Environmental Ethics
and Public Policy
Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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Man and His Habitat Around Lake Baikal
International Conference, Lake Baikal
Buryat Republic, USSR -- September 4-11, 1990

Ernest Partridge, Department of Philosophy
California State University, Fullerton, USA

Уважаемые коллеги и друзья 
(Honored colleagues and friends)

It is an outstanding privilege, opportunity and pleasure for me to be here today. A privilege to meet colleagues in the global community of environmental scholars and activists. An opportunity to establish lasting and productive associations in our common struggle to preserve and renew our precious planet. And it is a pleasure to see, at last, this natural treasure, Lake Baikal. Words and images alerted me to this splendor, but only direct experience can convey it. As your esteemed author, Valentin Rasputin, has so well expressed it:  "Озеро Байкал такая невообразимая красота, может сравниться только с раем."1  ("Lake Baikal contains such beauty as to be unimaginable this side of paradise.")


Bertrand Russell, the late British philosopher, once advised the student of Philosophy to assume the perspective of an intelligent person of another culture or of our distant history, and then to try to understand what it is like for such a person to accept ideas which we now regard as absurd. Such an exercise, Russell suggested, might even lead one to wonder what ideas that seem "perfectly obvious" to us, might seem absurd in the future. No doubt such reflections, should they become widespread, would lead to quantum leaps in humility and tolerance.

High on the list of the prevailing dogmas that future generations might regard as patently absurd, is the belief that our species is somehow a thing apart from the nature which produced and sustains us, and that we are thus somehow intellectually capable, let alone morally entitled, to use nature for our own immediate and personal uses, with no regard for the future, no regard for the welfare of our fellows species, and no regard for the system of nature itself. This conceited belief in humanity's "primacy over nature," widespread in my youth, is becoming less "obvious" throughout the industrialized world today. As the revered American ecologist, Aldo Leopold, expressed this point:

We abuse land [i.e., nature] because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect. There is no other way for land to survive the impact of mechanized man..2

Another strange belief, now thankfully unfashionable among moral philosophers, is the notion that morality is "reductive" and "atomistic" -- that ethical beliefs are to be understood, perhaps even validated, in terms of the emotions, or preferences, or commendations, or "radical wills" of individuals.3  By this account, societies, be they families, "markets," legislators, or whatever, are thus mere aggregates of their component individuals -- no more than the sum of their parts. According to these ethical atomists, "communities" are mythical entities, with no legitimate claims upon the individual.

Each of these ideas -- namely, of the separability of humanity from nature, and of the moral isolation of human beings from each other -- are, I submit, indefensible. Even worse, they are so thoroughly inappropriate to our perilous times as to be threats to our very existence. Not only might future generations find it strange that intelligent people of our age could actually believe such things. Far worse, unless we abandon these ideas, there may be no future generations to make that judgment.

In contrast to ethical atomism, there is an older wisdom, now regaining prominence in moral philosophy, which holds that the individual is more likely to serve his self-interest by serving the interests of others, focusing his attention, not on his perceived "needs," but outwardly toward persons, causes, institutions, places and ideals. Thus, in the life of the wise, egoism and altruism converge. This so-called "paradox of morality" is eloquently expressed by philosophers from Aristotle to the present. It is also universally affirmed in the great religions and cultures of the world. In fact, an adherence to this theme of "the moral paradox" -- of "finding oneself by losing oneself in others" -- might even be a requirement for a viable human culture, without which there can be no "self-interest" whatever for the individual. In fact, given the social origins and the social sustenance of the human personality, the contention of the "moral atomists" is seen to be completely reversed: in fact, it is the community which is fundamental, and the isolated "individual" which is the mythical entity.

Significantly, in addition to these religious, cultural and historical expressions, "the moral paradox" is acquiring the support of the empirical and formal sciences. In "The Tragedy of the Commons," a brilliant and highly influential paper, the American biologist, Garrett Hardin, demonstrated how the individual, acting strictly according to his "rational self interest," can bring ruin upon himself and his community by destroying the common ecological resource base.4  In many cases there is no solution to this "tragedy," apart from communal action -- "mutual coercion, mutually agreed-upon." In short, rule of law. Hardin's ideas have antecedents far back in the history of political philosophy. However, the power of his essay resides in his application of these ideas to current environmental emergencies, and in the validation that the concept of "the tragedy of the commons" gains through these applications.

Further support for "the moral paradox" may be found in the mathematics of "game theory." Of particular interest is the "game" of "prisoner's dilemma," which formally demonstrates the advantages of "morally constrained" cooperation. Of course, formal investigations such as these are of practical interest only to the degree that they can be applied in "the real world." But this is the exciting part: "the prisoner's dilemma" is readily applied to such varied phenomena as labor negotiations, the arms race, and marriages. In these cases, and more, the formal theory demonstrates the rationale for "the moral paradox" -- for maximizing one's personal gain by forsaking one's personal gain.

These two paradigms, "the tragedy of the commons" and "the prisoners' dilemma," are but two of several productive avenues of research in contemporary ethical theory. Suffice to say that these investigations suggest objective and rational justification for "the moral paradox" and for acting from "the moral point of view," which is to say, from the point-of-view of the community as a whole.5

But can we apply this idea of "the moral paradox" to the "community of nature" as well? At this point, many of my philosophical colleagues resist. There are, they complain, too many disanalogies between "natural communities" and "human communities." Granted that both display complex interactions among the parts. Granted too that in both cases, the "whole" community is more than the sum of the component parts. But human communities consist of persons -- conscious, rational, deliberative beings, who must thus assume duties, who are thus accorded rights, and who therefore have dignity and deserve respect, not due to the "non-personal" members of the "natural community."

I grant the distinction. Furthermore, I concede that the concept of "personhood" is fundamental to moral philosophy, and that we have no evidence that any non-human species are fully "persons" (though this is logically possible). But the achievement of "personhood" places a burden of moral responsibility upon us that our brother species do not have. (There's no such thing as a "guilty seal." A tree has no "responsibilities.") True, their lack of personhood might diminish our responsibility to members of other species. Who, after all, would, if forced, choose the life of an animal over that of a human? (Well, maybe some humans).

But that misses the point, I believe. Our responsibility to the global environment is not to individual organisms, but to the system. And the global ecosystem system is not the sum of it's component organisms. (For the sake of the "system" we must often "cull" surplus organisms, such as insects). It is the system, more complex than we can ever know or even imagine, that invites us to use the metaphor of "community," and it is the system of nature that commands our respect and should constrain our behavior.

And why should a system put such moral demands upon us? Because we are inextricable parts of that system. In the words of the Zen master, "the world is my body." Or as the ecologist Paul Shepard puts it, "[our] skin is ecologically like a pond surface or a forest soil, not a shell so much as a delicate interpenetration ... The beauty and complexity of nature are continuous with ourselves."6  At the Moscow Global Forum on Environment last January, President Mikhail S. Gorbachev expressed the point precisely: "Человесево является частью биосферы, а биосфера ето единое целое."  ("Humanity is part of the biosphere, and ... the biosphere is a single whole").

Accordingly, our accustomed "human-centered" language of environmental debate may be seriously misconceived. For example, we often hear such remarks as: "this policy raises competing political, economic and environmental considerations ." But if there is no clear demarcation between ourselves and our biosphere, aren't all human considerations "environmental."

Consider a fanciful analogy: suppose our bodily organs were conscious and deliberative. One might imagine a "selfish kidney" saying, "look, why should I care about the heart and lungs? I've got my own problems?" To which the heart would respond, "well, if that's the way you feel, I'll just do my thing without your assistance." Needless to say, you wouldn't want to be carrying a life insurance policy on that body.

Now suppose, instead, that only the kidneys were conscious. Would that make any difference in it's "selfish" attitude toward the heart and lungs? Clearly, it's "selfishness" would be equally self-defeating. The problem, in both cases, is that the kidney would wrongly conceives it's "individuality." In the context of the integrated whole that is the body, a "kidney-centered" morality simply makes no sense. It is self-defeating.

The Zen philosopher, Alan Watts, put the matter this way: one might think of the stomach as the brain's way of feeding the brain. Or one might think of the brain as the stomach's way of finding food. But, of course, once you have descended "below" the level of the integrated organism, there is no "way" that makes any sense. The brain and the stomach evolved together in the integrated system that is the body. This much we all can understand. Their "interests" can only derive from the interest of the organism of which they are parts.

But in the industrial world, our understanding appears to have stopped at the level of the individual human organism. Thus we fail to appreciate that our species has evolved as a functioning "organ" of the planetary organism. Still worse, it now appears that this organ has mutated into malignancy, threatening the very world which is it's body.

Native cultures, which, in our ethnocentric conceit, we have recently called "primitive," had an ecological (if non-scientific) understanding that we have only recently come to appreciate. The mis-named "American Indians" generally perceived their world as a "community" in the literal sense, inhabited by "animal-people" and "spirit-people." A similar world-view was held by the aboriginal Siberians, ancestors and cousins of the Amerinds. (Let us not forget, that North American was settled by wandering Siberian tribes, who couldn't keep their Bering Strait).

Both cultures were constrained, in their dealings with nature, by the respect they had for the "animal-people" in their natural community. Note the following remarkable parallels. First, the Russian anthropologist, K. V. Vyatkina, writes:

among the Tunka Buryats a slaughtered sable was not carried through the door, but passed through a specially made window with the words 'ail'chin irebe," which means the visitor has arrived, thus stressing their respect for this animal.7

The American anthropologist, A. Irving Hallowell reports that among the Ojibwa tribe,

when bears were sought out in their dens in the spring they were addressed, asked to come out so that they could be killed, and an apology was offered to them.8

These days, we do no regard animals, much less trees and mountains, as sentient and conscious persons. Given the state of our knowledge, I daresay that we should not. But the West European settlers of North American (my ancestors), as well as the Russian settlers of Siberia I presume, were quick to dismiss these "heathen superstitions." In so doing, they failed to understand that myths about "animal-people" were half-truths. To be sure, sables and bears do no feel and think as we do. But the beliefs that they did, were integrated into a cultural belief system that well-served both the Tunka Buryats and the Ojibwa -- belief systems that thus satisfied the "pragmatic test of truth." The truthful half of these beliefs, of course, was the affirmation of the "community of nature" -- that one cannot disturb a part without disturbing the whole. Our casual dismissal of that truth has put the global life community, and ourselves with it, in grave peril.

In these remarks, I am suggesting that "the moral paradox" applies not only to communities of human persons, but also to "the community of nature" -- that unimaginably complex interaction of life-forms, energy flows, and nutrient cycles. If we accept the compelling scientific evidence that we are inalienably part of this natural community, then the dominant myth of the past two centuries -- that nature is an adversary to be "subdued and conquered" -- is fundamentally false. It is a myth that has brought us to the edge of global catastrophe. We can draw back from that edge only at the price of abandoning the myth of the "mastery of nature." In it's place, we must adopt the "paradox of ecological morality" -- we serve our species best by focusing our primary attention upon the health of the life community of which we are a part.


Ethics is arguably the oldest branch of philosophy -- surely among the oldest. Why should we take special interest in it now -- on this occasion, with regard to the management of the natural environment?  We should do so precisely because the times are extraordinary, and thus the ethical significance of these times, and of our environmental responsibility, is without precedence in human history.

I suggest that the moral urgency of our environmental policies might be appreciated if we first engage in an analysis of this concept of moral responsibility. (in Russian, ответственность).

To say that a person, or his community, is "morally responsible" to do something (or refrain from something), implies at the very least that: (a) He knows, or can know, the consequences of his contemplated action. (b) He is capable of doing this act. (c) He can choose to do otherwise. (d) The known consequences of the act have value significance -- that is, these consequences will affect the welfare of others and/or infringe upon their rights.

If these criteria correctly identify the concept of responsibility -- (a) knowledge (знание), (b) capacity (способность), (c) choice (выбор) and (d) value significance (ценностое значение) -- it would seem that our responsibility to the environment and to our successors is without precedent. Our sciences have given us access to unprecedented knowledge of the consequences of our acts and policies, and our technology gives us unprecedented capacity to affect the future. And both science and technology have dramatically extended our list of options.

An unwillingness to acknowledge and to fulfill the moral responsibilities that increase with our science and technology, does not diminish these responsibilities. Such unwillingness would only increase our moral delinquency.

Will we enlist the moral stamina to fulfill these responsibilities?  As we Americans say, "time will tell."  However, we have no moral alternative but to make the attempt. Essential to that attempt must be public awareness and political motivation. From these requirements follow our diverse professional responsibilities. Namely:

  • environmental scientists must continue to inform us of the intricacies of the global ecosystem -- and perhaps more significantly, they must remind us of what we do not know about this system. It is the task and responsibility of these scientists to expand and enrich the criteria of knowledge, capacity and choice.

  • environmental philosophers must continually review and analyze the concepts and methodology of environmental investigators, and they must search out the unexamined yet crucial assumptions of public policy and public opinion.

  • resource managers and local communities blessed with such splendid habitats as Lake Baikal, must steadfastly defend the integrity of their legacy. To cite Franklin Roosevelt's favorite scripture: "to whom much is given, much is required."

  • above all, the educators must nurture in their students the "natural" sense of wonder and love for our planetary home -- a wonder and love which, I devoutly believe, is coded in our common genes -- and which is the legacy of countless generations shaped and attuned to the physics, chemistry, biology, and thus the pallet, sculpture and the music of our common planet. Let us teach our students the arts and the sciences, history and literature. But throughout, let us keep their feet to the natural soil. Let us lead our students to their primeval home -- to taste the fragrance if birch and bracken, to share the lake with the seals and omul. Yes, we must teach. But perhaps, in a deeper sense, we must "remind" our students by stirring the genetic "memory" in all of us.

In the final analysis, the success or failure of all of us to preserve the natural estate, lies with our educators. For they will receive from the scientists, the philosophers, the writers, the managers, the political leaders, and pass that product on to the next generation, and then the next. And therein, lies our ultimate success or failure.

Throughout the long history of our species, the natural environment has nurtured and sustained us, bringing us to this historical moment at which our new and careless power threatens the life community from which we arose. But ours is the generation which has seen, for the first time, our whole planet "from the outside." Now that we can see our planet as a whole, we must act globally to restore it whole. The awesome challenge before us is to enlist our unprecedented knowledge and power to restore and protect our planetary home, and with it ourselves.

Those images of our whole, beautiful and boundaryless planet, unique in the infinite void of space, should evoke and enhance our wonder, our love, and our resolve to preserve it.  Still, the view from the surface should suffice -- the Andes Mountains, the Grand Canyon of the Colorado, the Norwegian Fjords, the Victoria Falls, and this matchless ancient lake of Baikal.

To our hosts: you have won our hearts and our admiration for this Lake and for the habitat which surrounds it. You have gained new allies in your determined effort to preserve this treasure. Surely, when we return to our various homes, we will extend this alliance, and bring new friends of Baikal to its shores. Due to your dedication and your hospitality, this week will end with the future of Lake Baikal more secure than it was when this week began. We thank you for this opportunity to join you in your admirable work.

Спасибо за прекрасную базможность приехать сюда и незабываемый обыт.


1.     My thanks to my tutor, friend, and our exchange student, Andrey Mikhailov, for these translations and for his assistance with my pronounciation. All errors are my responsibility, and if you can understand me at all, it is surely to Andrey's credit.

2.     Sand County Almanac, Oxford University Press, 1968, p. viii.

3.     This notion is defended by "Logical Positivists" such as A. J. Ayer, and Existentialists such as J. P. Sartre. The most vigorous form of "ethical atomism" in contemporary anglo-american philosophy is "libertarianism," associated with such writers as Ayn Rand, and philosophers John Hospers and Robert Nozick.

4.     Garrett Hardin, "The Tragedy of the Commons," Science, V. 162, pp. 1243-1248, 13 Dec. 1968.

5.     In this celebration of "community," I do not wish to ignore the essential moral significance of the rights and dignity of the individual person -- particularly, of that supreme right of the individual to conceive and implement his personal life plan. The just society acknowledges both the rights of the individual, and the citizen's responsibility to his community. Finding and maintaining the ideal balance between these often contrary moral ideals is surely one of the most daunting tasks of political philosophy and practice. Total preoccupation with the community on the one hand, or with the individual on the other, has the seductive advantage of simplicity. But this simplicity can lead to pernicious results. I daresay that in this century, American and Soviet societies have both erred toward opposite extremes, as Soviet society has devalued the individual and American society has devalued the community. That imbalance in Soviet society is now being remedied in a reformation in human rights that thrills and astonishes an admiring world. Perhaps it is appropriate that, as an American guest in the Soviet Union, I should focus my critical attention on the pitfalls of excessive individualism. In any case, the moral theme of "community" is more instructive, as we attempt to expand our concerns from social ethics to environmental ethics.

6.     "Ecology and Man," in Shepard and McKinley, eds., The Subversive Science... (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1969, p. 4).

7.     "The Buryats," The Peoples of Siberia, ed. M. G. Levin and L. P. Potapov, University of Chicago Press, 1964, p. 213). (Originally, Народыи Сибири, Russian Academy of Science, 1956.)

8.     "Ojibwa Ontology, Behavior, and World View," Culture in History: Essays in Honor of Paul Radin, ed. S. Diamond (New York: Columbia University Press, 1960), p. 26.



Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .