Environmental philosophy

What is environmentalism?

Environmentalism is the study of the relationship between living organisms (including human beings) and natural environments, usually with the aim of preserving natural environments and renewable resources. Environmentalism is now a multi-faceted, multi-disciplinary field, extending widely into both theory and practice.

Environmental philosophy has drawn on many traditions and subfields within philosophy, including: ethics, social philosophy, continental philosophy, aesthetics, and feminism. Each of these areas refers basic questions about our relation to the environment to fundamental philosophical viewpoints.

What, besides ethics, is philosophical about environmentalism?

As mortal beings, we are all dependent on our environments, and a good part of human spirituality is centered on gratitude for how the earth supports human life, as well as the beauty of natural living and nonliving things. Overall, environmentalism has encouraged a reverence for the goods of life and a good life that flows from what is not artificial or man-made and mass-produced.

There are, of course, direct practical human concerns when it comes to environmentalism, as well as quality-of-life issues related to diminishing resources. For example, not all of the multi-disciplinary experts who have studied global warming agree on its dangers or on how much of it is due to human fossil-fuel consumption. Some believe that Earth has had similar changes in temperature before human industrialization. Recent and emerging studies assign high percentages of global warming to the flatulence of domestic animals raised for food (which could be considered an indirect human activity). Sorting out an issue as complex as global warming would require extensive philosophy of science!

What general philosophical problems does environmentalism pose?

In more traditional philosophical terms, there are ontological and metaphysical issues involved in what counts as a "unit" in environmentalism. (It is important to define the unit because that defines the subject matter theoretically and makes it possible to keep track of what should be preserved, in practical terms.) Is it one animal, a group, an entire ecological niche, a region, a country?

In broad human terms, the problems related to our natural environment are likely to be central in twenty-first century life—everywhere. The dependence of hu

Philosophical environmentalists, analyze humanity's relationship to nature (BigStock Photos).

Philosophical environmentalists, analyze humanity's relationship to nature (BigStock Photos).

mans on the natural planet and the dependence of the natural health of parts of the planet on human activity will probably become an even more absorbing, distressing, and contentious subject than it already is.

Since of all the new subjects in philosophy, environmentalism is probably the most popular, it should be noted that the following books are all good sources of additional information: William F. Baxter, People or Penguins: The Case for Maximum Pollution (1974); Ted Benton, Natural Relations: Ecology, Animal Rights & Social Justice (1993); Jay Bernstein, Adorno: Disenchantment and Ethics (2001); J.B. Callicott, In Defense of the Land Ethic: Essays in Environmental Philosophy (1989); B. Devall and G. Sessions, Deep Ecology: Living as if Nature Mattered (1985); Robert Heilbroner, "What Has Posterity Ever Done for Me?," in New York Times Magazine (January 19, 1975); Thomas E. Hill, "Ideals of Human Virture and Preserving the Natural Environment," in Ethics, Volume 5 (1983); D. Jamieson, editor, A Companion to Environmental Philosophy (2001); Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac (1949); A. Naess, Ecology, Community, Lifestyle (reprint, 1989); R. Nash, The Rights of Nature: A History of Environmental Ethics (1989); V. Plumwood, Environmental Culture (2002); and Peter Singer, Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for our Treatment of Animals, (1975,1977,1983).

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