Why should we protect the environment?
Quite a few years ago I was the project officer managing a remnant vegetation protection project and was having a phone interview with a newspaper journalist. The newspaper had agreed to write a featured article in exchange for a paid advertisement for the project.
The journalist asked me about the project and I explained about fencing and revegetating land next to the original remnant vegetation, remnant from before European settlement, to protect and buffer the remnant from threats. Threat abatement from physical threats such as vehicle and machinery damage, chemical threats such as herbicide drift and grazing threats from cattle and sheep.
The journalist then asked me why we should protect these remnants of original vegetation?
I said, “um…..”
I’d been doing this sort of work for years and no one had asked why!
“Um, because we should, because there is so little left, vegetation clearance has left only 10% of the original forest cover”.
(At the time forest cover was just under 10% but over the last two decades forest cover has increased to nearly 15%), (State of the Environment Report, 2016).
The journalist said “Can’t we just plant some more trees to replace them?”
I stumbled an answer about old tree hollows and animal habitat, and that the large red gums in the area were acting as water pumps transpiring water and keeping the ground water table low, beneath which was salty water (from ancient seas) which was coming to the surface in the absence of large trees, resulting in salt pans rendering the soil unusable for any agriculture. But I felt I gave an inadequate answer.
In my answer I could have included legislative reasons compelling protection of the environment, such as the Native Vegetation Act 1991 (South Australia), the Australian Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, and the Water Act 2007, requiring Murray-Darling Basin river water flows for the environment of 7600 gigalitres per year for higher certainty of success in protecting and restoring our environment (Beasley, 2021). This would include some of our Ramsar Wetlands which come under international treaty protection obligations. I didn’t think of this at the time.
(Ramsar Wetlands come under the International Convention on Wetlands, signed in 1971 in the city of Ramsar in Iran).
Years later at university studying Environmental Science, in a tutorial, our Professor posed the same question, why should we protect the environment, the ecosystems and endangered species?
She said this will be one of the most common questions we may be asked when we are environmental scientists, so you might as well start practicing the answer here in the security of the classroom. If the last of the yellow footed rock wallaby dies, it will be a shame, but does it really matter?
As environment students we gave some reasonable answers, such as, we have a moral obligation to hand over the earth and the environment to the next generation in a better or as good a condition as we received it; humans as a species are dependent on the biosphere even with all our technology; there is so much that we don’t know and can learn about many different ecosystems; biological diversity and population’s genetic diversity will help in climate change mitigation and adaptation.
So, I went on to learn why we should protect the environment and now writing on Medium, with the benefit of more time to further research, I can address the question of why protect the environment a little more thoroughly than “um…..”.
Reasons to protect, conserve and preserve the environment:
A basis for protecting the environment can include 3 values, for human’s benefit, that is the environments instrumental value, for the environments or natures benefit, that is the environments intrinsic value, and for its relational values both for society and for the individual.
The environments instrumental value includes the ecosystem services it provides, for example nutrient cycling, fresh water, climate regulation, and aesthetic and spiritual appeal (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005), and experiencing the environment with the pleasure and satisfaction it brings. Together with all the material benefits we can think of, from the ingredients of many medicinal drugs, to the wood we can use in a camp fire to boil the Billy for making tea, plus the tea leaves!
The environments intrinsic value is its own value, independent of humans. This value is based on the environment having a significant value and should be protected, even if the entity performing the valuing is human.
Relational values form the fundamental basis of concern for the environment.
The environments relational value for groups of people includes a sense of place and the relationship to the land. Indigenous People have a strong relationship with Country, and most groups of people have a strong relationship with where they call home, a cultural identity. Being in the environment can provide connection with other people, a social cohesion. Caring for ecosystems is an important part of caring for present and future generations, a social responsibility. Caring for the planet can be a moral need, a moral responsibility to non-humans.
Environments relational value for individuals is important and provides a personal identity. Caring for the land helps to lead a good life, a stewardship fulfillment. Caring for the land is the right thing to do, a stewardship principle.
Relational values can be increased by enabling participation; by using both Western Scientific and Local Traditional Knowledge; by using home grown social relationships such as family group, sporting and interest groups; care of local spaces may extend into care of other places, for example city growers of seedlings to be planted in revegetating rural landscapes; and increasing awareness and experience of caring for our environment, may lead to retail preference for environmentally friendly products and decreased consumption (Chan, et al., 2016).
Environmental protection has a long history; in the USA in 1864 George Perkins Marsh, a scientist and a member of Congress from Vermont questioned whether America’s natural resources were inexhaustible, and was one of the founders of the U.S. conservation movement.
Late 19th and early 20th century saw the preservation view and the conservation view of land and resources both come into prominence.
The preservation view led by naturalist John Muir, leaving land untouched, saw the establishment of Yosemite National Park and the founding of the environmental protecting Sierra Club.
The conservation view was promoted by President Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt, who believed land should be wisely and scientifically managed and to provide resources for people. He established 36 wildlife reserves and tripled the size of the nation’s forest reserves.
Aldo Leopold, a conservationist, helped establish the U.S. Wilderness Society and in 1949 published the influential Sand County Almanac, and established many environmental ethics.
In 1962 Rachel Carson published Silent Spring about the over use, pollution and toxic effects of pesticides, such as DDT, and was influential in raising public awareness which led to the regulation of several dangerous pesticides.
The 1970s saw a general increase in public concern about polluting the environment, which led to the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA. Environmental laws and regulations have often been under threat to weaken the protection they provide, and we should all be aware of any threats to our environmental protection laws (Miller & Spoolman, 2016).
In summary, protecting the environment can include 3 values: for human’s benefit, the environments instrumental value, for the environments or natures benefit, that is the environments intrinsic value, and for its relational values both for society and for the individual.
Declaration of competing interest. I have no conflicts of interest to disclose.
Beasley, R. (2021). Dead in the Water (1st Ed.). Crows Nest, NSW. Australia.: Allen and Unwin. Book.
Chan, K. M., Balvanera, P., Benessaiah, K., Chapman, M., Díaz, S., Gómez-Baggethun, E., … & Turner, N. (2016). Opinion: Why protect nature? Rethinking values and the environment. Proceedings of the national academy of sciences, 113(6), 1462–1465.
Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005. Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Synthesis. Island Press, Washington, DC. F-356Txt(wri).indd (millenniumassessment.org)
Miller, G.T. and Spoolman, S.E. (2016). Living in the Environment, (Ed.19) Canada.: Cengage Learning. Book.
State of the Environment Report (2016) Vegetation | Australia State of the Environment Report