The Mexican gulf oil spill and the most recent wildfires brought the world to almost a standstill as far as environmentalism is concerned. The fires in Russia and Portugal caused lots of damage both to the environment and to the world economy. Was the act of putting out the natural fires necessary for the protection of the integrity of the involved ecosystem? Was the global outcry on the BP oil spill on the Gulf of Mexico justified as far as environmentalism is concerned? If the Gulf of Mexico, the forests in Russia and Portugal are restored, will their value be compared/ equal to the original state of the natural environment that existed before? Naturally, it’s morally wrong to pollute, overexploit the natural resources and destroy parts of an ecosystem. This paper seeks to answer/address the fundamental questions and areas such as the challenge of environmental ethics to human centeredness which is embedded in global thinking; the development of the discipline; and the current situation in environmental ethics.
The Mexican gulf oil spill and the most recent wildfires brought the world to almost a standstill as far as environmentalism is concerned. The fires in Russia and Portugal caused lots of damage both to the environment and to the world economy. Was the act of putting out the natural fires necessary for the protection of the integrity of the involved ecosystem? Was the global outcry on BP oil spill on the Gulf of Mexico justified as far as environmentalism is concerned? If the Gulf of Mexico, the forests in Russia, and Portugal are restored, will their value be compared/ equal to the original state of the natural environment that existed before? Should we continue cutting down forests in the Amazon basin or in the equatorial forests to satisfy the growing demand for timber? Should the world keep focusing on making fossil fuel-powered equipment? Is it correct for the present generation to jeopardize the chances of future generations to exploit the same resources? Naturally, it’s morally wrong to pollute, overexploit the natural resources and destroy parts of an ecosystem.
The distinction between instrumental value and non-instrumental value on natural resources has been of great importance. While instrumental value helps us get other beneficial aspects of things, i.e. giving us the opportunity to pursue other ends, non-instrumental values are the ends in themselves, i.e. irrespective of material usefulness attached to it. Many traditional western ethical perspectives are human-centered since they insert value to human beings alone than to non-human beings (Light & Rolston, 2003). The protection of human interests or well-being always was at the expense of non-human beings and was always justified. Aristotle (cited in Deutsch, 2006) wrote: “nature has made all things specifically for the sake of man” and that the value of non-human things is merely instrumental (p.154). Generally, the people with proponents of this kind of view have no issue with the mistreatment of nonhuman creatures as long as it does not have a direct negative impact on humans.
When environmental ethics emerged as a discipline, it challenged the traditional anthropocentrism that existed before (White, 1967; Light & Rolston, 2003). It questioned the assumed superiority of human beings over other non-human forms of the environment; investigated the possibility of rationale/arguments for assigning so much value to the natural environment. However, some theorists saw no need of developing non-anthropocentric theories/theories of environmentalism.
The development of environmental ethics
Environmental ethics as a discipline emerged in the 1970s (Attfield, 2003). The continuous questioning and rethinking of the relationship between human and non-human components of the environment were as a result of the belief that people were sitting on a time bomb. Some writers had predicted that with the growth in population vis-à-vis the natural resource availability, the twentieth century was a population time bomb. Some of them argued that the religious view on the relationship between humans and non-humans shaped the thinking at that time. White, 1967 wrote that the Judeo-Christian thinking provided ground for the overexploitation of natural resources. That view encouraged the superiority of humans over non-human forms of life on earth and depicted non-human forms as for use by humans. He argues that this Judeo-Christian thinking provided the deeply rooted drive for unlimited exploitation of natural resources.
The call for change in values towards the exploitation of natural resources reflected the need for environmental ethics as a discipline. Some early writers like Garret Hardin had forewarned of the dangers of overexploitation of the natural resources and called for a paradigm shift in policies. In his book, the tragedy of commons, he foresees the dilemma that was arising from the situation in which multiple individuals, acting independently had on the natural resources. He says that this could lead to the resources being depleted even if it was not in anyone’s interest for that to happen.
The current global realization of the need for pure and strict environmental ethics has had numerous steps. The Kyoto summit on environment in 1997 and the earth summit in Rio in 1992 are examples of the current developments in creating environmental ethics for natural resource exploitation (Attfield, 2003). Though the Kyoto protocol is more concerned with the green house gas emission on the atmosphere, the most underlying factor here is resource utilization. The greenhouse gases leads to global warming which is disastrous to the balance between the built environment and the natural environment. The major aim of the protocol was the stabilization and reconstruction of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climatic system. Any form of interference with the climatic system will definitely result in imbalance in ecological cycles. This is dangerous to the non human form of life on earth.
The earth summit carried the clearest message on the need for the continued development/upholding of the environmental ethics. The summit’s message stated: “nothing less than a transformation of attitudes and behavior could bring about the necessary changes” (Attfield, 2003, p.42). The result of such message was the co-efficiency of guiding principles for business and governments. The patterns of development and production of various countries are now under scrutiny by the United nations umbrella on environment, the various governments are now seeking alternative sources of energy, the is the growing need on reliance on public transport and the growing awareness on the scarcity of clean drinking water.
Environmental ethics became a subject of philosophic reflection in the 1970s. According to Attfield (2003, p.63), “the issue remained marginalized within the discipline of philosophy, only attracting few scholars and thinkers across the globe.” After 1990, the field gained institutional recognition in Colorado State, the University of Montana, Bowling Green State and the University of North Texas (Attfield, 2003). These programs began to offer a masters degree with specialty in Environmental ethics/philosophy. In the year 2005, the department of philosophy and religious studies at the University of North Texas offered a PhD program with a concentration in environmental ethics/philosophy.
Attfield, R. (2003). Environmental Ethics: An Overview for the Twenty-first Century. New York. Wiley-Blackwell.
Deutsch, K. (2006). Political Community At The International Level. Chicago. Aardvark Global Publishing.
Light, A., & Rolston, H. (2003). Environmental Ethics: An Anthology. New York. Wiley-Blackwell.
White, L. (1967). The Historical Roots of Our Ecological crisis. Environmental Ethics Journal, Vol. 3, Issue 55:1203-1207.