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“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. That land yields a cultural harvest is a fact long known, but latterly often forgotten.”

- Aldo Leopold in the Foreword to
Sand County Almanac (1948)

Environmental ethics and environmental philosophy are newcomers as academic fields. For ages, ethics and philosophy have dealt exclusively with human relationship to each other. Philosophy for the ancient Greeks encompassed what we call political science, natural science, sociology, and psychology today. It was about the way humans formed communities and states and about obligations of individuals to each other and to the state. Ethics was part of it. (Aristotle's definitions of ethics <insert?>) The natural sciences, which later divided into disciplines such as chemistry, physics, and biology, were all part of "natural philosophy."

As philosophy grew more and more apart from science, it became extremely anthropocentric, dealing with human issues—cognitive, political, and logical. Ethics became separated as a field of inquiry into what we "ought" to do, mostly with respect to other humans. Early ethics stayed closely tied to the religious sphere.

The academic field we call environmental ethics is relatively recent. The earliest articulation in formal environmental ethics may be Aldo Leopold's "Land Ethic," a apart of his Sand County Almanac that is a timeless statement about the need for change in our ethic toward nature, and the difficulties in effecting change. "No important change in ethics was ever accomplished," he wrote, "without an internal change in our intellectual emphasis, loyalties, affections, and convictions. The proof that conservation has not yet touched these foundations of conduct lies in the fact that philosophy and religion have not yet heard of it." (page 209 in the Special Commemorative Edition of 1989).

In the quote at the beginning of this section, Aldo Leopold states that the "land yields a cultural harvest." This is something recognized and respected by older civilizations that lived with and by the land and respected what it gave them. Respect for the land was not, however, restricted to ancient civilizations. Henry David Thoreau (American, 1817-1862), Ralph Waldo Emerson (American, 1803-1882) John Muir (Scottish American, founder of the Sierra Club (link), 1838-1914), and Jean Jacques Rousseau (French, 1712-1778) are some examples of writer/philosopher/naturalists who reflected on the value of nature in shaping human intellect and affect.

Environmental ethics began to emerge as a result of the early writings of conservationists (including those mentioned above) who lived and worked in the first half of the last century. The formalization of environmental ethcis really gained momentum with the environmental movement of the 1960s, following the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring in 1962. Since the 1970's, environmental ethics has progressed significantly due to the works of Holmes Rolston (the founding editor of the journal Environmental Ethics), Anthony Westin, Val Plumwood, Carolyn Merchant, George Sessions, Jim Cheney, and others. Scientists, historians, economists, and educators have contributed to clarifying the questions and issues of this new filed. Prominent among them are Barry Commoner, Lynn White, Roderick Nash, Herman Daly, David Orr, and Stephen Kellert.


1. Construct a timeline of ten pioneers of environmental ethics, the premises of each of their “ethic” toward the environment, and the environmental ethic of each.
2. What are the feelings that come to your mind first when you think of the environment? What are the factors that shape these? Why?




  ©Copyright 2003 Carnegie Mellon University
This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Number 9653194. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.