Chapter 1: Introduction to Environmental Issues

1.4 Environmental Ethics and Worldviews

The ways in which humans interact with the earth and its resources are determined by ethical attitudes and behaviours that are embodied in each individual’s worldview. A worldview is a particular philosophy or conception of the world according to Oxford Languages.

Three main environmental worldviews are often identified in western-based teachings of environmental ethics. The table below identifies these worldviews and the core beliefs underpinning them:

Planetary Management Stewardship Environmental Wisdom
  • Humans are separate from nature, and can manage the earth to meet meet our needs and wants as they increase.


  • If resources run out in one area, more can be found elsewhere, or alternatively, human ingenuity will find substitutes.


  • The potential for economic growth, based on resource-use, is unlimited.


  • Our success depends on how well we manage the earth for our benefit.
  • Humans have a responsibility to be caring stewards of the earth.


  • We will probably not run out of resources, but we shouldn’t waste them.


  • We should encourage environmentally-beneficial forms of economic growth and discourage harmful forms.


  • Our success depends on how well we manage the earth’s life support systems for our benefit and also the rest of the nature.
  • We are a part of the natural environment and we suffer when the health of a natural ecosystem is impaired. All species deserve to exist and are valuable in their own right.


  • Resources are limited and we shouldn’t waste them.


  • Human activities that may adversely affect the natural community should be stopped or limited, and beneficial activities should be encouraged or mandated.


  • Our success depends on learning how nature sustains itself and integrating such knowledge into the ways we think and act.

Figure 1. shows the core beliefs of three different worldviews, adapted from Living in the Environment by Miller, Hackett and Wolfe.

These worldviews constitute a spectrum of ethics and behaviours that, moving from left to right, range from more self-centred/human-centred/anthropocentric ethics, out towards biosphere or earth-centred (biocentric) ethics.

Most industrialized societies experience population and economic growth that are based upon the planetary management worldview, assuming that infinite resources exist to support continued growth indefinitely. In fact, in these societies, economic growth is considered a measure of how well the society is doing. The late economist Julian Simon pointed out that life on earth has never been better, and that population growth means more creative minds to solve future problems and give us an even better standard of living. While this is true in many respects, now that the human population has passed seven billion and many key resources and ecosystems are being depleted, many are beginning to question the planetary management worldview. Such people are moving towards stewardship and/or environmental wisdom (sometimes called “earth-centred” or “deep ecology”) worldviews.

Sustainable Ethic

sustainable ethic is an environmental ethic by which people treat the earth as if its resources are limited. This ethic underpins the stewardship and environmental wisdom worldviews, and assumes that the earth’s resources are not unlimited and that humans must use and conserve resources in a manner that allows their continued use in the future. A sustainable ethic also assumes that humans are a part of the natural environment and that we suffer when the health of a natural ecosystem is impaired. A sustainable ethic includes the following tenets:

  • The earth has a limited supply of resources.
  • Humans must conserve resources.
  • Humans share the earth’s resources with other living things.
  • Indefinite growth that relies on resource extraction is not sustainable.
  • Humans are a part of nature.
  • Humans are affected by natural laws.
  • Humans succeed best when they maintain the integrity of natural processes and cooperate with nature.

For example, if a fuel shortage occurs, how can the problem be solved in a way that is consistent with a sustainable ethic? The solutions might include finding new ways to conserve oil or developing renewable energy alternatives. A sustainable ethic attitude in the face of such a problem would be that if drilling for oil damages the ecosystem, then that damage will affect the human population as well. A sustainable ethic can be either anthropocentric or biocentric (life-centered). An advocate for conserving oil resources may consider all oil resources as the property of humans. Using oil resources wisely so that future generations have access to them is an attitude consistent with an anthropocentric ethic. Using resources wisely to prevent ecological damage is in accord with a biocentric ethic. An individual likely has both anthropocentric and biocentric motives underpinning their personal ethics.

Land Ethic

Aldo Leopold, an American wildlife natural historian and philosopher, advocated a biocentric ethic in his book, A Sand County Almanac. He suggested that humans had always considered land as property, just as ancient Greeks considered slaves as property. He believed that mistreatment of land (or of slaves) makes little economic or moral sense, much as today the concept of slavery is considered immoral. All humans are merely one component of an ethical framework. Leopold suggested that land be included in an ethical framework, calling this the land ethic.

“The land ethic simply enlarges the boundary of the community to include soils, waters, plants and animals; or collectively, the land. In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow members, and also respect for the community as such.” (Aldo Leopold, 1949).

Leopold divided conservationists into two groups: one group that regards the soil as a commodity and the other that regards the land as the animal and plant life of that particular region or habitat (also known as “biota”), with a broad interpretation of its function. If we apply this idea to the field of forestry, the first group of conservationists would grow trees like cabbages, while the second group would strive to maintain a natural ecosystem. Leopold maintained that the conservation movement must be based upon more than just economic necessity. Species with no discernible economic value to humans may be an integral part of a functioning ecosystem. The land ethic respects all parts of the natural world regardless of their utility, and decisions based upon that ethic result in more stable biological communities.

“Anything is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends to do otherwise.” (Aldo Leopold, 1949)

Leopold had two interpretations of an ethic: ecologically, it limits freedom of action in the struggle for existence; while philosophically, it differentiates social from anti-social conduct. An ethic results in cooperation, and Leopold maintained that cooperation should include the land.

Hetch Hetchy Valley

In 1913, the Hetch Hetchy Valley — located in Yosemite National Park in California — was the site of a conflict between two factions, one with an anthropocentric ethic and the other, a biocentric ethic. As the last territories of the continent were colonized, the rate of forest destruction started to concern the public.

Figure 2. Yosemite valley, California, USA.

The conservation movement gained momentum, but quickly broke into two factions. One faction, led by Gifford Pinchot, Chief Forester under Teddy Roosevelt, advocated utilitarian conservation (i.e., conservation of resources for the good of the public). The other faction, led by John Muir, advocated preservation of forests and other wilderness for their inherent value. Both groups rejected the first tenet of frontier ethics, the assumption that resources are limitless. However, the conservationists agreed with the rest of the tenets of frontier ethics, while the preservationists agreed with the tenets of the sustainable ethic.

The Hetch Hetchy Valley was part of a protected National Park, but after the devastating fires of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, residents of San Francisco wanted to dam the valley to provide their city with a stable supply of water. Gifford Pinchot favored the dam.

“As to my attitude regarding the proposed use of Hetch Hetchy by the city of San Francisco…I am fully persuaded that… the injury…by substituting a lake for the present swampy floor of the valley…is altogether unimportant compared with the benefits to be derived from it’s use as a reservoir.

“The fundamental principle of the whole conservation policy is that of use, to take every part of the land and its resources and put it to that use in which it will serve the most people.” (Gifford Pinchot, 1913)

John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club and a great lover of wilderness, led the fight against the dam. He saw wilderness as having an intrinsic value, separate from its utilitarian value to people. He advocated preservation of wild places for their inherent beauty and for the sake of the creatures that live there. The issue aroused the American public, who were becoming increasingly alarmed at the growth of cities and the destruction of the landscape for the sake of commercial enterprises. Key senators received thousands of letters of protest.

“These temple destroyers, devotees of ravaging commercialism, seem to have a perfect contempt for Nature, and instead of lifting their eyes to the God of the Mountains, lift them to the Almighty Dollar.” (John Muir, 1912)

Despite public protest, Congress voted to dam the valley. The preservationists lost the fight for the Hetch Hetchy Valley, but their questioning of traditional American values had some lasting effects. In 1916, Congress passed the “National Park System Organic Act,” which declared that parks were to be maintained in a manner that left them unimpaired for future generations. As we use our public lands, we continue to debate whether we should be guided by preservationism or conservationism.

The Tragedy of the Commons

In his essay, The Tragedy of the Commons, Garrett Hardin (1968) looked at what happens when humans do not limit their actions by including the land as part of their ethic. The tragedy of the commons develops in the following way: Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each shepherd will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. Such an arrangement may work satisfactorily for centuries, because tribal wars, poaching and disease keep the numbers of both human and beast well below the carrying capacity of the land. Finally, however, comes the day of reckoning (i.e., the day when the long-desired goal of social stability becomes a reality). At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy.

As a rational being, each shepherd seeks to maximize their gain. Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously, they ask: “What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?” This utility has both negative and positive components. The positive component is a function of the increment of one animal. Since the shepherd receives all the proceeds from the sale of the additional animal, the positive utility is nearly +1. The negative component is a function of the additional overgrazing created by one more animal. However, as the effects of overgrazing are shared by all of the shepherds, the negative utility for any particular decision-making shepherd is only a fraction of -1.

The sum of the utilities leads the rational shepherd to conclude that the only sensible course for them to pursue is to add another animal to their herd, and then another, and so forth. However, this same conclusion is reached by each and every rational shepherd sharing the commons. Therein lies the tragedy: each person is locked into a system that compels them to increase their herd, without limit, in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all people rush, each pursuing their own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in the commons brings ruin to all.

Hardin went on to apply the situation to modern commons. The public must deal with the overgrazing of public lands, the overuse of public forests and parks, the depletion of fish populations in the ocean etc. Ideally, individuals and companies should be restricted from using a river as a common dumping ground for sewage or from fouling the air with pollution. Hardin also strongly recommended restraining population growth.

The “Tragedy of the Commons” is applicable to the environmental problem of climate change. The atmosphere is certainly a commons into which many countries (and the individuals that live in them) are dumping excess carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels. Although we know that the generation of greenhouse gases will have damaging effects upon the entire globe, we continue to burn fossil fuels. As a country, the immediate benefit from the continued use of fossil fuels is seen as a positive component. All countries, however, will share the negative long-term effects.


Essentials of Environmental Science by Kamala Doršner is licensed under CC BY 4.0. Modified from the original.


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Environmental Issues Copyright © 2019 by Andrew Frank is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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