Irvine's assumptions, recommendations, and arguments range from the merely presumptuous to the downright breathtaking. In a few sentences, he calls for the dramatic reordering of human society to:
Irvine mixes concepts from ecological thought with those, such as promotion of cultural diversity, "democratic" reform of the UN, public health programs, consumer/employee relationships, and limits to income differentials, which are not clearly tied to maintenance of ecosystem health, but do respond to popular left-wing causes. He claims as fact many highly debatable assumptions which depend on unique systems of values ("the unacceptability (sic) of many current practices is quite clear...once the rights of other species are taken fully into account"). He recommends policies requiring huge expansion of government involvement in the daily life of its people.
Irvine's paper is an excellent example of the capture of some elements of the environmental movement (especially the various Green parties, and the "environmental justice" movement) by the extreme left-wing. At one time, environmental protection was seen as a universal good; now Irvine tells us that true ecological sustainability can only be achieved by eliminating capitalism.
In a statement reminiscent of Marx's dialectic, he blandly asserts that the "Industrial Growth Society will prove to be a short-lived aberration." Irvine argues that we can achieve his vision of utopia through "thoroughly democratic" processes. I think not.
A few points bear detailed rebuttal:
Irvine would instead have us deal in absolutes. He suggests that all proposers of developments be required to demonstrate a higher rating on criteria for ecosustainability. In a similar vein, he suggests a presumption of guilty until proven innocent for proposed innovations. Practically, this would essentially block all new land uses and technological advances. If I owned an acre of forest (of course, Irvine would probably argue that the birds and fishes own it), how could I argue that building a small house on it is good for the ecosystem? Yet people have been building shelters for many thousands of years.
Similarly, if I invented a new medicine, or bred a new strain of wheat, Irvine would require me to prove (beyond a reasonable doubt?) that it is would do no harm. The impossibility of proving a negative is a basic philosophical tenet. Would Irvine have blocked the invention of the wheel, or of agriculture, on such grounds?
Any common-sense approach to ecosystem management recognizes that almost all human development involves tradeoffs. When I build a house or a parking lot, or dig a mine, I destroy a small portion of an ecosystem, or at least render it much less complex. Even walking down a wilderness trail changes the world around me. Such changes are inevitable - humans have undoubtedly changed the earth's ecology in irreversible ways at both large and small scales. The question should not be whether such changes occur, but instead how they are managed, and at what pace, scale and intensity - thus sustainable development.
The "Industrial Growth Society" Irvine bemoans has provided people with many comforts, from modern medicine and an increased lifespan to refrigeration and color television. To a greater or lesser degree, almost all of the world's people have shared in these benefits - even in the poorest parts of the world, bicycles, medicine, and Coca Cola are often available. One might argue whether this has made people happier, or made the world a better place to live. Such arguments are academic - when presented the opportunity, people almost always choose to live in capitalist, industrial societies.
Irvine, of course, is welcome to renounce modern technology and the comforts it provides him. I will not. I do recognize that my house, yard, the clothes on my back, and the gasoline I burn in my car have ecological costs. I am certainly willing to limit my consumption of these resources to protect the earth's ecology; and I am willing to pay for ecological costs through reasonable taxation and regulation. I am not willing, however, to impose blanket restrictions on all development and innovation, nor am I willing to assign Irvine as the arbiter of such restrictions.
Does a mosquito have a right to my blood? It's only a small inconvenience to me, and it means life and offspring to the mosquito! If I truly recognized the mosquito as an equal, with equal rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, I would never conceive of slapping it. Oops...too late. Through liberal use of shampoo, I have similarly deprived head lice of a potentially rich habitat. When I rinse my mouth with Listerine, I kill bacteria by the millions (at least that's what the label says). On the other hand, by prolonging my life, I have also extended the life of the E. coli in my intestine. Of course, they might prefer if I changed my eating habits.
Must we be pestered with lawyers debating such fine points, or can we acknowledge that human legal codes are designed to address relationships between humans? Other species have rights under such systems only when those rights are assigned by humans to meet human ethical and cultural values.
As Irvine says, we are not truly above and apart from the rest of nature. Other species operate according to their own imperatives, and so do we. I will not get very far arguing with a mosquito over our respective rights. I don't recognize its right to my blood, and it doesn't recognize my right to be free of its attentions. It tries to get a drink, and I try to kill it. Sometimes I even apply toxic chemicals to frustrate it. At other times, I block it with netting. Sometimes I roll its lifeless body between my fingers, but often, despite my best efforts, I end up scratching a red welt and the mosquito goes home to reproduce. I wouldn't want to see mosquitos extinct - they're an important part of the planet's ecology - but I reserve the right to kill them individually. Somehow, I think the mosquitos have adapted to this system.
Irvine believes that, with enough education, people will willingly choose to abandon private property rights, to establish upper limits on personal wealth, to recognize legal standing for non-human life forms, and to limit income differentials. From each according to his abilities; to each according to his needs. Such a philosophy sounds utopian. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to work in practice. Even with the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese weren't able to eradicate the lure of private wealth and entreprenuership. Neither have any of the less authoritarian marxist societies. Like it or not, people seem to prefer economic freedom, including freedom to accumulate great disparities in wealth. These disparities have been characteristic of many civilizations since before the time of the pharaohs. When provided democratic choices, people choose capitalism - usually leavened with a certain degree of nationalized industry and income transfer, but capitalism nonetheless.