Conflicts with the Ecosystem

Conflicts with the Ecosystem

DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-4586-8.ch002


Although human beings are part of nature, they are seriously damaging the ecosystem, our support system. Modern technological manufacturing regularly produces harmful side effects, either toxic substances or unexpected threats to the entire ecosystem such as ozone layer destruction or global warming. Human economic activity is leading to the mass extinction of other species. Humanity is threatening the entire ecosystem. This means that the view that humans are superior to nature is actually incorrect.
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If humans are ultimately are part of nature, animals among animals, how can we be in conflict with nature? Everything we do is part of nature, in the final analysis. But in this final analysis, we would not be in conflict with nature if we turned the entire planet into a lifeless desert. “Nature” in this sense is simply anything that happens. The lifeless desert outcome is now unfortunately a distinct possibility. That would be a conflict with nature, when “nature’ is understood in a more relevant way. The part of nature which is relevant to us as human beings is the ecosystem. The ecosystem is the support system for all living things on the planet. It is a complex web of interdependent living things. Our air, water, and food are supplied by the ecosystem. Oxygen is not a static component of the air. Plants are constantly generating it, and without it, we could not survive. We also need water to drink, preferably clean water if we do not want to die prematurely of disease. Components of the ecosystem recycle and purify water. Humans eat both plants and animals as food. Both require support from the ecosystem to be available. Plants need water, nutrients from the soil, carbon dioxide, and sunlight in order to grow by means of photosynthesis.1 Animals need to eat plants or other animals in order to survive.2

Human beings have conflicts with the ecosystem because they are powerful enough to cause serious damage to the ecosystem. Often, when ecosystem damage causes harm to human beings, there is a consensus that the damage needs to be eliminated. Two examples would be sewage treatment plants and various steps taken to reduce air pollution. But sometimes, the pursuit of purely human ends such as profit takes priority and the damage continues to accumulate. Industrial pollution is an example. When ecosystem damage only indirectly harms humans, it is harder to get a consensus on action. Carcinogenic substances are examples. It is even harder to get a consensus when ecosystem damage is primarily to nonhuman parts of the ecosystem. Species extinction and endangerment are examples. We also need to consider destruction of the nonliving environment. Often the harm caused by such destruction, as for example in open pit mining, is immediate or indirect harm to humans or destruction of animals, plants, or their habitat. But in addition irreplaceable landscape can be lost. Mountaintop removal mining in West Virginia obliterates the original mountain landscape and replaces it with a barren moonscape. (Mountain Justice 2012) We need to consider the eco-ethical basis for concern about destruction of landscape as well as the harm caused to living things.3

Each of these types of harm will be considered in turn. I want to make clear what makes them conflicts with the ecosystem. In particular, what is the role played by assumptions about human superiority and human exceptionalism in generating and maintaining these conflicts. As we saw in Chapter 1, there is no obvious justification for assuming human superiority as an ethical principle or principle of action.

The types of harm caused by conflicts with the ecosystem are:

  • Direct harm to humans

  • Indirect harm to humans

  • Harm to other species

  • Destruction of nonliving environment

These categories can overlap. Toxic substances which cause direct harm to humans usually also cause harm to other animals. Indeed, animal testing is one way to determine potential harm to humans. And the destruction of nonliving environment will also often be habitat loss and consequent harm to nonhuman species. When there is harm in multiple categories, the harm in both categories will be considered. Thus when there is harm to humans and other species, both types of harm will be addressed.


Direct Harm To Humans

Pollution is the first direct harm considered. The Biology Online Dictionary gives a usable definition of pollution:

The change in the environment caused by natural or artificial input of harmful contaminants into the environment, and may cause instability,4 disruption or harmful effects to the ecosystem.

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