Sunday, July 30, 2006

Environmental Ethics

Environmental Ethics:
Responsibilities towards future generations

The environment may be defined as the ‘collective term for the conditions in which an organism lives, both biotic and abiotic’ (Penguin Dictionary of Biology). Environmental ethics emerged as a new sub-discipline of philosophy in the early 1970s. It is a discipline that studies the moral relationship of human beings to, and also the value and moral status of, the environment and its nonhuman contents. Three main theories exist:

1. The first theory is anthropocentric (human centred). It states that nonhuman objects only have an instrumental value, meaning that all environmental responsibility is derived from human interests alone.
2. The second general approach environmental responsibility derives from the interest of all morally significant persons, which includes both humans and at least some animals.
3. The third theory is known as eco-centrism, and it maintains that the environment deserves direct moral consideration, and not one which is merely derived from human (and animal) interests, i.e. the environment has an intrinsic value. Thus the environment by itself is considered as being on a moral par with humans.

In all probability, the majority of the world’s population would subscribe to the first theory. Everyone wants to breathe clean air, drink clean water, and eat carcinogen-free food. Yet this is simply an enlightened form of self-interest. The public is increasingly complacent when it comes to the rest of creation, and when it comes to issues such as the extinction of non-human species.

The following are some of the questions that may crop up when dealing with environmental ethics:
• Is it just humans who cause pollution?
• Is pollution perhaps an inherent part of the environment?
• Should I destroy, for example, weeds, just because they are aesthetically unpleasing and limit productivity of certain essential (for humans) crops?
• Whose interests should I consider when deciding upon what action is ethically correct?

On a practical level, the possibility has been put forward that environmental protection and economic growth may be incompatible, due to the fact that some environmental indicators, such as CO2 emissions and solid waste, seem to be positively linked to economic growth. This issue is, however, open to discussion.

Also, what measures can be taken to protect the environment and do the ends justify the means? For instance, Greenpeace is reputed to be quite extremist in these regards. On the 24th of February 2003, Greenpeace activists closed 119 Esso garages around the UK and blocked the entrance to the Esso HQ in Leatherhead in response to ‘Esso’s ongoing campaign to keep the US hooked on oil, fuelling war and causing global warming’ (Source: Greenpeace website). Yet, admittedly, Greenpeace does achieve results. A case in point would be the moratorium on commercial whaling obtained in 1982, or the ban on all nuclear weapons testing. In Malta, organisations such as Nature Trust are thankfully following suit, with campaigns for protection of trees, fresh water crabs, frogs, etc., with varying degrees of success.

In conclusion, one should investigate the role of scientists in environmental ethics and in preservation of the environment, and how scientists (including science students) and non-scientists alike can contribute towards ameliorating the environment for this and future generations.

Environmental Ethics:
Is religion always green?

Lynn White, Jr., a historian who set trends in environmental ethics, stated that ‘What people do about their ecology depends upon what they think about themselves in relation to things around them. Human ecology is deeply conditioned by belief about our nature and destiny – that is, by religion.’ Thus, religion has the power to influence (to a smaller or larger extent) our attitude (and therefore behaviour) towards the natural environment.

Different religions have differing environmental philosophies. Two main branches exist:

• Christianity, Islam and Judaism envision God as the centre and creator. In Christianity, man is seen as steward of nature: ‘Man’s dominion over inanimate and other living beings granted by the Creator is not absolute; it is limited by concern for the quality of life of his neighbour, including generations to come; it requires a religious respect for the integrity of creation’ (CCC 2415)
• Buddhism and Hinduism picture nature as centre, and all creation as being one whole. Thus, environmental protection is at the roots of these kinds of philosophies, since man is held to be one with nature.

Historically, there has been a great divide between environmentalists and Christian churches. White argued that the main strands of Christian thinking had encouraged the overexploitation of nature by maintaining the superiority of humans over all other forms of life, and by depicting all of nature as created for the use of humans. However, White also argued that some minority traditions within Christianity (e.g. St. Francis, 13th cent.) might provide an antidote to the ‘arrogance’ of a mainstream tradition steeped in anthropocentrism. In addition, environmentalism has always been strongly informed by science, and this made it vulnerable to the split that separates science and religion. Fortunately, the Catholic Church responded to the ‘green movement’ which arose in the 1960s, by taking a stand on environmental issues, therefore, environmentalism and Christianity may be being reconciled.

Despite the fact that Hindus are meant to have an innate respect for every form of life, India (a predominantly Hindu country) has an ecology which is suffering from pollution, deforestation, soil degradation and unchecked development. The reality of this problem has only recently been faced and started to be addressed.

The situation in Malta has improved over the last few months. In August 2002, the Bishops wrote a pastoral letter addressing over-development, dumping, pollution, animal cruelty and even corruption in this area. The Church has also taken a stand on the golf course issue. Vincent Attard, President of Nature Trust, stated ‘The Church is now more outspoken on environmental issues [than it was before]’. To corroborate this fact, Nature Trust awarded the Green VIP award this year to the Archbishop.

Thus the question naturally arises: What are my environmental responsibilities as a religious or moral person? Can preservation of the environment be considered an act of worship?

Perhaps the answer to these two questions may be found in this extract from the common declaration of Pope John Paul II and the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I (10th June 2002) on environmental ethics:
‘A solution at the economic and technological level can be found only if we undergo, in the most radical way, an inner change of heart, which can lead to a change in lifestyle and of unsustainable patterns of consumption and production. A genuine conversion in Christ will enable us to change the way we think and act.’


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