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14.2 Ethical Approaches to Environmental Protection

Learning Objectives

  1. Outline five attitudes toward environmental protection.
  2. Consider who should pay for environmental protection and cleanup.

The Range of Approaches to Cancun

Cancun is an environmental sacrifice made in exchange for tourist dollars. The unique lagoon, for example, dividing the hotel strip from the mainland was devastated by the project. To construct the roadwork leading around the hotels, the original developers raised the earth level, which blocked the ocean’s high tide from washing over into the lagoon and refreshing its waters. Quickly, the living water pool supporting a complex and unique ecosystem clogged with algae and became a stinky bog. No one cared too much since that was the street side, and visitors had come for the ocean.

Still, one hotel developer decided to get involved. Ricardo Legorreta who designed the Camino Real Hotel (today named Dreams Resort) said this about his early 1970s project: “Cancun is more water than land. The Hotel Camino Real site was originally 70 percent water. It had been filled during the urbanization process. I wanted to return the site to its original status, so we built the guest room block on solid rock and the public areas on piles, and then excavated what was originally the lagoon. The difference in tide levels provides the necessary water circulation to keep the new lagoon clean.”Ricardo Legorreta, Wayne Attoe, Sydney Brisker, and Hal Box, The Architecture of Ricardo Legorreta (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990), 108.

Specific numbers aren’t available, but plainly it costs more to dig out the ground and then build on piles than it does to just build on the ground. To save the lagoon, the owners of the Camino Real spent some money.

Was it worth it? The answer depends initially on the ethical attitude taken toward the environment generally; it depends on how much, and how, value is assigned to the natural world. Reasonable ethical cases can be made for the full range of environmental protection, from none (total exploitation of the natural world to satisfy immediate human desires) to complete protection (reserving wildlife areas for freedom from any human interference). The main positions are the following and will be elaborated individually:

  • The environment shouldn’t be protected.
  • The environment should be protected in the name of serving human welfare.
  • The environment should be protected in the name of serving future generations’ welfare.
  • The environment should be protected in the name of serving animal welfare.
  • The environment should be protected for its own sake.

The Environment Shouldn’t Be Protected

Should individuals and businesses use the natural world for our own purposes and without concern for its welfare or continuation? The “yes” answer traces back to an attitude called free useFrom this perspective, the natural world is entirely dedicated to serving immediate human needs and desires., which pictures the natural world as entirely dedicated to serving immediate human needs and desires. The air and water and all natural resources are understood as belonging to everyone in the sense that all individuals have full ownership of, and may use, all resources belonging to them as they see fit. The air blowing above your land and any water rolling through it are yours, and you may breathe them or drink them or dump into them as you like. This attitude, finally, has both historical and ethical components.

The history of free use starts with the fact that the very idea of the natural world as needing protection at all is very recent. For almost all human history, putting the words environment and protection together meant finding ways that we could be protected from it instead of protecting it from us. This is very easy to see along Europe’s Mediterranean coast. As opposed to Cancun where all the buildings are pushed right up to the Caribbean and open to the water, the stone constructions of Europe’s old coastal towns are huddled together and open away from the sea. Modern and recently built hotels obscure this to some extent, but anyone walking from the coast back toward the city centers sees how all the old buildings turn away from the water as though the builders feared nature, which, in fact, they did.

They were afraid because the wind and storms blowing off the sea actually threatened their existences; it capsized their boats and sent water pouring through roofs and food supplies. Going further, not only is it the case that until very recently nature threatened us much more than we threatened it, but in those cases where humans did succeed in doing some damage, nature bounced right back. After a tremendously successful fishing year, for example, the supply of food swimming off the coastlines of the Mediterranean was somewhat depleted, but the next season things would return to normal. It’s only today, with giant motorized boats pulling huge nets behind, that we’ve been able to truly fish out some parts of the sea. The larger historical point is that until, say, the nineteenth century, even if every human on the planet had united in a project to ruin nature irrevocably, not much would’ve happened. In that kind of reality, the idea of free use of our natural resources makes sense.

Today, at a time when our power over nature is significant, there are two basic arguments in favor of free use:

  1. The domination and progress argument
  2. The geological time argument

The domination and progress argumentThe argument that the natural world doesn’t need to be protected because it’s not important and because technology will resolve problems caused by nature’s corruption. begins by refusing to place any necessary and intrinsic value in the natural world: there’s no autonomous worth in the water, plants, and animals surrounding us. Because they have no independent value, those who abuse and ruin nature can’t be automatically accused of an ethical violation: nothing intrinsically valuable has been damaged. Just as few people object when a dandelion is pulled from a front yard, so too there’s no necessary objection to the air being ruined by our cars.

Connected with this disavowal of intrinsic value in nature’s elements, there’s high confidence in our ability to generate technological advances that will enable human civilization to flourish on the earth no matter how contaminated and depleted. When we’ve drilled the last drop of the petroleum we need to heat our homes and produce electricity to power our computers, we can trust our scientists to find new energy sources to keep everything going. Possibly solar energy technologies will leap forward, or the long-sought key to nuclear fission will be found in a research lab. As for worries about the loss of wildlife and greenery, that can be rectified with genetic engineering, or by simply doing without them. Even without human interference, species are disappearing every day; going without a few more may not ultimately be important.

Further, it should be remembered that there are many natural entities we’re happy to do without. No one bemoans the extinction of the virus called variola, which caused smallpox. That disease was responsible for the death of hundreds of millions of humans, and for much of history has been one of the world’s most terrifying scourges. In the 1970s, the virus was certified extinct by the World Health Organization. No one misses it; not even the most devoted advocate of natural ecosystems stood up against the human abuse and final eradication of the virus. Finally, if we can destroy one part of the natural world without remorse, can’t that attitude be extended? No one is promoting reckless or wanton destruction, but as far as those parts of nature required to live well, can’t we just take what we need until it runs out and then move on to something else?

To a certain extent, this approach is visible in Cancun, Mexico. The tourist strip has reached saturation, and the natural world in the area—at least those parts tourists won’t pay to see—has been decimated. So what are developers doing? Moving down the coast. The new hotspot is called Playa del Carmen. Extending south from Cancun along the shoreline, developers are gobbling up land and laying out luxury hotels at a nonstop rate and with environmental effects frequently (not in every case) similar to those defining Cancun. What happens when the entire area from Cancun to Chetumal is cemented over? There’s more shoreline to be found in Belize, and on Mexico’s Pacific coast, and then down in Guatemala.

What happens when all shoreline runs out? There’s a lot of it around the world, but when the end comes, it’ll also probably be true that we won’t need a real natural world to have a natural world, at least those parts of it that we enjoy. Already today at Typhoon Lagoon in Disney World, six-foot waves roll down for surfers. And visitors to the Grand Canyon face a curious choice: they can take the trouble to actually walk out and visit the Grand Canyon, or, more comfortably, they may opt to see it in an impressive IMAX theater presentation. There’s no reason still more aspects of the natural world, like the warm breezes and evening perfection of Cancun, couldn’t be reproduced in a warehouse. Of course there are people who insist that they want the real thing when it comes to nature, but there were also once people who insisted that they couldn’t enjoy a newspaper or book if it wasn’t printed on real paper.

Next, moving on to the other of the two arguments in favor of free use, there’s the idea that we might as well use everything without anxiety because, in the end, we really can’t seriously affect the natural world anyway. This sounds silly at first; it seems clear that we can and do wreak havoc: species disappear and natural ecosystems are reduced to dead zones. However, it must be noted that our human view of the world is myopic. That’s not our fault, just an effect of the way we experience time. For us, a hundred years is, in fact, a long time. In terms of geological timeTime understood relative to the earth’s history instead of humanity’s., however, the entire experience of all humanity on this earth is just the wink of an eye. Geological time understands time’s passing not relative to human lives but in terms of the physical history of the earth. According to that measure, the existence of the human species has been brief, and the kinds of changes we’re experiencing in the natural world pale beside the swings the earth is capable of producing. We worry, for example, about global warming, meaning the earth’s temperature jumping a few degrees, and while this change may be seismically important for us, it’s nothing new to the earth. As Robert Laughlin, winner of the Nobel Prize in physics, points out in an article set under the provocative announcement “The Earth Doesn’t Care if You Drive a Hybrid,” six million years ago the Mediterranean Sea went bone dry. Eighty-five million years before that there were alligators in the Arctic, and two-hundred million years before that Europe was a desert. Comparatively, human industrialization has changed nothing.George Will, “The Earth Doesn’t Care: About What Is Done to or for It,” Newsweek, September 12, 2010, accessed June 8, 2011,

This geological view of time cashes out as an ethical justification for free use of the natural world for a reason nearly the opposite of the first. The argument for free use supported by convictions about domination and progress borders on arrogance: it’s that the natural world is unimportant, and any problems caused by our abusing it will be resolved by intelligence and technological advance. Alternatively, and within the argument based on geological time, our lives, deeds, and abilities are so trivial that it’s absurd to imagine that we could seriously change the flow of nature’s development even if we tried. We could melt nuclear reactors left and right, and a hundred million years from now it wouldn’t make a bit of difference. That means, finally, that the idea of preserving the environment isn’t nobility: it’s vanity.

The Environment Should Be Protected in the Name of Serving Human Welfare

The free-use argument in favor of total environmental exploitation posits no value in the natural world. In and of itself, it’s worthless. Even if this premise is accepted, however, there may still be reason to take steps in favor of preservation and protection. It could be that the ecosystems around us should be safeguarded not for them, but for us. The reasoning here is that we as a society will live better and happier when lakes are suitable for swimming, when air cleans our lungs instead of gumming them up, when a drive on the freeway with the car window down doesn’t leave your face feeling greasy. Human happiness, ultimately, hinges to some extent on our own natural and animal nature. We too, we must remember, are part of the ecosystem. Many of the things we do each day—walk, breathe, find shelter from the elements—are no different from the activities of creatures in the natural world. When that world is clean and functioning well, consequently, we fit into it well.

Wrapping this perspective into an ethical theory, utilitarianism—the affirmation that the ethically good is those acts increasing human happiness—functions effectively. For visitors to Cancun, it seems difficult to deny that their trip will be more enjoyable if the air they breathe is fresh and briny instead of stinky and gaseous as it was in some places when the lagoon had decayed into a pestilent swamp. Understood in this way, we could congratulate Architect Legorreta for his expensive decision to carve out a space for the tides to reenter and refresh the inland lake. It’s not, the argument goes, that he should be thanked for rescuing an ecosystem, but that by rescuing the ecosystem he made human life more agreeable.

Another way to justify environmental protection in the name of human and civilized life runs through a rights-based argument. Starting from the principle of the right to pursue happiness, a case could be built that without a flourishing natural world, the pursuit will fail. If it’s true that we need a livable environment, one where our health—our breathing, drinking, and eating—is guaranteed, then industrialists and resort developers who don’t ensure that their waste and contamination are controlled aren’t just polluting; they’re violating the fundamental rights of everyone sharing the planet.

Bringing this rights-based argument to Cancun and Legorreta’s dredging of the lagoon, it’s possible to conclude that he absorbed a pressing responsibility to do what he did: in the name of protecting the right of others to live healthy lives, it was necessary to renew the dead water. Again, it must be emphasized that the responsibility isn’t to the water or the animals thriving in its ecosystem. They’re irrelevant, and there’s no obligation to protect them. What matters is human existence; the obligation is to human rights and our dependence on the natural world to exercise those rights.

The Environment Should Be Protected in the Name of Serving Future Generations’ Welfare

The idea that the environment should be protected so that future generations may live in it and have the choices we do today is based on a notion of social fairnessThe doctrine that societies in different places or times should be treated equitably.. Typically in ethics, we think of fairness in terms of individuals. When applying for a job at a Cancun hotel, fairness is the imperative that all those applying get equal consideration, are subjected to similar criteria for selection, and the selection is based on ability to perform job-related duties. When, on the other hand, the principle of fairness extends to the broad social level, what’s meant is that groups taken as a whole are treated equitably.

One hypothetical way to present this notion of intergenerational fairness with respect to the environment and its protection is through the previously discussed notion of the veil of ignorance—that is, the idea that you imagine yourself as removed from today’s world and then reinserted at some future point, one randomly assigned. You may come back tomorrow, next year, next decade, or a hundred years down the line. If, the reasoning goes, that’s your situation, then very possibly you’re going to urge contemporary societies to protect the environment so that it’ll be there for you when your time comes around, whenever that might be. Stated slightly differently, it’s a lot easier to wreck the environment when you don’t have to think about others. Fairness, however, obligates us to think of others, including future others, and the veil of ignorance provides one way of considering their rights on a par with the ones we enjoy now.

What does this mean in terms of Cancun? We should enjoy paradise there, no doubt, but we should also ensure that it’ll be as beautiful for our children (or any randomly selected future generation) as it is for us. In this case, the redredging of the lagoon serves that purpose. By helping maintain the status quo in terms of the natural ecosystems surrounding the hotels, it also helps to maintain the possibility of enjoying that section of the Caribbean into the indefinite future.

There’s also a utilitarian argument that fits underneath and justifies the position that our environment should be protected in the name of future generations. This theory grades acts ethically in terms of their consequences for social happiness, and with those consequences projected forward in time. To the extent possible, the utilitarian mind-set demands that we account for the welfare of future generations when we act today. Of course the future is an unknown, and that tends to weigh decisions toward their effects on the present since those are more easily foreseen. Still, it’s not difficult to persuade most people that future members of our world will be happier and their lives fuller and more rewarding if they’re born onto an at least partially green earth.

The Environment Should Be Protected in the Name of Serving Animal Welfare

One of the more frequently voiced lines of reasoning in favor of ecosystem preservation starts with a fundamental shift from the previous arguments. Those arguments place all intrinsic value in human existence: to the extent we decide to preserve the natural world, we do so because it’s good for us. Preservation satisfies our ethical duties to ourselves or to those human generations yet to come. What now changes is that the natural world’s creatures get endowed with a value independent of humans, and that value endures whether or not we enjoy or need to fit into a web of healthy, clean ecosystems. Animals matter, in other words, regardless of whether they matter for us.

Ethically, the endowment of nonhuman animals with intrinsic worth is to treat them, to some extent, or in some significant way, as human. This treatment is a subject of tremendous controversy, one orbiting around the following two questions:

  • Are nonhuman animals worthy of moral consideration? What do they do, what qualities do they possess that lead us to believe they should have rights and impose obligations on you and me?
  • Granting that nonhuman animals do hold value in themselves and impose obligations on humans by their very existence, how far do the obligations go? If we’re given a choice on a speeding highway between running over a squirrel and hitting a person, do we have a moral obligation to avoid the person (and run down the squirrel)? If we do, then it seems that the intrinsic worth of an animal is less than that of a human being, but how much less?

Questions about whether animals have rights and impose obligations are among the most important in the field of environmental ethics. They will be explored in their own section of discussion that follows. In this section, it will simply be accepted that nonhuman animals do, in fact, have autonomous moral standing. It immediately follows that their protection is, to some extent, a responsibility.

In terms of an ethics of duties, the obligation to protect animal life could be conceived as a form of the duty to beneficence, a duty to help those who we are able to aid, assuming the cost to ourselves is not disproportionately high. Protecting animals is something we do for the same reason we protect people in need. Alternatively, in terms of the utilitarian principle that we act to decrease suffering in the world (which is a way of increasing happiness), the argument could be mounted that animals are, in fact, capable of suffering, and therefore we should act to minimize that sensation just as we do in the human realm. Finally, rights theory—the notion that we’re free and should not impinge on the freedom of others—translates into a demand that we treat the natural world with respect and with an eye to its preservation in order to guarantee that nonhuman animals may continue to pursue their own ends just as we demand that we humans be allowed to pursue ours.

With the obligation for the protection of—or at least noninterference with—nonhuman animals established, the way opens to extend the conservation to the natural world generally. Because animals depend on their habitat to express their existence, because their instincts and needs suggest that they may be free only within their natural environment, the first responsibility derived from the human obligation to animals is one to protect their wild and natural surroundings. As an important note here, that habitat—the air all animals breathe, the water where fish swim, the earth housing burrowing animals—is not protected for its own sake, only as an effect of recognizing the creatures of the natural realm as dignified and worthy of our deference.

What does this dignity conferred on animal life mean for Cancun? The dredging and revivifying of the lagoon by Legorreta fulfills an obligation under this conception of the human relation to the natural world. It’s a different obligation from those developed in the previous cases, however. Before, the lagoon was cleansed in the name of improving the Cancun experience for vacationers; here, it’s cleansed so that it may once again support the land and aquatic life that once called the place home. As for whether that improves the vacation experience, there’s no reason to ask; it’s only necessary to know that saving animals probably requires saving their home.

The Entire Environmental Web Should Be Protected for Its Own Sake

The environment as a whole, the total ecosystem including all animal and plant life on Earth—along with the air, water, and soil supporting existence—should be protected according to a number of ethical arguments:

  • The least difficult to persuasively make is the case that the obligation flows from human welfare: we’re happier when our planet is healthy.
  • It’s more difficult, but still very possible, to make a reasonable case that the obligation to protection attaches to the autonomous value and rights of nonhuman animals. In order to protect all of them, the reasoning goes, we should preserve all elements of the natural world to the extent possible because we can’t be sure which ones may, in fact, play an important role in the existence of one or another kind of creature.
  • Finally, the most difficult case to make is that humans are obligated to protect the total environment—all water and air, every tree and animal—because all of it and every single part holds autonomous value. This Earth-wide value translates into an Earth-wide obligation: the planet—understood as the network of life happening above and under its surface—becomes something like a single living organism we humans must protect.

What distinguishes the third argument from the previous two is that we don’t save the greater natural ecosystem in the name of something else (human welfare or habitat preservation for nonhuman animals) but for itself.

It’s easy to trivialize the view that every element of the natural world demands respect and therefore some degree of protection. Do we really want to say that a child experimenting out in the driveway with worms, or pulling up plants to see the roots is failing a moral obligation to the living world? What about the coconut trees felled to make room for Cancun’s hotels? Perhaps if they were unique trees, or if a certain species of bird depended on precisely those limbs and no others for its survival, but do we want to go further and say that the standard trees—a few hundred out of millions in the world—should give developers pause before the cement trucks come wheeling in? For many, it will be easier to conclude that if a good project is planned—if there’s money to be earned and progress to be made—then we can cut down a few anonymous trees that happen to be standing in the way and get on with our human living.

On the other hand, sitting on the sand in Cancun, it’s difficult to avoid sensing a happening majesty: not a reason to pull out your camera and snap, but a living experience that can only be had by a natural being participating, breathing air as the wind blows across the beach, or swimming in the crisp water. There may be a kind of aesthetic imperative here, a coherent demand for respect that we feel with our own natural bodies. The argument isn’t that the entire natural ecosystem should be preserved because it feels good for us to jump in the ocean water—it feels good to jump in the shower too—the idea is that through our bodies we experience a substance and value of nature that requires our deference. Called the aesthetic argumentAs an argument in favor of protecting the natural world, the conviction that nature’s majesty is an ethical imperative to protection. in favor of nature’s dignity, and consequently in favor of the moral obligation to protect it, there may be no proper explanation or reasoning, it may only be something that you know if you’re in the right place at the right time, like Cancun in the morning.

The response to the aesthetic argument is that we can’t base ethics on a feeling.

If We Decide to Protect the Environment, Who Pays?

Much of the stress applied to, and the destruction wrought on the environment around Cancun could be reversed. That costs money, though. Determining exactly how much is a task for biologists and economists to work out. The question for ethical consideration is, who should pay? These are three basic answers:

  1. Those who contaminated the natural world
  2. Those who enjoy the natural world
  3. Those who are most able

The answer that the costs should be borne by those who damaged nature in the first place means sending the bill to developers and resort owners, to all those whose ambition to make money on tourism got roads paved, forests cleared, and foundations laid. Intuitively, placing the obligation for environmental cleanup on developers may make the most sense, and in terms of ethical theory, it fits in well with the basic duty to reparation, the responsibility to compensate others when we harm them. In this case, the harm has been done to those others who enjoy and depend on the natural world, and one immediate way to compensate them is to repair the damage. A good model for this could be Legorreta’s work, the expense taken to raise a portion of a hotel and so once again allow tide water to freshen the lagoon. Similar steps could be taken to restore parts of the ruined coral reef and to replant the forest behind the hotel area.

The plan makes sense, but there’s a glaring problem: times change. Back when Cancun was originally being laid out in the 1960s, ecological concerns were not as visible and widely recognized as they are today. That doesn’t erase the fact that most hotel companies in Cancun laid waste to whatever stood in the way of their building, but it does allow them to note that they are being asked to pay today for actions that most everyone thought were just fine back when they were done. It’s not clear, finally, how fair it is to ask developers to pay for a cleanup that no one envisioned would be necessary back when the construction initiated.

The proposal that those who enjoy and depend on the natural world should bear primary responsibility for protecting and renewing it also makes good sense. This reasoning is to some extent implemented in America’s natural parks where fees are charged for entry. Those revenues go to support the work of the forestry service that’s required to ensure that visitors to those parks—and the infrastructure they need to enjoy their time there—don’t do harm to the ecosystems they’re coming to see, and also to ensure that harm done by others (air pollution, for example, emitted by nearby factories) is cleansed by nature’s organic processes.

On a much larger scale, a global one, this logic is also displayed in some international attempts to limit the emission of greenhouse gasses. The specific economics and policy are complicated and involve financial devices including carbon credits and similar, but at bottom what’s happening is that governments are getting together and deciding that we all benefit from (or even need) reduced emissions of waste into the air. From there, attempts are made to negotiate contributions various countries can make to the reduction effort. As for the cost, most economists agree that the expense of pollution control measures will, for the most part, be passed along as hikes in the cost of consumer goods. Everyone, in other words, will pay, which matches up with the affirmation that everyone benefits.

Finally, the response that those most able to pay should bear the brunt of the cost for protecting the natural world is a political as much as an environmental posture. One possibility would be a surtax levied on wealthy members of society, with the money channeled toward environmental efforts. This strategy may find a solid footing on utilitarian grounds where acts benefitting the overall welfare remain good even if they’re burdensome or unfair to specific individuals. What would be necessary is to demonstrate that the sum total of human (and, potentially, nonhuman animal) happiness would be increased by more than the accumulated displeasure of those suffering the tax increase.

Key Takeaways

  • The attitude that the environment shouldn’t be protected has both historical and ethical roots.
  • Confidence in the human ability to control the environment diminishes concerns about protecting its current state.
  • The power of nature viewed over the very long term diminishes concerns about protecting its current state.
  • Environmental protection in the name of serving human welfare values the natural world because it’s valuable for us.
  • Environmental protection in the name of serving future generations’ welfare derives from a notion of social fairness.
  • Environmental protection in the name of serving animal welfare connects with a notion of moral autonomy in nonhuman animals.
  • Environmental protection for its own sake values the entire set of the world’s ecosystems.
  • If the environment is protected, the costs may be made the responsibility of various parties.

Review Questions

  1. Briefly, what is the history of the free-use attitude toward the natural world?
  2. How can technology make environmental protection a wasted effort?
  3. How can the idea of geological time become an argument against taking expensive steps to protect the natural world?
  4. What are some reasons why our ethical obligations to ourselves may lead us to protect the natural world?
  5. What is the difference between protecting the natural world because we humans are valuable, and because animals are valuable?
  6. What kind of experiences with nature may result in the sensation that, as an interdependent whole, the natural world holds value?
  7. If the decision is made to protect nature, who are some individuals or groups that might be asked to pay the cost?