Environmental Ethics: Duties to and Values in the Natural World, by Holmes Rolston III. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. 391 pp. $34.95. A large fish kill and massive algal bloom occur simultaneously off New Jersey's coast without a clear and direct cause. The New York Times headline reads: ``The Environment is Trying to Say Something.''
The environment is forcefully responding to long-term abuse with rather sobering events. Holmes Rolston's book, ``Environmental Ethics: Duties to and Values in the Natural World,'' unravels the ethics question, then weaves the strands back together in a tight fabric of analysis and proposal.
The word ``ethics'' conjures up notions of endless definitions, redefinitions, and pointless speculation. But Rolston presents his argument step by step, leaving readers to draw their own conclusions. He urges abandoning the term ``rights'' (whether property or natural) and focusing on ``what is right'' instead.
On one side of the environmental debate, growth-oriented planners see rights as defined primarily by the marketplace. They say economic growth is stifled by the deteriorating environment. And they focus on how best to use the environmental resources still available.
On the other side, the ``biocentrists'' grant intrinsic value to all environmental actors - plants, animals, land, and people. For them the problem lies in the diminishing genetic richness and the irreversible degradation of the ecosystem.
Rolston does not choose sides. He finds value in a balanced ecosystem, even including in it people with a profit motive. Order and freedom are found in the interdependencies of biotic communities. ``The ecosystem is a transformer that interlocks dispersed achievements ... freedom [is found] in communities, not [in] freedom from community.''
Instead of individually based ethics or communally based ethics, where one or the other must take precedence, Rolston develops a synthesis of individual and communal interests.
The arguments have all become commonplaces, and almost all have represented one side. Rolston quotes John Stuart Mill (1874): ``Nature is an odious scene of violence.'' That had been the prevailing view of the natural world. Ethical questions often left nature to its own devices and focused more on inter-human issues. The Ten Commandments, categorical imperatives, the Golden Rule, concepts of justice, and the utilitarian calculus reflect that focus on man.
The arguments that have held sway so far, Rolston argues, are still needed. But nature can no longer be dismissed as inherently malleable. Protecting minority interests (the environment in this case) is a longstanding American value, he argues. To Western society, land ethics are now as appropriate as the well-developed inter-human ethics.
By refusing to be pulled toward either an economics-based or a ``biocentrist'' position, Rolston bridges an otherwise yawning gap between the two camps.
Most of the book's chapters start with quotations from environmental experts and philosophers which provide steppingstones toward new views of environmental ethics. But he uses far too many of them, seeming to retreat to the safety of expert opinions. Nevertheless, the rich explorations in ethics justify his synthesis of economic and environmentalist approaches.
``Environmental Ethics'' provides a model of the environmental thinking - and acting - required now and in the future. The book will be of use to environmentalists, policymakers, and business people who have to deal with them.
David C. Walters is on the Monitor staff.