Environmental Ethics – Guiding A Reluctant Humanity

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This blog essay is the fourth in a six part series that is based on the premise that:

  • A crisis within the human population could destroy our race by the year 2050.
  • We humans are engaging in a behavior of infinite growth on a planet with limited resources.
  • Our children and their children have the power to save the human race from destruction.

The text of these blog essays is the draft version of my new book entitled “Lessons From Our Web Of Life – Empowering Stewards of Nature” which will be offered in early 2018 as a free PDF version. Here is a description of the book. The book will contain case studies and lesson sets that are not included in this blog essay series. You are strongly encouraged to use the comment space in this essay to offer your comments, opinions, and corrections. You will be acknowledged in the book. 

The six blog essays are:

Who among us knows what significance any other kind of life has in itself, as a part of the universe? For the truly ethical man, all life is sacred, including that which from the human point of view seems lower in scale. If a person has been touched by the ethic of Reverence for LIfe, he injures and destroys life only when he cannot avoid doing so, and never from thoughtlessness.
“Every person is born with the concept:
” ‘ I am life which wills to live, in the midst of life which wills to live’. From this conflict comes death and destruction. But if he understands Reverence for Life, at last the will-to-live, that fierce affirmative force which holds us all by the throat vanishes. In its place there is only the will-to-love, and the blessings of healing, and the sense of communion with all living things.”
                                  —  From: “Out of My Life and Thought”
                                             by Albert Schweitzer, 1875-1965
Up to this point, the book has presented an environmental dilemma that mankind will be facing by the year 2050. This dilemma could result in the eradication of the human race. We then took a look at the current scientific worldview that our planet is a “living system” where everything, including humans, is interconnected and interdependent. We justified this thinking by emphasizing that everything on our planet requires energy to live and  that our planet’s  highly interconnected living system transports and transforms this vital energy.


All of this makes much sense when one studies Nature. But, there is one huge barrier that inhibits this awesome living system that is our home. That barrier is the attitudes and activities of a huge population of creatures we know as “human beings”. David Brooks, in his book “The Road To Character [ https://www.amazon.com/Road-Character-David-Brooks/dp/0812983416  ], notes that:


Over the past several decades we have built a moral ecology around the “Big Me”, around the belief of a golden figure inside ourselves. This has led to a rise in narcissism and self-aggrandizement“.


The result is a belief by humanity that there is no such thing as a human dependency on Nature. Instead, it is believed that modern technology allows we humans to exercise control over Nature.  Environmental policy makers often perceive that environmental “management” actions are based on the application of scientific fact. But yet, the “management” of Nature by mankind is a fantasy because, as noted in previous blog essays in this series, systems science has taught us that it is impossible for we humans to predict the effects of Nature’s processes or the effects of our actions upon Nature. In truth, our actions are the result of value judgments and opinions and not scientific fact. Our interventions in natural processes often yield unexpected results. Our interventions sometimes causes damage to the environment.


So, how do we face this problem? The approach suggested in this book is the application of a set of ethical and ecological guidelines that are based on scientific fact and not on political will, man’s ego, or mere opinion or judgment. In this section, we start looking at the kind of ethical guidelines that are needed for mankind to survive in Nature.


Morality (from the Latin moralis meaning “manner, character, proper behavior“) is the differentiation of intentions, decisions and action between those that are distinguished as proper and those that are improper. Morality can be a body of standards or principles derived from a code of conduct from a particular philosophy, religion, or culture. Morality can derive from a standard that a person believes should be universal. Morality may also be specifically synonymous with “goodness” or “rightness”.

Ethics is the creation, study, and application of moral guidelines for humans living on our earth. Typically, ethics refers to human behavior that is held to be a standard for the majority of a given people. This standard reflects what is morally right or wrong in inter-human relationships. Traditionally, ethics has focused on theological and philosophical guidelines. The world of theologians consists mainly of extrapolations of their beliefs. The world of philosophers consists consists of extrapolations of their thinking.  Theological ethics are based upon the authority of revelation that is written in books such as the Bible and the Koran. Philosophical ethics are based upon the “authority” of human reason. The ten commandments from the Christian bible is a list of theological guidelines. “Thou Shall Not Kill” is one such ethic that recognizes reverence for human life. This ethic has resulted in the creation of human laws prohibiting the murder of another human. The quote from Albert Schweitzer noted at the beginning of this essay is another example of an ethic – reverence for life. This quote is directly related to the ethic that “Thou Shall Not Kill”. 


Both theologians and philosophers have created human-centered (anthropocentric) models of our world with insufficient relevance to the realities of Nature that surrounds us. Humans are not the center of the earth. Humans are one species among millions and are only part of the process of life. Dolphins, mice, and a virus are just as much a part of life on earth as humans. Theologians and philosophers have created inaccurate geographic-centered (geo-centric) models of our our planet as well. Earth is not a singular entity. Earth is a planet among billions of planets and stars in our galaxy. There are billions of such galaxies.


In recent times, there has been a growing awareness and concern about mankind’s huge negative impact on planet Earth. Some of this concern has been described in the essay on human population growth. This concern has driven the development of a new ethic that focuses on man’s relationship to his environment. Environmental ethics is the philosophical discipline that considers the moral and ethical relationship of human beings to the environment. Environment ethics is different than the theological and philosophical guidelines mentioned earlier in this essay. Theological and philosophical ethics focuses on relationships between human beings. Environmental ethics focuses on the relationship between mankind and his environment. Human values become an important factor when looking at environmental ethics because these values are guidelines that help a person evaluate an action or event that might affect the plants and animals (including other humans) in local or distant ecosystems. Human values that are derived from environmental ethics can be influenced by experience and by environmental education.


Environmental ethics is sometimes called a “biocentric ethic” which asks us to value the rest of Nature in and of itself. This requires that we accept that we humans are neither the center of the universe nor the determiner of value. A biocentric ethic requires humility. It requires that we humans remove our hubris and learn to live in coupled human-and-natural systems. It requires us to adapt to Nature’s patterns even as those patterns change. It requires us to recognize the importance of Nature’s “web of life” – the living systems that we described earlier. It requires us to protect the web of life because, in doing so, we protect our own future as a race.


Environmental ethics are also based on scientific fact. They provide guidelines for maintaining the health of the natural world by recognizing our current understanding of how Nature operates. Environmental ethics are the principles by which Nature’s stewards, educators, and practitioners of conservation science operate. In turn, stewards of Nature pass on the ethical guidelines and values to our children through environmental education programs. Ultimately, it will be our children, those most likely to be affected by the upcoming environmental crisis, who would employ those ethics while influencing the older generation of humans.


An essay by David King  entitled Principles of an Ecological Morality  is an excellent presentation and summary of the issues concerning environmental ethics. King’s essay outlines six guiding principles of Nature, based on scientific fact.  These principles guide the establishment of an environmental morality within humans.


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


Within Nature, everything is connected. This universal quality applies to BOTH mankind and to Nature. 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 well established scientific fact.  Interdependence is a defining feature of all ecosystems and all activities of mankind. As mentioned earlier, 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 the energy from the sun 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 humans are all 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.


Connectedness, relationship, and community are fundamental concepts of ecology. Connectedness, relationship, and belonging are the essence of the spiritual experience. Thus, it is not surprising that the scientific ideas of living systems discussed earlier in this book are in harmoney with many ideas in spiritual traditions.


Thomas Merton, the writer, poet, artist, and Trappist monk, once said in his essay entitled “A Search For Solitude”:


Man can know all about God’s creation by examining its phenomena, by dissecting and experimenting and this is all good. But it is misleading, because with this kind of knowledge you do not really know the beings you know. You only know about them”.


Most of our contact with nature is in passing. We drive by. We take a glimpse. We get a quick emotional “fix”. Nothing more. We are not connecting. There is no true immersion. We are not totally engaged in the moment. We are ready to move on rather than linger a while. We are preoccupied with “things” in our lives. We are not beholding Nature. While we may know some facts about Nature, we do not really “know” Nature.


A forest is entered, not viewed. We do not really engage or know a forest until we are well within it both physically, aesthetically, and spiritually. Engaging Nature means “knowing” rather than just “knowing about”. “Knowing” means observing and understanding how Nature is connected. It means knowing our interrelationships, our connections, with our surroundings. It means us being connected with those surroundings – those patterns in Nature.


In being connected to Nature, we acquire the core of “knowing” Nature and Nature’s patterns. We may never have complete answers, but we grow to “know” Nature as we live the questions themselves.


Jeremy Lent, in his book “The Patterning Instinct“, talks about our interconnectedness with Nature by suggesting that:


The systems approach invites a different way of making meaning from our world. By emphasizing the underlying principles that apply to all living things, it helps us realize our intrinsic connectedness with the natural world. The recognition that we are not separate from nature and cannot, ultimately, control it encourages a more participatory approach of trying to influence the complex systems around us for greater harmony. In place of the metaphors of nature that have led humanity to this precipice, the systems worldview offers up a new metaphor of nature as a WEB OF MEANING, in which the very interconnectedness of all life gives both meaning and resonance to our individual and collective behavior.”


An essay from  White Eagle’s The Still Voice says:


“Among the many beautiful trees there is one tree, set beside the stream, which calls you. You sit down, your back against the trunk. You feel the strength of that tree as you rest against it. You gradually become absorbed into its life, aware of its roots reaching down to draw strength and sustenance from Mother Earth. Its branches lift toward the sun, absorbing the life force from the sun and the air. You become aware of the flow of life from earth to heaven, the inbreathing and outbreathing. You become the tree.”


Poet Alison Hawthorne Deming describes the connections between all things in her wonderfully profound poem “The Web”. 


It is possible there is a certain
kind of beauty as large as the trees
that survive the five-hundred year fire,
the fifty-year flood, trees we can’t
comprehend even standing
beside them with outstretched arms
to gauge their span,
a certain kind of beauty
so strong, so deeply concealed
in relationship –black truffle
to red-backed vole to spotted owl
to Douglas fir, bats and gnats,
beetles and moss, flying squirrel
and the high-rise of a snag,
each needing and feeding the other—
a conversation so quiet
the human world can vanish into it?
A beauty moves in such a place
like snowmelt sieving through
the fungal mats that underlie and
interlace the giant firs, tunneling
under streams where cutthroat fry
live a meter deep in gravel, a beauty
fluming downstream over rocks
that have a hold on place
lasting longer than most nations,
sluicing under deadfall spanners
that rise and float to let floodwaters pass,
a beauty that fills the space of the forest
with music that can erupt as
varied thrush or warbler, calypso
orchid or stream violet, forest
a conversation not an argument,
a beauty gathering such clarity and force
it breaks the mind’s fearful hold on its
little moment steeping it in a more dense
Intelligibility, within which centuries
and distances answer each other
and speak at last with one and the same voice.
Principle #2: Ecosystem Health Depends Upon Biodiversity
As noted in the essay on living systems, 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 scientifically proven principles of biodiversity and interdependence suggest an ethic that we humans need to live in harmony with each other and with the natural world. These two principles are moral guidelines that call upon us to protect and preserve the flow of energy in Nature.


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


Every human is part of an ecosystem. Because we are all born into Nature’s complex and interconnected system, each of us contains within us the capacity to influence others. Any human action, good or bad, can affect the entire ecosystem.


As we are mutually interdependent, 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 Nature, it is essential that we act and behave with awareness of the consequences of every action we undertake . 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 because it involves the vital flow of Nature’s energy.


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. 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 that Nature is always changing.  It is a paradox that, because Nature is always changing, life is capable of existence.


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


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 practices where possible. Conservation practices, based on scientific fact, become a positive interaction between Nature and humanity because priority is placed on the preservation of Nature on which we depend. Conservation practices are necessary because human presence has an impact on Nature. Conservation practices enhance the awareness of the ways in which we are changing the global ecosystem. Conservation practices help us build a perpetual consciousness of Nature and how we depend upon Her.


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


Compassion is the ability to understand and share the nature of all life on Earth. 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. Compassion is expressed when we feel spontaneously inclined to defend the integrity of the world where it is threatened. In line with the principle of interdependence, one cannot assign greater value to one species over another. We humans must prioritize species survival over human value.


Compassion requires humility. If we are a compassionate race, we must accept the idea that we humans are neither the center of the universe nor the determiner of value. This requires humility. Humility means purging out our hubris and desire to control Nature. Instead, we take our place among the other animals while living as part of an ecosystem without being its master. This is a true biocentric ethic which will serve to restore harmony to Nature’s living systems.


Human compassion and humility toward Nature are the virtues that fuel the conservation strategy of passive restoration where Nature is allowed to make the decisions for her own welfare. In basic terms, passive restoration means “Let Nature take her own course“. This means simply allowing natural succession to occur in an ecosystem.  We will discuss in the chapter on conservation practices.


Taking Action


How should we move from the subject of environmental ethics to environmental action? There are three issues that must be considered if we are to apply the six principles of environmental ethics that we just described. First, we must make sure that our principles connect our ethics to scientific fact. Second, we must consider what motivates the current and future human populations, And third, we need to find ways to transform an environmental ethic into environmental awareness in the mind and soul of human beings.


Employing environmental ethics are that based on scientific fact


The earlier essay on living systems describes the whys and hows of modern systems science. The prevalent theme of living systems science is that nothing in Nature lives in isolation. Everything is connected, in some way, to everything else. This theme is prevalent because life is defined as the transportation and transformation of the energy that starts with the sun. There has been a huge amount of food web research that backs up the scientific findings of energy flow between species at all levels in the hierarchy of ecosystems.


An ethic that identifies, protects, and preserves all energy flow conduits in Nature is consistent with principle #1. Principles #2 through #6 follow from principle #1. An ethics statement such as:


Conservation is the act, by humans, of identifying, understanding, preserving, and protecting Nature’s energy flow .


is all encompassing because, if applied correctly, will preserve and protect all ecosystems on Earth. We will address this ethics statement in detail in the next essay.


Motivating current and future human populations


As it stands, motivating humanity to honor and respect the ethics statement ” Conservation is the act, by humans, of identifying, understanding, preserving, and protecting Nature’s energy flow ” is the problem!!! Given the hugely complex web of moral worldviews that work against preservation of the environment, the task of motivating the current human population is probably impossible. However, there are two key centers of influence that are receptive to this keystone conservation ethic.


The first group is our children and young people.  More than half of the world’s population is under the age of 25. Here lies a large population under the age of 25 who can be influenced and who are receptive to Nature’s wonder.  This large group has the power to influence the adult population.  The first group is our children and young people.  More than half of the world’s population is under the age of 25. Here lies a large population under the age of 25 who can be influenced and who are receptive to Nature’s wonder.  This large group has the power to influence the adult population. There is a crying need, and opportunity, to engage young people with a Nature that lies beyond the asphalt, glass, and glowing LCD screens which hem us in on all sides.


The second group of influential people is environmental educators and educators in general. This very important group consists of the legacy builders of future generations.


Transforming an environmental ethic into environmental awareness in the mind and soul of human beings


The answer lies in building environmental awareness, and encouraging active engagement in Nature. Environmental awareness is how people think about their relationship with Nature.  Environmental awareness involves environmental education. Environmental education must include a direct engagement with Nature where there is direct human involvement, both physically and spiritually.


Environmental ethics is a biocentric worldview that forms the root of environmental education. This worldview is grounded on the premise that we can restore and maintain a healthy balance between humans and all other life within Earth’s living systems. The biocentric worldview joins together the ideas that Nature is a living system and that our legacy, our world’s youth, are the implementers of a new consciousness within the human race.


Based on the subject of environmental ethics that has been discussed in this essay, we now move on to examine actual conservation practices in the next essay. From there, we move on to identify methods for building a legacy of environmental consciousness and effective conservation practices.


Worth Your Extra Attention :


Thanks for reading this blog essay. This essay is accompanied by a resource list that focuses on the subject of the essay. You can find the resource list for this essay here.


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This blog essay is a draft chapter in a book that I will publish in January of 2018. Your comments and your suggestions regarding this chapter would be greatly appreciated.
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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.

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