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18.1: Environmental Ethics and Justice

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    Environmental Ethics

    The concept of ethics involves standards of conduct. These standards help to distinguish between behavior that is considered right and that which is considered wrong. As we all know, it is not always easy to distinguish between right and wrong, as there is no universal code of ethics. For example, a poor farmer clears an area of rainforest in order to grow crops. Some would not oppose this action, because the act allows the farmer to provide a livelihood for his family. Others would oppose the action, claiming that the deforestation will contribute to soil erosion and global warming. Right and wrong are usually determined by an individual's morals, and to change the ethics of an entire society, it is necessary to change the individual ethics of a majority of the people in that society.

    Moral extensionism defines how far a persons values extend outside of themselves (Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)). There are many variables that can influence where the limit lies for each individual person. For example: religion, culture, education, and personal interests (just to name a few).

    Scope of consideration for moral extensionism from me, to family, to humanity, to wildlife, to habitats, to the world
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Scope of consideration for moral extensionism. Image by Rachel Schleiger (CC-BY-NC).

    Frontier Ethic

    The ways in which humans interact with the land and its natural resources are determined by ethical attitudes and behaviors. Early European settlers in North America rapidly consumed the natural resources of the land. After they depleted one area, they moved westward to new frontiers. Their attitude towards the land was that of a frontier ethic. A frontier ethic assumes that the earth has an unlimited supply of resources. If resources run out in one area, more can be found elsewhere or alternatively human ingenuity will find substitutes. This attitude sees humans as masters who manage the planet. The frontier ethic is completely anthropocentric (human-centered), for only the needs of humans are considered.

    Most industrialized societies experience population and economic growth that are based upon this frontier ethic, assuming that infinite resources exist to support continued growth indefinitely. In fact, economic growth is considered a measure of how well a society is doing. The late economist Julian Simon pointed out that life on earth has never been better, and that population growth means more creative minds to solve future problems and give us an even better standard of living. However, now that the human population has passed seven billion and few frontiers are left, many are beginning to question the frontier ethic. Such people are moving toward an environmental ethic, which includes humans as part of the natural community rather than managers of it. Such an ethic places limits on human activities (e.g., uncontrolled resource use), that may adversely affect the natural community.

    Some of those still subscribing to the frontier ethic suggest that outer space may be the new frontier. If we run out of resources (or space) on earth, they argue, we can simply populate other planets. This seems an unlikely solution, as even the most aggressive colonization plan would be incapable of transferring people to extraterrestrial colonies at a significant rate. Natural population growth on earth would outpace the colonization effort. A more likely scenario would be that space could provide the resources (e.g. from asteroid mining) that might help to sustain human existence on earth.

    Sustainable Ethic

    A sustainable ethic is an environmental ethic by which people treat the earth as if its resources are limited. This ethic assumes that the earth’s resources are not unlimited and that humans must use and conserve resources in a manner that allows their continued use in the future. A sustainable ethic also assumes that humans are a part of the natural environment and that we suffer when the health of a natural ecosystem is impaired. A sustainable ethic includes the following tenets:

    • The earth has a limited supply of resources.
    • Humans must conserve resources.
    • Humans share the earth’s resources with other living things.
    • Growth is not sustainable.
    • Humans are a part of nature.
    • Humans are affected by natural laws.
    • Humans succeed best when they maintain the integrity of natural processes sand cooperate with nature.

    For example, if a fuel shortage occurs, how can the problem be solved in a way that is consistent with a sustainable ethic? The solutions might include finding new ways to conserve oil or developing renewable energy alternatives. A sustainable ethic attitude in the face of such a problem would be that if drilling for oil damages the ecosystem, then that damage will affect the human population as well. A sustainable ethic can be either anthropocentric or biocentric (life-centered). An advocate for conserving oil resources may consider all oil resources as the property of humans. Using oil resources wisely so that future generations have access to them is an attitude consistent with an anthropocentric ethic. Using resources wisely to prevent ecological damage is in accord with a biocentric ethic.

    Land Ethic

    Aldo Leopold, an American wildlife natural historian and philosopher, advocated a biocentric ethic in his book, A Sand County Almanac. He suggested that humans had always considered land as property, just as ancient Greeks considered slaves as property. He believed that mistreatment of land (or of slaves) makes little economic or moral sense, much as today the concept of slavery is considered immoral. All humans are merely one component of an ethical framework. Leopold suggested that land be included in an ethical framework, calling this the land ethic.

    “The land ethic simply enlarges the boundary of the community to include soils, waters, plants and animals; or collectively, the land. In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow members, and also respect for the community as such.” (Aldo Leopold, 1949)

    Leopold divided conservationists into two groups: one group that regards the soil as a commodity and the other that regards the land as biota, with a broad interpretation of its function. If we apply this idea to the field of forestry, the first group of conservationists would grow trees like cabbages, while the second group would strive to maintain a natural ecosystem. Leopold maintained that the conservation movement must be based upon more than just economic necessity. Species with no discernible economic value to humans may be an integral part of a functioning ecosystem. The land ethic respects all parts of the natural world regardless of their utility, and decisions based upon that ethic result in more stable biological communities.

    “Anything is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends to do otherwise.” (Aldo Leopold, 1949)

    Hetch Hetchy Valley

    In 1913, the Hetch Hetchy Valley – located in Yosemite National Park in California – was the site of a conflict between two factions, one with an anthropocentric ethic and the other, a biocentric ethic. As the last American frontiers were settled, the rate of forest destruction started to concern the public.

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    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\). Yosemite valley, California, USA.

    The conservation movement gained momentum, but quickly broke into two factions. One faction, led by Gifford Pinchot, Chief Forester under Teddy Roosevelt, advocated utilitarian conservation (i.e., conservation of resources for the good of the public). The other faction, led by John Muir, advocated preservation of forests and other wilderness for their inherent value. Both groups rejected the first tenet of frontier ethics, the assumption that resources are limitless. However, the conservationists agreed with the rest of the tenets of frontier ethics, while the preservationists agreed with the tenets of the sustainable ethic.

    The Hetch Hetchy Valley was part of a protected National Park, but after the devastating fires of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, residents of San Francisco wanted to dam the valley to provide their city with a stable supply of water. Gifford Pinchot favored the dam.

    “As to my attitude regarding the proposed use of Hetch Hetchy by the city of San Francisco…I am fully persuaded that… the injury…by substituting a lake for the present swampy floor of the valley…is altogether unimportant compared with the benefits to be derived from it’s use as a reservoir.

    “The fundamental principle of the whole conservation policy is that of use, to take every part of the land and its resources and put it to that use in which it will serve the most people.” (Gifford Pinchot, 1913)

    John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club and a great lover of wilderness, led the fight against the dam. He saw wilderness as having an intrinsic value, separate from its utilitarian value to people. He advocated preservation of wild places for their inherent beauty and for the sake of the creatures that live there. The issue aroused the American public, who were becoming increasingly alarmed at the growth of cities and the destruction of the landscape for the sake of commercial enterprises. Key senators received thousands of letters of protest.

    “These temple destroyers, devotees of ravaging commercialism, seem to have a perfect contempt for Nature, and instead of lifting their eyes to the God of the Mountains, lift them to the Almighty Dollar.” (John Muir, 1912)

    Despite public protest, Congress voted to dam the valley. The preservationists lost the fight for the Hetch Hetchy Valley, but their questioning of traditional American values had some lasting effects. In 1916, Congress passed the “National Park System Organic Act,” which declared that parks were to be maintained in a manner that left them unimpaired for future generations. As we use our public lands, we continue to debate whether we should be guided by preservationism or conservationism.

    Environmental Justice

    Environmental Justice is defined as the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. It will be achieved when everyone enjoys the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work.

    Whenever a community is faced with the potential of an environmentally undesirable facility, such as the placement of a hazardous waste dump in its midst, the usual response from residents is: "Not in my back yard!" Such a response is known as the NIMBY principle. Such reactions are usually reactions to visions of previous environmental irresponsibility: uncontrolled dumping of noxious industrial wastes and rusty steel drums oozing hazardous chemicals into the environment. Such occurrences were all too real in the past and some are still taking place. It is now possible -- and much more common -- to build environmentally sound, state-of-the-art disposal facilities. However, the NIMBY principle usually prevents the construction of such new facilities. Instead, hazardous waste facilities tend to be built upon pre-existing, already contaminated sites, even though the geology of such locations may be less favorable for containment than potential new sites.

    During the 1980’s minority groups protested that hazardous waste sites were preferentially sited in minority neighborhoods. In 1987, Benjamin Chavis of the United Church of Christ Commission for Racism and Justice coined the term environmental racism to describe such a practice. The charges generally failed to consider whether the facility or the demography of the area came first. Most hazardous waste sites are located on property that was used as disposal sites long before modern facilities and disposal methods were available. Areas around such sites are typically depressed economically, often as a result of past disposal activities. Persons with low incomes are often constrained to live in such undesirable, but affordable, areas. The problem more likely resulted from one of insensitivity rather than racism. Indeed, the ethnic makeup of potential disposal facilities was most likely not considered when the sites were chosen.

    Decisions in citing hazardous waste facilities are generally made on the basis of economics, geological suitability and the political climate. For example, a site must have a soil type and geological profile that prevents hazardous materials from moving into local aquifers. The cost of land is also an important consideration. The high cost of buying land would make it economically unfeasible to build a hazardous waste site in Beverly Hills. Some communities have seen a hazardous waste facility as a way of improving their local economy and quality of life. Emelle County, Alabama had illiteracy and infant mortality rates that were among the highest in the nation. A landfill constructed there provided jobs and revenue that ultimately helped to reduce both figures.

    In an ideal world, there would be no hazardous waste facilities, but we do not live in an ideal world. Unfortunately, we live in a world plagued by rampant pollution and dumping of hazardous waste. Our industrialized society has necessarily produced wastes during the manufacture of products for our basic needs. Until technology can find a way to manage (or eliminate) hazardous waste, disposal facilities will be necessary to protect both humans and the environment. By the same token, this problem must be addressed. Industry and society must become more socially sensitive in the selection of future hazardous waste sites. All humans who help produce hazardous wastes must share the burden of dealing with those wastes, not just the poor and minorities.

    Indigenous People

    Since the end of the 15th century, most of the world’s frontiers have been claimed and colonized by established nations. Invariably, these conquered frontiers were home to people indigenous to those regions. Some were wiped out or assimilated by the invaders, while others survived while trying to maintain their unique cultures and way of life. The United Nations officially classifies indigenous people as those “having an historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies,” and “consider themselves distinct from other sectors of the societies now prevailing in those territories or parts of them.” Furthermore, indigenous people are “determined to preserve, develop and transmit to future generations, their ancestral territories, and their ethnic identity, as the basis of their continued existence as peoples in accordance with their own cultural patterns, social institutions and legal systems.” A few of the many groups of indigenous people around the world are: the many tribes of Native Americans (i.e., Navajo, Sioux) in the contiguous 48 states, the Inuit of the arctic region from Siberia to Canada, the rainforest tribes in Brazil, and the Ainu of northern Japan.

    Many problems face indigenous people including the lack of human rights, exploitation of their traditional lands and themselves, and degradation of their culture. In response to the problems faced by these people, the United Nations proclaimed an “International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People” beginning in 1994. The main objective of this proclamation, according to the United Nations, is “the strengthening of international cooperation for the solution of problems faced by indigenous people in such areas as human rights, the environment, development, health, culture and education.” Its major goal is to protect the rights of indigenous people. Such protection would enable them to retain their cultural identity, such as their language and social customs, while participating in the political, economic and social activities of the region in which they reside.

    Despite the lofty U.N. goals, the rights and feelings of indigenous people are often ignored or minimized, even by supposedly culturally sensitive developed countries. In the United States many of those in the federal government are pushing to exploit oil resources in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on the northern coast of Alaska. The “Gwich’in,” an indigenous people who rely culturally and spiritually on the herds of caribou that live in the region, claim that drilling in the region would devastate their way of life. Thousands of years of culture would be destroyed for a few months’ supply of oil. Drilling efforts have been stymied in the past, but mostly out of concern for environmental factors and not necessarily the needs of the indigenous people. Curiously, another group of indigenous people, the “Inupiat Eskimo,” favor oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Because they own considerable amounts of land adjacent to the refuge, they would potentially reap economic benefits from the development of the region.

    Inuit_Woman_1907_Crisco_edit_2.jpg (4008×4884)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\). An Inupiaq woman, Nome, Alaska, c. 1907. Credit: This work is in the Public Domain, CC0

    The heart of most environmental conflicts faced by governments usually involves what constitutes proper and sustainable levels of development. For many indigenous peoples, sustainable development constitutes an integrated wholeness, where no single action is separate from others. They believe that sustainable development requires the maintenance and continuity of life, from generation to generation and that humans are not isolated entities, but are part of larger communities, which include the seas, rivers, mountains, trees, fish, animals and ancestral spirits. These, along with the sun, moon and cosmos, constitute a whole. From the point of view of indigenous people, sustainable development is a process that must integrate spiritual, cultural, economic, social, political, territorial and philosophical ideals.

    Contributors and Attributions


    This page titled 18.1: Environmental Ethics and Justice is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Matthew R. Fisher (OpenOregon) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.