1.5 To the argument of aesthetic contemplation

Mr K and Nature

Asked about his attitude to nature, Mr. K said: ‘Now and then I like to see a few trees on coming out of the house particularly because they achieve such a special degree of reality by looking so different according to the time of day and season. Also, as time goes on, we city dwellers get dazed by never seeing anything but use-objects, such as houses and railways which, if unoccupied, would be empty, if unused, meaningless. Our peculiar social system allows us to regard even human beings as such use-objects; and so trees, at any rate for me, since I am not a carpenter, have something soothingly independent about them, outside myself, and as a matter of fact I hope that for carpenters, too, they have something about them which cannot be put to use’ (Brecht 1961: 110).

Environmental ethics as an autonomous academic field, however, began only around 1970, as the threat to the natural livelihood of humans from pollution and ecological destruction became obvious. It was only then that the scientific exploration of complex natural systems (ecology and ecosystem research) and interactions between ecosystems and economies had progressed far enough so that arguments from environmental ethics could now also be backed up scientifically. Resource ethics especially, but also landscape ethics, experienced an immense upswing in the context of ‘ecological ethics’.

This development was accompanied by a strong change of public awareness towards a distinct environmental consciousness. For the first time the green movement was able to articulate its protest against the destruction and the blight of the natural environment by founding green parties. Many of them were elected into their national parliaments and so could work politically.

At that time it became very obvious to many people around the globe, that the reflection on the relationship between humans, society and nature should be an integral part of all ethics. Animal protectionists could now exert their concern for better protection of sentient animals more effectively: this pertained to the treatment of animals in agriculture (animal husbandry) and in research (animal experiments), but also included an understanding that the continuing (danger of) extinction of species (birds, whales, big apes, etc.) needed to be stopped. The demand for the ethically appropriate treatment of animals and for the protection of endangered species, as well as significant ecosystems (e.g. tropical rainforests) that contribute to the world climate as well as providing a habitat, became unmistakable.

It is clear that a conflict within environmental ethics between an anthropocentric and a physiocentric ethics was bound to happen. How are the particular interests of humans and animals (plants, biotopes, species, etc.) to be ethically weighed against each other? In which cases do the interests of humans have to take second place to the interests of other living beings? Environmental ethicists have not only to assert their demands against economic and social interests but also to crusade in internal conflicts for the ‘right’ environmental ethics.