Background and Early American History

Environmental Ethical Issues


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In the early 21st century, environmental concerns have emerged as some of the most important social policy issues. Environmental ethics issues go back to the earliest era of American history but they became more important as the nation became more industrialized in the 19th and early 20th century. Today, the major environmental ethics concerns include the concept of disproportionate global resource consumption by wealthy nations, the depletion of fossil fuels and the need to develop alternative sources of energy, the outsourcing of negative consequences from industrial processes from wealthier nations to poorer nations, the environmental impact of U.S. military operations on foreign peoples, anthropomorphism in wildlife preservation and conservation, and the relative obligation of current generations to future generations inheriting the planet.


Background and Early American History of Environmental Concerns


Even in the infancy of the United States, environmental ethics issues existed in the form of concern over the different way that the Settlers used the land in comparison to the Native Americans (Poiman & Poiman, 2007). In principle, Native Americans traditionally practiced what we would regard to day as environmentally conscious methods of hunting and of minimizing the impact of human activities on the natural environment. In contrast, the settlers applied laissez-fair business models to the harvesting and exploitation of natural resources without regard for the impact on the natural environment (Poiman & Poiman, 2007).


As the nation became more industrialized in the 19th and early 20th century, new environmental ethics issues emerged, such as those in relation to the effect of factories and other industrial processes on the quality of breathable air in large cities (Nevins & Commager, 2002). At that time, children labored side-by-side with adults working long hours and in hazardous environments until the introduction of the first child labor laws (Halbert & Ingulli, 2008).


In big cities at that time, environmental ethics issues also included the accumulation of garbage and animal waste that made streets and sidewalks unsafe and sometimes impassable for pedestrians (Nevins & Commager, 2002). Many people were sickened, even dying, from unsanitary drinking water; this problem affected the urban poor much more than their better-off counterparts who typically had access to cleaner water sources. Other early environmental ethics issues that arose in that era involved the consequences of major construction projects on local populations. For example, the 1889 bursting of a dam built by companies financed by Andrew Carnegie resulted in the deaths of 2,200 people in Johnston, Pennsylvania (Nevins & Commager, 2002).


The Significance of Contemporary Environmental Issues


Today, environmental ethics issues are much larger, mainly because those attributable to modern industrial processes, transportation, and scale of business threaten whole countries and the entire human population on earth rather than just isolated regions and local communities (Attfield, 2003). On the largest scale, the U.S. population is disproportionately responsible for the depletion of fossil fuels and other natural resources in that Americans consume approximately one-quarter of those valuable energy resources despite constituting less than five percent of the entire global population (Attfield, 2003; Poiman & Poiman, 2007).


Besides consuming such a disproportionate amount of natural resources, another major environmental ethics issue arises in connection with the deliberate export of hazardous waste from wealthy countries to poor countries and the outsourcing of dangerous jobs, such as some of those that are strictly prohibited by domestic environmental laws (Halbert & Ingulli, 2008; Poiman & Poiman, 2007). United States military operations have also contributed to new environmental ethics concerns, such as the contamination of soil and water supplies in Iraq and Central Europe by the millions of depleted uranium shells left by tactical aircraft supporting ground troops in Iraq or engaging hostile threats against NATO forces in Bosnia after U.S. military operations in both regions in the early 1990s (Attfield, 2003).


Within the last fifty years, there has been an ever-increasing concern for the preservation of wildlife, particularly with respect to its depletion as a result of human activity (Attfield, 2003; Poiman & Poiman, 2007). More recently, some of those campaigns have been challenged on a conceptual level as being heavily influenced by anthropomorphism that is, essentially, responsible for the arbitrary selection of certain species for protection (such as dolphin) while others are hunted aggressively (such as tuna), largely because some species are perceived as “cute” or as more human-like (Attfield, 2003; Poiman & Poiman, 2007).




While human societies have made tremendous progress in identifying valid environmental ethical concerns, there remain many unresolved (and newly-emerging) issues. In principle, First World societies have established laws and policies designed to protect vulnerable human communities from the detrimental effects of modern industry. On the other hand, comparatively less has been accomplished to equalize the benefits of natural resources on a global scale or to minimize the shifting of environmental risk from wealthy societies to poor societies. Ultimately, the human community must also reach a consensus on the fundamental obligation that contemporary society has to future generations.




Attfield R. (2003). Environmental Ethics: An Overview for the Twenty-First Century.


Cambridge, UK: Polity.


Halbert T. And Ingulli E. (2008). Law & Ethics in the Business Environment. Cincinnati:


West Legal Studies.


Nevins J. And Commager HS. (2002). A Pocket History of the United States. New York:


Pocket Books


Poiman LP and Poiman P. (2007). Environmental Ethics: Readings in Theory and Application. Florence, KY: Wadsworth-Cengage.

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