A Call for New Ethics in an Overpopulated Planet

Updated: Sep 9, 2018

However in the past few decades its magnificent golden rays have become harmful to man. The ozone layer, which shields the earth from the sun’s ultraviolet rays, has seen unprecedented damage. It is a natural sunscreen that protects us from skin cancer, but by the end of March 2011, 40 percent of the ozone in the stratosphere had been destroyed by industrial pollutants, allowing more of the sun’s harmful ultraviolet B rays to penetrate through the atmosphere. This has been linked to the increased rates of skin cancer, cataracts and immune system damage.

Had anyone considered the unintended consequences of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) when it was developed in the early part of the nineteenth century? It is evident that human actions were based on the “here and now” and they ignored the after effects of the pollutants, says Hans Jonah in his book The Imperative of Responsibility.

Over the past 250 years, man’s actions have continued to alter the Earth’s atmosphere dramatically. Thanks to the scientific and industrial revolutions which transformed industries such as manufacturing, agriculture, and mining, and improved the socioeconomic and cultural conditions. Technology advanced in leaps and bounds by the mid-1800s, and by the 21st century, modern medical technologies such as cell biology progressed so much that man had the power to defy age and extend life.

In 1960 the average person lived 53 years, but in 2010 the average human life was extended to 60 years. In 1800 the world’s population was one billion, it took 130 years to reach two billion, but within 30 years, by 1960, there were three billion people on this planet. Fast forward to November 2012, and more than seven billion of us are living on earth. The problem with this kind of exponential population growth is that it is perpetuating pollution problems, which in turn is having a detrimental effect on all living beings (see Environmental Ethics by Paul Pojman & Louis Pojman).

But the paradox is, people who have contributed the least to global warming are the ones that are impacted the most. Here again the unintended consequences of rapid technological advances comes under scrutiny, but a more important question is, “Is it ethical to act without knowing the consequences of these advances?” And Jonas questions, did anyone ever consider that in order to maintain the Earth’s balance? (“If we abolished death we must abolish procreation as well.”) Apparently not!

Technology is transforming the very conditions of human life and is posing an unprecedented threat to the existence of life on this planet. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which recently released the latest Red List of Threatened Species, confirms an extinction crisis, with one-fifth of vertebrate species threatened. The report also reveals that an average of 50 species of mammals, birds and amphibians are moving closer to extinction each year due to the impacts of human activities such as agricultural expansion, logging, over-exploitation and invasive alien species.

Here Jonas’ assessment of human actions is fitting — “the raping of nature and the civilizing of man go hand in hand.” In his endless quest to conquer power and success, man is involved in actions that have “opened up a whole new dimension of ethical relevance for which there is no precedent in the standards and canons of traditional ethics.” These ethics are anthropocentric, involving direct dealing of man with man, and here “nature is not an object of human responsibility.”