Sivil 2 [Richard Sivil , University of Durban Westville, and at the University of Natal, Durban. “Why We Need A New Ethic For The Environment”, 2000]
Three most significant and pressing factors contributing to the environmental crisis are the ever increasing human population, the energy crisis, and the abuse and pollution of the earth’s natural systems. These and other factors contributing to the environmental crisis can be directly linked to anthropocentric views of the world. The perception that value is located in, and emanates from, humanity has resulted in understanding human life as an ultimate value, superior to all other beings. This has driven innovators in medicine and technology to ever improve our medical and material conditions, in an attempt to preserve human life, resulting in more people being born and living longer. In achieving this aim, they have indirectly contributed to increasing the human population. Perceptions of superiority, coupled with developing technologies have resulted in a social outlook that generally does not rest content with the basic necessities of life. Demands for more medical and social aid, more entertainment and more comfort translate into demands for improved standards of living. Increasing population numbers, together with the material demands of modern society, place ever increasing demands on energy supplies. While wanting a better life is not a bad thing, given the population explosion the current energy crisis is inevitable, which brings a whole host of environmental implications in tow. This is not to say that every improvement in the standard of living is necessarily wasteful of energy or polluting to the planet, but rather it is the cumulative effect of these improvements that is damaging to the environment. The abuses facing the natural environment as a result of the energy crisis and the food demand are clearly manifestations of anthropocentric views that treat the environment as a resource and instrument for human ends. The pollution and destruction of the non-human natural world is deemed acceptable, provided that it does not interfere with other human beings. It could be argued that there is nothing essentially wrong with anthropocentric assumptions, since it is natural, even instinctual, to favour one’s self and species over and above all other forms of life. However, it is problematic in that such perceptions influence our actions and dealings with the world to the extent that the well-being of life on this planet is threatened, making the continuance of a huge proportion of existing life forms "tenuous if not improbable" (Elliot 1995: 1). Denying the non-human world ethical consideration, it is evident that anthropocentric assumptions provide a rationale for the exploitation of the natural world and, therefore, have been largely responsible for the present environmental crisis (Des Jardins 1997: 93). Fox identifies three broad approachesto the environment informed byanthropocentric assumptions, which in reality are not distinct and separate, but occur in a variety of combinations. The "expansionist" approach is characterised by the recognition that nature has a purely instrumental value to humans. This value is accessed through the physical transformation of the non-human natural world, by farming, mining, damming etc. Such practices create an economic value, which tends to "equate the physical transformation of ‘resources’ with economic growth" (Fox 1990: 152). Legitimising continuous expansion and exploitation, this approach relies on the idea that there is an unending supply of resources. The "conservationist" approach, like the first, recognises the economic value of natural resources through their physical transformation, while at the same time accepting the fact that there are limits to these resources. It therefore emphasises the importance of conserving natural resources, while prioritising the importance of developing the non-human natural world in the quest for financial gain. The "preservationist" approach differs from the first two in that it recognises the enjoyment and aesthetic enrichment human beings receive from an undisturbed natural world. Focusing on the psychical nourishment value of the non-human natural world for humans, this approach stresses the importance of preserving resources in their natural states. All three approaches are informed by anthropocentric assumptions. This results in a one-sided understanding of the human-nature relationship. Nature is understood to have a singular role of serving humanity, while humanity is understood to have no obligations toward nature. Such a perception represents "not only a deluded but also a very dangerous orientation to the world" (Fox 1990: 13), as only the lives of human beings are recognised to have direct moral worth, while the moral consideration of non-human entities is entirely contingent upon the interests of human beings (Pierce & Van De Veer 1995: 9). Humanity is favoured as inherently valuable, while the non-human natural world counts only in terms of its use value to human beings. The "expansionist" and "conservationist" approaches recognise an economic value, while the "preservationist" approach recognises a hedonistic, aesthetic or spiritual value. They accept, without challenge, the assumption that the value of the non-human natural world is entirely dependent on human needs and interests. None attempt to move beyond the assumption that nature has any worth other than the value humans can derive from it, let alone search for a deeper value in nature. This ensures that human duties retain a purely human focus, thereby avoiding the possibility that humans may have duties that extend to non-humans. This can lead to viewing the non-human world, devoid of direct moral consideration, as a mere resource with a purely instrumental value of servitude. This gives rise to a principle of ‘total use’, whereby every natural area is seen for its potential cultivation value, to be used for human ends (Zimmerman 1998: 19). This provides limited means to criticise the behaviour of those who use nature purely as a warehouse of resources (Pierce & Van De Veer 1995: 184). It is clear that humanity has the capacity to transform and degrade the environment. Given the consequences inherent in having such capacities, "the need for a coherent, comprehensive, rationally persuasive environmental ethic is imperative" (Pierce & Van De Veer 1995: 2). The purpose of an environmental ethic would be to account for the moral relations that exist between humans and the environment, and to provide a rational basis from which to decide how we ought and ought not to treat the environment. The environment was defined as the world in which we are enveloped and immersed, constituted by both animate and inanimate objects. This includes both individual living creatures, such as plants and animals, as well as non-living, non-individual entities, such as rivers and oceans, forests and velds, essentially, the whole planet Earth. This constitutes a vast and all-inclusive sphere, and, for purposes of clarity, shall be referred to as the "greater environment". In order to account for the moral relations that exist between humans and the greater environment, an environmental ethic should have a significantly wide range of focus. I argue that anthropocentric value systems are not suitable to the task of developing a comprehensive environmental ethic. Firstly, anthropocentric assumptions have been shown to be largely responsible for the current environmental crisis. While this in itself does not provide strong support for the claim, it does cast a dim light on any theory that is informed by such assumptions. Secondly, an environmental ethic requires a significantly wide range of focus. As such, it should consider the interests of a wide range of beings. It has been shown that anthropocentric approaches do not entertain the notion that non-human entities can have interests independent of human interests. "Expansionist", "conservationist" and "preservationist" approaches only acknowledge a value in nature that is determined by the needs and interests of humans. Thirdly, because anthropocentric approaches provide a moral account for the interests of humans alone, while excluding non-humans from direct moral consideration, they are not sufficiently encompassing. An environmental ethic needs to be suitably encompassing to ensure that a moral account is provided for all entities that constitute the environment. It could be argued that the indirect moral concern for the environment arising out of an anthropocentric approach is sufficient to ensure the protection of the greater environment. In response, only those entities that are in the interest of humans will be morally considered, albeit indirectly, while those entities which fall outside of this realm will be seen to be morally irrelevant. Assuming that there are more entities on this planet that are not in the interest of humans than entities that are, it is safe to say that anthropocentric approaches are not adequately encompassing. Fourthly, the goals of an environmental ethic should protect and maintain the greater environment. It is clear that the expansionist approach, which is primarily concerned with the transformation of nature for economic return, does not meet these goals. Similarly, neither does the conservationist approach, which is arguably the same as the expansionist approach. The preservationist approach does, in principle satisfy this requirement. However, this is problematic for such preservation is based upon the needs and interests of humans, and "as human interests and needs change, so too would human uses for the environment" (Des Jardins 1997: 129). Non-human entities, held captive by the needs and interests of humans, are open to whatever fancies the interests of humans. In light of the above, it is my contention that anthropocentric value systems fail to provide a stable ground for the development of an environmental ethic.