Review: Earth Ethics: A Case Method Approach (Orbis Books, 2015)

[1] Understanding the complexities of socio-environmental ethics is a daunting task. Even the most dedicated eco-ethicist is hard-pressed to have a comprehensive command of the facts and figures of the issues competing for our attention. This is why Earth Ethics: A Case Method Approach is such a vital addition to the library of any professor, teacher, pastor, adult forum leader or anyone charged with facilitating a conversation about the most pressing environmental justice issues of our time. This book is a one-stop-shop for providing not only the ethical frameworks and resources needed for addressing these topics, but also detailed examinations of nine of those issues.

[2] Population growth, the morality of meat, genetic engineering, water rights, mountaintop removal and nuclear waste are just some of the issues addressed in this book. One of the strengths of this volume is the way in which it addresses the intersectionality of related social justice issues such as eco-racism, economic exploitation, and community rights, for example. Taken together, they illustrate why these are sometimes called “wicked” problems – thorny issues that involve more than intentional malice. They entail unintended consequences of the habits and assumptions that make up our daily lives. Earth Ethics comprehensively illustrates the intricacies of these matters while providing insights that have the potential to move the conversation forward for those willing to engage in thoughtful reflection and internal as well as external dialogue.

[3] The authors state that the book’s purpose “is to equip readers with skills to do moral deliberation” (xviii), and the first three chapters lay the foundation for providing the context, perspectives and resources for encountering the case studies in Part II. The book is built on the premise that environmental and social ethics cannot be seen as separate fields, but must be viewed in an integrative way. “Our moral obligations to other human beings cannot be separated from the welfare of other creatures in the community of life and the ecological systems that sustain us,” they explain (xi). Thus they dedicate a significant portion of the book to helping readers understand the causes of environmental degradation, how our worldviews and attitudes about nature shape our actions, and the moral norms and visions for moving toward a life and society guided by ethical integrity. Not only do the authors provide solid explanations of the four approaches to improving our global environmental perspective (market liberal, institutional, bioenvironmentalist and social green), but also charts and graphics that are well-chosen and effective in elucidating the finer points of what can be difficult material to absorb.

[4] The third chapter, “Resources for Earth Ethics,” provides not only the ethical frameworks needed for addressing the case studies, but also concise summaries of the biblical and theological foundations for the concepts of justice, sustainability, sufficiency, participation, and solidarity. While the book is clearly intended for a college-level course, pages 45 – 55 of this chapter would be a useful selection to share with a church group interested in understanding why and how Earth ethics is a natural extension of cherished scriptural and theological values. My one wish for this section is that they would have moved Robert Bullard’s five principles of environmental justice out of the case study on mountaintop removal (187-188) to a prominent place in this chapter. Those principles (the right to protection from environmental degradation, prevention of harm, shifting the burden of proof to the polluter, obviating proof of intent, and redressing inequities) should have been available in the first part of the book as a lens for viewing many of the other cases that followed.

[5] The second part of the book covers the nine case studies. Each case begins with a true-to-life scenario of a college student facing a moral and ethical dilemma and engaging several different conversation partners representing various informed positions about the issue. These are written in a narrative form in a way that engages the reader while also conveying substantial information and the complexity involved in discerning a way forward. This approach achieves a two-fold purpose – helping the reader understand their personal responsibilities regarding ecological issues while setting those choices within the context of broader policy decisions and community dialogue.

[6] The commentary following each case study provides a point-by-point breakdown of the questions and considerations raised by the problem. The authors have done their homework in providing well-researched and nuanced perspectives on each case. Nevertheless, there were some key points that were missed. For example, the case study “Moral Eating” which examines the ethics of eating meat, left out several common rationalizations for the consumption of animal flesh, including having the “right” to eat whatever one chooses, and the plethora of examples of eating meat in scripture. And in the chapter “Fractured Options,” I was disappointed that they missed several key facts about fracking that would have strengthened the arguments against this form of extreme energy extraction. For instance, they overlooked the fact that 5% – 8% of well casings fail within the first year, increasing the risk of water contamination. They also left out the growing problem of fracked gas pipelines and forced pooling disrupting community rights, as well as the dangers of explosions at every point from the wells to the compressor stations to the railroads to the liquefied natural gas facilities. Nevertheless, the cases make a concerted effort to represent well the different perspectives, opinions, and concerns of the constituencies and individuals who are affected by the decisions made about these multifaceted issues.

[7] In many of the scenarios, the reader will be able to quickly identify which of their own personal values come to bear on the situation, and the premises for their own moral discernment will become clear. But not every case yields a clear center of morality. Take for instance the chapter “Klamath Crisis” which addresses the competing interests of those seeking rights to diminishing water resources as well as those concerned with preserving endangered species in the Upper Klamath Lake basin in the northern Pacific states. As the authors note, “Interestingly, each stakeholder sees itself largely as a victim of unfair actions, and as a culture and way of life threatened by government or lack of government actions,” (167). This is perhaps the most frustrating case study of the book, because every option seems to lead to checkmate.

[8] What the Klamath case, as well as many of the other chapters illustrate, is the way in which climate change has so radically altered the equations for equity. In fact, climate change is the primary unifying theme throughout this book. Global warming is both an effect and cause of so many environmental problems that the feedback loop seems to be increasing on orders of magnitude too fast to allow for adaptation. Faced with this reality, the authors remind us that the value of solidarity is key, in that “empathetic listening to each stakeholder and a genuine effort to address the issues each sees as most central” is vital for articulating a vision for what the community might strive for in the future (168). And, they are right to point out, ethical integrity demands special concern for the ones who have been historically most discriminated against and placed at risk (in the Klamath case, Native Americans and endangered species).

[9] Because the book is designed specifically for a college course, the volume includes helpful resources in the appendix for teaching, including ideas for a reflection paper, and individual and group exercises for orienting oneself in the eco-ethics spectrum and power dynamics. The appendices also include detailed guidelines for writing case briefs and preparing for group presentations and debates or deliberative dialogues. A course instructor may also consider assigning a paper in which a student chooses one of the case studies and, based on the chapter and the endnotes following each case study (which provide students with plenty of resources for further reading), answer the question: how would you respond? Because the authors leave each case open-ended, the reader has plenty of room to wrestle with the dilemma and come to their own conclusion.

[10] One can only hope that students taking courses in environmental ethics will rapidly employ their newly-minted skills in critical and ethical thinking by entering the public spaces, legislative offices, corporate boardrooms and church governing boards that are in dire need of this kind of moral discernment. The ethical principles of socio-environmental concerns have been ignored, mocked, dismissed and avoided for far too long. Martin-Schramm, Spencer and Stivers have at least done their part to help fill the gap in our moral and ethical discernment process.

Leah D. Schade

Leah D. Schade is Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship, Lexington Theological Seminary and Author of Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2015).