CHAPTER VII

 

WHY WE NEED A NEW ETHIC FOR

THE ENVIRONMENT

 

RICHARD SIVIL

 

 

We are enveloped and immersed in a world comprised of air, earth, waters, plants, animals and constructed artefacts. It is both animate and inanimate. The environment, then, may be loosely defined as that which constitutes and makes up our surroundings. As we occur in the world together with our surroundings, acting upon it and being acted upon, we form part of the environment. Located within this environment, humankind has grown and developed socially and economically to a point that if present trends continue the earth’s natural systems will be impoverished within less than a century (Pierce & Van De Veer 1995: 37). This situation can be referred to as an environmental crisis. To talk of an environmental crisis signifies that we are at a turning point, a period requiring insightful thinking, creative solutions, and a transformation not only of actions, but also of spiritual, perceptual, and moral outlook. South Africa, in a bid to participate in the global arena, needs to respond to these challenges.

Science and environmental policy are the most commonly accepted options for dealing with this crisis. While each has a significant contribution to make, overemphasis on either option could easily compound the environmental crisis. The environmental crisis is primarily a consequence of human action. Value systems inform actions. Therefore, we need to question our most fundamental values. This highlights the importance of ethical thinking in relation to the environmental crisis. The three main classes of ethical theory are teleological, utilitarian and deontological. It will be shown that they are, for the most part, applied in anthropocentric ways. I will argue that an anthropocentric value system is inadequate for the development of an environmental ethic.

 

THE RESPONSES OF SCIENCE AND ENVIRONMENTAL POLICY

 

Understanding the magnitude of the environmental crisis and the potential threat it poses to life on this planet, it is clearly not an option to adopt a "wait and see" attitude. A popular option is to turn to science, which helps provide adequate material needs for everyone and also extends the richness of our non-material lives. Playing such a socially prominent and important role, science constitutes a major element of the "cultural filter" through which Western society views the environment (Pepper 1996: 240). Classical science, which is still very dominant, has developed into a dualist paradigm in which the scientific observer is separate and distinct from his or her observations. This has contributed to a conception of the world consisting of independent material objects, each having independent properties, with the behaviour of the whole explainable by the behaviour of its constituent parts. Nature is viewed as separate from humanity, machine-like and reducible to basic components, which can be known objectively and predicted. This science represents the source of absolute truths on which to base decisions and is often regarded as the most respectable way to know nature.

The dimensions of environmental issues are seldom, if ever, restricted to the specific parameters of any one scientific discipline (Des Jardins 1997:5). Moreover, most major issues facing humanity stretch beyond being mere scientific problems, involving as they do, society, politics, law, economics, etc. Covering such a broad spectrum, it is evident that science, widely distinguished by the compartmentalisation of knowledge, cannot deliver comprehensive solutions to global issues (McMichael 1993: 326). The task of assessing the impacts of ecological imbalances and disruptions on human and other life forms entails significantly more than the classical scientific paradigm of hypothesis formation, data collection and data analysis. Leaving environmental problems in the hands of science would, therefore, effectively result in a narrow understanding of the problem at hand, and by correlation a limited and short-sighted solution. Furthermore, classical science asserts that "scientific knowledge equals power over nature" (Pepper 1996: 240), and that the manipulation of nature can be used for social progress. This has resulted in science being used in many modern developments, of which some exert a negative impact on the environment (e.g. inorganic fertilisers, pesticides, industrial processes, nuclear energy, and nuclear threat, to name but a few). In this light, science should not be viewed as the ultimate source of hope for the future, and clearly should not be given full responsibility for addressing the environmental crisis.

Fortunately paradigm shifts are occurring within the field. Classical understandings of the world consisting of "independent particles" are being reassessed and replaced by a more holistic and ecologically informed understanding that all things are inseparable from the greater whole that is the universe (Pepper 1996:247). In this sense current science can be useful in developing a more encompassing understanding of the environment. We should, however, be wary of placing scientists in an authoritative position in the decision making process.

Another commonly accepted option for dealing with the crisis at hand is that of environmental policy, legislation, and regulation, which can curb the effects of environmental pollution and improve the quality of the environment (Merchant 1992:26). Headway is being made with policies addressing environmental issues at both local and global levels. The close association that exists between population growth and the other environmental issues makes it apparent that one of the most important policies would be to curb population growth. This would entail a stabilisation of human numbers with a gradual levelling out at a lower figure at some point in the future (Marshall 1974: 137). Unfortunately individual governments largely have been reluctant to formulate such policies. Due to the delicate nature of the topic, it would be politically suicidal to include such policy recommendations in a party manifesto. Policies on resource conservation and pollution are equally as important as population policies. Unfortunately government cannot be isolated from the economy of the country. It therefore becomes very difficult to achieve concerted action towards resource management and protection when most political programs seem dedicated to increasing the prosperity of the individual voter and of the Gross National Product (Marshall 1974:152). Furthermore, the effective implementation of such acts and policies often lies in the hands of local authorities and councils who have the immediate needs of the community on their agenda. Generally community "growth and development" holds greater importance than environmental concerns.

Science and environmental policy options each have distinctive roles to play in addressing the environmental crisis. Science is a useful tool for developing technology and increasing our understanding of the complexity of life, while governmental policies regulate human social behaviour. We must, however, remember that each also has its respective problems. It would be unwise to assume that on their own they could effectively solve the current environmental crisis. Furthermore, handing over the task to science or government entails a relinquishing of personal responsibility that will not make the environmental crisis go away. The point is that we all act in ways that contribute to the crisis, and we are thus all responsible for what happens to the world around us. Accepting responsibility entails not only an acknowledgement that our individual actions contribute to the environmental crisis, but also that we are accountable for our actions. We should be willing to amend or change our actions in an attempt to remedy the current situation. Our actions, both individually and collectively, depend largely upon what we believe to be good, what is right, and what is permissible (Pierce & Van De Veer 1995: 1). Therefore we need to ask fundamental questions about what we as human beings value, why we value the things we do, the way we should live our lives, our place in nature, and the kind of world we want to leave behind for others (Des Jardins 1997:5). This places our value system at the heart of the environmental crisis. Clearly then, placing the burden of responsibility on either science or government policy will do little to correct the situation as long as the values informing our actions remain unchanged. We will alter our attitudes and actions through questioning and changing our values, and in such a way we can begin to address the problems of the environment. In no way should this suggest that ethical theories can solve the environmental crisis on their own, for "ethical and philosophical analysis done in the abstract, ignorant of science, technology, and other relevant disciplines, will not have much to contribute to the resolution of environmental problems" (Des Jardins 1997: 9). Science, legislation, and ethics need to combine forces in order to address the crisis at hand.

 

THE ANTHROPOCENTRIC ASSUMPTION IN ETHICAL THEORIES

 

Questioning our values is an invitation to ethics, the branch of philosophy that seeks a reasoned examination of what custom tells us about how we ought to live (Des Jardins 1997: 16). An ethic assumes that there are moral norms and values that govern human behaviour. It becomes the task of an ethical theory critically to examine and explain what these moral norms are, to whom they apply and what the entailing responsibilities are, as well as to provide a justification for those responsibilities (Des Jardins 1997: 9). Ethical theories are thus an attempt to formulate a systematic and comprehensive account of living with reasoned and justified values, providing a basis from which to guide behaviour (Des Jardins 1997:15).

Ethical theories have generally been regarded as falling into three main classes: teleological, utilitarian, and deontological. Traced back to Aristotle (383 – 333 BC), the teleological approach recognises that all things have a telos, a specific function or purpose to which they are inclined. Understanding the telos allows us to understand the object or being itself. ‘Goodness’ is achieved when an object or thing is able to fulfil its purpose, or actualise its potential (Des Jardins 1997: 22). Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274) further developed Aristotle’s theory by synthesising teleology and Christian theology. Utilitarianism is founded upon the writings of Jeremy Bentham (1748 – 1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873). It provides an account of the ethical good as that which produces the greatest good for the greatest number (Des Jardins 1997: 24). According to this account an act is ethically acceptable if its consequences are good for the greatest number of individuals, and bad if they are not. Deontological ethics, founded mainly on the ethical writings of Immanuel Kant (1742 – 1804), rests upon the claim that we can be held responsible only for things we can control. While the consequences of our actions are largely beyond our control, the actions themselves are not. Assuming that we are rational beings, we act freely on the basis of our rationality and the principles that we derive from it. Deontological ethics focuses on these principles and maxims. Kant argued that we act ethically whenever these principles are rationally informed and accepted by all other rational beings.

Ethical theories offer moral criteria in order to determine how far one should extend moral standing. If a being is recognised to have moral standing, its interests must be taken into account when deciding what actions are permissible (Pierce & Van De Veer 1995: 7). The well-being and interests of what lacks moral standing do not count in any morally relevant way. A value theory is anthropocentric when it recognises the moral standing of human beings alone. The term ‘anthropocentrism’ is ambiguous. It is commonly defined by making reference to the location of values. It is largely accepted that humans are the centre of all value. Accordingly, anthropocentrists would argue that since all value originates from humans, non-human entities and objects have value only in relation to humans. A further understanding of anthropocentrism defines value as the satisfaction of human preference. From this, two forms of anthropocentrism have developed. Strong anthropocentrism which explains value by making reference to the satisfaction of subjective preferences, and weak anthropocentrism, which explains value by making reference to objective preferences. Strong anthropocentrism prioritises the satisfaction of immediate human needs and desires, no matter how trivial. Weak anthropocentrism, on the other hand, acknowledges that not all human needs and desires are rational and thus recognises the need to deliberate regarding established value-systems (Pierce & VanDeVeer 1995: 184). Humans are commonly viewed to be "valuable in and of themselves . . . (while) the non-human world is valuable only insofar as it is of value to humans" (Fox 1990: 149). Humans are seen to possess intrinsic value, while all non-humans are seen to hold only instrumental value. Since "the base class of traditional Western ethics is coextensive with the class of human beings" (Callicott 1998: 9), only humans are recognised to have direct moral standing. Anthropocentric ethical approaches do not accord moral standing to non-human beings as they are seen to be morally inferior. Lacking the required qualifications for ethical consideration, non-humans are treated as things or means to human ends, rather than as ends in themselves (Elliot 1995: 35).

The three classes of ethical theories (teleological, consequential and deontological) have, for the most part, been interpreted and applied in anthropocentric ways. While Aristotle believed that all living entities have a telos, or natural purpose to which they are inclined, he analysed this further into three fundamental activities or powers of life: nutrition, sensation, and thinking. All living entities were seen to possess the first power, all animals the first two, but only human beings possess all three. These three powers were arranged hierarchically, with the power to think at the apex, thereby establishing rationality as a moral criterion. Aristotle’s teleology specifically favoured human beings and resulted in him seeing that all "animals exist for the sake of man, . . . for the use he can make of them as well as for the food that they provide" (Aristotle 1962: 40). Aquinas’ development of Aristotle’s teleology did little to change the human-centred moral criterion. Animals were seen to have "no independent moral standing" (Pierce & Van De Veer 1995: 15), it being accepted as divine providence that human beings have the natural world at their disposal.

The hedonistic theory of utility is based upon pleasure itself. This expands "the realm of moral consideration to include all things that have the capacity to feel pleasure and pain" (Des Jardins 1997: 93). Accordingly sentience becomes the moral criterion. However, this does not necessitate that the moral standing of all sentient creatures is acknowledged, since it is compatible with the principle of utility to recognise differences in the quality of pleasure. This allows for certain kinds of pleasure being more desirable and more valuable than others, with pleasures of the intellect, feeling, imagination and moral sentiments being placed over pleasures of physical sensation (Cooper 1998: 198). This amounts to a view which accepts that while many animals are clearly capable of feeling pain, humans need not concern themselves with animals’ pain, for the affairs of humanity are higher than the affairs of animals. Although their central criterion in principle extends beyond human capacities, in practice traditional utilitarian ethical theories have largely favoured humanity.

While Kant did not deny that animals suffer, he did deny that animals are persons. Persons in this sense are understood as rational, autonomous beings, capable of formulating and pursuing their own conceptions of the good. His rule-based deontology assumed that only human beings have the ability to think rationally and, therefore, have moral standing. Having interests in ourselves as rational beings amounted to the view that only the interests and well-being of humans count morally. Accordingly, it was accepted that non-persons could be used to suit the purposes of human beings, yet it was wrong to use a person only as a means to fulfil another person’s end, because they should always (also) be recognised as being ends in themselves. Thus human beings were viewed as superior to the rest of the non-human natural world.

Apart from being manifest in the formulation of traditional ethical theories, anthropocentric assumptions hold a predominant place in the modern Western value system. Historically, these assumptions can be traced through Western religious, scientific and philosophical traditions. Western European civilisation, although in many respects a post-Christian civilisation, is deeply influenced and impregnated by Christian values (Attfield & Dell 1998:141). Pre-scientific Christian views assumed human superiority, placing human existence at the centre of the universe, with ‘man’ created in God’s image (Genesis 1: 26), a free being responsible for his own actions. An anthropocentric view of the world was interpreted from the scriptures, as the Word of God instructed that we "be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth and subdue it" (Genesis 1: 28). This was taken as a legitimising claim for human domination over nature. In contrast, Genesis 2: 15 puts ‘man’ into the Garden of Eden "to work it and take care of it". This was interpreted to place humankind in a position of stewardship, watching over the earth for the sake of God. Accordingly, it was understood to be humanity’s role to look after the Lord’s creation, and not to misuse it or destroy it.

The advent of science largely undermined and altered this particular view. In line with the thrust of scientific development of his time, Francis Bacon (1571 – 1626), advocated scientific methodology to manipulate nature for human benefit (Merchant 1992: 46). The experimental method of the sixteenth century was reinforced by the mechanical philosophy of Rene Descartes, who saw that through method we could "render ourselves the masters and possessors of nature" (Haldane & Ross 1955: 119). The natural world was seen as a clockwork machine, to be controlled, repaired and manipulated in the service of humanity. The science of Isaac Newton (1642 – 1727), resting on the assumption that matter consists of individual parts, with the whole being merely the sum of those parts, propagated a reductionistic view of the world where individual entities were seen to be independent of their context. These have culminated in a mechanistic view of a world, still dominant in the sciences today, in which nature, inert and dead, is seen to exist entirely for the fulfilment of human needs (Merchant 1992: 41,57). Anthropocentrism, interwoven into our intellectual development, extends beyond the realm of science to be the "single deepest and most persistent assumption of all the dominant Western philosophical, social, and political traditions since the time of the classical Greeks" (Fox 1990: 9).

 

A CRITIQUE OF ANTHROPOCENTRISM IN ETHICS

 

Three most significant and pressing factors contributing to the environmental crisis are the ever increasing human population, the energy crisis, and the abuse and pollution of the earth’s natural systems. These and other factors contributing to the environmental crisis can be directly linked to anthropocentric views of the world. The perception that value is located in, and emanates from, humanity has resulted in understanding human life as an ultimate value, superior to all other beings. This has driven innovators in medicine and technology to ever improve our medical and material conditions, in an attempt to preserve human life, resulting in more people being born and living longer. In achieving this aim, they have indirectly contributed to increasing the human population. Perceptions of superiority, coupled with developing technologies have resulted in a social outlook that generally does not rest content with the basic necessities of life. Demands for more medical and social aid, more entertainment and more comfort translate into demands for improved standards of living. Increasing population numbers, together with the material demands of modern society, place ever increasing demands on energy supplies. While wanting a better life is not a bad thing, given the population explosion the current energy crisis is inevitable, which brings a whole host of environmental implications in tow. This is not to say that every improvement in the standard of living is necessarily wasteful of energy or polluting to the planet, but rather it is the cumulative effect of these improvements that is damaging to the environment. The abuses facing the natural environment as a result of the energy crisis and the food demand are clearly manifestations of anthropocentric views that treat the environment as a resource and instrument for human ends. The pollution and destruction of the non-human natural world is deemed acceptable, provided that it does not interfere with other human beings.

It could be argued that there is nothing essentially wrong with anthropocentric assumptions, since it is natural, even instinctual, to favour one’s self and species over and above all other forms of life. However, it is problematic in that such perceptions influence our actions and dealings with the world to the extent that the well-being of life on this planet is threatened, making the continuance of a huge proportion of existing life forms "tenuous if not improbable" (Elliot 1995: 1). Denying the non-human world ethical consideration, it is evident that anthropocentric assumptions provide a rationale for the exploitation of the natural world and, therefore, have been largely responsible for the present environmental crisis (Des Jardins 1997: 93).

Fox identifies three broad approaches to the environment informed by anthropocentric assumptions, which in reality are not distinct and separate, but occur in a variety of combinations. The "expansionist" approach is characterised by the recognition that nature has a purely instrumental value to humans. This value is accessed through the physical transformation of the non-human natural world, by farming, mining, damming etc. Such practices create an economic value, which tends to "equate the physical transformation of ‘resources’ with economic growth" (Fox 1990: 152). Legitimising continuous expansion and exploitation, this approach relies on the idea that there is an unending supply of resources. The "conservationist" approach, like the first, recognises the economic value of natural resources through their physical transformation, while at the same time accepting the fact that there are limits to these resources. It therefore emphasises the importance of conserving natural resources, while prioritising the importance of developing the non-human natural world in the quest for financial gain. The "preservationist" approach differs from the first two in that it recognises the enjoyment and aesthetic enrichment human beings receive from an undisturbed natural world. Focusing on the psychical nourishment value of the non-human natural world for humans, this approach stresses the importance of preserving resources in their natural states.

All three approaches are informed by anthropocentric assumptions. This results in a one-sided understanding of the human-nature relationship. Nature is understood to have a singular role of serving humanity, while humanity is understood to have no obligations toward nature. Such a perception represents "not only a deluded but also a very dangerous orientation to the world" (Fox 1990: 13), as only the lives of human beings are recognised to have direct moral worth, while the moral consideration of non-human entities is entirely contingent upon the interests of human beings (Pierce & Van De Veer 1995: 9). Humanity is favoured as inherently valuable, while the non-human natural world counts only in terms of its use value to human beings. The "expansionist" and "conservationist" approaches recognise an economic value, while the "preservationist" approach recognises a hedonistic, aesthetic or spiritual value. They accept, without challenge, the assumption that the value of the non-human natural world is entirely dependent on human needs and interests. None attempt to move beyond the assumption that nature has any worth other than the value humans can derive from it, let alone search for a deeper value in nature. This ensures that human duties retain a purely human focus, thereby avoiding the possibility that humans may have duties that extend to non-humans. This can lead to viewing the non-human world, devoid of direct moral consideration, as a mere resource with a purely instrumental value of servitude. This gives rise to a principle of ‘total use’, whereby every natural area is seen for its potential cultivation value, to be used for human ends (Zimmerman 1998: 19). This provides limited means to criticise the behaviour of those who use nature purely as a warehouse of resources (Pierce & Van De Veer 1995: 184).

It is clear that humanity has the capacity to transform and degrade the environment. Given the consequences inherent in having such capacities, "the need for a coherent, comprehensive, rationally persuasive environmental ethic is imperative" (Pierce & Van De Veer 1995: 2). The purpose of an environmental ethic would be to account for the moral relations that exist between humans and the environment, and to provide a rational basis from which to decide how we ought and ought not to treat the environment. The environment was defined as the world in which we are enveloped and immersed, constituted by both animate and inanimate objects. This includes both individual living creatures, such as plants and animals, as well as non-living, non-individual entities, such as rivers and oceans, forests and velds, essentially, the whole planet Earth. This constitutes a vast and all-inclusive sphere, and, for purposes of clarity, shall be referred to as the "greater environment". In order to account for the moral relations that exist between humans and the greater environment, an environmental ethic should have a significantly wide range of focus.

I argue that anthropocentric value systems are not suitable to the task of developing a comprehensive environmental ethic. Firstly, anthropocentric assumptions have been shown to be largely responsible for the current environmental crisis. While this in itself does not provide strong support for the claim, it does cast a dim light on any theory that is informed by such assumptions. Secondly, an environmental ethic requires a significantly wide range of focus. As such, it should consider the interests of a wide range of beings. It has been shown that anthropocentric approaches do not entertain the notion that non-human entities can have interests independent of human interests. "Expansionist", "conservationist" and "preservationist" approaches only acknowledge a value in nature that is determined by the needs and interests of humans.

Thirdly, because anthropocentric approaches provide a moral account for the interests of humans alone, while excluding non-humans from direct moral consideration, they are not sufficiently encompassing. An environmental ethic needs to be suitably encompassing to ensure that a moral account is provided for all entities that constitute the environment. It could be argued that the indirect moral concern for the environment arising out of an anthropocentric approach is sufficient to ensure the protection of the greater environment. In response, only those entities that are in the interest of humans will be morally considered, albeit indirectly, while those entities which fall outside of this realm will be seen to be morally irrelevant. Assuming that there are more entities on this planet that are not in the interest of humans than entities that are, it is safe to say that anthropocentric approaches are not adequately encompassing. Fourthly, the goals of an environmental ethic should protect and maintain the greater environment. It is clear that the expansionist approach, which is primarily concerned with the transformation of nature for economic return, does not meet these goals. Similarly, neither does the conservationist approach, which is arguably the same as the expansionist approach. The preservationist approach does, in principle satisfy this requirement. However, this is problematic for such preservation is based upon the needs and interests of humans, and "as human interests and needs change, so too would human uses for the environment" (Des Jardins 1997: 129). Non-human entities, held captive by the needs and interests of humans, are open to whatever fancies the interests of humans. In light of the above, it is my contention that anthropocentric value systems fail to provide a stable ground for the development of an environmental ethic.

It is fair to say that the success of the environmental movement is largely "a result of the power of anthropocentric arguments, for the general population began to realise that the degradation of the natural environment would have serious consequences for human health, safety, and survival" (Katz 1999: 378). This is of little relevance when regarding the development of an environmental ethic, for the awareness raised by anthropocentric arguments is restricted to the consequences affecting humans alone. Above I argued that anthropocentric value systems are unsuitable to the development of an environmental ethic. Traditional ethical theories (teleological, utilitarian, and deontological) were shown to be anthropocentric. This makes such theories unsuitable to the development of an environmental ethic. Clearly a wider and more encompassing ethic is required, one which extends moral concern beyond human boundaries. What is required is a "change in the ethics, in attitudes, values and evaluations" (Zimmerman 1998: 17), with the assumptions of an environmental ethic being "broader and more inclusive than the mere consideration of human interests" (Katz 1999: 378). Whether and how such an ethic is possible is the task of another paper.

 

NOTES

 

1. Section 24 of the South African Bill of Rights protects the environment for the benefit of present and future citizens. In addition, there is the National Environmental Management Act 107 of 1998, the Land Reform Programme of 1998 and the White Paper on Bio-diversity Conservation. Internationally there are Clean Air Acts, Water Resource Acts, Noise Abatement Acts, etc.

2. The exponential growth of the human population results in an equivalent increase in the amount of energy required and the rate of resource usage, which in turn increases environmental degradation and contamination, through over-use and pollution.

3. There are essentially two types of utilitarianism: hedonistic utilitarianism and preference utilitarianism. Bentham and Mill represent the former, recognising that pleasure or the absence of pain is something we all desire, excluding deviants who prefer pain or avoid pleasure. This universal acceptance makes pleasure, for the hedonistic utilitarian, something that is objectively good (Des Jardins 1997: 25). Preference utilitarianism, on the other hand, identifies the good as something that we achieve through the satisfaction of our desires.

4. There are exceptions to this generalisation: The Pythagorian tradition, Empedocles of Acragas, St. Francis of Assisi, and Jeremy Bentham all in some way recognised the place of animals in moral considerations.

5. The teleology of Aristotle and Aquinas was not intended to support an ethos of abuse, since both emphasised the importance of virtues of good character. To act in a cruel or destructive manner was not encouraged since bad actions reflected that the agent had a bad character.

6. Hedonistic utilitarianism aims to maximize the total quantity of pleasure. Accordingly, pleasure or the absence of pain is of primary importance. Because of this, sentient beings are treated as mere vessels or receptacles of pleasure. Since it is of utmost importance that the maximum quantity of pleasure does not drop below a certain point, the killing of sentient beings is acceptable provided they are replaced with other similar beings. To avoid reducing human beings to replaceable receptacles, the good has been suggested to be premised upon the satisfaction of desires (preference utilitarianism). This ensures that those who can experience desires and satisfaction should count morally. While some of the attributes necessary for such an experience may be granted to animals, it is widely accepted that they are by and large human attributes.

 

REFERENCES

 

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