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How did environmental philosophy get started?

Popular environmentalism began in the 1960s and 1970s when marine biologist Rachel Carson (1907-1964) traced the movement of toxic pesticides (specifically, DDT) through the food chain in her classic book, Silent Spring(1962). Intellectually, this led to a rediscovery of ecologist and forester Aldo Leopold's (1887-1948) land ethic, A Sand County Almanac (1949), and the thought of John Muir (1838-1914), founder of the Sierra Club.

Leopold had written: "That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics." This moral tone set the basic philosophical orientation toward environmentalism as a moral/ethical matter. The Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess (1912-) was inspired by his encounter with the Himalayan Sherpas' reverence for their great mountains when his guides would not take him to sacred places. Naess developed an important distinction between deep ecology and shallow ecology.

What is the distinction between deep and shallow ecology?

According to Arne Naess (1912-), shallow ecology is concern of affluent Westerners for their own clean air and water, abundant resources, and beautiful scenery. Deep ecology, by contrast, is based on biospheric egalitarianism, or the inherent value to all natural beings of their own existence, shared equally by them all.

Naess envisioned the world as a "total-field" or "biospherical net" in which individual organisms are related to the whole of their environments. As individuals, human beings, for example, are mere "knots" in the net and ought to forgo some of their preoccupation with their own individual existence and selfish interests.

What has been Arne Naess' philosophical influence?

Naess' (1912-) broadest influence has probably been from his overall sense that there are spiritual, if not religious, values in our proper connection with natural environments. People should respect and care for such environments as an elevated activity. Many contemporary environmentalists, theoretical and practical, share Naess' intuition that human beings benefit from contact with nature and animals in deeply nourishing ways that cannot be duplicated by commercial forms of entertainment, or even human interaction. Acknowledgment of such benefits has led virtue ethicists such as Thomas E. Hill Jr. (1951-) to claim that how we treat non-human beings both reveals our own character and partly constitutes it.

In contemporary environmental debates, another way of stating the deep-shallow ecological distinction is via instrumental and intrinsic values. A being has intrinsic value if it is good in and of itself, whereas its value is instrumental if its good is what it is good for. This theoretical point is important ethically in thought going back to Immanuel Kant (1724- 1804), which distinguishes between categorical or absolute imperatives and hypothetical or instrumental ones. But whereas Kant thought that the only thing with intrinsic value is the good will of a rational creature (a human being), some environmentalists have extended intrinsic value to all living beings.

What question does deep ecology pose for philosophers?

The question that arises is this: "How can we justify the intrinsic value of non-human beings?" Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) famously wrote that this question turns not on whether "they" can think or reason, but on whether they can suffer. A contemporary utilitarian, the Australian philosopher Peter Singer (1946-), developed this idea of worth in his now world-famous book Animal Liberation (1973).

A caricature of Peter Singer, who has been criticized for saying that healthy adult animals are more valuable than severely impaired human infants (BigStock Photos).

A caricature of Peter Singer, who has been criticized for saying that healthy adult animals are more valuable than severely impaired human infants (BigStock Photos).

What is the irony about human "speciesism" in the United States?

The irony is that, on the one hand, Americans have treated wild species poorly, but on the other hand domestic pets have, in many cases, been given the royal treatment. In 2006 Americans spent 36 billion dollars on pets, which was twice what they spent on children's toys. In 2007, they spent 41 billion dollars on pets. Chihuahua designer clothes and thousand-dollar beds aside, many single individuals and families consider their dogs and cats to be people and are deeply bonded to them emotionally. But this is not new—Americans have a long history of concern for domestic animals. When public attention became focused on child abuse in the 1970s, early advocates had no existing body of law on which to make their claims, and some early cases were prosecuted under legislation enacted for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).

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