Notes from the bookshelf 7: The Rights of Nature: A History of Environmental Ethics

Today’s post is a review of the book I’ve just finished reading. It does not directly address the consumption issue, but has made an invaluable contribution to my understanding of the historical and philosophical roots of environmentalism, on which the entire concept of ethical consumerism rests.

The author of the book is Roderick Nash, a professor of history and environmental studies at the University of California, the author of numerous publications on environmental issues and, according to his university profile, America’s most prominent wilderness historian. The book is called “The Rights of Nature: A History of Environmental Ethics” and presents a detailed account of the key factors, milestones and names that feature prominently in the history of the environmental thought and politics. It is divided into six chapters, each dealing with a certain phase in the evolution of the environmental thinking – from early conceptions of human-nature relationships, to the embracing of green ethics by the western religious tradition, to the expansion of environmental ideas into philosophical circles. Because the book is such a rich source of engaging and at times challenging information, I will break the review into two posts – this one will only reflect the content of the first chapter.

So the first chapter traces the evolution of ecological consciousness from strongly anthropocentric views (of which much-celebrated Descartes was a strong proponent) degrading animals to living machines with no sensations or feelings, to the early moves towards more expanded ethics propagated by such thinkers as Baruch Spinoza, Henry More, and John Ray, to the 19th century when a more noticeable widening of the circle of environmental ethics occurred.  Major milestone events of the period include the adoption of Martin’s Act which, for the first time in history, turned animal cruelty into a criminal offence (1822); the subsequent emergence of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in England (1824), the abolition of bear-baiting (1835) and cock-fighting (1849), and the adoption of the British Cruelty to Animals Act introducing first regulations on the practice of vivisection (1876).

19th century also witnessed the rise of American environmentalism, associated with such names as George Perkins Marsh, a proponent of the nature conservation; John Muir, an upholder of the intrinsic rights of the environment; Edward Evans, who sought to undermine religion-grounded anthropocentrism by providing scientific evidence for the commonality of humans and animals; John Howard Moore, an ardent defender of the animal rights on the grounds of universal kinship of all living creatures; and, of course, Charles Darwin, whose teaching “extended the boundaries of kinship to the limits of life” (p.42) and became an important source of the environmentalist ideas.

An account of the evolution of human morals proceeds into the 20th century, when ecology emerges as a scientific field and provides biological grounding to the environmental ethics by developing the concept of ecological interdependence. The idea of a holistic environment and the intrinsic rights of nature was firmly supported by such thinkers as Alfred Whitehead, whose philosophy found wide application in the areas of environmentalism and sustainability; the Nobel Prize winner Albert Schweitzer, the author of the notion of “reverence for life” as a key ethical foundation; and Aldo Leopold, the author of the best-selling “Sand County Almanac” and a recognized “father of the environmental ethics” in America.

Environmental ideas continued to develop in the second half of the 20th century – bioethics emerges as a scholarly discipline, scientific publications concerned with environmental issues proliferate, the Endangered Species Act is adopted in 1973, and activist groups such as Greenpeace and Earth First! raise their voice in defense of nature. Environmental discourse reaches its climax during the 1970s and penetrates deeply into the Christian religion and philosophy, but I’ll leave this until the next post – keep an eye on the blog!


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