Ethics and the Environment
This chapter on ethics and the environment begins with some rather sobering statistics
from the Worldwatch Institute. This includes population growth, rising temperature,
falling water tables, shrinking cropland per person, collapsing fisheries, shrinking
forests, and the loss of plant and animal species. Our environment seems to be stressed
nearly to the breaking point. The ethical and technological questions that this state of
affairs raises are extremely important and complex.
First, there are still serious disagreements about the extent of the environmental damage
that industrial technology has produced. Furthermore, there is no precise way of
knowing just how much of a threat this environmental damage will have for our future
welfare. And whatever the level of damage, we must surely sacrifice some values to halt
or slow it.
To explore these issues, this chapter begins with an overview of the technical aspects of
environmental resource use. Then it moves to a discussion of the ethical basis of
environmental protection. It concludes with a consideration of our obligation to future
generations and the prospects for continued economic expansion.
5.1 The Dimensions of Pollution and Resource Depletion
Environmental damage inevitably threatens the welfare of human beings as well as
plants and animals. Threats to the environment come from two sources, pollution and
refers to the undesirable and unintended contamination of
the environment by the manufacture or use of commodities.
to the consumption of finite or scarce resources. In a certain sense, pollution is really a
type of resource depletion because contamination of air, water, or land diminishes their
has been with modern society for nearly 200 years; its costs are
increasing greatly. It negatively affects agricultural yields, human health, and global
temperatures. The result is a large economic impact and a staggering effect on the
quality of human life.
itself poses a difficult and frightening challenge. Global warming
gases such as: carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, methane, and
chlorofluorocarbons, are gases that absorb and hold heat from the sun, preventing it
from escaping back into space, much like a greenhouse absorbs and holds the sun's heat.
Most scenarios concerning the effects of global warming predict massive flooding,
increase of disease, loss of plant and animal species, and expansion of deserts at the
expense of agricultural land. These effects will have high human and economic costs.