In the serendipitous way things fall together at the end of a journey, I can now see with hindsight and clarity the discoveries I’ve made this summer. My first reflection presented an eager (if a bit disoriented) scientist who wanted more from her summer experience than data gathering. I wanted to explore the ethics of environmentalism: scrutinizing the experiments I conducted, questioning different attitudes towards nature, and analyzing how people are working to conserve species. I hoped to gain an understanding of how to live an environmentally ethical life. But the overarching question was: why do I care? Ironically, the answer to this question eluded me until the very end.
In each of my reflections I tackled an environmental-ethical question. I began my search internally,examining how I was making scientific decisions in my research and determining if my actions reflected my ethics and attitudes toward my subject. Thus, began my questioning of different value systems (scientific or moral justifications for the cost of scientific inquiry). Thinking about different value systems culminated in my exploration of the duality of my identity in the field. I am both a scientist and a humanitarian. The scientific answers I seek are driven by my love and appreciation of nature. At first, I thought being a researcher meant I had to discard emotions for objectivity – measuring success in data and treating wild lives as subjects instead of inherently valuable entities. I found this in conflict with my more human side. I cared about the animals I was studying, I treasured their wellbeing, and valuable each species on an individual level. Though I thought it contradictory at first, the fusion of these two ways of thinking makes my research better. The humanitarian side motivates the understanding I am pursuing and introduces a standard of ethics in my work. It gives value to my scientific quest. Conversely, the scientific understanding we gain from this kind of research deepens the love we have for nature and confirms the awesomeness of other species and the dependence we have on them for our well-being.
I then looked outwards from myself to how the larger system that environmental scientists operated in. I was both surprised and appalled by the different attitudes, practices, and ethical standards (or lack thereof). I examined what in my mind was the antithesis of environmental efforts: business and commodification. I was slow to let go of the idea that business and money-making ventures weren’t inherently evil (in fact, I continued to call them “necessary evils”). But the reality is that money and influence are important to have in opposing destructive business ventures and encouraging people to engage in sustainable livelihoods. Without economic incentive, little environmental groups are lost in the tide of “progress” and local communities will participate in activities such as logging to secure financial safety for their homes and families. Similarly, commodification of nature motivates donors to give when they ordinarily wouldn’t. It doesn’t do any good for environmental organizations to operate in under unrealistic expectations of selfless donors – most people want a plush toy for the fifty dollars they give. The maximum amount of good is achieved when business models and commodification is embraced – if additional attention is paid to the dangers such attitudes embody.
In the past two weeks, I reflected more on the direct moral and ethical implications of our environmental actions. Discussions with the bird-banding interns taught me about different levels of environmental ethics. I also thought about the ethics of killing animals. When is it justifiable to kill other animals, if ever? Interestingly, the scientific-humanitarian duality I feel came into play when I could find no moral grounds for killing animals, except in the case of having a scientific basis such as the case with invasive species.
Ultimately, this summer of ethical inquiry – both internal and external, scientific and humanitarian, theoretical and practical – allowed me to finally answer the biggest question. My close relationship with the plants, animals, and people in Ecuador and Colombia showed me just how interconnected we all are. I wasn’t able to see this in the beginning with clarity. Environmental issues are social, economic, and scientific all at the same time. In my close relationship with nature, I realized how my actions, both direct and indirect, have long-reaching causality. My daily actions, whether in the field or at home, have the potential to either hurt or benefit my environment. Equally, it is my environment that sustains me. The sunshine which help plants grow, the plants that clean the air I breathe and nourish me and the other animals of the planet, are all a part of my being. The environment is important to mental health and to sustainable economic markets. When we put a whole lot of bad in, the system will eventually break, hurting both us and all of the other living components.
Environmental issues are so complex and have countless stakeholders, making it nearly impossible to understand or address all at once. This summer I spent time identifying the multifaceted issues a small segment at a time, until I gained a full understanding of the problem. After identifying and exploring different subtopics separately, the connections between them all became apparent. The world is live an endless, pulsing web. We, including the plants and animals of the world, are a part of the fabric an each of our movements sends vibrations throughout the web.
The reason why I care about our environment is simply because I am connected to it all. Even though I am a small person in the big scheme, I have the ability to leave an impact. Every choice I make has the potential to hurt or harm other living beings. My actions even have the ability to rebound and come to hurt or benefit me later in life. Because everyone and everything is connected through our shared environment, we owe it to ourselves and to each other to protect our natural spaces and to value the health of our world. The way that I have lived thus far in a privileged society has generated an incomprehensible amount of trash, carbon emissions, and deaths of animals. I feel a great responsibility for my actions. Now that I understand the interconnectivity of everything in our environment, I know I must walk through this life causing the least amount of damage. Every choice I make has consequences but they it is also the opportunity to make positive change.