Recently, Michael Ableman visited Dickinson College to advocate sustainable agriculture. Ableman made suggestions for ways that the country should change, many in dramatic and costly ways. I thought, though, that he did a poor job of supporting why we ought to change because he did not share the values that drove his decisions. The audience heard Ableman’s ideas but was not given the opportunity to understand or defend them.  

Michael Ableman is respected as someone who thinks beyond spreadsheets, yet even he seemed unpracticed in sharing his values. For example, his audience may include greens, sprouts, and browns- people ranging from very to not environmentally conscious. Greens may readily relate to Ableman’s message because they’ve developed the same values. Sprouts, however, need to hear rationales for why erosion or industrial agriculture is bad and small scale farming is good, even though the first may be more profitable. For sprouts to really bud and become greens, they need to weigh the ethics. Finally, browns may not be environmentally conscious, but they may relate to Ableman’s presentation if it included how it connects to other values including healthy lifestyles, fulfilling spirituality, or a good inheritance for future generations.

I’m afraid Ableman’s faults demonstrate a broader unwillingness among environmental professionals to make judgments rather than calculations and open themselves to criticism for imposing beliefs. Oftentimes, after all, the same people who may denounce environmentalists for imposing beliefs will preach society’s obligatory respect for liberty and property. In my view, environmentalists have an obligation to share their values. That way society can consider them, making informed moral tradeoffs, and balancing them with countless others.

Environmentalism, unfortunately, is much less mature, less embraced by the population, and less enshrined in law and institutions than liberty and property. On the other hand, that makes sharing them even more important than these exceptional times demand. Environmental ethics is in a catch twenty-two situation because they are considered less legitimate to the population because they have a second or third class place in law. Concurrently, the ethics will only become law so long as they are supported by the population. These already glacial processes are only delayed by environmentalists’ and scientists’ unwillingness to discuss right and wrong by thinking outside the spreadsheet.

I sometimes feel like we haven’t made much progress since the 1960s, especially in sharing our values. Littering is an exception as one example of a dramatic success in shifting attitudes. As I understand, people used to drop trash all the time but most wouldn’t think of doing so today because their ethics limit them. However, when we have been successful, I think we’ve achieved narrow gains. How many people relate to the understanding that littering our towns with junk, strip-mall retail space is equally unnecessary and more permanent and damaging to values including sustainability and aesthetics?

Doctors, lawyers, politicians and researchers have ethical guidelines- it is only appropriate for environmental scientists to embrace ideas of what is right and wrong. Moreover, they ought to deliver those concepts to the popular consciousness so that other people, and society, can adapt and embrace them too.

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