Do we consume too much? To some, the answer is self-evident: If there is only so much food, petroleum, and other material to go around, the more we consume, the less must be available. But on a philosophical level, an alternative response is that a meaningful life is not one devoted to amassing material possessions. Early preservationists forthrightly gave moral and spiritual reasons for protecting the natural world. John Muir, for example, described nature not as a commodity but as a companion. Nature is sacred, Muir held, whether or not resources are scarce.
Today, those who wish to preserve the natural environment rarely offer ethical reasons for the policies they favor. They contend instead that we are running out of resources or causing the collapse of ecosystems. Predictions of resource scarcity appear objective and scientific, whereas in a secular society pronouncements about materialism sound judgmental.
Although economic arguments have succeeded better than natural and spiritual ones in swaying public policy, there is something missing from the view that nature is primarily a material resource. Thoreau said it best: “A man’ s relation to nature must come very near to personal one.” In other words, although we must use nature, we do not value it primarily for the economic purposes it serves.
In defending forests und wetlands, then, we make our best arguments when we think of these resources in a esthetic terms. Nevertheless, there is no credible argument that all or even most of the species we are concerned with protecting are essential to the functioning of the eco- systems on which we depend. By maintaining otherwise, we attach to natural objects more instrumental value than they actually have.
Species may be profoundly important, however, for cultural and spiritual reasons. By recognizing this intrinsic value of nature, we uncover is true worth - too much consumption makes us lose affection and reverence for the natural world.