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Essays in the Philosophy of HumanismVol. 16, Issue 2, Fall-Winter, 2008

William R. Patterson


The term ecohumanism was coined by Robert Tapp in his edited book by the same
name and published in cooperation with The Humanist Institute. This book brought to light many
controversies within humanism over issues of ecology and environmental ethics. The book did
not of course resolve all of these issues and many remain contentiously debated amongst
humanist philosophers. More work is certainly needed in this field. Since humanism is based
upon a set of principles, rather than upon dogmatic rules of behavior, disagreements about
particular ethical questions can be quite common this has been especially true in regards to
environmental ethics. There is a large degree of debate within the humanist community regarding
environmental ethics and this essay sets out to highlight the most important philosophical
principles of humanism as they relate to those issues.
Human beings are today faced with a plethora of environmental problems. Loss of
biodiversity, increased air and water pollution at the same time that we have a growing need for
natural resources, and global climate change are just a few examples. Humanists frequently
discuss these issues and offer ethical and practical opinions about them. These opinions,
however, are rarely explicitly tied to larger humanist principles. Issues of environmental ethics
often seem to be disconnected from the broader humanist philosophy. The opinions offered by
humanists on these issues therefore, though often valid and implicitly relying upon humanist
philosophy, remain only the opinions of individual thinkers without the weight of a philosophical
system as their explicit foundation.
Individual humanists can offer responses to the environmental problems that face us, but
they can only espouse those responses from a humanist perspective once the humanist principles
that have a bearing on them are made clear. The intention of this article is to outline those
principles and to demonstrate how they should inform humanists responses to issues of
environmental ethics. Of course, some of these problems will not have concrete solutions that all
humanists will agree on. The solutions offered will often depend upon circumstances, as do the
solutions to most other problems, and may involve thorny ethical dilemmas that require making
tough choices. By examining the issues and exploring the principles that relate to them, however,
these choices may be a little easier to make as they continue to confront us.
It is hoped that this article will shed more light on how humanist principles should guide
decision-making about environmental ethics within the humanist community of scholars and
citizens. Through its analysis of humanist principles and two case studies of particular
environmental problems, this essay can stand as a guidepost for humanists struggling with
environmental issues in the future and help make coming to resolute decisions a little easier. By
clearing up some of the abstract intellectual brush, this article will contribute to the literature by
providing a framework from which to apply humanist principles and values to issues of the
environment in a consistent and effective manner.

This section will analyze several humanist principles and explore their relationship with
issues of environmental ethics. The issues of principle to be explored include: the role of human
beings in moral decision-making; how human beings should approach nature (whether as a
malevolent force to be subdued or as the beneficent root of our being without which we could not

survive); how non-human animals should figure into a humanists ethical reasoning; the role of
religion versus secularism in environmental ethics; and the moral weight that humanists should
give to future generations. The exploration of these issues will allow for the recognition of firm
humanist principles that can be applied to the specific environmental problems discussed in the
subsequent section.
Though the humanist philosophy deplores the binding rigidities of moral dogma, there
are several core principles that most, if not all, humanists agree upon and which provide the
foundation for a common philosophy. As the Humanist Manifesto II declares: We affirm a set
of common principles that can serve as a basis for united action positive principles relevant to
the present human condition.
Not all of these principles apply directly to environmental
concerns but several of them do. I will outline a few of the most relevant principles here which
will be applied in the analysis of the specific environmentally related questions that follow.
Probably the most consistently and deeply held principle of humanism is the idea that it is
human beings which are the arbiters of moral value. The Humanist Manifesto II boldly
proclaims: We affirm that moral values derive their source from human experience. Ethics is
autonomous and situational, needing no theological or ideological sanction. Ethics stems from
human needs and interests.
Humanists believe that ethical values are created by human beings
and that those values should be based upon the consequences that they have in the lives of human
beings, whether they generate greater happiness, health and overall welfare for individual humans
and for humanity as a whole. Humanism essentially embraces a utilitarian basis for ethics.
The recognition that human beings are the sole source of moral decision-making leads to
the acknowledgement that we should develop a profound sense of empathy and altruism for
others, based upon our common humanity. The Humanist Manifesto 2000 declares that
humanists believe that the virtues of empathy and caring are essential for ethical conduct. This
implies that we should develop an altruistic concern for the needs and interests of others.
means that humanists will be deeply concerned about issues that cause suffering to other human
beings. Since environmental degradation has the potential of doing just that, humanists must be
very aware of environmentally related issues and their possible repercussions.
This concern for the welfare of humanity is not restricted to the present generation. We
have a responsibility to posterity both in the immediate future and on a longer time scale, says
the Humanist Manifesto 2000. Rational ethical persons thus recognize their extended obligation
to our childrens childrens offspring and to the community of all human beings, present and
This sense of responsibility towards future generations is especially important for
considerations regarding the environment. Damage to the environment may be irreversible or
take an extremely long period of time to correct. It is the duty of humanists living now not to
pass on to future generations an impoverished or fouled environment.
Humanisms declared self-reliance on human beings for developing and abiding by moral
guidelines is closely connected with the rejection of religion. Philip Regal explains that
secularism is common, though not hegemonic, in humanism today. Some humanists are
atheists and agnostics, while others may hold various supernatural beliefs but consider
them to be a private matter. They prefer to make a separation between their civic roles
based on rational discussion and scientific information, and a private inner world based
on intuition and/or faith.

Kurtz, Humanist Manifestos I and II, p. 15.
Kurtz, Humanist Manifestos I and II, p. 17.
Kurtz, Humanist Manifesto 2000, p. 32.
Kurtz, Humanist Manifesto 2000, p. 37.
Regal, p. 84.

Such rejection of faith is an important factor in moral decision-making and necessitates
that human beings use reason to plug the ethical gaps once filled by religious dictate and
authority. As Robert Tapp puts it, in the absence of any plausible divinities or forces of cosmic
wisdom, judgments can only be made by humans; created and critiqued and remade in the light of
future human experiences.
The principles of secularism and human-centered values are
inextricably linked in the philosophy of humanism.
Some have argued that religious belief is negatively correlated with environmental
concern and activism. Historian Lynn White, Jr. for example pointed to Biblical passages that
refer to human dominion over nature as evidence that Christianity is anti-environmental.
According to White, Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen.

Following the same line of reasoning, Peter Singer has argued that Christianity tends to lead to a
disregard for the needs of animals.
It is possible to argue, however, as many have, that
Christianity in particular and religion in general leads to a greater respect of nature as Gods
creation and a greater feeling of environmental responsibility since human beings are the
stewards of that creation.
The answer probably lies somewhere in the middle. As Darren E. Sherkat and
Christopher G. Ellison point out, religious beliefs are diverse and multiplex, and religious
resources can be used and interpreted in many different ways.
Through multivariate regression
analysis and other statistical techniques these scholars find that the relationship between religion
and environmental politics is not as clear as White and Singer would have us believe. In fact,
they find very little correlation between the two when other factors are controlled for.
Whatever effect religion may have on environmental beliefs and action, humanists are in
a position in which they do not have to take any religious considerations into account when
thinking about the environment. Humanists can rely upon the findings of science to inform their
decisions on environmental issues and can base their environmental ethics upon what is best for
human beings (and other sentient beings) rather than on what a religious text dictates. Humanists
are equally able to distance themselves from religious positions that place humanity at the apex of
life by divine fiat and those on the opposite extreme which place a sacred value on the earth that
militate against any use of the environment by human beings.
There is a debate within the humanist community about how human-centric humanism
should be. There are two main view points which humanists could plausibly take regarding the
place of human beings in the environment: anthropocentrism and biocentrism. In their book
Environmental Politics and Policy, environmental scholars Brent Steel, Richard Clinton and
Nicholas Lovrich define anthropocentrism as:
a human centered orientation toward the non-human world and thus gives a central
position in these relationships (those between humans and the environment) to humans,
human needs, and human satisfactions. Moreover, it
assumes that the nonhuman part of the environment is material to be used by humans as
they see fit, which means that it is defined in terms of the resources it provides to
humans rather than to other species. The nonhuman world is reduced to a veritable
storehouse of resources and is considered to have instrumental value only. There is no
notion that the nonhuman parts of nature are valuable in their own right, or for their own

Tapp, Preface, p. 14.
White, p. 1205.
Singer, Taking Humanism Beyond Speciesism.
Sherkat and Ellison, p. 81.
Steel, Clinton and Lovrich, p. 118.

Biocentrism takes a broader view and gives equal importance to other biological
organisms in nature. The biocentric approach elevates the requirements and value of all natural
organisms, species, and ecosystems to center stage and, in some versions, makes the Earth or
nature as a whole the focus of moral considerability.
From this vantage point human beings
should not be the sole focus of environmental concern and other species and organisms have
equal value irrespective of their utility to humans.
On its face, anthropocentrism would seem to be the position most consistent with
humanism. After all, humanism does have the word human in it and humans are considered to
be the basis of all valuation. But humanism need not be so narrowly selfish. While human
beings are indeed the sole source of moral values, they are not necessary the sole object of those
values. Peter Singer, for example, makes a strong case that we have no moral right to disregard
the suffering of animals and to do so is to be guilty of speciesism. As he puts it:
If a being suffers there can be no moral justification for refusing to take that
suffering into consideration. No matter what the nature of the being, the principle
of equality requires that its suffering be counted equally with like suffering
insofar as rough comparisons can be made of any other being. If a being is not
capable of suffering, or of experiencing enjoyment or happiness, there is nothing
to be taken into account. So the limit of sentienceis the only defensible
boundary of concern for the interests of others. To mark this boundary by some
other characteristic like intelligence or rationality would be to mark it in an
arbitrary manner. Why not some other characteristic, like skin color?

Singer makes the point that we do not base our moral considerations regarding human
beings on matters such as level of intelligence, so why should we base our moral considerations
regarding animals on such an arbitrary characteristic? If we are to say that animals should not
receive moral consideration because they are not as intelligent as human beings, then what are the
implications for human beings that are mentally retarded or have suffered traumatic brain
injuries? Rather than looking to intelligence (or any other arbitrary characteristic), humanists
have based their ethics upon human beings capacity for suffering. Singer argues, with validity,
that the suffering non-human animals experience must also be taken into account.
Due to their capacity to suffer, non-human animals have at least some interests in
common with human beings (the most important of which is the interest in avoiding suffering),
which humanists do not have the moral right to blithely disregard. Many humanists have been
persuaded by Singer that non-human animals deserve some moral recognition but most are not
willing to go so far as he. Paul Kurtz, for example, writes that although animals are not moral
beings in the sense that they behave rationally or are aware of their moral duties, nonetheless we
have responsibilities to them. They have some dignity and are entitled to some measure of
respect, though this should be applied in reasonably prudential terms.

It is certainly consistent with humanism to take into account the suffering of non-human
animals, but not necessarily to grant them the same level of value as a human being. If I came
across a pond in which a human being and a dog were both drowning I would act to save the
human being before acting to save the dog. If I could also save the dog, however, I would have
the moral responsibility to do so. This follows from the principle of empathy discussed earlier,
which should apply not only to human beings (both present and future), but should be construed
broadly to include all organisms with the capacity to suffer. It is not contradictory, however, to
maintain that the greatest degree of empathy should rightly be reserved for members of our own
species. Humanists should not regard animals as mere resources for human use and enjoyment

Steel, Clinton and Lovrich, p. 118.
Singer, Animal Liberation, pp. 8-9.
Kurtz, Forbidden Fruit, p. 195.

but neither should humanists value human beings and non-human animals totally equally some
degree of speciesism is justified.
Another reason for humanists to reject a radically anthropocentric position is the growing
realization of how interconnected human beings are with the rest of nature. Humanists reject any
theological explanation for the development of human beings and embrace the naturalistic
explanation of evolution which details mankinds eventual development from less complex forms
of life. Harvey B. Sarles points out that:
one of the principle constructs of humanism is the idea that humans exist within nature.
Humans are not removed or remote, nor specially created by some grand designer, or
coming to the earth from some place different from our prehuman predecessors. We are
parts of this earth, having developed or evolved as aspects of nature; engaging in the
natural processes shared by all of life; participating particularly in the lines of
development and evolution which have led to vertebrates, mammals, and primates of
which we are one line of development.

The realization that human beings are so interconnected with other organisms and with
nature as a whole could lead a humanist to embrace a moderately biocentric approach to nature.
At the very least, a strict form of anthropocentrism must be rejected. Humanist David Schafer
offers a useful middle ground with what he calls inclusive anthropocentrism.
From this
perspective, humanists can recognize the value of all sentient life forms and acknowledge their
moral importance while also maintaining that human beings are of special significance.
This realization can also help humanists come to grips with how they should view nature
as a whole. Some humanists have seen nature as threatening and perilous; a malignant force that
must be controlled and subdued. John Stuart Mill for example, a prominent philosopher of the
century and one of humanisms most influential thinkers, argues in his essay Nature that:
Nearly all things which men are hanged or imprisoned for doing to one another,
are natures every day performances. Killing, the most criminal act recognized by
human laws, Nature does once to every being that lives; and in a large portion of
cases, after protracted torture such as only the greatest monsters whom we read of
ever purposely inflicted on their living fellow-creaturesNature impales men,
breaks them as if on the wheel , casts them to be devoured by wild beasts, burns them to
death, crushes them with stones like the first Christian martyr, starves them with hunger,
freezes them with cold, poisons them by the quick or slow venom of her exhalations, and
has hundreds of other hideous deaths in reserve All this, Nature does with the most
supercilious disregard both of mercy and of justice, emptying her shafts upon the best and
the noblest indifferently with the meanest and worst.

Many other humanists, such as the prominent evolutionary biologist Thomas Henry
Huxley, have shared this negative view of nature.
To these thinkers nature is a threat to human
life. Disease, natural disasters, wild animals and a vast array of other dangers imperil us all. In
order to eliminate, or at least reduce these threats, nature must be subdued and controlled. The
more power that humanity gains over nature, the better off humanity will be. Such a view has
motivated many scientists, from Francis Bacon onward, to discover the workings of nature and to
bend them to mans will.

Sarles, p. 215.
Schafer, p. 139.
Mill, p. 29.
Oma Stanley draws out the close connection between Huxleys and Mills thoughts on nature in her
article T.H. Huxleys Treatment of Nature.

Yet surely humanists can also sympathize with the splendor of nature as experienced and
beautifully expressed by John Muir upon his first sighting of the Sierra Mountains: Our flesh-
and-bone tabernacle seems transparent as glass to the beauty about us, as if truly an inseparable
part of it, thrilling with the air and trees, streams and
rocks, in the waves of the sun, - a part of all nature, neither old nor young, sick nor well, but

Natural beauty can be utterly inspiring and far surpasses anything created by the hand or
mind of man; it can make humanity seem insignificant and unworthy when compared to its glory
and splendor. But humanists will keep Mills warnings firmly in mind and recall that nature can
be equally foreboding and deadly as it can be beautiful and serene. Certainly humanists will
avoid any deification of nature. Mike Davis explains that in Muirs thought, nature is an
egalitarian Creation in which Man is no more (or less) important than water ouzels, bears, and
junipersEven the granites and lavas seem to him to possess some faint life spirit or inherent
consciousness of their own.
Humanists will reject this spiritualization of nature. While
humanism is consistent with a respect and enjoyment of nature, it is not consistent with a
religious reverence for it. But while humanists should take care not to fall into the trap of
pantheism, the equation of nature with God, they must also beware not to make nature out to be
the Devil.
Perhaps ironically, one of the best places that humanists can look to for guidance as to
how we should view nature is to G.K. Chestertons book Orthodoxy and to an essay within the
book entitled The Flag of the World. In this essay Chesterton argues that human beings should
develop a sort of cosmic patriotism for the world. He writes, my acceptance of the universe is
not optimism, it is more like patriotism. It is a matter of primary loyalty. The world is not a
lodging-house at Brighton, which we are free to leave because it is miserable. It is the fortress of
our family, with the flag flying on the turret, and the more miserable it is the less we should leave

The world is, as Carl Sagan would say, our pale blue dot. The earth is humanitys only
home and one we must cherish despite its flaws and blemishes. We must recognize the faults and
dangers of nature, those that Mill and others have pointed out, and do our best to make our
environment safer and more amenable to human life, but we must also recognize the splendor of
nature and humanitys connection with the earth and its environment. As Chesterton puts it, we
have to feel the universe at once as an ogres castle, to be stormed, and yet as our own cottage, to
which we can return at evening.
Humanists must work hard to improve our world and to shape
it to meet our basic needs, but we must also maintain a certain love and cosmic patriotism for
our only home. Nature and the environment are not to be wantonly destroyed.
This section has brought to light a group of humanist principles that can help guide us in
matters of environmental ethics. These principles are:
1) Human beings are the sole source of ethical values, but not necessarily the sole
object of them.
2) Human beings should develop empathy and sympathy for other human beings,
both those presently alive and those that will live in the future, and to all
sentient beings with the capacity to suffer.
3) Humanists should accept an inclusive anthropocentric approach to nature.
4) Religious dogmas should not play a role in ethical decision-making.
5) Nature should not be elevated to a divine level.
6) Humanists should embrace a cosmic patriotism for the world.

Muir, p. 21.
Davis, p. xxvi.
Chesterton, p. 67.
Chesterton, p. 72.


With these principles in hand, it will now be possible to examine practical environmental
problems from a cohesive philosophical position. The discussion of two such issues, biodiversity
and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, follows in the next section.

Having delineated several of the key humanist principles that relate to questions of
environmental policy and ethics, it will now be easier to grapple with some of the real issues
facing humanity. Two such issues will be explored here as case studies. The first of these is
biodiversity. Loss of biodiversity is a serious global challenge that can have significant
repercussions for not only us but also for future generations. The other issue to be explored is
more localized to the United States and deals with the controversy over whether or not to drill for
oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. This issue does not have the widespread implications
that the issue of biodiversity does, but nonetheless it is a very important piece of the United
States overall approach to the environment and will have repercussions that stretch far into the
Biodiversity: Dwindling biodiversity has been an issue among environmentalists for at
least the past couple of decades and became especially prominent during the mid 1980s and
throughout the 1990s. Though the issue has since received less attention in the media, it remains
a serious problem. The main causes of the loss of biodiversity include climate change, habitat
encroachment and the introduction of exotic species. The nature of the problem is described in
harrowing detail by the eminent humanist E.O. Wilson, one of the most prominent biologists
involved in the biodiversity issue and the first to use the term biodiversity in a publication. In
his book The Creation, Wilson tells us that
scientists estimate that if habitat conversion and other destructive human activities continue at
their present rates, half the species of plants and animals on Earth could be either gone or at least
fated for early extinction by the end of the century.

Variability in the number of species on the planet is natural. Species extinction would
occur even without the presence and activities of human beings and indeed has occurred
throughout the history of life on this planet. Human beings, however, have greatly accelerated
this process and are currently bringing about a major man-made mass extinction of animal
species. A group of scientists writing in the journal Nature have quantified the problem and have
made clear just how much impact human beings are having on the survival rates of other species.
Already, they warned, we have caused the extinction of 5-20% of the species in many groups
of organisms, and current rates of extinction are estimated to be 100-1,000 times greater than pre-
human rates.

Some people do not see a problem in this trend. So what, they ask, if we lose the spotted-
owl or some insignificant species of fish? These species, they claim, are simply not cut out for
life and have been removed by the same way they came, natural selection. Some humanists,
especially those that accept a purely anthropocentric view of nature, might argue that rectifying
this issue and slowing down the rate of extinction would not be worth the economic costs that
would be required. In their view, these species are not worth the cost of slowing human
expansion or of instituting expensive regulatory protective measures.
This view, however, does not take into account the costs incurred by the loss of
biodiversity. Bryan Norton argues that every species has at least three types of value: commodity
value, amenity value, and moral value.
Commodity value is the actual monetary value that can
be produced from any given specimen, such as that generated in the production of a mink coat.

Wilson, The Creation, pp. 4-5.
Chapin III, et. al., p. 234.
Norton, p. 201.

Amenity value is produced when we receive some nonmaterial benefit from a species or
animals existence. This type of value is enjoyed
when we experience joy at sighting a hummingbird or when we enjoy walks in
the forest more when we sight a ladyslipper. Hiking, fishing, hunting, bird-
watching, and other pursuits have a huge market value as recreation, and wild
species contribute, as amenities, to these activities. Bald eagles, for example,
have not only inspired the production of millions of dollars worth of Americana,
but they also generate aesthetic excitement through a whole area that is blessed
with a nesting pair of them.

Moral value is the intrinsic value that these species have by their mere being. Though
some humanists may want to reject this type of value, it is consistent with inclusive
anthropocentrism and the concerns expressed for the welfare of sentient non-human animals by
humanists such as Peter Singer. E.O. Wilson writes inspiringly about the innate value of each
species on the planet.
Each species American eagle, Sumatran rhinoceros, flat-spined three-toothed land snail,
furbish lousewort, and on down the roster of ten million or more still with us is a
masterpiece. The craftsman who assembled them was natural selection, acting upon
mutations and recombinations of genes, through vast numbers of steps over long periods
of time. Each species, when examined closely, offers an endless bounty of knowledge
and aesthetic pleasure. It is a living library.

In addition to these values, species also have value as the sources of possible medicines,
scientific knowledge, and other human goods. For many of these species, we simply dont know
what the cost of losing them will be to future generations. We have identified fewer than two
million species. Low estimates point to the existence of five million species while high estimates
indicate the possibility that there are close to one hundred million species on Earth.
Even of the
small proportion of species that we have identified, little is known about most of them. As these
unidentified and unstudied species continue to be erased from existence, opportunity costs,
which will be better understood by our descendants than by ourselves, will be staggering. Gone
forever will be undiscovered medicines, crops, timbers, fibers, soil-restoring vegetation,
petroleum substitutes, and other products and amenities.

Furthermore, the effects that the loss of a single species will have on the entire ecosystem
are unpredictable. Wilson points out that,
Every species is bound to its community in the unique manner by which it variously
consumes, is consumed, competes, and cooperates with other species. It also indirectly
affects the community in the way it alters the soil, water, and air. The ecologist sees the
whole as a network of energy and material continuously flowing into the community
from the surrounding physical environment, and back out, and then on round to create the
perpetual ecosystem cycles on which our own existence depends.

Failing to protect these species may have effects on the ecosystem as a whole, and
ultimately upon human beings, that are unknowable. The large-scale disruption of
ecosystems is not an outcome favorable to humanity.

Norton, p. 201.
Wilson, The Future of Life, p. 131.
Wilson, The Future of Life, pp. 113-114.
Wilson, The Creation, pp. 29-30.
Wilson, The Future of Life, p. 11.

Taking the problem of biodiversity seriously is consistent with several humanist
principles. From an inclusive anthropocentric point of view, humanists can recognize the close
relationship that human beings have with other non-human animals and take into account the
interests of other sentient beings. Since humanists reject religious dogma, they also reject out of
hand the idea presented by some Christians that humans have the God-given right to extinguish
other species of animal. Humanists should also want to avoid the economic, health, aesthetic and
other costs that come with a reduction in biodiversity. Additionally, humanists must accept their
moral duty to future human generations and therefore have an obligation to prevent the permanent
loss of species that will affect every future generation of human beings. Finally, the notion of
cosmic patriotism should lead humanists to the position of wanting to maintain the biodiversity of
the planet to the fullest extent possible. The various species of life and the ecosystems that they
comprise are integral parts of our planet and as such they deserve our respect.
The fact that humanists should take the problem of biodiversity seriously has already
been recognized by its inclusion in the Humanist Manifesto 2000, which warns that the
populations of other species have steadily declined, and many forms of plant and animal life are
becoming extinct perhaps the greatest extinction since the disappearance of the dinosaurs sixty-
five million years ago.
The late humanist Carl Sagan also recognized this problem and angrily
accused humanity of becoming predators on the biosphere full of arrogant entitlement, always
taking and never giving back. And so, we are now a danger to ourselves and the other beings
with whom we share the planet.

In order to reverse this trend, humanists should be on the front lines of devising and
pushing for effective change. Scientists remind us that the most important causes of altered
biodiversity are factors that can be regulated by changes in policy: emissions of greenhouse
gases, land-use change and species introduction.
The struggle to preserve other species must
involve a multi-pronged strategy of policy-changes that address all of these issues. Humanists,
following the example of E.O. Wilson, should be at the forefront of this struggle.
Enacting the changes necessary to slow down the loss of biodiversity will not be painless,
however, and the trade-offs between protecting biodiversity and the economic costs of doing so
must be constantly weighed and balanced. The issue of changing human patterns of land-use is
likely to be especially problematic. Allowing people to starve due to restrictions on their ability
to farm or hunt is obviously not an acceptable cost of protecting biodiversity. This problem is
especially acute in the developing world where poverty-stricken people must exploit the natural
resources around them in order to survive. Unfortunately, many of these areas, such as the
rainforests of Brazil, are precisely those which contain the greatest abundance and variety of rare
and endangered species of animals. People in the rich developed world must do more to protect
these landscapes while simultaneously working to eliminate the grinding poverty that many
people throughout the world live in every day. The developed world must also do its part to
reduce the other two human-impacted causes of species extinction, climate change and the
introduction of exotic species to delicately balanced ecosystems.
These changes cannot be enacted overnight, however, and during the struggle to solve the
problems of biodiversity and human poverty humanists, and others, will need to make tough
decisions about where sacrifices should be made. There will be many situations in which the
decision should be clear. If developing a luxury condominium complex is going to result in the
extinction of an entire species of animal, the complex should not be built, at least not in that
particular location. There will be other situations, however, in which the right answer will not be
so easily derived. Situations, for example, in which human beings are struggling to eke out
meager existences by utilizing the resources available to them in areas of rich, but fragile,

Kurtz, Humanist Manifesto 2000, p. 18.
Sagan, p. 137.
Chapin III, et. al., p. 241.

ecosystems. No set answer can be given to the resolution of these situations. Rather, they must
be examined on a case-by-case basis and with all relevant factors being taken into account. What
is clear though is that loss of biodiversity and the negative consequences that such loss has for
both current and future generations of human beings must be among those relevant factors.
Humanists do not have the moral luxury of ignoring the issue of biodiversity.

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: An issue related to biodiversity is that of the Arctic
National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and whether or not it should be drilled for oil. This is a
difficult issue for humanists since it requires a balancing of the economic benefits versus the
ecological costs. Humanists recognize the need to produce the energy that makes our modern
civilization possible and are sympathetic to the desire to generate affluence and to spur economic
growth. We have also seen, however, that humanists must be sensitive to the environmental
impacts of our development and must take the long-term interests of future generations into
Debate over whether or not to drill in ANWR has been going on at least since the 1970s
and has become increasingly heated in the context of the United States Presidential Campaign.
Economists Matthew Kotchen and Nicholas Burger point to a variety of reasons for the current
salience of the issue. Oil prices, they note, have more than doubled in the last 2 years.
Terrorist threats and the ongoing war in Iraq have heightened concern about our reliance on
imported oil from the Middle East. Recent hurricanes in the Gulf Coast have damaged
infrastructure and caused significant disruptions of domestic supply.
These problems have
created an added impetus towards drilling.
The arguments in favor of drilling are substantial. According to advocates of drilling,
opening the refuge would result in billions of dollars of tax revenue for the government that could
be spent on any number of projects to benefit United States citizens, would create between
250,000 and 735,000 new jobs, and would provide a significant new source of oil (the U.S.
Department of the Interior estimates between 9 to 16 billion barrels) that would help lower the
cost of gasoline and reduce American dependence on foreign sources of oil.
These benefits are
indeed attractive to humanists. Job creation and increased government revenues would benefit
many people and improve the quality of their lives. There are major environmental concerns,
however, that must also be judged.
ANWR is home, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to some of the most
diverse and spectacular wildlife in the arctic. The Refuges rich pageant of wildlife includes 36
fish species, 36 land mammals, nine marine mammals, and more than 160 migratory and resident
bird species.
Advocates of drilling argue that it can be done in environmentally friendly ways
that would have minimal impact on the wildlife and landscape of the refuge. Many scientists,
however, disagree with this assessment.
In a letter signed by 1,000 scientists and sent to President George W. Bush, the full
environmental impact of opening ANWR to drilling is laid plain. In their letter, these scientists
point to the damage caused by oil drilling in other parts of Alaska. There is little reason to
believe that these same consequences would not occur in ANWR. The scientists note that the
National Academy of Sciences, the U.S. Geological Survey, the international Arctic Climate
Impact Assessment Secretariat, and others have issuedfindings about the impacts of oil
development in Arctic ecosystems, providing further evidence that if oil development proceeds,
much of the wildlife, water, and cultural resources for which the Arctic Refuge was established
would be severely diminished or lost.

Kotchen and Burger, p. 4720.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Arctic Refuge Science Letter.

Kotchen and Burger argue that potential adverse effects on the environment stem from
two principal sources: vehicular travel as part of seismic analyses, and infrastructure for
extracting and transporting oil.
Drilling would require that roads, pipelines, and
buildings to house and otherwise support workers, be built. This type of infrastructure would
likely have negative repercussions on the native wildlife and would also damage the landscape.
Caribou, which travel to ANWR every summer to calve, would likely be most affected. Caribou
are known to move away from pipelines and drilling facilities and development in ANWR would
displace them from their normal breeding grounds, thereby resulting in a likely decline of their
population size.
Kotchen and Burger also contend that oil spills are a concern. Even with the
greatest care and best technologies, development in ANWR might still result in accidental spills
with adverse effects on the environment.

There is a high likelihood that drilling in ANWR would have harmful repercussions for
the animals that live there and for their ecosystem. Humanist principles remind us that we must
bear these costs in mind. Furthermore, the benefits of drilling may not be as significant as once
presumed. According to an analysis conducted by the Energy Information Administration (an
organ of the U.S. Department of Energy) in May 2008, drilling in ANWR would only slightly
reduce Americas dependence on foreign producers of oil. Furthermore, any reduction in the
price of oil would not be felt until 2026 at the earliest and even then there would be only a
marginal affect.
The report notes that additional oil production resulting from the opening of
ANWR would be only a small portion of total world oil production, and would likely be offset in
part by somewhat lower production outside the United States.
Since the price of oil is based
on the world market, OPEC (the Organization for Petroleum Exporting Countries) could easily
negate the impact of more supply from ANWR by reducing their own production and thereby
keeping the price flat.
Even if OPEC decided not to counteract the additional supply, it would take up to a
decade for the infrastructure necessary to acquire the oil to be put in place and for the oil to reach
the market. Drilling would take many years to bring on-line, would guarantee very little change
in the price of oil if any at all, and would likely have severe environmental repercussions. The
scientists who wrote to the President made a powerful point when they argued that sacrificing
this ecosystem for an insignificant supply of our nations energy that will not reach the market for
a decade does not represent balanced resource management.

The issue of climate change should also be brought into consideration at this point. Over
recent decades the consensus amongst the scientific community concerning anthropogenic
climate change has been solidifying. In their 2007 report, the Intergovernmental Panel on
Climate Change (IPCC), a United Nations based organization comprised of thousands of leading
climatologists and other scientists from around the world, concluded that most of the observed
increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20
century is very likely due to the
observed increase in anthropogenic GHG [green house gas] concentrations. It is likely that there
has been significant anthropogenic warming over the past 50 years averaged over each continent
(except Antarctica).
Other noted scientific organizations, such as the National Academy of
Sciences, the American Meteorological Society, the American Geophysical Union, and the
American Association for the Advancement of Science, have produced reports that reach similar

Kotchen and Burger, p. 4725.
Kotchen and Burger, p. 4725.
Kotchen and Burger, p. 4725.
Energy Information Administration, p. vi.
Energy Information Administration, p. vi.
Arctic Refuge Science Letter.
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, p. 5.

The scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change was further demonstrated in an
article published in the journal Science by Naomi Oreskes. Oreskes analyzed the abstracts of 928
articles published in scientific journals between 1993 and 2003 and included in the ISI database.
She found that remarkably, none of the papers disagreed with the consensus position,
anthropogenically caused global warming. She ultimately concluded that scientists publishing in
the peer-reviewed literature agree with IPCC, the National Academy of Sciences, and the public
statements of their professional societies. Politicians, economists, journalists, and others may
have the impression of confusion, disagreement, or discord among climate scientists, but that
impression is incorrect.

The preponderance of the scientific evidence indicates that global warming is a
significant threat to the environment and to human beings. As such, it must be considered as an
additional cost of drilling in ANWR. The use of fossil fuels, particularly oil, is one of the
primary causes of global climate change. Increasing our usage of this resource would be
counterproductive to the goal of reversing levels of greenhouse gas emissions and should not be
further encouraged. Rather than continue to look for new sources of oil, the best policy would
seem to be to continue looking for alternatives to fossil fuels altogether. As New York Times
columnist Thomas Friedman put it in a recent column, when a person is addicted to crack
cocaine, his problem is not that the price of crack is going up. His problem is what that crack
addiction is doing to his whole body. The cure is not cheaper crack, which would only perpetuate
the addiction and all the problems it is creating. The cure is to break the addiction.

Finally, the perspective of cosmic patriotism leads to the conclusion that we should not
damage the environment any more than necessary. Though drilling in ANWR could have some
positive consequences for human beings, mostly in terms of economic rents and tax revenues
those positive consequences would not outweigh the negative repercussions already described
and do not provide strong enough justification for irrevocably scarring a pristine natural
ecosystem. The negligible benefits to be gained by drilling cannot overcome the loyalty we owe
to our planet and home.
The humanist principles outlined in the principles section of this essay should lead
humanists to reject drilling for oil in ANWR. Though opening ANWR to drilling would have
some immediate economic benefits to human beings, the long-term costs to the environment, to
the animals that live in ANWR, and to future generations of human beings would be large. The
humanist principles of taking the welfare of animals into account, of protecting the interests of
future generations, and of cherishing the earth with a sense of cosmic patriotism all point away
from allowing drilling to proceed. From a humanist perspective, the long-term costs of drilling in
ANWR outweigh the benefits.

Matters of environmental ethics are of paramount importance to humanists. Many
environmental issues have been mentioned in the primary texts of humanism, such as in the
various Humanist Manifestos and continue to draw extensive attention from prominent
contemporary humanists such as Paul Kurtz and E.O. Wilson. Yet the humanist principles that
directly bear on these issues have, until now, not been clearly expressed. This is most likely the
result of humanisms dislike of doctrine and its reflexive disdain for moral dogma. The
development and application of moral principles, however, is necessary in order to provide a
strong foundation for moral decisions and to give moral decision-making a modicum of

Oreskes, p. 1686.
Oreskes, p. 1686.
Friedman, p. 1.
Kotchen and Burger, p. 4723.

coherence and continuity. Without such principles, moral decisions are reduced to empty
pronouncements and do not fit into a larger moral context that can support them.
Happily, humanism does have numerous principles that can help guide us in making
decisions about the environment. That human beings are the sole arbiters of moral value, that
human beings should develop empathy for other humans and for non-human animals, that
religious dogmas should not influence our ethical decisions, and that nature should not be
elevated to a divine level are principles that come directly from humanisms primary documents.
The principle of inclusive anthropocentrism, though not derived from a primary source, is also
found in the current humanist literature. The principle of cosmic patriotism is likely to be more
controversial since it is derived from a non-humanist source. Though unlikely to be accepted by
all humanists, the principle is consistent with humanism and I believe that the concept can serve
as a useful guidepost to humanist thinkers.
It has been the purpose of this essay to outline the key humanist principles that should
guide the humanist communitys decisions regarding the environment and environmental ethics.
Ecohumanism is an important element of humanism and I have sought here to provide greater
cogency and a stronger foundation to the principles and practice of this movement. It must be left
up to the reader to determine if this has been accomplished.

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