Environmental Ethics Today


Environmental Ethics Today. Wenz, P. S. 2001. Oxford University Press, New York. 368 pp. $34.95 (paperback). ISBN 0–19–513384–6.

Peter Wenz has written a lively, comprehensive, and thoroughly accessible philosophical introduction to environmental thinking. Environmental Ethics Today is a compelling environmentalist critique of faith in progress, the consumer lifestyle, globalization, genetic engineering, meat eating, the car culture, and more. It criticizes our reliance on chemicals, high-technology food, and traditional economic and market approaches to environmental problems. Key positions and controversies in environmental ethics are explored in the context of concrete environmental issues that they help illuminate. For example, a discussion of Aldo Leopold's land ethic occurs in an examination of the pros and cons of hunting and of methods for preserving megafauna in the third world. The conflict between a holistic concern for ecosystems or species and an individualist concern with animal welfare illuminates problems in preserving biodiversity. Global warming is the context for a discussion of the philosophical problem of obligations to future generations.

Wenz is a philosopher and a well-known writer in the field of environmental ethics, having published several other related books, including Environmental Justice (1988), Faces of Environmental Racism (1995), and Nature's Keeper (1996). Wenz sees himself as a pluralist who is advancing debate in environmental philosophy rather than definitively defending a particular environmental ethic. He explores the strengths and weaknesses of a number of environmental philosophies, including ecofeminism, deep ecology, religious environmentalism, and indigenous world views.

Wenz defends a view he calls “environmental synergism,” according to which human welfare and the good of nature are fundamentally mutually supportive rather than in competition, as they have often been conceived in an environmental ethics literature that has stressed the divide between human-centered and nature-centered approaches. Promoting the good of nonhumans does not require sacrificing the overall, long-term good of humans, Wenz insists, and vice versa. Policies that value both human and nonhuman nature intrinsically will work synergistically to promote the good of each better than would policies designed solely to promote the good of one or the other. Wenz argues that pollution abatement is good for both people and nature, that abandoning high levels of consumption for more simple living would be better for both people and nature, and that improving the lot of women and the poor will be good for the environment.

Although such examples make synergism appear commonsensical, it is actually quite controversial. Why shouldn't humans maximally benefit from policies explicitly designed only to look after humans? Wenz argues that unless people value nature for its own sake and act on such values, they will attempt to exert power over nature to promote human good in a misuse of technology that will backfire and harm humans. “People as a group get more from the environment by caring about nature for its own sake, which limits attempts to dominate nature, than by trying to manipulate it for maximal human advantage” (p. 172). More convincing than this “power argument” for synergism is Wenz's suggestion that humans become more fulfilled when they incorporate the flourishing of nature into their own view of human flourishing than when they divorce the two. Wenz's helpful analogy is to parents who incorporate their children's flourishing into their own conception of doing well: Such parents will find the difficult dimensions of child rearing much less onerous than parents who separate their interests from those of their children. A human life that to a significant extent identifies with a flourishing wild nature is more satisfying than is either human life in a human-dominated world without wild nature or human life that finds the flourishing of wild nature onerous. In such a conception of human flourishing, synergism between the good of humans and that of nature is highly plausible.

This book has several minor shortcomings. There is no significant discussion of biocentric individualism, an important position in environmental ethics according to which all individual living things have moral importance. Wenz jumps from a discussion of sentiocentrism, in which each sentient animal has moral importance, to ecocentric holism, in which species and ecosystems have moral importance, ignoring the view that individual insentient organisms (e.g., plants) require serious moral consideration. Giving short shrift to individualist biocentrism is unlikely to trouble most conservation biologists because they are likely to find holism far more plausible. More troubling to scientists, however, may be the book's reliance on the literature of environmental groups (e.g., WorldWatch, Sierra, State of the World) as documentation for its empirical claims (e.g., about cancer or extinction rates). Wenz is more likely to cite The Ecologist for claims about how natural systems work than he is Ecology or Conservation Biology.

Wenz has provocative suggestions for how and why we ought to respect the earth, and they deserve greater development. He argues that we should respect the earth's “own good” and its “values” by not undermining its fundamental “natural tendencies,”“the conditions that the Earth tends to create and maintain” (p. 144). Such respect demands, according to Wenz, that we not drive species to extinction, for although there have been mass extinctions, “the total number of species becomes greater over time” (p. 144). I worry that respect for fundamental natural tendencies (viz., letting wild nature take its course) and respect for biodiversity are distinct values that frequently do not coincide. Many restoration projects, such as the restoration of wolves to greater Yellowstone, enhance biodiversity while arguably increasing human management and manipulation of ecosystems.

Although the book's presentation of environmental ethics is introductory in nature—Wenz calls it “a sample for beginners” (p. 13)—the book, when supplemented with articles from professional journals in the field, worked well in an environmental ethics course taught to graduate students in environmental studies. Wenz has very helpful summaries of the main ideas of virtually all the major thinkers in environmental ethics, including Aldo Leopold, Holmes Rolston, J. Baird Callicott, Bryan Norton, Peter Singer, and Tom Regan. The book contains a glossary of major terms and helpfully italicizes key points. For conservation biologists who want a clearly written and provocative introduction to the field, Environmental Ethics Today is a worthy choice.