Environmental Ethics

February 20, 2014
“In nature nothing exists alone,” said Rachel Carson, one of my heroes, in her book Silent Spring. Carson’s main target, pesticide use, had devastating effects on ecosystems across the country. Only after Silent Spring was the issue was recognized, brought to light to the American people, and solved. Carson’s vehement fight and victory against pesticide use parallels hauntingly with the fight for lower carbon emissions today, but our victory has not yet come. The principles are much the same: we are too focused on human goals to see that we are inseparably connected with the planet around us. In order to live ethical lives, we must challenge the human-centered mindset and recognize the importance of our interaction with the environment.

In the Western world, most are guilty of anthropocentricity: regarding humans as the central element of the planet, even universe. Anthropocentricity stands directly in the way of an ethical interaction with the environment. Humans are knots in the biospherical net. We play an essential role, but we are not the lone actors.

Personally, connecting with nature brings peace and a sense of satisfaction. Whether I am looking closer at the veins of a leaf or taking in the vast landscape of the Rocky Mountains, I sense that I am just a small part of the puzzle piece that is this planet. As my knowledge about the consequences of my lifestyle expands, my eyes are continually opened to the web of interactions that is our biosphere. It wasn’t until recently that I discovered the name for this interconnectedness: “deep ecology.”

Rober Næss developed deep ecology in 1973, not long after Silent Spring was published. Deep ecology directly counters anthropocentrism. Our actions, Næss asserts, impact the nonliving and living alike for better or for worse. Humankind must recognize that we cannot make demands the planet cannot meet. My ecological self is bigger than my body and mind, so living an ethical life includes respecting and caring for the natural environment. My dream is that once people understand the consequences of their actions, they will choose to take better care of nature and the world in general.

This environmental relationship could flourish if we allow it. But climate change caused by CO2 emissions threatens my dream and my future. Humans have tipped the balance of gases in the atmosphere by producing enormous amounts of carbon dioxide each year. Our average yearly temperatures are skyrocketing, and many uphill graphs display the impending crisis: the earth is heating up, and we must act before it crashes and burns. According to the DCNR, the effects of climate change on western Pennsylvania have been immeasurable. Drier springs mean fire season comes earlier, lasts longer, and causes an unprecedented amount of damage. The number of acres burned by wildfires yearly in the US has nearly doubled since 1960. Because of warmer winters, species of insects, both native and invading, spread faster and kill more trees. Animals and plants either move or die as their preferred climate moves farther and farther north. Snow packs are thinner and melt earlier. Water runs off from the forest earlier in summer. Changing rain patterns disrupt the water supply. The shrinking water supply, in turn, makes trees more vulnerable to fire and insects. All these consequences have direct correlations to the human production of CO2 and other greenhouse gases.

Why should these injustices continue because of our selfish nature? We should be handing off the biosphere to our children in much better condition. Apathy is not an option; there is too much at risk. One strategy to combat climate change is to lead by lifestyle. I have started by choosing to consider the environmental consequences of my actions. What does that entail? Well, it goes beyond the three R’s. The livestock industry, for example, produces millions of pounds of powerful greenhouse gases such as methane and nitrous oxide, causes 85% of water pollution in the US, destroys wildlife habitats, causes erosion of topsoil, and uses inefficient amounts of energy and water just to serve bacon on our plates. When I went vegetarian a few years ago, I cut my carbon footprint by 20%. Occasionally, I eat free-range meat, which appeals to my ethics concerning both animal cruelty and the environment. Not only are animals raised on free range or grass-fed farms more comfortable, they consume just one-third of the energy of their factory pen counterparts. But I could eat responsibly, take short showers, and recycle daily, and my overall impact would still be very small.

It will not be enough to change our personal actions and consequences. We must change the minds of those around us so that they too reject the thinking that human actions have no environmental repercussions. Therefore, when I’m of voting age, I will utilize democracy to elect leaders who are courageous enough to suggest unity with our environment. I intend to study environmental science or studies at the undergraduate level to grasp more deeply the problems our society faces and develop sustainable solutions with my fellow pupils. And I won’t stop there.

I believe that if I become a teacher of environmental science, I could challenge my students to embrace their ecological self in an ethical way. In the classroom I could unleash the creativity, innovation, and aspiration that Rachel Carson has inspired in so many leaders in the environmental movement. Like a ripple effect, my actions will be exponentially more beneficial if my students follow suit. Whether I end up a professor doing climate change research in my spare time or at the high school level sponsoring the Environmental Club, I believe that I will make a change through the next generation. I will not be silent.

If we respond to this ethical challenge appropriately, we have the ability to transform the surface of our planet in a profound way. The choice is ours. The power is ours. The future is ours.

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KyleMoss500 said...
Mar. 12, 2014 at 10:50 pm
Have you read any of Aldo Leopold's work?  His work is similar to Carson's but focuses more on wildlife managment.  A Sand County Almanac and Round River are great.  His other book Game Managment is more of a textbook but still really good if your interested in wildlife managment.
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