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An Overview of Environmental Ethics

The term environmental ethics has been used fairly recently when discussing the impact we have on the world around us even though we have always been tasked with protecting the earths resources. We will discuss some of the early environmental issues that mankind faced, the focus that it’s been given in the past three decades, and potential issues we will face in the near future. With the growth of the world population the need for the resources to last for future generations and the ability to manage our present day surrounds is growing more dire each year. Environmental ethics helps us to examine the many possibilities we are faced with as a civilization.

The field known as Environmental Ethics emerged in the late 60’s with the first scientific journals being produced in North America in 1979 (Environmental Ethics, 2010). Centuries before this, during the ancient civilization, mankind faced decisions which impacted the environment and our future. As early as 60,000 years ago there is evidence that fire was used to deliberately clear forest in Tanzania (Kovarik, 2001). Mankind is also impacted by our interaction with the environment. In civilized areas there was air and water pollution from dust, wood, animal manure, and tanneries (Kovarik, 2001). We begin to mine the earth for precious rocks and gems. Then we started stripping away the forest as towns and cities emerge and grow. By 2600 BCE the first laws were being passed to preserve the forest and limit the amount of clearing that can be done in Ur (Kovarik, 2001). Even with these types of measures taking place in some parts of the world other area are deforesting land so quickly that erosions is destroying the very cities and civilizations they built.

Not only are we having an impact on the plants, water, and soil but we are also impacting the other living animals of the planet. Centuries ago animals were used for labor and typically slaughtered for food it was also common to sacrifice animals. In 1300 BCE Hebrew Law dictates a requirement for the humane slaughter and care of work animals (Kovarik, 2001). Then between 740 – 500 BCE vegetarianism was being taught by prominent figures in Hebrew, Buddhism, Jainism, and Greek societies (Kovarik, 2001). Even with all of these movements there will still be thousands of different species of animal that become extinct because of mankind’s mismanagement.

As mankind expands its reign on the planet we begin to be negatively impacted by our advancement with the onset of water pollution, smog, plague, and disease through the middle ages and renaissance all of the way through the industrial revolution. With each obstacle we found ways to overcome the impact on ourselves but not always on the environment. We created sewer systems and brought fresh water to cities which decreased the spread of disease while increase water pollution. We stopped cutting down the forest and began using coal which created air pollution and excess waste. Even into modern day civilization we see examples of exposure to radiation or asbestos causing injury and death.

Modern day environmental ethicists have focus and influence in many disciplines including law, sociology, theology, economics, ecology, and geography (Environmental Ethics, 2010). Some of the specific examples of the field today, as described by Alan Marshall, are Libertarian Extension, Ecologic Extension, and the Conservation Extension (Environmental Ethics, 2010). The Libertarian Extension focus on the equal rights of all members of a community but much debate exists over whether or not that includes the non-human members of a region. Then in the Ecologic Extension the emphasis is on the interdependence of all biological life and not sure human rights (Environmental Ethics, 2010). This area of study is best known for its view that the earth is a holistic entity that is ever evolving and that mankind is of no significance in the big picture. Lastly in the Conservation Extension there is a focus on the environment in terms of it’s benefit to mankind. In addition to Marshall’s described fields of study there are other braches of Environmentalists. Once group would be Anthropocentrism where mankind is considered the primary species and all ethical situations are considered with how it will impact us (Environmental Ethics, 2010). There is also Deep Ecology which focuses on the equal rights of all living things and similarly to Marshall’s Ecological Extension (Brennan & Lo, 2008).

The future of the field expands beyond the earth, air, and water in which we live today and into the environment of the future. We have already begun spreading debris into our own atmosphere and will reach for the moon in the next few decades. Beyond that we will continue to explore out to other planets inside our galaxy and potentially someday reach beyond to other far reaches of the universe. When that happens we will need to take into consideration our impact on the other biological and non-biological entities we come in contact with.

As originally stated the term Environmental Ethics is relatively new but the practices of acknowledging mankind’s need for the environment and our ability to impact has existed for centuries. In ancient times mankind became negatively impacted by deforesting the land and polluting near its cities and there were several movements across the globe supporting vegetarianism and the protection of animals they lead us away from the practice of animal sacrifice. After the ancient times disease and pollution lead to the creation of more sanitary living conditions at the expense of new forms of pollution involving the advancement in fossil fuel use. In the Common Era environmentalists are involved in most all facets of life and have varied view points when considering what is “right”. Lastly the future of Environmental Ethics lies beyond our planet as we search out new worlds to explore beyond our own galaxy.

Brennan, A., & Lo, Y.-S. (2008, January 3). Environmental Ethics. Retrieved from Stanford University website:
Environmental Ethics. (2010, July 3). Retrieved from
Kovarik, W., Ph.D. (2001). Environmental History Timeline. Retrieved from Radford University website: