Term Paper: Environmental Ethics

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Environmental Ethics: From Philosophy to Movement

Prior to the introduction of major legislation concerning the environment, it had been a popularly accepted notion that our utilization of the earth would be subject to no limitations. Our manifold purposes, pertaining to the expansion of commercial industries, the procurement of lands for residency, the optimization of geological settings for pedestrian needs and the constantly swelling demand for space upon which to drive had for many years after the start of the Industrial Age taken precedence in our notion of sociological advancement. The overarching notion that the earth belonged to man to do with as he pleased was given little contest in the public forum, with large economic, political and cultural contingents generally conceding to the argument that this was the best avenue to serving the public interests.

Decades of industrialization, however, leading into the economic boom which followed World War II and saw America into its first great age of consumerism, began to take a legitimate toll on the natural landscape of the nation. Especially in the United States, which was so valued a land asset in its founding due to the seemingly endless wealth of natural resources and species diversity, it had been perceived that such bounties were at our disposal in perpetuity. With growing evidence that this perception was not only false but was bearing deeply destructive consequences for the species and land surrounding us, a new perspective began to emerge which would be the ideological grounding for the environmental, conservation and wildlife preservation movements. Namely, a concept referred to as environmental ethics would take root, first as a result of a few influential works of literature and subsequently as a meaningful, multilayered and coordinated political movement.

Accordingly, we are guided by the definition offered in the text by Brennan & Lo (2002), which establishes that "environmental ethics is the discipline in philosophy that studies the moral relationship of human beings to, and also the value and moral status of, the environment and its nonhuman contents." (Brennan & Lo, 1) in other words, prior to the inception of a popular environmental movement, the notion that we as a species have a responsibility to live in harmony with rather than in dominion over our surroundings would be broached in the philosophical context first. The advance of this idea in popular consciousness would ultimately produce a compelling and mainstream acceptance of the idea that we must shift our perspective as a species to one with more ecological sensibility. Indeed, the most practical ways that this has come to affect us on a day-to-day basis can be seen in the way that products are packaged, the manner in which land is used and the way that our natural elements are protected from abuse. For instance, the ideals of the environmental ethics movement may be credited for forcing the adoption of emissions standards for factories and automobiles. This will in turn have reduced the number of pollutants in the air and the occurrence of resultant health maladies such as emphysema, bronchitis and certain types of cancer.

This capacity to effect practical change is the primary reason for the emergence of global effort movements such as those represented in EarthFirst! And Greenpeace. Such groups have been dedicated through activism first and practical political orientation thereafter to help make the philosophical imperatives of environmental ethics a practical reality.

The notion of biocentric equality is an underlying impetus of the environmental movement known as Earth First! According to its website, the organization rejects the arrogance of any entity-corporate, environmental or governmental -- which assumes a human superiority tantamount to negotiating control over nature. Founded in 1979, Earth First! explicitly rejects trivialization under the category of 'organization,' instead remarking upon itself as a movement, a priority and a family. Under this supposition, it purports itself a global group intent upon recognizing that nature is not a resource to be exploited by humanity, but a network of codependent systems and species of equal value.

Subscribing to the tenets of the Deep Ecology movement, Earth First! is accordingly sympathetic to and explicitly in favor of actions which, though perceived in the mainstream as radical, are actually directed at liberating the environment from the radical abuses of human institutions. In this regard, it is apparent that there is a direct correlation between the tenets of the modern Deep Ecology movement and the principles offered by early environmental icon, Henry David Thoreau. Several years prior to the publication of his landmark 1854 Walden, Thoreau would coin the term 'civil disobedience,' in an essay which determined that legally or socially subversive tactics may sometimes not only be acceptable but may be considered the only ethical redress to the institutionalized symptoms of a sick society. It is the explicitly stated design of Earth First to engage the problems of our environmental abuses through direct action rather than what its leaders refer to as the indirect methods of structural compliance. Earth First! advocates pursuit of biocentric goals on all fronts, attempting to interact with the court system, to organize grass-roots campaigns in the face of specific threats and even to engage in non-legal forms of civil demonstration.

The movement's ethical position is that there is no acceptable compromise with regard to the earth's health and that it is the responsibility of every single individual to take action. As Thoreau had argued, it may be considered unethical to stand by and witness the performance of grave injustices without taken preventative action. More moderate groups though, have experienced greater success in gaining some level of legitimacy on the global environmental scheme.

To this end, Greenpeace, likely the most recognizable name in the movement for environmental ethics activism, was formed in 1971. This was done upon the event of a nuclear test conducted in Alaska by the U.S. government. One of what would become a sizeable and easily recognizable fleet of ships, the Amchitka stood 'witness' to the abuses of our environment as a principle of individual responsibility. It was the view of those a party to this action that the organization's policy of witness against crimes perpetrated upon the environment could help it to expose and campaign for the reduction of such behaviors.

In accordance with the principles of Social Ecology, Greenpeace views the institutional violation of the environment as reflective of a shared indifference. It is thus that it promotes the ascendancy of individuals to both sustainable living practices and alignment with its goals of global climate-change prevention, ocean protection, wildlife defense and the elimination of nuclear power, among many other associated interests. Arguing that there is a direct relationship between the state of the environment and the inherent inequality in a number of human institutions, this organization brings to bear some of the ideas of Rachel Carson, whose 1962 watershed text, Silent Spring, as we will observer hereafter, pinpointed the consequences of corporate and governmental negligence.

Discussion on environmental ethics:

References here above to Henry David Thoreau and Rachel Carson are crucial. Though separated by roughly a century, the works of these two writers may be seen as the philosophical basis to the environmental ethics ideology that would ultimately become a practical movement. The concept of environmental ethics would originally be established with the proliferation of Thoreau's ideas of simplification and ecological compatibility and thereafter, with the collision of Carson's ideas and the age of reform in America.

In 1962, marine biologist and environmental activist Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, a work that opened the first round of fire against the perception that man was the only species of importance on the Earth. A book rife with frightening contentions about the irreparable damage with which we have already lashed the earth, Silent Spring would be a sensible point of entry into the discourse over environmental preservation. As one of the first popular works of non-fiction to promote the idea that ecological decline will inevitably lead to a decline in the survivability of man, Carson's book touched off a public awareness of the need to apply new strategies to extending environmental conscientiousness.

Carson's book centers on the ill effects which the commonly accepted use of pesticides in agriculture were having on the health of environments which hosted all manner of life, among them humanity. Decrying the absence of regulation against the use of such dangerous chemicals, Carson's work points to some of the major environmental contingencies of our failure to prevent this poisoning of our ecology. She also uses this stark and frightening logic to connect a failure of the government to regulate environmental behaviors with an ethical failure to do the business of protecting the people.

To accomplish this, she uses startling imagery that keys into our capacity for moral outrage over environmental abuses and their implications. She depicts a town where "mysterious maladies swept the flocks of chickens; the cattle and sheep sickened and died. Everywhere was a shadow of death. The farmers spoke of much illness among their families. In the town the… [END OF PREVIEW]

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