Minnesotans For Sustainability


Sustainable:  A society that balances the environment, other life forms, and human interactions over an indefinite time period.




Beyond Respect for the Interdependent Web of Life:

Environmental Literacy, the Missing Link


John Cairns, Jr.
December 2001


The Delegation of Environmental Responsibility
Perceived Cost/Benefit Ratios
Does Natural Selection Operate Against Altruism?
Planet Without Limits
The Interdependent Web of Life
Mea Culpa
Mere Respect
Empathy, Literacy, and the Interdependent Web of Life

Works Cited

We seek to make the agony of decision-making so intense that one can only escape by thinking." Fred W. Friendly

"Joy is not in things, it is in us." Wagner

The Los Angeles Times
reported the death of F. M. Esfandiary, who legally changed his name to FM2030 because of his confidence that he would live to 100 and beyond. This chronic optimist, who believed that age is irrelevant because a person might have artificial body parts of many different ages, died Saturday, July 8, 2000 in New York City. However, his body has been cryogenically preserved by the Scottsdale, Arizona-based Alcor Life Extension Foundation so that when a replacement part for his cancerous pancreas is found he can go on.

His publications have been very popular and cause one to wonder about a curious situation. That is, if people expect to live well into the future, in this case to 2030, why isn't there a larger constituency for protecting ecosystem condition and biospheric health (e.g., Cairns 2000a)? Of course, the depth of public interest in sustainable use of the planet and the consequent health and integrity of ecosystems is not easily measured. The most active environmentalists espouse recycling, car pooling, "green" politics, zero population growth, environmentally friendly investing, ecosystem preservation and restoration, pollution abatement, and protection of endangered species, to mention the most popular causes.

However, pro-environmental bumper stickers and slogans abound on the SUVs and T-shirts of people inhabiting 4000 and 5000 square-foot homes. Opinion polls indicate that a substantial percentage of Americans appreciate a quality environment but are predominantly "free riders."

The Delegation of Environmental Responsibility

At present, one of the most important adult responsibilities, that of parenting, is ignored in a wide variety of ways; in some situations, lack of parenting leads to totally irresponsible neglect (e.g., forgetting that a child is strapped in the rear seat of a vehicle parked in the hot sun in a parking lot) and, in other extreme cases, to serious physical abuse. If parents freely ignore responsibility for their children, it seems highly probable that they would also ignore the responsibility of maintaining a habitable planet for their descendants to live on. A prime factor in leaving a habitable planet is leaving a robust, healthy, interdependent web of life (i.e., Earth's ecological life support system).

Delegating responsibility is a poor alternative to taking personal action for both children and the planet. One way of delegating responsibility for the interdependent web of life is to contribute to organizations whose mission is to protect it. However, if donors see the annual budgets of such organizations, they quickly realize that the number of those able and willing to give is pitifully small. Ethos, equity, and fairness are often treated as "beside the point." As long as the actual costs of protecting the interdependent web of life are borne primarily by others, delegated responsibility will flourish.

Perceived Cost/Benefit Ratios

In the United States, the year 2000 increase in gasoline and other fuel prices (natural gas prices increased by 34% in some areas) produced a very instructive response. Predictably, consumers demanded that Congress do something to lower the prices to earlier levels, despite the fact that consumption has not declined significantly. As a second draft of this manuscript was being prepared, President Clinton directed the release of 30 million barrels of oil from the government's emergency stockpile (Associated Press 2000). Consumer prices for gasoline might decline in the absence of regulation on air and water quality, but the average American perceives that his/her personal cost resulting from tearing the interdependent web of life is small relative to the benefits of cheap personal transportation.

This mind set is another cultural characteristic drive now, pay environmental costs later. The perceived immediate benefits are large and the perceived environmental costs are distant and small. As a consequence, the constituency for protecting the interdependent web of life shrinks remarkably when individual costs press closely against personal, immediate gain. As a further consequence, perceived individual needs (jobs, housing, heating oil, gasoline for cars, and even luxury items), all of which require the consumption of more resources, can dramatically shrink the constituency for protecting the interdependent web of life.

These perceived needs are easily transposed into humanitarian claims, e.g., filling a wetland for subsidized housing for homeless people. In Great Britain and other comparatively wealthy countries, the problems are exacerbated by the asserted "right" of economic migrants who move across international borders to increased (for them) material benefits. Successful colonization in the new location (i.e., obtaining citizenship and residence privileges) depends on the good will of the citizens. Most of the residents are not willing to reduce their resource consumption to accommodate the new immigrants, and, thus, the economic migrants derive their resources from displacing and/or transforming the interdependent web of life for commercial or residential uses. Compassion for economic immigrants and the "right" to a certain level of material possessions is usually an instinctive choice over preserving the interdependent web of life (Cairns 2001).

Does Natural Selection Operate Against Altruism?

Parsons (1998, 2000) discusses the concept of population competition as a pursuit of power through increase in human numbers. In a broad sense, this activity may involve several types of behavior, cleansing, legal expulsion of unwanted sub-populations, immigrant recruitment, increase in human longevity to reinforce the relative number power of a group. Along this line of thinking are some persuasive analyses of why natural selection operates against altruism (Trivers 1985, Low and Heinen 1993). Of course, the classic publication on the high cost of altruism in the context of a "common ground" (Hardin 1968) is also well known. Low and Heinen (1993, p. 8) comment on the intent behind respect for the interdependent web of life: "We commonly think of ourselves, as ethical individuals, giving value to the common good; thus, because none of us wishes to cause destruction of resources, each of us will accept some level of personal cost."

Low and Heinen (1993), however, conclude that, in both pre-industrial and modern societies, protection of the interdependent web of life that is based solely on information is less successful than protection that incorporates an individual's cost/benefit leverage (p. 31). The basic premise of much sociobiological theory is that individuals of all species, including humans, are genetically predisposed to act in ways that maximize their fitness (i.e., the probability that their genes will appear in future generations). Human ancestors presumably succeeded in this area, reproduced, and their descendants are genetically programmed toward similar goals and behaviors.

Low and Heinen also state: "Selection cannot favor individuals who act for the benefit of a group of non-relatives at the expense of their own inclusive fitness. Situations in which the costs are paid by individuals other than those gaining the rewards are unstable" (Low and Heinen, 1993, p.13).

Recycling, car pooling, and other environmentally friendly activities burden the person carrying them out with most of the cost while the return is imperceptible. As Hardin (1968) notes, the benefits are widely disseminated whereas the cost is concentrated. The sobering message of Hardin's (1968) discussion is that any commons, such as the oceans, is a resource treated as if it belongs to everyone. When any nation claims access to a resource as a right (as Japan and Norway are presently doing in the case of harvesting whales from the oceans) on the grounds that the nation needs to use it, one has the classic commons. Individuals and societies who have no respect for the interdependent web of life grow, temporarily at least, economically more powerful. In a global marketplace, economic competition often results in setting the lowest common environmental denominators to retain a competitive advantage. A common ethos (a set of guiding values) may prevent an individual or organization from harming the interdependent web of life, but extraordinary unanimity is required to achieve this. A commons shared by responsible and irresponsible individuals alike favors those individuals genetically "hardwired" to resist altruism. One might well conclude that organizations and societies with a high percentage of individuals who act altruistically, as opposed to talking altruistically, will rapidly decline in numbers and affluence.

Planet Without Limits

When I was a child more than three-quarters of a century ago, there was some justification for having a frontier ethic. Vast areas of the planet were unexplored and natural capital abounded. We were in awe of mysterious places. Leopold (1993) expressed this eloquently in his essay "The River of the Mother of God," which discussed a river that came out of the Andes and disappeared into the Amazon jungle without anyone knowing where it went. However, the views of Earth from space changed all that. We became, as Sagan (1997) named Earth, a "Pale Blue Dot" in the universe. Astonishingly, despite satellite imagery and a television channel featuring various hardy individuals who travel to all sorts of distant and curious places on the planet, the concept of limitless growth in a limitless world is more prevalent than ever.

Cairns (2000b) contrasts the dominant, infinite substitutability of resources view with the role of succession (infinite substitutability of species) view. Earth is viewed as a vast cornucopia of natural resources if only the tree-hugging environmentalists mumbling about the interdependent web of life would get out of the way. Such a world permits all sorts of growth in numbers of people, economies, in city size, and even infinite growth of church congregations. Nearly everyone likes exuberant optimists and shuns and denounces anyone who proposes limits of growth on a finite planet. The planet is not one of infinite growth and boundless natural capital, but voicing such opinions is regarded as subversive, gloom and doom, and downright dangerous.

The Interdependent Web of Life

Nature always bats last!

Harsh penalties are exacted from species that overutilize their resources and exceed their habitat carrying capacity. The only serious question is: how harsh must the penalties be before the interdependent web of life is treated with esteem by human society? The events of 11 September 2001 illustrate the threshold needed to elicit strong antiterrorist measures that the earlier World Trade Center, U.S. embassy, and USS Cole bombings did not. Probably, the penalties will be horrendous for both human society and the interdependent web of life. Biotic impoverishment (species extinction) is an unmistakable sign that the web is being badly damaged. Preventing further damage to the web and repairing it (ecological restoration) are the keys to a sustainable future. "Head" words, such as respect, do not call for action in the way that is essential to sustaining the interdependent web of life.

Basically, the justification for exploiting other species (or other individuals of the human species) is a feeling of superiority to them (i.e., human needs come first): (1) economic growth and human well being depend upon unfettered use of natural resources, (2) other organisms have far less intelligence and have no feelings comparable to those of humans, (3) protecting other species would cause widespread financial and economic hardships, and (4) superior beings have the power and, consequently, the right to do as they wish this is the way the world works.

Despite the persuasive evidence against going beyond respect for the interdependent web of life, it is a possible, if not a probable, future. The path to avoiding a worst case scenario in the future is to become literate about the factors driving human society toward it. At worst, society will be better prepared when the future becomes the present. At best, society might take preventive action to avoid the worst case scenario.

Mea Culpa

We have all erred by taking too much time to indicate what is wrong with an existing situation only to find we have run out of time/space to elaborate on the remedy. Thus, human society did not focus on the AIDS problem when it was more manageable, nor did the people of the United States seek to divert a dilemma in social security when the problem might have been more easily remedied. Literacy on these and many other major aspects of the human condition is still appalling. Why isn't there more literacy on these and environmental issues? It is certainly appropriate to critique rationalizations, excuses, etc. because paying lip service to respect for the interdependent web is not enough. It is essential to determine why individuals bypass literacy, even when they are otherwise "enlightened," "empathetic," and generally "literate." Society must turn possibilities on this question into probabilities.

I definitely feel that, despite my good will, I fall short of the mark that seems desirable. My ecological "footprint," although far smaller than most members of the society in which I live, is still larger than it needs to be. I find it virtually impossible to respect individuals who abuse the environment or others. I can freely give respect until I witness some action that is abhorrent, but then respect is either markedly diminished or disappears entirely. Clearly, both individuals have potential not apparent to me, but natural systems have been so abused they need empathy under every circumstance I can envision. It is much more difficult for me to empathize with individuals who harm natural systems or other humans.

Mere Respect

Respect for both "the interdependent web" and "the worth and dignity of every individual" is an important building block for an environmental ethic and practice. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with respect in this context except that simple respect is not adequate for resolving either environmental problems or problems of the human condition as they loom ever larger in the 21st century. In the absence of high empathy and literacy, individual humans are part of the web, so respect for one is closely linked with respect for the other. Respect, as now practiced, is not adequate to permit either the web or most individuals to flourish.

Empathy, Literacy, and the Interdependent Web of Life

Respect for the interdependent web of life is a meaningless statement unless accompanied by both empathy and literacy. One definition of empathy is "intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another" (Random House). The definition is obviously designed for a relationship within the human species, but it still seems reasonable to assume that intellectual identification with another entity, including an emotional attachment to it, is quite possible since some human societies have demonstrated that it is.

Perhaps sympathy is a better word. Webster's defines sympathy as "an affinity, association, or relationship between persons or things wherein whatever affects one similarly affects the other; mutual or parallel susceptibility or a condition brought about by it; inclination to think or feel alike: emotional or intellectual accord." Webster's defines literacy as having knowledge of [or competence in] a particular subject or field (in this case, the interdependent web of life). Both empathy (sympathy) and environmental literacy are required to protect the integrity of the interdependent web. It matters little whether the damage is due to ignorance or lack of empathy damage is damage.

One might postulate four situations:

    (1.) low empathy + low literacy = damage
    (2.) high empathy + low literacy = damage
    (3.) low empathy + high literacy = damage
    (4.) high empathy + high literacy = protection of the interdependent web's integrity

Among the definitions of respect is "esteem for or a sense of worth." One might argue that respect includes both empathy and literacy, but it seems best on such an important subject to be more explicit.

One particular incident continues to haunt me. An exhibit in one of the early Earth Day celebrations contained an endangered species of plant with a placard reading "What would I say if I could talk?" I found another placard and wrote on it "Don't pick me. I am an endangered species!" and put it beside the original. I only knew it was endangered because I had just attended a meeting on the rare and endangered species of Virginia. The person who picked quite a few specimens of the plant was obviously not literate about terrestrial plants. Presumably, the person had a high empathy for the interdependent web of life or he/she would not have been celebrating Earth Day. The damage occurred because of lack of literacy, not lack of respect.

Another situation demonstrates one of the other combinations. Many years ago at a field station, a knowledgeable biologist collected an extensive series of individuals of a species rare in that locale. The reasoning was that it was essential to collect a statistically valid sample before it was too late to do so.

In both cases, the integrity of the interdependent web of life was damaged. In the former case, as a consequence of low literacy and in the latter case in the absence of empathy. Both individuals had respect for the system, or at least believed they did, because one collected part of it for a celebration in its honor, and the other devoted research time to it.

Meaningful empathy and significant literacy are the result of a deep emotional involvement with and continual observation of a person or, in this case, a system. Even well intentioned actions may damage the interdependent web of life, but the probability of damage occurring is markedly reduced when empathy and literacy are high. Furthermore, one is sensitized to detect early warning signals of damage or injury. Respect for the interdependent web of life is an aspiration only implemented by a high degree of empathy and literacy that result from continual and deep involvement with the interdependent web. If this emphatic and educated respect for the interdependent web of life is not the intent, it would be best not to make the statement!


I am indebted to Eva Call for transcribing the dictation of the first draft of this manuscript and to Darla Donald for preparing the final draft for submission to this journal. Charles Kennedy, Rudi Gelsey, and Karen Cairns provided useful comments on an early draft of this article. The Cairns Foundation paid for the processing costs.

Works Cited

Associated Press. 2000. Clinton dips into strategic oil store. Roanoke Times Sept 23:A1,A9.
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Cairns, J., Jr. 2000b. Sustainability and the future of mankind: Two competing theories of infinite substitutability. Pol. Life Sci. 19(1):27-32.
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Hardin, G. 1968. The tragedy of the commons. Science 162:1243-1248.
Leopold, A. 1993. The River of the Mother of God And Other Essays by Aldo Leopold. S. L. Flader and J. B. Callicott, ed. University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, WI.
Low, B. S. and J. T. Heinen. 1993. Population, resources, and environment: Implications of human behavioral ecology for conservation. Population and Environment 15(1):7-41.
Parsons, J. 1998. Human Population Competition: A Study of the Pursuit of Power Through Numbers (2 vol.). The Edwin Mellen Press, Lewiston, New York and Lampeter, Wales, UK.
Parsons, J. 2000. The salience of number-power: An idea whose time has come? Population and Environment 21(5):477-508.
Sagan, C. 1997. Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space. Ballantine Publishing Group, New York, NY. 384 pp.
Trivers, R. L. 1985. Social Evolution. Benjamin Cummings Publishers, Menlo Park, CA.
Used with permission of the author.
Originally published in "Common Ground: Electronic Environmental Studies Journal".
See original at < http://commonground.umfk.maine.edu/issues/current/essays/essay2.htm >.



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