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Sangita Iyer Headshot

A Call for New Ethics in an Overpopulated Planet

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On a misty autumn morning the sun's soothing rays dance through the canopies of barren trees, as I walk through the woods. A beam of light brings to focus a tuft of rich green grass and highlights every dew drop. The resilient pine trees stand tall, as the needles on the evergreen branches absorb the sun's warm energy to prepare food and nourish the trees. Humans need sunlight to nurture the body, mind and spirit. Without the sun our planet will plunge into darkness.

However in the past few decades its magnificent golden rays have become harmful to man. The ozone layer, which shields the earth from the sun's ultraviolet rays, has seen unprecedented damage. It is a natural sunscreen that protects us from skin cancer, but by the end of March 2011, 40 percent of the ozone in the stratosphere had been destroyed by industrial pollutants, allowing more of the sun's harmful ultraviolet B rays to penetrate through the atmosphere. This has been linked to the increased rates of skin cancer, cataracts and immune system damage.

Had anyone considered the unintended consequences of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) when it was developed in the early part of the nineteenth century? It is evident that human actions were based on the "here and now" and they ignored the after effects of the pollutants, says Hans Jonah in his book The Imperative of Responsibility.

Over the past 250 years, man's actions have continued to alter the Earth's atmosphere dramatically. Thanks to the scientific and industrial revolutions which transformed industries such as manufacturing, agriculture, and mining, and improved the socioeconomic and cultural conditions. Technology advanced in leaps and bounds by the mid-1800s, and by the 21st century, modern medical technologies such as cell biology progressed so much that man had the power to defy age and extend life.

In 1960 the average person lived 53 years, but in 2010 the average human life was extended to 60 years. In 1800 the world's population was one billion, it took 130 years to reach two billion, but within 30 years, by 1960, there were three billion people on this planet. Fast forward to November 2012, and more than seven billion of us are living on earth. The problem with this kind of exponential population growth is that it is perpetuating pollution problems, which in turn is having a detrimental effect on all living beings (see Environmental Ethics by Paul Pojman & Louis Pojman).

But the paradox is, people who have contributed the least to global warming are the ones that are impacted the most. Here again the unintended consequences of rapid technological advances comes under scrutiny, but a more important question is, "Is it ethical to act without knowing the consequences of these advances?" And Jonas questions, did anyone ever consider that in order to maintain the Earth's balance? ("If we abolished death we must abolish procreation as well.") Apparently not!

Technology is transforming the very conditions of human life and is posing an unprecedented threat to the existence of life on this planet. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which recently released the latest Red List of Threatened Species, confirms an extinction crisis, with one-fifth of vertebrate species threatened. The report also reveals that an average of 50 species of mammals, birds and amphibians are moving closer to extinction each year due to the impacts of human activities such as agricultural expansion, logging, over-exploitation and invasive alien species.

Here Jonas' assessment of human actions is fitting -- "the raping of nature and the civilizing of man go hand in hand." In his endless quest to conquer power and success, man is involved in actions that have "opened up a whole new dimension of ethical relevance for which there is no precedent in the standards and canons of traditional ethics." These ethics are anthropocentric, involving direct dealing of man with man, and here "nature is not an object of human responsibility."

Also, the ancient ethics did not consider the power of knowledge to predict the after effects, consequently no one is held responsible for the unintended consequences of man's actions, which are threatening the survival of his own species: "No previous ethics had to consider the global condition of human life and the far-off future, even the existence of the race." It is clear that these antiquated ethics are no longer suitable for an era dominated by modern technology; therefore "the changed nature of human actions call for a change in ethics as well," according to Richard Bernstein in Rethinking Responsibility.

But the question is where do we start? A new ethics of responsibility that rises above the anthropocentric bias of traditional ethics and is sensitive to ecological issues is a first step in the right direction, however, we must also recognize that this alone without political will and appropriate forms of governance will not work. According to a Toronto lawyer for human rights and global justice Dr. Laura Westra, we need to seriously consider an imperative that suggests, "Act so that the effects of your actions are compatible with the permanence of genuine human life."

In relation to the issue of over population, the ethical dilemma becomes dicey because much of the growth is taking place in the developing world where cultural and religious differences dominate. For instance in India, home to the second largest population on earth, currently there are 1.22 billion people -- one sixth of the global population living on a 3.2 million square kilometer area. Religion is one of the key factors influencing fertility rates in that country. Hindus represent 80.5 percent of the population and Muslims account for the second largest, with the later continuing to grow exponentially. In fact between 1961 and 2001, the number of Muslims increased by 194 percent compared to an overall growth of 134 percent of the country's population. The 'particularized theology hypotheses' attributes the fertility rates to theological matters such as marriage, contraception and abortion.

So with hundreds of cultures and religions, and more than 7000 languages spread across 194 countries the ethical dilemma is how do we address the population issue? We need to be sensitive and recognize that "world views are powerful players in human cultures" and "the contours of moral experience vary across different cultural contexts," according to Dr. Westra.

In the meantime of greater significance is the fact that the "ecological footprint" created by the wealthy in the west and north is disproportionately high. It is a source of oppression and creates multiple harms for the poor of the South & East, as they are forced to sacrifice their resources to support our "six planet" lifestyle, and receive our waste instead through the practices of globalization. According to Dr. Westra, what is lacking here is respect for the integrity of nature and its processes, ethical consideration for both human and non-human creatures and the political will.

Another ethical dilemma is, "Do wealthy nations have the moral right to point finger and blame the impoverished nations for problems they never created'?" More importantly how can we expect the ethical standards developed by the wealthy to be embraced by the impoverished nations, when the choice between feeding their children and protecting the environment is obvious? Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs pyramid suggests that man cannot ascend to the level of morality until the basic physiological needs such as food, water and sex are met.

As I walked back wondering how did we get here in the first place, one thing became clear: There are no simple solutions simple and easy solutions to these profound moral dilemmas. Meantime, I will continue to dig deep and explore my own moral philosophies, while sharing my knowledge, and do my part to love and respect nature and its creatures. As I walk through the woods I see a few snails and earthworms trampled to death by man, as one snail crosses my path oblivious to the dangers. I pick up the innocent creature and place it far off the trail, so it may be spared by man's actions. The living world is making "a salient plea for sparing its integrity." Is man listening?

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