Conservation And Environmental Ethics

The study of biology helps create an increased appreciation for the natural world. It causes us to question our collective and individual actions that may harm it. However, we seem to be constrained in our concern by our own need for survival. What is needed is an ethic to answer questions such as: How should we value the natural world? What is our place in it? What are our responsibilities toward it?

Why do we pollute, in effect spoiling our own nests? The problem is in a paradox of individual freedom that is called the tragedy of the commons (Hardin, 1968):

The tragedy of the commons develops in this way. Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. Such an arrangement may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries because tribal wars, poaching, and disease keep the numbers of both man and beast well below the carrying capacity of the land. Finally, however, comes the day of reckoning, that is, the day when the long-desired goal of social stability becomes a reality. At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy.

As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain. Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously, he asks, ''What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?'' This utility has one negative and one positive component.

1. The positive component is a function of the increment of one animal. Since the herdsman receives all the proceeds from the sale of the additional animal, the positive utility is nearly +1.

2. The negative component is a function of the additional overgrazing created by one more animal. Since, however, the effects of overgrazing are shared by all the herdsmen, the negative utility for any particular decisionmaking herdsman is only a fraction of —1. Adding together the component partial utilities, the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit—in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.

Morality is about when we should act against our own immediate self-interest. Ethics is the study of systems for deciding the morality, or rightness or wrongness, of our actions. Environmental ethics is the study of the morality of actions that affect the environment. An understanding of environmental ethics will help us to apply the knowledge and power we gain from our education.

It is a popular saying that one cannot teach someone to be ethical. This is not true. Public educational campaigns are often used with good effect to encourage ''right'' behavior, such as to institute recycling programs. Furthermore, an understanding of ethical principles can help counter specious or just plain wrong arguments that people sometimes use in support of self-serving actions. Finally, an understanding of ethics can help guide and reinforce those who want to do the right thing.

A moral principle is a rule or set of rules used to decide moral questions. Several moral principles have been proposed that are specific to our effect on the environment. A moral principle will not be an infallible guide to behavior. We will still be faced with dilemmas in which each alternative has its own moral cost.

What is the basis of moral principles? James Q. Wilson argues that we have inborn ''moral senses,'' including the senses of sympathy, fairness, self-control, and duty. These senses then propel the development of moral principles. The Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson postulates that concern for the environment stems from an innate affinity that people have for all living things, a principle he calls the biophilia hypothesis. This affinity becomes most apparent when contact with living things is limited. Antarctic researchers who are isolated over the winter must ration time spent in the plant growth chamber. The station's doctor prescribes such time to treat depression. NASA has conducted experiments in which crews are isolated in closed environmental systems for as long as 90 days to simulate space missions. The crew in one such experiment found that one of their greatest pleasures was growing their small lettuce crop. Planting and harvesting decisions were made only after considerable group discussion, and crew members often enjoyed opening the growth chamber just to look at the plants.

Two basic types of ethics are utilitarian ethics and rights-based ethics. Utilitarianism is the principle that rules or acts are moral if they produce the greatest amount of good for all concerned. A problem for utilitarianism is that some may suffer unfairly for the greater good of the majority. Rights-based ethics get around this problem by postulating moral rights that are universal (possessed by all), equal (no one has the right in any greater or lesser degree than another), inalienable (cannot be given up or taken away), and natural (not created by human acts, as are legal rights). A major problem with rights-based ethics is that different rights may conflict, and criteria need to be selected for choosing among them.

Both of the aforementioned types of ethics are focused on needs of individuals and thus are humanistic. Some propose a holistic ethic that places value on systems rather than individuals. This approach is used to raise to the level of moral principles ideas such as the diversity and integrity of ecosystems or the sustainability of economic systems.

The Judeo-Christian tradition forms the basis of much of Western thought. Various interpretations have been applied to its view of the relationship between humans and the rest of the natural world. A negative view has been blamed on the biblical injunction to "have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth'' Genesis 1:26-28.

However, other passages imply that all of creation has value. Genesis 1:31 states that "God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good.'' The animals are also commanded to be fruitful and multiply. This leads to the stewardship concept, which states that humans have responsibility for the protection of creation. In any case, the Western tradition developed in which humans were viewed as the center and pinnacle of creation, a notion that is called anthropocentrism.

Some Asian religions, such as Zen Buddhism, Taoism, and Hinduism (especially the Buddhists), teach unity with nature, including compassion toward other humans as well as animals. For native Americans, unity means an interdependence and kinship between all animals, including humans, and natural systems. They believe that all animals have spirits that deserve respect. Animals can only be killed out of necessity, after which humans have to make apologies and atonement to the spirit of the killed animal. Many tribes also link their identity to prominent landscape features.

The Darwinian revolution dethroned humans from their special position in creation. Instead, they are part of a continuum with the animals, plants, and ultimately with the nonliving chemical world. The other parts of the living and nonliving world are seen as kin, which gives us an incentive to make our ethic include that which is good for them.

The wildlife biologist and amateur philosopher Aldo Leopold (1949) proposed such an ethical system in his book A Sand County Almanac. He calls it the land ethic. This book is considered the "gospel" of the conservation movement, much as Rachel Carson's (1962) Silent Spring sounded the alarm that stimulated the environmental movement. The idea of a land ethic is developed further by Callicott (1986).

Leopold describes how ethics developed from responsibilities toward other people. Eventually, these responsibilities were expanded to include the family and the clan, and then larger and larger groups, ultimately encompassing all of society. As the boundaries of the community expanded, the inner ones remained. These can be viewed as a concentric hierarchy of responsibilities to larger and larger communities (Figure 1.2): from self to nuclear family, extended family, clan, nation, and all of humanity. A person's responsibility toward the outer rings does not cancel the inner ones, but rather is layered

Figure 1.2 Hierarchy of responsibility in the land ethic.

over them. Leopold's contribution was to describe this hierarchy and to extend the idea of community to include the land. By the land he meant not just the soil but the pyramid of energy starting with the soil, to the plants it supports, the herbivores that live on the plants, the predators that depend on all the levels below it, and the organisms of decay that return the nutrients to the soil.

Furthermore, the particular responsibilities due each layer in the hierarchy are different. One does not owe all of humanity the same share of attention and resources that is owed to family members. So what is our responsibility to the land? According to Leopold, human use of the land should preserve and enhance the diversity, integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. This does not prohibit our use of natural resources but requires that we do so in a sustainable way with a minimum of waste.

This leads us to one of the great moral challenges before our society. At the same time that the world's population continues to increase, the per capita use of natural resources is also increasing, and wilderness habitats are continually giving way to human uses. Optimists may expect that continuing technological developments will enable growth to continue. However, eventually we will have to achieve a steady-state condition in which resources are consumed at essentially the same rate at which they are regenerated. Humans have the capacity to plan, so society has the potential to bring about such a steady state without having it imposed by catastrophe. How will such a "sustainable society'' look? What will be its population, how much will each person have to eat, and how much will remain of the wilderness and biodiversity that we have today? Although a sustainable society may take generations to become reality, it will never happen unless earlier generations begin to bring it about.

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