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 valued by them – indeed, there are no other agents in the world. Yet, Routley argues that we still think that they have done something deeply wrong, and that we want this to be captured by our ethical theory. If this is the case, then Routley argues we are forced to admit that nature is has at least some intrinsic value, meaning value which is not dependent on how useful it is for achieving some other (human) goal.


If you buy the last man argument, what then? Our destruction of the natural world is not just wrong because of the suffering it inflicts on sentient creatures. We are also committing further wrongs by harming nature itself, even though this is not something that our dominant anthropocentric belief systems can accommodate. Perhaps then we ought to look for a different set of beliefs which are less ecologically self-centred.


One such view is Arne Naess’ ‘Deep Ecology’ which seeks to reject the idea of the ‘man in environment’ view of nature. Instead, deep ecologists take a much more holistic view in which all aspects of the natural world are seen as parts of a connected whole. While it will undoubtedly be difficult to change such deeply ingrained beliefs which effectively make up whole metaphysical and ethical traditions, Routley and Naess are united in their opposition to anthropocentrism, and I believe we ought to be as well.

Further reading:

  1. Richard Routley – Is There A Need For A New, An Environmental, Ethic?

  2. Arne Naess – The Shallow and The Deep, Long-Range Ecology Movement. A Summary

  3. Contrapoints – The Apocalypse