Among the ancient, moss-draped Douglas firs at the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest in the Oregon Cascades, twenty-three people gathered to take seriously the task of penning an environmental ethic appropriate for our time. We were philosophers, scientists, writers, poets, students, and professors of various bents. Over four intense days we thought collaboratively and open-mindedly, we learned from one another, and we worked hard to create something together none of us could create alone.
The following convictions brought us together and shaped our views as we began our work: We live at a time of profound environmental crisis. Our most fundamental ideas about the nature of this world, our assumptions about the relationship between human beings and this world, and our corresponding notions of value and proper conduct are flawed at their core, inaccurate, harmful to both humans and this world, and desperately in need of rethinking. Our current ethical beliefs, while consistent with those ideas (beliefs that commit us to ideas mistakenly equating happiness with accumulation, or the belief that growth can be unlimited), are likewise dysfunctional. These beliefs are incompatible with the facts of the working world, a world that is in fact resilient yet finite, interdependent, co-evolved, and inclusive of humans, boldly rejecting all forms of human exceptionalism. Our current ways of living on this planet are not only destructive, they are morally shameful.
We also believed, desperately, in the necessity of a new environmental ethic. We were encouraged by Aldo Leopold’s assurance that extending ethics to “the land” was “an evolutionary possibility.” We could do it. His urging that such an ethical extension was “an ecological necessity” infused our work with a sense of urgency. We had to do it. We were following at least half of Leopold’s advice when he pointed out, “nothing so important as an ethic is ever ‘written’ . . . it evolve[s] in the minds of a thinking community.”
So we gathered our thinking community. We knew, too, that an ethic must inspire us to be better people, to live better lives. We took seriously the advice of French author, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who wrote, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up men and gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” So we wanted to write just such an ethical statement: a belief or set of beliefs about what is right, and good, and worthy, and of value; beliefs that guide our actions and behaviors with each other and with the Earth.
Finally, we began with the belief that we fiercely protect what we love, and we love what we feel we belong to. Again, Aldo Leopold: “All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts.” Since our current lives and institutions tragically enact an ethic not of, or for, this Earth (our home), an ethic not worthy of us as Earthlings (members of the community of Earth), the work to nurture a new environmental ethic is also the work to re-weave communities, both human to human and human to non-human. Let us, all of us, begin this work.