Updated: May 4, 2010 00:12 IST

Growth or environment?

N. R. Krishnan
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The ‘development versus environment' debate has been going on endlessly. A major reason is that the proponents of development have not been exposed to a true appreciation of the intrinsic and extrinsic values of nature that defy the conventional cost-benefit analysis. The need of the hour, in the words of Wangari Maathai, is to realise that “in making sure that other species survive we will be ensuring the survival of our own.”

Finest writings

This book, an anthology of some of the finest writings on environmental ethics, seeks to address this issue. Beginning with an application of the western philosophical and cultural traditions of consequentialism, deontology and virtue-based ethics to the study of human interaction with nature, it discusses how nature matters, and proceeds to examine individual and collective responsibility towards nature, before concluding with an elucidation of ecological citizenship.

Excerpts from Rachel Carson's Silent Spring and Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac introduce the reader to ‘environmental responsibility.' Carson and Leopold never claimed to shape ethics but their moving accounts of how man had interfered with nature and its ways portrayed the flaws in man's value judgments on the environment around him, thus bringing out the need for ‘normative environmental ethics' to govern human actions vis-a-vis nature.

Approaches to environmental issues based on the philosophical tradition of ‘utilitarianism' associated with the writings of Bentham and Mill are examined by Daniel Holbrook who argues that ‘utilitarianism' is but a part of ‘consequentialism' and extends it to judge human interaction with nature on the basis of the balance of good and bad it provides not only to man but to nature as well. For instance, if a soil conservation measure enhances the fertility of a piece of land, then the measure can be said to be beneficial to both man and nature though in the process some soil on a nearby piece of land would have been disturbed. This approach is the foundation of the environmental cost-benefit analysis of projects where a surplus of ‘good' over ‘bad' justifies the taking up of projects, although for the greens any interference with nature is anathema.

Robert Eliot considers the possibility of extending the ideas of Kant, Hobbes and Locke to govern the free pursuit of individual interests in the background of “moral rules, rights and duties.” In Kant's view, what is referred to as deontology, “each person is an end in herself or himself, having a capacity for rational harmony and therefore requiring respect as a person.” This is also the tenet of the “Deep Ecology” school. While admitting that extension of such a philosophy to all living and non-living things would render impermissible even actions desirable or necessary in the larger interests of nature itself, Eliot argues for an application of the idea to limit unacceptable actions justifiable otherwise under “utilitarianism”. Wisely, he suggests tempering one with the other to make a choice between action and no-action possible and rational.

Virtue-based ethics

In a virtue-based ethical approach to environment, man's self-imposed duties to environment override the rights he could claim from the environment. According to Connelly, these duties form the basis of ecological citizenship, which is reflected in such simple energy-saving actions as switching off lights when not needed and turning off the motor car engine while waiting for the green light at a traffic junction.

Michael Maniates, who addresses the question of ‘individual versus collective' responsibility, anchors his thesis on the popular children's story, The Lorax, in which a “short-sighted and voracious” industrialist clears vast tracts of a particular type of tree to meet the market demand and when the last tree is cut and sold both he and the consumers become impoverished. But he cautions against concluding, on the basis of this story, that infusing a sense of guilt in the individual would suffice to make him desist from such behaviour and save the environment because that would, over time, prove ineffective in the face of unaltered consumer behaviour.

A lasting solution can be found only through altered patterns of consumption which are less wasteful of resources. The discussion on intergenerational responsibility and management of “the commons” features excerpts from Garrett Hardin's celebrated 1968 article The tragedy of the commons and Martin Golding's Obligations to future generations.


Hardin, as we know, was concerned with the effects of overpopulation and argued for the complete protection of the commons from human disturbance. This led to the principle of intergenerational equity which, in its extreme form of interpretation, warrants protecting the earth's resources from pollution now, and for ever. Golding provokes a debate by arguing that “...whether we have obligations for future generations in part depends on what we do for the present.”The reader would be richer for his reading The Environmental Responsibility Reader.

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