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Quotation of the Day…

… is from page 14 of the 1982 Norton Critical Edition of William Dean Howells’s great 1885 novel The Rise of Silas Lapham; the words are those that Howells puts into the mouth of Silas Lapham, a successful – and sympathetic – manufacturer in Boston (original emphasis):

There aint any man enjoys a sightly bit of nature – a smooth piece of interval, with half a dozen good-sized wine-glass elms in it – more than I do. But I aint a-going to stand up for every big ugly rock I come across, as if we were all a set of dumn Druids. I say the landscape was made for man, and not man for the landscape.

DBx: Of course, the natural landscape – the one to which Lapham here refers – wasn’t made for anyone; it is the product of aeons of geological, meteorological, and biological forces. Yet the sentiment that Howells here has Lapham express points to a truth that is denied by those who religiously treat “the environment” as sacred.

The environment, as such, is not a sentient creature. It has no will, no wants, no goals, no triumphs, no regrets, no hopes, and no fears. The environment’s value lies solely in the value attached to it by us human beings (including, of course, the value that we attach to the welfare of non-human creatures).

I here do not express a normative judgment; I express a positive assessment – namely, any value that any human attaches to, or perceives in, the natural environment is necessarily the product of his or her own mind and judgment. (I understand that many of my Christian friends might conclude that my positive statement is in error.)

The beauty that Smith enjoys when looking at a mountain range and the comfort that Jones feels knowing that she and her family live on land that is fertile are human experiences. An alien from another planet – a creature evolved under very different conditions from humans – who finds itself suddenly transported to any place on earth, including any place that we humans commonly regard as comfortable and gorgeous, would almost certainly regard earth’s atmosphere as hellish and find the view, if that alien could see it all, as hideous.

Reasonable people can and do disagree over the extent to which the state should act to protect the environment. But no reasonable person believes that any such state action should, or can possibly be, judged by standards other than human ones. Again, such judgments are inescapably made by humans.


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