Ethics is a branch of philosophy that primarily discusses issues dealing with human behavior and character. Ethics attempts to establish a basis for judging right from wrong and good from bad. Environmental ethics employs concepts from the entire field of philosophy, especially aesthetics, metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of science, and social and political philosophy.
Aesthetics deals with perceptions of physical properties such as color, sound, smell, texture, and taste. Since environmental ethics is often involved with issues dealing with the protection of plants and animals, its appeal is often to aesthetic experiences of nature. Environmental ethics is also interconnected with political and social structures concerning the use of natural resources, so the field also touches the areas of social and political philosophy. In the struggle to conserve the environment, environmental ethicists also use the knowledge and theories of science, for example, in issues such as those dealing with global warming and air pollution.
The modern environmental movement in North America grew out of earlier conservation efforts. Among the best-known early proponents of the conservation of natural resources, such as forests and waterways, is President Theodore Roosevelt. Others who helped shaped early issues in environmental ethics were Thomas Malthus, David Ricardo, John Stuart Mill, Gifford Pinchot, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and John Muir. More recently, the writings of Rachel Carson in the 1950s and 1960s marked the beginning of the modern environmental movement and the ideas that gave it energy.
Just as philosophers try to answer questions about reality, environmental ethicists attempt to answer the questions of how human beings should relate to their environment, how to use Earth's resources, and how to treat other species, both plant and animal. Some of the conflicts that arise from environmental policies deal with the rights of individuals versus those of the state, and the rights of private property owners versus those of a community.
Methods of dealing with environmental issues vary among the organizations that are devoted to protecting the environment. An important milestone toward a national environmental movement was an event that first took place on many college campuses across the United States on April 22, 1970. This was called Earth Day, and it used social protest and demonstration as a way of raising awareness about environmental issues. Earth Day has since become an annual event. In the United States, such groups as the Audubon Society, the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, Greenpeace, the Environmental Defence Fund, and the National Wildlife Federation use education and the political arena to lobby Congress for laws to protect the environment. These groups sometimes also use the legal system as a method to change environmental actions and attitudes.
The call to conserve and protect the environment has resulted in the passage of many laws. Among them are the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, the Clean Water Act of 1972, the Endangered Species Act of 1973, the National Forest Management Act of 1976, and the National Acid Precipitation Act of 1980. In 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created to oversee federal environmental policies and laws. This increased governmental activity supports the belief of many environmental activists that more is accomplished by working through the political and social arenas than in theorizing about ethics. However, others maintain that the exploration of ideas in environmental ethics is an important springboard for social and political action.
Environmental issues are not universally supported. The conflicts between those who want to protect the natural environment and its species, and those for which this is a lesser concern, often center around economic issues. For example, environmentalists in the Pacific Northwest want to protect the habitat of the rare spotted owl, which inhabits old-growth forests on which the timber industry and many people depend for their livelihood. There is much controversy over who had the most "right" to use this forest. The perception of those who are economically affected by protection of the old-growth forest is that spotted owls have become more "important" than the needs of people. Environmentalists, on the other hand, believe that both are important and have legitimate needs.
In 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency was established to oversee the various federal environmental laws that had been enacted. One of its major functions is to review the environmental impacts of highway projects, large-scale commercial and residential construction, power plants, and other large undertakings involving the federal government. A major tool of the EPA is its power to issue an "environmental impact statement" that evaluates a proposed project before it is undertaken. The advocates of this planning tool believe that is of great value in protecting the environment, particularly when a project is a potential threat to human health or the natural environment. However, others maintain that the agency and its work frustrate worthwhile projects and economic growth.
Lawyers who deal with environmental issues are key players in the issues raised by environmental ethics. They may bring court action against companies that, for example, leak toxic substances into the groundwater or emit harmful smoke from factories. Disasters like the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska help fuel demands for better environmental controls, since cases like this clearly show the damage that can be caused to fish, birds, and the natural environment. The Exxon Valdez oil spill was also an economic loss to Alaskan fishermen, who blame the disaster for degrading their ability to fish and make a living. What is always being weighed legally and ethically is how much environmental damage to the environment and its inhabitants can be judged as reasonable, and how much is not.
Environmental ethicists trace the roots of modern American environmental attitudes to the idea of private ownership. During the European Middle Ages, a strong ideal of individual land ownership emerged, in contrast to control by a ruler or a governmental body. This became the basis of property rights in the American Colonies of Britain, as advocated by Thomas Jefferson. The strongly held belief of the right to hold private property remains a cornerstone of American thinking, and is often at odds with issues of environmental ethics.
Farming the land was not the only activity in the early history of the development of the North American continent by European settlers. Before there was significant development of farmland in the interior of the continent, explorers, trappers, and naturalists were looking over the landscape for other reasons. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the attitudes of naturalists and hunters about killing animals were similar. For the naturalist, it was the only way to examine new species up close. For the hunter, killing animals was a way of making a living, from sale of the meat, fur, or some other product, such as ivory.
It was not until Dr. Edwin James's expedition into the Rocky Mountains in 1819-1820 that it was suggested that some parts of the continent should be conserved for wildlife. One of the first to calculate the destruction of wildlife in North America was the artist George Catlin (1796-1872), who studied the Upper Missouri Indians. He was the first American to advocate a national park for people and animals alike. By 1872, it became clear that the plains buffalo had been massacred to the point of near extinction, and Congress established Yellowstone National Park as the first national park in the country.
Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) had an enormous influence on the development of environmental ethics through his theory about population growth, which raised the primary question of how many human beings could be sustained by the ecosystems of planet Earth. Malthus was an English economist who published An Essay on the Principle of Population as It Affects the Future Improvement of Society in 1798, just as the Industrial Revolution was beginning in Europe. Malthus believed that if the natural forces of war, famine, and disease did not reduce the rate of growth of the human population, it would increase to the point where it could not be sustained by the natural resources that are available. The problem, as Malthus saw it, was that population increased geometrically, while resources could only grow arithmetically. In a later essay in 1803 he proposed late marriage and sexual abstinence as ways of restraining population growth. Malthus' ideas influenced other activists of the nineteenth century, including Robert Owen (1791-1858), who advocated birth control for the poor. However, there was a great deal of opposition to the ideas of Malthus from such social reformers as William Godwin, who took a more optimistic view of the benefits gained through "progress," and its possibilities for improving the lives of people.
While predicting a population explosion, Malthus did not foresee the technological changes that have increased the capacity of modern societies to sustain increasingly larger populations of people (at least for the time being). However, modern ecologists, social scientists, environmental ethicists, and politicians still must deal with the question of how large a population this planet can sustain without destroying its ecosystems, and subsequently much of the human population as well.
President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) was at the forefront of the conservation movement that developed in America from 1890 to 1920. By the end of the nineteenth century, the United States was an industrialized society. Many of the country's natural resources were already threatened, as its wildlife had been earlier by commercial hunting. Diminishing stocks of forest, rangeland, water, and mineral resources were all of great concern to Roosevelt during his presidency. In his government, Gifford Pinchot (1865-1946), the head of the Forest Service, and James R. Garfield, Secretary of the Interior, argued for a comprehensive policy to plan the use and development of the natural resources of the United States.
While there was political opposition in Congress and among industrial developers to such ideas, there was support among some segments of the public. John Muir (1838-1914) founded the Sierra Club in this atmosphere of support for the conservation of natural resources. Some American businesses that depended on renewable resources were also supportive. The goal of this emerging "conservation movement" was to sustain natural resources without causing undue economic hardship.
New federal agencies were formed, including the National Park Service, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the United States Geological Survey. State conservation laws were also passed in support of the conservation movement. The historical periods of both World Wars and the economic depression of the 1930s slowed the conservation movement, but did not destroy its foundation.
A reawakening of environmental issues took place when Rachel Carson (1907-1964) published her book Silent Spring in 1962. Carson was a biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service, and had already published The Sea Around Us in 1951. In Silent Spring, she alerted the world to the dangers of harmful pesticides that were being used in agriculture, particularly DDT. Later American writers who carried the "environmental message" into the public arena include Paul Ehrlich and Barry Commoner.
In the decades following the publication of Silent Spring, the earlier conservation movement became transformed into a worldwide environmental movement. Evidence of this transformation includes the growth of organizations such as Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund, and an expansion of legislation designed to protect the environment, preserve species, and ensure the health of humans. Carson's writings made the world community aware of the interrelationships of humans and ecosystems. The ideas that pollution in one area can affect the environment in another, and that humans cannot live without the goods and services provided by ecosystems, are now commonly understood facts.
Concerns about acid rain, deforestation, global warming, and nuclear catastrophes like Chernobyl (1986) have helped the cause of those who argue for improved policies and laws to protect the whole environment and all of its inhabitants. In addition, activism has resulted in many non-governmental environmental organizations forming to tackle specific problems, some of a protective nature, others focused on conservation, and others designed to reclaim damaged areas.
A high-profile Earth Summit sponsored by the United Nations met in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. However, some environmentalists believe that little of substance was accomplished in terms of getting specific commitments from governments around the world to undertake serious action. As in the past, economic pressures came into stark conflict with the philosophical premises of environmental ethics. The same questions of how much protection our environment and its resources need, and how much must this would interfere with economic progress, are still relevant today.
"Environmental ethics." DISCovering Science. Gale Research, 1996.
Reproduced in Student Resource Center College Edition.
Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale Group. September, 1999.