Environmental ethics falls under the discipline of environmental philosophy that studies how human beings relate to their natural environment. This is a wide study that involves a variety of other disciplines such as those that study human relationships, economics, the earth’s structure and biology especially ecology. Human beings being the most superior of all the living things on earth have an ethical obligation to the environment concerning the earth, air, water, other organisms and the human population, both the present and the future generation.
Environmental ethics brigs up a variety of issues concerning what, when, how and why we should consider this area of study. Aspects arising include the environment’s moral value, how sustainable are the policies on environmental protection, and how do these apply to the developing nations, and what policies should be put in place to ensure that the environment is safe guarded for the future generation, among others. This topic has been studied by many philosophers through the years, but it only came to be recognized as an independent discipline in 1970, due to awareness of effects of increasing human knowledge on the environment.
Growing economics and populations, new technologies and development of industries all have had various adverse effects on nature, although aimed at improving life. The works of Rachael Carson, Paul Ehrlich, Aldo Leopold, among others brought about ethical concerns about the environment. Under environmental ethics, human beings have a duty towards the environment, on protection and conservation as well as having a quality life for themselves. In this context, contentious issues arise as to why we should be concerned about the environment.
Should it be for us, the living human beings, the future generation, or for the environment itself regardless of our own benefits? Different personalities offer different answers to this question, hence different views have come up on environmental ethics. The issues of environmental ethics is of growing concern to the government and other institution including United Nations which have come up with incentives to people to value and appreciate nature. Earth Day which is held annually (first held in 1970) continues to create awareness and sensitize people on the value of the environment and why it should be protected.
The Moral Standing We cannot handle ethics without reference to moral philosophy, which is concerned with individual behaviors and conducts. the moral standing depends on what is considered ‘right’ or ‘good’ and ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’ by an individual or a society. For instance, different societies have different views on areas like land and animal ownership, rights of the future generation, and many more. Personal conduct with respect to environmental ethics defines how people should interact with nature, regarding its exploitation and conservation.
The moral standing of the ethical issues on environment are wholly placed on human beings as they are the only living things who can reason and decide on moral issues. Many of the environmental concerns revolve around man and how these affect him, thus the responsibility of environmental ethics should be solely man’s. Responsibility to the environment implies that we are aware of this task, we are able to do it, we are at liberty to do it or not, and carrying out of the task has an effect to others existing in the environment.
This means that we know the damage we can cause to the environment, the effects of this damage and the prevention or solutions to these problems. This gives us a moral significance in environmental ethics, and gives us a central role. The moral standing therefore means we have the moral obligation towards nature and the capability to carry out this responsibility. When we consider environmental ethics, then, look at issues such as:
• Should we care about nature for itself while it’s people who really “matter”? That is if not for human beings benefit; why else should we conserve the environment? And if depleting the natural resources is necessary for life improvement, why not exhaust it? • Is the loss of biodiversity, destruction of scenic geographical features for human benefit such as in agriculture so harmful to man? Where is the need to conserve a species while it has no chance of survival in the near future due to changes in earth’s patterns?
• Is it right for a person to own land, it being a natural resource among others, or is it morally wrong? Is it fair that 5% of the human population use 30% of natural resources, while in other less countries the population suffers due to lack of the basic resources such as food and clean water? Do these resources exist for the benefit of a few or should they be left free for use by all? • Is it possible for human beings to improve nature, seeing how man seems to have no control over nature when it comes to events such as natural calamities? • Do recent developments in technology relieve us of our duty of protecting the environment?
For instance, does biotechnology with potential to create new species, or bring back an extinct species, relieve us of the duty to conserve the biodiversity? Or alternative sources of fuel give us a right to deplete the natural fuel reserve? • Should we let nature take its course as it always has or try and preserve it without assurance that this is of any benefit, or that this only hinders the course of nature? Is there any way that nature can take care of itself without our hand, like self renewal?
The main issue surrounding environmental ethics today is the activist movements on environmental protection that focus people on the wrong issues, that is the moral standing is more emotional than factual or logical. The following are essential in discussing environmental ethics and policies. Western Religion and Culture It has been viewed by some philosophers that the Western religion has adversely affected the environment as it teaches that human beings have dominion over the earth and subdue it. Others view this as a command to take care of nature as we have been left in charge.
The command given in the bible to the first man “be fruitful and fill the earth” (Genesis 1:28, Holy Bible KJV) raises the question of population control, is it ethical for the sake of the environment or is it a direct defiance of God’s command? To address this sensitive topic, religion should be understood in context. At the time of the command there was only one man on earth, so he was required to ‘fill’ it, but now the earth is already ‘filled’. Is it logical to still apply the very same principles now as they did then?
The culture of a people defines how they relate to and use the environment. Many of the historic events that shape the western culture have had a huge impact on the environment. Events such as the industrial revolution, technological advances and the modern culture have affected the environment. Culture can easily adapt to changing environments, as well as cause permanent change to different environments. The environment is very wide and continuous, while cultural practices are defined by the environment.
Therefore it is ethical to put environment before culture, and change current lifestyles towards more nature friendly practices. The future generation Most of the damage to the environment is more likely to affect the future human population. This therefore calls on the currently living humans to consider the rights of those who are not yet born. We might not know exactly what that generation will require but we are well aware of the basic needs of living beings; food shelter and basic health. Based on these we can have a model of what the environment should offer the future human beings.
Therefore it is our moral obligation to them to utilize nature as much as we need to but ensure that we do not deny them the enjoyment of the same. Animals Other animals should be considered when addressing environmental ethics, since they are sentient beings, that is are capable of feeling. Although animals come after humans, they have rights and should be considered according to what they are interested in, such as feeding, living in their natural habitat, and allowed their existence. Controversy about animal rights arises in what animals exactly should we grant rights to.
For instance, are insects or other smaller animals in this category? Is it right to use animals for laboratory research for medical and other studies to better our lives? The simple answer to this question is that unless it is extremely necessary, animals should not be put at risk or in adverse conditions. The harm to animals should be justified and be limited to a certain allowable level. Ecofeminism Women are seen to be closer and more in touch with nature; this is claimed by feminists concerned with the environment (Cochrane, 2007).
This is because of their ability to give life, and the fact that the earth is considered female (Shiva, 1993). Thus this gives them a better understanding of nature and how to coexist in harmony. Val Plumwood, an ecofeminist believe, that feminism should go hand in hand with environmentalism as both women and the environment are under the same oppression. Another feminist argues that the problem is in trying to justify this kind of oppression thus allowing such subordination.
When considering environmental ethics and policies, the domination over women and nature is a critical issue that requires attention. Economics and Ecology Economics and ecology usually appear as counter forces. Economy involves trying to allocate the limited resources while ecology looks out to protect these resources. The ever growing human population has placed great pressure on nature and thus their distribution is highly competitive. Market forces have added more pressure to natural resources and their exploitation.
Rapid growth of industries has contributed to environmental deterioration. The cost-benefit considers questions like; if nuclear power makes electricity cheaper, should this field be ventured? What is the cost of preserving a forest compared to the cost of exporting timber? These raise challenges when setting up policies on the environment because of the question of cost versus the benefit of environmental ethics. Technology Technology has had a huge impact on human life as well as on the environment. The effects of technology are both beneficial and adverse.
The medical, agricultural, communication and energy industries rely heavily on technology to better human life. Technology has the power to destroy nature as well as replenish it. The technological advances that are most potentially harmful include nuclear technology that is able to annihilate nature and biotechnology which has the potential to alter the natural species boundaries. Since all technologies come with potential risks along with their benefits, ethical consideration must be made with regards to the environment.
Conclusion In studying environmental ethics, the first thing is to ask the question ‘what should be done about the current environmental situation and how should it be done? ’ The other consideration is the importance of individual natural resources and how much effort and cost we should dedicate to protecting such. This should be based on facts and not feelings, like and dislikes. It is important that policies be based on an integrated system that has in mind all the components of nature, as well as involvement of the government, institutions and other countries.