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Joseph DesJardins, environmental ethicist and author of Environmental Ethics, began the fourth chapter of his book, titled “Responsibilities to Future Generations,” by denoting the world’s growing population and the resulting consequences. Mankind’s increasing trends in consumption, without intervention, will cause environmental and economic collapse due to resource depletion. DesJardins introduced the theory that humanity’s effect on the environment is equivalent to a combination of the world’s rising population, rate of consumption and level of affluence, and technologic innovations. Because historical evidence indicates that population growth will continue, in order to minimize ecological impact and achieve environmental stability, current generations must focus on reducing consumption and maximizing technological advancements. DesJardins’ approach to environmental sustainability is purely anthropogenic, though complex; it is our responsibility to future generations that we conduct a moral, pragmatic approach in addressing resource conservation.
Complexities arise in environmental ethics when determining what responsibility to future generations entails. Consider utilitarian theory: the notion that the optimal course of action minimizes suffering and maximizes happiness for the greatest number of people. A conventional issue ethicists have with utilitarian theory is the ambiguity of maximal happiness. Additionally, according to Jeremy Bentham, considered one of the fathers of utilitarian theory, immediate, apparent pleasures are more valuable than uncertain ones. Consequently, the value of future generations’ happiness is commonly discounted in comparison to present generations’. Following that theory, maximizing resource use is optimal for present happiness and preservation is unnecessary because the values of future generations are unclear. However, “no matter how small the discount rate, any discounting eventually reduces future value to nothing. Eventually, we would be committed to saying future people do not count at all” (DesJardins 79). It is clear that this view is immoral, as ethics demands we consider other people as equal. Furthermore, DesJardins cited Mary Williams’ notion that depleting resources actually contradicts utilitarian theory because the resource would cease to produce value, which undercuts overall good. Williams also theorized that we should utilize a resource only as long as a sufficient amount is preserved for future generations to use productively, a policy called “maximum sustainable yield.” DesJardins supported Williams’ belief that this policy is utilitarian in that it promotes overall good.
Another issue that arises when considering environmental ethics is the deontological concept about the rights of future people. How could someone that does not yet exist and is not guaranteed to exist, have rights? As ethics requires the view that all people are equal, it is logical to concur that all people, even hypothetical, have rights. DesJardins personalized responsibility to future people by compelling us to consider individuals. He used the example of one’s future great-grandchildren to inspire empathy, as it is easy to identify with family. It is natural to assert that one values their family’s lives as much as their own and believes that their lineage deserves equal treatment and opportunity for good health and living conditions. DesJardins cited philosopher Brian Barry’s notion that providing equal opportunity to future generations requires equal allocation of resources, else compensation. “As far as natural resources are concerned, depletion should be compensated for in the sense that later generations should be left no worse off (in terms of productive capacity) than they would have been without the depletion” (DesJardins 82). Barry’s deontological theory of equal opportunity coincides with Williams’ utilitarian notion of maximum overall good.
Furthermore, determining our responsibility to future generations requires a historical analysis of human interaction with the ecosystem. We must incorporate a pragmatic approach in preparing for a sustainable future. As the saying goes, those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Historically, it is clear that we cannot rely on the capitalist institutions of the free market, which prioritize production and consumption at the cost of the ecological health. “Carbon Metabolism: Global Capitalism, Climate Change, and the Biospheric Rift,” an essay written by Brett Clark and Richard York, detailed the effects of a consumption driven market on society’s metabolism, recognized as the relationship between humans and nature. “Given the logic of capital and its drive for accumulation of capital, refinements in the operations of capitalism will not mend the metabolic rift. Thus, the transcendence of the growth driven, capitalist system is necessary if ecological sustainability is to be obtained” (Clark 397). Simply instituting environmental policies to preserve resources and reduce environmental impact will not result in sustainability; the reduction of human consumption requires reverence for the intrinsic value of the environment.
Similarly, DesJardins cited Mark Sagoff’s belief that environmental sustainability must be reached with a “value-based approach that emphasizes spiritual, aesthetic, and ethical values,” instead of viewing the environment solely as a resource for capital (DesJardins 90). Considering the world’s biosphere as a common inheritance implies total ownership of the land and only considers human interest. Likewise, environmental ethicist Aldo Leopold dictated that the ecosystem is an aspect of society and needs to be dealt with ethically in his essay, “The Land Ethic.” Leopold described the evolution of ethics as an incomplete three-part process. Ethics first dealt with the relationships between individuals, then analyzed the interactions of individuals with society. Desjardins incorporated these two approaches to ethics in his anthropocentric view of environmental sustainability as a responsibility to future generations. According to Leopold, the third stage in the development of ethics must assess mankind’s interaction with the ecosystem. Social ideologies must emphasize responsibility to the environment itself, intrinsic ecological values, and obligation to sacrifice, not simply preservation based on economic interest of mankind, present or future (Leopold).
In summation, DesJardins’ anthropogenic view of environmental ethics raises theoretical issues concerning both utilitarian and deontological approaches to resource conservation. We must try to preserve what resources we can and compensate for what we cannot. As DesJardins stated, it is our responsibility to future generations that we reduce our environmental impact and maintain resources. Because population growth is uninhibited, we are obligated to focus on decreasing consumption and advancing technology. It is indisputable that we live in a capitalist society that thrives off of growing production and consumption. A decrease in consumption will not occur solely through environmental policies established to combat capitalism’s negative impact on the ecosystem. As it is our responsibility to future generations to reduce our environmental impact and preserve resources, we are also obligated to develop reverence for the ecosystem in order to inspire conservation and lessen consumption. As Sagoff and Leopold stated, we cannot only view the environment as capital, we must value it as an aesthetic pillar of society. Only then will consumption be reduced in order to lessen our ecological impact. Our responsibility to future generations requires a pragmatic approach in planning for a sustainable future as well as developing reverence for the ecosystem, otherwise the reduction of human consumption is unattainable.
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