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What Are they Saying About Environmental Ethics?

Pamela Smith, New York: Paulist Press, 1997. 122pp. $9.95 (cloth).

In clear, simple language, this brief text introduces many approaches to environmental ethics. The reader benefits from Smith's familiarity with well respected representatives of diverse schools. She helpfully points out the strengths and weaknesses of each. Although Smith considers both philosophical and theological environmental ethics, it is clear that her main interest is in religious - and most specifically Catholic - responses. It is difficult to find fault with this well-crafted introduction. One may be disappointed, only, that Smith did not lend her talents to an extended study of such important dimensions of environmental ethics as anthropocentrism, process thought, Indigenous authors, and environmental aesthetics. Omissions may be necessary, given the constraints of space, but are all the more regrettable in light of Smith's achievements with the areas she does cover.

In sequential chapters, Smith sketches deep ecology, ecofeminism, animal rights theory, Leopoldian ethics, and liberation theology. The last two chapters are devoted to explicitly religious responses: world religions and of the Catholic magisterium.

Deep ecology is addressed first. Arne Naess is its progenitor, and Smith articulates his evolving principles (which can hardly be referred to as a system). George Sessions has attempted some systemization of Naess, specifying, for example, the central tenants of a deep ecology platform such as "recognition of the equal intrinsic value of all beings" (9). Roderick Nash suggests that rights have historically been denied, then granted to one group after another, and that now rights ought to be extended beyond human beings. Smith concludes that virtually all schools of environmentalist thought "have, in some way, to be measured against the backdrop of deep ecology, since they can be seen as variations . . . alternatives . . . and even opponents of deep ecology" (16).

With Carolyn Merchant, Sallie McFague, and Rosemary Radford Ruether, Smith describes ecofeminism as a blending of social justice and environmental issues. "For ecofeminists in general," she says, "the source of ecodestruction is not merely anthropocentrism; it is androcentrism, the predominance of the masculine and macho, in societal construction and norm making" (20). Smith avoids suggesting that ecofeminism is a coherent and systematic approach, but does not draw attention to such issues as whether or not there is a distinctly "feminine" worldview. Whatever criticisms she makes (here and throughout) are gentle and subtle. She simply notes, for example, that "like most ecofeminists, Ruether presumes that there is little need to be prescriptive in detail about appropriate eco-ethics so long as the vision is brought to clarity" (25).

This generosity is evident in her treatment of the controversial claims of animal rights ethicists who, like Peter Singer and Tom Regan, conclude "that animals have an inherent right to be respected by humans, that certain things are 'due' them . . ." (35). Yet, Smith does not avoid the controversies. With Mary Midgley and others, she discusses the problems of moral rights for nonhumans, the provocative language of "speciesism," and the individualism of animal rights ethicists.

Ethicists grounded in the works of Aldo Leopold offer a radical alternative to individualism. These "Naturalists" envision an environmental holism which is taken furthest by one interpreter (and Smith astutely points out that his is "reasonable extension"), J. Baird Callicott. Leopold's organismic vision suggests one ethical principle: "that which is should be, to the extent possible, preserved - and preserved in such a manner that species and systems survive healthily" (56).

Leonardo Boff, Sean McDonagh, and other liberationists apply this principle with a "preferential option" for the "most threatened of other beings and species" (58). These ethicists are particularly critical of consumerism, unrestrained human population growth, and institutions of oppression. Theirs is a critique of First World society that concludes with demands for "thoroughgoing reforms in economic and political systems" (63).

Lynn White, Jr.'s famous critique of Christianity as antienvironmental provides the basis for Smith's analysis of religious environmentalism. Referring to the Parliament of World Religions' 1993 "Declaration Toward a Global Ethic" she finds four environmentally applicable directives: (1) nonviolence and respect for life; (2) solidarity and just world order; (3) tolerance and truthfulness; and (4) equal rights. Eric Katz, Paul Santmire, and others are noted for having taken up White's challenge to offer a pro-environment reading of Judaism and Christianity. The conclusions are, shall we say, modest: "humans, animals . . . and ecosystems are all deemed - in varying ways and to varying degrees - worthy of moral consideration and respect" (77).

Specifically Catholic responses are taken up separately. Smith begins with Gaudium et Spes and works through the Catechism and several encyclicals of John Paul II, including explicit references to the environment in Evangelium Vitae (1995). She demonstrates how the ethical vocabulary of Vatican II - such as "common good," "solidarity," "subsidiarity," etc. - has been taken up by American Bishops and applied environmentally in such statements as "Renewing the Earth" (1991). She returns to the Tradition of the Church to elucidate certain proto-environmental principles from the Benedictines, Franciscans, and especially Thomas Aquinas. Surprisingly (and somewhat unclearly), she concludes that Catholic environmentalism is most likely closest to the (Leopoldian) "naturalists." While there is a growing interest in environmental ethics on the part of the Catholic Church, Smith doesn't shirk from mentioning the greatest obstacle to a more holistic approach: population control (86).

Smith concludes her all-too-brief book with a list of the points in common and the persistent differences between all of these approaches. Among the similarities are a concern for sustainability and growth beyond pure anthropocentrism. Differences remain in how far one reasonably extends the idea of rights. A generally agreed upon "respect" for nature seems a compromise term.

This text is an excellent introduction to various environmental ethics approaches, key texts, and major figures. It includes a clear analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of each and avoids the temptation to synthesize. Smith takes complex, subtle and intricate material and presents it lucidly and simply. Her book is a nearly perfect solution to the need for an undergraduate environmental ethics text.

ROBERT L. GRANT
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Author:Grant, Robert L.
Publication:Cross Currents
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1998
Words:994
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