I pose the question “is environmentalism an ethical duty?” not because I wish to explore the value of plants and animals specifically, but because it is part of a bigger issue, namely what ethical responsibilities do we have to future generations, and how should this affect our consumption of non-renewable resources? For example, consider our use of oil. No matter how much oil there is it will eventually be depleted if we keep using it at our current rate, because our consumption exceeds the rate at which it is replenished. Even if it won’t run out while we are still alive, are we being unjust to our descendants by using the oil they could otherwise have had, or do we have a right to use resources as we see fit without talking into consideration the needs of people who don’t exist yet?
First let me discuss how existing ethical systems would handle this issue. One of the simplest ethical systems is the principle that people should act to maximize their own happiness. This might seem like it would result in a world of overly selfish people, but to those who believe in this principle think that social pressures would prevent people from acting in a way we would consider unethical, for example people governed by this principle wouldn’t steal because society would punish them if they were caught. Under this principle it is perfectly acceptable to use all the resources you want, so long as they last for the remainder of your life (because you wouldn’t want to run out, nor would you want people to punish you for being wasteful). Future generations however cannot punish you, and thus you have no reason to restrain your usage on their account.
Utilitarianism, the principle that people should act to maximize the total happiness, on the other hand could dictate either that you should use no non-renewable resources or that you are free to use them up with no regard for the future. I already discussed this in an earlier post, but I will review the reasons, briefly, again. Basically it comes down to a question of whose happiness counts towards the total. If only the happiness of currently living people counts then you can justify using up all of the resources within your lifetime, because this would make the people currently alive happier. Of course if you believe that the happiness of future people counts towards the total then you shouldn’t use any non-renewable resources, because the ability to possess and to use the resource (which contributes to the happiness of future generations) is greater than your happiness from using the resource (after you use it you get no more happiness from possessing it).
Since these happiness based principles aren’t getting us anywhere let us turn to Kant’s categorical imperative. The categorical imperative states that you only have justification for an action if it is dictated by a rule that all people could rationally live by. For example you couldn’t justify theft under the categorical imperative because if all people became thieves society would collapse. Unfortunately, like utilitarianism, the categorical imperative can go either way on the issue of how to use resources. If you consider only the people alive to be under consideration for the ability to rationally will a principle then you can use up all the resources. Of course if the ability of future generations to rationally will the principle is taken into consideration then non-renewable resources cannot be used.
Since the existing ethical theories don’t seem to be of any help it is time to experiment with new ideas. After some consideration I came up with a principle that wouldn’t endorse either extreme. The principle is: when you take from someone your action must result in something of equal or greater value being given to that person (or in the prevention some equal or greater harm to them). Apply this principle to the question at hand I conclude that we can only justify our use of resources if we create something permanent of equal or greater value. This doesn’t mean that the resources have to be turned directly into this gift to future generations. Perhaps you use a lot of oil while creating a work of art, even though the work of art isn’t created from the oil it is still something that those future generations will be able to enjoy instead of the oil you consumed. Of course any use of resources can be justified in order to survive, since the future generation wouldn’t exist if the current generation didn’t survive (this falls under the case of preventing a greater harm).
Now let us turn this principle to the use of the environment. Clearly we might obtain some benefits from damaging the environment, but future generations will not receive these benefits, and they would have benefited from a healthy environment. Thus we must balance our destruction of the environment with the permanent accomplishments we are making. If we destroy the environment simply to achieve some momentary happiness (for example disposable consumer goods) then we incur an obligation to do something permanently beneficial. Personally I think that the lasting achievements we are making do not currently outweigh the damage we are doing to the environment, meaning that we either need to take better care of the world or to accomplish more.