Ben A. Minteer


On his book The Fall of the Wild: Extinction, De-Extinction, and the Ethics of Conservation

Cover Interview of January 16, 2019

The wide angle

For a long time, the field of environmental ethics has been dominated by non-anthropocentrism, i.e., the belief that nature has intrinsic value and that we have powerful duties to promote the integrity of wild species and landscapes. Even though I support most of the policy goals of non-anthropocentrism, I’m uncomfortable with some of the philosophical and political implications. And so, for years I’ve defended an alternative outlook, a position known as “environmental pragmatism.” It’s an approach that recognizes the range of environmental values beyond intrinsic value, focuses on the practical consequences of ideas rather than their theoretical “truth,” and embraces an experimental process of moral judgment rather than the prescription of fixed moral principles.

Recently, though, I’ve found myself reassessing and calibrating my pragmatism as I’ve watched the rise of a more strongly anthropocentric and technophilic environmentalism, the boldest versions of which exude an almost Promethean view of unchecked human power in nature. Although these newer arguments often travel under the banner of “environmental pragmatism” or “eco-modernism,” to me they’re far too reckless – and too motivated by a desire to elevate us into the role of planetary masters – to count as a genuinely pragmatic environmental ethic. They certainly lack the sense of caution and contingency that defined the work of thinkers like William James and John Dewey, two pillars of the American pragmatist tradition.

In addition, then, to taking stock of the moral wages of our wildlife protection efforts, The Fall of the Wild is also about my coming to terms with the meaning and limits of my own pragmatism, both as an environmental ethicist and as a conservationist. Since the book is written for a general audience rather than for philosophers, I mostly keep this theme under wraps in the text. But it pops up in several places in the book, especially in the conclusion. There, I defend what I call “pragmatic preservationism,” an undeniably clunky term but one that captures what I see as the main ethical challenge coursing through the book: the need to balance human mediation of nature with a sense of the wild that isn’t designed and prodded within an inch of its life.