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1 May 2013 Environmental Philosophy: From Theory to Practice.
Bryan G. Norton
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My opinion of the academic field in which I work is that it was accidentally named environmental ethics rather than environmental philosophy. I came to this field from the philosophy of science and epistemology, rather than from an ethics background, but I have never had a problem maintaining a dialogue with environmental ethicists, because most of them engage with empirical science—especially ecology. I have never found a shortage of issues and principles to discuss and argue with them. The difference in labels has never seemed intellectually important to me. Furthermore, I know of few books with environmental philosophy in the title, whereas my shelf of books on environmental ethics, after several expansions, has spilled out into piles on my floor. I have been jogged out of my complacency, however, by a new book—Environmental Philosophy: From Theory to Practice.

From the specific topics covered to the overall perspective taken, Sahotra Sarkar's book is startling to me—as I expect it will be for others with at least a passing interest in environmental ethics and environmental values. In some subject areas, the overlap with environmental ethics is obvious, as in “Ethics for the environment” (chapter 3) and “From ethics to policy” (chapter 4). But even in these chapters, Sarkar's approach differs from most work in environmental ethics by embedding sections such as “Natural value” and “Intrinsic value” in a broader purpose of developing a philosophy of conservation biology. He discusses these topics, well worn in environmental ethics, as a practitioner who is looking for tools with which to solve real-world conservation problems. Although he examines the arguments for attributing intrinsic value to natural objects, he is as interested in assessing the usefulness of a theory when applied to conservation action as he is in determining the truth within the theoretical claims of environmental ethicists. Sarkar's fieldwork with scientists and conservation activists (he participates in the application of algorithms for choosing land reserves at the lowest cost, both in dollars and in terms of ecosystem disturbance) provides him with a rich foundation on which to evaluate ethical concepts as tools for practitioners.

This practical perspective serves to focus Sarkar's attention more narrowly on species and higher taxa when he discusses intrinsic value in nature. Whereas most environmental ethicists focus on a general question (“Do any nonhuman entities have intrinsic value?”) Sarkar focuses on only those categories that “are central to biodiversity” (p. 47). Because he writes from the perspective of a practitioner as well as that of a philosopher of biology, he focuses on the units of nature that conservation biologists actually try to protect. He discusses the hypothesis that species in particular might have intrinsic value, evaluating it for practical value in building support for the goals and activities of actual conservationists. He concludes, “Intrinsic value arguments did not get us as far as we may have hoped toward a satisfactory environmental ethic, at least if the latter is to include an ethic for biodiversity conservation” (p. 55).

Sarkar also corrects a widespread misapprehension that anthropocentrists cannot believe in “noninstrumental” values in nature or find them appealing. He cites the idea of the transformational power of experiences with wilderness: “Attempts to attribute intrinsic value to rocks, mountains, rivers, etc., may be no more than attempts to recognize their transformative power beyond demand values…” (p. 59).

Once Sarkar moves past his discussion of values to emphasize the philosophical questions and problems that confront conservation biologists in the field (especially in their communication with other disciplines and with the public and policymakers), his work diverges even further from typical treatments of environmental ethics. Sarkar recognizes that some of the most important and difficult philosophical problems related to environmental protection are conceptual (What do we mean by key terms like biodiversity?) and epistemological (How can we prescribe actions to preserve biodiversity, given that the term can be defined using only proxy variables?).


In Environmental Philosophy, as in his other publications, Sarkar speaks as an advocate for systematic conservation planning (SCP), and he surveys key concepts necessary to support better decisionmaking regarding the choice of which areas to protect. This approach, which originated in Australia, has been used successfully in other countries, including South Africa. Employing a broadly adaptive approach to management, he describes SCP as providing algorithms for the design of conservation area networks, “which are sets of areas protected for management for biological conservation” (p. 99). SCP pursues three goals: The first—representation—involves protection of those units of biodiversity included in the accepted definition of the term; the second—persistence— relates to an assurance of the likelihood that those units continue into the future; and the third—economy— implies that the protection of biodiversity will be achieved through means that are comparatively inexpensive in costs and in the area of land required.

Including economy as a goal and a constraint is, of course, a very practical approach to conservation decisionmaking but is not usually taken by those with a philosophical interest. However, Sarkar demonstrates the utility of a key concept called complementarity by applying it as an alternative to richness (i.e., species count) and using it as a measure of biodiversity. In making choices based on complementarity, one evaluates various plans to add protected areas according to how much each new area contributes to the protection of previously unprotected elements. These judgments are embodied in an algorithm that ranks these conservation area networks according to their ability to protect more of the conservation-targeted elements of biodiversity.

Seeking concepts that are both epistemologically effective and ethically reasonable, Sarkar discusses the ideas of biodiversity and conservation in chapter 5, recognizing that these terms convey a certain level of protection. He continues with his promise to clarify concepts in subsequent chapters. In chapter 7, “Sustainability,” Sarkar first cautions about how we define this term and goes on to argue that weak sustainability, which he equates with economic sustainability, fails to provide sufficiently robust goals for a protective environmental policy. He then contrasts this with strong sustainability (i.e., specifying what should be protected in nature) and variations thereof, through which he accepts economic sustainability as necessary but supplements it with independent criteria articulated outside the sustainability framework. He also cites ecological resilience as an independent conservation principle, but this has been embraced by most strong-sustainability theorists as a noneconomic aspect of sustainability.

In chapter 8 (“Justice and equity”), the discussion is strongly weighted toward concerns that environmental problems, and even environmental solutions, may fall heavily on the most vulnerable parties affected. The topics in this chapter include responsibility for climate change, environmental racism, social and political ecology, and ecofeminism. Sarkar asks, “Where does this leave us?” in a short, final chapter and closes with a “take-home message for environmental activists that the future they envision can only be achieved if natural values are embedded into the cultural fabric of a region” (p. 199).

Bryan G. Norton "Environmental Philosophy: From Theory to Practice.," BioScience 63(5), 404-405, (1 May 2013).
Published: 1 May 2013

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