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Rules for the Ethical Exploitation of Nature : ENVIRONMENTAL ETHICS Duties to and Values in the Natural World by Holmes Rolston III (Temple University Press: $34.95; 389 pp.)

February 21, 1988|Bob Sipchen | Sipchen is a View staff writer.

With insider traders run amok on Wall Street and unscrupulous former officials getting nabbed for illegal lobbying, a book about an ethics that includes Lousewort and Devil's Hole pupfish may seem like a case of misplaced priorities. But in "Environmental Ethics--Duties to and Values in the Natural World," Holmes Rolston III makes a strong argument for establishing just this sort of philosophy as a foundation for all ethics.

"Nowadays it is easier to get lost conceptually in the natural world than physically," writes Rolston, a professor of philosophy at Colorado State University. So he offers himself as "a wilderness guide" into the "radical and revolutionary" realm of environmental ethics.

The philosophical trek begins with a formal demonstration that the natural world has 14 values, ranging from life-support to economic, recreational, scientific, aesthetic, and religious value: "The wilderness works on a traveler's soul as much as it does on his muscles." Then, stating that "value generates duty," he considers humankind's responsibility to the environment.

Rolston dismisses the notion, set forth by such contemporary philosophers as Tom Regan, that non-human animals have "rights." He also rejects the "biocentrism," of the "Deep Ecology" movement, which holds humankind to a strictly egalitarian position in the biosphere.

But his acceptence of a precisely defined human "superiority" does not lead him to embrace an anthropocentric approach to the environment. Rather, he calls for a "tougher, realistic," view in which humanity fits both morally and biologically into its ecological niche.

Humans act naturally in exploiting the environment, he contends. But in exploiting it to the extent that whole species are rapidly vanishing, we behave foolishly as well as unethically. "Destroying species is like tearing pages out of an unread book, written in a language people hardly know how to read, about the place where they live," he writes. Even more dangerously, such "super-killing," erodes the regenerative powers of the planet.

With this in mind, Rolston argues that a commitment to halting the reckless rate of artificial extinction will not suffice. It's time to say "Enough!" and preserve the larger ecological units--the habitats--in which species evolve and interact. "An ecologically informed society must love lions-in-jungles, organisms-in-ecosystems, or else fail in vision and courage," he writes.

Sometimes Rolston's incisive logic leads him to draw fine ethical lines. For instance, "a woman who eats a chicken can reverence life," but her jaguar coat, "blasphemes life." And sometimes he remains ambiguous, refusing to accept or reject, for instance, the idea that "sport hunting" sometimes has "sacramental value because it unfolds the contradictions of the universe. . . . Those who go out and kill for fun may have failed to grow up morally; sometimes those who object to any killing in nature and in human encounter with nature have not grown up either biologically or morally."

With Rolston leading the way, the trail to environmental ethics winds past an assortment of intriguing conundrums. In the severe winter of 1984, for instance, 1,500 antelope in Wyoming faced starvation when they found their migration route blocked by a 5-foot high, 25-mile long, wire mesh fence a rancher had erected to protect his cattle land. How did humans sort out the conflicting rights, duties and values? And when a sand-hill crane lost its legs in an alligator trap, were those who fit it with artificial limbs and suction cup feet behaving ethically?

Since such small questions inevitably lead to larger issues--ozone depletion, acid rain, nuclear waste, mass extinctions, and eventually the collective mental and physical health of our own species--an ethics that fails to include a responsible approach to the environment is short sighted, Rolston argues. In conclusion, he offers sets of detailed ethical guidelines.

Policy makers, for instance, should follow maxims such as: "Recognize that environmental decisions must be one place where the model (myth?) of the perpetually expanding economy is broken."

His pointed ethical advice to business leaders includes: "Remember that the bottom line ought not to be black unless it can also be green. Given that there is no healthy economy built on a sick environment . . . what's good for the countryside is good for the company."

Non-academic readers may occasionally find themselves clawing for finger holds, as the author scrambles over sometimes difficult philosophical turf. But Rolston's poetic insights--"the cougar's fang sharpens the deer's sight, the deer's fleet-footedness shapes a more supple lioness"--and almost conversational style reassure the reader in moments of intellectual vertigo. Those who accept his belief that "nature is endlessly stimulating to the mind and bores only the ignorant or the insensitive," will find the climb mentally invigorating--the axiological vistas more than adequate payoff for the effort.

Neither shopping mall developers nor Earth First! activists will agree with everything Rolston has to say. But with luck, lots of people will accompany him on this journey, returning with ideas with which to launch sophisticated discussions of environmental ethics. Imagine how the world would be different today if such discussions had begun decades ago.

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