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A Look at the Environmental Ethic of the American Government

The field of environmental ethics has gained popularity and importance in recent years. The two main veins of this philosophy are the anthropocentric and non-anthropocentric values. Anthropocentrism theorizes that nature has value in relation to human beings, but not on its own. Humans are the only entities holding moral standing and therefore the only beings on this planet with intrinsic value. Under this view, environmental health is only important if it provides a benefit to the human race.

In contrast, a non-anthropocentric ethic extends moral consideration to nonhuman entities and theorizes that humans are not the sole holders of intrinsic value. It is important to protect the environment and its inhabitants because they are morally significant in their own right.

Anthropocentric Leanings

The majority of U.S. government agencies fall into the anthropocentric category of ethics. Their missions and goals focus on environmental sustainability for economic prosperity, national security, human health, or some combination of these objectives. In their mission statements, few of these agencies use language alluding to any intrinsic value in nature. Consequently, the laws and regulations administered by these agencies take on a similar tone of anthropocentrism.

Economic Prosperity

Perhaps the most commonly cited reason for environmental protection is an economic one. Heavily focused on economics are the goals of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Council on Environmental Quality, a Senate environmental committee, and the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

In addition to government agencies themselves, many environmental policies and regulations exist that place importance on economics. The Clean Air Act includes several provisions to “prevent economic disruption or unemployment,” as well as analyses and assessments of economic impacts of pollution control measures.

The Clean Water Act contains similar terms to measure the economic costs and benefits of its requirements, mentioning “economic feasibility” multiple times throughout its text. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 discusses energy efficiency and resource conservation because of economic importance and keeping costs low. It also dictates that any renewable energy used must be “economically justified” to continue its use.

National Security

Ensuring economic prosperity is directly linked to strengthening national security and, in a logical progression, many agencies dedicate much of their environmental focus to this effort. Particularly devoted to its national security goals is the Department of Energy, whose first objective is to promote energy security and second is to ensure nuclear security. The Army Corps of Engineers and Army Environmental Command work to implement environmental protection within the Army’s many operations, mostly to aid the national security mission and to develop sustainable military installations.

Environmental regulations ensuring national security are stronger than those promoting economic prosperity. National security is the main reason for the creation of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA). Despite the promotion of renewable energy and domestic oil production, the underlying reasons for this natural resource conservation focus is purely based on the country’s security and safety, not on the needs of the environment. The previously mentioned Environmental Policy Act of 2005 also deeply concerns itself with national security, but its other various objectives prompted the creation of the EISA.

The Public “Good”

Less specific than economics and security are the goals of public well-being, health, enjoyment and social needs. Many agencies promote sustainable operations for the ambiguous “good” of the American people, such as the Council on Environmental Quality, the U.S. Forest Service and the National Center for Environmental Health of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Several regulations emphasize the relationship between environmental health and human health, such as the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, Rodenticide Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act and the Executive Order for the Protection of Children from Environmental Health Risks and Safety.

Non-Anthropocentric Leanings

The U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are the most non-anthropocentric environmental agencies. Their mission statements and goals express a deep appreciation for the intrinsic value of nature. Non-anthropocentric environmental regulations, on the other hand, are quite rare. The best example is the Endangered Species Act, which protects endangered species and their habitats without regard to national security, economics or various human benefits. No other environmental regulation is as focused on the intrinsic value of nature, but pieces of non-anthropocentrism can be found in various anthropocentric regulations.

National security, economic growth and human health will remain important objectives in environmental agencies and regulations because they will remain priorities in the minds of the American people. The growing popularity of the “green movement” in the U.S. has the potential to influence the environmental ethic of the federal government, along with the influence of non-anthropocentric NGOs like the National Audubon Society, the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Earth Justice, Friends of the Earth U.S., National Environmental Trust, National Resources Defense Council, National Wildlife Federation, Wilderness Society and World Wildlife Fund U.S.

Tim Wildes
Insightful articles on the environment, pollution, energy, recycling, green living, climate change and much more
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