While philosophers have focused on the human relationship with nature for nearly all of human history, questions of how humans should treat the environment were “formalized” by the academic field of environmental ethics. This article will provide an overview of some of the world’s most well-known environmental ethics philosophers.
Background information: What Is Environmental Ethics?
Known as the founding father of wildlife ecology, Aldo Leopold was a conservationist, forester, philosopher, environmental educator, writer, and outdoor enthusiast.
Born in Burlington, Iowa in 1887, his interest in nature began when he was young as he spent time exploring the natural world near his home. Leopold pursued his passion by studying at Yale Forest School. After graduating in 1909, Lepold began his career with the United States Forest Service in Arizona and New Mexico, where he became a supervisor of the Carson National Forest of New Mexico, and eventually a conservation leader who proposed, developed, and managed the first Wilderness Area of the United States, the Gila National Forest.
In 1933, Leopold published his first book, Game Management, which discusses wildlife population dynamics, food chains, and habitat restorations. Considered the first wildlife ecology book published in the United States, Game Management gave Leopold his reputation as the founder of the field of wildlife management. Much of Leopold’s writing is related to his conservation projects, such as a reforestation experiment Leopold undertook with his family in Wisconsin, where they planted thousands of trees to restore and study the different biomes in the area.
A Sand County Almanac, a compilation of Leopold’s articles and other works, was published a year after his death in 1948. The final and most notable essay in the book, “The Land Ethic”, emphasizes Leopold’s call for people to embrace moral responsibility for the environment. His main argument is that we must extend 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.”) In this way, Leopold’s philosophy is an ecocentric philosophy, one that believes all parts of an ecosystem, including non-living things, deserve to be treated with moral respect.
Read more about Leopold’s environmental philosophies: Aldo Leopold & Environmental Ethics
Known as the father of national parks, John Muir was a naturalist, author, environmental philosopher, botanist, zoologist, glaciologist, and a strong preservationist in the United States.
John Muir was born in 1838 in Dunbar, Scotland, but emigrated to Wisconsin when he was 11 years old. In 1860, Muir studied at the University of Wisconsin for three years where he was deeply inspired by transcendentalist thinkers like Emerson.
In the 1860s, Muir set out on a mission to explore the natural world, and traveled to Mexico, Cuba, Panama, and Isthmus until he sailed back to San Francisco and settled in California in 1868. Muir fell in love with the beauty of the Sierra Nevada and Yosemite, where he spent much time exploring and writing.
In 1874, Muir released his book Studies in the Sierra, a series of articles about different rock types, geological formations, and conservation in the Sierra Nevada. Following the success of the book, Muir ventured further, exploring Alaska, Australia, South America, Africa, Europe, China, and Japan. In total, Muir wrote about 300 articles and 10 books about his exploration.
Inspired by what he saw on his travels, Muir’s writings spotlight the beauty of the natural world as well as the destruction of mountain and forest ecosystems caused by the increasing amount of sheep and cattle farming in his time. This led Muir to his preservationist environmental philosophy, which focused on protecting wilderness from any kind of human interference. Unlike Leopold, Muir saw humans as looking upon nature, rather than being active participants in nature. He argued that the key to protecting wilderness is getting more people to visit natural places.
Partially as a result of Muir’s writing, Congress enacted legislation that led to the creation of Yosemite National Park, and eventually, Sequoia, Mount Rainier, Petrified Forest, and Grand Canyon National Parks. Muir went on to found the Sierra Club in 1892.
Read more about Muir’s contributions to environmental ethics: John Muir’s Environmental Philosophy
Known as the founder of deep ecology, Arne Naess was a mountaineer, activist, and the most important Norwegian environmental philosopher of the late 20th century.
Born in Slemdal, Norway in 1912, Arne Naess developed his interests in nature and mountain climbing at a young age. By the age of 17, he had already climbed 106 of the highest mountains in Norway. In 1933, at the age of 21, Naess completed his Master of Philosophy at the University of Oslo, and eventually became the youngest (and the only) professor of philosophy in Norway at the time. After pursuing his PhD, Naess served as a professor at the University of California Berkeley before returning to become the department head of philosophy at the University of Oslo. During this period, around 1938, Naess built a hut on Mt. Hallingskarvet, called the Hut Tvergastein. He stayed there occasionally to isolate himself, and to start developing the idea of “deep ecology”, which would become the foundation of his environmental commitment.
In 1973, Naess released his article “The Shallow and the Deep, Long-Range Ecology Movement: A Summary”, where he explained his concept of deep ecology for the first time. Deep ecology is a movement and philosophy that argues that we must value nature for its intrinsic value, rather than for the resources or other value it provides to humans. Thus, all parts of nature deserve equal moral treatment. The article explains that the deep ecology movement requires a significant shift in how communities and big industries value and utilize our environment. A year later, Naess published another book called Ecology, Community and Lifestyle, where he elaborates on his ecocentric insights into the relationship between people and the environment.
In 1984, Naess, together with the American philosopher George Sessions, listed the basic principles of the deep ecology movement, called the “Deep Ecology Eight Point Platform”, which serves as a guide for people to practice and sharpen their deep ecological principles.
In 1988, Naess, together with other philosophers and activists, wrote the book “Thinking Like a Mountain: Towards a Council of All Beings.” Inspired by the founding father of wildlife ecology, Aldo Leopold, the book emphasizes that environmental protection is as important as protecting ourselves.
Naess was also a fervent environmental activist who supported and participated in the rising “green politics” in European countries in the late 60s and 70s. Naess took part in the protests against the development of hydroelectric power projects in Mardola and Alta in the 1970s, where he chained himself to the rocks of the Mardalsfossen waterfalls and refused to leave until the dam project was withdrawn. The protest strengthened and inspired other environmental activists in Norway at the time.
Known for his contributions to the philosophy of science and technology, Bruno Latour was a French philosopher, anthropologist, and sociologist.
In 1973, at age 26, Bruno Latour was posted to Côte d’Ivoire as an alternative to military service, where he participated in a program similar to the “French Peace Corp.” This is where he developed an interest in anthropology, science, and technology philosophy. He then pursued a doctorate in philosophical technology at the University of Tours and completed it in 1975.
In 1979, Latour, together with the sociologist Steven Woolgar, wrote the book Laboratory Life, which is the result of more than a year of observation of the scientists of the Salk Institute for Biological Sciences. The famous book focuses on how scientific work is undertaken, exploring how “scientific facts” are constructed and what cultural assumptions influence what we take as fact versus opinion.
Latour’s most important work in relation to environmental ethics is a book called Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy, which focused on “political ecology.” Latour argued for an end to the dichotomy between society and nature, and instead, pushed for the creation of a collective community between humans and nonhumans. Latour argues for a radical shift in how we manage nature through policies, arguing that nature cannot be controlled or even protected, and that we must rethink what we accept as “fact” when it comes to the natural world.
Throughout his career, Latour wrote over 150 articles and published over 30 books.
Donna Haraway is a professor, author, and philosopher known best for her feminist take on environmental ethics and her rejection of anthropocentrism.
Donna Haraway was born in Denver, Colorado, in 1944. Her early interest in writing was inspired by her father who was a sportswriter for The Denver Post. After studying Zoology, Philosophy, and English at Colorado College, Haraway decided to continue her studies in Paris, where she pursued evolutionary philosophy and theology at the Fondation Teilhard de Chardin. In 1972, Haraway completed her Ph.D. in biology at Yale at the age of 28.
Haraway became a teacher of women’s studies and the history of science at the University of Hawaii and at Johns Hopkins University until 1980, when she decided to move to Santa Cruz, and serve as a professor in feminist theory at the University of California Santa Cruz.
In 1985, Haraway published the essay, “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s”, which focused on biases in scientific culture that value males above females. She uses the metaphor of a cyborg to represent human culture and societal biases intruding into how we view nature. In Haraway’s view, it’s difficult to understand what is “objective fact” in nature, and what is simply an interpretation of nature through a biased human lens. In her 1991 updated essay, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” Haraway argues that men have exploited women’s reproduction labor. This led to “ecofeminism,” a set of philosophies focused on comparing men’s exploitation of women to human exploitation of the environment.
In future books, such as Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science, Haraway expands on the idea that science is not objective, and is in fact biased by the culture and beliefs of society. This idea extends to the fact that how humans observe or relate to nature is biased by cultural beliefs and prejudices.
Haraway’s later works, such as The Companion Species Manifesto and Making Kin Not Population focus on the human relationship with other species, exploring the deep connections between humans and other “critters.” She argues for “making kin” with other species, an idea that requires humans and critters to feel a mutual moral obligation to each other.
Learn more about environmental ethical philosophers and their works: 5 Must-Read Books in Environmental Ethics