Are people a threat to nature, or are they part of nature? Are the natural environment and its objects valuable primarily because they are essential for human survival, or are they valuable in and of themselves? These questions have occupied environmental ethicists for decades, but they also are relevant in a practical context: To develop visions for a sustainable future in Western societies.
The Beyond Intrinsic and Instrumental project combines environmental philosophy with methods from the social sciences to connect ethical arguments for nature’s consideration with the actual human–nature interactions that shape people’s lives. The empirical (social science) aspect of the project aims to achieve a better understanding of what “nature” means to members of different social and professional groups in industrialized countries. What do they value in nature? How and why do they value it? And what norms do they themselves follow in their interactions with nature? In a previous project, the researchers analyzed the values and nature concepts of mountain farmers and identified meaningful interactions with domesticated and wild animals as well as landscapes. The Beyond Intrinsic project focuses on bird watchers as a group with a different—leisure-based—relationship to nature.
As part of the philosophical branch of the project, the team will develop relational arguments for the protection of nature. The reasoning is based on the assumption that respect for nature can take different forms, ranging from the human withdrawal from ecosystems to considerate interaction with natural processes to support for threatened nature and restoration of destroyed nature. Interviews with mountain farmers and bird watchers as groups that have close relations with nature provide examples for how people can and do interact with nature. These data serve as a starting point for the more general philosophical discussion. The researchers are using the concept of relational value as the value that people assign to natural objects in particular human–nature relationships to connect their empirical work with their philosophical arguments. Ultimately, the project will generate proposals regarding what can and should be a sustainable place for humans in nature in Western societies of the Anthropocene.
Anna Deplazes Zemp is leading the Beyond Intrinsic and Instrumental project at the University of Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland. The project is also being supported by the University Research Priority Programme on Global Change and Biodiversity and the UZH Foundation.