Environmental Virtue Ethics–Review

Environmental Virtue Ethics
Philip Cafaro and Ronald D. Sandler (editors)
Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004. Print.

A Review-essay by Josef Mathews

No Man is an Island,” writes poet John Donne. The idea contained in those words is a profound and timeless truth. It refers to the sea of connections that bind human beings. Environmental Virtue Ethics, edited by Ronald Sandler and Philip Cafaro, echoes this sentiment and extends the concept into the nonhuman world. There is a spider web of links between humans and betwixt humans and nature. The book is a collection of 13 essays penned by academics. They share their views on the topic of human relations with the natural world as well as with each other. While this paper captures the essence of the entire book, special attention is given to ideas in a chapter by Peter Wenz. Nonetheless, the collective message is that if humans live in harmony with each other and with nature, both the natural world and the human species will flourish; otherwise, social problems and environmental degradation multiply.

A tenable claim advanced in the book is that people are interconnected to and interdependent on each other as well as the natural world. Most people will not need complex scientific experiments to be convinced of this idea. Simple observations of causes and effects as they occur in the laboratory of daily life will do. While personal experience is valuable, keen insights on the global biotic community from dedicated and perceptive observers and thinkers of reality expands the band of individual observations. Geoffrey Frasz, in his essay Benevolence as an Environmental Virtue, captures the sentiment of the inextricable link between humans and nature:

We do not exist in the world as isolated, atomic individuals who simply act on objects outside of ourselves. Rather we are relational beings, moral agents who act in specific social, historical, and ecological contexts. …To be human is to dwell in relations with the nonhuman world (133).

While this observation is plain, its acknowledgment has profound implications. Some reflection on this idea will likely persuade the thinker to believe that what he does to the environment he is doing to himself and others. Therefore, out of enlightened self-interest and a genuine concern for everything other than the self, the individual is more inclined to make better behavior choices.

Indeed, actions have consequences. When humans act on the environment the impact can be classified essentially as positive or negative for human and environmental health. Peter Wenz uses a David Korten quote to summarize relations between humans and between humans and nature and the eventual fallout. Japan, a first world nation, in order to dodge pollution on their land, set up a copper smelting operation in the Philippines, a third world nation. The project began with the ejection of local residents from their land. Subsequently, plant contamination diminished local water supplies, fish, and rice. It increased upper-respiratory diseases among local residents who depended on the most dangerous and filthiest jobs at the plant. As a result, the locals suffered while the company owners prospered (201). This example highlights a willful disregard of marginalized people. Clearly, their worth as human beings, in the eyes of the company owners, is not much more than a means to an end. If the owners and other decision makers cared, there would have been significantly more consideration for the well-being of the people that already lived on the land as well as the workers. In fact, it is quite possible that a modicum of concern for people and the environment might have rendered the plan unconscionable.

Think about the hopes and dreams of these workers. A dirty plant which compromises their well-being is not fertile ground to realize their potential. Furthermore, the above example demonstrates that maltreatment of the environment reflects back on human well-being as well. In this case, the residents who dwell near the smelting operation endured the health repercussions associated with the degradation of the environment. To put it simply, at the benefit of a few people, many people suffered and the environment degraded. However, this need not be. If decision makers regard workers as intrinsically valuable and view them as human beings, they will not only ensure the health and safety of workers but also support their personal and professional development. Everyone has the basic rights to clean air, water, and it is a basic truth that all people have gifts and talents. Consultation of human development literature will bolster the idea that although people may have different capacities and abilities, all hold the potential to develop them. It is simply a matter of having the opportunity to flourish.

As often the case is, poor people bear the brunt of consumerism. Peter Wenz defines consumerism as the “ideology that society should maximize consumption, pursue consumption without limit” (198). It is true that humans need to consume. As a matter of fact, everyone depends on the natural world for sustenance; that includes the rich and the poor. However, some are deprived of basic necessities for survival while others overconsume. Wenz writes that “dependence on free sources of food and materials is common in the Third World” (200). However, the pursuit of increased output at times interferes with this access to even the basic supplies. Take, for example, the reduced access to basic nutrients like Vitamin A. The killing of a wild and free source of Vitamin A, bathau, with pesticides in India serves as an example. Ironically, the proliferation of bathau was fanned by the use of artificial fertilizers. One problem with such fertilizers is that poor people cannot afford them (200). The fertilizer was meant to grow high-yield crops. Two problems with this particular crop are their high water requirement and need for artificial fertilizers. Unable to dig deeper wells as well as secure artificial fertilizers, the poorest farmers were rendered incapable of keeping their farms and grow traditional varieties which required less water and no artificial fertilizers. While increased production and profits are not necessarily bad in themselves, it is the existent poor that often suffer. They get pushed deeper into destitution while a minority prospers on profits from fertilizers and pesticides. The lucky farmers who could afford the farming inputs profit from the crops themselves.

In the specific scenario described above, the locals were essentially denied Vitamin A. An unacceptable consequence is the occurrence of blindness among tens of thousands of Indian children every year due to a lack of vitamin A (200). As Wenz demonstrates, the benefits of particular practices are not always enjoyed by everyone. In fact, it negatively impacts vulnerable people. A concern for human welfare needs to be inclusive, and the negative consequences of boosting production need to be balanced against the benefits of freeing resources for optional consumer items. Respect for others should be a pivot point for projects intended to maximize production.

While problems dot the human landscape, so do solutions. The book proposes a strong idea which is a salve for social and environmental problems. It is land-ownership for the masses. Wenz uses another quote by Korten which explains this idea:

Rapid economic growth in low-income countries brings modern airports, television, express highways, and air-conditioned shopping malls … for the fortunate few. It rarely improves living conditions for the many. This kind of growth requires gearing the economy toward exports to earn the foreign exchange to buy the things that wealthy people desire. Thus, the lands of the poor are appropriated for export crops. The former tillers of these lands find themselves subsisting in urban slums on starvation wages paid by sweatshops producing for export. Families are broken up, the social fabric is strained to the breaking point, and violence becomes endemic (202).

An idea that emerges from the above quote is that the lack of land ownership is a contributor to social problems. In fact, other sources confirm this idea. A number of articles filed under World Food & Hunger on The Global Policy Forum website explore the nexus between land ownership and hunger. The page heading captures a basic truth that land is distributed unfairly and this inequity is a key factor to poverty and hunger. Across the globe, land is mostly in the hands of the rich elites, stripping the paupers arguably of the basic right to grow their own food. The principal message in the quote outlines the relationship between groups of humans, expressly the relationship between a small group of landowners and the landless many.

However, there is no need for people to starve, especially if they are willing to work the land to grow their own food. A book originally published in 1995, When Corporations Rule the World by David Korten, asserts that equitable sharing of the earth’s sustainable resources would meet the needs of the population at that time (199). The 2015 third edition of the same book contains the same wording which signifies even today, with the earth bustling with more than seven billion people, there is enough for everyone to survive. Another fertile argument for land ownership on a global scale is that small landowners who depend on their land will be good custodians of the earth because the land sustains them and they have a personal relationship with it. In that scenario both humans and the environment flourish, a universal wish of the essayists in the book.

Peter Wenz underscores other problems that are associated with the integration of traditional societies into the global consumer market. The resulting destitution creates social problems, like child prostitution, which disintegrates the social fabric of societies. Other negative effects are a growing disparity in income between nations and a decrease in global food security. In the year 2000, half the global population’s vitamin and nutritional needs were unmet (202). As mentioned earlier, it is not just humans that suffer; the environment aches as well. Environmental concerns aside, the earth simply does not contain the resources for all its inhabitants to embark on a lifestyle which is on par with the high-income countries (199, 203). An undeniable conclusion is that an insatiable appetite for endless goods and services precipitates social and environmental problems. Therefore, it is in the best interest of the human species and the rest of the earth community for humans to be more considerate consumers.

One approach to solving social and environmental problems is through educating the global population of the consequences of overconsumption along with character development, in particular the cultivation of empathy. People are less likely to jeopardize the well-being of other humans and other living things, no matter which part of the world they live in, if they develop a concern for the other like John Donne observed. Furthermore, one need not stop at living things; respect and reverence can be distributed more broadly to nonliving things like rocks, mountains, streams, and rivers. After all, all of these entities individually make up the whole of our natural world and life-sustaining systems. The education and character development applies both to the young people of today, who are still in their formative years, and the adults who make decisions which have consequences in the real world. The book clearly articulates the development of virtues that result in desirable outcomes for all.

Furthermore, the drivers of consumption need to consider that environmental degradation eventually spills over into their own neighborhoods. After all, water flows and air circulates, taking pollution along with them. To be sure, there may be less contamination when the water and air reach their homes, but that should not deter polluters from being better global citizens. Plus, the wealthy are not immune to social problems. The waves of those problems reach their shores as well.

Rich or poor, the factors that make human beings tick vary. This is so even when their actions are identical. Simply stated, people’s motives may differ. Wenz notices this peculiarity in the human species but places the importance on the end results rather than the motivations. What matters is the flowering of humans and the environment. He writes:

[N]onanthropocentric environmentalists have reasons to favor traditional virtues because their exercise tends to protect the nonhuman environment. Anthropocentrists have reason to support the same virtues because their exercise promotes human flourishing. Nonanthropocentric and anthropocentric considerations regarding human virtue and vice are thus mutually reinforcing. Each is stronger in combination with the other than alone, a relationship I define as synergistic (197).

As the above quote suggests, a balance of human and nonhuman interests motivating an individual is probably the ideal. Nonetheless, the following example demonstrates the concept of dual stimuli at work. Consider a group of people acting out of concern for other humans and another group acting out of concern for the natural world. On the one hand, humans concerned about other humans may oppose the use of sport utility vehicles because it contributes to climate change which adversely affects poor people across the globe. On the other hand, humans concerned about the natural world might be troubled by climate change because it endangers the survival of many species. The motivations are different, but they result in less consumption of natural resources and more preservation of the environment, and more flourishing of humans (209-210). In the absence of a broader environmental ethic, human-centered ethics still manages to promote the well-being of the natural world because, on many occasions, what is good for humans and what is good for the environment coincide. Still, the environment may not get the full protection that it would under a more rigorous environmental ethic (Gruen, 58, 60). Of course, some people may be equally compelled by the welfare of human beings and a reverence for the natural world. Perhaps this dual concern is a more well-rounded approach, but people possess different value systems which originate from many places. Some people may wish to protect the environment because it has instrumental value. Others are motivated to preserve the environment because they regard nature with a sense of reverence and sees intrinsic worth; its value is independent of whether or not it serves human ends (220).

The book, Environmental Virtue Ethics, in its entirety, including Wenz’s chapter, wishes for a peaceful existence not only between human beings but also between the human species and the natural world. The desire is that people respect each other and nature. However, despite people having strong convictions, changing their ways of being in a society that operates counter to their principles is akin to swimming upstream. Wenz takes into account the nuances and complexities of culture and status quo which make it difficult to adhere to virtues to their full extent. He does not ask individuals to ditch their car, in a car-centric society, if it halts their flourishing. Yet that is not a valid excuse to drive a thirsty vehicle. Wenz posits alternatives that deviate from mainstream practice, like driving vehicles that are fuel efficient, driving less, or/and increasing use of public transportation. The message is to adopt practices that improve on existing ones while not causing disharmony in social relationships which are critical for human flourishing. He asks the individual to be the vanguard of trendsetters that help both humans and the natural world to blossom (210-211). As the example illustrates, modifying current lifestyles for the welfare of the global biotic community is not an all-or-nothing effort. This piece of news should be encouraging for someone who does not think their small efforts will make a difference in the grand scheme of things. There is plenty of middle ground. A small change is better than no change and a significant change is an improvement over a small correction. Permission is granted to act even in the smallest ways for a better outcome for the greater good.

The consequences of over-consumption of goods and services by people in wealthy nations and by elite groups in poor nations disproportionately afflict the already marginalized poor. This is both unjust and morally reprehensible. While social and environmental problems are real and grave concerns in the world of today, the solutions are simple and actionable. Consuming less and living with a concern for the human and nonhuman world are obvious choices. The cultivation of virtues encourages individuals to be more concerned for others and the natural world. A more ethical global community allows for greater cohesion among its members and better relations with the natural world. Therefore, when possible, whether by doing a little or doing a lot, human beings “should cultivate … virtues to benefit themselves, other human beings, and the nonhuman environment (212). Environmental Virtue Ethics inspires the fostering of virtues that benefit both humankind and the natural world that the species is a part of.

Works Cited

Cafaro, Philip, and Ronald D. Sandler. Environmental Virtue Ethics. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004. Print.

“Global Policy Forum.” Land Ownership and Hunger. Global Policy Forum. Web. 14 Feb. 2016. .

Gruen, Lori, Dale Jamieson, and Christopher Schlottmann. Reflecting on Nature: Readings in Environmental Philosophy. New York: Oxford UP, 2013. Print.

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