Would nature still matter in a world without people?

How a story about the end of the world can reveal our true feelings about nature.
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How a story about the end of the world can reveal our true feelings about nature.

You step into the rocket, wave goodbye, and leave Earth for what will be the final time.

Not that you realise. It’s just a few months, say mission control, you’ll be back before you know it.

You like being in space. It’s peaceful, just you and the gently humming engines orbiting the sun-speckled planet below. Besides, your mission is easy: on receiving a message from mission control you’re to float over to the computer and enter the emergency code. The missiles nestled in the space station’s hull will jolt to life and- Well, you don’t like to think about that. It’ll never actually happen, it’s just an insurance policy.

But you know what world leaders are like.

You see the mushroom cloud at breakfast time, just as you’re finishing the last hot spoonfuls of rehydrated porridge. You rush to the window. Another explosion. And another. Soon the earth’s surface is erupting with a rash of flames and smoke. You await the emergency signal, poised to add to the frenzy with your own tools of destruction. But there’s only silence. So you do nothing.

In the months and years that follow you send hundreds of unanswered messages to the earth below. You scan and scan the planet with your most advanced instruments for any signs of human life. Nothing.

Gradually you come to terms with the fact that you’re the last human being in the universe.

You develop a hobby. The humans may be gone forever, but nature is holding on despite the firestorms and continent-spanning ashclouds. You spend hours with your telescopes and cameras, watching saplings twisting from the rubble, a few cautious sparrows roosting in their branches. You zoom in on clumps of bright flowers arching over soot-darkened streams and lose yourself in dreams of inhaling their sweet scent.

You have one job left: you need to disarm your missile system. If it’s still active when the space station eventually loses power, every single unspent bomb will launch to the earth’s surface and tear what’s left of the planet apart. Nothing will survive.

But you have time. For now, you can’t tear yourself from the wonder unfolding below.

Now the space station is on its last legs. You’re running out of oxygen. A few days left, at most. You still haven’t disarmed the missiles.

I still have time, you tell yourself.

The days pass. You begin to feel drowsy. You need to disarm the missiles, before it’s too late. But you prefer to stay by the window, and watch life reclaim the earth.

The thought of dragging yourself to the computer terminal seems like an unbearable effort. You ask yourself if it really matters whether you disarm the missiles or not.

After all, you’re the last human left. The earth and everything still living on it will be torn apart, but nobody will be around to notice. Sure, the plants and animals thriving on the surface have made your lonely days bearable. But when you’re gone there’ll be nobody left to appreciate them. Would it really be so wrong to let the missiles loose?

So there you sit. Even as your breath grows short and you sink into a dreamless sleep you hear the launch alarms. You can just make out the missiles snaking down to the surface. The trees, the hills, the birds — they’ll all be gone. But who’s around to care? Nobody will ever miss them. So you didn’t do anything wrong.

Did you?

Why does nature matter?

This may just be a story, but it’s an incredibly important one. Different versions of it have been used by philosophers to tease out the answer to one of the most pressing questions we face: why does nature matter?

Now, if you’re anything like me, the thought of those missiles careering down towards the earth stirs a deeply held feeling. A feeling that, yes, it would be unspeakably wrong for the astronaut to destroy a world full of thriving creatures, flowers, forests and mountains. Even if there were no more humans to notice or suffer from this terrible loss, the destruction of nature would in itself be a serious moral crime.

This feeling tells us something very important about why we value nature.

Some things are valuable because of what they can do for us. A handsaw is valuable to a carpenter because she can use it to cut wood. If the saw snaps on a particularly knotty plank, it loses its value. It can no longer do its job and the carpenter will throw it away.

Other things we value in themselves, regardless of what benefits they provide us. Every human life has value, and that’s the end of it. In fact, viewing people through the lens of the benefits they can provide is wrong, crass, disrespectful. We shake our heads at business leaders who only see their employees in terms the profit they bring in. They’re people, we say, not machines. They deserve to be respected and valued regardless of what they contribute.

The story of the lonely astronaut shows that nature is valuable in just the same way that human life is valuable. Nature has value in itself, regardless of what it provides for us. It has intrinsic value. In the story, there is nobody left to receive nature’s benefits: nobody to appreciate a beautiful landscape, to eat a ripe apple or to breathe cool, clean air. If nature’s only value were in what it provided for people, it would lose all value at the very moment the astronaut breathed her last.

Instead, our deep feeling that the astronaut has done something terrible tells us that nature has value in itself. Nature matters even if there are no humans to benefit from it: its value is independent of human concerns.

So why don’t we talk about nature’s intrinsic value?

The intrinsic value of nature is all but absent from the environmental debate.

Headlines break devastating news by focusing on how it will affect humans. ‘Human society under threat from loss of Earth’s natural life’ — wouldn’t loss of nature still matter if humans could somehow emerge unscathed?

Governments and businesses put a price on nature based on its economic benefits.

And you’d even be hard-pressed to find NGOs acknowledging nature has value in itself. Greenpeace decries nature being treated as a commodity, but then writes on its website:

The Earth’s rainforests should be doing the job they were made for — regulating the climate, providing rain and enabling plants, animals and people to thrive.

According to this, rainforests’ purpose is to provide conditions for human life. And WWF, the world’s biggest environmental charity, goes all-out for valuing nature in human terms: they’ve measured nature’s true worth and, according to them, it’s $125 trillion.

One reason we’re reluctant to discuss intrinsic value is the thought that people just won’t care about nature unless it benefits them. A 2006 campaign strategy for a group of NGOs warned that ‘An accurate basic assumption might be that most people are essentially selfish’.

But that assumption is exactly what the story of the lonely astronaut disproved. If we agree that there’s something wrong about nature being destroyed even once humans have met a sticky end, then we do care about nature beyond the benefits it provides us.

This is backed up by research, too: a survey in 2015 found that more than two thirds of Americans agreed that nature has value in itself. And, in the UK, a study concluded that people are more inclined to support environmental charities that talk about nature’s intrinsic value.

There’s another reason some people are wary of discussing nature’s intrinsic value. It’s often tied to a misanthropic worldview that places little value on human life. Like those who claim the solution to our environmental crisis is a Malthusian event, a mass disease or disaster to bring down the human population. Or those who use ‘protecting nature’ as an excuse to oppress other groups: celebrated naturalist John Muir loved America’s natural parks so much that he backed measures to remove thousands of native American people from their homes on the land.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. There’s no reason we can’t recognise nature’s intrinsic value at the same time as the intrinsic value of people’s lives. The two needn’t be in competition. In the human world, each of us has our own interests, our own intrinsic value, but this doesn’t lead to constant conflict. We help each other, cooperate, work together to improve everyone’s lot. We sometimes act selflessly to help friends, family or strangers without helping ourselves. It’s possible for everyone’s interests to thrive together. Why can’t it be the same with humans and nature?

We can’t stop this hijacking of environmentalism by shying away from discussing nature’s intrinsic value. The only way to dispel these ugly views is to properly understand where nature’s intrinsic value lies and show that it needn’t lead to oppressing others.

It’s taken as a given that we humans are innately selfish, that an anthropocentric, human-focused, worldview is embedded within us. But our deep, widespread belief that nature has value independent of us shows that this just isn’t the case. We have a much more complex view of the natural world, and our role in it, than we think. We just need the courage to talk about it.

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