Notes from the bookshelf 8: The Rights of Nature: A History of Environmental Ethics

As promised, I’d like to finish the review of Frederick Nash’s book on the history of environmental ethics. Discussing the first three chapters took a whole blog post, and I hope it gave a sense of how human ecological consciousness has been evolving during early and later stages of the environmentalist movement. We now move on to the fourth chapter, which considers the role of religion in humans’ dealing with nature. It provides an insightful explanation of how major religious concepts nurtured people’s exploitative attitude towards the planet and offered ideological grounding for the dominion of a man over the Earth. Thus, the notion of duality – separation of the living world into humans and non-human creatures; rejection of animism (the idea that all elements of the environment have spirit), the disproval of metempsychosis (transmigration of souls) and inculcation of the view of the Earth as merely a temporarily stop on the way to heaven all suggested ethical irrelevance of nature and helped remove constraints on its exploitation by humans.

As of 1950s, however, the situation begins to change under the influence of progressively unfolding environmental movement. Prominent scholars and theologians attempt to rethink the Judeo-Christian tradition to account for environmental rights and develop religion – rooted environmental ethics. During 1960-70s, the Faith-Man-Nature Group becomes a hotbed of the  early eco–theology whose aim was to understand nature-human relationships in the context of faith and advance the concept of environmental stewardship.

The fifth chapter brings into focus the emergence and development of environmental philosophy. In the 1970s, human-nature relationships come under the spotlight of philosophy publications, conferences, university courses. A remarkable advance in the environmental thinking of this period is the development of specific proposals to modify American legislation to accommodate the rights of nature. It is also the time when one of the most notable contemporary defenders of the animal rights, Peter Singer, publishes his widely read “Animal Liberation” thereby moving the issue of environmental ethics beyond professional philosophy circles into the general public sphere.

The 6th chapter provides an account of different philosophies of action that have been informing various measures by which proponents of natural rights sought to achieve the ultimate goal of the liberation of nature. Throughout the 1970s, the “law-ethics” debate was in full swing with more peaceful attempts to protect the rights of the environment within legal frameworks being disputed by eco-radicals prepared to advance environmental ethics on a more practical level – through the acts of civil disobedience and outright violence. Go straight to this part of the book for an engaging account of the most consequential acts of violence and law-breaking by renown radical environmentalists, such as Paul Watson, an ardent defender of marine wildlife and a founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.

The book ends with the author’s reflections on the intrinsic nature of abolitionism and environmentalism, and the parallels drawn between the two movements are deeply insightful. They make a convincing argument for why “shallow ecology”, propagating natural resource management and more humane treatment of animals, is just another form of oppression, and why the replacement of the entire exploitative system is the only true way to the liberation of nature.

Overall, the book is a rich source of engaging and challenging information on the history of the progression of environmentalism in the West. A must-read for anyone interested in the philosophical, religious and practical foundations of contemporary environmental ethics.


One response to “Notes from the bookshelf 8: The Rights of Nature: A History of Environmental Ethics

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