Ethics are the general principles that guide human decision-making, influenced by cultural factors, religion, economics, knowledge, and science. Ethics are about collective values made up of individual and personal responses and they guide decisions about what we think we should do and how we think we should act. As in nature, ethics can be highly diverse. Drawing on the work of the Inter-Commissional Working Group on Conservation Ethics, IUCN seeks to provide some general principles that can be adapted to a wide range of specific applications in conservation.
Conservation, at its core, reflects the specific values individuals and societies hold about nature and human-nature relationships. The human condition is defined by individual and collective physical, biological, intellectual, and spiritual needs and responses. Alternative ethical frameworks can clarify the value systems that support decisions made about resource management.
Conservation ethics have been enshrined within religions for centuries and the link between nature and spirituality is well recognized. Conservation voices have also debated the links between religion and conservation, most notably in a series of articles in Conservation Biology in 2005 (Orr, 2005; Stuart et al., 2005).
Ethics are necessary to inspire change, informing law, policies and research. IUCN has made critical contributions to enriching understanding of the foundational values and principles of nature conservation, including through The World Conservation Strategy (1980), The World Charter for Nature (1982), Caring for the Earth (1991) and The Earth Charter (1994).
In 1972 the Stockholm Declaration declared that “A point has been reached in history when we must shape our actions throughout the world with a more prudent care for their environmental consequences. Through ignorance or indifference we can do massive and irreversible harm to the earthly environment on which our life and well-being depend. Conversely, through fuller knowledge and wiser action, we can achieve for ourselves and our posterity a better life in an environment more in keeping with human needs and hopes.”
Subsequently, the 1982 World Charter for Nature stated that every form of life is unique, warranting respect regardless of its worth to people, and, to accord other organisms such recognition, people must be guided by a moral code of action. People can alter nature and exhaust natural resources by their action or its consequences and, therefore, must fully recognize the urgency of maintaining the stability and quality of nature and of conserving natural resources.
“All the species and systems of nature deserve respect regardless of their usefulness to humanity.”
Caring for the Earth defined IUCN's ethical position as “respecting and caring for the community of life”. Since that time, the world has faced increasingly significant collective action challenges of global proportions, addressing environmental concerns that can only be solved through international cooperation. The human responsibility for the continuity of life has become greater than ever.
How to use knowledge, and how to change behaviour as a result of that knowledge, remains a challenge for conservationists. Ecosystems and societies have both changed profoundly in recent years. Faced with global challenges such as climate change, invasive species, biodiversity loss, high seas governance, and others, ethics are being called upon to motivate the changes required to solve these issues, often confronting powerful pressures to accelerate consumption. Caring for the Earth emphasized ethical arguments alongside economic or social reasoning to promote conservation practices. Ethics was seen as providing the basis for mobilizing both collective action and individual responsibility.
Ethics applied to conservation has evolved rapidly since the 1972 Stockholm Declaration. Nevertheless, it continues to be much more effective to make a social or economic case for the values of nature than an ethical one. Conservationists have found it difficult to convince the wider public to adopt a “conservation ethic” or a “bioethic” as a reason for significantly changing their behaviour. Part of this difficulty has been in defining the specific nature of that ethic, and specifically how to value the environment. Many conservationists accepted valuing conservation action for the ethical position of nature for nature's sake. Others used ethical arguments to advocate a more pragmatic approach, focusing on the benefits of conservation for people, through ecosystem services, recognizing that the poor often are the first to suffer from biodiversity loss. As Meffe (2005) writes, “biological conservation involves both ecological knowledge and value decisions”.
The Caring for the Earth principle that “All the species and systems of nature deserve respect regardless of their usefulness to humanity” has been accepted by governments in the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which recognizes in its preamble “the intrinsic value of biological diversity and of the ecological, genetic, social, economic, scientific, educational cultural, recreational and aesthetic values of biological diversity and its components”.
In an age of ecosystem services and markets for these services, the frame of reference for ethics has grown to a global scale. Caring for the Earth calls for “codes of practical conduct that implement the world ethic within the cultural context of each society”. When examining this evolution, the Montreal Protocol of 1987 concerning ozone stands out as a landmark as one of the first binding international treaties for global environmental concern, albeit of significant human self-interest. The issue of ozone depletion was a collective one, and was solved through a multilateral agreement. The Protocol showed that a global environmental movement could solve a collective problem. In Montreal, nations agreed to care for the earth by saving the ozone layer, and effectively their skin, from UV-B rays.
Four years after Montreal, Caring for the Earth called for conservation to make a leap, stating that nature “has to be cared for in its own right”. The idea was radical because it moved from the anthropocentric view of humans at the centre to a more holistic perspective on the environment, placing humans within it. The Montreal Protocol showed that action can be taken to conserve the atmosphere for the health of the planet. Caring for the Earth asked for people to expand the motivation for action to conserve nature more broadly.
A year later, the Convention on Biological Diversity was adopted at the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit and entered into force in 1993. Its objectives take ethical positions in calling for “the conservation of biodiversity, the sustainable use of its components and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources”.
“By incorporating ethical principles into change processes and decision-making, individuals can help break the feedback loops which are driving the global environmental system toward collapse.”
Since Caring for the Earth, the movement toward a global compact between individuals and nature has grown. The idea of an Earth Charter was launched in 1992 at the Earth Summit. By 1995, the Earth Charter initiative had developed the principle that ethics are essential for a “just, sustainable, and peaceful global society in the 21st century,” drawing upon “shared global values”. The Earth Charter covers global issues that link all of humanity together, and to the environment. Its issues include global and development ethics, democracy, ecology and religion, climate change, biotechnology, public health, ecological integrity, environmental human rights, animals and ethics, and education.
To tackle issues such as biodiversity, sustainable development and climate change, conservation ethics has become essential for the mobilization of individuals. Over the past few decades, living sustainably has become an ethical imperative and is essential for managing global interdependence. This idea of personal responsibility, felt globally, is a revolutionary one, but essential if the global challenges to the environment are to be overcome.
Personal ethics and the environment now span all of society. Ethics is helping to define a new social compact between human beings and the environment. The questions environmental ethics asks are: how do we want to live on this earth? What kind of world do we want? The future and the scope of change will depend on the answers to these questions, and how we convert those answers into action.
Turning the many answers to such questions into coherent and productive action is no simple matter. As Meadows et al. (1972) say, “it is not possible to assess the long-term future of any of these levels [population, capital, food, non-renewable resources, and pollution] without taking all the others into account. Yet even this relatively simple system has such a complicated structure that one cannot intuitively understand how it will behave in the future”. Meadows suggests considering positive feedback loops, such as population and industrial growth, and negative feedback loops, such as pollution, which become stronger as growth approaches the carrying capacity of the system's environment. While it is impossible to predict what will happen as the carrying capacity of our planet is approached, the signs indicate that we are reaching these limits at least for people living a modern high-consumption lifestyle (Wackernagel et al., 2002). Indeed, some indicators, such as WWF's Living Planet Index, report that we have already exceeded the planet's long-term carrying capacity (WWF, 2008).
Coupled with science and traditional knowledge, people need subjective, ethics-based assessment tools such as the framework of the Earth Charter to help apply ethical principles to current environmental challenges. In this way, biodiversity conservation ethics can be incorporated into policy and ethics can be more explicit in global to local biodiversity conservation efforts.
One such ethical tool is the Precautionary Principle, which was first elaborated at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. As Principle 15 of the Rio Declaration, it stated that “Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation”. Now widely accepted, the Precautionary Principle takes into account ethical concerns when making decisions which may affect the environment.
By incorporating ethical principles into change processes and decision-making, individuals can help break the feedback loops which are driving the global environmental system toward collapse. Ethics needs to become an effective tool for both collective action and individual action, and indeed the “greening” of many corporations indicates some progress in this direction (Chapter 15).
At the same time, different ethical frameworks can lead to misunderstandings and conflict. For example, issues relating to hunting, culling of wildlife populations, use of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) and use of animals for human medical research have all sparked controversy and much media attention. As the ethical dimensions of conservation increase in the coming years, the conservation community will need to resolve this debate between the intrinsic values of species and ecosystems and their instrumental values to people. This can be supported by research into valuation of ecosystem services that is currently underway (Chapter 4), but efforts to ensure that all values are incorporated will be vital.
Building a stronger conservation ethic is a fundamental means to support biodiversity conservation in the long term. We will need to form partnerships with religious leaders who are increasingly emphasizing the environmental ethics that are inherent in all religions. As the future belongs to the young, we should focus on today's youth but include issues relevant for all people.
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