5 Must-Read Books on Environmental Ethics

Environmental ethics is the field of study that focuses on what is moral when it comes to how humans interact with the environment. While there are many books written by numerous philosophers in the field, we’ve pulled together a list of 5 books that have shaped environmental ethics and the environmental movement as a whole.

Background Information: What Is Environmental Ethics?

A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There

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Author: Aldo Leopold

First Published: 1949

A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There, one of the most influential books about environmental ethics, was written by the founding father of wildlife ecology, Aldo Leopold. The book describes Leopold’s expeditions and observations through the wilderness of Wisconsin, Iowa, Arizona, Sonora, Oregon, Manitoba, and other regions of North America. It explains in detail how wonderful and important the coexistence of wildlife and the natural world is, and how humans are destroying it for selfish gain. Leopold describes his theory of a Land Ethic in the final part of the book, which calls for an extension of our “community” to include humans and all other parts of nature, including plants and animals, and even soil and water (what he called “the land.”). Leopold was amongst the first modern philosophers to argue that humans are not superior to nature, and thus, are obligated to treat nature morally. 

You can read a full PDF version of A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There at Universidad de Magallanes. Or read more about Aldo Leopold’s environmental philosophies: Aldo Leopold & Environmental Ethics

Silent Spring

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Author: Rachel Carson

First Published: 1962

Silent Spring is one of the most important books in the history of the environmental movement. Written by marine biologist and conservationist Rachel Carson, the book describes how the use of chemical pesticides, particularly aerial spraying of DDT for insect control on farms, is tremendously harmful to the environment. Carson blames chemical pesticide companies for the disinformation they provide to the public regarding the true negative effects of the pesticides. The book also emphasizes the importance of the relationship between humans and the environment, which complimented many of the biocentrist arguments put forward by emerging environmental ethical philosophies at the time. Silent Spring argues that because humans are immensely dependent on the resources provided by the environment, it is irrational to neglect the conservation of the environment. While this is an anthropocentric viewpoint in many ways, as it values nature mainly for the resources it provides humans, it still leads to the conclusion that we must protect nature.

The publication of Silent Spring in the 1960s sparked an environmental movement that prohibited the use of DDT and pushed for the creation of laws and regulations that supported a conservation-based  approach to our environment.

You can read a full PDF version of Silent Spring at the United Diversity Library.

Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature

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Editor: William Cronon

First Published: 1995

Uncommon Ground is one of the most thought-provoking environmental ethics books, as it provides new perspectives on our place in nature. Edited by environmental historian William Cronon, this collection of essays by numerous authors responds to early environmental conservation goals such as the creation of the national parks and city parks, evaluating how these movements place humans in relation to nature. The first essay, The Trouble with Wilderness, written by Cronon himself, describes how politically and logically misguided our environmental preservation goals are. Cronon believes that humans are part of the natural world regardless of how modernized or urbanized they are. According to Cronon, this makes environmentalists’ goals of creating laws and regulations that separate humans from the natural world for the protection of wilderness extremely pointless. Cronon argues that the concept of wilderness is a myth, and instead, we must appreciate all kinds of nature, including the more accessible kinds of nature like a home garden. Uncommon Ground shows us that instead of separating humans from the natural world, environmentalists should aim to educate people on how to become more sustainable and strengthen their ethical relationship with the environment.

You can read a full PDF version of Uncommon Ground at National Parks, Landscape Art & American Imagination.

Respect for Nature: A Theory of Environmental Ethics

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Author: Paul Taylor

First Published: 1986

Respect for Nature: A Theory of Environmental Ethics, written by Paul Taylor, an American environmental ethics philosopher, is known to many as the seminal defense of biocentric ethics, the idea that all living things have moral value. The book highlights the concept of biocentrism through biology, moral philosophy, and environmental science, arguing that life should be the sole criterion of who deserves moral standing. Taylor discusses the significance of humanity’s relation to the world and how this relationship demands equal respect. Respect for Nature advocates for humans to cease treating plants and wildlife as mere resources for human needs and amusement.

You can buy access to a digital version of Respect for Nature: A Theory of Environmental Ethics at SCRIBD.

The Economy of the Earth: Philosophy, Law, and the Environment

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Author: Mark Sagoff

First Published: 1988

The Economy of the Earth: Philosophy, Law, and the Environment is one of the most influential books relevant to environmental philosophy in the late 1980s. Written by professor of philosophy Mark Sagoff, the book provides insights that focus on the balance between nature’s intrinsic value and its value for human and economic gain. Sagoff believes that through delicate balancing, humans may still achieve a successful economic state using the resources provided by nature while also protecting its inherent value. However, he rejects traditional economic analyses, such as cost-benefit analyses, as appropriate ways to make decisions about environmental choices, arguing that assigning monetary value to nature results in environmental decisions that satisfy private interests, rather than the public good.

You can download a full PDF version of The Economy of the Earth: Philosophy, Law, and the Environment at Cambridge University Press.

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