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date: 10 December 2019

Introducing Contemporary Environmental Ethics

Abstract and Keywords

Today humanity faces radical global climate change, mass species extinctions, and unprecedented transformations to both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems across the globe. Environmental ethics is an academic subfield of philosophy concerned with normative and evaluative propositions about the world of nature and, perhaps more generally, the moral fabric of relations between human beings and the world we occupy. This Handbook contains 45 newly commissioned essays written by leading experts and emerging voices and represent some of the best and most contemporary thinking in environmental ethics. The chapters range over a broad variety of issues, concepts, and perspectives that are both central to and characteristic of the field, thus providing an authoritative but accessible account of the history, analysis, and prospect of ideas that are essential to contemporary environmental ethics.

Keywords: Anthropocene, ecosystems and environmental change, history of contemporary environmental ethics, Planetary Boundaries Analysis, the Great Acceleration, environmental philosophy

1 Perspective on the Anthropocene

Humans are relative newcomers. The Earth is around 4.6 billion years old, and multicellular life evolved 2.1 billion years ago, yet the oldest fossil remains of anatomically modern Homo sapiens sapiens date back a mere 195,000 years, or 0.004% of the planet’s history. For the vast majority of humanity’s existence so far, its influence on the terrestrial environment and biotic communities was the result of activities of small bands of hunter-gatherers. Consequently, human impacts were likely to have been relatively limited, being local in scope and modest in magnitude, or at least comparable to many other species.

At some point, humans began to have much more exceptional effects. One plausible example occurs about 12,000 years ago, on the cusp between the Pleistocene and Holocene geological epochs. The Late Pleistocene Extinction Event was a worldwide phenomenon of megafauna extinctions, especially pronounced in North America. Paleontologists have hypothesized three possible causal drivers: natural climate change (as the ice sheets retreated), human predation (the “prehistoric overkill hypothesis”), and significant trophic cascades following the (anthropogenic) demise of woolly mammoths (Sandom et al., 2014). Here, for the first time, human activity is put forward as potentially a major cause of global and systematic environmental change.

A more familiar example is associated with the First Agricultural (or Neolithic) Revolution, which originated around 10,000 bc in Mesopotamia and then spread across the Middle East into Europe, Asia, parts of Africa and eventually into the Americas. With new techniques of food cultivation, including agriculture and the domestication of animals, human beings engaged in the wholesale alteration of landscapes and ecosystems to suit human purposes (see Lyons et al., 2015). Similar increases in human impact are associated with the Age of Enlightenment and “scientific revolution” of the 17th and 18th centuries (see Merchant, 1980) and the shift from agrarian to industrial societies in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Still, perhaps the most striking shift is much more recent. In the “Great Acceleration” after World War II, the human “population doubled in just 50 years, to over 6 billion by the (p. 2) end of the 20th century [and] the global economy increased by more than 15-fold” (Steffen et al., 2007: 617. See also Steffen et al., 2004). This radical human expansion has had dramatic effects, from the emerging threat of dangerous climate change (see Section 7) to the onset of the Earth’s sixth great extinction event.1

Consider, for example, the “Planetary Boundaries” analysis, which sets out the limits of a “safe operating space for humanity” and suggests that several of the planet’s major bio-systems are currently at risk or in decline (Rockström et al. (2009). Rockström and his colleagues identify nine sectors of Earth system operation relevant to human well-being and propose quantification for seven: climate change, ocean acidification, stratospheric ozone, biochemical nitrogen cycle and phosphorus cycle, global freshwater use, land system use, and biodiversity loss. Within the quantified sectors, they claim that we have already crossed boundaries pertaining to climate change, the rate of interference with the nitrogen cycle, and the rate of biodiversity loss.2 The remaining four quantified boundaries (global freshwater use, land system change, ocean acidification, and stratospheric ozone depletion) remain areas of great uncertainty, largely because we lack scientific knowledge about the nature of biophysical thresholds at the planetary scale. This, of course, is hardly comforting, since we may already be outside the “safe operating space.”

The sheer scale of human impact has become so great that some have proposed defining a new unit within the geological time scale: the Anthropocene, the age of “human dominance of biological, chemical and geological processes on Earth” (Crutzen & Schwägerl, 2011). The idea and the language of the Anthropocene are now widely employed. Indeed, this term is currently being taken so seriously that an official decision on its usage from the geologists is expected from the International Commission on Stratigraphy in 2016. Still, the proposal continues to generate significant controversy. Some consider it grossly hubristic to name a geologic period after one’s own kind and morally repugnant, if not dangerous (Vucetich et al., 2015; Hamilton, 2014). By contrast, some seem to enthusiastically embrace an open future of “new nature” designed by us and for us, exhibiting our human ingenuity (Ellis, 2011; Seielstad, 2012; Pearce, 2015). Others still have taken the idea of the Anthropocene to be purely descriptive but representing something morally significant—human responsibility for the state of the planet—thus they find the idea heuristically useful for advancing a more traditional environmental ethos of Earth stewardship (Purdy, 2015; Marris, 2011).3

As editors, we do not need to take a stance on controversies surrounding “the Anthropocene.” Nevertheless, we do believe that the proposal that we are entering, or have recently entered, a new geological period is no accident. Today human activity effects environmental change globally, systematically, and at a fundamental level. Moreover, its scale has increased dramatically in just a few generations, a very small portion of human history. Human activities now threaten basic planetary systems, yet we continue to accelerate rapidly into an uncertain environmental future.

2 Organization of the Volume

In such a context, the field of environmental ethics provides much needed analysis of values, norms, and concepts relevant to responding well to the radical anthropogenic environmental change that the 21st century promises. Established as a professional subfield of academic (p. 3) philosophy only in the early 1970s, the field is changing to confront new environmental, social, technical, and political realities.

In this collection, we hope to provide guidance for those interested in exploring this relatively new territory. Our strategy is as follows. Each chapter reviews the role of a key topic, idea, concept, problem, or approach in the field and briefly reflects on its future. It provides an informed entry-point into the area that helps situate the reader in the relevant literature. Although the chapters do not aspire to represent consensus opinion, the authors do aim to provide a solid grounding in the relevant concepts and basic positions, as well as an informed opinion about possible future developments in the subject area. Consequently, each chapter can be seen as an authoritative “first step” on some topic to get you started, rather than the “last word.” Think of the collection as a set of maps, compasses, and other tools that one might take along when setting out on an evolving journey whose destination is yet to be decided.

Our selection has been influenced by our own sense of where the field stands, what is exciting about it, and what is needed.4 One decision we made was to emphasize an increasing politicization of environmental ethics, in the positive sense of the increasing attention being paid to justice and other political values. A related decision was to expand the range of authors represented to include not just traditional, theoretical moral philosophers, but also philosophers of science, political philosophers, applied ethicists, political theorists, and philosophers of law.

A third choice was to set aside areas already well-covered elsewhere. For example, we did not commission a section on traditional, cultural attitudes, such as those of classical China, India, or Greece. Nor are there chapters representing diverse religious perspectives on the environment, such as Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, or Islam (see Jamieson, 2001).5 Similarly, we did not commission chapters on the history of the environment in political thought (see Gabrielson et al., 2016), nor those representing the global plurality of diverse worldviews, such as Polynesian paganism, South American eco-eroticism, African biocommunitarianism, and Australian Dreamtime (see Callicott, 1997).

In general, we have tried to be guided in our commissions by an emphasis on the importance of confronting radical environmental change and the special challenges facing humanity in this vital period of its history. In our view, if this volume plays even a small part in preparing the next generation of scholars to contribute to this work, then it will have achieved something of real importance.

3 Description of Chapters

The Handbook is organized into eight sections. In the remainder of this introduction, we explain the theme unifying each section and provide a very brief description of each chapter.6

Section 1 sets out a variety of social contexts for contemporary environmental ethics. In chapter 2, Jason Kawall provides a clear and detailed history of the field of environmental ethics, providing an account of key movements and theories shaping the field, including anthropocentrism, biocentrism, eco-holism, deep ecology, ecofeminism, pragmatism, and virtue theory. In chapter 3, Wendy Parker illuminates the practice of environmental science through contemporary philosophy of science, covering issues such as the nature of scientific (p. 4) evidence, the use and evaluation of scientific models, and questions of values and objectivity in scientific practice. In chapter 4, John O’Neill examines the role of economic values by considering two alternative and competing sets of answers to the question: Is there a relation between the increasing extension of markets and market norms to previously non-market goods and the growth of environmental problems? His exploration sheds light on the role of cost-benefit analysis in environmental policy formation and the development of new markets for goods such as emission rights and biodiversity offsets. In chapter 5, Daniel Butt’s focus is on the limitations of command-and-control and market-based legal mechanisms in the pursuit of environmental justice. He argues for a need to supplement existing instruments of environmental governance with an “ecological ethos” shared among a wide range of cooperative non-state actors. Holmes Rolston wraps up the opening section in chapter 6 by reflecting on the controversial proposal that we have entered the Anthropocene, the age of human domination, by considering three distinct sets of responses to the provocative idea that we are now moving “beyond the natural.”

Against these background social conditions, the chapters in Section 2 present a version of the influential “expanding circle of moral considerability” framework for setting out distinct accounts of who or what direct moral duties are owed to my moral agents In chapter 7, Allen Thompson considers the widely accepted thesis that anthropocentrism—the view that all and only human beings have an intrinsic moral value—is the ideological root of our “environmental crisis.” Thompson distinguishes three types of anthropocentrism and, following others, suggests how one form may be simply unavoidable. He argues that, nonetheless, an appropriate focus on our very humanity remains a promising way forward in environmental ethics. In chapter 8, Lori Gruen set outs one form of non-anthropocentrism, sometimes called sentiocentrism, the view that locates human beings in a wider class of animals capable of conscious experience who thus have morally relevant interests in the content of their experiences. She argues that empathy and respect leads us to focus on what counts as the well-being of conscious others from their own perspective. In chapter 9, Clare Palmer considers ideas associated with biocentrism, the perspective that life itself is deserving of moral respect and perhaps bears an intrinsic value or inherent worth. Palmer distinguishes among egalitarian, inegalitarian, monistic, and pluralistic versions of biocentrism and whether they are grounded in a virtue, consequentialist, or deontological ethical theory. In chapter 10, J. Baird Callicott considers the view that collections of entities, such as species, ecosystems, landscapes, and biomes, may be the loci of intrinsic moral value, the objects of direct moral duties, and deserving of due moral consideration. Callicott describes how developments in the study of the human microbiome support a surprising conclusion that even “individual” human beings are themselves actually ecological collectives. In chapter 11, Philip Cafaro moves one step beyond customary accounts of who or what counts as a subject of value in nature to offer a spirited defense of wildness as a value-conferring property. Cafaro argues that although preserving the wild has long been a central value in “new world” conservation and preservation philosophies, we are quickly losing wild nature, due primarily to human overpopulation and overconsumption.

Section 3 considers diverse theoretical accounts of the nature of environmental value (rather than the subjects or bearers of that value, as in Section 2). In chapter 12 Katie McShane argues against the popular claim that metaethics is irrelevant for environmental ethics. Instead, she claims that contemporary views in analytical metaethics are able to address concerns in environmental ethics from several different theoretical perspectives. In chapter 13, (p. 5) Alan Holland discusses how reasons for doing something vis-à-vis the environment are connected with our motivational repertoire and quest for meaning. He distinguishes three types of practical reasons and concludes that a Leopoldian position of having regard for the land community is superior to other perspectives well represented in the field, including traditional appeals to intrinsic value, relational accounts of caring, or perfectionist views about the well-lived human life. In chapter 14, Martin Drenthen develops a hermeneutic account of how we find meaning in nature through normatively potent acts of interpretation, directed at landscapes and other environments, and the connection of such meaning with the development of an environmental identity. In chapter 15, Ted Toadvine explores how the tradition of phenomenology contributes to environmental thought by emphasizing the primacy of experience and providing a critique of the metaphysical naturalism and instrumentalist framing characteristic of technocratic, economic, and managerial approaches to nature. Finally, in chapter 16 Emily Brady explores key issues about aesthetic experience and valuing natural objects, processes, and phenomenon. She parses the debate as being between two central views, “scientific cognitivism” and “non-cognitivism”; stresses the values of a pluralistic approach; and closes with concern for developing further accounts of interactions between aesthetic and ethical values.

As the last section with an explicit focus in ethical theory, Section 4 contains chapters canvasing different theoretical perspectives on how we ought to think about the normative basis of environmentalism, including consequentialist, deontic, virtue, care, and spiritual grounds. In chapter 17, Avram Hiller discusses consequentialist environmental ethics; distinguishes classical utilitarian, biocentric, and ecocentric forms; and contrasts the consequentialist approach to environmentalism with deontological, virtue theoretic, and pragmatic approaches. The deontological approach is taken up and defended in chapter 18 by Ben Hale, who develops a theory of right action based on Habermasian discourse ethics and an account of interpersonal justifications. In chapter 19, Ronald Sandler sets out an alternative non-consequentialist normative theory, based in the virtues of personal character. He describes virtue ethics as a distinctive approach to normative theory, attempting to demonstrate how virtue ethics can accommodate whatever the correct account of value in nature is, how its pluralism is indispensable to environmental ethics, and how it offers a plausible principle of right action for use in decision making. In chapter 20, Kyle Powys Whyte and Chris Cuomo relate two alternatives to mainstream normative ethics, each based in the notion of care. Indigenous approaches to environmental ethics highlight caring relations within interdependent human and non-human communities, whereas feminist environmental care ethics bring out the importance of empowering communities to care for themselves, along with the social and ecological communities with which they are integrated. Bron Taylor in chapter 21 closes this section with a historical tour of the important role that perceptions of environmental systems and places as sacred have in grounding environmental ethics—both in the past and the present. Taylor contrasts this perception of the sacred in nature with the transcendent focus more characteristic of the major world religions, on one hand, and the scientific materialist worldview that underlies most contemporary environmental ethics, on the other.

Section 5 tackles a variety of key concepts that are useful for framing and addressing problems in environmental ethics. The topic of chapter 22 is moral responsibility. Ken Shockley investigates the difficulties encountered when trying to give an account of our individual contributions to collective harms, emphasizing the influence individuals can have through (p. 6) connections with institutions and practices. Justice is taken up in chapter 23 by Derek Bell, who presents three kinds of challenges to traditional liberal conceptions of justice and argues that an ecologically aware theory of justice is likely to exhibit some striking differences. In chapter 24, Chris Cuomo details the significance that norms of gender, sexual inequalities, and the often-overlooked perspective of women have for environmental ethics. Gender norms and roles, she explains, are often promoted as “natural” rather than socially constructed and connect the oppression of women with the domination of nature. Steve Vanderheiden, in chapter 25, evaluates human rights as an ethical construct and a political mechanism for developing protections against environmental harms that threaten human well-being. In chapter 26, Tim Hayward develops the concept of “ecological space” and its connection to a minimally decent human life. Hayward then distinguishes between using, occupying, and commanding ecological space, which enables him to address distributional inequities though a variety of distinct deontic categories. Chapter 27 presents Jonathan Aldred’s treatment of risk and precaution, in which the appropriate place of cost-benefit analysis and its relation to a precautionary principle in decision making are carefully examined. Chapter 28, by John Barry, proposes an account of “green republican citizenship” after exploring connections between the decline in active citizenship with the development of consumer identities and a transactional mode of democratic politics. Chapter 29 concerns intergenerational ethics. John Nolt argues that responsibilities owed to future individuals—human or not—demand that we reduce the human population and must keep most fossil fuels in the ground. In chapter 30, Bryan Norton presents a communitarian, public-interest conception of sustainability as offering a path to favor protecting ecophysical features of the environment, rather than a mere transfer of wealth or utility, across generations.

Section 6 focuses on specific areas of concern for the application of environmental ethics. Classic issues of environmental pollution are explored in chapter 31 by Kevin Elliott, who identifies pollution as a significant threat to disadvantaged, low-income countries and non-human organisms, calling for greater attention to be given to ethical issues in the scientific research needed to identify harmful pollutants and policy issues concerning their regulation. Chapter 32 concerns human population growth, identified as morally urgent by Elizabeth Cripps, who urges us to approach policy formation with both environmental ethics and global justice in mind. In chapter 33, Kristin Schrader-Frechette describes the environmental harms caused by energy produced from fossil fuels and nuclear power and critically analyzes excuses for society not switching to clean, renewable energy. David Kaplan’s work in chapter 34 examines the role of narratives in a practical approach to understanding the relationships among food, agriculture, and environmental ethics. Angela Kalloff’s contribution, chapter 35, sets out four distinct normative approaches to an ethics of water: human rights, ecocentric non-instrumentalism, water justice, and water cooperation. She concludes that a co-operative approach is the most promising, in part because it already incorporates dimensions of the rights-based and ecocentric perspectives. In chapter 36, Jeremy Bendik-Keymer and Chris Haufe begin the development of an ethical position on anthropogenic mass extinction, opening with insights about the banality of evil and built with appeals to environmental justice, loss of value, and the failure of autonomy. Paul Thompson examines the fascinating place of technology in chapter 37, discussing not only its role mediating human environmental impacts but also its place in shaping our perceptions of and orientation toward the world. Much of the work in philosophy (p. 7) of technology crosses interdisciplinary boundaries as it bears on the connections between science and technology. Section 6 closes with chapter 38, in which Marion Hourdequin confronts the practices of ecosystem management and identifies both conceptual and ethical challenges for the practice introduced as an improved alternative to other strategies aimed simply at maximizing yields of single-species resources.

There is little argument that anthropogenic global climate change is the defining environmental problem of our time. Whereas many chapters in the collection consider it as illustrating their respective subjects, the chapters in Section 7 focus exclusively on key dimensions the problem. In chapter 39, Henry Shue offers a compelling case for climate mitigation based on elimination of carbon dioxide emissions by the rapid global transition to an energy regime based on clean sources of affordable power. Cooperation in this transition, he argues, cannot be expected from poorer countries without needed assistance with adaptation. In chapter 40, Clare Heyward contends that justice in adaptation should register not only protection of the basic material interest of individuals but also include efforts directed at securing the conditions necessary to maintain one’s cultural identity. In chapter 41, Andrew Light discusses important issues of international climate diplomacy, drawing on his experience working to direct strategies for the US State Department at international meetings under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Finally in chapter 42, Steve Gardiner addresses geoengineering (roughly, “grand technological interventions into basic planetary systems at a global scale”). Focusing on climate engineering, he argues that early policy framings often marginalize salient ethical concerns, avoiding both important questions of justification and vital contextual issues.

The concluding Section 8 contains essays dedicated to issues raised in our attempts to realize the requisite social change. David Schmidtz explains how principles of justice are complemented and importantly matched by principles of conflict resolution in chapter 43. Then, in chapter 44, Ben Minteer presents a pragmatic conception of environmental ethics for the purpose of integrating it with the rapidly growing normative enterprise of sustainability science and its goal of moving society toward a durable socio-ecological relationship. In chapter 45, John Meyer offers a strategy for circumventing the barrier to protective environmental policy, most pronounced in wealthy societies, affected by a perceived dichotomy between self-interest and sacrifice. He draws attention to the ubiquity of notions of sacrifice in everyday life and attempts to reduce its ability to short-circuit ambitious calls to action. In chapter 46, Avner de Shalit encourages the move from articulating an environmental ethic to undertaking environmental action by distinguishing two ways a particular problem may be framed, either as a problem of environmental awareness or a problem of political consciousness. He closes by arguing how democracy remains a viable avenue for achieving radical changes.

4 Conclusion

As at the beginning of the Holocene, today humanity faces radical global climate change, mass species extinctions, and unprecedented transformations to both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems across the globe. Yet this time there is no doubt that human activity is the primary driver, the scale of human affect is much greater, and the rate of global ecological (p. 8) change is unprecedented. The future of the basic conditions for all life on the planet—indeed all known life in the universe—is in our hands. So, what shall we do? The forty-six chapters assembled here represent some of the best and most contemporary thinking in environmental ethics, the field expressly concerned with understanding normative and evaluative dimensions of the many and diverse environmental problems that confront us. Hopefully, taking the issues and concerns they highlight seriously is a good first step.


Callicott, J. B. (1997). Earth’s Insights: A Multicultural Survey of Ecological Ethics from the Mediterranean Basin to the Australian Outback. Berkeley: University of California Press.Find this resource:

Crutzen, P., and Schwägerl, C. (2011). “Living in the Anthropocene: Toward a New Global Ethos.” Yale Environment 360. this resource:

Ellis, E. (2011). “The Planet of No Return.” Breakthrough Journal, 2 (Fall). this resource:

Gabrielson, T., Hall, C., Meyer, J. M., and Schlosberg, D. eds. (2016). The Oxford Handbook of Environmental Political Theory. New York: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Hamilton, C. (2014). “The New Environmentalism Will Lead Us to Disaster.” Scientific American. this resource:

Jamieson, D., ed. (2001). A Companion to Environmental Philosophy. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell Publishers.Find this resource:

Lyons, S. K., Amatangelo, K. L., Behrensmeyer, A. K., Bercovici, A., Blois, J. L., Davis, M., Gotelli, J. L. (2015). “Holocene Shifts in the Assembly of Plant and Animal Communities Implicate Human Impacts.” Nature (2015) doi: 10.1038/nature16447Find this resource:

Marris, E. (2011). Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post Wild World. New York: Bloomsbury.Find this resource:

(p. 9) Merchant, C. (1980). The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution. New York: Harper and Row.Find this resource:

Pearce, F. (2015). “The New Wild: Why Invasive Species Will Be Nature’s Salvation.” Boston, MA: Beacon Press.Find this resource:

Purdy, J. (2015). After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Find this resource:

Rockström, J., Steffen, W., Noone, K., Persson, Å., Chapin, F. S. III, Lambin, E., Foley, J. (2009). “Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the Safe Operating Space For Humanity.” Ecology and Society 14(2): 32. this resource:

Sandom, C., Faurby, S., Sandel, B., Svenning, J. C. (2014). “Global Late Quaternary Megafauna Extinctions Linked to Humans, Not Climate Change.” Proceedings of the Royal Society 281 (1787). (accessed Sept. 3, 2015).Find this resource:

Seielstad, G. A. (2012). Dawn of the Anthropocene: Humanity’s Defining Moment. Alexandria, VA: American Geosciences Institute. (A digital book).Find this resource:

Steffen. W., Crutzen, P., McNeill, J. (2007). “The Anthropocene: Are Humans Now the Overwhelming Force of Nature?” Ambio 36: 614–621.Find this resource:

Steffen, W., Sanderson, A., Tyson, P. D., Jäger, J., Matson, P. A., Moore, B. III, Wasson, R. J. (2004). Global Change and the Earth System: A Planet Under Pressure. Berlin Heidelberg New York: Springer-Verlag.Find this resource:

Vucetich, J., Nelson, M., and Batavia, C. (2015). “The Anthropocene: Disturbing Name, Limited Insight.” In After Preservation, edited by Minteer and Pyne. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (p. 10) Find this resource:


(1.) On climate change, see Section 7 of the Oxford Hanbook of Environmental Ethics; on mass extinction, see Bendik-Keymer and Haufe, chapter 36 (all subsequent chapter references herein are to chapters in the Handbook).

(2.) The proposed “boundaries” are human-set values keeping us a safe distance from systemic thresholds, which are defined “non-linear transitions in the functioning of coupled human-environmental systems.” Thus, crossing the boundaries puts humanity at significant risk of radical and unpredictable changes to the global environmental conditions.

(3.) On the idea that we have entered the Anthropocene, see Holmes Rolston, chapter 6.

(4.) For various reasons we were unable to include chapters on all the subjects that are important and merit attention.

(5.) See, however, Bron Taylor’s contribution on reverence for the sacred, in chapter 21.

(6.) The method employed in the table of contents is meant to quickly reveal the structure of the collection. Each section title is followed by a short description, and each chapter is labeled with a descriptive subject term, followed by the proper title given by author.