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What's Wrong With Destroying The Environment

By Jack Walker - Philosophy Student @ Churchill College, Cambridge


In 2016, Thai authorities banned tourists from visiting Koh Tachai, a beautiful island popular for day trips from the mainland. The reason? Severe overcrowding was rapidly destroying the natural environment, with the small beach meant to hold only 70 people, sometimes hosting 1,000.

Stories like this are becoming all too common as the environment is destroyed at an alarming rate. I take it as granted that this is deeply morally wrong (keen readers may have noticed that there is no question mark at the end of my title). However, it seems difficult to pin down all the reasons why this is actually the case. Some might spring to point out all the pain that the climate crisis will cause to both humans and non-human animals as the source of this badness. They are right to do so – however, those who follow Richard Routley are sceptical that this is the full story.

Routley argues that ‘Western’ ethics is highly anthropocentric, meaning that the only objects which are considered in ethical decision making are those which concern, or are useful to humans. He argues this is incorrect because agents can perform actions which are intuitively profoundly wrong without harming anyone or, anything which is considered valuable to any people. Consider the following thought experiment:

Last Man: The last person surviving the end of the world decides to eliminate, as far as they can, every remaining living thing, animal, and plant (painlessly, as at the best abattoirs).

In this case, when the last person wipes out a certain species of flower, they don’t harm another agent, or anything valu