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Environmental Ethics

Key Issues

Just as philosophers try to answer questions about reality, environmental ethicists attempt to answer the questions of how human beings should relate to their environment, how to use Earth's resources, and how to treat other species, both plant and animal. Some of the conflicts that arise from environmental policies deal with the rights of individuals versus those of the state, and the rights of private property owners versus those of a community.

Methods of dealing with environmental issues vary among the organizations that are devoted to protecting the environment. An important milestone toward a national environmental movement was an event that first took place on many college campuses across the United States on April 22, 1970. This was called Earth Day, and it used social protest and demonstration as a way of raising awareness about environmental issues. Earth Day has since become an annual event. In the United States, such groups as the Audubon Society, the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, Greenpeace, the Environmental Defense Fund, and the National Wildlife Federation use education and the political arena to lobby Congress for laws to protect the environment. These groups sometimes also use the legal system as a method to change environmental actions and attitudes.

The call to conserve and protect the environment has resulted in the passage of many laws. Among them are the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, the Clean Water Act of 1972, the Endangered Species Act of 1973, the National Forest Management Act of 1976, and the National Acid Precipitation Act of 1980. In 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created to oversee federal environmental policies and laws. This increased governmental activity supports the belief of many environmental activists that more is accomplished by working through the political and social arenas than in theorizing about ethics. However, others maintain that the exploration of ideas in environmental ethics is an important springboard for social and political action.

Environmental issues are not universally supported. The conflicts between those who want to protect the natural environment and its species, and those for which this is a lesser concern, often center around economic issues. For example, environmentalists in the Pacific Northwest want to protect the habitat of the rare spotted owl, which inhabits old-growth forests on which the timber industry and many people depend for their livelihood. There is much controversy over who had the most "right" to use this forest. The perception of those who are economically affected by protection of the old-growth forest is that spotted owls have become more "important" than the needs of people. Environmentalists, on the other hand, believe that both are important and have legitimate needs.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Electrophoresis (cataphoresis) to EphemeralEnvironmental Ethics - Key Issues, Environmental Attitudes, Environmental Ethics And The Law, Major Contributors