For a long time now, environmental issues have been discussed and debated all over the world. The twenty-first century call for a reconsideration of the ways through which environmental concerns that affect the planet earth as well as the societies in it are dealt with (Bunnin and Tsui-James 517).
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A critical reflection on the ethical principles and policies need be done if the current environmental conflicts are to be effectively addressed. Environmental ethics may be defined as the study of ethics of the day to day interactions of human beings with and their impacts on the systems of nature (Attfield 15).
The essay discusses the general concept of contemporary environmental ethics. It also elaborates some of the key economic and political dimensions of environmental ethics. Furthermore, the essay offers suggestions on the necessary changes in trade and governance needed to enhance environmental protection with reference to two current issues relating to environmental protection in the U.S.
Contemporary Environmental Ethics
Meta-ethics and Normative Ethics
John O’Neill defines meta-ethics as mainly focusing on the need to understand the status and nature of the various ethical claims that human beings make from time to time (Jamieson 163). It deals with questions about ethics rather than the substantive questions in ethics. For instance, meta-ethics would ask whether or not given ethical claims can considered true or false, whether there is a possibility of an ethical reality, or whether ethical claims may be scrutinized for rational justification.
A key question in meta-ethics is usually whether ethical claims are assertions that can be regarded as true or false. According to ethical realist, ethical statements are descriptions of the facts of the world that are either true or false independent of what the speaker believes. However, there are divergent views against ethical realism.
First, the error theory states that ethical statements are just but descriptions of the world, all of which are imposed on the world and hence false. Second, there is expressivism which holds that ethical statements are not the descriptions ascribed to the world: instead, the statements are mere expressions of attitudes that the speaker has towards the world (Jamieson 163).
Substantive questions raised in ethics are usually the matter of normative ethics. This type of ethics is concerned with particular ethical utterances, including those at the center of environmental ethics such as environmental change and its impacts on human as well as non-human beings.
Most often, normative ethics is concerned with attempting to offer systematic theoretical frameworks for the need to justify and articulate such claims: Kantian, contractarian, utilitarian, and deep ecological theories offer standard examples of normative theories.
Robert Elliot points out that the assault of human beings on the terrestrial environment indicates no signs of fading away and it is almost clear that it will spill over into the non-terrestrial environments (Jamieson 177).
There is continued deforestation, soil erosion, water and air pollution has been on the rise over the decades, species of flora and fauna are threatened while others extinguished, rapid human population growth with shrinking resources, alarming climatic changes due to human activity have become a threat to island states due to the ever rising water levels, and general human activity has left worrying marks globally.
These phenomena directly affect the current and future generations, other creatures, the biomass, as well as the planet earth inhabited by human beings. This awareness and response is considered to be an ethical response.
This ethical response has necessitated the application of ethical categories to non-human domains (Keller 7). In the recent past, the normative environmental ethics has been developed which is concerned with the need to understand how human impacts on the natural environment and evaluate its morality. There has been increasing concern for the application of beyond human-centered environmental ethics. It is at this point that ethical principles are applied to non-human environment as they are applied to human beings.
Economic Dimension of Environmental Ethics
Myrick Freeman III provides a comprehensive discussion of the relationship between economics and environmental ethics. Economics may be understood as the way in which societies organize themselves in order to produce goods and services that ensure the sustenance of human well-being (Jamieson 277). Over the past two centuries, economics has primarily been geared towards the activities of production and exchange within the economy.
During this period, little attention was given to the role of land in the production of food. However, the past three to four decades have witnessed the emergence of environmental economics as a specialized field of study. This involves the use of analytical tools of economics to understand and recommend policies about the role of the environment as well as naturally available resources in enhancing economic activity (Jamieson 277).
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There is a close relationship between economics and environmental ethics when the environment is analyzed from an economic perspective (Have 17). Basically, the purpose of economic activity is to enhance the well-being of the members of the society and everyone can best tell how well-off he or she is when subjected to a given situation (Keller 23). Preferences play a crucial role when it comes to making decisions and choices in life.
The term “preferences” is used in economics to refer to an individual’s prioritization or ranking of available alternatives. The market systems in most societies are organized in such a manner that individuals can exchange less preferred goods for more preferred goods (Jamieson 278). Economic efficiency in the resource allocation will be achieved when the extensiveness and competitiveness of markets are sufficient.
The conclusion that economic efficiency in the resource allocation will be achieved when the extensiveness and competitiveness of markets are sufficient provides the rationale for laissez-faire capitalism. It also justifies several forms of government interventions in the operation of markets, for instance, anti-monopoly policies, setting guidelines for the prices charged by monopolies, and the control of pollution (Jamieson 279).
The relationship between failures in the market and economic analysis of the environment may be understood clearly if the environment is considered as an economically valuable resource.
The environment undoubtedly yields a variety of valuable services to individuals in their role as consumers and producers. These include such services as basic life support and continuous supply of food, fiber, among other useful materials. Various recreational activities can be performed in the environment. The environment can also be a source of amenities and aesthetic pleasures. It can be used as a dump site for the wastes from production and consumption activities (Have 20).
Just as is the case with any other resource, the environment is characterized by scarcity. This implies that it is bound by the fact that it cannot simultaneously meet all the required quantities of the services. Hence, ethical treatment of the environment must be exercised in order to avoid exploitation and the resultant consequences. Therefore, there is need to do a benefit-cost analysis on the environment.
Benefit- cost analysis and environmental policy
In almost every society, there is scarcity of resources and efforts should be made to ensure that the most returns are achieved. The benefits obtained from controlling pollution and environmental protection activities should be compared with the costs of taking up resources from other uses (Keller 35).
This should be done in terms of the preferences of the people who benefit or loose. This shows that a society will only embark on environmental protection and control of pollution if the outcomes are worth more in terms of individuals’ well-being compared to what is given up by diverting resources from other uses.
The design of environmental policy is guided by benefit-cost analysis. In economic terms, policies are accepted if the aggregate benefits are more than the aggregate costs. America is faced with the challenge of ratifying international environmental protocols on the basis of economic implications. For instance, global warming has been greatly occasioned by carbon emissions by developed countries but little has been made to implement the policies that seek to reverse this environmental crisis.
Political Dimension of Environmental Ethics
There has been continued debate on whether green political thought can be compared with the developed political ideologies like liberalism, conservatism, socialism, and so forth (Jamieson 316). This has been caused by lack of distinct theoretical linkages and disagreement between the various ideas.
One of the major reasons for the deep-rooted disagreement is the lack of clear beginning of the green political thought. It has no renowned pioneers and no master discourse like in other disciplines and schools of thought (Jamieson 316). Green political thought is evidently in its formation stage, hence supporting the claim that it is not yet capable of being an independent political ideology.
On the other hand, green political thought has been associated with various contexts connoting different ecological and to some extent, political ideas. It is mostly taken to mean ecology, environment movement or new social movements with its theoretical basis for “new politics” with emphasis on ecological concerns (Merchant 45).
According to Jamieson, it is possible to identify the main features of the political dimension of environmental ethics and positioned against other political traditions (Jamieson 317). The green political thought concerns and preoccupies itself with ecological crisis. It is characterized by an ethic of respect for ecological integrity of the planet earth including its myriad species.
This thought also acknowledges the social and ecological interdependence which is referred to as a relational ontology. Another feature is the acceptance of the idea that there are ecological limits to every form of growth. More so, the green political thought calls for a corresponding support for an ecologically sustainable society which respects ecological limits. It also advocates for political support for radical social, technological, as well as economic transformations to attain an ecologically sustainable society.
Furthermore, it posits that there must be intergenerational and intragenerational equity. Lastly, the green political thought is characterized by a commitment to participatory democracy and the decentralization of power to the lowest possible level.
Although the green political ideology focuses on issues beyond environmental protection, its preoccupation with the ecological crisis and the need to achieve an ecologically sustainable world gives it the distinctive character compared with other political philosophies. The ecocentric perspective advocates for the conservation of ecological integrity of the planet earth and the flourishing of myriad species.
Current Incidences Relating to Environmental Protection in the U.S
In the quest to protect the environment in the U.S., a number of conflicts have been experienced over the decades. In California, for instance, there was the Santa Barbara oil spill. Union Oil Company of California had leased the oil drilling rights from the feral government and it experienced a deep-sea pipe burst posing great risk to aquatic and life and destructive consequences of pollution (Merchant 51). The company was driven by desire for maximum profits regardless of the potential consequences.
Driven by the need to maximize profits, most entrepreneurs are always in dispute with government agencies mandated with the preservation of public good, and with the environmental advocates defending the nonhuman nature (Merchant 57). Another good example is the discharge of toxic chemicals by computer chip manufacturing company in “Silicon Valley” found on the San Francisco peninsula. Operators are always in conflict with expected ethical considerations as they pollute air and water used by the public.
Efforts to address environmental crisis have been made by the international community with an aim of reversing the alarming trends of environmental degradation. Governments were alarmed by calls from the U.N. for programs to protect land and natural resources.
The conflict in developing countries is the need to develop economically by extensive land use and digging up of naturally available resources. It is regrettable that despite numerous conventions with clear guidelines have been developed; little has been done to ensure comprehensive implementation of the recommendations. Therefore, all the international agreements on environmental conservation should be reviewed and all countries of the world including United States of American should be forced to ratify them.
The essay has discussed the general concept of contemporary environmental ethics. It has elaborated some of the key economic and political dimensions of environmental ethics. Furthermore, the essay has suggested the necessary changes in trade and governance needed to enhance environmental protection with reference to two current issues relating to environmental protection in the U.S.
Attfield, Robin. Environmental ethics: an overview for the twenty-first century. Wiley-Blackwell, 1- 78
Bunnin, Nicholas and Tsui-James, E. P. (eds). The Blackwell companion to philosophy (2nd ed.). Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2003, 517-527
Have, Ten H. Environmental ethics and international policy. UNESCO, 2006, 15-21
Jamieson, Dale (ed). A companion to environmental philosophy. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003, 161-233, 249-330
Keller, David R. Environmental ethics: the big questions. John Wiley and Sons, 2009, 1- 36,
Merchant, Carolyn. Environmental Ethics and Political Conflict: A View from California. Environmental Ethics, 12, 45-68