In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Environmental Philosophy

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Textbooks and Introductions to the Field
  • Intrinsic Value in Nature
  • Environmental Virtue Ethics
  • Animals and the Environment
  • Holism and the Environment
  • Population, Poverty, and Future People
  • Politics of Nature
  • Feminism and the Environment
  • Religion, Nature, and Spirituality
  • Sustainability and Biodiversity
  • Conservation and Restoration

Philosophy Environmental Philosophy
Andrew Brennan, Norva Lo
  • LAST REVIEWED: 14 September 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 March 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0338


Environmental philosophy took off in the 1970s through engaging a key question: are human lives and experiences the only things that count morally? In addition to such environmental ethical questions, some theorists have also inquired about topics in metaphysics, epistemology, and cosmology in relation to the environment, suggesting that a change in our understanding of the world and our place in it can underwrite a new ethic for environmental sustainability. Some writers say that a puzzle about human beings lies at the heart of environmental philosophy, namely whether humans are unique in having a morally special status—a moral value—that no other living or nonliving thing has. If human beings are morally special, then in virtue of what features do they have that very special status? Is it because they can talk, or think, engage in dialogue with each other, or have possibilities of pleasure and pain denied to other living things? Is it because they build their lives around projects in terms of which to make sense of themselves, their relationships, and their surroundings. Is it because they are aware of their own mortality in a way that other things are not? If humans are special then this can be seen as a justification for an anthropocentric (human-centered) worldview and an attitude toward nature that treats other things, living or not, as means to human flourishing rather than having any value in themselves. In its extreme form, anthropocentrism may view other living things as no more than such a means. Such a perspective, it has been argued, is entrenched in many of the classics in the history of Western philosophy. Sustained efforts have been put into developing alternative frameworks in terms of which to conceptualize and think about human behavior in relation to nature and its nonhuman inhabitants. The blueprints for these alternatives have sometimes been found within the Western philosophical tradition too, although some have been sought from other sources, especially among various religious traditions and the classics of Eastern thought. While questions of ethics, and ethical responsibility to the environment, have been central to the field, a wider examination of questions about the nature of ecology as a science, and also of metaphysical questions about holism and individualism, has also occurred. In addition, environmental philosophers have also ventured into policy areas by discussing issues about sustainability, conservation, and restoration.

General Overviews

Several of the anthologies below provide a comprehensive overview of the whole field. There is much repetition among the collections, so the choice of which one to consult is not highly critical. In general, this article does not list individually the classic journal articles in the field since these are well represented in the various collections, especially in Pojman and Pojman 2012 and Zimmerman, et al. 2005. Pojman and Pojman 2012 also contains extensive material on policy and politics matters, as does Boylan 2014. Schmidtz and Willott 2002 has the widest scope of all. Most of these general anthologies have considerable overlap in the material they feature, given that there is wide agreement on what are the classic articles that established the subject. Three of the anthologies are much more specialized. Brady and Phemister 2012 deals with the question of the meaningful relationships that humans have with the environment and the implication of these for attitudes to nature, biodiversity, and sustainability. Witoszek and Brennan 1999 surveys deep ecology, a position sometimes associated with eco-spirituality and with a metaphysical conception of human beings as no more than knots in larger webs of life. Gobster and Hull 2000 is focused on the topic of environmental restoration and its relationship to nature’s value. Nash 1989 is included as an authoritative, historically based overview of the emergence of environmental philosophy.

  • Boylan, Michael, ed. Environmental Ethics. 2d ed. Chichester, UK: Wiley Blackwell, 2014.

    This second edition of an anthology first published in 2001, includes updated material on sustainability and climate change, along with a collection of well-known articles from earlier periods.

  • Brady, Emily, and Pauline Phemister, eds. Human-Environment Relations: Transformative Values in Theory and Practice. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer, 2012.

    A collection in which the authors explore the view that our valuation of nature is persistently reconceived and transformed by communication between humans and their environment.

  • Gobster, Paul H., and R. Bruce Hull. Restoring Nature: Perspectives from the Social Sciences and Humanities. Washington, DC: Island Press, 2000.

    Contains some nonphilosophical material, but also has useful resources for exploring the philosophical disputes over whether nature’s original value is restored when ecological restoration takes place. See also Conservation and Restoration.

  • Nash, Roderick F. The Rights of Nature: A History of Environmental Ethics. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989.

    A very useful history of the origins of environmental ethical thought with a helpful study of the impact on conservation thinking of pioneers such as John Muir, Gifford Pinchot, and Aldo Leopold.

  • Pojman, Paul, and Louis P. Pojman, eds. Environmental Ethics: Readings in Theory and Application. 6th ed. Boston: Wadsworth, 2012.

    A collection of more than seventy classic and contemporary readings in environmental ethics with attention to policy and politics as well. Topics covered include animal ethics, life-centered ethics, ecological ethics, wilderness ethics, food ethics, human population, consumption, pollution, environmental social justice and policy, green spirituality, and politics and economy. Each topic comes with an introductory framework directing the reader’s focus.

  • Schmidtz, David, and Elizabeth Willott, eds. Environmental Ethics: What Really Matters, What Really Works. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

    In addition to classic and contemporary readings in environmental ethics, this volume includes coverage of biological, social scientific, management, and activist approaches to environmental issues. Special attention is focused on the role of environmental consciousness in a good life, the role of feminism in environmental movements, human population, poverty as an environmental problem, environmental social justice and sustainability, urban environment, and environmental policy and management.

  • Witoszek, Nina, and Andrew Brennan, eds. Philosophical Dialogues: Arne Næss and the Progress of Eco-philosophy. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999.

    A collection of essays on the influential program of “deep ecology” pioneered by the Norwegian thinker Arne Næss, presenting the debates on his thought in the form of dialogues between critics coupled with commentary on the dialogues themselves. Includes some work by Norwegian commentators, and also essays linking deep ecology to practical concerns, including conservation and human rights in developing countries.

  • Zimmerman, Michael F., J. Baird Callicott, John Clarke, Karen J. Warren, and Irene J. Klaver. Environmental Philosophy: From Animal Rights to Radical Ecology. 4th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2005.

    A collection of twenty-seven classic and contemporary readings in four major fields of environmental philosophy: environmental ethics, ecofeminism and social justice, environmental “continental” philosophy, and political ecology. Each section comes with a scholarly introduction by a leading figure in the field.

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