During the writing of my book, “Trees of Life-Our Forests in Peril”, my editor challenged me to consider environmental ethics in relation to the issues I was concerned about with forestry. I did limited research and included a brief discussion of ethics in my book, but must admit I had limited knowledge of the subject. Philosophy is the study of the fundamentals of knowledge, reality and existence. Ethics, or moral conduct, involves systematizing, defending and recommending concepts of right and wrong conduct. Environmental ethics is the discipline in philosophy, which studies the moral relationship of human beings, along with their value and moral status, to the environment and its non-human contents. I have spent considerable time studying the discipline and its relationship to current forest management principles. It has helped me understand the challenge of environmental ethics to the anthropocentrism (human-centeredness) which is the traditional western ethical thinking of people in the United States. It has also helped me better understand the need for major changes in the scientific application of forest management practices on our remaining public forested lands.
I was reminded of Professor William Rees’s explanation of eco-economics when he described how ecologists in their field focus on non-human species, and economist focus on humans with little to no understanding of the relationship’s humans share with the natural world. Ethics appears to be what I have been searching for to link modern day science to humanity. My concerns have been based on the need to link our advancements in science to the human element in order to reduce the accelerated destruction of our natural world. Anthropocentrism and human relationships to the natural world reminded me of my involvement in the forest planning process we were required to complete during my final ten years of employment. The National Forest Management Act of 1976 directed the U.S. Forest Service to prepare integrated management plans for each of the 155 National Forests. This was a significant change in the Forest Service planning processes, from individual resource plans to a plan for the land, integrating the resources and identifying relationships. To accomplish the task, most Forests established an interdisciplinary team with each member being a specialist in a different resource area. The results were not as I had expected, since rather than defining the relationships, each member tended to become an advocate for their specialty. Anthropocentrism explains the difficulty of implementing an integrated planning approach and the inability of the American people to come together and to agree on environmental issues that will impact our future, such as climate change.
Ethics involves studying human being’s moral relationships to the environment and non-human species, and includes consideration of value and moral status. Environmental ethics recognizes two types of values, instrumental value and intrinsic value. Instrumental value is using things as means to further some other ends, where intrinsic value refers to things as ends themselves. A teacher presenting knowledge to a person desiring that knowledge has instrumental value, but the teacher as a person has intrinsic value. Traditional western ethical perspectives are human-centered (anthropocentric) as they assign intrinsic value to humans, but seldom to non-human things. An early example is Aristotle who maintained, “nature has made all things specifically for man”. This opinion is now understood to be wrong, but helps explain our western cultures focus on anthropocentrism. Earth does not belong to us; we belong to Earth! A discussion of environmental ethics requires considering if the environment and non-human species have rights. If the natural world is the only environment that can provide the elements that sustain life on Earth, should they not have rights similar to human beings?
Although nature was a focus of study during the nineteenth and twentieth century philosophy, environmental ethics did not emerge as an academic discipline until the 1970’s. The review of human relationships with nature through environmental ethics has supported previous predictions of a human population explosion and the increase of serious environmental crises. In 1967, historian Lynn White, presented an essay suggesting, “Judeo-Christian thinking encouraged the over-exploitation of nature as created for use of humans”. The rationale of his thesis was that the Church Fathers and the Bible, supports the anthropocentric perspective where humans are the only things that matter on Earth, and may use and consume everything to their advantage without committing any injustice. The elevation of human beings above the environment and non-human species has alienated many of us from the natural world and its contribution to life. The proper translation of the original Hebrew language is now thought to be “provide stewardship” rather than “take dominion over”.
In 2007, the Department of Agriculture published a report known as, The Report on Abuse. Leading scientists and economist contributed to the report and assigned an instrumental value to a single tree over a 50-year life cycle. The intrinsic value of the tree would be the actual value of the tree itself, and would normally be in the hundreds of dollars. The largest tree value I have known of was a black walnut tree that sold for $2000. The specialists that prepared the Report on Abuse, assigned the instrumental value of an average tree over a 50-year period to be $162,000.00. This value was arrived at by assigning economic values to; storage of carbon dioxide, production of oxygen, purification of water, supply of water, soil erosion prevention and air purification.
In 1968, Stanford ecologists Paul and Anne Ehrlich published the book, “The Population Bomb”, which suggested, “the growth of human population will threaten the viability of planetary life-support systems”. A 1968 photograph of Earth from space, taken by NASA, was published in 1970 in “Scientific America” journal, described the photo as, it was plain to see a living, shining planet voyaging through space and shared by all of humanity, a precious vessel vulnerable to pollution and to the overuse of its limited capacities. Aldo Leopold, in 1949 advocated the adoption of a “land ethic”. This is the missing link in the science of forestry, the ability to “read the land”, the ability to observe and understand the complexity of individual forest communities! This must then be followed by the ability to appreciate and comprehend the relationships between the natural world and life-systems including human beings!
Philosophy courses were not a consideration in forestry school when I was working on my degree, but my continued interest in environmental issues and the natural world, has led me to the necessity of understanding the topic of environmental ethics. Without the understanding of the moral relationships with human-beings, advanced technology and science will lead to the accelerated destruction of our vital natural world. We are but one small part of the Earth community and must remember, “nothing is itself without all the rest”.
We will continue this discussion next time.