Ethics is all about the individual’s relationship with humanity, which includes not just people but the planet essential to our very existence. And so we have the discipline of Environmental Ethics.
It’s a given that man will have an impact on his environment. It can’t be otherwise, and there always will be consequences associated with human development and progress. Man is steward of all nature, being its most highly-developed inhabitant. We are dependent on the natural world and therefore are totally responsible for it.
Extinction is a fact of life and cannot be effectively arrested by man or nature. Mankind, the apex of the ‘life pyramid,’ will necessarily affect everything below. We can and must be careful stewards, but we cannot protect everything that exists from our impact completely. This includes the atmosphere and hydrosphere as well as the lithosphere, the soil and rock beneath our feet.
Some of that rock provides the fossil fuel energy that we must have in order to exist and prosper; the by-products from its use necessarily affect our water and air, and disposal of solid waste affects the lithosphere. Nuclear power, on the other hand, has little effect on the atmosphere, but its waste can create problems in the lithosphere unless we effectively control it. Solar power is in the future, but even that involves batteries, creating yet other disposal (and manufacturing) problems. We have choices, and must make them wisely and with the future in mind, but we cannot make them with zero environmental impact.
Environmental Ethics is a unique category of applied ethics comprising a broad field rather than a particular expertise. Many professions deal with various segments of the environment in many ways, but the field is populated as well by others concerned with the environment and its protection. Environmental activists are ubiquitous; their large numbers may generate influence out of proportion to their expertise. Activists operate according to their individual agendas but exert considerable clout because they are, as the category implies, active. They can and do delay or even stop otherwise viable projects by generating extensive negative press coverage or even employing political correctness, unethical in itself.
Enter the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA is an outgrowth of the environmental activism of the ’50s and ’60s. Supposedly focused on protection rather than the environment generally, it deals with regulation and permitting of any work in or affecting the environment (which includes most projects). The EPA has power (not granted by Congress) to determine which projects are completed and which never get off the ground. It is influential in power generation, fossil fuels, farming and other fields where it can influence the initiation or outcome of a project. In many cases the ethics of the EPA is questionable, and in many of these cases the EPA operates, in fact, unethically. Example: EPA recently classified carbon dioxide as a pollutant in order to pursue their agenda of controlling emissions. Carbon dioxide is in fact a product (of all mammals breathing out) essential to the life and survival of all vegetation. As part of the natural life cycle, how could it possibly be classified as a pollutant? This action is blatantly unethical.
Other environmental activists control much development by classifying some minor life form as an “endangered species.” Unless the applicant can prove that its project will not negatively affect that particular life form, the project can be held up indefinitely. Environmental Impact Statements are costly and the process is lengthy. Often the expense is enough to cause the project to be abandoned (precisely the agenda of the activist group). This too is unethical.
The danger of unethical practices in environmental work is real. Some practitioners are ethical to a fault, but those with an agenda may yield to pressures to enhance their point of view at the expense of truth (example: Global Warming, discussed elsewhere on this site). Be careful.