Humans and Nature
Humans exert great pressure on the natural world. Habitats and species suffer not only from environmental changes caused by industry and technology, but also from the strain caused by the world’s massive human population, which has doubled in the past 50 years and is rising rapidly.
At the same time, human health and well-being face huge environmental challenges. Increasingly, these challenges are global in scale such as the relentless rise of greenhouse gases driving climate change, the acidification of the oceans, and shortages of fresh water, fuel, and other natural resources. Local environmental problems such as contaminated water and industrial pollution also affect human health and are often sharpest among the most vulnerable in developing countries and disadvantaged populations.
Solutions to these problems must be multifaceted involving political and institutional change at national and global levels, reduced human demands on the environment, and better technologies to provide water, fuel, and other resources. Genetic and nongenetic forms of synthetic biology (creating artificial and potentially nonorganic life forms) are technologies that may benefit humans and the planet, but they also may pose great risks. If, for example, we can alter a species of algae to produce gasoline, should we? Will introducing it into the environment lead to unforeseen consequences for ecosystems and human health?
Making good decisions about new technologies requires thinking more deeply about how we judge them. What counts as a risk, and what counts as a benefit? How heavily should each be weighed? Will we be better off in the long run if we promote action or caution?
Considering our deepest philosophical beliefs also will help to clarify our goals and our priorities. Does the concept of nature carry moral weight? What is the proper relationship between humans and nature? Should humans strive to affect nature less, or try to use it for their benefit? Should animals be used to benefit human medical research?
It should be no surprise that harm to nature often results in harm to humans. Pollutants cause health problems, ocean acidification affects the food supply, and climate change may cause unnecessary deaths and widespread social disruptions. Environmental impacts that range from the small-scale (such as patient-friendly design of hospitals or removal of toxic chemicals in our homes) to the large-scale (such as food production and water supply) may benefit or harm our health, sometimes in surprisingly dramatic ways.
Paying attention to human health and well-being is crucial as we contemplate how to help our environment. An environmental ethic that does not take human health seriously will itself not be taken seriously. There are tradeoffs between protecting the environment and advancing human well-being. Social injustices may arise when certain populations are affected more acutely by harm to the environment. Where do we draw the line between concepts of individual liberty and the common good? How much do we owe to future generations who will inherit the planet we leave them?