Skip to main content Accessibility help
  • This chapter is unavailable for purchase
  • Print publication year: 2012
  • Online publication date: June 2012

21 - The living and non-living environment: Spaceship Earth

from Section 6 - Our duties to nature



In reading this chapter you will:

consider why we might believe we have duties to the environment;

reflect on the source of these duties;

consider how the different moral theories would view duties to the environment;

examine the nature of these duties;

examine the threat of climate change and the duties it imposes;

reflect on climate-change scepticism;

reflect on the threat of mass species extinction.

There are broadly three positions we might take on our duties to the environment:

Anthropocentrism: we have direct duties to ourselves; everything else is only of instrumental value;

Biocentrism: we have direct duties to ourselves and to (certain) other living things; the non-living environment is only of instrumental value;

Ecocentrism: we have direct duties to ourselves, other living things and the non-living environment.

Plenty of people would add to or cross-cut these distinctions. But let’s consider each in turn.


Human beings, like other living things, have always used nature as a resource. Some think that until the Industrial Revolution we acted in harmony with nature, but that since then our activities have thrown nature comprehensively out of balance. The latter part of this claim, at least, seems justified if we believe those who say our activities are implicated in climate change and in the sixth great extinction of planetary history. We shall discuss both below.

Related content

Powered by UNSILO
Norton, B. 1991 Towards Unity With Environmentalists New York Oxford University Press
Grey, W. 1993 Anthropocentrism and deep ecology The Australasian Journal of Philosophy 71
Taylor, P. 1986 Respect for Nature Princeton, NJ Princeton University Press
Goodin, R. 1991 A Green Theory of Value Mulvaney, D. J. The Humanities and the Australian Environment Canberra Canberra Australian Academy of the Humanities
Rolston, H. 1975 Is there an ecological ethic? Ethics 85
Rodman, J. 1983 Four forms of ecological consciousness reconsidered Attig, T. Scherer, D. Environmental Ethics Buffalo, NY Prometheus
Fox, W. 2007 A General Theory of Ethics: Human Relationships, Nature and the Built Environment Cambridge, MA MIT Press
Naess, A. 1973 The shallow and the deep, long range ecology movement Inquiry 16
Leopold, A. 1949 A land ethic A Sand County Almanac Oxford Oxford University Press
Routley, R. 1973 Is there a need for a new environmental ethic? Proceedings of the 15th World Congress of Philosophy 1
Lovelock, J. 1979 Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth Oxford Oxford University Press
Stott, P. A. Gillett, N. P. Hegerl, G. C. 2010 Detection and attribution of climate change: a regional perspective Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change 1
Stott, P. A. Gillett, N.P. Hegerl, G.C. 2010 Detection and attribution of climate change: a regional perspective Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change 1
Ellerman, A. D. Convery, F. J. Perthuis, C. 2010 Pricing Carbon Cambridge Cambridge University Press
Ridley, M. 2010 The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves London Fourth Estate