There are probably several hundreds of concepts that have taken a center stage in the environmental movement. Environmental ethics is, without any doubt, one among the most talked about. In order to understand the concept of environmental ethics, I will dissect this phrase into the environment and ethics. First of all, the environment is what we know to be; in this case, that which exists in nature constitutes what we call the environment (Dicks, 2017). On the other hand, ethics are moral principles that govern individual conduct. To further cement an understanding of ethics, one has to comprehend what moral principles mean. In this document, I will coin moral principles to be the general rules that define a good person. A good person has to do that which is right; this, therefore, makes moral principles to reflect the ideals that an individual elects to subscribe to as a measurement of their interaction with others. From the classed definitions, it is crystal clear that environmental ethics has to put humans at its core.
“The environment provides enough to satisfy every man’s needs but not every mans greed,” these memorable words are associated with India’s Mahatma Gandhi with regard to his reverence to the importance of nature. In the wake of the publication of Rachel Carson’s book the ‘Silent Spring’ in 1960, the environmental movement emerged to question and rethink human relationship with the natural environment (Carson, 1978). The moral question of the human relationship with nature has been an enduring one across the centuries.
According to Nature.com “Environmental ethics is a branch of applied philosophy that studies the conceptual foundations of environmental values as well as more concrete issues surrounding societal attitudes, actions, and policies to protect and sustain biodiversity and ecological systems.” This definition effectively makes environmental ethics a subject which deals with the study of the human relationship to the environment. It is a discipline of philosophy that asks morally right questions in relation to human’s relation with the environment. Within this discipline, it is a commonly agreed upon fact that human-induced pollution activities to the environment, is morally wrong to both the present generation as well as future generations. The central question in environmental ethics is a consideration of whether human activities are either morally wrong or correct in relation to their impacts to environmental integrity.
From where I sit, I consider environmental ethics to be a branch of ethics which looks at the relationship between human beings and the environment. This, therefore, implies that humans are part and parcel of the larger society in which we exist alongside other creatures as well as non-living things. At the core of environmental ethics, I believe, is a moral notion which seeks to implore upon the humans to care for the environment as it is a functional part of human life.
Some phenomena such as deforestation, global pollution, Climate change, resource depletion, global warming, and human-wildlife crisis are just but a few of the most visible environmental problems we face today as the world. The root cause of these problems is apparently humans. It is humans/ anthropogenic activity that chooses to deplete the resources, it is humans who pollute the environment, and it is anthropogenic activities which cause all manner of problems and challenges for the environment. And it is because of these problems and challenges that environmental ethics is called upon, seeing that failure to respect the mutual relationship between humans and the environment can and has already led to devastating predicaments such as climate change and global warming. Armed with environmental ethics, humans can ensure that they do their part of keeping the environment safe and protected knowing that doing that which is good to the environment is morally right (Naess, 2008).
Environmental ethics is founded on the premise that all life forms on earth have a right to live. This takes away the dominance that humans enjoy all the time. It should be understood that by destroying nature, we are simply denying the other life forms their right to live. The food web is an excellent point to start while assessing the relationship between the environment and humans. The food web shows the interconnections and relationships between plants, animals and other natural resources and how these relationships ultimately connect to human beings. A clear conscience shows that all life forms are creations of nature and we co-exist therefore environmental ethics seeks to extend morality into the non-human world.
The Morality of Environmental Ethics
The investigation of moral questions with the discipline of environmental ethics is divided within into two perspectives. Anthropocentrism and non-anthropocentrism thinking are the two leading perspectives among scholars. While making considerations of ethics in relation to environmental management, scholars distinguish between intrinsic and instrumental values assigned to natural resources (Carson, R., 1978). Intrinsic value implies that a natural resource is good as an end in itself, while an instrumental value connotes a situation where a natural resource is a means to further some ends. For example, a certain wild plant may have an instrumental value in that it provides ingredients that can be exploited to manufacture medicine for improved human health. It then follows ethically that a natural resources possession of an instrumental value generates a moral duty on the part of beneficiaries for its protection.
The anthropocentric view primarily bases environmental intrinsic value to human’s interest. It primarily argues that that protection of the environment ought to be undertaken solely for the sake of human well-being. Aristotle said that “nature has made all things possible for the sake of man.” The proponents of the anthropocentrism perspective ethically advocate for the protection of the environment in relation to the importance of the environment to human well-being. They question the human-induced devastation of environmental integrity and advocate strongly for sustainable development.
The non-anthropocentric view ethical perspective questions that assumed human superiority to other species. When the environmental movement in America in the 1960s developed into a strong voice for environmental protection, scientists began questioning the assumed wisdom of the earlier anthropocentrism perspective to environmental protection. The scientists in the 1970s investigated ways of assigning intrinsic value to both the environment and its non-human contents (Samuelsson, 2010). They argued that the main guiding principle in environmental ethics is the provision of moral grounds for social policies that aim toward the protection and remedying of environmental degradation.
Key Issues in Environmental Ethics
Having defined and elaborated on the concept of environmental ethics, it is vital to delve into the key issues that invite deployment of the same. On the fore is the consumption of resources. The consumption and thus the extraction of resources outweighs, by far, the rate of replenishment. This means that humans are consuming an unsustainable level of natural resources. By doing this, they treat the environment like a storehouse where resources are robbed. In essence, the environment should be treated as a reserve of resources that are not only crucial for the existence of human beings but also all other life forms. In addition, it should be conceived that unscrupulous depletion of any natural resource leads to risking the life of the future generations.
Another fundamental issue as regards the environmental ethics is the destruction of forests. All over the world, the forests and the natural resources that sit in there have been extracted at rates that are higher than the natural capability to replenish them. The moral question therefore is; is it not the responsibility of the industries to restore the depleted resources? And even if they restored the forests, would such re-afforestation make up the original one? In the same breath, mining operations disrupt the ecological balances; this way, the plant and animal life is irrevocably hurt. Furthermore, the ecological disturbance leads to a ripple effect of imbalance which then translates into the poor development of the entire living system.
Environmental pollution is such a huge issue in almost every region of the world. Anthropogenic activities lead to direct pollution of the environment. With China and the US polluting the most as a result of their massive investments in manufacturing, the story is very similar with countries such as South Korea and India who are playing a catch-up game and thus more pollution (Samuelsson, 2010). The rising human population means increased demand for natural resources and given that the population mass continues to surpass the nature’s carrying capacity, the plant and animal habitats continue to face undue destruction. The more the natural resources are drawn the more manufacturing is required to process these resources into finished products and thus the more the pollution. Therefore, environmental pollution has two impacts; that which involves the extraction of resources and the other which involves the release of harmful gasses into the atmosphere and environments during the manufacturing process including any other solid wastes. Ethics would require us to consider if such actions are right or wrong with the intergenerational prosperity in the picture.
Human beings are principally the chief users of natural resources. Natural resources have for years enabled humans to exist and even experience the sense of opulence and longevity. In doing so, however, humans have gotten into a lost thought about their care for the environment. The evidence of environmental breakdown is commonplace; just look at the hurricanes hitting our coast most often, the excessive flooding in Asia, the scorching solar heat and temperatures in the tropics, the sea levels are rising and so on… is it not time to call on the ethics to intervene? In his last speech at the White House Dinner, President Obama lamented at how the anti-environmental movement is paying a deaf ear and casting their blind eyes to the realities of climate change and global warming. Environmental ethics is just the healer that we need to address environmental deterioration.
It is prudent to treat environmental safe-keeping as an ethical aspect rather than doing it for any other sake. Environmental ethics builds on a scientific understanding which draws a specific and strong correlation between ethics and right-doing. It is therefore vital to improve human decision making on the account that their self-belief allows them to make a decision that is founded on morals. Since the founding of environmental ethics back in 1970 Earth Day, the concept has trickled down to key decision making especially when the matters/policies concern the environment. However, it is not surprising that some regions do not understand this concept and therefore, their environmental decisions are devoid of ethics. This makes their approach to environmental conservation so mechanical rather than self-directed. Therefore, the call to adopt a certain basic set of values in relation to environmental protection is the key fundamental principle in environmental ethics. The ethical concerns are motivated by considerations of aesthetics as well as moral duties we have towards the protection of the environment.
Dicks, H. (2017). Environmental Ethics and Biomimetic Ethics: Nature as Object of Ethics and Nature as Source of Ethics. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 30(2), 255-274. doi: 10.1007/s10806-017-9667-6.
Naess, A. (2008). Ecology of Wisdom. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint Press. Pg.280.
Samuelsson, L. (2010). On the Demarcation Problem and the Possibility of Environmental Ethics. Environmental Ethics, 32(3), 247-265. doi: 10.5840/enviroethics201032330.
The Washington Times & Carson, R. (1978 & 2007). Rachel Carson and DDT. The Washington Times. Retrieved from http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1G1-164365518.html?.