For good introductory chapters go to:
Stewart, N Ethics: An Introduction to Moral Philosophy (Polity, 2009) Ch.7
Tannsjo, T Understanding Ethics (Edinburgh, 2004) Ch 8
Stanford Encyclopaedia has a detailed and comprehensive survey:
Overviews of Environmental Ethics and Environmental Philosophy
For an excellent critique of Gaia go to
Or an article asking if we have time to save our planet;
Wikipedia has a very good introduction to Gaia
Tim Lenton's important article on Gaia and Natural Selection (the debate between Lovelock and Dawkins) is to be found here:
For a supportive Christian Evangelical response to Caritas in Veritate, the Papal Encyclical on the environment, go to:
For the papal encyclical itself, issued by Pope Benedict and giving an ethical basis for development, the environment and justice, go to:
This useful list of issues is taken from http://gadfly.igc.org/e-ethics/Intro-ee.htm.there is also a link to a postdoctoral dissertation examining John Rawls' theory of justice in terms of a possible "duty to posterity" http://gadfly.igc.org/Rawls/RDP.htm.
• Why care about nature "for itself" when only people "matter"? If you deny that "only people matter," on what grounds can you defend that denial? (After all, if no people are around to regret it, what difference does it make if a species, a canyon, or even a planet is destroyed? If people who are around prefer to destroy natural objects and landscapes, then so what? Why not?
• When species or landscapes or wilderness areas are destroyed, what, of value, is lost to mankind?
• Will future generations "miss" what we have "taken from them"? (How could they if they never will know what they have "lost"?)
• "Should Trees Have legal Standing?" (as Christopher Stone contends, and tried to bring a court case int he US through the pressure group The Sierra Club). On what grounds, if not for mankind's sake?
• Does "land ownership" make moral sense, or is it a morally absurd and repugnant concept in Western culture (as the native Americans would claim).
• Do human beings have a need for nature that implies an obligation to preserve it? What is the evidence for this?
• What are the ultimate grounds of an affirmation to protect the environment? Are they rational? Irrational? Non- rational? Mystical?
• What, basically, is wrong with the developer's anthropocentric and utilitarian land ethic? Why not treat land as a "commodity" rather than a "community"?
• If five-hundred backpackers and river runners per year enjoyed Glen Canyon before 1962, and fifty thousand power boaters and water skiers enjoy it now, then why not have a Lake Powell there?
• Do future generations (who, after all, do not exist now) have a "right" now to a clean and natural environment when their time comes?
• Can man "improve" upon nature? How? What constitutes "improvement"?
• Do the facts of environmental science have moral implications?
• Are human beings psychologically capable of caring for nature and for future generations? If they have this capacity, are we morally obliged to nurture it?
Add a comment
Q4 "Relativist ethics are the best approach to the environment". Discuss (35)
G582 Q2 "Utilitarianism is not the best approach to environmental ethics". Discuss (35)
G582 Q2 "The environment suffers because business has no ethics". Discuss (35)
G582 Q4 Assess the claim that secular approaches to environmental issues are of more help than religious approaches. (35)
G582 Q4 "There is no moral imperative to care for the environment". Discuss. Add a comment
This interactive handout is written by Dr Julian Dobson of Tonbridge School, Kent.
Environmental Ethics has been defined as "a systematic account of the relations of human beings to their environment" (DesJardins, Environmental Ethics, pg 11). There are three approaches:
1. Anthropocentric, human centred, "light green" (example, Aquinas or Kant)
2. Biocentric, life centred, "mid green" (example, Paul Taylor)
3. Ecocentred, planet centred, "deep green" (example, Aldo Leopold, or James Lovelock and the Gaia hypothesis)
These seem to be the main issues involved:
• What is humanity's relationship to the environment? Should it dominate and use natural resources for their own good or flourishing or preserve them?
• To what extent do future generations need to be considered when making decisions about the environment?
• What is the status of animals? Do they have the same rights as humans and therefore should humans strive to protect them?
• Deep Ecology - are all living things, ranging from people to plants, of the same moral value?
A Case Study
Consider the following hypothetical situation. A farmer in the UK decides to increase the yield of his wheat by giving a high dosage of nitrogen fertilizers. This, in turn, leads to a greater multiplication of pests which attach this crop. The wheat is more vulnerable to disease as it is genetically uniform. This is the consequence of artificial breeding to wild strain. If he tried to grow a wild strain the yields would be much poorer, but it would be less subject to disease. He decides to spray the crop with pesticides in order to keep the yields high. The market pressure to produce cheap wheat is high since there are other competing sources from Canada and the USA. The public demands for cheaper food keeps the prices down with a low profit margin. Unfortunately, the high level of nitrates originating from the fertilizer runs into the river water nearby and means that it is no longer acceptable for human consumption. Also pesticides have killed a large number of fish so that local fisherman go out of business. Dean-Drummond A Handbook of Theology & Ecology
? Who have morally relevant interests: the farmer, the fishermen, the consumers, future generations, non-human animals, the earth itself?
Humans Centred Ethics: Aquinas
"Equals should be treated equally, and unequals unequally." Aristotle.
For Aristotle to understand something fully was to understand its causes for it being the way it is. He thought there were four causes:
1. Material - its matter
2. Formal - how matter is organised
3. Efficient - how something comes to be
4. Final - explains purpose or characteristic of the object.
He thinks there are two basic types of natural objects - those that are alive and those that are not. The characteristic activity of living things, what we might call the "principle of life itself", is called the "psyche", often translated as soul. A being is alive if it has a soul - Aristotle describes three powers or functions of the psyche:
• Vegetative or Nutrition - only plants
Thus plants can fulfil their telos by growing and reproducing, animals by growing reproducing and satisfying their appetites, humans by these attributes as well as thinking and leading a deliberative life.
"Dumb animals and plants are devoid of the life of reason whereby to set themselves in motion; they are moved, as it were by another, by a kind of natural impulse, a sign of which is that they are naturally enslaved and accommodated to the uses of others." Summa Theologica
Because of nature and animals subordinate status to man - they are there to be used (and abused) by man
"According to the Divine ordinance the life of animals and plants is preserved not for themselves but for man. Hence, as Augustine says (De Civ. Dei i, 20), 'by a most just ordinance of the Creator, both their life and their death are subject to our use...He that kills another's ox, sins, not through killing the ox, but through injuring another man in his property."
Should not one be kind to animals and avoid animal cruelty? No, argues Aquinas because ‘charity does not extend to irrational creatures.'
? What's wrong with this view?
"Animals cannot reason or feel pain and are like robots."
The great enlightenment Philosopher Rene Descartes shared the traditional dualistic notion that there is an ontological (of the nature of their being) distinction between value-giving creatures and the rest of nature. It therefore follows that only those who are capable of value-giving are in a position to decide how the rest of nature should be treated. He provides an extreme argument that as only humans are conscious then all animals are mere machines lacking souls and the ability to feel anything. Essential to Descartes' argument is that as ‘brutes' (animals) lack the ability to communicate through language they cannot have a rational soul:
? Is such a view the logical result of the Enlightenment?
Kant - Indirect Duty
The second version of the categorical imperative, the formula of humanity or ends, provides a way into Kant's attitude to the environment.
"Act in a way as you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, as always an end and never as a means only." Kant
This implies animals and nature can be treated as means as they are mere things - ‘things' because they are not rational agents, which Kant closely connects to the idea of self-consciousness:
"The fact that the human being can have an ‘I' in his representation raises him infinitely above all living beings on earth. Because of this he is a person...i.e., through rank and dignity entirely different being from things, such as irrational animals, with which one can do as one likes"
Therefore "we have no immediate duties towards animals; our duties towards them are indirect duties towards humanity."
• Despite this dim view of animals, Kant did not think they could be abused - he disapproved of blood sports, vivisections should not be carried out "for the sake of mere speculation" or if "the end can be achieved in other ways"; when animals are killed it should be quick and painless; animals should not be overworked; animals who have served a family well should be able to live out their days as "if they are members of the household"
• What grounding do these duties have if animals are mere things?
• Recently some philosophers have tried to find deeper ground for duties towards animals... they rely on passages such as "Any action whereby we may torment animals or let them suffer distress, or otherwise treat them without love, is demeaning to ourselves."
• According to Allen Wood the basis of kindness to animals is the duties we owe ourselves:
"By grounding duties regarding non rational nature in our duty to promote our own moral perfection, Kant is saying that whatever our other aims or our happiness may consist in, we do not have a good will unless we show concern for the welfare of non rational beings and value natural beauty for its own sake"
"Kant's view on the wrongness of abusing animals and nature seems to miss the point"- if you torture a gorilla, the wrong is being done to the gorilla not to yourself! The problem of rational agents still remains."
• Recent philosophers in the ‘Kantian Tradition' have sought to rectify this! It is difficult to argue that animals are rational in Kant's sense. Another approach is to distinguish between the source and content of values -rational agents are the source of value but they do not exhaust the content of value.
Christine Korgsaard (2005) gives a Kantian version of such an argument:
• Rational agents legislate value, and value arises because rational agents are self-valuing legislators.
• Are humans obliged to legislate for animals and the environment? Korgsaard says yes! Why?
1. Humans, as well as being rational agents, are also animals and have animal natures - "our love of eating and drinking and sex and playing: our curiosity, our capacity for simple physical pleasure; our objection to injury and our terror of physical mutilation, pain and loss of control." Therefore when we legislate we legislate for our rational and animal nature and thereby should include animals that are not rational in our decisions.
2. Even when we are legislating the value of human goods we are legislating a principle which confers value on all those creatures who pursue their own goods:
"In taking ourselves to be an end in ourselves we legislate that the natural good of a creature that matters to itself is the source of normative claims. Animal nature is an end-in-itself because our own legislation makes it so. And that is why we duties to animals."
• X is good for creature Y.
Does this follow?
Is the Bible eco-friendly or eco-abusing?
The basic biblical principles are:
1. The world is a creation of God. God created it ex nihilo (out of nothing).
2. The world is the possession of God e.g. Psalm 24:1 "The earth is the Lord's and everything in it.", Job 41 "Everything under the heavens belongs to me."
3. The world therefore reflects God. At creation, God saw that the world was good and reflected his goodness . It should therefore be respected.
4. Stewardship and dominion are given to humans. They are to look after the earth for God -
The meaning of the Hebrew text is clear: to subdue - kabash - this means to tread down, to bring into bondage and suggests power and control. Radah means to rule or to prevail over.
But some disagree:
According to Norman Geisler four principles can be drawn from Genesis 1:
1. Ecology means good stewardship. Humans must not turn God's garden into a desert.
2. The principle of Sabbath rest: rest is necessary if life and the land are to be productive. This is also clear in the jubilee law, that every 50 years the land must be returned to its original owner (Leviticus 25:28)
3. Man should not be greedy over the land - it is God's not ours.
4. Man is made in the image of God and is therefore above nature and is not part of it.
? Is the contemporary trend for "stewardship" eisegesis (reading in) or exegesis (reading out)?
An important idea, lurking in Paul's letter to the Romans is that the restoration of the world after the Fall of Humans and the coming of the Kingdom of God will occur once the humans have repaired the damage they have done to it:
? Does this contradict the anthropocentric nature of Genesis? Is it eco-holistic?
Lynn White's article "The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis " (see article at the end of this handout) argues that the current disaster facing the environment is due to the Christian command to have ‘dominion' over the earth. People have moved from nature-centred religions to a religion where god demands dominion over nature. Only when the Christian view is rejected form can the ecological crisis be solved.
White does acknowledge the ‘whisper' of some enlightened individuals, such as Francis of Assisi who treated all nature equally worthy of Gods faith, hope and love. But his voice is not enough:
"The greatest spiritual revolutionary in western history, St Francis, proposed what he thought was an alternative Christian view of nature and man's relation to it; he tried to substitute the idea of the equality of all creature, including man, for the ideas of man's limitless rule of creation. He failed."
? Is White's analysis fair?
Speciesism - Peter Singer & A Utilitarian Approach
Utilitarians & Animals
Jeremy Bentham, the founding father of modern utilitarianism, in a forward-looking passage, written at a time when black slaves in the British dominions were still being treated much as we now treat nonhuman animals wrote:
Bentham points to the capacity for suffering as the vital characteristic that entitles a being to equal consideration. The capacity for suffering -or more strictly, for suffering and/or enjoyment or happiness- is not just another characteristic like the capacity for language, or for higher mathematics. Bentham is not saying that those who try to mark 'the insuperable line' that determines whether the interests of a being should be considered happen to have selected the wrong characteristic. The capacity for suffering and enjoying things is a prerequisite for having interests at all, a condition that must be satisfied before we can speak of interests in any meaningful way. It would be nonsense to say that it was not in the interests of a stone to be kicked along the road by a schoolboy. A stone does not have interests because it cannot suffer. Nothing that we can do to it could possibly make any difference to its welfare. A mouse, on the other hand, does have an interest in not being tormented, because it will suffer if it is.
Peter Singer on Animal Rights
Singer's book Animal Liberation is the most influential book concerning moral relations between humans and animals. He was inspired by the gay, feminist and black liberation movements which had at their core a demand for equality. The book seeks to examine what type of equality lies at the heart of these liberation movements and to extend this notion to animals.
What kind of equality do these movements demand?
• Not equality of treatment - men cannot have a right to abortion!
• Not everyone is equal - people's skills, intelligence, background suggest that this is not the case.
• Not equal potential - we are not all potential Einsteins!
Singer thinks we should not be concerned with ‘factual equality' but rather ‘moral equality' that demands an "equal consideration of interests." He finds this principle in Utilitarianism and it is implicit in Bentham's slogan "each to count for one and no-one for more than one." He extends this to "the good of any one individual is of no more importance from the point of view... of the universe than the good of any other."
Singer is arguing that the significance of an interest should not be discounted on the grounds of whose interest it is - e.g. the interests of an octopus cannot be discounted relative to those of humans because of the sort of creature it is. The proper objects of equal consideration are interests, not beings.
What are interests and how can we identify them?
• An interest is something that its satisfaction makes it better off and its frustration makes it worse. Sentient being have an interest in pleasure and avoiding pain. E.g David Cameron, an elephant and a fish and I are all sentient beings: thus we have a common interest in pleasure and the avoidance of pain.
• Singer is committed to assessing acts by calculating the value of their consequences. He acknowledges that it can be difficult to compare pleasures and pains across species, but ,he points out, it can be difficult to make such comparisons across humans.
• Even an unsophisticated attempt at moral arithmetic suggest that much of our treatment of animals is wrong and should be condemned.
• Singer thinks our treatment of animals is a prejudice which may be overcome - what we do to humans we must be willing to do to animals. Thus zoos, factory farming, experimentation on animals and McDonalds should be condemned.
• Is it possible to have empathy with an animal or know how it thinks or feels?
• Tom Regan argues the problems with a Utilitarian approach is that it only sees individuals as a means rather than ends. They are only valuable if they contribute to creating a better world. They are receptacles of value rather than valuable in themselves. Singer's core principle, the principle of equal consideration, suggests this view is true.
Regan thinks this is completely the wrong way around. In opposition he asserts the "Postulate of Inherent Value": individuals have value independently of their experience and their value to others.
He rejects the perfectionist view of value - that value comes in degrees. The higher beings have more perfections and lesser beings have more imperfections. Everyone who is the "subject of a life" has inherent value, says Regan:
For an excellent discussion if these issues see
Do we have responsibility to future generations?
A common argument in favour of action to preserve and protect the environment on a personal and global level is the notion that we should care for the environment for the sake of future generations.
At first sight it seems a reasonable proposition - if we continue to pollute as we are doing so at the moment the lives of future generations will be more difficult than ours and their quality of life may be adversely affected. However this idea has throw up a huge number of philosophical problems:
1. " Argument from Ignorance "- - we do not know who future generations will be, that they will be or what they will be like. Since we know so little about them it makes no sense to specify any obligations to them
2. "Disappearing Beneficaries "- we do not have a responsibility to bring future generations into existence and it is meaningless to talk about responsibilities to those in the future. We can't even use the Greatest Happiness Principle since who we don't know who is to benefit from the happiness.
• Annette Baier claims that we can make sense of the claim that someone is made worse off by our actions, even if, under the alternative action, they might not have existed at all. One can acknowledge the significance of a "wrongful life" a life in which someone would say "it would have been better off I had not been born" Our obligations are not to particular people but to the interests of future people.
• Mary Anne Warren distinguishes between:
It is absurd to suggest we have obligations to possible people but we can work out suffering that possible people may endure as a result of our actions. We need to "recognise certain minimal requirements of moral responsibility". Warren thinks "it is irresponsible, and contemptuous of the welfare of future persons, to deliberately bring into being persons who will almost certainly be unhappy. It is wrong because it results in the unnecessary suffering in the future, suffering on the part of individuals who in the timeless perspective are no less real than we are."
Another argument against responsibilities to future generations is:
3. "The Fallacy of Affirming the Consequent"- even if we admit it is in future generations interests for us to look after the environment, it is a fallacy to suggest that this necessarily becomes people's right. While it is possible that a being with interests also has rights it does not necessarily follow that they do. It is wrong to infer rights from interests!
Deep Ecologist argues that all things in the universe have their own intrinsic value and are interconnected with each other. The holistic view is based on an ontological monism which rejects the matter-reason dualism of the human-centred ethicists and instead considers all matter in some sense to be spiritual or alive. It is for this reason that deep ecologists generally reject the need for God as the one who values nature as this view sets up a hierarchy of value and gives more power to some than others.
1. The well-being and flourishing of human and nonhuman Life on Earth have value in themselves (synonyms: intrinsic value, inherent value). These values are independent of the usefulness of the nonhuman world for human purposes (instrumental value).
Arne Naess (1912-2009), one of Norway's best known philosophers developed his deep ecology as a mountaineer and lived for much of his life in an isolated hut in the mountains. His philosophy is influenced by Spinoza, Gandhi and the Buddha. Naess argues that there are two things that are morally considerable:
The extinction of a species may not be bad in itself but is certainly bad in relation to the larger goal of maintaining the biosphere or eco-system.
Ecosophy is the "realisation of the self" that humans are not superior because they are conscious beings but have their place in the ecosphere. Naess was critical of the Christian teaching on stewardship and regarded it as arrogant, giving, as he considered humans a morally superior place in the universe.
An ‘everything ethic' suggests also that non-living things which lack consciousness and even basic biological organisation must be considered morally significant because the natural order has intrinsic value. It is our human duty to keep it healthy. An action such as mining by smashing up rocks and disturbing geological structures should not be valued in relation to the thing in itself that is the intrinsic value of the rocks.
Naess thinks humans should reduce their population, abandon the notion of economic growth, conserve diversity and live in small self-reliant communities.
? How practical is this?
? Is it really incompatible with Christian ethics?
There are two main critiques of Naess' ecosophy:
• Irrationalism - it is not possible to demonstrate that the ecosystem is morally considerable or that matter is equally valuable then we only have Naess; word for it.
• Practical - how are humans to decide who's needs are greater given that all nature is equally valuable
The most influential holistic environmental theories, the Gaia theory, was developed by James Lovelock - inventor, scientist and author. He was acutely aware of the inter-connectedness of all matter - especially at the subatomic level. He argues that it was quite wrong to consider the earth to be inert but in some ways alive. He likened the relationship of the atmosphere and living beings to be like the bark of a tree: although the bark is inert without it the tree cannot live - but without the tree there would be no bark! Gaia is therefore more than just a principle but describes the vital energy of nature.
Gaia is non-teleological and seeks only for the homeostatic equilibrium of the earth that implies that human life has no particular priority or significance. Lovelock set out a thought exercise he calls "Daisyworld":
? How can Gaia be interpreted?
Pro-environment or Anti-Environment
Whatever the interpretation, Lovelock believes if we wish humans to have a future we must comply with Gaia:
• What does it mean to say the planet is alive?
• The Daisyworld experiment assumes stability, not change as dictated by evolution
Applying Virtue Ethics to Environmental Issues
Ronald Sandler has suggested four ways in which Virtue Ethics may be applied to environmental issues:
1. Extend standard interpersonal virtues to the environment. Each interpersonal virtue is normative for a particular range of activities, interactions and that range is its sphere or field of applicability. For example, the field of honesty is the revealing or withholding of truth; the field of temperance is bodily pleasures and pains; and the field of generosity is the giving and withholding of material goods. Extentionist seek to expand the range of certain interpersonal virtues to include non-human entities by extending fields of value. For example, If compassion is an appropriate virtue to have towards a suffering human being and there is no relevant moral difference between human suffering and the suffering of non human animals then one should extend compassion to non-human entities who suffer.
2. Agent benefit - what establishes particular character trait as constituting environmental virtue is that it typically benefits its possessor. The environment produces material goods - such as clean water and air - as well as aesthetic good, recreational goods and a location to excercise and physically develop. Thus people should cultivate virtues which allow the continued flourishing of the environment. In many ways this view of Virtue Ethics promotes enlightened self interest without egotism.
3. Human excellence - what establishes a particular character trait as constitutive of environmental virtue is that it makes its possessor a good human being. What it means to be a good human being - to flourish as a human being - is understood naturalistically. That is, it is understood in terms of the characteristic features of the life of members of the human species. Human beings are social animals so excellence as a human being involves promoting the social function of a group. One could add an excellent human being will take his eco-conscience seriously an act in ways to promote the environment.
4. Individual examples - by examining the life work and character traits of individuals who are recognised as environmental role models. By examining the life, work and character of exemplars of environmental excellence we may be able to identify particular traits that are conductive to that excellence. Sandler recommends the lives of John Muir, Rachel Carson and Aldo Leopold - absolutely no idea who they are but they must be good and green!
Baier, Annette Reflections on How We Live (OUP, 2010)
Bandman, Bertram Children's Rights to Freedom, Care and Enlightenment (Routledge, 1999)
Geisler, Norman Christian Ethics, 2nd ed (Baker Academic, 2010)
Korgsaard, Christine Creating the Kingdom of Ends (CUP, 1996)
Lovelock, J. The Revenge of Gaia (Penguin, 2007)
Lovelock, J. The Vanishing Face of Gaia (Penguin, 2009)
Sandler, Ronald in Environmental Ethics, the Big Questions (ed DR Keller, Wiley-Blackwell, 2010)
Warren, Mary Ann Moral Status: Obligations to Persons and other Living Things (Clarendon, 2000)
ARTICLE: The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis (1967) Lynn White, Jr.
A conversation with Aldous Huxley not infrequently put one at the receiving end of an unforgettable monologue. About a year before his lamented death he was discoursing on a favourite topic: Man's unnatural treatment of nature and its sad results. To illustrate his point he told how, during the previous summer, he had returned to a little valley in England where he had spent many happy months as a child. Once it had been composed of delightful grassy glades; now it was becoming overgrown with unsightly brush because the rabbits that formerly kept such growth under control had largely succumbed to a disease, myxomatosis that was deliberately introduced by the local farmers to reduce the rabbits' destruction of crops. Being something of a Philistine, I could be silent no longer, even in the interests of great rhetoric. I interrupted to point out that the rabbit itself had been brought as a domestic animal to England in 1176, presumably to improve the protein diet of the peasantry.
All forms of life modify their contexts. The most spectacular and benign instance is doubtless the coral polyp. By serving its own ends, it has created a vast undersea world favourable to thousands of other kinds of animals and plants. Ever since man became a numerous species he has affected his environment notably. The hypothesis that his fire-drive method of hunting created the world's great grasslands and helped to exterminate the monster mammals of the Pleistocene from much of the globe is plausible, if not proved. For 6 millennia at least, the banks of the lower Nile have been a human artefact rather than the swampy African jungle which nature, apart from man, would have made it. The Aswan Dam, flooding 5000 square miles, is only the latest stage in a long process. In many regions terracing or irrigation, overgrazing, the cutting of forests by Romans to build ships to fight Carthaginians or by Crusaders to solve the logistics problems of their expeditions, have profoundly changed some ecologies. Observation that the French landscape falls into two basic types, the open fields of the north and the bocage of the south and west, inspired Marc Bloch to undertake his classic study of medieval agricultural methods. Quite unintentionally, changes in human ways often affect nonhuman nature. It has been noted, for example, that the advent of the automobile eliminated huge flocks of sparrows that once fed on the horse manure littering every street.
The history of ecologic change is still so rudimentary that we know little about what really happened, or what the results were. The extinction of the European aurochs as late as 1627 would seem to have been a simple case of overenthusiastic hunting. On more intricate matters it often is impossible to find solid information. For a thousand years or more the Frisians and Hollanders have been pushing back the North Sea, and the process is culminating in our own time in the reclamation of the Zuider Zee. What, if any, species of animals, birds, fish, shore life, or plants have died out in the process? In their epic combat with Neptune have the Netherlanders overlooked ecological values in such a way that the quality of human life in the Netherlands has suffered? I cannot discover that the questions have ever been asked, much less answered.
People, then, have often been a dynamic element in their own environment, but in the present state of historical scholarship we usually do not know exactly when, where, or with what effects man-induced changes came. As we enter the last third of the 20th century, however, concern for the problem of ecologic backlash is mounting feverishly. Natural science, conceived as the effort to understand the nature of things, had flourished in several eras and among several peoples. Similarly there had been an age-old accumulation of technological skills, sometimes growing rapidly, sometimes slowly. But it was not until about four generations ago that Western Europe and North America arranged a marriage between science and technology, a union of the theoretical and the empirical approaches to our natural environment. The emergence in widespread practice of the Baconian creed that scientific knowledge means technological power over nature can scarcely be dated before about 1850, save in the chemical industries, where it is anticipated in the 18th century. Its acceptance as a normal pattern of action may mark the greatest event in human history since the invention of agriculture, and perhaps in nonhuman terrestrial history as well.
Almost at once the new situation forced the crystallization of the novel concept of ecology; indeed, the word ecology first appeared in the English language in 1873. Today, less than a century later, the impact of our race upon the environment has so increased in force that it has changed in essence. When the first cannons were fired, in the early 14th century, they affected ecology by sending workers scrambling to the forests and mountains for more potash, sulphur, iron ore, and charcoal, with some resulting erosion and deforestation. Hydrogen bombs are of a different order: a war fought with them might alter the genetics of all life on this planet. By 1285 London had a smog problem arising from the burning of soft coal, but our present combustion of fossil fuels threatens to change the chemistry of the globe's atmosphere as a whole, with consequences which we are only beginning to guess. With the population explosion, the carcinoma of planless urbanism, the now geological deposits of sewage and garbage, surely no creature other than man has ever managed to foul its nest in such short order.
There are many calls to action, but specific proposals, however worthy as individual items, seem too partial, palliative, negative: ban the bomb, tear down the billboards, give the Hindus contraceptives and tell them to eat their sacred cows. The simplest solution to any suspect change is, of course, to stop it, or better yet, to revert to a romanticized past: make those ugly gasoline stations look like Anne Hathaway's cottage or (in the Far West) like ghost-town saloons. The "wilderness area" mentality invariably advocates deep-freezing an ecology, whether San Gimignano or the High Sierra, as it was before the first Kleenex was dropped. But neither atavism nor prettification will cope with the ecologic crisis of our time.
What shall we do? No one yet knows. Unless we think about fundamentals, our specific measures may produce new backlashes more serious than those they are designed to remedy.
The Western Traditions of Technology and Science
One thing is so certain that it seems stupid to verbalize it: both modern technology and modern science are distinctively Occidental. Our technology has absorbed elements from all over the world, notably from China; yet everywhere today, whether in Japan or in Nigeria, successful technology is Western. Our science is the heir to all the sciences of the past, especially perhaps to the work of the great Islamic scientists of the Middle Ages, who so often outdid the ancient Greeks in skill and perspicacity: al-Razi in medicine, for example; or ibn-al-Haytham in optics; or Omar Khayyam in mathematics. Indeed, not a few works of such geniuses seem to have vanished in the original Arabic and to survive only in medieval Latin translations that helped to lay the foundations for later Western developments. Today, around the globe, all significant science is Western in style and method, whatever the pigmentation or language of the scientists.
A second pair of facts is less well recognized because they result from quite recent historical scholarship. The leadership of the West, both in technology and in science, is far older than the so-called Scientific Revolution of the 17th century or the so-called Industrial Revolution of the 18th century. These terms are in fact outmoded and obscure the true nature of what they try to describe--significant stages in two long and separate developments. By A.D. 1000 at the latest--and perhaps, feebly, as much as 200 years earlier--the West began to apply water power to industrial processes other than milling grain. This was followed in the late 12th century by the harnessing of wind power. From simple beginnings, but with remarkable consistency of style, the West rapidly expanded its skills in the development of power machinery, labor-saving devices, and automation. Those who doubt should contemplate that most monumental achievement in the history of automation: the weight-driven mechanical clock, which appeared in two forms in the early 14th century. Not in craftsmanship but in basic technological capacity, the Latin West of the later Middle Ages far outstripped its elaborate, sophisticated, and esthetically magnificent sister cultures, Byzantium and Islam. In 1444 a great Greek ecclesiastic, Bessarion, who had gone to Italy, wrote a letter to a prince in Greece. He is amazed by the superiority of Western ships, arms, textiles, glass. But above all he is astonished by the spectacle of waterwheels sawing timbers and pumping the bellows of blast furnaces. Clearly, he had seen nothing of the sort in the Near East.
By the end of the 15th century the technological superiority of Europe was such that its small, mutually hostile nations could spill out over all the rest of the world, conquering, looting, and colonizing. The symbol of this technological superiority is the fact that Portugal, one of the weakest states of the Occident, was able to become, and to remain for a century, mistress of the East Indies. And we must remember that the technology of Vasco da Gama and Albuquerque was built by pure empiricism, drawing remarkably little support or inspiration from science.
In the present-day vernacular understanding, modern science is supposed to have begun in 1543, when both Copernicus and Vesalius published their great works. It is no derogation of their accomplishments, however, to point out that such structures as the Fabrica and the De revolutionibus do not appear overnight. The distinctive Western tradition of science, in fact, began in the late 11th century with a massive movement of translation of Arabic and Greek scientific works into Latin. A few notable books-- Theophrastus, for example--escaped the West's avid new appetite for science, but within less than 200 years effectively the entire corpus of Greek and Muslim science was available in Latin, and was being eagerly read and criticized in the new European universities. Out of criticism arose new observation, speculation, and increasing distrust of ancient authorities. By the late 13th century Europe had seized global scientific leadership from the faltering hands of Islam. It would be as absurd to deny the profound originality of Newton, Galileo, or Copernicus as to deny that of the 14th century scholastic scientists like Buridan or Oresme on whose work they built. Before the 11th century, science scarcely existed in the Latin West, even in Roman times. From the 11th century onward, the scientific sector of Occidental culture has increased in a steady crescendo.
Since both our technological and our scientific movements got their start, acquired their character, and achieved world dominance in the Middle Ages, it would seem that we cannot understand their nature or their present impact upon ecology without examining fundamental medieval assumptions and developments.
Medieval View of Man and Nature
Until recently, agriculture has been the chief occupation even in "advanced" societies; hence, any change in methods of tillage has much importance. Early plows, drawn by two oxen, did not normally turn the sod but merely scratched it. Thus, cross- plowing was needed and fields tended to be squarish. In the fairly light soils and semiarid climates of the Near East and Mediterranean, this worked well. But such a plow was inappropriate to the wet climate and often sticky soils of northern Europe. By the latter part of the 7th century after Christ, however, following obscure beginnings, certain northern peasants were using an entirely new kind of plow, equipped with a vertical knife to cut the line of the furrow, a horizontal share to slice under the sod, and a moldboard to turn it over. The friction of this plow with the soil was so great that it normally required not two but eight oxen. It attacked the land with such violence that cross-plowing was not needed, and fields tended to be shaped in long strips.
This same exploitive attitude appears slightly before A.D. 830 in Western illustrated calendars. In older calendars the months were shown as passive personifications. The new Frankish calendars, which set the style for the Middle Ages, are very different: they show men coercing the world around them--plowing, harvesting, chopping trees, butchering pigs. Man and nature are two things, and man is master.
These novelties seem to be in harmony with larger intellectual patterns. What people do about their ecology depends on what they think about themselves in relation to things around them. Human ecology is deeply conditioned by beliefs about our nature and destiny--that is, by religion. To Western eyes this is very evident in, say, India or Ceylon. It is equally true of ourselves and of our medieval ancestors.
The victory of Christianity over paganism was the greatest psychic revolution in the history of our culture. It has become fashionable today to say that, for better or worse, we live in the "post-Christian age." Certainly the forms of our thinking and language have largely ceased to be Christian, but to my eye the substance often remains amazingly akin to that of the past. Our daily habits of action, for example, are dominated by an implicit faith in perpetual progress which was unknown either to Greco- Roman antiquity or to the Orient. It is rooted in, and is indefensible apart from, Judeo- Christian theology. The fact that Communists share it merely helps to show what can be demonstrated on many other grounds: that Marxism, like Islam, is a Judeo-Christian heresy. We continue today to live, as we have lived for about 1700 years, very largely in a context of Christian axioms.
What did Christianity tell people about their relations with the environment? While many of the world's mythologies provide stories of creation, Greco-Roman mythology was singularly incoherent in this respect. Like Aristotle, the intellectuals of the ancient West denied that the visible world had a beginning. Indeed, the idea of a beginning was impossible in the framework of their cyclical notion of time. In sharp contrast, Christianity inherited from Judaism not only a concept of time as nonrepetitive and linear but also a striking story of creation. By gradual stages a loving and all- powerful God had created light and darkness, the heavenly bodies, the earth and all its plants, animals, birds, and fishes. Finally, God had created Adam and, as an afterthought, Eve to keep man from being lonely. Man named all the animals, thus establishing his dominance over them. God planned all of this explicitly for man's benefit and rule: no item in the physical creation had any purpose save to serve man's purposes. And, although man's body is made of clay, he is not simply part of nature: he is made in God's image.
Especially in its Western form, Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen. As early as the 2nd century both Tertullian and Saint Irenaeus of Lyons were insisting that when God shaped Adam he was foreshadowing the image of the incarnate Christ, the Second Adam. Man shares, in great measure, God's transcendence of nature. Christianity, in absolute contrast to ancient paganism and Asia's religions (except, perhaps, Zorastrianism), not only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God's will that man exploit nature for his proper ends.
At the level of the common people this worked out in an interesting way. In Antiquity every tree, every spring, every stream, every hill had its own genius loci, its guardian spirit. These spirits were accessible to men, but were very unlike men; centaurs, fauns, and mermaids show their ambivalence. Before one cut a tree, mined a mountain, or dammed a brook, it was important to placate the spirit in charge of that particular situation, and to keep it placated. By destroying pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects.
It is often said that for animism the Church substituted the cult of saints. True; but the cult of saints is functionally quite different from animism. The saint is not in natural objects; he may have special shrines, but his citizenship is in heaven. Moreover, a saint is entirely a man; he can be approached in human terms. In addition to saints, Christianity of course also had angels and demons inherited from Judaism and perhaps, at one remove, from Zorastrianism. But these were all as mobile as the saints themselves. The spirits in natural objects, which formerly had protected nature from man, evaporated. Man's effective monopoly on spirit in this world was confirmed, and the old inhibitions to the exploitation of nature crumbled.
The Christian dogma of creation, which is found in the first clause of all the Creeds, has another meaning for our comprehension of today's ecologic crisis. By revelation, God had given man the Bible, the Book of Scripture. But since God had made nature, nature also must reveal the divine mentality. The religious study of nature for the better understanding of God was known as natural theology. In the early Church, and always in the Greek East, nature was conceived primarily as a symbolic system through which God speaks to men: the ant is a sermon to sluggards; rising flames are the symbol of the soul's aspiration. The view of nature was essentially artistic rather than scientific. While Byzantium preserved and copied great numbers of ancient Greek scientific texts, science as we conceive it could scarcely flourish in such an ambience.
However, in the Latin West by the early 13th century natural theology was following a very different bent. It was ceasing to be the decoding of the physical symbols of God's communication with man and was becoming the effort to understand God's mind by discovering how his creation operates. The rainbow was no longer simply a symbol of hope first sent to Noah after the Deluge: Robert Grosseteste, Friar Roger Bacon, and Theodoric of Freiberg produced startlingly sophisticated work on the optics of the rainbow, but they did it as a venture in religious understanding. From the 13th century onward, up to and including Leitnitz and Newton, every major scientist, in effect, explained his motivations in religious terms. Indeed, if Galileo had not been so expert an amateur theologian he would have got into far less trouble: the professionals resented his intrusion. And Newton seems to have regarded himself more as a theologian than as a scientist. It was not until the late 18th century that the hypothesis of God became unnecessary to many scientists.
It is often hard for the historian to judge, when men explain why they are doing what they want to do, whether they are offering real reasons or merely culturally acceptable reasons. The consistency with which scientists during the long formative centuries of Western science said that the task and the reward of the scientist was "to think God's thoughts after him" leads one to believe that this was their real motivation. If so, then modern Western science was cast in a matrix of Christian theology. The dynamism of religious devotion shaped by the Judeo-Christian dogma of creation, gave it impetus.
An Alternative Christian View
We would seem to be headed toward conclusions unpalatable to many Christians. Since both science and technology are blessed words in our contemporary vocabulary, some may be happy at the notions, first, that viewed historically, modern science is an extrapolation of natural theology and, second, that modern technology is at least partly to be explained as an Occidental, voluntarist realization of the Christian dogma of man's transcendence of, and rightful master over, nature. But, as we now recognize, somewhat over a century ago science and technology--hitherto quite separate activities--joined to give mankind powers which, to judge by many of the ecologic effects, are out of control. If so, Christianity bears a huge burden of guilt.
I personally doubt that disastrous ecologic backlash can be avoided simply by applying to our problems more science and more technology. Our science and technology have grown out of Christian attitudes toward man's relation to nature which are almost universally held not only by Christians and neo-Christians but also by those who fondly regard themselves as post-Christians. Despite Copernicus, all the cosmos rotates around our little globe. Despite Darwin, we are not, in our hearts, part of the natural process. We are superior to nature, contemptuous of it, willing to use it for our slightest whim. The newly elected Governor of California, like myself a churchman but less troubled than I, spoke for the Christian tradition when he said (as is alleged), "when you've seen one redwood tree, you've seen them all." To a Christian a tree can be no more than a physical fact. The whole concept of the sacred grove is alien to Christianity and to the ethos of the West. For nearly 2 millennia Christian missionaries have been chopping down sacred groves, which are idolatrous because they assume spirit in nature.
What we do about ecology depends on our ideas of the man-nature relationship. More science and more technology are not going to get us out of the present ecologic crisis until we find a new religion, or rethink our old one. The beatniks, who are the basic revolutionaries of our time, show a sound instinct in their affinity for Zen Buddhism, which conceives of the man-nature relationship as very nearly the mirror image of the Christian view. Zen, however, is as deeply conditioned by Asian history as Christianity is by the experience of the West, and I am dubious of its viability among us.
Possibly we should ponder the greatest radical in Christian history since Christ: Saint Francis of Assisi. The prime miracle of Saint Francis is the fact that he did not end at the stake, as many of his left-wing followers did. He was so clearly heretical that a General of the Franciscan Order, Saint Bonavlentura, a great and perceptive Christian, tried to suppress the early accounts of Franciscanism. The key to an understanding of Francis is his belief in the virtue of humility--not merely for the individual but for man as a species. Francis tried to depose man from his monarchy over creation and set up a democracy of all God's creatures. With him the ant is no longer simply a homily for the lazy, flames a sign of the thrust of the soul toward union with God; now they are Brother Ant and Sister Fire, praising the Creator in their own ways as Brother Man does in his.
Later commentators have said that Francis preached to the birds as a rebuke to men who would not listen. The records do not read so: he urged the little birds to praise God, and in spiritual ecstasy they flapped their wings and chirped rejoicing. Legends of saints, especially the Irish saints, had long told of their dealings with animals but always, I believe, to show their human dominance over creatures. With Francis it is different. The land around Gubbio in the Apennines was ravaged by a fierce wolf. Saint Francis, says the legend, talked to the wolf and persuaded him of the error of his ways. The wolf repented, died in the odor of sanctity, and was buried in consecrated ground.
What Sir Steven Ruciman calls "the Franciscan doctrine of the animal soul" was quickly stamped out. Quite possibly it was in part inspired, consciously or unconsciously, by the belief in reincarnation held by the Cathar heretics who at that time teemed in Italy and southern France, and who presumably had got it originally from India. It is significant that at just the same moment, about 1200, traces of metempsychosis are found also in western Judaism, in the Provencal Cabbala. But Francis held neither to transmigration of souls nor to pantheism. His view of nature and of man rested on a unique sort of pan-psychism of all things animate and inaminate, designed for the glorification of their transcendent Creator, who, in the ultimate gesture of cosmic humility, assumed flesh, lay helpless in a manger, and hung dying on a scaffold.
I am not suggesting that many contemporary Americans who are concerned about our ecologic crisis will be either able or willing to counsel with wolves or exhort birds. However, the present increasing disruption of the global environment is the product of a dynamic technology and science which were originating in the Western medieval world against which Saint Francis was rebelling in so original a way. Their growth cannot be understood historically apart from distinctive attitudes toward nature which are deeply grounded in Christian dogma. The fact that most people do not think of these attitudes as Christian is irrelevant. No new set of basic values has been accepted in our society to displace those of Christianity. Hence we shall continue to have a worsening ecologic crisis until we reject the Christian axiom that nature has no reason for existence save to serve man.
The greatest spiritual revolutionary in Western history, Saint Francis, proposed what he thought was an alternative Christian view of nature and man's relation to it; he tried to substitute the idea of the equality of all creatures, including man, for the idea of man's limitless rule of creation. He failed. Both our present science and our present technology are so tinctured with orthodox Christian arrogance toward nature that no solution for our ecologic crisis can be expected from them alone. Since the roots of our trouble are so largely religious, the remedy must also be essentially religious, whether we call it that or not. We must rethink and refeel our nature and destiny. The profoundly religious, but heretical, sense of the primitive Franciscans for the spiritual autonomy of all parts of nature may point a direction. I propose Francis as a patron saint for ecologists.
Reading level 2: Environmental ethics
On the moral status of animals http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moral-animal/
Reading level 2: (Bristol University undergraduate course)
What is the moral status of the environment? Many have argued that the environment is valuable only because it is useful to or valued by human beings. However, it has recently been argued that this view is anthropocentric and that a new environmental ethic is called for. The interesting question if anthropocentrism is rejected is how much stronger a view can be put in its place? Do only conscious or sentient beings such as animals have a moral status? What about other living things such as plants? What about collective entities such as species or ecosystems?
Attfield, R. The Ethics of Environmental Concern
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