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"We have modified our environment so radically that we must now modify ourselves in order to exist in this new environment."

Norbert Wiener, mathematician and philosopher

Human beings are the object and subject of traditional ethics. Environmental ethics, or eco-ethics, involves the belief that morality extends to non-human beings — not only animals, but plants, microorganisms and all types of biota and, by extension, to ecosystems as a whole.

Eco-ethics is a code of behaviour based on the human relationship with nature, both animate and inanimate. The concept emerged in the 1970s in response to changes in the perspective of the place of human beings in the world. Western ethics had traditionally focused only on relations between people. However, people began to realise that they are only a part of nature, rather than its rulers, and that the well-being of humanity depends on a healthy balance of ecosystems in which the human population co-exists with other forms of life.

Eco-ethics is based on the understanding that environmental problems can be addressed by developing new ideas about the natural world as a complex unity of interrelated and interdependent elements, in which human beings are an integral component. This requires a change in the values and moral principles that have traditionally defined interactions between human beings and nature. A new value system must be created in which people's need for a better quality of life is balanced with the needs and rights of other living beings and the environment.

The aim is therefore to develop ethical principles and rules to govern the moral relationship between human beings and nature, and to establish limits to human intervention in the environment. While earlier environmental activities were understood as the conservation of natural resources for the benefit of the human population, ecology now recognises the intrinsic value of nature, regardless of its use by human beings. Nature conservation is our moral duty. It requires a holistic approach in which nature is seen as a system comprising human beings, other living beings and the inorganic world. No part of an ecosystem can function separately from nature as a whole.

Biomedical ethics (or bioethics) examines challenges related to health and illness, life and death, and the ethical aspects of medical research.

The discipline therefore covers human reproductive technology, genetic engineering applied to human beings (including cloning and the use of stem cells), blood donation and the transplantation of organs and tissues, and euthanasia.

While bioethics regulates human interventions in natural processes — especially those related directly to human health and existence — eco-ethics governs the relationship between humans and other species, as well as human interventions in natural processes and ecosystems. However, the division is largely arbitrary. Biopiracy (the commercial exploitation or monopolisation of genetic material or genotypes) and vivisection (the use of animals for research and educational purposes), for example, would come under both bioethics and eco-ethics.

Environmental ethics has provided a basis for the development of various ecological theories and practices, such as subsistence agriculture. It gives rise to some important questions:

  • Where should we draw the line in terms of our right to exploit or destroy other types of living beings?
  • When does interference with natural processes go too far?
  • What really constitutes a human need?

Science cannot give precise answers. Predictions about potential environmental impacts are inevitably probabilistic. Ecosystems — especially in a global context — are too complex to allow for the accurate calculation of the effects of human intervention. Many people are hoping that new technologies will mitigate the environmental crisis, while others call for a change in our attitudes and behaviour.

Problems related to the environment and nature conservation are, in fact, moral problems. Given the scale of the current global environmental crisis, eco-ethics is a vital approach if we are to help change the behaviour of individuals, communities and humanity as a whole. When people become aware of the world as a complex whole and understand the relationships between all living things, they will begin to follow the norms of environmental ethics. They will no longer take from nature more than they need, nor will they destroy ecosystems for pleasure.

Acting in accordance with environmental ethics means being aware of, and taking into account, the laws of nature in order to preserve the balance of ecosystems. The American biologist Barry Commoner formulated the following four laws of ecology in his 1971 work The Closing Circle:

  • Everything is connected to everything else. There is one ecosphere for all living organisms and what affects one, affects all.
  • Everything must go somewhere. There is no "waste" in nature and there is no "away" to which things can be thrown.
  • Nature knows best. Humankind has fashioned technology to improve upon nature, but such change in a natural system is likely to be detrimental to that system.
  • There is no such thing as a free lunch. Exploitation of nature will inevitably involve the conversion of resources from useful to useless forms.