Federal Environmental Ethic


Federal Environmental Ethic: Overwhelmingly Anthropocentric

Mark Cave Student ID 1055740

EVSP 508, Winter Professor Allen January 27, 2012

Federal Environmental Ethic



The author of this paper looks at the mission statements and/or stated purposes of three United States federal agencies – the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of the Interior and the U.S. Forest Service – which have responsibilities that include care and maintenance of the country’s environment, natural resources, and fish and wildlife. By analysis and comparison of those agencies’ mission and purpose statements, the author delineates the anthropocentric environmental ethic that overwhelmingly dominates American government and society. Then the author briefly speaks of the need for establishment of a more holistic and ecocentric, across-all-agencies environmental ethic; and he expresses the viewpoint that such a federal-level ethic is incrementally becoming emplaced because of a presidential directive, and that the ethic is also spreading up, via a grass roots community- and state-government movement.

Federal Environmental Ethic


“To judge from economic behavior, we see the external world, the biosphere, mainly as a warehouse to be plundered in satisfaction of the material needs and wants of humankind… Society’s prevailing ecological myth sees “the environment” in terms of isolated, individual resources, or, at best, as a mechanical construction, whose component parts are bendable to human will and purpose.” (Rees, 2011, p. 662). The above quote very powerfully sums up the continuing attitude towards the environment that’s prevalent in general American society; and it starkly conveys that it’s impossible for federal government agencies to state an environmental ethic that’s anything but anthropocentric and utilitarian. In their pursuit of maximum comfort and convenience, the overwhelming majority of United States citizens either express beliefs and attitudes identical to those of corporate executives and their in-pocket politicians, or they behave in ways that belie their stated understanding of or subconscious concerns about the impacts of such behavior on all things nonhuman – animals, plants, land, oceans, biodiversity, ecology, etc. Now, to the professor of my Environmental Ethics course it might seem that I am digressing from the main purpose of this report; and perhaps that is so. However, I want this product to potentially be of at least miniscule interest and value to anyone who might read it after its submission to fulfill a course requirement. Therefore, I am endeavoring to do, and tie together, two things: 1. Further expound on the above stated environmental ethic of federal agencies, using their mission statements, and their actions in implementing, abiding by, or flouting statutes and regulations; 2. Assert that our country’s political leadership must (and is starting to, to a limited extent – Executive Order 13514, 2009) establish a comprehensive, coherent and less anthropocentric

Federal Environmental Ethic


environmental ethic around which all agencies develop their mission statements, policies and regulations; and/or there must be a grass roots and local- and state-government movement that accomplishes the same thing, but from the bottom up. While covering the first objective is relatively straightforward and simple, it also takes up most of this report, partly out of necessity for meeting the course requirement, partly because I will use real world examples to buttress my arguments and assertions. My survey of some of the “big player” agencies in environmental protection and conservation establishes what I believe is already well known by all but the most indifferent and uninformed people: the agencies are unequivocally operating from an anthropocentric perspective. When I say “big player agencies” I refer to those agencies that I think are most widely recognized for their stated purposes and/or for their being the focus of most attention: the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of the Interior (DOI) and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS, within the U.S. Department of Agriculture). Of the three surveyed agencies, the EPA, by limiting its focus mainly to regulation of and education about pollution and environmental degradation in its varied manifestations, is the surveyed agency with the most straightforward mission, and the only one without obvious innately contradictory roles or sub-agencies that have opposing objectives (this contention will be clarified and buttressed as the paper progresses to discussion of the DOI and the USFS, and of some opposing objectives within each). Per the EPA website: The mission of EPA is to protect human health and the environment. EPA's purpose is to ensure that: • all Americans are protected from significant risks to human health and the environment where they live, learn and work;

Federal Environmental Ethic


national efforts to reduce environmental risk are based on the best available scientific information;

federal laws protecting human health and the environment are enforced fairly and effectively;

environmental protection is an integral consideration in U.S. policies concerning natural resources, human health, economic growth, energy, transportation, agriculture, industry, and international trade, and these factors are similarly considered in establishing environmental policy;

all parts of society -- communities, individuals, businesses, and state, local and tribal governments -- have access to accurate information sufficient to effectively participate in managing human health and environmental risks;

environmental protection contributes to making our communities and ecosystems diverse, sustainable and economically productive; and

the United States plays a leadership role in working with other nations to protect the global environment. (EPA, n.d.)

The fact that the first sentence in the EPA mission statement puts the word humans before the word environment obviates the agency’s anthropomorphic perspective. That centralization of humanity before and above everything else is solidly reinforced in the very first bullet under the stated purpose of the agency, to ensure that all Americans are protected from significant risks to human health and the environment where they live, learn and work. If such redundancy of the theme “humans before environment” is not enough to convince you of the EPA’s

Federal Environmental Ethic


anthropocentricity, notice that nowhere in the mission statement or listing of purposes is there mention of nature or ecosystems. Such a direct human-centric attitude is almost identically described by Palmer (2011): There are a variety of approaches to environmental ethics that can be thought of as being anthropocentric or human-centered. Most – but not all – of these approaches maintain that the nonhuman natural world is best considered ethically in terms of its instrumental values to human beings… And anthropocentric approaches do not necessarily suggest reckless exploitation of the environment; they may instead maintain that natural resources should be very carefully managed for human benefit including for the benefit of the poor and future human generations. (pp. 13-14) Of the three surveyed agencies, the Department of the Interior is the behemoth, in breadth of responsibilities (9 bureaus), number of employees (approx. 70,000) and size of budget ($12 billion). (EPA, n.d.; DOI, n.d.; USFS, n.d.). Quite unlike the EPA, its size and encapsulation of multiple sub-agencies means that there are necessarily competing agendas amongst those subagencies, even though they all espouse dedication to natural resource preservation and environmental protection. The competing agendas highlight two facts: (1) the DOI is dominated by an unequivocal professed adherence to an anthropocentric environmental ethic; and (2) the drive to maximize the comfort and convenience of American citizens, and the profits of American corporations, has very frequently translated to complete disregard of nonhuman life and ecosystems, which of course means abandonment of any environmental ethic. Here is the DOI mission statement: “The U.S. Department of the Interior protects America’s natural resources and heritage, honors our cultures and tribal communities, and

Federal Environmental Ethic


supplies the energy to power our future. (DOI, n.d.).” While less obviously so than the EPA mission statement, this one is still readily identifiable as anthropocentric. The only non-human term used is “natural resources,” and even that begs the question, “Natural resources for whom?” The rest of the terms in the statement are wholly human related: heritage, cultures, tribal communities, and our future. Making more stark the anthropocentric perspective of the DOI, and highlighting its severe conflicts of interest, are these two quotes, one from the DOI website, the other from an online description of the DOI by the Washington Post (WP): 
The U.S. Department of the Interior is a Cabinet-level agency that manages America's vast natural and cultural resources … We also raise billions in revenue annually from energy, mineral, grazing, and timber leases, as well as recreational permits and land sales. (n.d.)

In real terms, Interior is responsible for about 20 percent of the land in the United States and 1.7 billion acres offshore. It oversees land and sea territories that produce 30 percent of the nation's energy. Interior is the country's biggest wholesaler of water, with nearly 500 dams and 350 reservoirs… It cares for some of America's most precious treasures, by preserving and operating 84 million acres of national parks, monuments, seashores and other special sites in 49 states and a number of U.S. territories. It is responsible for protecting endangered species and for operating national wildlife refuges (WP, n.d.)

The final agency surveyed is the U.S Forest Service (USFS), within the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It’s mission statements: “Gifford Pinchot, the first Chief of the Forest Service, summed up the mission of the Forest Service— "to provide the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people in the long run” and “The mission of the USDA Forest Service is to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the Nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the

Federal Environmental Ethic


needs of present and future generations.” (USFS, n.d.). One more time, the statements are 100% anthropocentric! Further spotlighting that ethic is the first paragraph in the USFS motto: “The phrase, "CARING FOR THE LAND AND SERVING PEOPLE," captures the Forest Service mission. As set forth in law, the mission is to achieve quality land management under the sustainable multiple-use management concept to meet the diverse needs of people.” (n.d.). Also, just like the DOI, the USFS is saddled with a huge conflict of interest – the protection and health advancement of forests and wilderness areas vs. the accretion of revenues (and the justification of large budget requests to Congress) via selling of timber rights and concomitant building and maintenance of environmentally damaging (at the time and due to use) roads. The Orion North timber sale in the Tongass National Forest is one example of convoluted motivations that sometimes drives the USFS to push for timber sales and road building, which in this case continued despite high costs, the net loss of revenues, and the potential negative environmental impacts (not accounted for in the ten-year-old environmental impact statement). It was only after an Earthjustice requested court injunction stopped the timber sale and road building, that the Forest Service abandoned the effort, rather than file an appeal. (n.d.) In these explanations that the federal government’s environmental ethic is anthropocentric, there is not implied a viewpoint that environmental anthropocentrism is wholly wrong or improper; rather, the ethic’s focus on humans versus non-humans, and on consideration according to sentience and suffering (Singer, 2011), is just too narrow. It does not account for what’s absolutely vital in today’s world – a holistic appreciation of the interconnectedness between all living things, and of the ecosystems – the land, water bodies and climate – upon which that life fundamentally depends for health and sustainable continuation.

Federal Environmental Ethic


The United States citizenry, in its fierce independence and persistent genuflection before the alters of capitalism and free markets, will not soon adopt a truly holistic and ecocentric environmental ethic. Doing so would require too rapid changes in the way business is conducted and the way society is governed; and the acceptance of new models of community living incorporating concepts that are currently anathema to many Americans. So, don’t expect that the United States will be one of the participating nations when the Earth Charter is completed and the United Nations presents it for ratification (Westra, 2011). However, there are real signs that people across the country, in the executive branch of the federal government, as well as in groups ranging from towns to states to regions, are growing more appreciative of the direct two-way connections between overall ecological and climatic health and the current and future health of humanity and other life. 1. On October 5, 2009 President Obama signed Executive Order 13514, Federal Leadership in Environmental, Energy, and Economic Performance. Federal agencies shall increase energy efficiency; measure, report, and reduce their greenhouse gas emissions from direct and indirect activities; conserve and protect water resources through efficiency, reuse, and storm water management; eliminate waste, recycle, and prevent pollution; leverage agency acquisitions to foster markets for sustainable technologies and environmentally preferable materials, products, and services; design, construct, maintain, and operate high performance sustainable buildings in sustainable locations; strengthen the vitality and livability of the communities in which Federal facilities are located; and inform Federal employees about and involve them in the achievement of these goals. (Section 1. Policy)

Federal Environmental Ethic


Section 8 directed that each federal agency, including, of course, the EPA, DOI and USDA (parent organization of the USFS), develop, use, maintain and update a Strategic Sustainability Performance Plan (SSPP). (EPA SSPP, 2010; DOI SSPP, 2011; USDA SSPP, 2010) 2. On November 16, 2010 the city of Pittsburgh voted to ban drilling, especially fracking (injection of water, sand and various toxic chemicals down and then horizontally to cause deep explosions that release the gas). “Drafted by the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), Pittsburgh’s ordinance elevates the rights of people, the community, and nature over corporate “rights” and challenges the authority of the state to pre-empt community decision-making.” (YES! magazine, 2010). 3. On July 6, 2010 Governor Schwarzenegger signed into law a bill that “requires that all whole eggs sold in California as of Jan. 1, 2015, come from hens able to stand up, fully extend their limbs, lie down and spread their wings without touching each other or the sides of their enclosure, thus requiring cage-free conditions for the birds.” (Human Society, 2010) The above 3 examples each serve as clear example of an expansion of environmental ethics from a strictly anthropocentric one to one that, while still human centered, uses environmental pragmatism (Palmer, pp 29-30) to incorporate concepts of sustainability (additional to or instead of growth); internalization and/or reduction of non-tangible costs like pollution and greenhouse gas emissions; interdependencies between health of animals and the health of people; and rights of individuals, communities and animals over corporate rights. In conclusion, this paper explains that up to current times, the environmental ethic extant in most of American society and throughout the federal government has been overwhelmingly anthropocentric. However, in the absence of leadership in federal government up to the Obama

Federal Environmental Ethic


presidency, and during Obama’s necessary understated (in breadth and broadcast) implementation of more responsible policies, governmental and NGO leaders at the local and state levels have stepped up. Besides the two examples given – California’s non-caged egg layer bill and Pittsburgh’s banning of fracking – there are countless similarly thoughtful bills and actions being implemented in towns and states across the country. So, in the end, the national environmental ethic is slowly but definitely moving from indifferently anthropocentric to concernedly more holistic, but still anthropocentric.

Federal Environmental Ethic


References Earthjustice (2009). Orion North Timber Sale. In Earth Justice>Our Work>Cases>2009. Retrieved from http://earthjustice.org/our_work/cases/2009/orion-north-timber-sale. Environmental Protection Agency. (n.d.). Our mission and what we do. In EPA Home>About EPA. Retrieved from http://www.epa.gov/aboutepa/whatwedo.html Environmental Protection Agency. (2010, June 2). U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Strategic Sustainability Performance Plan. Retrieved from http://www.epa.gov/oaintrnt/documents/sspp_508.pdf Executive Order 13514. (2009). Retrieved from http://www.whitehouse.gov/assets/documents/2009fedleader_eo_rel.pdf Humane Society of the United States. (2010, July 6). Governor Schwarzenegger Signs Landmark Egg Bill into Law. Retrieved from http://www.humanesociety.org/news/press_releases/2010/07/ab1437_passage_070610.html. Interior Department. Secretary of the Interior [Organizations in the news]. (n.d.). Washington Post Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/interiordepartment/gIQApNay4O_topic.html Margil, M. & Price, B. (2010, November 16). Pittsburgh bans natural gas drilling. YES! magazine. Retrieved from http://www.yesmagazine.org/people-power/pittsburg-bansnatural-gas-drilling. Palmer, C. (2011). An overview of environmental ethics. In L. P. Pojman & P. Pojman (Eds.), Environmental ethics: Readings in theory and application (6th ed., pp. 10-35). Boston, MA: Wadsworth, Inc. (Original work published 1994).

Federal Environmental Ethic


Rees, W. (2011). Sustainable development: economic myths and global realities. In L. P. Pojman & P. Pojman (Eds.), Environmental ethics: Readings in theory and application (6th ed., pp. 661-668). Boston, MA: Wadsworth, Inc. (Original work published 1988) Singer, P. (2011). A utilitarian defense of animal liberation. In L. P. Pojman & P. Pojman (Eds.), Environmental ethics: Readings in theory and application (6th ed., pp. 71-80). Boston, MA: Wadsworth, Inc. (Original work published 1976). U.S. Department of Agriculture. (2010, September). USDA Strategic Sustainability Performance Plan. Retrieved from http://greening.usda.gov/USDASSPP09-07-10.pdf. U.S. Department of the Interior. (2011, June 3). Department of the Interior 2011 Strategic Sustainability Performance Plan. Retrieved from http://www.doi.gov/greening/sustainability_plan/SSPP.pdf. U.S. Department of the Interior. (n.d.). Our mission. Retrieved from http://www.doi.gov/index.cfm. U.S. Forest Service (n.d.) Mission, Motto, Vision, and Guiding Principles. In U.S. Forest Service>About Us-Mission. Retrieved from http://www.fs.fed.us/aboutus/mission.shtml. Westra, L. (2011). The Earth Charter: from global ethics to international law instrument. In L. P. Pojman & P. Pojman (Eds.), Environmental ethics: Readings in theory and application (6th ed., pp. 606-613). Boston, MA: Wadsworth, Inc.

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