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Environmental Ethics

Key Issues, Environmental Attitudes, Environmental Ethics And The Law, Major Contributors

Ethics is a branch of philosophy that primarily discusses issues dealing with human behavior and character. Ethics attempts to establish a basis for judging right from wrong and good from bad. Environmental ethics employs concepts from the entire field of philosophy, especially aesthetics, metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of science, and social and political philosophy in an effort to relate moral values to human interactions with the natural world.

Aesthetics deals with perceptions of physical properties such as color, sound, smell, texture, and taste. Since environmental ethics is often involved with issues dealing with the protection of plants and animals, its appeal is often to aesthetic experiences of nature. Environmental ethics is also interconnected with political and social structures concerning the use of natural resources, so the field also touches the areas of social and political philosophy. In the struggle to conserve the environment, environmental ethicists also use the knowledge and theories of science, for example, in issues such as those dealing with global warming and air pollution.

Thomas Malthus

Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) had an enormous influence on the development of environmental ethics through his theory about population growth, which raised the primary question of how many human beings could be sustained by the ecosystems of Earth. Malthus was an English economist who published An Essay on the Principle of Population as It Affects the Future Improvement of Society in 1798, just as the Industrial Revolution was beginning in Europe. Malthus believed that if the natural forces of war, famine, and disease did not reduce the rate of growth of the human population, it would increase to the point where it could not be sustained by the natural resources that are available. The problem, as Malthus saw it, was that population increased geometrically, while resources could only grow arithmetically. In a later essay in 1803 he proposed late marriage and sexual abstinence as ways of restraining population growth. Malthus' ideas influenced other activists of the nineteenth century, including Robert Owen (1791-1858), who advocated birth control for the poor. However, there was a great deal of opposition to the ideas of Malthus from such social reformers as William Godwin, who took a more optimistic view of the benefits gained through "progress," and its possibilities for improving the lives of people.

While predicting a population explosion, Malthus did not foresee the technological changes that have increased the capacity of modern societies to sustain increasingly larger populations of people (at least for the time being). However, modern ecologists, social scientists, environmental ethicists, and politicians still must deal with the question of how large a population this planet can sustain without destroying its ecosystems, and subsequently much of the human population as well.

Theodore Roosevelt

President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) was at the forefront of the conservation movement that developed in America from 1890 to 1920. By the end of the nineteenth century, the United States was an industrialized society. Many of the country's natural resources were already threatened, as its wildlife had been earlier by commercial hunting. Diminishing stocks of forest, rangeland, water, and mineral resources were all of great concern to Roosevelt during his presidency. In his government, Gifford Pinchot (1865-1946), the head of the Forest Service, and James R. Garfield, Secretary of the Interior, argued for a comprehensive policy to plan the use and development of the natural resources of the United States.

While there was political opposition in Congress and among industrial developers to such ideas, there was support among some segments of the public. John Muir (1838-1914) founded the Sierra Club in this atmosphere of support for the conservation of natural resources. Some American businesses that depended on renewable resources were also supportive. The goal of this emerging "conservation movement" was to sustain natural resources without causing undue economic hardship.

New federal agencies were formed, including the National Park Service and the Bureau of Reclamation. State conservation laws were also passed in support of the conservation movement. The historical periods of both World Wars and the economic depression of the 1930s slowed the conservation movement, but did not destroy its foundation.

Aldo Leopold

American conservationist Aldo Leopold (1887-1948) is credited as the founding father of wildlife ecology. In his tenure with the U.S. Forest Service, Leopold pioneered the concept of game management. He recognized the linkage between the available space and food supply and the number of animals that may be supported within an area. Leopold observed in his influential book A Sand County Almanac that the greatest impediment to achieving what he called a "land ethic" was the predominant view of the land as a commodity, managed solely in terms of its economic value. He argued that instead, humans need to view themselves as part of a community which also includes the land. In his effort to guide the change in philosophy, Leopold wrote, "A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise."

Rachel Carson

A reawakening of environmental issues took place when Rachel Carson (1907-1964) published her book Silent Spring in 1962. Carson was a biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service, and had already published The Sea Around Us in 1951. In Silent Spring, she alerted the world to the dangers of harmful pesticides that were being used in agriculture, particularly DDT. Later American writers who carried the "environmental message" into the public arena include Paul Ehrlich and Barry Commoner.

In the decades following the publication of Silent Spring, the earlier conservation movement became transformed into a worldwide environmental movement. Evidence of this transformation includes the growth of organizations such as Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund, and an expansion of legislation designed to protect the environment, preserve species, and ensure the health of humans. Carson's writings made the world community aware of the interrelationships of humans and ecosystems. The ideas that pollution in one area can affect the environment in another, and that humans cannot live without the goods and services provided by ecosystems, are now commonly understood facts.

Concerns about acid rain, deforestation, global warming, and nuclear catastrophes like Chernobyl (1986) have helped the cause of those who argue for improved policies and laws to protect the whole environment and all of its inhabitants. In addition, activism has resulted in many non-governmental environmental organizations forming to tackle specific problems, some of a protective nature, others focused on conservation, and others designed to reclaim damaged areas.

High-profile Earth Summits sponsored by the United Nations met in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and again in Johannesburg in 2002. The goal of these meetings was to develop plans for implementing social, economic, and environmental change for future development. The Kyoto Protocol of 1997 was an attempt to require the industrialized nations to reduce emission of "greenhouse gases." However, some environmentalists asssert that little of substance was accomplished in terms of getting specific commitments from governments around the world to undertake serious action. As in the past, economic pressures came into stark conflict with the philosophical premises of environmental ethics. The same questions of how much protection our environment and its resources need, and how much must this would interfere with economic progress, are still relevant today.



Botzler, R.G., and S.J. Armstrong. Environmental Ethics: Divergence and Convergence. 2nd ed. New York: McGraw Hill Companies, 1997.

Miller, Peter, and Laura Westra. Just Ecological Integrity: The Ethics of Maintaining Planetary Life. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002.

VanDeVeer, Donald, and Christine Pierce. The Environmental Ethics and Policy Book: Philosophy, Ecology, Economics. Belmont, CA: Thomson/Wadsworth, 2003.


University of Cambridge. "Environmental Ethics Resources on WWW" [cited January 28, 2003]. <http://www.ethics.ubc. ca/resources/environmental/>.

Vita Richman


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—The branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of beauty.


—The study of the nature of knowledge, its limits and validity.


—The study in philosophy of the nature of reality and being.

Philosophy of science

—The study of the fundamental laws of nature as they are revealed through scientific investigation.

Political philosophy

—The beliefs underlying a political structure within a society and how it should be governed.

Social philosophy

—The beliefs underlying the social structure within a society and how people should behave toward one another.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Electrophoresis (cataphoresis) to Ephemeral