Ethics for survival

Too often, science and money are used to trump our sense of values. If we are to prosper, our ethics and values must be integrated with our lifestyle.

by Carolyn Raffensperger and Nancy Myers


n a recent trade skirmish over whaling, the Japanese government declared that the United States and aligned countries had to make decisions about whaling on the basis of "sound science." That is, if the populations of whales hunted by the Japanese had sustainable numbers, the United States had to allow the Japanese to hunt whales for meat.

Similarly, rural residents of Minnesota were recently told to leave their emotions at the door so the siting of a factory hog farm could be done purely on the basis of science. And opponents of genetically engineered salmon are told that risk assessors' decisions about harm are all that should be considered.

But what about those "emotions" of ours that tell us something is wrong with this picture? Most of us still look nervously over our shoulders when we start talking about affection for whales, our desire for good health for ourselves and future generations, or our worry about the human ability to create monstrosities. We are used to having such responses dismissed as emotional. But they are really expressions of values, based on human experience, and as such they deserve attention.

The problem is that when a certain kind of science, which is supposedly objective, is brought into the discussion, values such as these seem to have no place. Numbers trump.

In more than three years of working through the implications of the precautionary principle, we at the Science and Environmental Health Network have been astonished to find how radically the principle challenges that supposed separation of science and values. In November 2000, we convened thoughtful people, philosophers, scientists, and environmentalists at Blue Mountain Center in the Adirondacks to discuss what role ethics plays in the precautionary principle.

The beauty of the precautionary principle is that it allows us to integrate science and ethics. Science, of course, has never really been separated from values. It has been matched up with greed. It has served a worldview that maintains the value of separation - the assumption that values CAN be separated from knowledge, one form of knowledge from another, humans from their environment and other species, individual humans from each other.

The intellectual tradition that claims science and values can and should be separated goes back to Medieval times and a theologian named Occam. We are recognizing only now how shortsighted and destructive it can be, and what impoverished science it leads to.

The challenge before the Blue Mountain group was to articulate the ethic that lies behind the precautionary principle. Their answer was that it was an ethic of survival. Here is the Blue Mountain Lake Statement, which says that "emotional" values such as compassion, sympathy, gratitude, and even humor are based on sound instinct. They are not just nice things that nice people do so they don't displease Miss Manners. They are essential if we are to survive.

The Blue Mountain Lake Statement Of Essential Values

alues become actions. Too many of our actions are killing our planet, our communities, and our spirit. Our actions are killing our loved ones. We are diminishing the future for everyone and everything.

Particular values form the basis of our survival. When practiced, they help us live in reciprocity with nature and with each other. We are the relationships we share, and we are permeable - physically, emotionally, spiritually to our surroundings. Therefore, we hold these values as essential:


  • GRATITUDE, because our lives depend on air, water, soil, plants, humans, and her animals;
  • EMPATHY, because we are connected with all of creation;
  • SYMPATHY, because we all experience suffering and death, both necessarily in the course of life and unnecessarily when these values are not practiced;
  • COMPASSION, because it moves us to attend to suffering and injustice; and
  • HUMILITY, because we cannot know all of the consequences of our actions.

We belong to the community of the Earth. It is the source of our own life, and our actions affect its well-being. Therefore, we practice:


  • RESPECT, because it is fundamental to good relationships;
  • RESTRAINT, because the Earth is finite, and we must honor its limits;
  • SIMPLICITY, because we are only one species sharing Earth with many others;
  • HUMOR, because life is good, and humor disrobes tyranny and absurdity.

Human beings need sustaining social and natural environments. No one, by law or habit, is entitled to rob others or future generations of a diverse world vibrant with hope and possibilities. We have an obligation to restore social and ecological fabrics that have been torn by violence or exploitation.

We affirm that all being is sacred and has intrinsic value that is not monetary.

People who hold these values outnumber those who do not. We draw strength from each other. As we abandon harmful activities, we take nature as our guide. We explicitly consider the effects of actions on individuals, families, communities, species, landscapes, regions, and future generations.

It is through love for the particular - a child, a neighborhood, a family of otters, a meandering river that we find our way to a sustaining relationship with the Earth and our communities.

Blue Mountain Center, Blue Mountain Lake, NY, November 12, 2000


Blue Mountain Participants

Bill Vitek, Potsdam New York
Bruce McKay, Montreal Quebec
Carolyn Raffensperger, Windsor North Dakota
Craig Holdrege, Ghent New York
David Abram, Victor Idaho
Derrick Jensen, Crescent City California
Fred Kirschenmann, Ames Iowa
Harriet Barlow, Minneapolis Minnesota
Jennifer Sahn, Great Barrington Massachusetts
Katherine Barrett, Victoria British Columbia
Maria Pellerano, Annapolis Maryland
Marianne Spitzform, Missoula Montana
Mary O'Brien, Eugene Oregon
Mark Ritchie, Minneapolis Minnesota
Nancy Myers, Oak Park Illinois
Peter deFur, Richmond Virginia
Peter Montague, Annapolis Maryland
Peter Sauer, Salem New York
Sheila Kinney, Blue Mountain Lake New York
Steve Light, Minneapolis Minnesota
Ted Schettler, Boston Massachusetts
Tracey Easthope, Ann Arbor Michigan
Wes Jackson, Salina Kansas

Reprinted from The Networker, The Newsletter of the Science and Environmental Health Network, January 2001 - Volume 6, #1. You may contact the editors at or (701) 763-6286;

Aristotle's Virtues And
Leopold's Land Ethic

Bill Vitek et al., summary by Nancy Myers


he Blue Mountain Lake Statement grew out of the lively discussion that followed talks on three spiritual and intellectual ancestors: Aristotle, grandfather of all ethical discussions; Aldo Leopold, grandfather of the conservation movement and author of the "land ethic" set forth in Sand County Almanac; and Rachel Carson, grandmother of the modern environmental movement.

Bill Vitek, who teaches philosophy to predominantly engineering students at Clarkson University and directs Clarkson's Environmental Science and Policy Program, lectured informally on both Aristotle and Leopold, with some additions on Leopold by Peter Sauer, an Orion magazine senior editor and columnist. Their presentation is summarized here. The group was struck by the similar themes and ideas that appeared in these presentations, and again in Mary O'Brien's talk on Rachel Carson, which follows this summary.

For Aristotle, Vitek emphasized, virtue was a practical notion rather than a principle. Well-being was the goal, rather than the upholding of strict notions of right and wrong. Virtues were the behaviors that allowed people to be happy in a given culture - bravery would be highly valued in a warrior culture, for example; honor and justice in others. The notion of morality, right and wrong, is too narrow to encompass Aristotelian virtue, which included such things as wit and friendship.

The test of a successful culture was whether it led to happiness for its citizens - that is, whether it accorded with human nature. Part of an Aristotelian critique of current American culture would be that it has denied important parts of human nature, notably our intimacy with and dependence on the natural world.

Virtues are moderate - they are middle choices between excess and deficiency. If bravery is the virtue that deals with fear, cowardice represents too much fear and rashness is the mark of too little fear. But the exact degree cannot be dictated. Perfection is difficult to attain virtue is, in fact, mostly about missing the mark (but trying anyhow). The idea is to develop a set of character traits that lead to goodness and happiness.

Education is important. Humans are not born virtuous. We must encourage habits in children that, over time, develop into virtues, by rewarding good behavior and punishing bad behavior. This process cannot be left to the individual family: the community has a role in encouraging virtues. Virtue is gained by practice, often embodied in institutions and disciplines such as marriage, sports, music, philosophy.

Virtue requires deliberation, both on the part of an individual and on the part of society. Moral dilemmas must be solved and resolved. It is the foundation of the need for politics. We cannot leave good to chance - it should govern how our houses are built and our streets laid out as well as how our laws are made. In our communities, we create the context that both reflects and encourages our notion of what is good. The polls creates good citizens who in turn create good government.

The American founders, Vitek continued, did indeed envision the kind of republic they believed would create virtuous citizens - but they turned Aristotle's virtues on their heads. In America, the Athenian vices became virtues bigness, separation of people, individualism, and consumption. The creation of material wealth has kept citizens working, but it has also kept them apart.

At this point the group made some additional observations:


  • In such a scheme, instead of asking how we can make people do right instead of wrong, we would ask, what conditions should we create to encourage good behavior?
  • The virtues of science - attention to detail, honesty, willingness to test re undermined as money enters in.
  • Our educational system is producing the next generation of consumers, whereas the farm child of previous eras was engaged in production. Part of our education should consist of requiring students to volunteer and making work fun.

Aldo Leopold, Vitek continued, combined ethics, aesthetics, and ecology in constantly expanding boundaries of consideration. He saw his thought on a land ethic as the next step in a progression beyond individual and communal ethics.

Leopold's aesthetics had to with a heightened awareness of the world around us. He believed modern culture anesthetizes us, dulling our awareness. Heightened awareness, appreciation of beauty, leads to an emotional response. "I love all trees," he wrote, "but I am in love with the pine." Such sensory experience is connected with our ability to respond ethically.

Ecology, for Leopold, is the study of our "house." He advocated "biotic citizenship" for humans rather than the role of conquerors of nature. He was a gradualist, believing that conservationists' goals should be to develop new cogs and wheels to put into current systems. He did not advocate abandoning the concept of private property, for instance, but urged property owners to become stewards of conservation.

Leopold criticized education that "teaches us more and more about less and less." We should not be learning "how to carve cats" so much as understanding the world cats live in.

Peter Sauer added that portions of Leopold's seminal essay on the land ethic had been aimed specifically at the conservation movement. He had been working on these ideas since 1934, the year in which more Americans owned and worked farms than ever before or since. Leopold bought his own farm that year. But he wrote the essay in 1946-47 for the benefit of the conservation movement, especially many of his former students with whom he had kept in touch during the war and who were coming home full of patriotism and idealism. He saw this time as an opportunity to make the movement, which had been trivial and separate from religion and philosophy, far more effective. And indeed, by the late 1940s and early 1950s, memberships in Sierra Club, Audubon Society, and other groups were skyrocketing and new groups such as the Nature Conservancy were being founded.

In its discussion, the group agreed that if Leopold were alive he would still be tinkering with his notion of a land ethic, and that they therefore felt free to go ahead and do the same. The land ethic was about process rather than principles, and perhaps Leopold's greatest gift was his ability to expand his vision.

"How do we advance our goals more systematically?" Vitek asked. "Leopold gives us the best framework. We often feel it's 'us against them.' His ethical framework says there is a bigger, more basic way to work together."