BP oil spill inspires discussion on environmental ethics

Dear Urban Philosopher:

I’ve been watching the news coverage of the British Petroleum oil spill, and I’m horrified by the sheer weight of this catastrophe. I’ve heard rumblings that the United States will be taking the economic responsibilities for BP’s blunder. Is this right? Wouldn’t those funds be better used to pay for college scholarships?


Ms. Just Don’t Get It

Dear Ms. Just Don’t Get It

You make an interesting point, but we need some context. Several philosophers have given thought to humanity’s responsibility to its environment. For brevity’s sake, we will solely examine Norwegian naturalist Arne Næss’s. Let us begin with an experiment.

Imagine: the whole human race suddenly expires in the wake of a global catastrophe. Only one person survives.

This person decides to ensure the annihilation of all forms of life after his death.

Naturally, this is absurd. Our intuitive response to the situation classically defends many environmentalists’ view that we have the moral obligation to protect life.

At Urban, where the Green Team’s placards ever populate the halls, and San Francisco’s environmentalist pride rings true and proud, we take this concept for granted.

However, much of humanity depends on the destruction of its environment – intentional or not.

This is relevant to the case you mentioned; BP’s leak now spews an estimated 210,000 gallons of oil every day, only 42,000 of which engineers can trap and siphon away. The rest continues to pollute the surrounding waters, from the Gulf of Mexico up to the southeast coast of Florida.

Ecologists have used two arguments – each of which exemplifies a facet of Næss’s ethics – to condemn the accident.

One is the “Deep Ecology” movement, which the Urban School is most attuned to. This movement endorses “the view that all living things are alike in having value in their own right,” according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

The “Shallow Ecology” movement agrees that our natural environment must be preserved. However it does so on the terms of “the health and affluence of people in the developed countries,” according to Næss.

These latter arguments manifest in the outcry of economies in the Gulf and on the coast of Florida. Louisiana’s $3 billion fishing industry will be directly affected by the spill. However, the industry’s qualms do not necessarily ground themselves in morality; these fisheries worry primarily about a loss of profits.

The United States will doubtfully pursue the responsibility it should. The nation seems poised to sue British Petroleum, and its engineers have few resources to do anything more than what has been done already. For the moment, we can only wait, and hope – for economic reasons or not – that it will end soon.