Many believe the environment is the most urgent issue of our lifetime. From water contamination in Flint, Michigan to the inhumane conditions that exist in the diamond mines of the Congo, environmental inequities often impact our at-risk populations the most. These communities frequently lack protection services and are on the frontline for receiving serious health hazards.
For these reasons, environmental ethicists believe local and global policy makers must find ways to ethically inform and align their individual and collective environmental behaviors – our global community is interrelated. For example, an oil spill can put entire maritime ecosystems at risk, poison the people and marine life that consume the contaminated fish who swim in the polluted waters, and damage the coastal marshlands and beaches 30 miles away.
Environmental ethics are based on the value we assign to nature and our environment. This discipline emerged in response to the negative effects of the industrial revolution and the unique ethical challenges related to biodiversity loss, pollution, and other environmental issues, such as climate change and environmental inequities.
We can differentiate major environmental ethical theories by the value they assign nature and the actions they prescribe to address environmental problems.
We do not usually assign economic value to something that has "intrinsic value" because we consider it to be "priceless." However, everything we value has an element of subjectivity. Environmentalists argue that our community leaders must act in ways that express their value for nature, if they consider it to be "valuable."
For example, communities can impose extreme penalties and sanctions against those who harm the things they value most. These penalties and sanctions provide a measure for the amount of intrinsic value our policy makers assign these items. As you review this section, think about how communities that are most vulnerable to environmental hazards, are often the least responsible for causing the problems.
Cultural or ethical relativism refers to the fact that our ethical framework depends on or relates to our particular culture. In other words, our cultural background dictates an inherent bias that informs or colors how we value things. However, although ethics can be relative to cultures, environmental ethics is inclusive and shares principles based on our shared need (regardless of culture) to protect the earth.
Study Tip: Draw a timeline that charts how the world has evolved on its view of the environment.
Biocentric preservation is underscored by a mindset or belief that gives nature the same prominence for life, with a will-to-live that matches that of humans. Throughout history, we can identify biocentric principles, especially in societies where humans live in close connection with the natural world. For example, consider how many Native American traditions stress a deep connection with nature that binds everyone and everything. According to their value system, all living beings and natural objects have a fundamental "sacred" value.
In this vein, biocentrists promote policies that aim to protect every individual living thing from the negative impact of environmental degradation. This outlook has deep ecological roots since supporters believe humanity is part of nature, rather than separate or superior to the nature environment.
The Gaia hypothesis posits that life on earth, and its nonliving surroundings, unite to create a "single and self-regulating complex system" that is vital for sustaining life on earth. This theory suggests that this united system seeks a physical and chemical environment that is ideal for contemporary life. A meta-life form that once occupied earth began a dynamic and continual process of converting the planet into its own substantive material. Every life form is part of our planet, Gaia, or earth.
Study Tip: Think about how many cells comprise our organs and bodies. Consider how earth's many diverse lifeforms contribute interactively to produce and sustain the conditions for the evolution and prosperity of earth.
Our religious beliefs often help us define our ethical values, moral beliefs, and influence our individual and collective behaviors. A close relationship between religion and the environment has endured throughout time. We can find many examples in contemporary society.