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.