On Environmental Protection: Is it Human’s Altruistic or Egoistic Move?

Greta Thunberg

Upon looking for fun philosophical topics to write about, my friend and colleague, Adhitya Prayoga, asked me to contemplate on this statement:

Since it isn’t the planet we want to save, it’s the habitability

Are environmentalist altruistic or egoistic?

– Adhitya Prayoga

Let’s cut it short, here’s my answers according to 3 perspectives:

  • Linguistically, if a person is trying to save the planet’s habitability but that person is not willing to sacrifice himself in the process, it’s egoistic
  • Historically, if it’s not the planet we want to save but its habitability, it’s egoistic.
  • Psychologically, humans are selfish creature, anything we do is egoistic.

Don’t be sad. Being selfish isn’t that bad.

Here’s my (long) arguments:

Linguistic Perpective: First, Define the Words

Since I love linguistic, I will try to use it first on this philosophical debate: let’s make sure that all parties agree on the definition of all the words involved before each of us defend our stand.

So, altruistic, according to Google, is the act of showing a disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others; unselfish.

Egoistic is the opposite of altruistic.

Environmentalist in this context is described as: a person who is concerned with or advocates the protection of the environment.

According to amnh.org, below are the checklist of earth’s habitability:

What makes the Earth habitable? It is the right distance from the Sun, it is protected from harmful solar radiation by its magnetic field, it is kept warm by an insulating atmosphere, and it has the right chemical ingredients for life, including water and carbon.

But what is preserving the Earth’s natural state in this context?

Natural (adjective): existing in or caused by nature; not made or caused by humankind.

Anything on earth that is not made or caused by humankind is considered natural.

So let’s assume that saving the earth means = preserving and recovering the earth’s natural state as much as possible.

Breaking Down the Egoistic and Altruistic Moves

According to linguistic, this is what egoistical motive in environmental protection looks like to me: 

  • If there’s something on earth that is threatening the life of us, we are going to do everything we can to eliminate the problems, even if that means compromising the natural state of it. 
  • We wish our sea and land to be abundant and resourceful for us.
  • We only want a certain amount of wind breeze, sun rays, and sea currents to generate our energy and support our health

Here’s what altruistic move in environmental protection looks like:

  • Preserving and supporting Earth’s natural state, even if that means the Earth isn’t habitable for us as an individual anymore.
  • Preserving and supporting the Earth’s for the sake of humanity and/or other living beings, even if that means sacrificing ourselves in the process.

Yes, according to the definition, all of the acts that show a disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others are altruistic.

You may wonder what if the altruist needs to choose between humanity and other living beings? What would the altruist do? According to the definition, as long as he didn’t choose himself in the process and he did it because he thought that’s the best thing he could do to support the well-being of others, his action could be considered altruistic.

It’s not the action, it’s the motive behind the action that distinguishes between altruist and egoistic,

So coming back to Adhit’s question:

Since it isn’t the planet we want to save, it’s the habitability

Are environmentalist altruistic or egoistic?

Since the statement use ‘we’ as the pronoun, I would assume that it also includes the subject’s possibility to live on earth.

Linguistically, if a person is trying to save the planet’s habitability but that person is not willing to sacrifice himself in the process, it’s egoistic.

But let’s not stop at that.

Let’s try to see it from historical perspective.

Historical Perspective: Ask Alexander von Humboldt

Alexander von Humboldt, the first documented environmentalist

The honorable figure has passed away already so of course, we cannot ask him in person. But the reason why I decided to trace the word ‘environmentalist’ back to earth’s first environmentalist, Alexander von Humboldt (b. 1769), because we humans tend to perverse the meaning of a word (and almost everything) through time.

Back in the early 19th Century, Alexander von Humboldt, a German naturalist and explorer, warned that humans had the power to upset the delicate balance of nature.

While we are familiar with this concept today, the idea was completely radical at the time, because for centuries it had been presumed that nature was explicitly created for our benefit and use.

Humboldt said that nature had its own laws, and it is the duty and responsibility of humans to discover them, because otherwise we risk doing catastrophic harm.

(quoted from the article “Alexander von Humboldt: the first environmentalist” — sciencefocus.com)

It was said in that article that Humboldt promoted something completely radical: he defied the presumption that nature was created for human’s benefit and use — I would assume that rules out the habitability of planet earth from Humboldt’s main motive.

Based on the article above, I think Humboldt, our first documented environmentalist, warned us to keep the balance of nature because of his adoration to the universe’s beauty and wonders.

Let’s assume that Humboldt’s motive: to keep the balance of nature is in the range of altruistic moves. Any action that disturbs the balance of nature such as the extinction of one’s species, the rise of one’s entity, the addition of foreign things that’s not supposed to be existed in the nature (like rockets ans satellites and dam), would be considered as egoistical.

Do all environmentalist share the same purpose? Do climate change and global warming have a say in our intention behind earth’s protection efforts? 

Environmentalists Today

Think of nowadays’ environmentalist figure, who do you have in mind?

Mine would be Greta Thunberg.

Greta Thunberg
Greta Thunberg

Other names popped up also in my Google search results: Alexandria Occasio-Cortez, Lise Kingo, Seabin Project, Sir David Attenborough, and Extinction Rebellion (“The Top Six Badass Environmentalists of 2019”— websummit.com).

We are in the era of climate change threats, so most of us are talking about ways to ensure the living condition of human’s next generation. We are in a state of emergency that new techologies such as cleanup boats, weather modification, and new mutation of plastic-eating bacterias are researched and tested everywhere to make sure that humans could still eat healthy food and breathe healthy air.

We are forced to think first about our live and all the things that we care about in this world before we could think about earth’s natural balance.

Sadly, historically, if it’s not the planet we want to save but its habitability, it’s egoistic.

Bu wait, let’s continue to my next favorite point of view: psychologically.

Psychological Perspective: Human’s Deepest Desires

Based on one of my favorite psychology non-fiction books: The Elephant in The Brain by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson (read my review here!), every human’s actions, no matter how honorable, altruistic, and spontaneous, all could be traced back to the three human’s primal desires: sex, status, and power.

All of those desires are selfish and inevitable.

You may say what if that person decided to keep his action a secret that none of the three above: sex, status and power could be granted to him (because nobody knows to whom they should give it to)? Could we say that the action is purely altruistic?

Still no, because the confidence granted by the person to himself could still be linked to the increase of sex and power. So yes, it’s still egoistical.

What if that person is killing himself in the process of saving the earth? He could still get the status reward after his death, so that action is still egoistical.

What if a person is being forced to sacrifice themselves to save the earth? As long as that person’s the one who’s making the decision, the action is still egoistical. What’s the reward? Status, if he wants to be remembered as or to feel like a selfless person or someone who’s brave enough to kill himself.

What if someone kills a person to save the earth? The victim could not be described as egoistical or altruistic, since that person isn’t the one making the decision. The perpetrator is the actor, and his motive is egoistic.

So psychologically, as long as a human is making decision, no matter what he does, whether he’s saving the earth or maintain the earth’s habitability, his action is egoistic.

I rest my case. Open for discussion.

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