Holmes Rolston, III
Prometheus Books, Buffalo. New York; paperback.

This eye-catching title introduces a collection of fifteen essays on ecological ethics. Drawing on many sources, Rolston explores the human relationship to nature from many perspectives.

One of the most interesting points to me is the manner in which most of society views the environment not as something innately deserving of protection, but as something to be preserved for an ultimately more valuable use by humanity.

This question of value is basic to the entire book. What are the values in nature, and where do they fit in the river of life? Among the values offered are economic, life support, recreational, scientific, aesthetic, life, diversity and unity, stability and spontaneity, and sacramental. Most people give little or no thought to the earth as a living entity, but regard it only as existing to be used by humanity, as if we are the only living system whose desires and needs are important. This view, unfortunately, is held by many so-called conservationists, whose approaches are completely anthropocentric. To quote Rolston:

Future historians will find our century remarkable for its breadth of knowledge and narrowness of value judgments. Never have humans known so much about, and valued so little in, the great chain of being. As a result, the great ecological crisis is not surprising. To devalue nature and inflate human worth is to do business in a false currency. This yields a dysfunctional, monopolistic world view. We are misfits because we have misread our life support system.

He contends that our exploitation of nature, even in supposedly protected parks such as Yellowstone and Yosemite, is due to our lack of admiring .respect for nature itself. Environmental concern these days seems mainly business oriented and it is only very recently that any environmental prohibitions have arisen. According to Rolston, these increasing concerns fall into two categories: a humanistic environmental ethic, or a naturalistic one. The former deals only with how nature relates to human needs and gains, while the latter also considers the fact that “humans are major but not exclusive stockholders” of this earthly picture, and that the entire biosystem is involved and needs preserving.

The best of possible worlds is not one entirely consumed by humans, but one that has place for the urban, rural, and wild. Only with moral concern for the whole biological business can we do our work of living well. This ethic . . . defends all life in its ecosystem integrity.

Whether Earth was made for us is a question we leave to the theologians, who are not likely to say that it was made for us to exploit. We can meanwhile say that we were made for Earth (if not also by it), and this gives us both the power and the duty so to act that we continue to fit this Earth, the substance, the sustainer of life.

After a discussion of our duties to endangered species, again contrasting the egocentric approach of most of society with the growing awareness of intrinsic rights and needs of other manifestations of life on the planet, Rolston closes with five accounts of personal encounters with nature, “an experiential plunge into nature,” which we enter as “latecomers” inheriting a “value-laden, storied Earth.”

This book is thoughtful and inclusive. While not stated openly, it is clearly implied in Rolston's conclusions that we need to accept the fact that we and all other species are part of nature, and not separate from it. A final quote from the book seems to sum up the ecological picture today:

The contemporary ethical systems seem misfits in the role most recently demanded of them. There is something overspecialized about an ethic, held by the dominant class of Homo sapiens, that regards the welfare of only one of several million species as an object of duty. If this requires a paradigm change about the sorts of things to which duty can attach, so much the worse for those ethics no longer functioning in, nor suited to, their changing environment. The anthropocentrism associated with them was fiction anyway. There is something Newtonian, not yet Einsteinian, besides something morally naive, about living in a reference frame where one species takes itself as absolute and values everything else relative to its utility.


Autumn 1990