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John Muir and the Environmental Ethic

Jonathan B. Wight

The environmental ethic is a complex philosophy that can be arrived at from utilitarian, deontological, and virtue ethics approaches. Environmentalism is a pluralistic ethical concept.

Donald Worster's wonderful biography, A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir (2008) gets at the multi-faceted concepts involved. The book is an exciting romp through the 19th century and early 20th century. It starts in Scotland where Muir was born in 1838 and takes the reader across the seas to the New World and Wisconsin where his parents migrated when he was a young boy.

The family attempted to scrapple out a farm and Muir worked hard labor. He was an inventor, however, and escaped the farm for jobs in factories creating innovations for lumber mills run by steam engines.

His wandering spirit eventually set him on the road, and he walked and walked and walked…and walked some more. He nearly died numerous times of diseases, accidents, and adventures. His bright blue eyes and open heart endeared him to many who nursed him back to health. He carried the strong Scottish egalitarian streak, and carried on conversations with just about anyone, from field hands to presidents.

Muir believed that nature is essential for the wholeness and unfolding of the human spirit. We are drawn to nature like a moth to flame. Instead of fighting it, we need to embrace it. Muir devoted much of his life to writing about the intersection and harmony of humans and nature. Yet on many levels humans have raped nature for short run gains and the tragedy of the commons is a constant theme of the book.

Muir was not opposed to cost/benefit calculations and he saw nature as a necessary source of materials for human prosperity. Yet he decried an ethic of wanton destruction as he witnessed numerous times in the Alaskan gold rush. Thousands of animals were slaughtered for their tusks and the food left to rot. Running throughout the book is Muir's insistence that nature and animals deserve respect for their intrinsic existence qualities. A virtuous person refines his or her character in nature.

Muir was instrumental in preserving and creating Yosemite National Park and others. The book is highly recommended for anyone seeking to understand the roots of environmental ethics in American culture. One of Muir's great failures was not being able to fight off the Hetch Hetchy reservoir, which flooded a canyon nearly as beautiful as Yosemite to feed San Francisco's water demands. San Franciscans will vote this fall on whether to restore the valley to its pristine state.

[Thanks to Jack Fiedler for providing this book.]


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