Ecology and Religion: Environmental Ethics, World Religions, and Ecology

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Environmental ethics emerged as a new subdiscipline of philosophy in the early 1970s. It arose as a response to the widespread perception of an "environmental crisis" in the 1960s. The inspiration for a systematic exploration of environmental ethics was Lynn White Jr.'s (in)famous article, "The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis," published in Science in 1967. In this article White laid the blame for the "ecologic crisis" at the doorstep of the Judeo-Christian worldviewin which "man" is exclusively created in the image of God, given "dominion" over the earth (and all its creatures), and commanded to subdue it. In retrospect, of course, White's central and narrowly focused thesis seems jejune and cavalier. He claims that the Judeo-Christian worldview is anthropocentric, while the fragments of text from Genesis on which he bases his interpretation seem to be clearly theocentric.

The Judeo-Christian Stewardship Environmental Ethic

Indeed, apologists eventually succeeded in developing a very powerful Judeo-Christian stewardship environmental ethic based on a fuller and subtler reading of the same texts. In several preceding verses God declares the creation to be "good." In the emerging technical terminology of academic environmental ethics, God thereby confers "intrinsic value" on the creation. And in subsequent verses the first man, Adam, is charged to "dress and keep" the Garden of Eden. If the Garden may be understood to represent nature as a whole, then the appropriate human relationship to nature seems to be that of caretaker, not conqueror. In light of this passage, the aforementioned (and somewhat ambiguous) "dominion" must then, the apologists go on to argue, surely connote not only special privileges but also special responsibilitiesparamount among them the duty to steward and conserve creation.

The Relationship between Thought and Action

The daring and lurid charge that the Judeo-Christian worldviewas its implications historically unfolded through two millenniais to blame for the environmental crisis eclipsed a more general lemma, or fundamental assumption, that White reiterates throughout his essay: that what we do depends on what we think, and, corollary to that, that we cannot change what we doto the environment in this caseuntil we change what we think about it and about ourselves in relationship to it. As long as we believe that we are rightfully lords and masters of creation, we shall never care for and conserve it. If this is trueand philosophers above all others are inclined to believe that it isthen to meet the challenge of the environmental crisis requires more than the development of scientific knowledge to better understand its proximate causes and the development of new "appropriate" technologies. It requires a revolution in our most basic beliefs and valuesbeliefs about the nature of nature, human nature, and the proper relationship between the two. That is a job not for scientists and engineers but for philosophers, theologians, and historians of religion.

An Agenda for Environmental Philosophy and Comparative Environmental Theology

White thus sets the two-step agenda for a new domain of philosophical inquiry. There are other traditions of thoughtmost notably the Greco-Roman traditionthat have powerfully informed the modern Western worldview, in which context, White believed, the environmental crisis had been spawned. As a first step, these ideas about the nature of nature (such as the atomic theory of matter) and human nature (as, for example, defined by reason) and the relationship between the two (dualism) must also be identified and debunked. As a second step, new ideasperhaps abstracted from such revolutionary twentieth-century sciences as quantum physics, evolutionary biology, and ecologymust be woven into a new, environmentally responsible worldview.

In suggesting that other religionssuch as ancient European paganism and Zen Buddhismespoused environmentally responsible worldviews, White also set an agenda for comparative religion and environmental thought. How do other religious worldviews picture the nature of nature, human nature, and the proper relationship between the two? White's interpretations of European paganism and Zen Buddhism were as jejune and cavalier as his interpretation of the Judeo-Christian worldview. But a more patient, thorough, and expert evaluation of the potential of all the world's religions to ground and foster environmental ethics was implicitly called for. In direct reaction to White's suggestion, Christian theologians led the way in formulating the stewardship environmental ethic. Scholars and representatives of various and diverse religious traditions of thoughtHinduism, Jainism, Daoism, Confucianismsoon followed by articulating very different environmental ethics. That enterprisesometimes called the greening of religionis now well advanced, spurred in large part by the Harvard conference series and subsequent books on "World Religions and Ecology."

Animal Liberation and Animal Rights

Creating a nonanthropocentric environmental ethic has been the central preoccupation of secular environmental philosophy. The first generation of environmental philosophers, steeped in modern Western ethical theory, tried to develop nonanthropocentric environmental ethics out of one or the other dominant strands of thought in (militantly anthropocentric) Western ethicsutilitarianism and Kantianism.

The most orthodoxand for that reason among the most compellingof such efforts was mounted by Peter Singer and called "animal liberation." At the foundation of the utilitarian strain of modern ethical theory is the axiom that pleasure is good and pain is evil; and, further, that every moral agent should strive to maximize the good (pleasure) and minimize evil (pain), no matter where or by whom experiencedthe agent him- or herself or anyone else. Singer simply pointed out that many nonhuman beings were also "sentient" (capable of experiencing pleasure and pain); therefore, for utilitarianism to be entirely consistent, the pleasure and pain of all sentient beings should be given equal consideration with human pleasure and pain. Singer thought animal liberation required vegetarianismand billions of animals do indeed suffer grievously in the contemporary meat industry. But in an ideally reformed meat industry, animals might be comfortably raised and painlessly slaughtered. Thus, the pleasure human beings take in eating meat might be vouchsafed with no pain suffered by animals on the debit side of the utilitarian benefit-cost ledger.

To remedy the failure of animal liberation morally to condemn the killing and eating of some of our fellow animals, Tom Regan developed a case for animal rights. Rights, according to Regan, are based on the "inherent worth" (or intrinsic value) of the beings who have them. And, argues Regan, beings who are "subjects of a life," who have a sense of self, a remembered past, an anticipated future, desires, aversionsa life, in short, that can go better or worse from their own point of viewhave intrinsic value. Kant thought that only rational beings have intrinsic value, but that doctrine, Regan believes, falls to the Argument from Marginal Cases. The "marginal cases" are prerational human infants, abjectly mentally challenged human beings, and postrational human seniors suffering from dementia. Because all such human beings are not rational, they have no intrinsic value, by Kant's reckoning, and thus no rights. Therefore, they canif the Kantian criterion is consistently appliedbe subjected to all the horrors and indignities to which we subject rightless animals: use them for biomedical experimentation, hunt them sport, or make dog food out of them. To bring the marginal cases into the class of beings protected by rights, we must relax the criterion for intrinsic value. Though not rational, the marginal cases are subjects of a life, but so are many other kinds of animals.


Animals, however, represent only a tiny fraction of the environment that is alleged to be in a state of crisis. What about plants and other organisms that are certainly alive but that cannot be regarded as subjects of a life? A major school of thought in environmental ethics attempts to take Regan's reasoning a step further. All organisms, plants included, arguably have interests and goods of their own, even if they are not interested in their interests or care about what is good or bad for them. If they are not subjects of a life, they are, according to Paul Taylor, "teleological centers of life": they have unconscious ends (goals or purposes)to grow, to thrive, to reproducewhich may be fostered or frustrated by moral agents. Being a teleological center of life should therefore, according to Taylor, be the criterion for intrinsic value (or inherent worth). However, no influential environmental philosophers are willing to go so far as to base universal organic rights on universal organic intrinsic value. Instead, according to Kenneth Goodpaster, all organisms deserve at least to have "moral considerability"that is, a moral agent should at least take their interests into consideration when his or her actions would affect such beings. Holmes Rolston III has most fully developed this school of thought in environmental ethics. He insists that we have duties to species as well as specimens because the telos they are striving to realize is precisely their kind or species. And, Rolston also insists, we have duties to ecosystems and to biotic communities because they are the necessary contexts in which organisms thrive.

Despite Rolston's ingenuity, the main problem with this neo-Kantian strain of environmental ethics is that it does not directly address the actual environmental concerns that mandated the development of environmental ethics in the first place. In healthy ecosystems and stable biotic communities, individual organisms routinely and necessarily get their ends frustrated. What is of actual environmental concern is not the ups and downs in the careers of individual organisms. Rather, concern focuses on abrupt, mass species extinction and the erosion of biodiversity; ecological degradation; global climate change; soil erosion; desertification; air and water pollution; and the hole in the earth's stratospheric ozone membrane. Other environmental philosopherswho seek to tailor a theory of environmental ethics to actual environmental concerns, rather than the other way aroundhave thus found it necessary to work outside the modern classical utilitarian and Kantian paradigms. The former terminates in animal liberation, the latter basically in plant liberation, not in the more comprehensive and holistic environmental ethic that the environmental crisis demands.

The Land Ethic

Often called a prophet, Aldo Leopold anticipated the emergence of the environmental crisis by more than a decade and, in response, sketched a "land ethic." Leopold was not a philosopher by training. He was trained in forestry at Yale University and began his career with the U.S. Forest Service, eventually to become a professor of game management and wildlife ecology at the University of Wisconsin. Thus, he was less constrained by the modern Western ethical paradigms than latterly were academic environmental philosophers. He was apparently influenced instead by Darwin's theory of the origin and development of ethics in the The Descent of Man. J. Baird Callicott has filled in Leopold's outline of an environmental ethic and provided it with a full philosophical pedigree and expression.

According to Darwin, ethics evolved from "parental and filial affections," which were more widely directed to more distant kin (uncles, aunts, cousins, and so on) by natural selectionbecause they bonded individuals into united societies or communities. As members of united societies or communities, pursuing the struggle for existence collectively, individuals had a better chance to survive and reproduce than they would as loners. Certain kinds of individual behaviormurder, theft, adultery, treacherythreaten group solidarity. Ethics emerged when our earliest human ancestors evolved sufficient intelligence to trace the consequences of generalized forms of behavior on society, sufficient powers of imagination to envision those consequences, and, finally, language in which prohibitions against antisocial behavior could be encoded. Then, according to Darwin, as these small original human societieswhich were scarcely anything more than extended familiesflourished and began to compete with one another for limited resources, those that merged together to form larger, better organized communities won out. As Darwin envisioned it, over time this process of social evolution through merger was repeated several times. Clans, also known as gens, merged to form tribes; tribes merged to form nationalities; closely related nationalities merged to form sovereign states. Each of these moments in the evolution of human societies was accompanied by a correlative development of ethics. Darwin foresaw a time in the futurewhich is now upon usin which a single human society, global in scope, would emerge. Facilitated by sophisticated transportation and communication technologies, loosely organized by such governing bodies as the United Nations (UN) and the World Trade Organization, and funded by financial institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, we sanguinely call it the Global Village or, more ominously, the New World Order. The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948, is its ethical correlative.

A year later after the UN human rights declaration, Leopold was, as Darwin before him, looking beyond his own time to the next step in this process. For, as Leopold was keenly aware, ecology had discovered that we are members not only of multiple human communitiesour extended families, our ethnic groups, our municipalities and states, our nations or countries, and now the Global Villagewe are also members of similarly nested biotic communities. If there is indeed an intimateperhaps even an innatecorrelation between our perception of community membership and an ethical response, as Darwin argued, then when, through universal ecological literacy, people become aware of their membership in biotic communities, they will respond with environmental (or land) ethics.

Ecocentric Holism and the Problem of Ecofascism

Because Darwin thought of ethics as more focused on and concerned with society as a whole, not its members severally, the environmental ethic that Leopold erected on these Darwinian foundations makes for a better fit with actual environmental concerns. According to Leopold, "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." Leopold understood the biotic community to include not only plants and animals but also soils and waters. This broad, holistic precept thus addresses species extinction and loss of biodiversityfor nothing so violates the integrity of biotic communities than the loss of their component specieswater pollution, soil erosion, and most of the other things that are of actual environmental concern. Further, it allows for the subordination of the interests of individual organisms to the good of the whole, to the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community.

One should immediately worry, however, that it might also allow for the subordination of individual human interests to the good of the whole. Not surprisingly then, a charge of "ecofascism" has been leveled at Leopold's land ethic, first by Tom Regan. Fortunately, the charge will not stick because Leopold understood the land ethic to be an "accretion"that is, an additionto our older and more venerable traditions of human ethics, not a substitution or replacement for them. In the Darwinian foundations of the Leopold land ethic, when smaller societies merge to form larger societies, the older more venerable social strata do not dissolve. Even as we are now members of the Global Village, we are still very much also members of extended families and nation-states. And the ethics correlative to those social strata remain operative and in many circumstances preemptive. Unfortunately, the duties and obligations generated by our multiple community memberships are not always mutually consistent. Family obligations and patriotic duties may conflict. One or another of the duties generated by our memberships in various human communities may conflict with the obligations generated by our membership in various biotic communities. Nor, also unfortunately, is there any algorithm that one may mechanically apply to them to resolve such moral conundrums. A person of goodwill must simply weigh and balance conflicting duties and obligations as best he or she can and try to choose wisely among them those that, under the circumstances, are the most compelling.

The Earth Charter

Just as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights crystallized the then-new ethic of the emerging Global Village, so the Earth Charter, also developed under the auspices of the United Nations, crystallizes the currently new ethic of the biospheric ecological community. The Earth Charter was anticipated in the early 1990s by Hans Kung's "Declaration of the Religions for a Global Ethic," commissioned by the Parliament of the World's Religions. It acknowledges, among other crises, a crisis of "global ecology" and, albeit largely focused on humanitarian concerns, declares that "the new global order" should be, among other things, "nature friendly." Kung's declaration was reviewed at an interdisciplinary colloquium with participants from various religions and continents and sent to various colleagues and friends who responded with dozens of suggestions for its improvement. The Earth Charter was drafted and repeatedly redrafted by an international committee based on systematic "consultations," spanning a decade, with thousands of individuals from different cultural backgrounds and sectors of society, representing hundreds of organizations, from all regions of the world. The first two of the four principles of the Earth Charter are, like the Leopold land ethic, holistic in scope and focus, respectively, on "respect and care for the community of life," and "ecological integrity." Two principles of the Earth Charterconcerning "social and economic justice" and "democracy, nonviolence, and peace"spell out what Leopold only assumed, that environmental ethics must be harmonized with more traditional and familiar ethics concerned with individual human liberty, welfare, and rights.

The Pragmatic Approach

Not all environmental philosophers have been happy with the search for a nonanthropocentric environmental ethic that has dominated the environmental-philosophy literature. Environmental pragmatistsBryan Norton, most notably and persistentlyhave criticized the preoccupation of their colleagues with theory building, especially the construction of some comprehensive theory designed to embrace all environmental concerns. Instead they call for a bottom-up approach: beginning with actual issues, such as a proposal to dam a river, and then sorting out the attitudes and values at play in such cases, with the purpose of finding a course of action on which most interested parties can agree, irrespective of their attitudinal and moral differences. These two approaches to environmental philosophycomprehensive theory building and an action-oriented search for pragmatic consensusappear to be complementary, not competitive. The mainstream approach aims at the long termwhat Hans Kung called a "transformation of consciousness"something that will not occur in a human lifetime. The pragmatic approach aims at the (relatively) short termenvironmental issues and public policies that are current for spans of time ranging from a few years to a decade or two (some of which of course may entrain long-term irreversible effects). The environmental crisis requires both approaches if ever it is to be adequately addressed.


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