Environmental ethics is a branch of philosophy that considers the moral relations between human beings and their natural environment. As a field of study, it assumes that humans have certain responsibilities to the natural world, and it seeks to help people and their leaders become aware of them and to act responsibly when they do things that impact the natural world.
Most people recognize that some agreed-upon guidelines or general rules should exist between individuals when they interact with one another because if they did not, nothing in our lives would be predictable or safe. In other words, people need to know that besides actual laws, there are some basic, common ethics or principles of what is right and what is wrong that everyone agrees upon and usually follows or lives by. Ethics is sometimes called moral philosophy because it is concerned with what is morally good and bad or what is right and wrong. As a specialized part of ethics, environmental ethics is concerned with the morality (right and wrong) of human actions as they affect the environment or the natural world we live in.
As a branch of philosophy, environmental ethics is a fairly recent development, having become a body of organized knowledge only in the last decades of the twentieth century. It came about as a necessary response to a growing number of very obvious threats to the physical condition of the world in which we live. The list of some of these global environmental problems is a long and familiar one, and many of them came about because of the massive increase in the growth of the human population worldwide. As populations continue to soar, the various problems caused by too many people naturally increase in both their number and seriousness. It is predicted that the 2000 world population of six billion people will rise by another one billion people within ten years. To the many problems this causes, such as increased pollution of the air, water, and soil, is also added the depletion of these and other important natural resources.
Anthropomorphic: Described or thought of as having a human form or human attributes.
Deep ecology: Philosophical belief system that holds that all forms of life—plant, animal, human—have an intrinsic right to exist in the natural environment and that humans have a direct responsibility to maintain the environment for all life forms.
Ethics: Branch of philosophy that deals with the general nature of morals and specific moral choices.
Shallow ecology: Philosophical belief system that holds that humans have a responsibility to protect the environment so it can support human life both in the present and in the future.
Today, as we face such problems as the greenhouse effect, the destruction of the ozone layer, and the presence of toxic and nuclear wastes, we can easily recognize some of their negative effects. Among these are the growing disappearance of wilderness areas, a steady loss of biodiversity (the variety of species in an area) among living things, and even the actual extinction of some species. It is safe to say that at the beginning of the twenty-first century, one of the greatest challenges facing human beings is how to stop the continued harm to Earth.
Many people associate the beginnings of today's environmental ethics with the first Earth Day held on April 22, 1970, in the United States. On that day (and every April since), organizers around the country rallied and demonstrated to make people and political leaders aware of the importance of caring for and preserving the environment. That first Earth Day launched the beginning of an environmental awareness in the United States and later around the world. It made many people realize that some sense of environmental responsibility should be developed and applied to our daily lives.
Most movements do not just suddenly happen out of nowhere; they are usually preceded by many other influential events. In the environmental movement, perhaps the earliest of these was the 1949 publication of a book by American naturalist Aldo Leopold (1887–1948). Leopold had fallen in love with nature as a youngster and eventually joined the newly established U.S. Forest Service in 1909. As a game management expert, he came to appreciate and understand how deeply humans affected the natural world. A year after he died, his landmark work, A Sand County Almanac, was published. It contained not only his strong defense of the environment but his argument that what was needed was a new philosophy about man and nature, or what would come to be called an environmental ethic. This idea was carried on by others when, two decades later, the first Earth Day was held.
The importance of that first Earth Day was that it not only raised the environmental consciousness or awareness of many people, but it got them to start asking important questions. Once people became aware that they had some sort of a responsibility toward the natural world, it then became a matter of trying to figure out how far that responsibility extends. This naturally led to many questions, such as, does Earth exist entirely for humanity? What are the rights of nonhuman species and do we have any obligations to them? Do we have a duty to be concerned with future generations? These and many other important questions are what environmental ethics is all about. While answering them may be difficult, and people may not always agree, it is significant that they are being asked and discussed.
Answers to these questions are shaped by what theory or school of thought of environmental ethics an individual believes in. One of these theories says that our responsibility to the natural environment is only an indirect one and is based on our responsibilities to other people. This school of thought is definitely human-centered or anthropomorphic (pronounced an-throw-poe-MOR-fick). While it argues that we have some sort of responsibility to the environment, it says that this responsibility is not a direct one and that the focus is on how the condition of the environment affects people, both in present and in future generations. In other words, we have a duty to make sure that Earth stays in good enough shape so that human life is supported. Some call this school of thought or philosophy "shallow ecology."
A somewhat different school of thought is described as nonanthropomorphic, which means that all forms of life have an intrinsic (essential or basic) right to exist in the natural environment. This point of view gives what is called "moral standing" to animals and plants, and argues that they, like humans, are to be considered "morally significant persons." This philosophy is called "deep ecology." It states that humans have a direct responsibility toward maintaining the environment for all forms of life.
There are many versions of these two schools of thought—ranging from the argument that what is right or wrong environmentally should be judged only by how it affects people, to one that says the environment itself has direct rights. Few agree on how far our responsibility extends. Furthermore, the real disagreements are found when actual policies have to be decided upon that will guide how we act. Despite these and other disagreements, the fact that some sort of appreciation for nature has been fostered in many of us, and that we realize that nature must be appreciated and considered for its own sake and treated with respect, marks the beginning of a real ethics of the environment. For a very long time, human beings have never even been aware that they had any sort of responsibility toward the natural world and all its members. However, the development of some sort of environmental ethic that makes us consider if our environmental actions are right or wrong marks the beginning of future progress for a better world.