Ecological Ethics

A Transformative Tool in Sustainability Education

No intellectual vice is more crippling than defiantly self-indulgent anthropocentrism. The principal task for humanity is to apply biological constraints on decision making, and apply cultural evolution to biological evolution to create a 'biology of ethics'. The result will be a more deeply understood and enduring code of moral values.
— E. O. Wilson

Global pollution and mass destruction of species are generally not recognized as evils by modern EuroAmerican-based cultures (Pergamon, 2002). The Death of Nature (Merchant, 1982) denotes the death of the European Earth ethic. The absence of an environmental ethic in the EuroAmerican conquest-of-Nature mindset has resulted in a civilization that consumes the Earth and other species with little concern (Pergamon).

Environmental education cannot be transformative if we don't give it a solid ethical foundation. The Tbilisi Declaration states that "environmental education should ... encourage those ethical ... values which ... will further the development of conduct compatible with the preservation and improvement of the environment" (UNESCO, 1978).

Culturally imposed ethics can constrain human destructiveness. The Golden Rule would work, if applied intergenerationally, by conserving and replenishing Nature for future generations. Einstein's ethic was to expand the circle of compassion to all living things. Albert Schweitzer's "fundamental principle of the moral" was that the good is to preserve life and the evil is to destroy life.

Ecological ethics is not new. Jainism, the ancient Indian religion, prohibits needless harm to all life (Chapple, 2001). "The individual life is good when it is in harmony with Nature," wrote Zeno of Citium in 300 BC. And African indigenous traditions, like those of North American first peoples, contain ethical messages that are passed from generation to generation to ensure respect for other living creatures (Kelbessa, 2005). Teachers can turn to many cultures and other eras in order to teach ecological ethics.


Chapple, C. K. (2001, Fall). The living cosmos of Jainism: A traditional science grounded in environmental ethics. Daedalus. 130(4), 207

Kelbessa, W. (2005). The rehabilitation of indigenous environmental ethics in Africa. Diogenes. 5(3), 17-34

Merchant, C. (1982). The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution. Harper Collins, New York

Pergamon, M. J. (2002, June). Towards an environmental ethic. Opening plenary at Religion, Science and the Environment Symposium IV, Adriatic Sea

UNESCO (1978). Final Report: Intergovernmental Conference on Environmental Education. Tbilisi, USSR

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