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Ethics and Morality

The Morality of Care for Our Environment

Moral wrestling

The moral life is about constantly determining our responsibilities and how to carry them out. Often, when we face new areas of life, we do not realize our obligations immediately, we do not see the consequences of our action or inaction, and may move too late. The BP oil rig disaster is a case in point on many levels. Here is a personal example.

Our spruce trees began to shed needles branch by branch. One, I'm calling Little Brother, started shedding immediately after we moved in if not before. The tree specialist said it had a fungus and that the fungus could spread to other trees if we let it go. After most branches were empty and several had dropped off, we took action. I watched in horror as the tree man climbed the tree and began to slice off logs from the top. The logs looked fine, like they were perfectly healthy. I felt like I had made a terrible mistake and recoiled for weeks when I looked at the empty space where the tree once stood.

Its sister tree looked fine, another 25 feet of green-- until a couple of years later when it started to look stressed. The tree specialist said it had beetles and it could be treated in the fall, 6 months later. But by then it was too late to save. Most branches were largely empty. It still stands as we regret its failing health.

What is my moral obligation to the trees on our land? Depending on the species, the mature ones have been on earth longer than or as long as I have. Unless a tree was planted by previous owners (an immigrant), its ancestry runs long on this property. Do I have the right to eliminate a family of tree? I think not. Even for the immigrant trees, do I have an obligation to provide what they need? I think so.

A couple of years ago, I asked the specialist about a group of spruces in the back yard losing needles, and he said it was caused by too much shade. But now, needles that are always bathed in the sun are disappearing and fast.

Clearly we failed to provide what was needed. When frantically searching the web for possible causes of the progressive needle drop on the four towering 25 foot trees, one expert noted that spruce tree stress is generally seen several years after the stressor occurred. So, for example, when there is a drought, it may not be immediately visible on the tree soma.

I remember a drought a few years back. I took care to water the trees in our front yard, but not in the back-thinking that the shadedness would protect them (and not wanting to use up water unnecessarily, knowing that fresh water is in limited supply). It is the back trees that are now dying. Was this a moral failure?

Perhaps I should be comforted by expert opinion that suburban spruce trees last about 25 years. But I see other large spruces in our neighborhood that are doing fine.

I am starting to understand how I have moved into many relationships that I did not explicitly or consciously choose. When I am born or when I move into a neighborhood, I take up a place on the community web of relationships one to all and all to one, whether I acknowledge the relationships or not. These relationships are not just with other human beings, but with other creatures and life as a whole. It is like we are together on a trampoline. My movements affect me of course, but also everyone and everything else.

I am also learning more and more about the community of living creatures around me, even plants. Plants are known to signal weakness or danger through smell or sound. For example, some plants give out pheromones to alert nearby relatives to danger (e.g., acacias when grazed upon too much and their neighbor plants change the chemical content of leaves to be poisonous to protect themselves).

How do I fit into the community of living, thriving, weakening and dying? Perhaps I am part of the cooperative but with special responsibilities. Perhaps the lifeforms in my local space are essentially my "ground projects," those for whom I am responsible. Only I and my family, who live closely with or by these other lifeforms, can know them and their needs deeply and sufficiently. Of course, I have to be paying attention.

I will wait for a clear signal from Big Sister that it is ready to be taken down. We are watering the four trees in the back with hour-long full-throttle gulps from the hose. But I ponder my obligations and actions. Can this save them? Should I be using water for this?

The moral life is like white-water rafting, with constant shifts in conditions, opportunities and capabilities that require us to make small decisions and take small actions that have unforeseeable large ramifications.

Clearly I have to work on seeing, perceiving, and understanding my local moral obligations (it's often easier to tell other people what they should do!). In a world of diminishing environmental resources and increasing demand, it makes for ongoing moral wrestling.

More from Darcia F. Narvaez Ph.D.
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