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ARS Home » Midwest Area » Ames, Iowa » National Laboratory for Agriculture and The Environment » Soil, Water & Air Resources Research » Research » Publications at this Location » Publication #255736

Title: Science, ethics, and the historical roots of our ecological crisis - was White right?

item Sauer, Thomas
item NELSON, MICHAEL - Michigan State University

Submitted to: Book Chapter
Publication Type: Book / Chapter
Publication Acceptance Date: 10/2/2010
Publication Date: 6/30/2011
Citation: Sauer, T.J., Nelson, M.P. 2011. Science, ethics, and the historical roots of our ecological crisis - was White right?. In Sauer, T.J., Norman, J., Sivakumar, Mannava V.K., editors. Sustaining Soil Productivity in Response to Global Climate Change-Science, Policy, and Ethics. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell. p. 3-16.

Interpretive Summary: Methods to prevent soil degradation or improve soil quality are well known but often not used. Sometimes this may be due to lack of resources but often it is due to a lack of concern. Global climate change will create enormous challenges for providing food for future generations, especially if soils continue to be degraded. This paper discusses reasons why humans do not take better care of the environment. A short essay written by a respected historian in 1967 is the focus of this paper. In this essay, Lynn White Jr. argued that poor environmental management was due to religious beliefs that humans were superior to nature and could deal with it as they wished with no obligation to care for it. It was concluded that this view was too narrow but that personal beliefs do indeed affect how humans treat natural resources. Sustaining the ability of soils to grow food for future generations will require greater awareness of human responsibilities for good environmental management. This paper is of interest to anyone concerned with encouraging more sustainable agriculture to adapt to the effects of climate change.

Technical Abstract: In 1967 historian Lynn White Jr. suggested that values developed and perpetuated by Christian theology permeate Western science and technology and are responsible for human's seemingly continuous abuse of the environment. Our failure to solve environmental problems is due to a belief that humans are ordained to control and dominate, not care for and protect, nature. Several prominent scientists, including Aldo Leopold, have shared White’s call for recognizing the ethical perspectives of natural resource management. This call has been largely unheeded although there are examples when changes in human values occurred to support environmental issues. Global climate change coupled with the need to produce food for an ever-increasing human population on finite land resources is not only a daunting scientific challenge but a potential ethical dilemma. Careful integration of scientific and ethical perspectives is essential for developing successful climate change mitigation strategies. Was White right? If a broader interpretation is taken that our environmental crisis is fundamentally a moral or ethical crisis, and that remediation will only come in the form of values alteration brought forth through ethical discourse, then we suggest that he was indeed right.Science and technology alone will not lead to a solution to environmental problems like sustaining soil productivity under the influence of global climate change without the recognition and incorporation of ethical principles in the development of effective and fair policy.