From Moral Issues that Divide Us


James Fieser


Revised: 9/1/2017





Environmental Problems


What People Think

Ethical Theory

Anthropocentric Individualism

Anthropocentric Collectivism

Biocentric Individualism

Biocentric Collectivism

Environmentalism and the Profit Motive

Public Policy Issues

U.S. Environmental Laws

Government Regulation verses Market-Based Solutions

Common Arguments Pro and Contra

The Conservative Position

The Liberal Position

A Middle Ground

Study Questions




An auto mechanic named Joe purchased an old gas station with the intention of turning it into a repair garage. Buried beneath the ground on the property were two 5,000 gallon fuel storage tanks, which, rusting away, had been leaking gasoline into the ground for decades, and possibly leaching contaminants into the ground water. Environmental laws required that the tanks and the polluted soil be professionally removed, but the $200,000 cleanup cost was more than four times what Joe paid for the property to begin with. So Joe decided to pull out the tanks himself. In the middle of the night he dug them up with a backhoe, cut them into smaller pieces, and hauled them on a flatbed truck to a junk yard. Some months later the State inspector paid him a visit and asked about the status of the tanks. Joe said that they had been removed years ago by one of the previous owners. “Well, if they’re gone, they’re gone,” the inspector said, and the issue was closed.

            Joe’s situation contains the key ingredients of many environmental issues that we face today. The ultimate cause of the environmental damage was an older technology, specifically, steel gasoline storage tanks, developed when people were oblivious to environmental issues. Over time the environmental problem escalated to the point that, by the year 2000, tens of thousands of underground gasoline storage tanks were leaking. Under pressure of public concern for the environment, new environmental laws were enacted to address the problem, regulating the construction of new and better tanks, and mandating the removal of old ones. But the cleanup costs were exorbitantly expensive, and ultimately unaffordable by the business owner. What we have, then, is a complex interplay between bad technology, financial interests of businesses, public opinion, and governmental regulation. In this chapter we will look at some of the central issues of environmental responsibility, and the types of ethical attitudes that we might adopt concerning it.




Over the past billion years of ecological history, there have been environmental disasters of epic proportion: major volcanoes, meteor bombardments, ice ages, rising sea levels, mass extinctions. Even if humans had been alive throughout those times, there is nothing we could have done to prevent these catastrophes since they were the result of purely natural causes beyond our control. But the issue is different with many of the environmental problems that we face today: they are human caused and within our power to prevent. There is evidence that some early civilizations pushed themselves to the brink of extinction because of environmental mismanagement. Biologist Jared Diamond makes this case regarding the inhabitants of Easter Island. By cutting down their forests and depleting their soil, they wiped out many of their plants and animals. The island’s tribes then waged war against each other for what resources remained, and ultimately resorted to cannibalism. Assuming that Diamond got the story right, this kind of environmental destruction by early civilizations may have been rare. It wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century that worldwide and systematic damage to the environment began, thanks largely to wide-scale coal mining, steel production, and large factories. Newer industries in the 20th and 21st century have made environmental problems even worse.


Environmental Problems

The range of environmental problems that we face today is vast and interconnected. Some issues, though, are more serious than others. At the low end of the spectrum, some environmental problems are merely aesthetic nuisances, such as litter strewn along the side of highways, or old tires and appliances tossed into nearby wooded areas. While these activities make the scenery look ugly, in most cases they cause no actual damage to the environment itself. The more serious environmental problems go beyond our human sense of beauty and involve harm: there is a body count, such as dead animals, destroyed habitats, endangered species. Even when some human activity genuinely harms the environment, a distinction must be made between the scope of its impact, particularly whether it is local or global. A polluted stream will typically effect the environment only within its immediate area. Other problems, though, such as global warming, impact much of the biosphere is the thin layer of life that covers the surface of the earth, in contrast to the earth’s lithosphere (rock), hydrosphere (water) and atmosphere (air).

            One of the more universal environmental problems is waste disposal, that is, the discarding of unwanted objects or substances that negatively impact the environment. The garbage that we throw out is the consequence of the ever-increasing number of products that we buy in our consumer driven society. While the sheer quantity of trash is a problem to manage in itself, the real environmental damage comes from toxic chemicals in garbage that leach into the ground when dumped in landfills or get released into the air when incinerated. Some of the main offenders are batteries, automobile oil, electronic appliances, cleaning agents, and fluorescent bulbs. Even discarded organic material creates problems, and decomposed matter in Landfills is responsible for creating 1/3 of the human-related methane gas emissions. Recycling efforts aim to reuse these materials and thus cut back on the release of toxins and also conserve energy. Connected with the problem of waste disposal is air and water pollution, which is typically associated with byproducts of major industry, chemical solvents used in factories, drainage from mining operations, smoke from coal-powered electrical plants, oil spills, agricultural fertilizers, insecticides and herbicides. Worse yet is radioactive material from nuclear power plants, which poses a double threat. First is the problem of the safe disposal of radioactive waste, which remains hazardous to humans and animals for upwards of a million years. There is no way to destroy it, and there is no foolproof way to store it out of harm’s way for such long periods of time.  Second is the problem of radioactive fallout from a nuclear core meltdown, such as what happened at the Chernobyl power plant in 1986. Nuclear material spewed into the air and was blown across Europe where it contaminated farm land as far away as England.

            Another set of problems involves the shrinking of ecosystems from growing human population and industrialization. Habitat destruction occurs when an area is no longer able to support the plants and animals that were once indigenous to that region. Agricultural expansion and new road construction are the primary cause of deforestation, and the most dramatic example is the depletion of rainforests in tropical countries such as Brazil. The most serious consequence of habitat destruction is species extinction – the more we encroach on ecosystems, the more we risk driving species out of existence. This is particularly so with the rainforests, which contain an especially high percentage of plant and animal species. Genetic diversity is critical for the continuation of any ecosystem, where species are mutually dependent upon each other as specialized food sources. Eliminating a few critical links in the food chain can have widespread consequences. Genetic diversity is also important for enabling species to survive when environments go through radical changes in temperature and rain fall. While some species might not survive these natural changes, others may be adapted to do so. The greater the species diversity, the greater the odds are that some will survive during periods of radical environmental change.

            One of the more potentially catastrophic areas of environmental damage is the depletion of the earth’s ozone layer. The ozone surrounding the earth is not all compressed into a single region, but, instead, is dispersed within an area between 10 and 50 miles above its surface. If it was squeezed into a single layer it would be only the thickness of two pennies. The ozone layer plays a critical role in absorbing over 97% of the sun’s ultraviolet rays – a spectrum of light that is particularly damaging to DNA, and full exposure to it would destroy animal tissue. Thus, animal life on the surface of the planet depends upon the ultraviolet filtering effects of the ozone layer. During the last few decades the ozone layer has been thinning out, due largely to the release of chlorofluorocarbon gases (CFCs) into the atmosphere which destroy ozone.  CFC gases are used in industry as refrigerants such as Freon, propellants to puff up Styrofoam, and cleaning solvents. Ozone layer depletion manifests in two forms, the first of which is an overall thinning of atmospheric ozone concentration everywhere. The second is the creation of an ozone hole above Antarctica, which each year from September to December is around 50% lower than normal.  International agreements have been made to phase out CFCs, although some countries continue their use. Once the damage ceases, full recovery of the ozone layer is expected to take between 50 and 100 years.

            The biggest environmental issue today is the global warming of the earth’s atmosphere, which threatens to make the sea level rise, turn tropical areas into deserts, and push countless species into extinction. In the past 100 years global temperature has risen by one degree, and projections are that it will continue to rise. Scientists uniformly agree that global warming is principally a human-caused phenomenon. It results from the burning of fossil fuels, which produce excess carbon dioxide, which in turn traps heat from the sun and causes temperature to continually rise. The cycle begins with combustible materials such as oil, gas and coal, which are chemically composed of carbon. In their solid or liquid forms these carbon-based substances pose no risk; even natural gas can do no damage to the atmosphere while it is trapped beneath the earth’s surface. However, once retrieved and burned, all of these carbon-based fuels chemically transform into carbon dioxide gas and are released into the atmosphere. Some carbon fuels are renewable, in the sense that once burned they can be naturally replaced with an equal amount of carbon in solid form. For example, if I cut down and burn a tree in my fire place, I can plant a new tree, which, while growing, will absorb an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store the carbon in the form of solid wood. Fossil fuels, though, are non-renewable: when oil, gas and coal are retrieved from the ground and burned, there is no way to replace them. The problem is intensified by contemporary society’s dependence on fossil fuels. This is obvious with gasoline in our cars and natural gas in our furnaces. But even electricity comes mostly from fossil fuel, over half from coal alone in the U.S.

            The critical cause of global warming, then, is burning non-renewable fuels, and the solution is using alternative energy sources, which do not involve combustible materials. But now there is another problem: old-fashioned fuels like oil, gas and coal are cheap and widely abundant sources of energy, and no other alternative energy source will be as cost-effective or abundant. Hydroelectricity requires a large and elevated water source. Wind power requires a constant source of moving air. Solar electric panels are too costly and inefficient and, in their current forms, require an unrealistically large amount of space to meet a country’s energy needs. Geothermal power requires an underground hot spot, like geysers or volcanoes, which are not readily available. Nuclear power is also an option: although it is technically non-renewable (we cannot create more uranium), nothing is burned to produce carbon dioxide in the process. It is the heat generated by the nuclear reaction itself which is converted into electricity. But nuclear electricity is becoming increasingly expensive, and there are the other environmental risks mentioned above. While none of these alternative energy sources alone will provide an immediate solution to the world’s energy needs, policy makers and environmentalists often advise pursuing each of these paths, with hopes that technological improvements will eventually make them cost effective and readily available. The goal is sustainability, which is the practice of using renewable resources which can be continued without depletion indefinitely.



Environmentalism emerged in reaction to the industrial revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries which triggered a surge of mining, deforestation, and pollution, which in turned called for changes in public attitudes and policies. Environmentalism is a social movement that reflects a concern for the welfare of the natural environment and the actions needed to protect it. In contrast with environmentalism, there is anti-environmentalism which rejects the concerns and efforts of environmentalists. Anti-environmentalism is not so much a disinterest in the environment itself as it is an opposition to claims made by environmentalists, for example the claim that global warming is caused by human activity and halting global warming requires changing our present lifestyle. One of the first environmentalists was American philologist George Perkins Marsh (1801-1882) who in his book Man and Nature (1864) discusses the negative impact that human society has had on all aspects of the environment. He writes that “man is everywhere a disturbing agent. Wherever he plants his foot, the harmonies of nature are turned to discords. . . . [T]he face of the earth is either laid bare or covered with a new and reluctant growth of vegetable forms, and with alien tribes of animal life.” Marsh held that deforestation can lead to desertification, and he called for efforts to restore and improve the natural harmony to environmentally compromised areas around the world.

            Governments inevitably became involved with environmental issues, and two competing philosophies of land management emerged in the early 1900s: preservation vs. conservation. Environmental preservation is the effort to maintain wilderness areas, where a “wilderness” is a large tract of land that has not been significantly affected by human activities. By contrast, environmental conservation is the sustainable use and management of natural resources including wildlife, water, air, and earth deposits. By contrast, environmental. On the one extreme was the preservationist approach of Scottish-American naturalist John Muir (1838-1914), who devoted much of his life to protecting the American wilderness from human encroachment, and was instrumental in the creation of the country’s National Park system. The following quote reflects his motivation for preserving wilderness areas in their natural states:


Few are altogether deaf to the preaching of pine trees. Their sermons on the mountains go to our hearts; and if people in general could be got into the woods, even for once, to hear the trees speak for themselves, all difficulties in the way of forest preservation would vanish. ("The National Parks and Forest Reservations" 1895)


On the other extreme was the conservationist approach of American politician Gifford Pinchot (1865-1946), who was the first head of the U.S. Forestry Service. In that role, he exercised control of over 200 million acres of national forest through a policy of scientific land management that, in his words, involved “the art of producing from the forest whatever it can yield for the service of man” (The Training of a Forester, 1914). That is, forests are a resource to be used for human benefit. However, he argued, natural resources can become depleted through overuse, and conservation is necessary for securing their long-term use. He thus offers a utilitarian guideline for responsibly managing natural resources: “Where conflicting interests must be reconciled, the question shall always be answered from the standpoint of the greatest good of the greatest number in the long run” (letter to James Wilson, February 1, 1905).

            The environmental movement as we know it today took shape in the 1960s and was marked by the publication of the book Silent Spring (1962) by American marine biologist Rachel Carson (1907-1964). Carson had researched the negative impact of chemical pesticide such as DDT on humans and the environment, and in her book she attacks chemical companies and the government itself for enabling its use. She writes,


If the Bill of Rights contains no guarantee that a citizen shall be secure against lethal poisons distributed either by private individuals or by public officials, it is surely only because our forefathers, despite their considerable wisdom and foresight, could conceive of no such problem.


Public reaction to Carson’s plea for change was swift. Environmentalists mobilized, the government investigated and confirmed her claims, and eventually DDT was banned in the U.S. Other game changing books were published, like Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb (1968), and environmentalists rallied around more issues, such as toxic waste dumps, and more environmental organizations were formed.

            The leading environmental advocacy group in the U.S today is the Sierra club, which Muir founded in 1892 to help secure his vision of wilderness preservation. The group’s current mission statement is this:


1. Explore, enjoy and protect the wild places of the earth.

2. Practice and promote the responsible use of the earth's ecosystems and resources.

3. Educate and enlist humanity to protect and restore the quality of the natural and human environment.

4. Use all lawful means to carry out these objectives. []


In keeping with its mission statement, the Sierra Club regularly sues industries and governmental bodies over environmental issues. The largest international environmental organization today is Greenpeace, founded in 1972, with nearly three million financial supporters. Greenpeace exists, they explain, “because this fragile earth deserves a voice.” The organization is famous for their confrontational tactics, such as the use of sea vessels to protest activities such as commercial whale hunting. One of their ships, The Rainbow Warrior, was bombed and destroyed by the French Intelligence Service when it entered a military zone near New Zealand to protest nuclear testing.

            While Greenpeace’s protest methods are sometimes aggressive, the organization nevertheless claims that they are non-violent. Other environmental groups, though, consciously cross the line and engage in overtly violent activity, a tactic which is now commonly called ecoterrorism. They destroy the property of industries, research centers, and government agencies that they believe are engaged in environmentally harmful practices, hoping to disrupt their normal operations. A common tactic is tree spiking, that is, hammering metal rods into the base of large trees to deter loggers from cutting them down. While the spikes themselves don’t harm the trees, saw blades can break when making contact with them, which proves both economically costly and dangerous to the loggers. Other tactics involve disabling vehicles and firebombing buildings. Because their activities are blatantly illegal, ecoterrorist groups avoid having any official leaders nor any organized list of members. The most famous ecoterrorist organization is the Earth Liberation Front, and one of the websites associated with it states that “Any individuals who committed arson or any other illegal acts under the ELF name are individuals who choose to do so under the banner of ELF and do so only driven by their personal conscience” (www.


What People Think

The surveys below suggest that people in the U.S. are equally divided about whether environmental problems are really that serious, and whether environmental problems require governmental intervention (from


"Do you consider yourself an environmentalist or not?" (7/23-28/08)

Yes: 41%

No: 58%

Unsure: 1%


"With which one of these statements about the environment and the economy do you most agree? Protection of the environment should be given priority, even at the risk of curbing economic growth. OR, Economic growth should be given priority, even if the environment suffers to some extent." (6/26-29/08)

Environment Given Priority: 49%

Economic Growth Given Priority: 44%

Both Equally: 6%

Unsure: 1%


"What in your opinion is the single biggest environmental problem the world faces at this time?" (7/23-28/08)

Global warming/Climate change 25%

Air pollution 12%

Energy problems 11%

Pollution (misc.) 7%

Toxic substances in environment 6%

Water pollution 5%

Loss of habitat/Overdevelopment 4%

Waste/Not enough recycling 4%

Other 14%

None 3%

Unsure 8%


"Do you think that global warming will pose a serious threat to you or your way of life in your lifetime?" (3/6-9/08)

Yes: 40%

No: 58%

Unsure: 2%


"Which do you think would do a better job reducing global warming: the government, through laws intended to reduce the output of greenhouse gases, or businesses, through competition in the market system?" (7/23-28/08)

Government: 43%

Business: 45%

Both Equally: 8%

Unsure: 4%




The environmental movement of the 1960s caught philosophers off guard. Traditional ethical theories were devised to handle how human beings behave towards each other, and it was not obvious how environmentally responsible behavior fit into that scheme. Some environmentalists proclaimed that an entirely new approach to morality was needed to properly understand the unique moral status of the environment itself, and to adequately address looming environmental problems. Others stuck to their guns and argued that environmental responsibility could be explained through traditional human-to-human moral obligations. Much of the discussion in environmental ethics hinges on these two opposing approaches. More precisely, anthropocentrism, or “human-centered-ism”, is the view that only human beings have moral worth in themselves, and all moral responsibility to protect the environment derives from that. On this view, the environment has only instrumental value for humans in the sense that its value depends entirely on the benefit that humans get from it, and it has no intrinsic value in itself. Yellowstone National Park, for example, is valuable as a tourist destination, but not for its own sake. Biocentrism, on the other hand, is the view that both human and non-human living things have moral worth in themselves, and our moral responsibility to protect the environment derives from both. Here, the environment has intrinsic value in itself, and not just instrumental value for humans, although it does have this too. Thus, because of its wildlife and ecosystem, Yellowstone is valuable for its own sake, and not merely as a tourist destination.

            The rift between anthropocentrism and biocentrism often plays out in public debates over wilderness land management issues. For example, should the U.S. government lease out Alaskan wilderness for oil production? The regions in question are probably the last undisturbed natural areas in the U.S., and they are so desolate and remote that people don’t live there and it’s not suitable for recreation. If you are an anthropocentrist who values the environment only for its human benefit, then you will be in favor of oil drilling. On the other hand, if you are a biocentrist who values the environment for itself, independent of human interest, then you will oppose drilling.

            Debates between the two sides have often been unfriendly, where anthropocentrists are villainized for recklessly exploiting everything in nature for selfish human needs, and biocentrists are ridiculed for devaluing the moral worth of human beings to a level below that of animals, plants and rocks. These, though, are unfair caricatures, and both sides recognize at least some overlap between human and environmental interests. While anthropocentrism is exclusively human-focused, it is not inherently hostile to the environment, and many anthropocentrists believe that our most important convictions about preserving the environment can be grounded solely in human-centered interests. Similarly, while biocentrism focuses on non-humans, biocentrism is not inherently hostile to human interests, and many boicentrists believe that our most important convictions about human interests are compatible with biocentric interests. Still, the differences between the two camps can be significant both philosophically and with how each seeks to solve environmental problems such as pollution, species endangerment, and resource depletion. Anthropocentrism may incline toward the environment making big sacrifices, and biocentrism towards human beings making the sacrifices. There differing types of anthropcentric and biocentric theories, and in this chapter we will explore two versions of each, as defined here:


Anthropocentric individualism: all moral responsibility towards the environment is based solely on the interests of either individual people or sectional groups of like-minded individuals.

Anthropocentric collectivism: all moral responsibility towards the environment is based solely on the interests of the human species as a whole.

Biocentric individualism: our moral responsibility towards the environment is based on the interests of both human non-human individual living things.

Biocentric collectivism: our moral responsibility towards the environment is based on the interests of both human and non-human species and larger environmental collections.


We will see that, when moving from one of these theories to the next, the sphere of moral worth widens from human to then include animals, then plants, then ecosystems.


Anthropocentric Individualism

Again, anthropocentric individualism is the view that all moral responsibility towards the environment is based solely on the interests of either individual people or sectional groups of like-minded individuals. If nothing else, Yellowstone has value for three million people a year as a tourist destination. That by itself might be enough to justify maintain its natural condition as much as possible, rather than strip mining it for minerals it contains. Tourism is an example of what is sometimes called a “sectional interest”, namely, a special interest shared by section of society. With Yellowstone, we can easily many sectional interests such as these:


• Economic value of tourism for businesses

• Scientific value for biologists and geologists

• Educational value for students

• Recreational value for hikers, bikers, campers, rafters

• Aesthetic value for all visitors

• Spiritual value for religious mystics

• Heritage value for Native Americans

• Ecological value as source of clean air and water for surrounding residents

• Historical value for historians and archeologists

• Patriotic value as a symbol of pride for state residents


This is just one example of how anthropocentric individualism can justify the preservation of a natural area, and the challenge is whether it can adequately justify environmental responsibility in all types of environmentally-significant locations and situations. But, considering the size of the planet and its almost infinite variety of life forms and ecosystems, no single defender of anthropocentrism can adequately analyze every environmental concern. Rather, defenders typically focus on a small number of problems, such as pollution or land conservation. We will look at the views of two such defenders who wrote at the outset of the modern environmental movement.

            First is American attorney and legal scholar William Baxter (1929-1998) whose book People or Penguins (1974) raises the anthropocentrist question in its very title. Baxter proudly chooses people over penguins:


My [environmental] criteria are oriented to people, not penguins.  Damage to penguins, or sugar pines, or geological marvels is, without more, simply irrelevant.  One must go further, by my criteria, and say: Penguins are important because people enjoy seeing them walk about rocks; and furthermore, the well-being of people would be less impaired by halting use of DDT than by giving up penguins.  In short, my observations about environmental problems will be people-oriented, as are my criteria.  I have no interest in preserving penguins for their own sake. [People or Penguins]


Penguins are valuable, then, only because of the enjoyment that humans get from them. There are two parts to Baxter’s theory, the first being why he opts for anthropocentrism. His explanation is simple: there is no right or morally correct “state of nature to which we should return” and the word “nature” has obligatory implication. It was not right or wrong for nature to create mountains or seas, or for amphibians to crawl up on land, or for plants to alter the atmosphere by producing oxygen. Nature by itself is morally neutral, and whatever value it has is one that humans derive from it. The second part is how anthropocentrism can successfully deal with environmental problems. Take pollution, for example: we all want less of it, but, to attain this, industries must spend more money to reduce factory pollution and thus charge more for the TVs and refrigerators that they manufacture. If we want 100% clean and water, the costs of consumer goods will be astronomical. But if we want the cheapest TVs and refrigerators that we can get, our air and water will be unacceptably toxic. We will thus find an optimal middle level where air and water are acceptably clean, and TVs and refrigerators are reasonably priced.

            Baxter’s theory is an excellent default starting point for the morality of environmental responsibility. He makes a bare minimum of assumptions and takes seriously the environmental challenges that society faces. This alone makes anti-environmentalism untenable, and it creates a common ground for environmental dialog with anyone, regardless of ideological persuasion. But we still must ask whether his theory goes far enough, and there are two criticisms of it that we should consider. Regarding the first part of his theory, it is not a given that nature is morally-neutral as he suggests. While it might seem obvious from an anthropocentric perspective that nature itself has no moral preference, the biocentric intuition is becoming more popular, and it challenges this very assumption. After all, biocentrists argue, humans are natural objects and we believe that there is something about us that gives us moral worth. It is then a fair question to ask whether that “something” is present in non-human living things. Later we will look at how biocentrists address this, but the point for now is it is at least questionable whether nature is morally-neutral in the manner that Baxter supposes. The next criticism, regarding the second part of his theory, questions whether consumers will arrive at an acceptable balance between a reasonably clean environment and reasonably priced consumer goods. The problem is that consumers will often foolishly trade off things of vital importance for cheaper prices. Sick people will often not pay for costly medication even if their lives depend upon it. Home owners will often not buy smoke alarms and fire extinguishers even when knowing full well their safety benefits. Thus, the optimal level of air pollution will be skewed in favor of industry cost-cutting that results in cheaper consumer goods, and skewed against expensive pollution control devices that result in cleaner air.

            The second defender of anthropocentrism is Australian philosopher John Passmore (1914- 2004), whose book Man’s Responsibility for Nature (1974) appeared the same year as Baxter’s. He makes his anthropocentrism clear: “In my ethical arguments, I treat human interests as paramount. I do not apologise for that fact” (p. 187). Again, there are two parts to his theory, the first being his reasons for adopting anthropocentrism. His justification here is that traditional moral theory in Western civilization is and always has been human-centered, and there is no reason to move beyond this. He gives a detailed account of this tradition, and finds both good and bad things about it. On the bad side, there has been the view that humans rule over nature and can do anything they want to it like a despot. He quotes from Kant as an example of this:


As the single being on earth that possesses understanding, [man] is certainly titular lord of nature, and, supposing that we regard nature as a teleological system, he is born to be its ultimate end [Kant, Critique of Judgment, 83]


However, on the good side, there is the view that sees humanity “as a ‘steward’, a farm-manager, actively responsible as God’s deputy for the care of the world” (p. 28). Passmore fully recognizes that environmental problems have gotten so bad that, if Western civilization is to survive, it must significantly change its ways. However, he maintains, there is no need for a “new ethic” as biocentrists maintain, but rather to “adhere to a perfectly familiar ethic” (p. 187). That is, our anthropocentric morality must reject environmental despotism and instead cultivate environmental stewardship.

            The second part of Passmore’s theory addresses how anthropocentrism can successfully deal with environmental problems. He argues that the major causes of ecological disasters are ignorance, greed, short-sightedness, and fanaticism. If we follow our greedy and short-sighted impulses, then we will destroy nature in pursuit of economic gain. If we fanatically follow theologians that encourage procreation and denounce contraception, then unchecked population growth will also destroy nature. If we fanatically follow the anti-scientific recommendations of environmental mystics who emphasize “philosophy of oneness”, then we will lose the ecological benefits of science. The starting point for environmental responsibility, he argues, is developing a sensuous enjoyment of nature that will ignite into a love and responsibility for it. He writes, “Only if men can first learn to look sensuously at the world will they learn to care for it. Not only to look at it, but to touch it, smell it, taste it.” Once we do this, we must then address specific problems such as pollution through the “old-fashioned procedure” of thoughtful action, and draw on “the joint efforts of scientists, technologists, economists, statesmen, administrators.”

            Passmore’s theory is a next step beyond Baxter’s default environmentalism, since it requires an active commitment to environmental stewardship. Still, we must consider two criticisms, one for each part of his theory. The first problem is that Passmore’s view is not very multicultural, which matters more now than it did when he initially wrote his book. By his own design, he focuses on the moral tradition of Western civilization, and even then on only the most traditional elements within these. It is almost as if he is saying that he is an anthropocentrist since Plato and the Bible told him so. He overlooks or underplays biocentric themes of non-human moral worth and nature’s interconnectedness found in eastern religions, indigenous cultures, and unorthodox Western philosophers. It is perfectly fine for an author to write a book that narrowly focuses on the dominant themes of Western moral theory. The case is different with this subject matter, though, because of the global impact of environmental problems where people around the world are joint stakeholders. The biocentric “new morality” that Passmore rejects is in fact the “old morality” for Hindus, Daoists and Native Americans. As compelling as his theory may be for traditional Western philosophers, it does not have the universal appeal needed for a broader moral mandate.

            A second criticism, which pertains to his solution to environmental problems, is, again, that it will not have a broad enough appeal. Most simply, his solution is that responsible stewardship will only happen when people have a sensual enjoyment of nature that goes beyond the economic benefit that they can get from it. It is perfectly reasonable to suppose that a more direct appreciation of nature will translate into greater environmental responsibility. The problem is the suggestion that sensual enjoyment of nature is the only way to bring this about. Even if I have this capacity somewhere within me, I might not have the opportunity to exercise it to the degree required to make me environmentally responsible. If I work three jobs at minimum wage to support my family, enjoyment of nature will be the least of my immediate concerns. If I live and work in a large city, I may never even see nature. Passmore may have been exaggerating the sensual enjoyment factor for dramatic effect, but aside from that he offers no alternative motivation for changing my environmentally harmful habits.

            In all fairness to Baxter and Passmore, by entering the environmentalism debate so early, they did not have access to the explosion of biocentric publications that appeared in succeeding years. But later defenders of anthropocentrism did, and were better armed. We turn to those next.


Anthropocentric Collectivism

Anthropocentric individualism, as we have seen, focuses solely on the interests of individual people or sectional groups of like-minded individuals. Anthropocentric collectivism, however, looks beyond the individual human and maintains that all moral responsibility towards the environment is based solely on the interests of the human species as a whole, particularly for future generations of humans. It is wrong to damage the environment through pollution or habitat destruction because of the harm this does to our species, which is beyond the harm that it does to individual humans right now. What matters here is establishing environmental practices that will have a positive impact on future generations of people.

            The leading advocate of this position is American philosopher Bryan Norton (b. 1942), who has been actively involved in both the philosophical and public policy aspects of environmentalism. There are two components of Norton’s position that we will consider here, first why he prefers a collectivist over an individualist anthropocentrism, and, second, how anthropocentric collectivism addresses environmental problems. Regarding the first of these, he argues that anthropocentrism must be the starting point for environmentalism since humans are ultimately the ones who will make the environmental choices. But the individualistic approach is flawed because many of the environmental problems we face are long term ones that extend beyond the lifespans of people today. With ozone depletion, storage of radioactive waste, and global warming, for example, the harm that we experience now may be minimal, but it is potentially catastrophic for future generations. Antropocentric individualists do not adequately account for that long-term impact, and Passmore in particular states that “we ought to try to improve the world so that we shall be able to hand it over to our immediate successors in a better condition [than we found it in], and that is all” (Man’s Responsibility). That is, for Passmore, one generation into the future is all the further that our moral obligations extend. Norton argues that this is clearly is not enough, and we need an environmentalism that is more long-sighted. To this end Norton proposes the Axiom of Future Value:


[The Axiom of Future Value is that] The continuance and thriving of the human species (and its evolutionary successors) is a good thing, and every generation is obliged to do what is necessary to perpetuate that good. The obligation to perpetuate and protect the human species is therefore accepted as a fundamental moral axiom, which exists independently of obligations to individuals. [Towards Unity among Environmentalists, 1994, p. 216]


For Norton, then, our environmental responsibility is grounded in our moral obligation to protect the human species in future generations, irrespective of the obligations that individual humans have to each other right now. This obligation to the future is not even to individual humans, but instead to future people collectively: this is “just as we are indebted to our forefathers, not individually but collectively, for our cultural heritage” (p. 218).

            Regarding Norton’s solution to environmental problems, the second part of his theory, he proposes what he calls the convergence hypothesis, where well-informed environmental policies will equally address the concerns of anthropocentrists and biocentrists. In his words, “Environmentalists believe that policies serving the interests of the human species as a whole, and in the long run, will serve also the 'interests' of nature, and vice versa.” (p.  240). As such, he believes, they will tend to propose similar policies. His issue here is with biocentrists who believe that more is needed than what anthropocentrism can provide, even with a collectivist focus on future generations. For Norton, the practical task of constructing sound environmental policy is not changed by insisting on the biocentric belief that plants and animals have intrinsic value apart from our human interests in them. What is good for non-human living things is also good for future generations of humans, and the reverse. Both sides of the debate can work in partnership with each other, and, without making compromises, arrive at mutually agreeable answers to environmental questions like “Will there still be wildness? Will the climate be sufficiently stable for human and multispecies communities to thrive? Will the future be spared costly clean-ups of our toxic wastes?” (p. 219). Further, both sides can agree to the importance of passing on to future generations a shared cultural history of appreciation of natural beauty.

            Norton’s theory thus aims at reconciling environmentalists across all philosophical perspectives, and the key to this is setting aside convictions about the moral status of non-human living things and focusing instead upon effective environmental policy. The goal is admirable, and perhaps even achievable, but it still faces criticisms, two of which we will consider.

            The first criticism is that Norton’s notion of obligations to future generations is too imprecise. The topic is complex, and raises a series of troubling questions. The further that we project into the future, the less we know about it and understand what our moral obligations to future people might be. We can grasp the future of our immediate successors well enough, and perhaps even the likely state of human society one hundred years from now. But we cannot foresee all likely scenarios beyond that for hundreds or thousands of years, either utopian or dystopian. Maybe the environmental problems of today will be easily corrected and managed through future energy sources, biotechnologies, farming techniques, competent political systems, or even nature’s own ability to recover. Maybe our current human civilization will be wiped out through natural disaster, inevitable war, or irreparable environmental damage, but in the course of geological time it will turn out heavenly for our genetic descendants. We cannot be morally obligated to what we realistically cannot know. There is also the psychological problem of whether any obligation to future people can be as compelling as the immediate obligation that we have to humans right now. Evolution has designed us to have more concern for the immediate survival interests of ourselves and our children who we know, rather than our great-great grandchildren who we do not know. Nature’s message seems to be that we should let the future worry about itself. We may want to fight that psychological tendency, but it at some point as we look down the timeline it may be a losing battle. In short, for Norton’s view to be viable, we would need to know how far into the future we should extend our obligation to the human species, and whether we are even psychologically capable of doing so. Maybe these questions can be answered, but probably not to everyone’s satisfaction.

            The second criticism of Norton is directed against his convergence hypotheses: there are some environmental policies where the views of anthropocentrists and biocentrists will not converge. With many environmental problems, such as pollution, Norton could be right that well-informed anthropocentrists and biocentrists will tend to promote similar environmental behaviors and policies. If an anthropocentrist is truly concerned about future generations of humans, then she will adopt the same anti-pollution policies as a biocentrist who is concerned about the well-being of non-human living things. Life is interconnected, and our fates are tied together. However, with other problems, the two sides will not necessarily converge, and both sides might stubbornly dig in their heels. According to critic Marc Shaner, a case in point is biotechnologies that create new or genetically modified living organisms, such as bacteria that can eat up oil spills, or cows that will be cheaper to raise. Anthopocentrists will argue that these are justified because of the good that they bring about for humans now and in the future. However, some biocentrists might question in principle the morality of gene-spicing techniques and the indignity that this poses to the donors and recipients, regardless of how the human species might benefit from this. That is, anthropocentrists might insist that these biotechnologies are pragmatically justifiable, whereas biocentrists might equally insist that they are in principle unjustifiable regardless of pragmatic benefit. This is not just a theoretical debate, but one that impacts public policy when some biocentrists lobby hard to stop these biotechnologies (Marc Shaner, “Biotechnology”, 2000). What Shaner describes is like a conflict between two incompatible religions or two incompatible political ideologies, and Norton may not have considered the difficulties with bridging such gaps.


Biocentric Individualism

Biocentrism, as we have been discussing it in its most general sense, holds that our moral responsibility to protect the environment derives from the moral worth of both human and non-human living things. There are, as we have seen, two types of biocentrism, one individualistic and the other collectivistic. We turn now to biocentric individualism: our moral responsibility towards the environment is based on the interests of both human and non-human individual living things. There are two approaches to this theory: (a) the animal interests view and (b) the plant and animal interests view

            The animal interests view is that some animals have moral worth in themselves, and for that reason we have moral obligations to them and the natural environment upon which they depend. You cannot claim that an elephant has moral value in itself, and then proceed to destroy that elephant’s habitat. The elephant and its natural environment are linked, and that goes for any other sentient animal. Peter Singer, who we discussed in the previous chapter on animals, holds this view. For him, sentient animals have moral worth in and of themselves because they have the conscious capacity to suffer and experience enjoyment, and that animal’s value is not derived merely from human interest. This is what gives humans moral worth and so too with animals. Singer agrees that anthropocentrism provides some justification for environmental protection: “a human-centred ethic can be the basis of powerful arguments for what we may call ‘environmental values’” (Practical Ethics, 271). However, he continues, our moral obligation is extended further once we take into account the interests of sentient animals, and this includes the obligation to protect that habitats upon which they depend:


we should confine ourselves to arguments based on the interests of sentient creatures, present and future, human and non-human. These arguments are quite sufficient to show that, at least in a society where no one needs to destroy wilderness in order to obtain food for survival or materials for shelter from the elements, the value of preserving the remaining significant areas of wilderness greatly exceeds the economic values gained by its destruction. [p. 284]


Singer’s approach is sometimes called “extensionism” since it begins with old-fashioned environmental anthropocentrism, and then extends it a bit to include the interests of sentient animals in addition to those of humans. Here are the steps in this rationale:


• Humans have inherent moral worth, which entails an obligation to protect the environment for humans (anthropocentric rationale)

• Sentient animals have moral worth, which entails an obligation to protect the environment for those animals (biocentric individualistic animal view)


            The “plants and animal interests view” extends this rationale one step further to include all other forms of non-sentient animal life, such as bugs, worms, trees, grass and any other vegetation. On this view, anything that is alive has moral worth in itself and, because of this, we have moral obligations to them and the natural environment upon which they depend. Here now is a third step in the extensionst rationale that we add to the two above:


• All living things, including lower animals and plants, have moral worth, which entails an obligation to protect the environment for those living things (biocentric individualistic plants and animals view)


There is no question that this is an odd theory. It may be hard enough for some people to accept Singer’s “animal view”, but any sane person would be included to reject this third step. Strange is it appears, views of this sort were expressed in the ancient world, an example of which is that by Babylonian Mani (b. 216 CE), founder of the  Manichean Gnostic religion. According to Mani, plants are sacred because God dwells within them, and here is his explanation for how this came about. Mani and other Gnostics held to the dualistic view that God is inherently good while the earth is inherently evil. However, to lessen the evil nature of the earth, God infused part of his divine goodness into the earth, thereby making it at least a little better than it would be otherwise. The roots of plants then suck up this divine component from the soil. When the plant dies, this divine portion is released from the plant and drifts back to heaven. The divine component of plants also returns to heaven when animals grind and chew plants for food. Manicheans were vegetarians since, they believed, animals such as cows swallow only the evil portion of plants once the divine portion is released through chewing. Animal flesh, then, is all evil, and should not be ingested by humans. However, Mani had a vision which revealed that killing plants was a type of murder. To survive, Mani required a lower group of his followers to take on the sin of preparing vegetarian meals for himself and a higher group of his followers.

            Manicheanism was a short-lived religion, and today his explanation of plant sacredness looks farfetched. But if we strip away the religious trappings, there remains an intuition that there is something inherently valuable about all life, including plants, which German philosopher Albert Schweitzer expresses as the “reverence for life”:


Ethics thus consists in this, that I experience the necessity of practising the same reverence for life toward all will-to-live, as toward my own. Therein I have already the needed fundamental principle of morality. It is good to maintain and cherish life; it is evil to destroy and to check life. [Civilization and Ethics]


For Schweitzer, this means that when we harm life of any kind, we must be sure that it is necessary "even in apparently insignificant cases”. The farmer can cut down plants in his field to feed his cows, but should not kill a single plant unnecessarily. This view has been more recently expressed by American philosopher Paul Taylor (1923-2015). Every organism, he argues, has moral worth because each has a built-in goal that directs its growth and activities towards its survival and well-being. Whether it’s a plant, human or animal, it has, as he calls it, a “teleological center of life”:


Each [organism] is seen to be a teleological (goal-oriented) center of life, pursuing its own good in its own unique way. This, of course, does not mean that they all seek their good as a conscious end or purpose, the realization of which is their intended aim. Consciousness may not be present at all, and even when it is present the organism need not be thought of as intentionally taking steps to achieve its sets for itself. Rather, a living thing is conceived as a unified system of organized activity, the constant tendency of which is to preserve its existence by protecting and promoting its well-being. [Respect for Nature, 1986, p. 45]


Each living thing, according to Taylor, has its own life cycle, and this gives it moral worth. This does not mean that every living thing has rights in the way that humans do, but it does mean that we have moral responsibilities towards them. Particularly, we should not treat an individual animal or plant as a mere instrument to be used for human purposes, and we should protect its good. That responsibility also increases as we move up the food chain, from plants, to unconscious animals to conscious ones. In spite of these obligations, however, our human interests often come in conflict with those of non-human living things, and we may be justified in harming them. For example, out of self-defense we may protect ourselves from harmful organisms, such as by killing a poison ivy plant or a venomous snake in my back yard. Also, in pursuit of our basic human interests such as eating food, we can kill plants, but we cannot do so with sentient animals unless no plant options are available.

            Schweitzer’s and Taylor’s version of biocentric individualism is sweeping in its scope, since it aims to preserve the environment by protecting the entire layer of individual living things that blanket the earth. Thus, any human activity that damages the environment will on face value be wrong since it will harm potentially countless individual organisms. The vision is clear, but the devil is in the details, and there are two prominent criticisms of this theory.

            The first criticism is the problem of minimal life: how tiny or simple can a living thing be and still qualify for respect and moral worth? We may ask whether an individual virus or a bacterium, which are among the smallest known living things, merits the right to exist in itself, independently of the impact it has on humans. One biologist has in fact argued for “biocentric microbiology”, with the rationale that both “humans and microorganisms are cellular, nucleic acid-based life forms that struggle to survive and disseminate their nucleic material” and consequently “deserve equal attention” (Aziz, “The Case for Biocentric Microbiology”, 1999). If we extend moral worth to simple life forms like bacteria, this raises a further question of whether there are grounds to extend moral worth even further to non-living things like rocks and minerals. For, microorganisms metabolize and replicate so mechanically that their “life” may not be significantly different from the mechanical growth processes of a rock like a quartz crystal. Indeed, the Greek philosopher Plotinus (204-270 CE) argued that everything in the universe is alive, and even a rock has an underlying life that is not immediately visible (Enneads, 4.4.36). Maybe individual microorganisms and rocks do have a moral status independent of human interests, or maybe they don’t, but we cannot decide this here. The point is that, for the “plants and animals” view to be viable, we need a clear conception of what “life” means for moral purposes, and exactly which types of beings qualify for life. The moral conception of “life” that we arrive at may have little to do with the definition of life used by biologists, which itself is ever-changing. Our conceptions of life, reverence and value predate scientific inquiry by millennia, and for all we know these more primitive notions of “life” may be hardwired into our moral thought process.

            The second criticism is the problem of prioritizing conflicting interests: when human and non-human interests clash, how should we determine which gets preference? For example, if we get hungry or need to build a city, these human interests will undoubtedly conflict with the plants and animals we eat and dispossess from their land. Taylor presents an elaborate set of conditions for making these decisions which are too detailed to consider here. But the general rule of thumb for both Taylor and Schweitzer is that humans can harm non-human things only for major needs and not for trivial interests. Food is a clear example of a serious need since we would die without it. But this alone raises complex questions of how best to reduce the body count of both plants and animals to fulfill that need. Maybe we need to be eating only the byproducts of plants and animals, such as fruits, nuts, milk and eggs, rather than the plant or animal itself, such as a chicken or head of lettuce. Maybe we should prefer eating one medium fish for a meal rather than 10 small sardines. A vegetarian friend told me that he only eats plants that are at the end of their life cycles, and if he ever eats bean sprouts, which are at the beginning of theirs, he can hear them scream. This is a bit dramatic, but his point is valid: every food choice we make must be done in light of minimizing harm to each individual organism in our path. There is also the difficult question of which of our organism-damaging consumer products or leisure activities are necessary rather than trivial. Schweitzer and Taylor offer answers to these questions, but their answers too conveniently favor our human interests: we have a drive to develop human culture, and the culture we create has a special value that overrides the interests of animals. Both of these philosophers insist that we need to make big sacrifices on behalf of non-human organisms, but, from the perspective of a plant or an animal, the sacrifices that we make do not come close to addressing interests of non-humans within the world of living things.


Biocentric Collectivism

Our final theory, biocentric collectivism, is that our moral responsibility toward the environment is based on the interests of both human and non-human species and larger environmental collections. This view is sometimes called “eco-centrism” because of its focus on ecosystems, or “wholism” for emphasizing the value of the wholes rather than the individual parts. On this view, ecosystems and even the entire biosphere itself are like an organism which has moral worth independently of their impact on individual humans, animals, or plants. A few philosophers of the past embraced the idea that all individual things are unified by the larger world, such as Plotinus who describes the earth as a giant tree trunk that extends life and reason throughout its branches (Enneads, 7.6.11). But it was not until the twentieth century that we find the explicit claim that the environment is morally valuable in itself. The undisputed father of this view is American ecologist Aldo Leopold (1887-1948) who worked for the U.S. Forest Service. In his essay "The Land Ethic" (1949), he describes how notions of morality have evolved over the millennia. The earliest moral conceptions regulated conduct between individuals, as reflected in the Ten Commandments. Later ones regulated conduct between an individual and society, as reflected in the Golden Rule. But now, according to Leopold, we are on the brink of a new advance in morality that regulates conduct between humans and the environment. He calls this final phase the land ethic, and states that "The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land." This involves a radical shift in how humans perceive themselves in relation to the environment. Originally we saw ourselves as conquerors of the land, but now we need to see ourselves as members of a community that also includes the land. Thus, he writes, the guiding moral principle of the land ethic is that “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.”

            Biocentric collectivism is often associated with other environmental theories that make even more radical claims. The theory of deep ecology holds that humans are only part of a larger ecosphere, and we should try to understand how the environmental system operates as a whole. To gain that understanding, we need to go through a life-transforming experience called “re-earthing” by which we gradually identify more closely with the earth. Another related theory is the Gaia hypothesis, which is the view that the entire earth is a single ecosystem or organism that regulates itself through feedback mechanisms to maintain a state of equilibrium that is conducive to life on this planet. For example, when the heat from the sun increases or decreases, the planet's self-regulating ecosystem compensates by adjusting the amount of greenhouse gas that it emits. As a result, the temperature on earth has remained relatively constant for the past billion years. Advocates of the Gaia hypothesis argue that recent human intrusion into the ecosystem threatens to disrupt this self-regulating process. Deep ecology and the Gaia hypothesis share the central intuition of biocentric collectivism that we must value the earth’s larger ecological system apart from the interests of individual humans and even nonhuman living things.

            So, what are the benefits of biocentric collectivism over the theories that we have already discussed? There are two commonly mentioned advantages, the first of which is that it makes better sense of our obligations to worms, bacteria and rocks. It seems wrong to say that their moral worth consists only in their benefit to humans, as anthropocentrists maintain. We are talking about natural objects that existed long before primates came down from the trees, and surely they must have had some kind of inherent value prior to us. Also, as we have seen, it seems strange to say that each worm or bacterium individually has moral worth, as biocentric individualists maintain. Biocentric collectivism, though, avoids both of these problems: yes, worms, bacteria and rocks have moral worth beyond our human use of them, but not as individuals. Their inherent worth consists in their species collectively and in the role that each of these individual natural objects play as parts of ecosystems collectively.

            A second advantage of biocentric collectivism is that, while seemingly new to Western culture, it is embraced by many non-Western ones, both past and present. Tribal communities often see themselves and their natural surroundings as a single family, and they have survived through the respectful and sustainable use of their land. One Native American tribal leader describes the collective aspect of nature here:


there came a great unifying life force that flowed in and through all things: the flowers of the plains, blowing winds, rocks, trees, birds, animals and was the same force that had been breathed into the first man. Thus all things were kindred, and were brought together by the same Great Mystery [Luther Standing Bear, Land of the Spotted Eagle, 1933]


Similarly, the Eastern religious traditions of Hinduism, Buddhism and Daoism hold that all existing things are aspects of a larger divine reality, thereby uniting humans, animals, and plants. Daoism, for example, describes that ultimate reality as the Dao, or way of nature, which is like a cosmic recycling process from which all things emerge and in time will return. The Dao de Jing states that “the Great Dao is all encompassing, its influences extend in all directions, and all living things depend on it” (34). While this collectivist aspect of nature has only been at the fringes of Western thinking, its prominence in other cultures suggests that, on the world stage, it is neither odd nor new.

            The principal criticism of biocentric collectivism is the problem of ecofascism: the larger good of the environment overrides all human interests. Leopold invites this charge with the very wording of his ethical principle: “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.” That is, actions are right when they preserve the environment, and wrong when they do not. As written, this is not merely a guideline for environmental responsibility, but it purports to be a statement about all moral conduct, environmental or otherwise. Yet it makes no mention of important human moral values, such as not stealing from or murdering fellow humans, and it considers only the impact of our conduct on the environment. Maybe it would be good for the environment of humans went on a killing spree and wiped out three-quarters of the human population. That alone would solve the problem of global warming. Also, everyday choices we make would be determined by their impact on the environment. Should you buy a car? No, it’s better for the environment if you walk everywhere. Should you build a house? No, it’s better for the environment if you live in a cave. On the whole, maybe the best thing for the environment would be to just let the human species die out. Leopold’s principle, then, does not just expand upon the old systems of human morality, it destroys and replaces them.

            The problem of ecofacism parallels the problem of prioritizing conflicting interests that we considered earlier, and, again, defenders of biocentric collectivism have offered suggestions. The most prominent among these defenders is American philosopher J. Baird Callicott, who argues that our various environmental and non-environmental obligations are related in a manner analogous to annular tree rings. The inner and most ancient ring of moral responsibility includes obligations to family and friends. Successive rings then involve obligations to the community, country, world community and, finally to the ecosystem. On this analogy, inner rings of obligation outweigh the outer rings (“The Conceptual Foundations of the Land Ethic” 1987). He adds to his tree ring analogy the following two guidelines:


(1) Obligations generated by membership in more venerable and intimate communities take precedence over those generated in more recently emerged and impersonal communities;

(2) Stronger interests take precedence over duties generated by weaker interests. (“Holistic Environmental Ethics,” 1999)


Thus, generally speaking, Principle 1 tells us that obligations to family and friends are the strongest since these are the oldest and most personal, and obligations to the environment are the weakest since these are newer and more impersonal. However, Principle 2 leaves open the possibility that some environmental interests, like global warming prevention, are so strong that they outweigh weaker personal interests, such as buying a large car that gets poor gas mileage.


Environmentalism and the Profit Motive

Much of the harm done to the environment is the result of business and industry. Although businesses may not intentionally set out to damage the environment, the end result is that they do, and there are two reasons for this. First, businesses and industries are inherently imposing on nature since they take pieces of nature and reshape them into things that did not exist before, such as television sets, automobiles, shopping malls, skyscrapers. The means of producing these things are demanding on natural resources, the products themselves are often toxic, and the infrastructure to create them destroys habitats. Second, from an economic standpoint, businesses are driven by the motive to make a profit. Stockholders demand a return on their investment, and this mandate transfers down through the management hierarchy. Part of making a profit is to reduce costs, and environmental responsibility is very costly, with few immediate financial rewards. Thus a business that is driven by the profit motive could very much be at odds with the wellbeing of the environment.

            The challenge, then, is to motivate businesses to become more environmentally friendly in spite of the costs of doing so. One business environmentalist argues that it is unrealistic to expect either businesses or consumers to make financial sacrifices for the benefit of the environment, and any attainable business-oriented environmentalism must somehow be tied to the profit motive:


No “plan” to reverse environmental degradation can be enacted if it requires a wholesale change in the dynamics of the market. We have to work with who we are—which includes our strong instinct to shop the market and buy products of comparable quality at the lowest price. We can’t just ask people to pay more to save the planet. They won’t do it in some cases—and can’t in most. [Paul Hawkin, The Ecology of Commerce, xv]


The strategy, then, is to link environmental responsibility with the profit motive, and there are two approaches for doing this.

            The first is based on the principle that good environmental practices result in good business, which means that environmentally responsible business decisions will have financial benefits. Just start out by pursuing environmental sustainability, and this will generate profits. For example, a business might also update older energy-hungry production units with more efficient ones and thus cut costs. A business might recycle its production waste and, by indicating this on their packaging, attract environmentally conscious buyers and make more money. The second approach is based on the principle that good business results in good environmental practices. That is, in a truly competitive and free market, the profit motive will in fact bring about responsible environmental policies. Just start out by pursuing profits, and the market place will force you to be environmentally responsible. Environmentally conscious consumers will not buy from companies that are environmentally irresponsible and this will force businesses to act with that in mind. While these two approaches are conceptually distinct, in practice they are intertwined since over time good environmental practices will lead to profits, which in turn will lead to even more good environmental practices, and so on.

            The poster child for profit-based environmentalism is Ray Anderson (1934-2011), founder and CEO of Interface carpet company. After 20 years in the carpet manufacturing industry, Anderson realized that his company had been plundering natural resources while giving no thought to how it was affecting the environment. He then devised a business plan that would be both environmentally sustainable and financially profitable. He and his company managers sifted through all components of their business operations to find areas of environmental negligence and then developed environmentally sustainable alternatives that saved money. This led to manufacturing innovations that reduced waste, many of which the company patented. Anderson believed that if his carpet company could do this, then any business could. Indeed, one nonprofit organization, the Environmental Defense Fund, works with businesses to switch to environmentally-sound practices that will save them money. For example, it partnered with McDonalds to switch from styrofoam packaging to paper, which saved the company $6 million a year. Other partner companies include Walmart, UPS, Starbucks, GE, AT&T ( 

            Anderson may be right that many industries could successfully follow in his footsteps and be both profitable and environmentally sustainable. But the obstacles can be enormous, particularly when trying to understand the critical role of the consumer in selecting environmentally-friendly products. There are two distinct problems with this.

            First is the problem that consumers will not necessarily demand environmentally responsible products from businesses, and in fact may opt for less environmentally friendly ones if they know they will be saving money. A high performing electric car may cost twice as much as its gas-powered equivalent. Installing and maintaining solar electric panels on your roof may also cost twice as much as what you would normally pay for electricity. When consumers themselves are motivated by cost savings, they will be less inclined to put economic pressure on businesses to be environmentally responsible. Second is the problem of greenwashing, which is the pretended effort at environmental responsibility. Many consumers are indeed attracted to companies that are environmentally sustainable, and for that reason might prefer Interface’s carpets over others. However, businesses know this and often make efforts to promote themselves as eco-friendly regardless of whether their companies are actually working towards environmental sustainability. If you search the websites of the top ten carpet manufacturers you will find prominent statements on them all about their commitment to the environment. Maybe they all are, but the consumer has no easy way of knowing whether Interface is unique among them in their commitment to environmental sustainability. We see green labeling and phrases like “eco-friendly”, “sustainable”, and “recycled” stamped on the packaging of every type of consumer product, and separating the real from the counterfeit is a challenge. This means that businesses cannot count on their costly environmental efforts paying off when consumers are lured off by the greenwashed labels of rival companies. Thus, a critical link in the chain between profit and sustainability is broken.

            Thus, environmentally-sound business practices may not magically emerge from the profit motive, and this leads us to consider public policies where the government forces the issue upon businesses.




Environmental public policy involves the laws and regulations within a society that deal how it interacts with the environment. In this section we will look at some of the major environmental laws in the U.S., and a debate about the best way to enforce those laws.


U.S. Environmental Laws

Direct government involvement in the environment is a comparatively recent phenomenon. During the nineteenth-century, a few industrial cities enacted anti-pollution laws, the first of which was Chicago whose city council passed an anti-smoke ordinance in 1881 to address the problem of steamship smoke on Lake Michigan. Polluters at the time could also be sued by local residents or governments for violating public nuisance provisions under common law. For example, an Indiana farmer and his wife were awarded $2,000 from a paper mill for discharging waste into a creek that damaged several acres of farm vegetation and made the creek water unsuitable for their livestock to drink (Muncie Pulp Company v. Martin, 1899). But not all such law suits were successful. For example, the State of Missouri sued the City of Chicago for dumping untreated sewage into the Mississippi River, which was the source of drinking water for the city of St. Louis downstream. This in turn caused a spike in typhoid deaths in that city. The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of Chicago since Missouri could not prove that Chicago was the source of the contamination. The Court did recognize that water pollution was a serious problem, but stated that the Court itself was not in a position to decide that larger issue:


It is a question of the first magnitude whether the destiny of the great rivers is to be the sewers of the cities along their banks or to be protecting against everything which threatens their purity.  To decide the whole matter at one blow by an irrevocable fiat would be at least premature. (Missouri v. Illinois, 1906).


            By midcentury the Federal government began creating and enforcing rigorous anti-pollution and other environmental laws, such as the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948 and Air Pollution Control Act of 1955. Amendments to these and other anti-pollution laws followed in succeeding decades. Congress also passed two critical environmental preservation laws. First was the Wilderness Act of 1964, the aim of which was to ensure that human population growth does not encroach into all areas in the country “leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition”.  Next was the Endangered Species Act of 1973, the key purpose of which was “to provide a means whereby the ecosystems upon which endangered species and threatened species depend may be conserved.” The chief problem, according to the act, is that widespread extinctions have occurred within the U.S. “as a consequence of economic growth and development untempered by adequate concern and conservation.” The act specifically states that “these species of fish, wildlife, and plants are of esthetic, ecological, educational, historical, recreational, and scientific value to the Nation and its people.”

            The governmental body chiefly responsible for setting and enforcing environmental policy in the U.S. is the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), created in 1970. High on its agenda are setting standards and enforcing laws regarding air and water pollution, land resource management, endangered species, and hazardous waste disposal. The EPA is also responsible for the creation of the Energy Star program which labels appliances such as water heaters that meet high standards of energy efficiency. The EPA often straddles between two opposing interests. On the one hand, there are the economic interests of business and industry, supporters of which maintain that environmental laws are too extreme and can cripple financial growth. On the other hand, there are the interests of environmental groups who hold that governmental laws do not go nearly far enough in protecting the species and their habitats. I had a conversation with one EPA worker in which he said that he knows that he is doing his job right if both sides of the issue are angry with him.

            As in the nineteenth-century, some environmental conflicts today are settled in court. Those earlier cases involved a person or a city suing a polluter over personal injury caused by the pollution. That is, the issues involved the financial harm done to people, not the ecological harm done to the river itself. However, recent court cases attempt to sue polluters specifically over the ecological harm done to the river itself. This raises the critical issue of what is called legal standing, which is the requirement that only parties who have been injured can bring the lawsuit. Technically speaking, unconscious natural objects like rivers cannot experience injury, so they themselves do not have a legal standing. This issue was addressed in a landmark the Supreme Court Sierra Club v. Morton (1971), in which the Sierra Club opposed the creation of a ski resort near Sequoia National Park. The Sierra Club was essentially suing on behalf of a forest because the resort would detract from its pristine natural condition. The Court acknowledged that the resort created a legitimate environmental injury: “Aesthetic and environmental wellbeing, like economic wellbeing, are important ingredients of the quality of life in our society, and the fact that particular environmental interests are shared by the many, rather than the few, does not make them less deserving of legal protection through the judicial process.” The critical issue, though, concerned whether the Sierra Club itself was injured and could on that basis have a legal standing. Not in this situation, the Court concluded, since no members of the Sierra club claimed that the creation of the ski resort would negatively affect them personally. On the minus side, the Sierra Club thus lost the case on a technicality. But on the plus side, the court established at least one clear guideline for suing on behalf of the environment: an organization like the Sierra Club would have a legal standing to do so if at least one of its members was injured by some environmental damage. This strategy has been effectively used in subsequent court cases, such as one in which a local environmental group sued an industrial polluter for injuring them by making a river unusable for recreational purposes (Friends of the Earth v. Laidlaw, 2000).

            However, one of the Supreme Court justices in the Sierra Club case believed that the court could have done better. In his dissenting opinion, Justice William O. Douglas suggested that some ecosystems should be granted the status of legal persons, just as corporations have, and thus have a legal standing to be plaintiffs in law suits. That is, a river itself should have the legal standing to sue a polluter, with a human attorney to file the paperwork, of course. Douglas writes,


The river, for example, is the living symbol of all the life it sustains or nourishes—fish, aquatic insects, water ouzels, otter, fisher, deer, elk, bear, and all other animals, including man, who are dependent on it or who enjoy it for its sight, its sound, or its life. The river as plaintiff speaks for the ecological unit of life that is part of it. Those people who have a meaningful relation to that body of water—whether it be a fisherman, a canoeist, a zoologist, or a logger—must be able to speak for the values which the river represents and which are threatened with destruction.


While ecosystems have not yet been granted the status of legal persons as Douglas proposed, a wide range of natural objects have been listed plaintiffs in lawsuits, such as a river suing a town over the issue of water pollution from a town’s sewage facility (Byram River v. Village of Port Chester, 1975). Other lawsuits have been filed on behalf of a marsh, a beach, a tree, a species. In each of these, however, humans were also listed as co-plaintiffs, so the issue of legal standing did not arise. The lawyers in these cases indicated that their motivation was mainly to attract public attention (Christopher Stone, “Should Trees have a Standing, Revisited”, 1985, p. 5).

            While countries are largely in control of setting their own environmental laws and policies, there have been a growing number of international environmental treaties which aim to get countries around the world to collectively address global environmental problems. Many of these have originated within the United Nations, addressing issues as diverse as climate change, biodiversity and sustainable development. The most famous of the international environmental agreements today is the United Nation’s Kyoto Protocol (1997), which requires about 40 wealthier developed countries to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions by specific target dates, with no restrictions placed on poorer developing countries. 192 of the world’s countries signed the agreement. However, although President Clinton signed on behalf of the U.S., Congress voted against ratifying the Protocol, principally because it does not impose emissions restrictions on developing countries. The Protocol’s rationale for excluding developing countries from restrictions is this. Wealthier developed countries have had unfettered access to environmental resources as they have built strong industries and economies. Poorer developing countries, by contrast, are just now coming of age and placing heavy demands on the environment. Environmentally responsible policies today are expensive to implement, and wealthier countries have a much easier time absorbing those costs than do poorer countries. Is it fair to impose the same strict environmental laws on poorer developing countries that we do on wealthier developed countries? That is, should poorer countries be allowed to first catch up to wealthier ones? The U.S. says no on the grounds that this is a double standard that requires wealthy countries to carry the environmental burden for the rest of the world. The issue raised here is one of environmental justice, which involves the fair treatment all people when implementing environmental laws and regulations, regardless of race, national origin, income or other such factors.


Complying with Environmental Laws: Government Regulation versus Market-Based Solutions

Establishing environmental laws is one thing, but making sure that businesses and industries carry them out is another. There is a famous expression that an unenforced law is not a law at all, and this seems to be particularly so when it comes to complying with environmental laws. One reason for this is the high financial cost of compliance, which we have already seen. At the outset of this chapter, Joe defied environmental laws by pulling the old gas tanks out of the ground himself precisely because of this. A second reason is the tragedy of the commons, which is a phenomenon where, for personal gain, individuals misuse and deplete natural resources such as air and water that are held in common and seem abundant. It does not seem wrong to pollute the air if, technically, no one owns the air and the particular damage that I myself do is not too noticeable. But when everyone behaves this way, the air can become unbreathable. A local state park drained its lake for repair work on its dam, and when the water was gone the bottom looked like a garbage dump from the trash that boaters threw overboard over the years. Not all boaters did this, but enough did to cause the problem. Similarly, in the business world, some companies like Interface Carpet will be environmentally self-motivated to respect the commons, but many will not and thus push the environment to ruin. When businesses pollute some commonly held environmental resource such as the air, it imposes what economists call a negative externality upon society, that is, a harm or cost that is not absorbed by a business but instead is passed onto society. Thus, having environmental laws in place is not enough, and some mechanism must be put in place to ensure that people and businesses comply with them and thereby eliminate negative externalities.

            This problem could be solved in countries with centralized governments, such as communist ones, where the government owns all environmental resources and all industries. The government would then make environmental laws and then abide by them when running the entirety of the country’s industries. But even though this might work in theory, in practice communist governments have been among the worst polluters on the planet for the simple reason that environmentalism has not been their highest priority. Rather, they have had greater concern for advancing their national economies or eliminating poverty, which can take a heavy toll on the environment. Further, with the decline in communism since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the vast majority of the world’s countries now do not have centralized governments that own and control everything. Rather, most businesses and industries are owned and operated by individual people or corporations. This means that there is one entity that makes the laws, namely the government, and an entirely different entity that needs to comply with those laws, namely the private sector. Within this context, there are two strategies for ensuring compliance with environmental laws: government regulation and market-based instruments.

            Government environmental regulations are rules adopted by government agencies that establish how environmental laws will be enforced. For example, several U.S. laws aim to protect wetlands, but the Clean Water Act establishes specific enforcement regulations according to which businesses operating near wetlands must get permits that restrict the type of waste discharged into the area (Section 404). The principal justification for government environmental regulation is that the government is in a better position to make environmental decisions that broadly affect the country than would be the case with individual people or businesses who act in isolation of each other. The most common criticisms of this approach is the high cost that this imposes on businesses. Regulators often look for the surest solution to an environmental problem, which is not necessarily the cheapest. Many environmental regulations involve technological mandates: if your factor emits a certain type of air pollution, then it must use a particular type of air pollution control device. This eliminates any incentive for businesses to innovate and find less expensive but equally effective alternatives.

            In contrast with governmental regulation, market-based instruments aim to reduce environmental damage by finding incentives through economic tools such as emissions taxes, emissions trade markets, or private law suits against polluters. We already looked at an example of a pollution law suit in the case of Muncie Pulp Company v. Martin (1899) where two businesses battled in court over economic damages from a polluted stream. While this approach may have some merit, the big public policy debate today is between emissions taxes verses emissions trade markets. Consider, for example, how an air pollution tax would economically motivate environmental conservation. First, the government would establish a pollution limit for businesses and impose a tax when its pollution goes beyond that. Second, a business, such as an electric company, would increase its prices to pay for the tax, and this in turn motivate consumers to conserve electricity to save money. Third, the electric company would find innovative ways to reduce its pollution, and thus reduce its pollution tax and save money. By contrast, with trade markets, first, the government would establish a pollution limit and issue a fixed number of permits to businesses which would allow them to emit pollution up to those limits. Second, businesses could then either use those permits or sell them to other polluters at a higher price. Third, the limited number of permits and their high price when resold will force businesses reduce pollution. This system is sometimes called “cap and trade”, and this is currently used both in the U.S. and European Union. Market-based instruments like these are a new idea, though, and it remains to be seen whether they will be more effective than government environmental regulation.




The Conservative Position

The conservative view on the environmental is that both moral responsibility to the environment and environmental public policies should be based on human interests and compliance with environmental laws should be directed by market-based instruments.

            1. Nature is for people: Nature involves a hierarchy of living things, where the organisms higher up make use of the ones lower down. They instinctively manipulate their surroundings to make their own specialized habitats, and we do not question their entitlement to do so. Humans are at the top of the natural hierarchy and we too are entitled to make use of our natural surroundings for our purposes. A criticism of this argument is that our human ability to manipulate nature is incomparably greater than any other organism and can have devastating consequences. We can reach down through the hierarchy at every level and influence what takes place, even to the point of destroying it, an ability which no other creature has. The fact that we have the ability to alter or destroy all of nature does not entitle us to do so.

            2. Human interests are more important than environmental ones: It is natural for any organism to consider its own interests above that of other organisms. Termites care little about the habitats they destroy as they devour wooded areas. Squirrels will hoard as many nuts and seeds as they can, with no thought about sharing with other animals. It is thus natural for us to consider our own interests above those of other living things. A criticism of this argument is that there is no limit to human selfish interests. Millionaires want to be billionaires, billionaires want to be trillionaires. There are natural caps on the damage that termites and squirrels can do to the environment when they pursue their selfish interests. The environmental damage that humans can do, though, is boundless.

            3. Human interests produce good environmental policies: Human wellbeing depends on the environment, and so we have a vested interest in a healthy environment. Reckless disregard for nature through poor environmental policies will not only reduce our quality of life, but put at risk our very existence. Thus, when looking for a reason to have good environmental policies, we do not have to look any further than human interests. A criticism of this argument is that human interests are often driven by short-term benefits—the money that I can make or save today, the consumer products that I can enjoy right now, the immediate convenience of my fuel-guzzling car. Good environmental policies need to be based on long-term strategies that will often involve short-term sacrifices.


The Liberal Position

The liberal position regarding environmental responsibility is that environmental policies should be directed mainly by concerns for the long-term well being of the environment, not human short term interests, and should be managed by the government through regulation. The main arguments for the liberal position are these:

            1. Ecosystems have an independent moral worth: Humans are not the only things that have moral worth, and human well-being is not the only moral good. Ecosystems, species, and perhaps even some individual non-human life forms have their own purposes and interests. In this way we recognize their moral worth, and it does not matter that they cannot speak for themselves. A criticism of this argument is that, even if some nonhuman things have inherent value, many human things have more inherent value than those nonhuman things. A collection of bacteria on a rotten orange has less value than a collection of trees in a forest, and a forest may have less value than a human person. In the end, even if ecosystems have some moral, our moral agenda may still be directed mostly by our human moral worth.

            2. Humans are part of a larger natural process: All life on earth is part of a complex web of interdependent organisms. We humans tend to think of ourselves as autonomous and independent creatures, but the biological fact is that we are just one piece of a large organic puzzle, and not necessarily even the most important piece. We are at bottom animals, and environmentally damaging animals at that. Our highest priorities should be to preserve the web of life that sustains us, and not the fulfillment of our isolated human interests. A criticism of this argument is that within the web of life, we are the only organism that knows what is going on. Through our knowledge and self-identity, we thus stand apart from the larger natural process. A factory that manufactures chairs is also an interconnected and complex web of processes, but its end result is the chair itself. In many ways we are the end product of the web of life, not just a tiny strand within that web. Consequently, we are entitled to value our human interests, independently of the natural process from which we arose.

            3. Environmental responsibility is best served through governmental regulation: Human beings are inherently selfish and we typically pursue our individual interests at the expense of everything else, including the environment. The entire history of environmental problems is a history of human selfishness, and environmental policies cannot be left to our private whims. Governmental regulations force us to take into account the impact of our individual actions on the world outside of us; regulations protect the environment from our most selfish and ecologically damaging choices. With environmental damage as bad as it has gotten, the stakes are too high to surrender the environment to personal and economic greed. A criticism of this argument is that the government itself is not always the best manager of the environment. It often sells out to the most environmentally destructive industries, and blocks citizens from suing those industries on behalf of the environment. Personal greed certainly needs to be harnessed in the interests of preserving the environment, but we cannot trust that the government’s policies are the best ones to accomplish this. Non-governmental and market-based solutions are also needed.


A Middle Ground

The anthropocentric and biocentric approaches to environmental responsibility are dramatically distinct from each other: one says that moral value is grounded only in human interests, and the other says that it is grounded at least in part by environmental wellbeing independent of human interests. Deep ecologists argue further that moving from an anthropocentric to a biocentric moral position requires something like a religious experience: we need to connect our individual identities with a larger ecological self through a re-earthing experience. Thus, from a strictly philosophical perspective, there is no obvious middle ground between the two positions. However, what matters most with environmental responsibility is how we act, not necessarily what motivates us. To that extent, everyone, even the die-hard anthropocentrist, should be capable of appreciating environmental policies that may improve the integrity of the environment. During the 1970s, the EPA took dramatic steps in reducing industrial pollution that was blackening the skies of major cities and poisoning surrounding rivers. At the time businesses resisted these changes at every step, but in retrospect it is evident that these environmental regulations enhanced our quality of life, and no reasonable person would want to return to the days before these regulations.

            There are still many more tasks that need to be done to stabilize and improve the environment as we’ve listed at the outset of this chapter, the most urgent of which is to address global warming. If we make these important changes through both governmental regulation and some voluntary self-regulation of industries, it is easy to see how our quality of life will be improved even more. Education is a large part of the battle—learning how many of the consumer products and life-style choices that we take for granted are damaging the environment, and along with that our quality of life. There is an environmental cost for virtually everything that we do, and understanding that cost is an important first step in motivating us to act responsibly. Becoming more environmentally responsible involves short-term personal sacrifices, but environmental education should teach us that the sacrifices are worth the long-term personal gain that we will receive through a healthier environment. Armed with this knowledge, we might thus be more willing to reduce energy consumption, develop renewable resources, and participate in recycling programs. It might also incline us to shop more responsibly, and send a message to manufacturers that consumers prefer environmentally-friendly products and are prepared to voice that preference with their wallets. While this shift in attitude may not necessarily make us biocentrists, it will make us smarter anthropocentrist and enable us to see how we can personally benefit from more environmentally-friendly personal choices and public policies.




Please answer all of the following questions.


1. Define environmentalism and anti-environmentalism.

2. Define environmental conservation and environmental preservation.

3. What are the two parts to Baxter’s anthropocentric individualism?

4. What are the two criticisms of Baxter’s theory?

5. What are the two parts to Passmore’s anthropocentric individualism?

6. What are the two criticisms of Passmore’s theory?

7. What are the two parts to Norton’s anthropocentric collectivism?

8. What are the two criticisms of Norton’s theory?

9. What is Singer’s animal interests view of biocentric individualism?

10. What is Taylor’s plants and animal interests view of biocentric individualism?

11. The two criticisms of biocentric individualism are the problem of minimal life and the problem of prioritizing conflicting interests. Explain each.

12. What does Leopold mean by “the land ethic”?

13. What are the two advantages of biocentric collectivism?

14. What is the ecofascism criticism of biocentric collectivism?

15. Explain the two positions that “Good environmental practices result in good business” and “good business results in good environmental practices”

16. Briefly describe the environmental laws resulting from the Endangered Species Act (1973), the Supreme Court case Sierra Club v. Morton (1971), and the Kyoto Protocal (1997).

17. Define tragedy of the commons and negative externality.

18. Define Government environmental regulations and Market-based instruments.

19. What are the criticisms of the three conservative arguments regarding the environment?

20. What are the criticisms of the three liberal arguments regarding the environment?

[Question for Analysis]

21. Pick any one of the following views in this chapter and criticize it in a minimum of 150 words. The anthropocentric view of Baxter, Passmore, or Norton; the biocentric view of Singer or Taylor; Leopold’s land ethic; the ecofascism critique of biocentric collectivism;