The United States Government Environmental Ethic Essay Sample
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The United States Government Environmental Ethic Essay Sample
Environmental ethics is the study of moral principles guiding how humans view and interact with the nonhuman natural world. An environmental ethic is critical to understanding how countries, especially those with large populations and high economic productivity such as the United States, value the environment. The manner in which a country like the United States values the environment can significantly affect its influence on the natural world, either positively or negatively. To identify a nation’s environmental ethic, key concepts in environmental ethics must first be understood to facilitate an analysis of its national policies and environmental agency strategic plans. As evidenced and defined through its national policies and environmental agencies’ mission statements and strategic goals, the United States adheres to an anthropocentric environmental ethic, although mostly holistic in nature, to value and manage its natural resources primarily for the benefit of its citizens.
An ethic can be considered as a defining set of moral principles that guides actions of people or groups, predominantly to define what is right or acceptable within a society (Stevenson & Lindberg, 2010). Environmental ethics is the study of moral principles concerning how humans view and interact with the nonhuman natural world (Palmer, 1994/2012). Principles defining how humans interact with nature, such as in Immanuel Kant’s
Rational beings Alone Have Moral Worth, have existed throughout history and environmental ethics as a formal discipline began about the time of John Passmore’s Man’s Responsibility for Nature, published in 1974 (Palmer, 1994/2012). Since 1974, environmental ethics has evolved into an important academic field of study helping to understand the role humans play within the environment and the philosophy behind human/nature interactions.
Although important on a small-scale, environmental ethics in relation to large populations is critical as these large-scale populations have the ability to significantly affect the natural world, both positively and negatively. The United States (US) possesses the third highest population of all countries on Earth, over 316 million people (United States Census Bureau, 2013), as well as the second highest Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the world, over fifteen trillion dollars, just behind the conglomeration of twenty-seven countries known as the European Union, and as such can be considered the most economically dominant country in the world (Central Intelligence Agency, 2013). Although the US population is third largest of all countries, it only accounts for 4.5% of the total world population, but yet consumes 33% of all the Earth’s natural resources, 25% of all nonrenewable energy, and produces 33% of all pollution (Pojman & Pojman, 2012).
This immensity has global implications and understanding the environmental ethic of such a large and influential population can be important to understanding human impacts on the entire natural world. As evidenced and defined through its national policies and environmental agencies’ mission statements and strategic goals, the United States adheres to an anthropocentric environmental ethic, although mostly holistic in nature, to value and manage its natural resources primarily for the benefit of its citizens. In order to understand, prove, and clarify this hypothesis, this paper will provide a background of environmental ethics, a synopsis of US environmental agencies, and through a review and analysis of US environmental policy and environmental agency mission statements and strategic goals to identify the US government’s environmental ethic.
For an identification and full understanding of the US government’s environmental ethic, this paper will provide a brief summary of environmental ethics, as well as a background of several US environmental agencies. Understanding concepts behind environmental ethics can help us recognize ideologies present within US policy and environmental agency guidance documents. Since the US government addresses the environment using several different agencies, we must look at these agencies individually to help us understand the overall US environmental ethic.
As can be imagined, there are several ways to view the role of humans in the natural environment and consequently there are several differing philosophies as to what should be provided value and why. Environmental ethics is primarily a system to understand the value of nature, the origins this value, and the location of where this value exists (Palmer, 1994/2012). Nature’s value is commonly referred to as being instrumental or non-instrumental (Palmer, 1994/2012). Something is provided instrumental value if it is believed to be useful, examples being the valuing of wood for building homes, cows for the sustenance they provide, or water for its ability to power hydroelectric turbines (Palmer, 1994/2012). All are provided value because they are useful to humans; they are “a means to an end” (Palmer, 1994/2012). Non-instrumental value, frequently called intrinsic value, is provided to something because it is valuable all by itself (Palmer, 1994/2012). In addition to the types of intrinsic value assigned, the location of this
value must also be considered (Palmer, 1994/2012). Humans normally consider value from their viewpoint, such as does the natural world hold value because it is useful to the human species, instrumental value, or does it have value regardless of its usefulness, intrinsic value (Palmer, 1994/2012). Two schools of thought exist for the origins of intrinsic value, value subjectivist and value objectivists (Palmer, 1994/2012). Value subjectivists believe that humans assign intrinsic value, such as the beauty of a flower or the majesty of a mountain landscape, neither is useful to an end and both can be considered valuable based on their pleasantness as seen and assigned by humans (Palmer, 1994/2012).
Conversely, value objectivists prefer to believe that intrinsic value was present on Earth long before humans arrived, that humans do not assign value, they recognize value that is already present (Palmer, 1994/2012). The beautiful flower was beautiful and valuable to its ecosystem prior to the existence of humans and when humans appeared they only recognized its value (Palmer, 1994/2012). Values assigned and created by humans and centered on humans, or “Human-centered” environmental ethics, are called anthropocentric (Palmer, 1994/2012). Anthropogenic value is very similar to anthropocentric value; a belief that value is provided by humans, but it is not centered on humans (Ralston, 1998/2012). Anthropogenic value is applied to nature regardless of its usefulness to humans (Palmer, 1994/2012). Humans assign both anthropocentric and anthropogenic value, the difference is whether the value is considered useful to humans (Palmer, 1994/2012). Consider again the beautiful flower, beauty is an anthropogenic value because its color and geometry is assigned valued by humans and since this beauty is not particularly usefulness to humans, it is not considered anthropocentric. A third consideration is the location of value, specifically what has value or should be assigned value, such as do only humans have value, or all sentient beings, or maybe even entire ecosystems including their associated natural cycles and elements (Palmer,
1994/2012). This is a very controversial subject and several different philosophies exist for what should be assigned value. Now that we have covered basic considerations and terminology of environmental ethics, we can begin to look at three ethical approaches concerning the environment, namely the anthropocentric, biocentric, and holistic. An anthropocentric ethic believes that nature exists as a resource for humans and that components of the environment are valued for their instrumental value to humans, that is they are valued because they provide a means to an end (Palmer, 1994/2012). This does not mean that the ethic prescribes environmental destruction, just that it provides a reason to protect or preserve nature because it provides value to humans (Palmer, 1994/2012).
Anthropocentric ethics commonly call for sustainable development, or effectively managing resources for the future, namely the future well being of humans (Palmer, 1994/2012). Biocentric environmental ethics value all life and regard all life forms as having its own intrinsic worth (Taylor, 1981/2012). It is not centered on human life, but recognizes the human species’ moral obligation to maintain the integrity of all life forms, including but not exclusive to human life (Taylor, 1981/2012). Holistic environmental ethics takes it one step further and stresses the integrity and stability of ecological wholes, such as entire ecosystems (Palmer, 1994/2012). Holistic ethics tend to value all components of an ecosystem, to include its soil, water, plants, and natural processes, not just sentient beings (Palmer, 1994/2012). All components of an ecosystem are considered possessing intrinsic value, regardless of their relation to humans, and a view of ecological wholes as living organisms provides ethical considerations for the whole, overriding considerations for the individual (Palmer, 1994/2012). The few environmental ethics outlined in this paper are not allinclusive by any means, but provide a representative sampling put forth by ethicists. US Environmental Agencies
The US has a very robust system of environmental programs that are administered by several different governmental agencies. This paper will look at five of these agencies, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), United States Forest Service (USFS), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Although these five agencies cover a large portion of the environmental programs within the US, they are not all inclusive. The scope of each individual agency is roughly centered on different portions of the environment, such as wildlife and aquatic organisms, forests, lands, the atmosphere, and oceans. The EPA is the primary agency of US environmental protection and sets regulatory standards that can overlap the boundaries of other agencies. A brief timeline of these organizations can reveal how environmental ethics has evolved within the US. Many US environmental agencies were primarily concerned with resource management or commerce in their early beginnings.
The USFS was created in 1905 as part of the US Department of Agriculture, primarily to provide the nation water and timber (USFS, 2009). The BLM was created in 1946 from two other agencies, the General Land Office and the US Grazing Service, primarily concerned with land management and the livestock industry (BLM, 2012b). Established in 1940, the USFWS traces its heritage to the US Fish Commission, concerned with the sustainment of an important national food source (USFWS, 2000). The NOAA was established in 1970 and evolved out of the US Coast and Geodetic Survey of 1807, Weather Bureau of 1870, and Bureau of Commercial Fisheries of 1871 (NOAA, 2006). As awareness of environmental ethics evolved over time, these agencies began to protect and conserve the portions of the environment that they had responsibility for. Finally, after signing the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA), President Richard Nixon established the EPA on December 2, 1970 (EPA, 2012a). As concern for the environment mounted, the focus of US environmental agencies transitioned from primarily resource management to conserving and protecting the environment, in addition to managing US natural resources.
An evaluation of its policies and environmental agency guidance documents will help identify the environmental ethic for the United States. These policies and statements of mission can be very telling about the overall ethic and environmental value system in the US government. Although not specifically covered in this paper, changes to these policies and documents over time can also reveal the evolution of the US environmental ethic. US Environmental Policy
A key document defining the US government’s environmental policy is the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) (United States Senate, 2000). This Act provides three declarations, each of them centered on the welfare and development of man through restoring and maintaining environmental quality, specifically to ensure man and nature exits in “productive harmony” and to ensure the “social, economical” requirements of American citizens (USS, 2000). These statements are a direct declaration of national environmental policy and specifically display this Act’s valuing of nature as a resource to be maintained and preserved for human use (USS, 2000).
This type of valuing is anthropocentric, centered on man, and values the instrumental benefits of nature, or useful towards human objectives (Palmer, 1994/2012). Another key US policy is its Federal Water Pollution Control Act (FWPCA), a congressional Act specifically addressing restoration and maintenance of US waters (USS, 2002). The FWPCA declares three goals to administer an effective water pollution control program: protecting and propagating fish, aquatic life, and wildlife; ensure human recreation; and to ensure integrity of human water supplies, agriculture, and industry (USS, 2002). Although this Act does provide one goal towards protecting aquatic life and wildlife, the final two goals are centered on human needs and desires (USS. 2002).
The majority of this Act’s goals strongly suggest it is primarily anthropocentric and values the benefits of clean water as instrumental. A third US policy, the Clean Air Act, provides the US policy towards preventing air pollution (USS, 2004). The main purpose of this act is to protect and enhance US “air resources” to promote the “health and welfare” of its citizens, a clearly anthropocentric ethic that values air for its instrumental value (USS, 2004). These policies provide evidence of the predominantly anthropocentric ethic of the US, but further analysis of US environmental agencies can provide evidence to clarify these ethics.
US Environmental Agency Mission Statements and Strategic Goals To support US national environmental policy, the five environmental agencies highlighted in this paper have developed mission statements and strategic goals that guide their organizations and declare their value systems. The EPA mission statement specifically outlines a dual mission, to limit risks to human health and to protect the environment (EPA, 2012b). This statement is particularly telling of its environmental ethic; specifically addressing the importance (value) of protecting the environment for “natural resources, human health, economic growth, energy, transportation, agriculture, industry, and international trade” and ensuring diversity, sustainability, and economic productivity of communities and ecosystems (EPA, 2012b).
In addition, the EPA’s Fiscal Year 2011-2015 Strategic Plan outlines five strategic goals; “Taking Action on Climate Change and Improving Air Quality”, “Protecting America’s Waters”, “Cleaning Up Communities and Advancing Sustainable Development”, “Ensuring the Safety of Chemicals and Preventing Pollution”, and “Enforcing Environmental Laws” (EPA, 2010). The EPA’s last three goals concern direct human benefit or enforcement of environmental law (EPA, 2010). The first two goals specifically address air and water quality and their importance, as prescribed by the EPA, relates to how the EPA values them (EPA, 2010). Goal number one, “Taking action against climate change and improving air quality”, is important to the EPA because they believe climate change risks human health, cultural resources, economies, and quality of life (EPA, 2010). The EPA also believes that air quality objectives are for achieving and maintaining air pollution standards in order to protect human health (EPA, 2010).
Goal two, “protecting America’s waters”, provides two objectives; protect human health and protect and restore watersheds and ecosystems (EPA, 2010). Although the EPA considers watersheds and ecosystems in its goal, it values protecting them because they are important resources for communities and aquatic ecosystems are able to sustain flora and fauna, and, subsequently, sustain human economy, recreational, and subsistence (EPA, 2010). Both the EPA’s mission statement and strategic goals provide its anthropocentric ethics, primarily being concerned with the instrumental value of nature to protect and maintain human health and communities. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) defines its mission as to “conserve, protect, and enhance” the natural resources under their control to benefit American citizens (Clark, 1999).
Importantly, the Director of the USFWS believes this to be important because American citizens are the ones who establish authority and appropriate funds for the USFWS (Clark, 1999). This mission statement ties the services of the USFWS directly to benefiting humans, especially the ones who pay USFWS bills (Clark, 1999). Furthermore, the USFWS Strategic Plan advances four strategic goals; to sustain fish and wildlife, conserve habitat, ensure public use and enjoyment, and partner with local and state governments (USFWS, 2000). This strategic plan prominently acknowledges the value of ecosystems, but the USFWS believes ecosystem conservation is a right of future American generations and are valuable for their benefits to the “health and safety” of both humans and wildlife (2000).
The plan also states that Americans believe habitat should be protected for future human generations (USFWS, 2000). Particularly telling is a graphic provided in the strategic plan that correlates strategic goals with USFWS customers, even though ecosystem conservation is conducted, the USWS plans solely for the benefit of its human customers (2000). As clearly stated in their mission statement and further defined in their strategic plan, the USFWS values nature for its instrumental worth and prescribes to an anthropocentric environmental ethic, centering on its human customers.
The United States Forest Service (USFS) declares their mission is to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of US forests and grasslands to meet the needs of American citizens (USFS, 2008). Interestingly enough, the USFS is the only US environmental agency that specifically mentions beauty in relation to its preservation mission and not just hard resources (USFS, 2008). The USFS Strategic Plan sets forth seven strategic goals: to restore, sustain, and enhance US forests and grasslands; provide and sustain benefits for American’s; conserve open space; sustain and enhance recreation; maintain management capabilities; include Americans in forest service programs; and provide the scientific tools for sustainable natural resource management (USFS, 2007). They also outline why they believe ecosystems to be important; to provide goods and services such as food, wood products, purification of air and water, regulate climate and floods, biodiversity, and aesthetics (USFS, 2007). Since both the USFS’ mission and goals are centered on providing resources specifically for the needs of US citizens, their ethic is anthropocentric, with natural resources being valued for their instrumental value to humans.
The next agency to be assessed is the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). This agency clearly establishes its environmental ethic in its mission statement, sustaining US lands for the “use and enjoyment” of US citizens (BLM, 2012a). The BLM draws its objectives and strategic goals from within the US Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 (BLM, 2012a). This Act requires public lands, which, incidentally, represent 245 million acres of US land, to be managed for an energy resource, grazing, recreation, and timber harvesting (BLM, 2012a). These mandated land management considerations all represent benefits centered on humans and reveal the BLM environmental ethic as anthropocentric, with an instrumental valuing of the environment.
Finally, we look at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The mission of this agency is to understand changes in climate, weather, oceans, and coasts; share their knowledge; and conserve and manage marine ecosystems and resources (NOAA, 2010). In their explanation of this mission, the NOAA identifies the value of maintaining natural ecosystems as “human health, prosperity, and well-being” depend on them (NOAA, 2010). They further clarify their future mission by recognizing the importance of preserving future human economies; defending human populations from pollution, improving human safety and security, and ensuring preservation of ecosystems that human communities and economies rely on (NOAA, 2010).
The NOAA strategic plan links human health and human economy to the health of the environment and therefore values the environment based on its ability to provide a healthy environment for humans and natural resources that build human economies (NOAA, 2010). Jane Lubchenco, NOAA Administrator, defines the primary objectives of the NOAA as advancing US society, improving human welfare, and sustaining ecosystems that humans depend on (NOAA, 2010). Although the NOAA values ecosystems greatly, they believe this value resides in their ability to advance and benefit humans, and as a result are instrumental values based on an anthropocentric environmental ethic (NOAA, 2010).
All US policies and environmental agencies analyzed in this paper reveal a predominant US anthropocentric environmental ethic and a belief that the environment should be valued for its instrumental value. Many of these policies and agencies recognize the importance of ecosystem as ecological wholes, but only in a way to ensure their integrity as a provider of human benefits. Although the policies and agencies analyzed in this paper do not reflect all US environmental agencies or the entire US policy towards the environment, they do represent how a large portion of the US environmental is managed, including its wildlife and aquatic organisms, forests, lands, atmosphere, waters, and coastal areas. As such, conclusions can be drawn from these policy statements, with help from an understanding of key concepts in environmental ethics, to identify a prevailing US environmental ethic.
It is important to remember that even though the policies and missions of its environmental agencies are centered on an anthropocentric ethic and that they value nature instrumentally; this does not mean that they are not devoted and consumed with protecting the US environment. In fact, some ethicists, such as William Baxter, believe that an anthropocentric environmental ethic is the most natural way to value the environment and more accurately reflect, “the way people really think” (Baxter, 1974/2012). In many instances these agencies have recognized value in both natural resources and natural ecosystems and even if they are working towards sustaining humans, their actions can ultimately benefit the natural world. This paper was primarily concerned with identifying the US environmental ethic and is by no means judging the effectiveness of US environmental agencies or policies. In addition, further analysis of environmental agency actions may provide a clearer picture of their environmental ethic and whether they deviate from this ethic is significant ways.
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