. In one of our supplemental readings, A Brief History of Sustainability, Robertson discusses the historic shift from conservationist mindsets to ecological mindsets. The major difference here is the idea of earth being of use to humans, versus the earth being valuable in itself. This of course relates to our discussions about ethics, intrinsic value and deeply ingrained issues with environmental justice, especially in relation to conservation.
In viewing CI’s website, and reading through their mission, current work and history, it is clear that the overarching view of the nonprofit is anthropocentric. The website includes phrases like, “Humanity is totally dependent on nature, and by saving nature, we’re saving ourselves.” This is entirely anthropocentric, nearly eliminating the intrinsic value of nature. That phrase continues on with “To that end, Conservation International is working to build a healthier, more prosperous and more productive planet.” Within the history of the development of environmental ethics, this framework fits snugly in what Arne Næss would call “shallow ecology”. For any environmentalist at heart, who appreciates nature for its intrinsic value, with so-called “environmental egalitarianism” as their foundation, this anthropocentric mindset can be hard to swallow. When being extra critical, the website alone for CI can be said to raise humans to a high pedestal, emphasizing the numerous Earth services we are destroying minute by minute and how critical they are to our survival- the planet’s value be damned. In their website panel entitled “Why we exist” they finish by saying that working toward a sustainable society we ensure we “don’t use up today what we’re going to need tomorrow.” True, but it’s still unsettling.
This made me seriously consider my own opinion on the subject, our reading on ethics, and the video that inspired this evaluation. In my own value system, and guided by a personal moral compass, I believe in the intrinsic value of the Earth, its services, ecosystems and the many components of nature that fall within them. Much like Næss’ inspiration from the sacred mountains of the Himalayas, most people experience some sort of emotional or spiritual movement from their own experiences with nature. Most people also recognize the earth as the ultimate supplier of our basic human needs. So, does Conservation International betray a moral standing by promoting the protection of nature for the sake of humans? More specifically, does that video, which aims to generate a level of fear and shock value fall on the wrong side of the moral spectrum? I say no, because the aim to protect the environment and educate the masses should come first, above disagreements and criticisms about rhetoric and philosophy. Maybe once sustainable literacy is more widely achieved, we can better confront the issue of philosophy within the field.