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Life on earth has evolved and exists in ecosystems. Healthy ecosystems are the prerequisites for the continuation of life on earth as we know it.

Traditional ethics focus on one form of life among millions: Homo sapiens. To meet the unparalleled challenges confronting modern humanity, we need a new ethical construct , a concept that extends beyond the narrow world we have built for our own immediate ends.

Ethics in religion and philosophy*

Ethics has been a major concern of religious people and philosophers for many centuries. Both have invested immense efforts in the examination and interpretation of human behavior, and they must be accorded great merit for developing the concepts and ideals of ethics that we have today.

Theologians and philosophers have used the term ethics practically synonymously with the term morals. Both terms refer to human behavior held to be standard for the majority of a given people. The standard reflects what is right or wrong, good or bad in inter-human relationships. Theological considerations are based on the authority of revelation, philosophical considerations on the authority of reason. One leading school of philosophers has analyzed and formulated normative criteria for developing ethical concepts and rules; another, ethical principles and methods of formulating moral judgment of what is good or bad. Most theologians and philosophers assume that standards of global dimensions can be developed. However, certain traits of ethics have strong local roots (situation ethics), as do the people who created them. Global standards should formulate basic principles, but leave space for religious and cultural variation. Some people insist that what they have regularly practiced successfully over long stretches of time is right and good, and hence moral. Can we accept different ethical standards? Why not, as long as they respect human dignity, rights and freedoms as defined by the United Nations. Ethics will always contain subjective components; it should remain open to debate and be subject to change with time - as everything else.

Being believers, religious people side with supernatural phenomena. Their God makes the decisions and formulates the rules. Believers are allowed to interpret the decisions and to discuss the rules, but not to disobey them. Philosophers have developed complicated, partially contradictory, systems and terms. They concentrate on theory and side with rational argumentation. The world of theologians consists mainly of extrapolations of their beliefs; the world of philosophers, of extrapolations of their thinkings.

Both theologians and philosophers have created anthropocentric and geocentric models of the world - models with insufficient relevance to the realities around us. Homo sapiens is not the center of the earth, and the earth is not the center of the universe. H. sapiens is one species among millions and part of the life process - just as a dolphin, a mouse or a virus. Earth is a planet among billions in our galaxy, and there are billions of such galaxies.

Ethics in ecology: eco-ethics*

Life on earth evolved over billions of years firmly integrated within the dynamics of ecosystems. No species, not even Homo sapiens, can live by itself. Ecosystems consist of non-living and living components. These connect in diverse, mostly complex ways. The living components react with and against each other, they utilize each other as sources of energy and matter, and they interact with, and modify, their non-living environments. Such are the basic realities of life on earth as we ecologists can grasp them. Principal elements of evolution, these realities provide the life process with drive and direction. What is good here, what bad? There are no such things in nature's original plan.

Life unfolds under the harsh grip of ecosystem laws: (1) Ruthless competition, exploitation and maximization of selfish advantages; transformation of foreign materials into own materials. (2) Integration into the patterns of flowing energy and recirculating matter. (3) Maturation with time; diversification, self-regulation and building up of interspecific ties. (4) Merciless punishment of law breakers. This is the ancient world in which Homo sapiens was born, in which our species lived 99% of its time, and in which all its essential structures and functions formed. In each of our billions of cells we still carry the genetic programs devised for ecosystem members, for our ecosystem past.

What went wrong? Never before has a form of life disregarded ecosystem health as much as modern humankind. Never before has a single species changed Planet Earth so ruthlessly and relentlessly and attained an ecological dominance of such outrageous dimensions. And never before has the discrepancy been so large between what we are doing and what we ought to be doing. In order to meet the extraordinary challenges modern humanity faces, we must enlarge the traditional concept of ethics to embrace not only Homo sapiens, but also environments and other forms of life. The word proposed for this enlarged concept is 'eco-ethics', i.e. human thought and conduct oriented to what is right or wrong, beneficial or destructive for the total system 'Homo sapiens plus nature'.

Our dilemma is this: we were born in, and built for, a world from which we have, to a considerable extent, escaped. In this sense, we are runaways and law breakers who have become experts in bending or evading nature's rules for our own ends, and masters at replacing patterns of coexistence with patterns of dominance. We will be punished severely unless we establish a new balance between our modern ways and those of our ecosystem's past unless we re-establish compatibility between nature's metabolic patterns and those of the human population. This is the first thesis of eco-ethics.

'Environmental protection', as presently practiced, is a misleading and dangerous concept. Why? Because it seeks primarily to protect the environment of nature's worst enemy. The result? Additional support for the already towering human dominance. We need a new concept of environmental protection. It must also strive to protect the environments of our fellow creatures. They cannot speak out for themselves. We must act on their behalf according to the best of our knowledge. Our societies and educational systems have to take this into account. They must obtain and teach ecological knowledge and ecological thinking. And they must insist on accepting human responsibility for other ecosystem components. This is the second thesis of eco-ethics.

Survival in our new world requires control of the animal in us. We cannot break ecosystem laws without devising new rules, designed to tame our ancient urges, desires and instincts. Based on nature's grand designs, we need to develop and to enforce new values, such as self-restriction, modesty, responsibility, honesty; to formulate aims, such as peace, freedom, dignity, justice, human rights; to further ideals, such as virtue, altruism, help, love. Here extends ground common with moral theology and moral philosophy. This is the third thesis of eco-ethics.

Nature evolves through harsh conflicts. Human societies must avoid harsh conflicts. To keep our complex societies intact requires the wisdom of conflict reduction and the will to reconcile economy and ecology. Both are different sides of one coin (see below), and both must be measured against moral principles. In order to achieve that, we have to define what is beneficial, good, and what is detrimental, bad, for the development of our economic systems and for their ecological fundaments. And we have to decide how we can best enhance such good and reduce such bad. This is the fourth thesis of eco-ethics.

In a human world of wars, hunger, poverty, disease and misery for millions of people, is there enough will-power, time and energy for responding to the challenges outlined above? If the answer is 'no', Homo sapiens will disappear from the stage of life in the not-too-distant future. This is the fifth thesis of eco-ethics.

Originally foreign to life on earth, ethics - and especially eco-ethics - has become the most important single prerequisite for protecting life on earth from the ecosystem runaway Homo sapiens, for maximizing the life span of our species, and for avoiding a catastrophe of gigantic dimensions.

More about economy and ecology

In the fourth thesis of eco-ethics it was stated that economy and ecology are different sides of one coin. Here we elaborate on the differences.

Economy refers to activities of a single species, Homo sapiens. Human economies strive to maximize the use of nature's resources for selfish ends. In the long run, they tend to endanger or even disrupt natural harmony.

Ecology refers to the interrelated activities of many different species co-existing in ecosystems. Such systems balance out individual egotisms and promote overall harmony.

The working principles of economies are linear. They involve production processes that begin at a natural source but end in materials more or less foreign to nature. Economies remove or isolate resources from ecosystems and transform them into products for human use. The transformations require much energy and they result in much trash. Economies sell their products to customers who - in the end - also transform the products into trash: A gigantic and still growing process of one-sided, unidirectional degradation. Ultimately, such working principles lead to impairments of nature's capacity to support life.

The working principles of ecosystems are cyclic. Ecosystems do not remove or isolate resources, nor do they transform these into materials foreign to nature. They transform old resources into new resources, using naturally available energy: a network of multi-sided processes that support life and provide it with evolutionary power.

What are the consequences for eco-ethics?

(1) We must, as much as possible, re-harmonize our human world with the world around us and reduce our detrimental impacts on nature. (2) We must increasingly replace linear resource degradation by cyclic resource re-utilization. (3) We must learn more about the working principles of ecosystems and use the insight gained for reconstructing our economies and societies accordingly. (4) The number of people on earth and their per capita use of energy and matter must be reduced in accordance with the carrying capacities of ecosystems. This complex task must be handled primarily by governmental and intergovernmental bodies. Global application of eco-ethics concepts and theses by EEIU members will provide support and additional thrust to these vital issues.

Eco-ethics can achieve the necessary changes neither overnight nor easily. Time and political will are needed for developing and implementing new concepts, laws and technologies. But, we must begin to act. NOW!

Economies cannot be successful with-out ethics. Economical Ethics means, first of all, restraint in exploiting nature, re-integration, and respect for healthy ecosystems.

If we succeed in approaching the aims outlined, we shall be able to satisfy all our essential requirements and lead a pleasant life, without critically deforming nature and without diminishing the chances for future generations.

* Based on O. Kinne, Editorial: Ethics and eco-ethics, Marine Ecology Progress Series 153:1-3, 1997. See also Further developed concept

This page was last updated on 10 May 2001.

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