Category Archives: environmental ethics

What Marius represents


(Photo attribution: to be determined!)

(Cross-posted at Biocentered.)

An international internet uproar erupted late last week over news that the Copenhagen Zoo planned to euthanize a healthy, two-year old male giraffe (“Marius”) and use his body to feed other animals, because his genes were overrepresented in the captive giraffe population.

A petition was launched and other organizations offered to take him in, but the Copenhagen Zoo went through with its plans on Sunday morning.  In fact, by the time I first read of the plan in Marc Bekoff’s Psychology Today column, the deed had already been done.

The zoo’s explanation is, to many people, incomprehensible and unacceptable.  So much so that some staff members of the Copenhagen Zoo have received death threats.  That, of course, is equally unacceptable.  But the whole episode is illuminating a couple of important realities about zoological parks and aquariums. Continue reading


Space Ethics: Is Exploration a Moral Imperative? Why to Go or Stay Home

Space exploration is important to me. I think it is an important activity for humans, with important associated moral questions. I’ve written before about why I think Christians should support space exploration, and I think many other worldviews can support it as well.

But there is a balance in most worldviews that could tip the judgment either more towards exploration or more against exploration, and that is what I want to look at here.  I want to briefly look at three moral reasons why exploration is good, and three moral reasons why exploration may not be good.  There are no doubt more than three, but these are some of the biggies – if you have more, please leave a comment below.


1) KNOWLEDGE. Scientific knowledge is the primary knowledge we should seek in space, but experiential knowledge is important as well. Continue reading

Climate Change Enhanced Wildfires: Will These Burned Forests Grow Back?

My friend (and fellow GTU PhD) Peter Hess wrote an excellent post today for the National Center for Science Education highlighting the strong links between climate change and wildfires. California has wildfires every summer, but this year’s Rim Fire has been particularly nasty, growing to be the fourth largest fire in state history, and consuming nearly a quarter of a million acres.

Peter explains that with climate change we should expect things to get worse:

Climate change is likely to exacerbate this situation by changing many of the variables influencing fire behavior. Some regions will no doubt experience prolonged droughts (e.g. Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado), leading to pine and fir beetle infestations that will kill thousands of trees. This increased load of dead and downed fuel will amplify fire potential, and when a fire is started we may find that a changed climate has altered patterns of humidity, air temperature, and wind speed. Fires will burn hotter and more destructively, delaying or even preventing full recovery after an area has been burned.

That is all bad, but it is actually even worse. Hotter climates, lower humidity, increased drought, and increased extreme weather are all bad, but the lingering effects threaten to take on a life of their own.

Wildfires have no doubt existed since land plants first evolved. Plants burn, CO2 goes out, plants grow back, and the CO2 goes back in – a balance.  But the balance is now shifting slightly. Wildfires present a positive-feedback loop for warming: burning releases CO2, CO2 causes more warming, changing climate and causing more drought, due to changed climate forests do not re-grow, the CO2 released from burning is not reabsorbed from the atmosphere, and the cycle only gets worse. And earlier spring melt and later arrival of winter extends the fire season, leaving a larger vulnerable window for these events to occur.

In California, certain types of forests are only found at certain elevations. They depend on the altitude for adequate climactic conditions: enough cold, enough snow, enough humidity, enough water. With climate change these climactic conditions and therefore ideal altitude distributions are going to migrate higher – until the mountains run out (and/or the Sierra granite proves impossible to grow in).

A huge swath of Sierra forest has just gone up in smoke. What replaces it will likely not be the same type of forest as what just burned, in fact it might not be forest at all – it might be open woodlands, chaparral, or even desert. These lands will not absorbs CO2 like a forest would. In fact, these replacement ecosystems might be like nothing that we are familiar with – this has been called “the no-analog future,”  with ecosystems not analogous to ours at all.

The quip “prediction is very difficult, especially about the future” is attributed to Niels Bohr, and it ever remains true. But we can tell this much: the world is changing, and the changes are generally not for the better. Unless we want a future where human society is at serious risk for numerous major and disanalogous disasters we need to get the Earth’s CO2 budget significantly in the negative, and soon.

The Ethics of Meteor and Asteroid Defense

The meteor which caused extensive damage and numerous injuries in Chelyabinsk, Russia, yesterday is an unpleasant wake up call for those of us here on Earth. We live in a cosmic shooting gallery. Not only did a 150 foot wide chunk of rock (named 2012 DA14) whiz by us and miss, but a smaller rock – estimated to be 50 feet wide – hit the atmosphere over Chelyabinsk, causing extensive damage. And in the evening (Pacific Standard Time), another meteor was spotted over the San Francisco Bay Area, but thankfully caused no damage.

The Chelyabinsk meteor and 2012 DA14 were on completely different trajectories and were therefore unrelated events.  Quite possibly the third meteor sighting was unrelated to either of the others as well. We just live in the midst of a lot of falling rocks (i.e. the solar system) and sometimes we get hit.  Not very often, thankfully, but enough to warrant concern. If 2012 DA14 had hit the Earth’s atmosphere, for example, the estimated explosion would have been in the megaton range, enough to destroy a large city.

Now, for all of the previous history of the Earth, there has not been anything to be done about threatening space rocks. They were simply a fact of life, and for most of human history they were not even understood. But now we understand them, and we also have the technological capacity – should we choose to develop it – to find and stop many of these threats.

In other words our inability to stop these kinds of dangers are now our choice.

We need to take responsibility for this choice to do nothing. If we do not find the threats and develop ways to deal with them we are now negligent. We are negligent because we know the danger and yet proceed anyway, without doing anything to lessen the danger.

I’ve said this before: morality and technology are highly related. They are highly related because technology increases power, and increased power means increased moral responsibility.  The more evil you can do, the more your moral responsibility to not do that evil.  The more good you can do, the more good you are responsible to do. Our choice to not even fully know about the potential threats, much less prepare for them, is a choice to allow evil to happen, and for that we are responsible.

But now I have a prediction. As of yesterday, Russia is going to get serious about meteor and asteroid defense. Two hits in 105 years (the other being the Tunguska Blast) and Chelyabinsk being a center of nuclear research add some context. And that means Russia is going to start probing seriously powerful technologies which have dual use as seriously dangerous weapons. And (though the Cold War is over) that is going to make the United States take notice, and perhaps respond with its own research.  And that will  result in further countries (Europe, China) and then the UN taking notice.

We can consider the geopolitical situation to have been dealt an interesting card by Mother Nature. Hopefully this card, as a warning, will result in an orderly and unified human response towards these types of extraterrestrial threats. Ideally, some type of multinational research coalition can be formed to not only find more of these threats but to also figure out ways to stop them, and then, hopefully and with great caution, develop the actual means to neutralize these threats.

This will involve exceedingly dangerous research, because any technology capable of diverting an asteroid away from the Earth will also be able to divert one towards it. But, like geoengineering, this may be a technology that, for better or for worse, we are simply forced into. At this point in history, to not pursue asteroid defense is irrational because it takes a risk that simply ought not be taken: the risk that at any time, anywhere on Earth, millions – or worse –  could die from a potentially preventable disaster.

“Why a Four Degree Celsius Warmer World Must Be Avoided” Infographic

The World Bank (not known for its bleeding-heart environmental activism) has issued a new report on global warming entitled “Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4 Degree C Warmer World Must Be Avoided.”

Why should we avoid it? Because it would be verging on apocalyptic. Coral reefs dead, rainforests dead, sections of the tropics becoming uninhabitable due to heat, spreading deserts, ice sheets collapsing, rising sea levels inundating cities and entire countries… The infographic below tries to be optimistic, but it is best to know the truth: we are currently a ship of fools sailing for planetary-scale disaster. So much for tending God’s garden (this will be the second time we’ve lost that job!).

Politically there is no will  (at least in the USA and other major CO2 emitters) to fix the problem. As I have said before, I think we are being forced into the geoengineering option, because the technical solution, no matter how crazy it is, is not as difficult as the moral-political solution.

In any case, enjoy the graphic, and check out the others at the environment section.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell: A Philosophical and Ethical Book Review

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell is a spectacular novel. It is a tour-de-force through six stories, each story with its own genre, creating a multigenre whole unlike any work I’ve read before. (There may be other works out there like this, but I don’t know them – I’m an ethicist, not a lit guy – so if you have suggested readings, let me know!)

I picked up this book because I saw the trailer for the movie version by the Wachowskis (of “The Matrix” fame) that is coming out today. I could tell that the story was going to be fascinatingly intricate, and that a movie could not do it justice, so I wanted to read the novel first before seeing the movie. I won’t include the trailer here because it may affect your reading of the story; it did for me (while reading I kept thinking “I wonder who is going to play this character?”). I will review the movie in a few days and include the trailer then.

In this review I am going to try to avoid specific spoilers, however, the generalities of the work will come up and especially what I see as the moral and philosophical core of the work. If you read this review it may spoil the novel for you on that level, so if that concerns you, just go read the book instead, then come back.

But if you want to know anyway, come along. Here’s how we will go: 1) The story itself, its style and composition, 2) Its major themes, 3) Its similarities and differences with a few other works, and a few allusions I picked up, 4) Its movie potential. Continue reading

Geoengineering Goes Rogue

It was only a matter of time, but I had no idea it would be this soon. Geoengineering has gone rogue.

An environmental entrepreneur whose plan to dump iron in a patch of the Pacific Ocean was shelved four years ago after a scientific outcry has gone ahead with a similar experiment without any academic or government oversight, startling and unnerving marine researchers.

My first reaction is “environmental entrepreneur”? And my second one is “wow, this is a completely new thing.” Never in human history has a small group of humans intentionally tried to manipulate the atmosphere, much less without any kind of oversight. A true ethical novum. Brought to us by our own scientific-technological power. The New York Times continues:

The entrepreneur, Russ George, said his team scattered 100 tons of iron dust in mid-July in the Pacific several hundred miles west of the islands of Haida Gwaii, in northern British Columbia, in a $2.5 million project financed by a native Canadian group.

The substance acted as a fertilizer, Mr. George said, fostering the growth of enormous amounts of plankton that were monitored by the team for several months. He said the result could help the project meet what it casts as its top goal: aiding the recovery of the salmon fishery for the native Haida people.

But marine scientists and other experts said the experiment, which they learned about only in news reports this week, was shoddy science, irresponsible and probably in violation of international agreements intended to prevent tampering with ocean ecosystems under the guise of trying to fight the effects of climate change.

While the environmental impact of Mr. George’s foray could well prove minimal, they said, it raises the specter of what they have long feared: rogue field experiments that could upend ecosystems one day put the planet at risk. Mark L. Wells, a marine scientist at the University of Maine, said that what Mr. George’s team did “could be described as ocean dumping.”

I have discussed geoengineering and the hubristic dangers that accompany it before, arguing that it might seem logical and yet still be, perhaps, a very bad choice. I really do have mixed feelings on it. But what I can say with certainty is that anybody just going out and deciding to do it on their own must be stopped and held responsible for some type of violation.  This is an issue concerning the common good, not just of all humanity, but for the entire ecosphere. We can’t just have individuals going out there and doing giant experiments with no supervision or legitimate authorization (even if this is, in fact, what we have already accidentally done with fossil fuels, chlorofluorocarbons, and so on – this is not a road to continue on).

This is a fascinating test case, and luckily, a rather minor one. Iron dumping for plankton fertilizer is a relatively small thing compared to, say, spewing tons of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight and cool the earth. But now that the threshold has been crossed, we can expect to see more of this, and perhaps states “going rogue” in major ways, and not just one guy and his friends.

Strange times we live in.