Conservation Ethics – Guiding A Reluctant Human Race

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Each society creates its own moral ecology. A moral ecology is a set of norms, assumptions, beliefs and habits of behavior and an institutionalized set of moral demands that emerge organically. Our moral ecology encourages us to be a certain sort of person.

Over the past several decades we have built a moral ecology around the Big Me, around the belief in a golden figure inside. This has led to a rise in narcissism and self-aggrandizement. — David Brooks The Road To Character

One of my greatest struggles as a scientist and as an educator is to cope with the huge gap between our understanding of environmental issues and negative human attitudes about our environment. Those things about our Earth that we do know to be true are ignored by many. In this segment of the human population, there is little consciousness about those environmental hazards that could destroy humanity, and there is an unwillingness to take action to mitigate these hazards. These folks are blind to how their attitude might affect future generations. Much of this worldview is attributed to the “me” generation where the focus on current personal issues outweigh any consciousness about the future. I’ve written about one aspect of this problem in a previous post about political will.

Lately, I have been trying to understand this phenomenon at a greater depth. I have started by looking at the kind of ethics that are needed for mankind to survive in Nature. Ethics is the method by which we categorize our values and pursue them. The primary focus of conservation ethics is to provide moral guidelines for maintaining the health of the natural world.

There is a lot of good resource material regarding “ecological ethics” which I have recently posted in one of my musings posts . I also discovered an interesting book by David Brooks entitled “The Road To Character” . And, of course, I am guided by Aldo Leopold’s “land ethic” that is best summarized in his Sand County Almanac. In this blog post, I want to share with you some thoughts about ecological ethics. In a future post, I will ponder the “character” of modern humanity.

In my opinion, the essay by David King  entitled Principles of an Ecological Morality  is an excellent presentation of the issues concerning an ecological ethic. King’s essay outlines six principles of Nature that should guide the establishment of the ethics of an ecological morality within humans. Here, I present paraphrased sections of this essay.

Principle #1: Everything in Nature, Including Human Beings, Is Interdependent.

Within Nature, everything is connected, and it is from this quality that we might extract a principle of morality. More than mere interconnectedness, interdependence refers to the tendency of all members of Nature’s systems to be fundamentally linked and mutually dependent upon each other. This interdependence is a defining feature of all ecosystems. Animals depend on plants for the production of oxygen, while plants absorb the carbon dioxide released by animals. Bees, butterflies, and birds assist in pollination and seed dispersal, enabling the reproduction of a multitude of plant species on which other organisms depend for food and shelter. And, of course, Earth’s connectedness with the sun’s energy is of primary importance because that energy drives all life.

When applied to human systems, the principle of interconnectedness places increasing value on the interdependence of all individuals.  As a result, each individual is highly valuable in his or her own right. As we are entangled with Nature, so we are entangled with each other. Every human depends upon Nature to survive. Indeed, Nature can do without humans, but human beings cannot do without Nature.

Principle #2 – Biodiversity

Nature is propelled towards a state of increasing complexity and diversity. This phenomenon is called biodiversity.  It is only with diversity in Nature that we are able to arrive at our current state of biodiversity. Biodiversity contributes to ecologic structure and function. Ecosystems as we know them would not exist without biodiversity.

The value of biodiversity is far-reaching. A greater diversity of species boosts ecosystem productivity, prevents the loss of natural resources, and contributes to nutrient storage while enhancing the breakdown of pollutants. Biodiversity is the basis for ecosystem resilience because it improves the recovery  of an ecosystem from a variety unpredictable events and natural disasters. Biodiversity ensures that enough species remain so as to prevent ecosystem collapse and further loss.

The two principles of biodiversity and interdependence suggest an ethic that we humans need to live in harmony with each other and with the natural world.

Principle #3 – The Actions of One Can Affect the Whole

Every human is part of an ecosystem. Any human action, good or bad, can affect the entire ecosystem. Because we are all born into Nature’s complex and interconnected system, each of us contains within us the capacity to influence others. The honey bee is innately influential in her pollination of the flower or lack thereof. Each action impacts the system in some way as does the mere existence of that particular honey bee. This observation further underscores the value and influence of the individual within the ecosystem.

As we are mutually dependent, each human is mutually influential. Not only does this principle place increased importance on individual life, it also suggests that within each of us is a greater potential than we may have previously conceived. This principle has important implications for conservation and long-term sustainability because it necessitates an ethic of responsibility on the part of the individual. As intelligent beings capable of reflecting on our innate influence over others, it is essential that we act and behave with awareness of said influence. This consideration is important within systems that would involve humans because it requires some degree of conscientiousness and accountability. Every footstep, every smile, every piece of trash discarded has an effect. As Jane Goodall suggested, “What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.”

Principle #4: Nature Is Always Changing

We find ourselves in a cosmos of perpetual flux. Continuous change is a fundamental characteristic of all natural systems. This state of flux is indispensable to the operation and productivity of Nature.

It is in this change that new opportunities are created in Nature. As organisms are driven by changing environments and selective pressures at the species level, they find themselves in a constant state of change, no matter how concrete any one characteristic may seem at any given time. Birth, death, stagnation, movement, action, cellular aging, oxidation, growth, degeneration, sleeping, waking, memory, consciousness, the transformation of thoughts and emotions, decomposition, fertilization, evolution; these are but a few of the examples of the pervasive principle of change in Nature. At a global level, weather systems, ocean currents, and climate offer further evidence of this flux state.  Yet it is only with these and other changes that life is capable of existence.

Principle #5: Conservation Is a Necessary Part Of Human Morality

Conservation practices are the result of a human presence within Nature. Conservation is a necessary component of human morality. In our ability to contemplate, study, and manipulate Nature, so too should we engage in conservation efforts where needed. Morally and ethically, conservation enhances the awareness of the ways in which we are changing the global ecosystem.

Whether it is for the betterment of our children and grandchildren, the long-term survival and perpetuation of our species, or responsibility to other species within the global ecosystem, we are ethically obligated to engage in conservation efforts where possible. Conservation is a necessary step if we truly value such principles as biodiversity and interdependence.  Conservation becomes a positive interaction between Nature and humanity because priority is placed on the preservation of Nature on which we depend.

Principle #6: Compassion – One Cannot Assign Greater Value To One Species Over Another.

The ethic of compassion is the values of biodiversity and interdependence manifested in emotional form.

A productive global ecology is not possible with such an intelligent and dominant species as mankind if we do not exhibit compassion towards other humans and non-humans. The sheer size of the human race requires compassion.

Each species is deserving of human compassion and empathy. Empathy is an extension of compassion. It is the ability to understand and share the nature of others.  In line with the principle of interdependence, one cannot assign greater value to one species over another.


For Your Further Consideration

  • Our earth is a living system that transports and transforms the energy necessary for all life to exist. The key to an active group of ecoliterate humans that results in a healthy environment for all life on earth is the building of a systems view of life into the minds and hearts of humanity – particularly our youth. This worldview (the “Living Earth Story”) is supported  by the fact that all of Nature is interconnected and interdependent.
  • Environmental educators,  their students, scientists, and all stewards of Nature  are a powerful progressive force that, through their knowledge about Nature, through the legacies that they create for the future, and through their informed actions are capable of overseeing the well-being of our home —  Mother Earth
  • Environmental education is not simply offering facts. Environmental education must include the acts of passing a worldview of a Mother Earth on to Environmental education must be hands-on, and action-based if ideas, facts, and effective conservation strategies are to become a consciousness in the minds and hearts of all of our youth.
  • This website offers a free PDF book entitled “Empowering Stewards of Nature – Lessons From The Web of Life”. The book offers education methodology and content for creating Nature’s “Living Earth Story” within our youth and all stewards of Nature.. To download this book, follow the instructions on the right side of the web-site when you click the photograph of the book. 
  • If you are interested in working with me, other environmental educators, and other stewards of Nature to build a legacy of young people who will embrace and evangelize the worldview that “Everything on Earth is Connected and Interdependent”, please provide your questions and comments in the space provided below or by contacting me at my Twitter account @ballenamar.


Please Comment  Below

My name is Bill Graham. As a Marine Biologist who has worked in the US and Mexico for 30 years, I am a student of Nature, a teacher, a researcher, and a nature photographer. Through my work, I have acquired an ever growing passion for how everything in Nature is connected. Today, I travel extensively contemplating about, writing about, and photographing Nature’s connections. I also work with conservation projects in the USA and Mexico and mentor talented youth.

3 thoughts on “Conservation Ethics – Guiding A Reluctant Human Race”

  1. I read your article with great interest and agree with your principles.

    I do quibble with your definition of “moral ecology” though; in my mind, you either have and practice a moral ecology or you don’t; I think most human cultures have no “moral ecology”: most westerners certainly haven’t been taught moral ecology in school or by their parents or community. That is the real issue: we don’t apply morality to ecology or to Nature. There is no connection to morality and there is, for the most part no ecology. Most people are not ecologically literate, certainly not enough to even apply any kind of morality to that “knowledge”. We barely meet any kind of ecological ethics. This is because we lack a sense of connection, participation and visceral understanding of being part of Nature. We are taught by those we respect that this kind of thinking/feeling is weak and foolish and delusional. Nature intelligent? Nature that feels?

    The western culture is primarily user-dominated; we consume and throw away; to maintain this culture and model, we conveniently see all things that way, we see ourselves separate from Nature, which is viewed as wild and amoral and needs “taming”. This capitalist mentality, which saw its foundation in the so-called “Tragedy of the Commons” will run us to the ground.

    You are right: we need to be more compassionate with ourselves but mostly with ALL things of the world (your principle #6). Until we reach that principle, none of the others will come to fruition. To reach Principle #6 requires humbleness, humility, kindness and genuine altruism. Is humanity capable of this? Certainly individuals are … is that enough? I guess we’ll see…

    Nina Munteanu, M.Sc.

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