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ECO-ETHICS AND SUSTAINABILITY ETHICS TO PROTECT THE BIOSPHERIC LIFE SUPPORT SYSTEM. John Cairns, Jr. University Distinguished Professor of Environmental Biology Emeritus Department of Biological Sciences Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University Blacksburg, Virginia 24061, U.S.A.
ECO-ETHICS AND SUSTAINABILITY ETHICSTO PROTECT THE BIOSPHERIC LIFE SUPPORT SYSTEMJohn Cairns, Jr.University Distinguished Professor of Environmental Biology EmeritusDepartment of Biological SciencesVirginia Polytechnic Institute and State UniversityBlacksburg, Virginia 24061, U.S.A.February 2010Eco-ethics is the essential foundation for sustainable use of the planet. Such a foundation must consist of a series of value judgments to which humanity is committed.1 Sustainability ethics is a utopian vision that requires living harmoniously with nature, which will exact harsh penalties on species that exceed Earth’s carrying capacity and violate nature’s laws.2
  • E. O. Wilson3 remarks: “In the end, however, success or failure will come down to an ethical decision, one on which those now living will be defined and judged for all generations to come.”
  • Eco-ethics is usually used in a local or regional context.
  • Sustainability ethics must be used in a global context since it involves the biosphere, but it usually has local or regional components.
  • Eco-ethics and sustainability ethics must be congruent with the best scientific information if they are to have multigenerational value.4
  • Sustainable development currently is being approached component by component – socioeconomic, sustainable agriculture, transportation, forestry, energy use, cities, and the like – however, leaving a habitable planet for future generations will require the development of a widely shared paradigm.
  • The paradigm should be ecological from a scientific point of view.
  • This development will be facilitated by a discussion of goals and those conditions necessary to meet them.
  • The presently shared paradigm is that economic growth is the cure for all society’s problems, such as poverty, overpopulation, environmental degradation, and the increasing gap between rich and poor.
  • We are creatures of the planet and all species are our evolutionary relatives.
  • We recognize our dependence on the biospheric life support system and pledge to act in ways that enhance its health and integrity.
  • We value individual worth and integrity in the context of a biospheric life support system with a multitude of individuals dependent upon it.
  • We know that our spirituality had its genesis in nature and vow not to profane it by destroying its source.
  • We acknowledge that we are part of the biosphere and that participating in its destruction is self destruction.
  • We declare that the interdependent web of life is sacred and should be treated with reverence.
  • We pledge to adjust our individual and societal behavior so that it is compatible with biospheric health and integrity.
  • We hold that human independence is an illusion! We have always been dependent on the biosphere of which we are a part.
  • A Preliminary Declaration of Sustainability Ethics
  • Sustainability ethics is a consilience (literally, “a leaping together”) of econ-ethics and eco-ethics.
  • Sustainability ethics is both homocentric and ecocentric, while eco-ethics is ecocentric.
  • Sustainability ethics is defensible in the context of humankind and the biosphere co-evolving in a mutually beneficial way.
  • Sustainability ethics is not ethically defensible if sustainable use of the planet has the primary goal of manipulating the biosphere in ways that impair its health and integrity.
  • Since species come and go in the biosphere, the ethics of one species, Homo sapiens, is questionable because this species proposes the indefinite use of the biosphere as though it were the only species.
  • The pivotal issue of how humans ethically justify exceeding biospheric carrying capacity for their species must be explored.
  • Ignoring natural laws (e.g., physics, biology, chemistry) will place humans in a default position so that Mother Nature (natural laws) takes over.
  • If the preponderance of scientific evidence and common sense are ignored, Mother Nature will resolve the major crises by unpalatable means to match biospheric carrying capacity.
  • The burden of proof for climate change is now on deniers of the effects of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions on climate change.
  • Uncertainty will always exist in science as it does in life in general.
  • Persons who demand absolute proof of human effects on climate change are guilty of delaying appropriate action.
  • Ethics, influenced by the preponderance of scientific evidence, should guide an informed public to decisions that will increase the probability of leaving a habitable planet for future generations.
  • Increasing anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are causing global climate change, including global warming and a rise in ocean levels.
  • No specific country is legally responsible for global climate change, but all nations are ethically responsible in varying degrees.
  • Low-lying islands (e.g., The Maldives) and estuaries worldwide (e.g., Ganges Delta) will become increasingly vulnerable to storm surges and flooding as sea levels rise.5
  • The global climate conference held in Copenhagen, Denmark, in December, 2009, made no commitment for reversing the trend of rising anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, which will probably continue to increase further the risks to inhabitants of vulnerable areas such as low-lying islands and estuaries.
  • Agricultural productivity has declined worldwide due to droughts and reduced amounts of irrigation water.
  • Ecological overshoot means using resources more rapidly than Earth can regenerate them.
  • In 2009, Earth Overshoot Day was 25 September, which meant that humanity had used 136% of nature’s budget for the year ( The overshoot is made possible by using natural capital (the biosphere), which decreases the output of ecosystem services.
  • Such actions make a travesty of claims for sustainable use of the planet and degrade the biospheric life support system.
  • Economic growth and overconsumption have enormous, deleterious effects on Earth’s life support system.
  • Overconsumption is primarily the aggregate of billions of individual decisions. About 50% of the planet’s population goes beyond meeting basic needs for food and shelter, and the top 1-2% of the population carries consumption to obscene levels. Is the benefit of overconsumption to a few worth the damage to the biospheric life support system?
  • The biosphere consists of all life (including humans) on Earth. Biotic impoverishment (loss of biodiversity) impairs the biosphere’s function.
  • Biodiversity is decreasing at a rate unprecedented in human history.
  • The present biosphere produced conditions in which humankind evolved and flourished.
  • When one or more tipping points are reached, the biosphere will go into disequilibrium and, over evolutionary time, a new biosphere with mostly different species will develop.
  • The next biosphere, composed of mostly new species, will probably not produce conditions as favorable to Homo sapiens as the present biosphere.
  • Economists often state that “a rising tide lifts all ships,” but perpetual economic growth on a finite planet does not “lift all ships” if the reference is to all species or even all individual humans.
  • All species have “economic systems” but differ from the human economic system by being integrated into the vast array of economic systems of non-human species in the biosphere.
  • Any economic system based on perpetually increasing consumption will fail.
  • Viewing the biosphere as a commodity is both unethical and unsustainable.
  • Earth is overpopulated. How can the population be reduced in a humane way in order to be congruent with Earth’s carrying capacity for humans?
  • Population growth is the “elephant in the living room” – everyone sees it, but no one talks about it.
  • The human population has more than doubled in the last 60 years – a unique event in human history (
  • Economic growth has depended upon population growth, which is unsustainable on a finite planet with finite resources.
  • If humankind fails to reduce human population size to fit Earth’s carrying capacity, Mother Nature (i.e., natural laws) will do so with famine, disease, and death.
  • David Abram notes, after commenting on humankind’s relationship with the life of the breathing planet: “Only thus are we brought to realize that our vaunted human intelligence is as nothing unless it’s allied with the sound intelligence of the animate Earth.”6
  • Environmental refugees are not a severe crisis now but will probably be so in the near future due to sea level rise and droughts.
  • Millions of environmental refugees are probable, yet less affected countries are not prepared to provide food, medical care, housing, and potable water. Helping nations in need is an ethical responsibility, especially for nations with a high level of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.
  • The human population must be reduced to fit Earth’s carrying capacity, but inhumane treatment of environmental refugees is neither an ethical nor humane way to achieve this goal. Surely humankind has an ethical responsibility to help people who are losing their homeland, their culture, and possibly their lives.
  • Homo sapiens has survived for over 160,000 years because it was adaptable and, except for the last 12,000 years, has had superb naturalist intelligence.7
  • Homo sapiens has achieved financial globalization but has not moved from a tribal to a global community with equal rapidity.
  • Most evolutionary trials have not been successful; however, with naturalist intelligence and a resolve to transcend special interests, humankind might achieve sustainable use of the planet.
  • Acknowledgments: I am indebted to Karen Cairns for providing review and useful comments, as well as for transcribing the handwritten first draft of this manuscript, and to Darla Donald for editorial assistance. Karen Cairns, Paul Ehrlich, and Paula Kullberg called valuable references to my attention.References1Cairns, J., Jr. 2002. A declaration of eco-ethics. Ethics in Science and Environmental Politics 18Nov:79-81., J., Jr. 2003. A preliminary declaration of sustainability ethics: making peace with the ultimate bioexecutioneer. Ethics in Science and Environmental Politics 18Nov:79-81., E. O. 2002. The Future of Life. Random House, New York.4Cairns, J., Jr. 2002. Goals and Conditions for a Sustainable World. Inter-Research, Oldendorf/Luhe, Germany., J., Jr. 2009. Going, going, gone: the fate of low-lying islands and estuaries. Commentaries 23Nov, B. 2010. Foreword: Gaia in turmoil. Pages ix-x in Gaia in Turmoil:Climate Change, Biodepletion, and Earth Ethics in an Age of Crisis. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA. 7Gardner, H. 2006. Multiple Intelligences. Basic Books, New York.
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