Environmentalism and Animal Rights
Environmentalism, also called environmental ethics, is an applied and theoretical philosophy about how humans should interact with nature: the natural non-human world, living and inanimate. It poses a challenge to anthropocentrism, an outlook that assumes moral superiority of humans over other species, and thus is related to animal rights.
Some environmental ethics questions are should mountains be demolished for their ore, should forests be cut down for wood, should rivers be dammed for electricity, should wild animals be killed to make grazing for livestock, and should fish be fished-out to feed a burgeoning human population? Are these actions necessary and do we have a right to do them? Do plants, animals, rivers, mountains, environments have rights? Are we free to pollute and use up natural resources? Are we morally obligated to restore what we disrupt or destroy? Do artificially restored environments have the same value as natural ones, morally, ecologically, and aesthetically?
Landmark photo from 1968.
Photographed by William Anders from Apollo 8 orbiting the moon before humans had landed there. Photo: Apollo 8, NASA.
Questions about environmental ethics date back to ancient times. But the modern era of environmental ethics is widely considered to begin with the 1962 book Silent Spring
, written by the American writer and ecologist Rachel Carson (1907 - 1964). Rachel Carson warned about the ruinous use of modern man-made chemicals on the environment and called for a change in attitude to nature. Serious attention about the rights and wrongs of human behaviour to nature gradually started gathering pace about this time.
Early milestones in environmental ethics are:
- 1968 - The Population Bomb, published by the American Paul Ehrlich, warned about human overpopulation and its threat to Earth's life-support mechanisms.
- 1970 - the first published photos of Earth from space, showing a precious blue globe, the dwelling of humanity and all known life, surrounded by the cold depths of space.
- 1971 - the first conference on environmental ethics, convened in the United States at the University of Georgia.
- 1973 - formulation of deep ecology by Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess.
- 1974 - in Should Trees Have Standing? Christopher Stone, professor of law, argued that trees and other natural entities should have legal protection and status in their own right.
- 1975 - Australian Peter Singer argued in his book Animal Liberation that animals deserve equal consideration with humans.
Environmentalists say nature has intrinsic value
, a worth in itself irrespective of its use to humans. If something - an animal, stream, wood or hill - has intrinsic value then we have a moral duty as moral agents to protect it. However, a criticism central to environmentalism is what is value
, and what is intrinsic value
, and where do these values come from? If something does not have intrinsic value then why bother to protect it? If nature has no intrinsic value then environmental ethics amounts to very little, at least morally.
Critics of environmentalism argue that our moral duty to the environment comes solely from our duty to humans. By protecting the environment and dealing with environmental degradation for the benefit of humanity we look after the environment at the same time. Thus, in this view, we need enlightened anthropocentrism, not environmental ethics, to guide our interaction with animals and the non-human world.
From an ecological perspective, some corporations and businesses accept claims by environmentalists and do not deny the powerful influence humanity has on the biosphere. But they argue that the biosphere is durable and resilient, can withstand humanity’s beating, and therefore we should not be overly concerned about it. At the levels of Government and economics shallow ecology rules.
Satellite photo of night-time Earth showing swathes of city lights attesting to human development of the natural environment. Photo: C Mayhew & R Simmon NASA.
See the entries, Anthropocentrism, Deep Ecology, and Intrinsic Value.
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