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Environmental Ethics

Today the problems of environmental pollution and exhaustion of natural resources become more urgent, and the perspective of the global ecological crisis is more real. The current state of the biosphere demonstrates that the development and widespread popularization of the concepts of environmental ethics should have taken place much earlier. The possibility to suffer from a global climate catastrophe and lose all the achievements of human civilization emerges due to denial of the consequences of people’s expansive activity.

Global alterations of the Earth’s natural state in the last 30 years were so pervasive that today our planet is facing the risk of becoming less forested and biologically diverse, much warmer and stormier in the nearest future. The interest in the phenomenon of global changes produced by the shift in the relationship between humans and nature contributed to the emergence of a number of international research projects. One of them is Integrated History and Future of People on Earth (IHOPE), which studies how human societies evolved from the state of hunter-gatherers to becoming a significant global geophysical force.

Recent research proves that even preagricultural communities, which were believed to live in harmony with nature, seriously affected the Earth through the use of fire, which modificated the landscapes and predation. The mastery of fire, which took place a couple of millions years ago, caused facilitated production of stone tools and weapons, which, in turn, resulted in the change of people’s diet from vegetarian to omnivorous, which increased mental and physical capabilities of early humans. The development of human brain promoted the emergence of language and communication skills, which enabled transmission of knowledge – the capability not available to any other species.

Domestication of animals and plants led to the development of agriculture, which resulted in mass deforestation to make space for fields and irrigation systems. Some researchers believe that the agriculture development of the mid-Holocene fundamentally affected the Earth biosphere and prevented the beginning of the new ice age by increasing atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane; however, this hypothesis has not been accurately proved. Most of the modification of the natural environment was made due to the need to do hunting, gathering and farming. Since the preindustrial communities did not possess any technologies that could equal the forces of nature, the impact they made on ecology remained local and temporar.

The beginning of the Industrial Revolution, which originated around the 1700s, the period known as the Enlightenment, brought significant changes to human-nature relations. People began using coal, gas, oil and carbon in large quantities. The use of energy produced by wind, water, plants, and animals increased five times compared to agrarian societies, which, in their turn, used four times more energy than hunters and gatherers. Transition to the high-energy society caused an increase of population from one billion in 1820 to six billion at present days. The invention of a steam engine opened new opportunities for energy supply, which resulted in the growth of the global economy and caused an increase in the energy use up to 40 times.

The impact of industrialization on the environment became evident in the middle of the 20th century. By 1950, 30% of the global surface was converted to agricultural use, compared to 10% in the 1800s. The erection of dams caused serious changes in hydrological cycles. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere exceeded 300 ppmv and continued to increase rapidly. All these pieces of evidence prove that human activity began to affect the environment at the global scale.

Compared to any other period in human history, the world’s ecosystems have been changing more rapidly and extensively during the last 50 years. After World War II the population doubled, the consumption of petroleum has grown by 3.5 times, the number of motor vehicles increased from 40 to 700 million by the end of the 20th century, and the growth of the urban population has increased from 30 to 50 percent and continues to grow. Terrestrial and marine ecosystems suffer from extinction and the loss of a great number of species. Increased concentration of several greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere causes warming of the Earth’s surface.

The scientific study of global warming began with the discoveries of Svante Arrhenius in the 1890s. Mass discussion of this issue in the world community started in the 1980s, when the problems of globalization became more evident. Nevertheless, the problem of climate change did not receive serious attention until the 2000s. For the problem of the greenhouse effect to be noticed, the Earth had to suffer droughts in Australia, crop failures, the melting of mountain glaciers, frequent cyclones, forest fires and damage of the food chain. Before the emergence of all these disasters, the governments preferred to ignore the warnings of the scientists and pursue their own political and economic interests.

Until the 20th century, the philosophical thought separated human and natural history, asserting that people know only the human world because they have created it. The environment was perceived as a passive background of the historical narrative of humanity. The philosophers of the mid-twenty century yet did not grasp the idea that the processes in the biosphere of the Earth may reach some point after which the seemingly slow and unseen transformation of the environmental conditions may gain speed, bringing a catastrophe to the humankind.

Contemporary scholars offer an absolutely different view on the nature and the problems of the environment. Latest research proves that the increasing human intrusion into ecological processes and systems due to technological development allows concluding that humanity moved from being a biological agent to becoming a powerful geological force. People are capable of changing the most fundamental planetary processes. Centuries ago it was believed that the functioning of the Earth was so complicated and large that there was no force that could alter it. Human history compared to vast geological periods seemed insignificant. Thus, any kind of human activity seemed insignificant. This point of view was once correct, but today the scope of human activity may affect any aspect of the planet’s biosphere. Therefore, humanity may be considered a geological agent. It is demonstrated not only by the global deforestation and burning of tons of fossil fuel. The change of the chemical composition of the atmosphere resulted in ice melting, rising of the sea level, and a global climate change.

All these modifications of the environment force the contemporary society to acknowledge the destructive nature of human activities. Scientific research demonstrates that although the effects and results of these activities were unintended, currently, climate change is an inevitable process, which people need to face. A number of solutions to environmental problem were offered. Business-as-usual paradigm states that humans with their technological development are able to handle any global environmental issues without the need to change the direction of human activities at the moment. The concept of mitigation emphasizes the need to make active steps to prevent global ecological changes with the wise use of resources, control of population and restoration of nature. Geo-engineering suggests artificial intrusion to ecological processes of the Earth to reduce the harmful effects of human activities.

Murray Bookchin argues that since the environmentalism of the late 60-ies and early 70-ies showed no effect, and humanity continued to harm nature, more and more people come to a conclusion that a new, more radical and fundamental approach to solving environmental problems must be developed. The main goal of this new approach is to transform the contemporary industrial society into a community that lives in harmony and treats nature with respect.

Today there exist two conflicting approaches in environmental ethics – deep ecology and social ecology. The first one, according to Bookchin, is not substantial since it is not capable of defining the real source of ecological problems. Deep ecologists depict humanity as some form of cancer, which is overpopulating the planet, exhausting the resources, and demolishing the biosphere. This form of eco-brutalism dooms people of the Third World to suffer from hunger, prohibiting immigrants to enter the USA in order not to use “our” ecological resources. The demands, listed by deep ecologists, such as decentralism, local autonomy, mutual aid, small-scale communities and tolerance, have no relation to resolving ecological problems. A strong connection of the deep ecology doctrine with Malthusian ideology often results in replacing constructive ideas with moods or slogans. By ignoring uniqueness, characteristic features and diverse functions of humanity, deep ecologists fail to recognize that the roots of ecological crisis lie within the nature of the society and its political, economic, and market relations.

Social ecology, by contrast, supports the uniqueness and subjectivity of every human and rejects the idea of the existence of a privileged group of people who have the right to exploit and allocate all the resources of the planet. Social ecology emphasizes that it is wrong to separate humanity and nature because it means to deny that the society, capitalistic policy, and economic relations are responsible for the current ecological issues. Social ecology states that since humans possess highly developed intellectual, communication, and social skills, the society has to use them to reduce the suffering and negative impact of its activities and encourage increasing the diversity of species and evolution of new forms of life. The main goal of social ecologists is to determine whether it is possible to transform the modern hostile to nature community into an ecologically oriented society.

Summing up, it is worth noting that since the beginning of the history of humankind up to the middle of the 20th century, the problems of ecology and the possibility of depletion of natural resources were not given enough attention while the potential consequences of the active development of industry and technology were generally ignored. As a result of denying the possibility of a large-scale ecological crisis during the previous periods, nowadays the humanity is suffering from global climate problems, which may ultimately lead to the extinction of humans as a species unless decisive actions are taken now. Therefore, one of the most significant objectives of environmentalists is to spread the concepts of environmental ethics and develop a profound understanding among people that they are an inseparable part of the planet and need to take responsibility for themselves and their actions. Moreover, the environmental scientists argue that the scale of human influence on the ecological condition has now become so great that the global society is responsible for life on the Earth in general.

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