Beyond Environmental Morality: Towards a Viable Environmental Ethic(s)

By Tim Richards.

Published by The Sustainability Collection

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

Environmental ethics assumes that humans are, at the core, environmentally ‘bad’ because we are currently destroying nature. This operative assumption of environmental ethics as a field is what I want to term contemporary environmental morality, wherein humans and their industry, technology, and economy are considered to be ‘evil’ in contrast to ecosystems, wilderness, or nature, which are valued as ‘good.’

More pointedly, environmental ethics as it stands presupposes that there is an entity called ‘nature’ that we humans are differentiated from and have an obligation towards as outside actors. This is what I want to call environmental dualism, which holds humans as separate from, rather than a part of, nature; and, in keeping with contemporary environmental morality, as a force that is destroying this entity called ‘nature.’

Both the environmental dualism and the contemporary environmental morality that characterize environmental ethical thought are inaccurate for two reasons. Firstly, humans are a part of nature – we are organic beings and all of our actions occur within a larger ecological framework. Secondly, though humans could accurately be described as environmentally ‘bad’ historically, our species can become a force for environmental ‘good,’ both industrially with respect to manufacturing processes and developmentally with respect to land use.

If we reframe the basic story such that we humans, as an integral part of nature, can contribute positively as vital, productive parts of the whole, new ideas and possibilities emerge. Humans do not have to be detrimental to the environment; we are not fundamentally flawed in this respect despite what environmental moralists might say. By going beyond the environmental morality and dualism exemplified by modern environmental ethics as a field, we as ethical thinkers and activists can begin to be effective in our efforts to advocate for a more ecologically adapted society with environmentally conscious lifestyles.

Keywords: Environmental Ethics, A Sand County Almanac, Morality, Land Ethic, Cradle-to-Cradle, Conservation Philosophy, Environmental Philosophy, Aldo Leopold, J. Baird Callicott, William McDonough, Michael Braungart, Wilderness, Conservation/Preservation, Nietzsche

The International Journal of Environmental, Cultural, Economic and Social Sustainability, Volume 7, Issue 2, pp.389-400. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 776.827KB).

Tim Richards

Philosophy Department, Haverford College, Haverford, PA, USA

Tim Richards is a 2010 graduate of Haverford College with a degree in Philosophy. This essay is an abridged version of his senior thesis on environmental philosophy. After graduation, he was awarded a 2010-2011 Thomas J. Watson Fellowship for his project “Holistic Environmentalism: Community Approaches to Sustainability” to study the ecovillage, Permaculture, and Transition Town grassroots sustainability movements around the world. He hopes to use the conceptual power of philosophy to contribute to the evolution towards a sustainable and vibrant human society. You can follow the evolution of his journey and thought at


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