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Nature conservation is not simply a matter of being conscious about the environment – it also raises ...
2021-02-16 09:00:00
Mind the climate

Delighted Man
The Metaphysics of Nature Conservation

Białowieża Forest. Photo by Michał Żmichorski
Delighted Man
Delighted Man

Are people able to step off the Great Chain of Being and understand that the Decalogue doesn’t apply only to them? Let’s look at the issue of nature conservation from a slightly different angle than usual.

Read in 7 minutes

Nature conservation is much more than you might think. It extends to areas into which bird watchers and plant protectors rarely venture: ethics, axiology and metaphysics. The omission of these lesser known aspects of sozology – the professional term for nature conservation – means it is sometimes marginalized and infantilized. And yet, our attitude to the natural environment often reflects our relationship to other people. In Poland, undemocratic social and political changes began with the symbolic logging of the Białowieża Forest, and the subsequent acts of devastation of the native nature and landscape turned out to be a backdrop for increasingly aggressive affronts to human dignity.

Preservation of life

The protection of species and their habitats is also sometimes the protection of human life. Though sometimes involuntary and not always conscious, this is very important, and requires constant emphasis, especially in the climate catastrophe age. A deep carbon footprint, the thoughtless killing of animals, soil pollution, the poisoning of waters, deforestation – these are actions to the detriment of the Other, according to the philosophy of dialogue, or our Neighbour, if we refer to Christianity. Water, air and soil are the spheres of our influence on the Other / our Neighbour. A space where we do universal good or evil on a local scale. So man is not only the subject, but also the object of nature conservation. In the words of Professor Włodzimierz Tyburski: “In some sense, environmental degradation is always human degradation. In other words, as a result of the barbaric destruction of nature, the dangerous abuse of technological and industrial opportunities and powers, man poses a threat to himself.” A threat to himself.

At an even more detailed level of interpretation, we see that the world of organisms is a living bank of chemicals and genotypes that may suddenly turn out to be needed by humanity – for example, because they inhibit the development of cancer cells. This depository requires no financial outlay, business plan or major human resources. All we must do is appreciate it and not destroy it, which means not cutting it down, digging it up or drying it out. By protecting endangered species and habitats, we are also protecting a collection of genes and chemical compounds that may one day save us.

Jumping off the ladder

Should caring for ourselves be the main reason for nature conservation? This rather egoistic approach results, at least to some extent, from the Great Chain of Being (also called Scala Naturae or ‘Natural Ladder’) – the most popular model of the structure of our reality and way of thinking (not always conscious). In the traditional natural ladder formulated by the ancient Greeks, the world had a hierarchical structure. At the top of the ladder are gods and ideas, below them are angels, then humans, and lower still, animals and plants. The rung of the ladder depends on the perfection of creation. Nowadays, meanwhile, we talk increasingly of the equality of all beings and their mutual connection. Instead of the anthropocentric perspective, researchers and activists propose a biocentric perspective (egalitarianism rather than elitism). In this approach, other creatures are equal to humans, which means that killing them should be regulated or restricted – or, according to extremists, even prohibited. But can man step off the ladder?

Biocentric equality provokes resistance from many commentators, who see it as a prelude to the depreciation of, and an attack on, human life. There are even accusations of eco-fascism (animal rights will limit the human right to reproduce – that is, to live) or eco-Marxism: birds, mammals and fish as the new subjects of the Marxist class struggle. This concept is also criticized for its inconsistency: if a human has the same position as a predatory animal, why should his needs be restricted – after all, those of wolves and foxes are not.

Without getting into futile arguments, let us simply emphasize that we should not protect nature solely for our own material benefits. The value of forests, swamps and rivers, the value of species is constantly being measured in terms of their usefulness to humans. When we think of forestry, which is close to all of us, we are accustomed to hearing the number of cubic metres of wood of a certain product line (large, medium-sized, etc.) and its price. Or we talk of useful and harmful species. But nature also has value in itself, an autotelic value. A value that is not defined by the human clamour of “why?”

Moderation and neighbourly love

The majority of activities considered ‘ecological’ – in other words, sozology – are characterized by moderation, one of the virtues commonly found in many different world religions, including Christian ethics. There are also fairy tales and legends in pagan and folk cosmologies that praise moderation and restraint. References to a universal attitude, widely accepted and desired, on which many protective measures rely. Aren’t moderation and restraint the essence of passive conservation? Its definitions include ‘refraining from interference’. Of course, sozology and theology are two different disciplines, even different theoretical systems, but they have many points in common. In nature, in the environment or in the landscape, we can also see the effects of our choices between good and evil. This is where sozology turns into ‘applied theology’ – that is, it gives us guidelines as to the attitude we should adopt towards the world.

The fifth principal virtue in the catechism of the Catholic Church is temperance, and the fifth principal sin is gluttony. In the context of these considerations, the destructive sin of greed is also important. And the blessing from the Sermon on the Mount described in the Gospel of Matthew: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” So nature conservation also seems to be an emanation of moderation. And what does the mirror of the Decalogue reveal? If the devastation of the environment is an attack on a person’s life, then it is a crime against the fifth commandment (“Thou shalt not kill”). And maybe even against the commandment of love which Christ gave to his disciples in the Gospels in response to the Pharisees’ question about the greatest commandment. It is possible that the conservation of nature should therefore also be considered as an embodiment of the greatest commandment, especially when it is accused of acting to the detriment of man (the accusation of eco-fascism). It may also turn out – to use the dictionary of Christianity – to be a fulfilment of the postulate of love for one’s neighbour. So it is hard to understand why it is rejected by Catholic conservatives. Will we ever see a conservative ecological humanism in Poland that will ridicule the mechanistic-positivist convulsions of politicians who claim that animals in cages do not suffer? We have our traditions here – indeed, the creator of the concept of ‘ecological humanism’, Henryk Skolimowski, was a Pole.

Isn’t the crisis of nature conservation then also a crisis of Christianity? It will prove to be so, because the destruction of trees or rivers cannot take place without aggression, violence, lies and theft, etymologically speaking (a thief is someone through whom evil happens).


Nature conservation is also the protection of the archetypes of beauty and the prototypes of the first aesthetics hidden in the phenomena and creations of nature, such as trees, forests, glades, lakes, mountains and animals. We can see it on the walls of Neolithic caves and the surfaces of clay vessels from prehistoric eras (that is, before the invention of writing). We see it even now, when we visit an ancient forest and admire with enthusiasm – especially children – the trees and birds. For the ancient Greek philosophers, beauty was synonymous with goodness and truth, so the destruction of its manifestations bears the characteristics of philosophical evil, since it is simultaneously an act against good. It is no coincidence that the ancient Greek kalos means ‘good’ or ‘beautiful’, and in some cases ‘real’. Another word, kalokagathia, means goodness and beauty simultaneously, combining these values into a single value: a kind of ‘good-beauty’. The identity of these values was also emphasized by St. Thomas Aquinas.

For us to face up to the fact that the concept of ‘philosophical evil’ is no exaggeration here, we need only recall the murders of the Amazon defenders, the self-sacrificing protests against the logging of the Białowieża Forest, or the self-immolation of Piotr Szczęsny, who wrote in his farewell letter: “I am protesting against the destruction of nature, especially by those who are supposed to defend it.” In fact, this concept is a source of deep existential discomfort, fear (climate depression), harm, and – although it is uncomfortable for us to say it – suffering. Don’t our personal reactions to the devastation of the creations of nature that are close to us provide more proof of this?

The destruction (I could call it ‘annihilation’) of the harmonic qualities hidden in the landscape causes us pain. This can be measured by the previously experienced joy at what is now devastated. Who knows, maybe they are even directly proportional. By protecting beauty, we also protect the zone of human delight – that special state in which we are vulnerable and open. After all, Homo miratus, ‘delighted man’, is prone to ‘aesthetic catharsis’, a kind of internal change, the recapitulation of views and even the adoption of a reflective attitude towards the increasingly fragile world. He is willing to give up having constantly new things, time to himself, and the luxury he mistakes for comfort. Therefore, by protecting old forests and trees, clean lakes and wild rivers, we protect the sphere of emotions and the sensitive psyche; we protect delighted man. And delight is better than fear.

Who is delighted man? The artist from Białystok who stood in front of the loggers destroying the Białowieża Forest. The ornithologists protesting against bird hunting. The activists calling for an end to the felling of old trees in the Bieszczady Mountains and the teacher from the Borecka Forest who negotiated with foresters over the protection of ancient trees. Even the thug from Ursynów, who held up a long line of cars when he noticed some hedgehogs crossing the road. And when the impatient drivers started blaring their horns, he got out of his BMW and shouted: “F**king shut it! Hedgehogs crossing!”


Translated from the Polish by Kate Webster

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