Environmentalism and Environmental Ethics: Where Does Value Come from?


This April marked the 48th anniversary of the first Earth Day, and a lot has changed since then. Our understanding of our role in shaping ecosystems and climate systems has grown substantially, and progress to mitigate our negative impact on the world has been made. Still, there is a lot more work that has to be done to surmount environmental collective action problems and reverse the damage that’s been done to the environment, as pointed out by many passionate environmentalists. But before we can truly appreciate the significance of environmental concerns, it might be useful to question what exactly environmentalism is, and why should it matter to us?

Defining environmentalism

Environmentalism, broadly speaking, can be viewed as a group of philosophies evaluating our relationship to the variety of natural systems present on our planet – ecosystems, climates, biomes, microbiomes and many others. Environmentalisms, or various environmental philosophies, attempt to define (or dismantle) the boundaries between humanity and the rest of the planet. Given that environmental philosophies center around identifying and defining relationships, many environmental issues can arguably be viewed as ethical issues, as they question what our obligations are to non-human life, and to nature itself.

The value of the environment

Like most ethical issues, environmental ethics presents us with questions of value. The problems that fall under the scope of different environmentalisms ascribe some type of value to the environment and non-human organisms. While the complexity of “regular” ethics is nothing to scoff at, the challenges of articulating how to value nature are part of what can make environmental ethics feel less intuitive – at least relative to some of our other ethical concerns. This is, to some extent, because some environmentalisms ask us to move ethics beyond mere anthropocentric concerns. Although a number of environmental issues do have grave implications for human flourishing, and there are environmentalists who are satisfied simply focusing solely on these types of harm, broadly speaking environmentalism has blossomed into an area that’s concerned with much more than human wellbeing. In other words, many environmentalisms argue that environmental issues shouldn’t just be of concern to us because misuse of the environment harms us; the environment itself is something that can be intrinsically valuable.

How should we value the environment?

As implied above, environmental philosophies don’t just define our relationship to life on Earth and the planet itself, they also ask us how we should value this relationship, and what we should do in light of those values. What kinds of values can we hold that inform our relationship with the environment? Let’s talk through this with an example.

One of this year’s most discussed environmental issues is plastic pollution. Estimates of how much plastic waste exists differ, but a 2015 study suggests that at least 275 million metric tons (MT) of plastic waste was generated in 192 coastal countries in 2010, with 4.8 to 12.7 million MT entering the ocean. The same researchers projected that, if plastic consumption trends remain the same over time, we will have produced 26 billion tons of plastic waste by 2050. This is significant because plastic, as a human-made material, doesn’t interact well with ecosystems, and, under normal conditions, it takes a very long time to fully degrade. The result is not only an unaesthetic clutter of “plastic patches” in many parts of the world, but the consumption of plastic and microplastic particles by aquatic and marine life is also a serious concern. The consequences of this aren’t fully understood, but it is known that plastic pollution harms life at various levels of the food chain, and that it’s possible that humans who consume seafood or are exposed to plastic particles in other ways could potentially experience adverse health effects, although, as is the case with many environmental health problems, the jury is still out regarding the scope of the issue.

From an anthropocentric perspective, one’s concern with the pollution would be its impacts on local and global economies. These concerns surrounding plastic pollution might cover a range of issues, from the fact that dirty beaches aren’t enjoyable and cost tourist dollars to the health concerns that elevated levels of plastic particles in our food chain might cause. We’re still at a point where unknowns about the severity of these harms remain, but we do understand that, since we’re connected to the environment, pollution hurts us.

But some of the most interesting anthropocentric values, I think, are the ones that are concerned with harms committed to future generations. These essentially ask us what our obligations are to unborn persons. Do these potential persons have the right to be born into a world where they won’t have to pay for the costs of plastic pollution? A great example of this kind of thinking is reflected in the constitution of the Iroquois Confederacy. Within their Great Binding Law, there is a line that says: “Look and listen for the welfare of the whole people and have always in view not only the present but also the coming generations, even those whose faces are yet beneath the surface of the ground — the unborn of the future Nation.”

Beyond anthropocentric concerns, there have been arguments made regarding the intrinsic value of nature. That is to say that some see preserving nature for its own sake valuable. The idea is that, even if any humans weren’t around to appreciate the beauty of the diversity of nature, behaviors that harm life — any life — is wrong. Going back to our example, from this perspective, the harm that plastic pollution causes isn’t merely suffered by us humans because life itself has value outside of our wants and needs. This value is most likely less intuitive than any of the anthropocentric values often used to quantify environmental harm. For one, it can be kind of ambiguous as to what it is we should be valuing. There’s been some headway into extending value, and thus moral obligations, to animals, especially to those most like us — mammals, our pets, etc. — by philosophers like Peter Singer who’ve helped popularize, or at least illuminate, the uncritical de-valuing of non-human animals. Still, it’s clear to many environmentalists that we have relationships with more than just other animals, and other broader environmental ethics seek to address that.

What are some philosophies that extend value to more than just humans and animals? Perhaps the oldest examples can be found in religion.  While Western religion, even in its more positive iterations, frames humanity’s relationship with the environment in hierarchical terms, religions like Jainism provide an interesting contrast. At the core of Jainism is a type of non-violence so radical to outsiders that its demands are steep. So committed are the most devout of Jain monks to the ideals of non-violence, that they carry around brushes to remove small organisms from the surfaces where they sit. This perspective comes from a view of the environment that sees humans as part of, rather than distinct from, other aspects of the environmental world. Whereas traditional ethics are about humans choosing to expand their sphere of moral obligations based on relevant criteria, Jainism and other systems like it implicitly assume that humans are embedded in the world in a manner that makes us interdependent, and thus indistinguishable from the rest of the world in a cosmic sense. This holistic perspective has been embodied in later Western environmental movements, like the Deep and Social Ecology movements. In future posts, we will hopefully explore each of these topics in more detail.