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Environmental Ethics: 1 Introduction

Author:  Image of S.M. JainS.M. Jain
Published: 12.02.2012


The term “Environment” has wide connotations numerous facets and ramifications. It implies not only physical or natural environment but also social environment of multitudinous relationships between individual human beings, families, societies and nations. Similar relationships exist between various life-forms among different species and species to species. There are interdependent interactions among all members including humans of biosphere which interact with constituents of physical environment. Both physical and social environments are interactive and influence to mould each other. The commonest example is of wars because of social tensions which influence very adversely the physical or natural environment. Likewise physical or natural environment influences and modifies behaviour patterns of individuals and social norms. Both are interdependent. Environment is composite, aggregate whole almost as if a single organism or a complete system, comprising infinite number of subsystems and their parts both animate and inanimate.

Man being at the top of pyramid in hierarchy of living beings has played maximum role in all aspects of environmental manifestations, affecting all other constituents, their systems, subsystems and parts. Initially man was influenced by physical environmental factors of climate, soil, water, air, place etc. and his behaviour as an individual or family, race, or nation and the various customs and cultures evolved accordingly. But with increasing exercise of his superior brain power the process reversed. The relationship between man and other life forms and also with inanimate physical constituents got changed from initially symbiotic to predatory. His approach, behaviour and interactions became more and more anthropocentric, arrogating to himself the exclusive rights to use, exploit all others for his own pleasures and increasing greed. The whole environment has been so much subjugated by man that it became just anthroposphere. The human brain power is increasing by leaps and bounds extending far beyond the earth planet into the infinite space-time-continuum of universe (cosmonautics) so much so that environment has become noosphere i.e. domain of human mind (the term coined by scientist V.I. Vernadsky). Excesses by mankind in overexploitation of environmental constituents are polluting and endangering not only the earth but outer space also.

Mankind itself has numerous social, political, economic, religious and racial micro-environments interacting with each other mutually beneficial if symbiotic and destructive (e.g. wars) if predatory, greedy and selfish. The various customs, beliefs, dogmas and superstitions have their deleterious impact not only on man but entire environment at macrolevels also. An individual’s behaviour is as conditioned by his family, social, racial, religious and national environment, the respective ethos, values beliefs, vices, rituals and practices. The physical environment climate and place also have significant impact. Ideally the interactions should be symbiotic for welfare of one and all and it is always so in the beginning in all systems and subsystems. But with increasing anthropocentric attitude mankind gradually became predatory initially against other life forms and physical constituents and subsequently amongst itself, man against man, family against family, race against race, nation against nation because it triggered individualism with inherent tendencies of greed and selfishness. Such predatory models have in-built mechanism for self-destruction. Even the primitive predator hunter man realised this and substituted the predatory occupation of hunting by symbiotic domestication of various animals which was good for both man as well as animals. Otherwise with extinction of prey (animals) man would have annihilated himself also. Environmental concept envisages symbiotic and rational behaviour in human beings.


The scenario as of now and evolving the same way, is dismal. The continuing degradation of environment and depletion of life-supporting natural resources by exploding population and its reckless consumerism are matters of serious concern. The air we breathe, water we drink and the soil which produce our food are getting more and more polluted. In many cities air has become so much polluted by vehicular and industrial emissions that people require masks and frequent oxygen intake. The water in most of rivers and other surface and underground water bodies is so dangerously polluted by industrial, household and other effluents that it is not even safe for bathing, much less for drinking. Technologies and processes which are very costly and not affordable by poor and developing nations are required to purify water for drinking and even for industrial and other household uses. Within last five decades the requirement of water has increased so much that its per capita availability is reduced to one third from 6000 cum to 2200 cum just little above critical limit of 1700 cum. Experts fear that if population and consumerism continue to rise there will be fierce wars for water in near future. Because of over exploitation of underground water the water table is receding fast and has gone down at many places from few metres to hundreds of metres. This has also increased the fluoride content in water at several places causing fluorosis. Even the largest water bodies, the seas surrounding the planet earth are getting polluted by oil spills and other wastes including the hazardous atomic waste. Because of pollution and over exploitation of various products from the sea, its fishes, corals, shells, minerals and others, this eco-system so important for climatic balance on earth is being damaged dangerously.

The health of the soil is getting more and more precarious being over exploited for feeding increasing number of mouths. Its natural productivity because of its multiple organic constituents, the numerous microorganisms have almost been decimated. The living soil has been turned into an inorganic machine requiring more and more doses of chemical fertilisers to produce same quantity and pesticides to protect monoculture crops from pests and these are poisoning the air, soil and water bodies more and more. The poisonous pesticides are getting into human system through food chain with biological magnification almost ten times more in quantity then in soil and it is increasing the incidence of various asthmatic, psychiatric, cardiac, other serious diseases and even cancer.

Forests, the important renewable natural resource are greatest casualty of galloping increase in population and consumerism. This has resulted in increasing erosion and consequent silting of important dams and rivers. In absence of forests, infiltration of rain water is reduced and run off increased and there are devastating floods during rains and the rivers are then dry for rest of the year. Every tree is a dam more efficient than concrete ones to conserve and store water. Forests work as sinks by absorbing obnoxious and polluting gases, convert them in useful products and purify the air. They ameliorate climate, regulate rainfall, protect from fury of devastating storms, provide a host of products to fulfil human needs. The erratic climatic changes, green house effects, widening ozone hole, melting of Arctic ice-caps (already more than 48%) and glaciers are all threatening our health and even survival. These renewable resources of nature rejuvenate if exploited within the carrying capacity but unfortunately forests are being exploited many times more.

Likewise non-renewable resources the various minerals most importantly the oil on which is based most of the economy and even agriculture all over the globe are being exploited so much that their known reserves may not last for over 200-300 years. Then the entire edifice of our civilisation will crumble down as the cracks are already visible. The present level of exploitation is so high that nothing will be left for future generations though it is the duty of every generation to pass on the treasures of nature for future generations as they got it. It is paradoxical rather oxymoron that on the one hand we love our future progenies and on the other hand we are accentuating the adverse conditions for them. The natural resources are finite and demands to satisfy increasing greed and consumerism of fast multiplying people are infinite. The mismatch between demand and carrying capacity of natural resources is increasing and is eating away the very resource base for all life-forms including humans.


Though we humans are biologically the best and highest evolved species at the top on biospheric pyramid, endowed with maximum size of brain and clinical power of reasoning and have made phenomenal advance in science and technology with formidable wealth of knowledge as never before yet our hedonist disposition with built-in mechanism for self-destruction brings us down to the level of a greatest fool of a parable who was cutting the same branch of the tree on which he was sitting and also like the greedy person in another popular story who butchered the hen which was laying one golden egg every day. Unfortunately the prevalent, recognised and established economic theories prescribe consumerism as an index of development. Nations, societies and people are considered developed and even more civilised on the basis of their scale of consumption. This has triggered mad race for more and more consumerism in tendentious pursuit of insatiable sensuous pleasures ignoring the fundamental principle of sustainability which has remained a mere slogan and has not been adopted in practice. It is simplest primary mathematics that more the consumption, more will be the pressure on renewable and non-renewable resources. Any development can be sustainable only if the consumption inter-alia exploitation of resources is limited to their carrying capacity and renewability. Otherwise any talk of sustainability is farcical.

Enlightened Personalities, Sects and Religions:

Fortunately there have been saner and enlightened people, saints, sages, avatars, buddhas, prophets, Tirthankaras in all ages at different places in all societies who have been cautioning against reckless consumerism for sensuous pleasures. They advocated rationality and advised concern, love and compassion for all living beings from minutest micro-organism to insects, birds, higher forms of animals including humans. They analysed the root causes triggering transgressions on nature. These are greed, ego, lust and infatuation for sensuous pleasures which have no limits or points of satiety as more they are provided for more they increase and continue to multiply ultimately eating away the very basic resources necessary for survival of all life forms including humans. They evolved and prescribed codes of conduct to keep wants of people minimum so that demands or pressure on resources remain within the carrying capacity and renewability of resources and such societies and people under their influence lived in harmony with ambient environment in a given situation. Such personalities lived exemplary life styles and followed themselves what they preached. The term religion or Dharma has been coined for such codes of conduct. All these were good and relevant in particular situations for particular periods of time at particular places but not for all the times and all the situations. The time, space, people and other parameters on their canvas was limited. The world was fragmented in sparsely spread, widely separated pockets under influences of different sects and religions.

In most of these religions aberrations and distortions crept in after the passing away of their founding fathers because of subjective and selfish interpretations of their preachings by their successors. The religions based on love and compassion for all got impregnated with arrogant and abhorrent variety of ill conceived superiority over other religions. This resulted in fierce competition for imposing one’s interpretations over others by enticements and brute force also and relative success of one over others was proportional to military and money power. There was spate of conversions and fierce battles. History is full of cruelties, mass massacres, slavery and exploitation in the name of religion. The obscurantism of by-gone medieval era is still persisting in some sects and their fanatics who hold the whole civilised society in ransom from time to time. Wars and conflicts in any form are far more destructive for environment than any other factor.


Whatever be the beliefs and perceptions of any individual, society or nation, there is unequivocal convergence that all need good air to breathe, unpolluted water to drink and healthy soil to produce healthy food. Gone are the days when pollution at one place did not have significant adverse effect on other place because it was very low in intensity. The degree of pollution now is so high that it is affecting everyone, everywhere. The clouds carrying acid rains because of industrial pollutants from any country can drift and harm anywhere. The widening ozone hole, thinning of icecaps, greenhouse effects, poisonous pesticides are harming all and all over. The ideological pollution of minds manifest in consumerism and hedonism is spreading fast even in hitherto conservative societies because of modern telecommunication networks which have shrunk the world in almost one compact village. This has necessitated convergence of some basic perceptions, concepts and commensurate minimum ethical code of conduct in respect of environmental protection. Every individual young or old, group of people, societies, nations big or small, high or low, rich or poor, educated or illiterate, strong or weak, are responsible for environmental degradation. It should therefore, be not only necessary but mandatory for all to follow the fundamental principles for environmental restoration and sustainable maintenance.

Mankind must learn, understand, imbibe and follow the principle and rules of mutualism or symbiosis as it has to live in harmony for mutual benefits with all other constituents of environment, animate and inanimate. While it is important to educate people about environment it has to be followed by required measures voluntary or by law. The persuasive measures of educating people, motivating them by creating awareness have not succeeded to the extent necessary in the fast deteriorating scenario. The belief that people will voluntarily adopt and modify life styles for the sake of environment has been belied as manifest in even simple examples. People for instant selfish objective do not follow traffic rules, voluntarily though for their own safety and even if they are well aware and educated and so punitive measures are necessary. Regarding impact of education no one knows better about the importance of forests than a trained educated forest officer but he too indulges in destruction of forests for his own greed. So is the case of a engineer who knows best about quality and proportion of materials to be used, but ignores everything for his vested self interest. Pharmacists are making fake drugs. Even scientists sell technologies to dangerous terrorists. The persons responsible and trained to check crimes are partners of criminals. Judges too are selling judgements. The malaise of selfishness for one’s sensuous pleasures is so rampant that some element of compulsion, effective enforcement and exemplary punishment is necessary so that all people, all over abide by basic ethical code for environmental safety as bitter pills and operations (cutting away of bad parts, organs) are also necessary to cure ailments. The malignant belligerent cancer cells have to be destroyed.

There are instances that persons brought up in a very good family environment free of vices of smoking, wine and other narcotic drugs, when in professional colleges and subsequently in professional services fall prey to vices because of the prevailing environment there. People in India spit pan (betel leaf) and tobacco and spoil roads, hospitals, public latrines, offices, class rooms but they do not do so in Singapore or other countries where there is stringent enforcement of laws and rules. The same doctors, engineers and other professionals, irresponsible and corrupt in India work efficiently, honestly and shine in other countries. Stringent laws and effective implementation is necessary. Education though fundamental to create awareness, it alone does not work unless concepts are assimilated and translated into action. The environmental ethical code must be enforced uniformly the world over without any distinction or exception for any nation, religion or race lest it is too late to save mankind and all life forms, from catastrophic doom and eventual extinction. The principle of individual liberty in vogue and being advocated more and more should conform to welfare of others also. Individual rights and responsibilities need to be integrated.

Environmental Ethics:

The various aspects of environmental ethics have now been scientifically rationalised. The symbiotic, integrated and interdependent complex matrix of environment has been scientifically studied and documented. There have been numerous conferences, symposia and seminars in various fora from local, regional, national to international levels involving people from grass root levels to highest and powerful heads of all nations of world (Earth Summits). Much have been talked about and agreed. There are resolutions galore and even stringent laws but without significant impact. There is no further need for verbose deliberations. It is now time to act in the fast evolving do or die situation. It is high time that human kind finally decide to enact comprehensive code of appropriate behaviour towards environment i.e. environmental ethics. There are various concepts of environmental ethics from shallow to deeper, from anthropocentric to eco-centric and in between intermediate ones. In 1980 Singer stressed animal rights. Regan in 1987 limited it to mammals only. Baxi in 1992 evolved the term deeper environmental ethics which stress on rights of all natural entities, humans, animals, plants and inanimate objects, hills, water bodies, atmosphere lithosphere etc. The shallow and intermediate concepts are not relevant anymore. The holistic deeper eco-centric environmental ethics only is relevant now for the very basic instinct of survival and survive we must. Survival means survival of not only present generation but of infinite future generations too. If we continue to exhaust and pollute natural resources as of now the lives of future generations will not only be miserable but their survival may be at stake. No living being lest the human beings intend ill for its future progenies. To make life better and worth living for present and future generations a minimum ethical code for good environment is essential. The apex organisation the United Nations should be empowered with adequate means educative, legal and even punitive. The necessary steps, without variants whatsoever, should be taken up urgently and pursued vigorously all over and by everyone irrespective of caste, creed, race, nation or place voluntarily and compulsorily, if need be.

Environmental Ethics
Prakrit Bharati Academy, Jaipur
Society for Scientific & Ethical Living, Jaipur
1st edition 2006
HN4U Online edition:
Dr. Rudi Jansma


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  1. Brain
  2. Consumerism
  3. Dharma
  4. Environment
  5. Environmental Ethics
  6. Fear
  7. Greed
  8. Microorganisms
  9. Science
  10. Singapore
  11. Space
  12. Sustainability
  13. Tirthankaras
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