Each year, we lose over 38 million acres of rainforest as a result of deforestation; rainforests used to cover 14% of the earths surface; now, they cover less than 6%, and are depleting more each year. Our 800 million+ cars in the world emit carbon emissions at such a high level that they erode the atmosphere and are contributing to drastic changes in our weather patterns. The trash we have discarded – including, of course, man-made non-biodegradable plastics– accumulate in landfills throughout the world and leach toxic chemicals into the land and water, greatly affecting the survival of animal and plant life.
And in a pursuit to feed the ever-growing world population, agricultural biotechnologists are altering the genetic make-up of food and plants, splicing the genes from fish into the genes of tomatoes, for example, to increase the amount that we can grow and the “nutrient content” they possess — a type of species cross-breeding that has heretofor never occurred, and never would occur, naturally in nature.
Thinking about modern technologies of the past 100 years, one can’t help but see how they have radically transformed our planet. The cars we drive, the massive amounts of waste we discard, the agricultural techniques we employ, among many other examples: each has led environmental aftereffects such as climate change and depletion of natural resources that have altered the biosphere in which we live in very significant ways.
Before our widespread technological developments, we may have modified the earth for our needs, including hunting wildlife and farming for food, as well as gathering necessities for living and shelter, but fundamentally, as Rudi Volti writes in Society and Technological Change, we “used to leave the earth roughly as we found it.” Yet with modern technologies, we no longer leave the world the way it was when we came into it. With modern technology, we have the capacity to not only influence the world, to leave our footprint, but to radically transform it. We even have the power to destroy it.
Imbued by technology with this capacity to literally destroy our own habitat, some philosophers contest that we need to catch our ethics up to speed – that our previous ethical frameworks do not address this relatively newfound authority to impact the planet so significantly. Ethics that were established in an age before we could drastically impact our biosphere – before we knew about carbon emissions, or nuclear power, or genetic engineering—are not equipped to help us cope with modern day problems. Morton Winston, Hans Jonas, and writers like Bill McKibben call for a new type of ethics that takes this power modern technology gives us into account, where we consider not only our individual moral decisions, but the aggregates of our actions; where we consider not only human beings in our decision making, but the planet, and nature, as well; and finally, where we consider the timeline of our decisions, and the future of humanity, and not only how the decisions we make now affect us currently, but how they will affect the livelihood of future generations as well.
In his essay, “Children of Invention,” Morton Winston writes eloquently about technology’s game-changing influence on ethics, and how we need to develop a new framework as we proceed in the technological age:
“Our previous ethics has not prepared us to cope with such global threats. Traditional ethics has focused primarily on the moral requirements concerning individual action, on the direct dealings between persons, rather than on the remote effects of our collective action. This problem is particularly important with respect to widely distributed technologies, such as the internal combustion engine, whereby the cumulative effects of individual decisions can have a major impact on air quality even though no single individual is responsible for the smog.
By and large, traditional moral norms deals with the present and near-future effects of actions of individual human beings and do not prepare us to deal with cumulative effects and statistical deaths. Traditional ethics, above all, has been anthropocentric – the entire nonhuman world has been viewed as a thing devoid of moral standing and significance except insofar as it could be bent to satisfy human purposes. We have assumed the natural world was our enemy and that it did not require our care (for what could we possibly do to harm it really?) and nature was not regarded as an object of human responsibility.
In the past, we have attempted to fashion out ethical theories in terms of these assumptions. The traditional maxims of ethics – for example, “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and “Never treat your fellow man as a means only but always also as an end in himself” – are in keeping with the individualistic, present-oriented, and anthropocentric assumptions of our ethical traditions. Even the Christian ethic of universal love does not transcend the barriers of time, community, and species. Even more modern ethical theories such as utilitarianism and Kantian ethics do not provide particularly good guidance when it comes to the sorts of ethical concerns raised by technology. In part this is because they were designed to be used to evaluate individual actions of particular moral agents.
But the sociotechnological practices that comprise our collective action are not only made up of many individual choices – such as the choice to have a child, to eat a hamburger, or to invest in a mining stock – but also the aggregation of these individual choices, plus those of organized collectivities such as corporations and governments. In most cases, the individuals, business executives, or politicians who are making the choices that add up to our collective insecurity do not intend these threats to result, and neither they nor we consequently feel any sense of responsibility for them.
Although individuals view themselves as moral agents and consider themselves bearers of responsibility in all the roles in which they participate, the collectivities to which we belong do not. All the threats we face are in part the result of this diffusion of responsibility. How then should we, the citizens of Earth, be responding to these environmental questions? Do people in richer countries have any responsibility to those in poorer ones? Do we, in general, have any responsibilities to future generations concerning the long-term social and environmental effects of our present economic, lifestyle, and political choices?
The notion of responsibility that we need to cultivate is not the backward-looking notion of responsibility as liability, which seeks to allocate blame for past harms, but the forward-looking sense of responsibility in which each of us and every organization and institution “takes responsibility” for future generations of humans and the nonhuman species with whom we share this planet. This notion of social responsibility, although it is voluntary and discretionary, places real demands on us as individuals and members of communities and requires that we think carefully about the decisions and choices that we make.”
Winston outlines a number of reasons I’d like to highlight about why he believes technology poses new ethical challenges that we have not yet had to face.
First, he stresses that the impact of technology is different from other ethical issues because it is not individual decisions but the aggregate of those decisions that have an ethical impact. This is an interesting idea to consider: one person driving a car is not intrinsically wrong; however, millions of people driving a car might be, because of the cumulative impact on others health and on the environment. Therefore, when we consider what is ethical, we must consider not only the individual, direct consequence of our own decisions, but the aggregate of those decisions…and extrapolating from this idea, one wonders if driving a car therefore does become unethical. Do you generally think that when you throw away a plastic water bottle, you are making an ethical decision, because you are contributing to build up of plastic in landfills? When you eat tuna at a restaurant, do you consider yourself a contributor to the epidemic loss of deep sea wildlife occurring on the planet right now?
Another interesting concept Winston raises is that the harm caused by technology is not direct, per se, but diffuse and broad, often perpetrated without any knowledge from the people performing the harmful actions. Indeed, industrial technology has alienated us from nature – we no longer produce our own food, make our own shelter, sew our own clothes. This is not inherently a bad thing; of course, it has allowed us tremendous freedoms. But it contributes to what Winston calls a “diffusion of responsibility”, in which we don’t connect our actions with their consequences, because we are so removed from them. Might you assume more responsibility for your actions if you got to see the amount of waste that your lifestyle accumulated, instead of being isolated from the industries that make your food, clothes, and shelter for you? How does this separation lead people to feel less accountable for the way they live?
And finally, Winston raises the point that we must consider that in the technological age, the effects of our actions are not always immediate, but in fact influence the lives of generations to come. The issue of environmental ethics is on the level not of an individual human being, living now, but rather on humankind and the survival of the planet as a whole. When you consider the way we treat the planet now, do you think about how it affects the lives your grandchildren? That destroying land now for our use currently might result in future generations never seeing that land? One can’t help but think of the movie Wall-E, in which people become so preoccupied with their technology that they completely ignore nature, and in the process, forget nature’s value, leaving a ravaged planet behind. Is this the type of road we are on, and if so, how do we stop from going down it?
Winston, as well as Hans Jonas and others, call for a new ethical framework that takes the future of the planet into consideration – a framework that is not focused on the individual, or the immediate moment, but on humanity on the whole, and its survival. So what might this new type of ethics look like?
New Ethical Frameworks
Jonas says that “An imperative responding to the new type of human action and addressed to the new type of agency that operates it might run thus: “Act so that the effects of your action is compatible with the permanence of human life;” or expressed negatively, “Act so that the effects of your action is not destructive of the future possibility of such life.”
Another view is that of Deep Ecology, which Mark Somma writes about this framework in his essay, “Radical Environmentalism.”
In the early 1970s, philsopher Arne Naess laid the ground work for an ecological movement called Deep Ecology. Deep Ecology is rooted in the idea that nature has wisdom and value independent of the value ascribed to it to meet human needs. It emphasizes a “biocentric” view of the world that seeks to cultivate human being’s relationship with nature, based on the principle that nature doesn’t exist solely to meet human ends, but is intrinsically valuable in its own existence. Human beings should promote the well-being of the entire biosphere, including the oceans, forests, and other natural resources, because they deserve, morally speaking, to be preserved.
Deep Ecology also emphasizes that our moral and spiritual well-being as humans is dependent on a wholesome and integrated relationship with our surrounding world – that we lose something vital and important about ourselves as we increasingly alienate ourselves from the natural world that surrounds us. When we lose our connection with nature, when we stop valuing nature for nature’s sake, we become less complete, less morally developed human beings. Deep Ecology also maintains that the amount of interference we have with the nonhuman world currently is excessive, and that as humans, we don’t have the right to reduce biodiversity in such a drastic way, and to exploit nature as much as we do. Ultimately if we continue down this path, Deep Ecology suggests, it is human beings that will lose out as a result. Jonas Salk once said, “Eventually we’ll realize that if we destroy the ecosystem, we destroy ourselves.”
Deep Ecology contrasts with Shallow ecology, which may be more recognizable as our current way of relating to the planet.
Shallow ecology refers to the practices that many people would characterize as an industrialized view of living on the planet. In shallow ecology, human beings see nature as valuable only as it meets human needs. It is a human-centered ethos (also known as an “anthropocentric” focus) in which people think about how nature can serve their own needs or wants, and focus on mastery and control of nature, not an appreciation of it. In shallow ecology, “wilderness is wasted unless developed.” In other words, the rain forests exist to provide resources for human use,minerals exist to be mined, and plants exist to be used by human beings. In this framework, as is evident today, humans are increasingly alienated from nature by their modern technologies. Driving in cars, sitting inside in air conditioning, we are comforted by our technologies, but exist apart from nature; we care less and less about it, seeing it as something to use, rather than something to value.
“For shallow ecology the forest becomes a collection of discrete resources measured by their respective values to an exploitative human society; for deep ecology, the forest has an intrinsic value distinct from human society’s use for it.”
Like Winston, Somma argues that we need a new type of ethics: “Such transformation requires a new social movement and a positive vision of a new society, the likes of which does not yet exist and remains to be invented.” And whether or not this transformation needs to be as extreme as Deep Ecology, it nevertheless raises some important questions:
Does the planet have intrinsic value, apart from its value of being used as a resource for human beings? Should we care about nature for nature’s sake?
Is nature important to humanity, or can we alter it to any extent to meet our needs, even if that means a destruction of biodiversity, and even, as deep ecologist Bill McKibben writes, “The End Of Nature”?
If nature does have intrinsic value, what steps would human beings have to take to “put nature first”? Reducing populations? Reducing waste? Even abandoning the development or use of modern technologies that affect the planet negatively? At what point do you draw the line between valuing nature, and living a comfortable life? Is driving a car reasonable? How about eating meat? Cutting down forests for housing developments?
Reflecting on these questions is critical to how we will address the environmental issues facing us today. Ultimately, they also cause us to ask, “What, for me, is an ethically sustainable way of living?”
Leave your reflections about the principles of Deep Ecology and a “new ethics” below.
Watch a video explaining Shallow and Deep Ecology:
Address any of the questions above, or these below:
In what ways has the technology influenced our relationship with the natural world?
Does the planet have value intrinsically apart from its value for human use?
What steps do you think human beings should take to live ethically and eco-consciously in the 21st century?
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