Environmental Ethics

When we think of ethics, we usually think of what is moral to do as humans and what is not. Ethics tell you that if you see someone drowning, you should try and save them. Ethics tell you that you should not cheat. So what are environmental ethics? Do trees and animals have enough conscience to be included in moral rules? Or do environmental ethics tell us, humans, how we should relate to the environment? 

Environmental Ethics Environmental Ethics

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    Environmental Ethics meaning

    Ethics generally focus on what is good or bad, right or wrong, or moral principles; in the Western philosophical tradition, they have been developed around human beings.

    Contrary to most Western ethics, environmental ethics extend its questions of morality to future generations of humans, other species and the environment around us.

    Environmental ethics can be defined as a branch of ethics not merely centred on human beings. Environmental ethics explore the morality in our conduct concerning the environment and other species around us.

    Environmental ethics in the West developed and were put into practice in the 1960s and the 1970s when "green politics" formally emerged. This is due primarily to the realisation of the increased growth in global population, industry and economic development since these three components affect the environment. Because of these changes, environmental ethics believe that the relationship between humans and the environment must be rethought.

    Rachel Carson is one of the pioneers of environmental ethics in the West. Have a look at our explanation to learn more about her contributions!

    Environmental ethics examples

    As we have said above, environmental ethics focus on the relationship between humans and the environment.

    This table will trace the primary examples of environmental ethics and principles.

    Key termDefinitionExample
    EcologyEcology is the study of the relationship between living beings and their environments. Ecology focuses on the belief that all parts of the environment are related and must be studied in their relational characteristics. Understanding ways to protect ecosystems is a practice of ecology. Efforts to protect the Great Barrier Reef in the pacific have led to a new record in the growth of coral in forty years this year1.
    EcologismEcologism is a political ideology based on ecology. Naturally, it is divided into different branches and stances. However, all ecologists believe that we must take action to change how our economic growth on the planet impacts nature. Therefore, ecologists articulate environmental ethics into politics. Mainstream green politics usually focus on mitigating climate change by employing renewable and clean resources such as wind power, hydropower, solar panels, etc.
    EcocentrismEcocentrism believes that instead of favouring humans, we should see all natural beings as equal and focus on how they relate to each other in our politics.Deep Ecology, one of the branches of Ecology, believes that we should not develop politics aimed at economic growth but rather think of de-growing in a controlled way to sustain ourselves without further damaging nature.
    Anthropocentrism Anthropocentrism stands in opposition with ecocentrism. It professes the centrality and superiority of human beings and sees other natural beings as means of sustainment or, more generally, as dependent on humans. There are variations in how anthropocentrism is applied. Most green politics are anthropocentric because they want to solve climate change since it poses challenges to economic growth. Therefore, humans are still positioned as the main natural being to save.

    Environmental Ethics, Engaging with the natural world Environmental ethics meaning, StudySmarterFig. 1 Environmental ethics explores the relationship between humans and the environment.

    Indigenous environmental ethics

    The above principles and examples of environmental ethics were developed by indigenous populations in the Americas and other parts of our planet. Therefore, it is crucial to examine environmental ethics by recognising that non-western populations have enormously contributed to the above principles.

    Looking at environmental ethics as a western invention negates the knowledge of non-western societies, the role that the West has had in impacting the environment negatively (Western countries have historically participated in CO2 emissions more heavily), and the anti-colonial struggles that are fundamental to non-western environmental ethics.

    An example of this is Buen Vivir, an indigenous South American environmental philosophy that, alongside being funded on ecology as a concept, it fights for better management of natural resources in South America while demanding a redistribution of those resources to the indigenous inhabitants.

    To learn more about other non-western environmental ethics, look at this explanation on Environmental Consciousness.

    Environmental ethical issues

    Now that you are familiar with the prominent examples of principles that make up Environmental Ethics, let's delve into two critical discussions that these types of ethics try to address.


    Environmental ethics focus on how much the Western world and individuals consume daily. This ranges from food, such as eating large amounts of animal products, to non-necessities such as having more than one car, many clothing items or even travelling by plane.

    In particular, environmental ethics oppose the idea that technology and science will find solutions to the current climate issues. Therefore, we should consider how the planet's resources are not infinite on an everyday personal level. Furthermore, boundless consumption of products that are either unnecessary or made with polluting resources such as plastics drives a worsening of climate change.

    Fast Fashion

    The fashion industry is known for being one of the highest-polluting industries2. For instance, it takes 1800 gallons of water, or 8000 litres, to produce one pair of jeans3. Before the rise of multinational fashion corporations, we used to buy many fewer clothes and only for special occasions, while now we are now used to going shopping for clothes often and continuously. Indeed, this phenomenon is called fast fashion.

    Animal rights

    Another issue that environmental ethics aim at addressing is animal rights.

    Those who believe in protecting animal rights see Western society as based on speciesism, or, in other words, the belief that non-human species are a means to sustainment for humans. Moreover, speciesists believe in superior human morality over animal morality. Ecology and ecocentrism, as we have seen before, oppose these beliefs, argue for the centrality of all natural beings, and apply moral values and importance attributed to humans to all species.

    These ethics are translated into political views such as political veganism, which believes that we must not consume animal products to mitigate climate change since the meat industry is highly polluting.

    Environmental Ethics, Animal Rights Protest rally Environmental ethical issues, StudySmarterFig. 2 Part of environmentally ethical politics aim at chaining the relationship between humans and animals.

    Main types of environmental ethics

    Environmental ethics vary enormously. However, this division developed by environmental academic A. Marshall can be helpful to visualise the main articulations of these ethics.

    • Libertarian Extension: with extension, Marshall argues for how some environmental ethics extend the rights of humans to all beings (like civil liberties). This is justified by their belief in the intrinsic value of all beings in the environment. This means that all beings are ontologically valuable, or valuable for themselves regardless of what use they have to humans. Animal rights defenders are part of this type of environmental ethics, as they believe all species should have the same rights and moral regard.
    • Ecological Extension: these ethics extend not the rights of humans to non-human beings but rather believe that all biological beings are interdependent on one another. The above ethics are articulated in scientific rather than political/legal terms. They see an intrinsic value in ecosystems and, therefore, are based on ecology.
    • Conservation Ethics: this set of ethics is anthropocentric despite its environmental consciousness or consciousness of needing to find ways to respect the environment as humans. It refuses to see intrinsic value in non-human beings and sees nature as having extrinsic value since it sees it as a means of human sustainment and growth. An example of this ethics can be found in most governmental articulations of green politics, which aim at saving the planet while still finding ways to exploit its resources.

    Therefore, the main divergence comes from whether nature is seen as having intrinsic or extrinsic value.

    Intrinsic value refers to the value that an entity has in itself. Many people value the environment due to its intrinsic value; this could be its functioning, complexity or spirituality in some cases. Trees, for instance, have intrinsic value as they are living beings and as they complete ecosystems.In contrast, extrinsic value is the value given to something because of its desired or valued end. This value is always derived from something else. Again, trees have extrinsic value because of the way they purify the air or the way they can become wood to burn or build furniture.

    Environmental ethics importance

    Environmental Ethics, Climate change causes floods Environmental ethics importance, StudySmarterFig. 3 Floods are one of the main consequences of climate change and are rendering parts of our planet hardto inhabit.

    Environmental ethics are essential for three main reasons:

    1. Environmental ethics go beyond ethics that only theorise about human beings and teach us what morality is in accordance with the environment. This is important because it helps us visualise how we must integrate these ethics into our everyday lives through actions such as recycling. Indeed, recycling is based on the idea that the Earth's resources are not infinite and that we are interdependent with the planet's resources.
    2. They drive us to consider how humans are impacting the environment. Environmental ethics help us think of how we relate to non-human beings by rethinking the relationship between different parts of the world and often articulating it in terms of interdependence. Its focus on animal rights has inspired many political struggles to recognise how plant-based diets might be the most impactful change that government can implement. Moreover, statistics show that there are always more people trying out veganism4.
    3. Environmental ethics, especially in non-western countries such as Bolivia and Ecuador, have inspired governments to take immediate action based on such ethics. Buen Vivir, the indigenous American philosophy we saw before, has been integrated into some policies in these two countries. We could also say that current Climate Change Summits are based on environmental ethics despite not being entirely driven by ecocentrism. In sum, environmental ethics help us see the urgency of developing solutions to the climate change challenge.

    Environmental Ethics - Key takeaways

    • Environmental ethics explore human and non-human morality in relation to the environment.
    • Ecology centres ecosystems in its knowledge-production and is hence ecocentric. This is opposed to anthropocentrism, which sees humans as superior and central in the world. All of these are types of environmental ethics.
    • Environmental ethics derive from non-western indigenous understandings of the relationship between humans and nature.
    • Environmental ethics aim at rethinking how we consume in ways that are not sustainable for the planet.
    • Libertarian extension, ecological extension, and conservative ethics are the main types of environmental ethics.
    • The difference between the three lies in the way in which they see nature. The first two see an intrinsic value in nature, the last one sees an extrinsic value in it.


    1. The Independent (2021) 'Great Barrier Reef records highest growth of coral in nearly 40 years'.
    2. Good on You (2022) 'What Is Fast Fashion and Why Is It So Bad?'
    3. The 71 Percent 'Industrial Water Usage – What Does It Take to Make These Items'.
    4. The Vegan Society (2022) 'Worldwide growth of veganism'.
    5. Fig. 1 Hands with green grass ( https://www.pexels.com/it-it/foto/persona-in-possesso-di-grani-verdi-1230157/).
    6. Fig. 2 Photos from a protest for animal rights (https://pixabay.com/photos/rally-march-protest-signs-2712259/).
    7. Fig. 3 Flood in Sicily, Italy (https://pixabay.com/it/photos/sigonella-sicilia-paesaggio-case-81772/).
    Frequently Asked Questions about Environmental Ethics

    What is environmental ethics?

    Environmental ethics encompasses a non-human-centred approach to morality and ethics. 

    What are the types of environmental ethics?

    Marshall divides environmental ethics into three groups: Libertarian Extension, Ecological Extension and Conservative Ethics. The main difference is in the value they attribute to nature. 

    What is the importance of environmental ethics?

    Environmental ethics seeks to provide a lens through which the environment should be viewed. Therefore, they help us visualise solutions to climate change, globally and in our everyday lives. 

    What is the relationship between ecology and environmental ethics?

    Ecology and environmental ethics are intrinsically linked. Ecology can be seen as an example of environmental ethics since it focuses on the interdependence between all parts of the environment. 

    Why should environmental ethics be based on ecology?

    Environmental ethics should be based on ecology as ecology is associated with the relationship between living organisms and their environments and it offers ways to think of our future existence on the planet that do not impact it further. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    According to animal-rights advocates Western society is based on _____. 

    What are environmental ethics?

    Why do we speak of fast-fashion as a polluting phenomenon? 


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