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Environmental Ethics in the West: An Overview

Volume 1 Number 22 - July 2001

Marisa Cohen

Ethique Environnementale à l’Ouest: Une Revue
Ética Medioambiental en el Oeste: Una Visión de Conjunto


The main interest of environmental ethics, as distinct from any other ethical theory, is in our dealing, relation with and management of the environment and as such is not by any means homogeneous: it follows different attitudes and ideologies inherited from our past.  But most ethicists agree with the fact that the fault of the relationship between humans and nature lays on an inherent erroneous set of values.

The article demonstrates that Western Civilisation has created the awareness of its own faults in dealing with the natural world and has started questioning its very concept of progress already around the beginning of the 21st century.  It doesn't mean that questions about humanity's role vis-à-vis nature have not been the subject of previous generations.  However, the development of a vast body of philosophical research on the subject, under the heading of environmental ethics, is the main contribution that Western Civilisation has offered to a beleaguered world.  Aldo Leopold is credited with inventing the concept, when in l949 he first proposed the adoption of a Land Ethic in his Sand Country Almanac.

Later, the publication Caring for the Earth: A Strategy for Sustainable Living (IUCN, UNEP, and WWF 1991) highlighted the notion that environmental ethics should become part of environmental policies.  This idea was expanded after the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992 with the creation of an Earth Charter, which defines our duties toward the environment and towards each other, as the only hope to achieve sustainability and peace.  The substance of ethics is in actions and not words, which implies that we must often take painful decisions that will test our sense of justice, logic, compassion and love.

Environmental problems, like all societal problems, require self-understanding for enduring solutions...It is clear that these solutions hinge on the values and attitudes which direct energies towards goal’

(Yi-Fu 1973).

‘To adopt the ethic for living sustainably, people must re-examine their values and alter their behaviour’

(IUCN, UNEP, and WWF 1991).

Environmental Ethics: What is it?

In all strategies with regard to the environment, a growing ethical concern manifests itself in new laws and regulations.  As mentioned previously, Aldo Leopold in his Sand Country Almanac (l949) first proposed the adoption of a Land Ethic.  Leopold’s ethics design was focused on the physical setting and circumstances of North America in the forties.  Since then, the concept of land ethics has developed into a vast body of research under the name of environmental ethics.  Let's consider what we mean by environmental ethics.  As Rolston (1999) explains ‘Environmental ethics is theory and practice about appropriate concern for, values in, and duties to the natural world’.

According to all scientific accounts, the planetary condition is dire: destruction of habitat, disappearance of animal species, and in many cases Aboriginal populations, the loss of plant life, desertification, the loss or pollution of waterways.  The culprit is ever the same: human action.

Moral philosophy had found a new field of exploration: the responsibility of human action on the natural world.  It is not just a matter of understanding the scientific problem and then fixing things with the right technology, but rather one of the understanding and eventual correction of our cosmological vision.  The assumption that if only we had better knowledge we would be able to make rational decisions is contradicted by real life.  Increasingly our society assumes the characteristics of the risk society, accepted as a price to pay for progress and free choice.  The destruction of the environment continues, although the perpetrators are fully informed of the facts.  Many illnesses and disasters follow the same pattern: a mixture of necessity, denial, and self-destructive impulses.

The cradle of environmental ethics, as a philosophical field of studies, is Western Civilisation.  It has been elicited by the very state of prosperity which industrial societies have achieved.  This is one of the reasons why environmental ethics is a relevant topic in North America and Northern Europe, where the industrial revolution began and environmental damage goes hand in hand with economic expansion.  An early reaction against industrial progress and commercialism, perceived as triumph of vulgarity and aesthetic debasement of existence, was found among the intellectual class at the end of 19th century (e.g. Ruskin, Lawrence, Morris, Williamson, Cole, Thoreau).  The destruction of nature's integrity began to feel like a moral failure, which stained the individual and society.

An ideological path links today's ecological fundamentalists to socialist, nazi or anarchic affiliations (Bramwell 1989).  Western society pursues the highest degree of self-awareness in which we can recycle our guilty complexes.  The appeal to preserve nature for itself, is prevalent mainly in societies who do not know scarcity, have a higher degree of education and have been deprived most of all of primitive wilderness.  On a full stomach, it is easier to contemplate the beauty of the world and indulge in non-exploitative activities.  Conventions, law proposals, publications, exhortations, theories, scientific studies, economical support, find their initial expression in a rich and socially privileged society, and its outlet in political action.

That hot bed of cultural change, the sixties, produced the right intellectual climate for all sorts of alternative life-styles including the environment.  Two articles: The Historic Roots of Ecological Crisis and On Christian Arrogance toward Nature by Lynn White, which appeared in 1960, blamed Christianity for environmental degradation.  White started a sequel of attribution of sins against nature not just to the Church but to the whole western value-system and its very metaphysical foundations, which has been under critical scrutiny by a wave of politically correct pseudo-philosophies ever since.  During the same period, The tragedy of the Commons by Garrett Hardin, predicted a sinister Hobbesian struggle in a world of diminishing resources.

In 1972, John B. Cobb published a book entitled Is it too late?  A Theology of Ecology.  Since then the debate has enlarged to the point of becoming all encompassing and in 1979 Eugene C.Hargrove first published the authoritative Journal of Environmental Ethics, dedicated to the philosophical aspects of environmental problems.  The wealth of books and essays about the subject grew to such a point that, in 1990, the International Society for Environmental Ethics (ISEE) was created as an outlet for such an international growth of genuine interest.

The number of publications in the 21 years from 1979 to 1999, is staggering and covers every possible topic.  We cite as examples titles such as: Using and Abusing Nietzsche for Environmental Ethics (Ralph R.Acampora ), The Vegetarian Savage: Rousseau's Critique of Meat Eating (D.Bonin Vail), Intrinsic Value, Quantum Theory and Environmental Ethics (J.Baird Callicot), Marxism, Ecology and Technology (Yol.Jung Hwa ) (ISEE 1999).

With the creation in the 1990s of the IUCN Ethics Working Group, environmental ethics became part of environmental policies and ‘…respect and care for the community of life’ became an ethical principle, sometimes referred to as the ethics of sustainability, a very ambiguous term which has sullied the clarity of environmental objectives (IUCN, UNEP and WWF 1991).

The Earth Charter of 2000, is the recognition that environmental ethics have spread beyond a narrow elitism (  The term is now used by teachers and politicians, though not many understand its implications.  One of the most interesting features has been the contribution of religion-oriented institutions, with the creation of religious ecumenical networks, following the Assisi gathering of World Religions in 1994 (see Notes Section).

Suffice to say that at this point in time the material collected shows that the recognition of the subject, as a new philosophical theory and as a field of applied ethics, is well established.

Applied Ethics

Holmes Rolston III distinguishes 12 theories of environmental ethics, some with a definitive philosophical pedigree rooted in our humanistic past, some with a new perspective, like ecofeminism (Rolston 1999).

Pope John Paul II launched this New Year an appeal in favour of the environment to 200 foreign ambassadors: ‘Save Man!’, he exhorts. ‘by saving the Creation’.  In this referentiality, humanity is still the subject and object of policies regarding the environment.  But the relation of the whole of our human activities with the environment in which they take place is a most ignored fact that commits us to a long series of failures.  Because the state of the environment has been examined separately from economic, social and political problems, environmental problems have always been with us.

Theoretical imperatives aside, we must come down to the task of solving real problems.  The essence of an ethic is in its application and it has to be the moving force of behaviour: actions are the measure of our commitment.

With a baggage of moral tradition built up through centuries, we wade in a variety of new situations.  Solomonic judgements are mediating between conflicting goods, or, more often, between more or less harmful solutions.  Facts are subjected to interpretations.  The drama of choices will necessarily exclude one or more desirable outcomes.

With the democratisation process, every person is becoming an expert in ethical affairs.  The public feels that decisions should not be taken by politicians and scientists, without broad consultation.  Typical is the case of scientists specialising in genetically modified organisms, disappointed by the constraints imposed on research, debate whether or not people should be allowed to make important decisions on the basis of uninformed emotional beliefs.

‘Behind much of the criticism lies the belief that ethics is in the realm of feeling and emotion; if there can be no objective truth in ethics, it may seem, there can be no scope for reason and argument’ (Singer 1992).

Issues such as genetically modified Rhesus monkeys or overpopulation present challenging thinking.  Other issues include medicine, religious beliefs, economics and psychological motivations.  Is it right to sacrifice a highly intelligent animal in order to cure our deadly diseases?  Many people agree that human suffering comes first, others may feel uncomfortable with the burden of taking ambiguous decisions.  They would most probably not want to know, but now the cat is out of the bag.  Freedom of information is at the same time a curse and a blessing.

The solution to overpopulation should be, at least technically, easier than to persuade the affluent societies to relinquish their affluence: all that is needed is contraception.  But the Indian and Chinese examples teach us that problems of individual choice, unconscious behaviour, economic needs and cultural habits are determinant, just as they are in Western Society.

Regarding the commitment of botanic gardens to educate the public to the preservation of our plant heritage, there's no real opposition: who would negate the positive opportunity that the study of plants and their importance to humanity offers?  As with all issues of education, they seem neutral and inoffensive, that is why people in power do not feel threatened by them.  Sometimes educational projects in botanic gardens are cherished as a kind of entertainment, a pleasant way to spend time.  Arguably this fails to teach about ecological reality, which would yield ethical imperatives: the perception that everything is connected, that it touches their own lives too and urges them to change their behaviour.  This is ultimately the ethical meaning of environmental education and it applies especially to working with the plant kingdom, from which everything descends.

Our politicians depend on maintaining the levels of wellbeing, which has become the hallmark of 20th Western Civilisation.  Sound environmental policies imply economic costs but, above all, a change in life-long acquisition of habits to which years of economic growth have accustomed us.  People want smokeless air, pure water, clean, safe energy, beautiful countryside, healthy food, but when there is a price-tag attached to it they often will, like St. Augustine, say ‘...but not yet.’

The creation of an environmental ethic cannot happen out of nowhere, but will reflect the concerns and the tradition of the culture in which it is born.  Western values, as we have seen , have always contained intellectual environmental values.

A long tradition of scientific observation, love and reverence for nature goes back to Linneus, Leonardo, Goethe, Keats, Turner, Rilke etc.  Moreover, because other cultures have similarly proven a kindred feeling of wonder and inspiration, as demonstrated by cavemen's paintings, Japanese art and Chinese poems, we know that humanity's attachment to nature expresses itself at various historical moments in different modes.  The notion that we must consider authoritative regulations to preserve our environment from that side of ourselves which cannot see beyond the satisfaction of some immediate wants, has become common place.  Material wealth and power are means to ends: the preservation of higher values, created by humankind.  Even utilitarian moral philosophies recognise that nature contributes to human well being, by providing knowledge, contemplation, aesthetic enjoyment, and recreation.

In our highly polymorphic societies with their profound contradictions, the protection of the environment is not an arbitrary optional, but ‘…is central to the spiritual and cultural interests of human beings’ (Allison 1991) not merely a matter of survival.  Without this recognition, any material progress is empty and indeed a dangerous two-edged sword.


Allison, L. (1991)  Ecology and Utility The Philosophical Dilemmas of Planetary Management.  Leicester University Press.
Bramwell, A. (1989) Ecology in the 20th Century.  A History.  Yale University Press, New Haven and London.
ISEE (1999) Environmental Ethics, Twenty-One Year Index.  ISEE Bibliography.
IUCN, UNEP and WWF (1991) Caring for the Earth: A Strategy for Sustainable Living.  IUCN/UNEP/WWF, Gland.
Leopold, A. (1966) A Sand County Almanac.  Oxford University Press.
Rolston, H. (1999)  Ethics and the Environment in Baker, E. and Richardson, M. (eds) Ethics Applied (2nd ed.).  Simon and Shuster, New York.
Singer, P. (1992) Applied Ethics.  Oxford University Press.
Yi-Fu Tuan (1973) Topophilia A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes and Values.  Prentice Hall, New Jersey.


The Earth Charter Initiative, International secretariat, the Earth Council -

There are currently several projects which link environmental praxis with a revision of religious and spiritual values:

• Assisi Nature Council, Italy -
• Buddhist Perception of Nature, Thailand
• Environmental Project, Melanesian Council of Churches, Papua New Guinea –
• Au Sable Trails, Institute of Environmental Studies, USA. –
• Eco-Justice Project, Cornell University, USA –
• Parish of San Jose de Ocoa, Dominican Republic
• Sarvodoya movement, Sri Lanka –
• Centro de Investigacion y Promocion Franciscano y Ecologico, Uruguay
• Pax Christi, Strasbourg.


L’éthique environnementale se différencie des autres théories éthiques par le fait qu’elle traite notre rapport et notre gestion de l’environnement; elle n’est donc pas homogène; il s’ensuit différentes attitudes et idéologies héritées de notre passé.  Mais bien des philosophes éthiques sont d’accord avec le fait que le défaut dans la relation entre la nature et les hommes est inhérent à un ensemble de valeurs erronées.

L’article démontre que les civilisations de l’Ouest ont créé l’émergence de leurs propres erreurs dans leur rapport avec le monde naturel et quand a démarré le questionnement à propos du concept de progrès, ce qui avait déjà commencé au début du siècle.  Cela ne signifie pas que la question à propos du rôle de l’humanité vis à vis de la nature n’était pas en cause au cours des générations précédentes, mais que le développement d'un vaste ensemble de recherches philosophiques sur le sujet, sous la conduite d’une éthique de l’environnement est la principale contribution que les civilisations de l’ouest ont offerte à un monde assiégé.  Aldo Leopold aurait inventé le concept, quand en 1949 il proposa pour la première fois l’adoption d’une éthique de pays dans Sand Country Almanac.

Plus tard, les publications de Sauvez la Terre, une stratégie des années 90 mise en avant par le WWF et l’IUCN, ont diffusé la notion d’éthique environnementale comme devant faire partie des politiques se rapprochant de quelque chose nommé éthique du développement durable.  Cette idée a été répandue après Rio 1992 avec la création d’une Charte de la Terre, qui définissait nos devoirs vis à vis de l'environnement et des autres comme le seul espoir d’arriver à un développement durable et à la paix.  Le contenu des éthiques est dans l’action et non dans les mots, ce qui implique que nous devons souvent prendre des décisions douloureuses qui mettent à l’épreuve notre sens de la justice, de la logique, de l’indulgence et de l’amour.


El principal interés de la ética medioambiental, a diferencia de cualquier otra teoría ética es, desde nuestro punto de vista, nuestra relación con el medio ambiente y nuestras directrices en su manejo.  Todo ello no quiere decir en absoluto que sea un interés completamente homogéneo. Este interés sigue diferentes actitudes e ideologías inherentes a nuestro pasado.  Pero la mayoría de éticos están de acuerdo con el hecho de que el fallo de la relación hombre/naturaleza yace sobre una serie inherente de ‘valores’ erróneos.  El artículo demuestra que la civilización occidental ha creado una conciencia de sus propios fallos en el trato con la naturaleza y ha empezado a cuestionarse su concepto de progreso aproximadamente a principios de este siglo.  Esto no quiere decir que las cuestiones a cerca de la relación hombre/naturaleza no se hayan tratado en generaciones anteriores, sino que el desarrollo de su amplia investigación filosófica, bajo el título de Ética Medioambiental, es la principal contribución que al civilización occidental ha ofrecido a este asediado mundo.  A Aldo Leopold se le reconoce la invención del concepto, cuando en 1949 propuso por primera vez el concepto de Tierra Ética en su Almanaque Sand Country.

Más tarde, la publicación Salvemos la Tierra, una Estrategia para los ’90 promovida por WWF y UICN, ha difundido la noción de que la ética medioambiental debería formar parte de las políticas medioambientales, cuando es algunas veces llamada ética de sostenibilidad.  Esta idea se expandió después de la conferencia de Rio 1992 con la creación de Earth Charter, que define nuestras tareas respecto al medio ambiente y nosotros mismos, como única esperanza para conseguir sostenibilidad y paz.  La esencia de la ética está en las acciones y no en las palabras, lo que implica que a menudo tengamos que tomar decisiones dolorosas que pondrán a prueba nuestro sentido de la justicia, de la lógica, la compasión y del amor.

About the Author 

Maria Luisa Cohen is President of the Assisi Nature Council, C. P. 107, Assisi 06081PG, Vicolo St. Stefano, Italy.  Tel/Fax:  39 (0)75 813 521.  Her main contact details: Avenue de Jaman, 3 Lausanne 1005, Switzerland.  Tel: (41) 21 320 7043  Fax: (41) 21 323 0736  Email: