Doing Environmental Ethics

Book Review: Doing Environmental Ethics.
Robert Traer, Westview Press, 2465 Central Ave, Boulder, CO 80301. 2009. 274 p. (356 with endnotes). $35.00. ISBN 978-0-8133-4397-6.

By Marty D. Matlock

Doing Environmental EthicsEnvironmental ethics is critical to every field of study involving natural resources. Understanding the way we see, value, and therefore manage natural resources requires a broad understanding of human value systems, mores, and therefore ethics.

This book by Robert Traer was written to provide “an inclusive and practical way of addressing our ecological crisis.” Traer presents a set of arguments that is structured rationally in 15 chapters divided into three parts. In Part One: Ethics and Science, Traer establishes the scientific basis for his approach to discerning the ethical good. The three chapters of this part provide overly brief synopses of Moral Philosophy, Ethics and Science, and Ethics and Economics.

In 51 pages Traer tries to frame the most complex and important questions of our time, including: How do we perceive the world? How do ecosystems work? And how do we value ecosystems?

The first chapter is well crafted. However, in the second and third chapters dealing with ecosystem processes and valuation, the book slips into a string of quotations without proper context, and with end-note citation. The reader must keep the endnotes section thumbed to determine whose words are being conveyed.

Part Two: Constructing and Testing Ethical Presumptions, is composed of five chapters; these include Duty: Nature and Future Generation, Character: Ecological Virtue, Relationships: Empathy and Integrity, Rights: Human and Animals, and Consequences: Predicting the Future. This section is Traer's strongest, with clear voice and vivid imagery supporting his points. He compares religious perspectives on each of the five ethical characteristics, each with operational examples.

Part Three: Learning From Nature, includes seven chapters that run the gamut of environmental challenges, including Sustainable Consumption, Environmental Policy, Air and Water, Agriculture, Public Land, Urban Ecology, and Global Warming. This section is an exercise in apologetics for his particular set of environmental ethics.

Traer fails to make arguments for his perspectives on these complex and difficult topics. Rather, he presents simplistic and often facile justifications for his opinions on the ethical good for each topic. For example in Chapter 12, Agriculture: Land and Food, Traer quotes heavily from advocacy works such as Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma and George Pyle's Raising Less Corn and More Hell While these works are not inappropriate to cite, Traer's use of their perspective without context violates a fundamental rule in rational argument: referral to authority rather than making the case with data. 

Traer presents a set of critiques of modern agriculture that vilifies “industrial agriculture” for replacing “farm animals with machines, diverse crops and crop rotation with a single crop, natural fertilizer with artificial fertilizers, and grazing with barns and stockyards where livestock are fed grains laced with hormones and antibiotics to fatten the animals and resist the bacteria that thrive in such artificial environments.”

Traer fails to engage the truly difficult ethical challenges of living on a limited Earth with 6.5 billion people, and the ethical challenges of a projected population of 9.25 billion by 2050. Nor does he reconcile his perceived evils of “industrial agriculture” with the Green Revolution's role in saving more than a billion people from starving during famines in Asia in the 1960s.

Traer asserts that “The law must ensure that the poor have access to financial capital at fair interest rates, and are able to exercise their civil rights to participate in local economic decisions.” What law? Traer glosses over the hard questions to deliver a sophomoric set of utopian “oughts” and “shoulds.” This book is not appropriate for use as a text book, but could be used to inform scientists on how people adopt views on complex issues.

Book Review: Doing Environmental Ethics.
Source: Journal of Environmental Quality 2010 39:757-757

Blog Archive