Conservation and Sustainable Use of the Biosphere - WBGU

Conservation and Sustainable Use of the Biosphere - WBGU

The fundamental issue

H 1

Are people allowed to do everything they are capable

of? We constantly come up against this question

where the use of new technologies is concerned, such

as genetic engineering or human interventions in

nature, such as the clearance of primary forests so

that the land can be used for agriculture. Intuitively,

everyone answers this question with a definitive ‘No’.

In no way should people be allowed to do everything

they are capable of doing.The same applies to everyday

actions. Many options in daily life, from lying to

minor deception, from breaking a promise to going

behind a friend’s back, are obviously actions that are

seen by all well-intentioned observers as unacceptable.

However, it is much more difficult to assess

those actions where the system of values is not so

obvious. Actions where there are conflicts between

positive and negative consequences or where a

judgement could be made one way or the other with

equally good justification are especially common in

environmental policy. After all, there is hardly anyone

who wilfully and without reason desecrates the

environment, releases toxic pollutants or is cruel to

animals out of pure desire. Conscious desecrators of

the environment are obviously acting wrongly, and

every legislator would do well to prevent these

people from acting in this way through the threat of

appropriate punishments. But there is a need for

clarification where people bring about a change in

the environment with the best intentions and for

good reasons and, in the process, harm the environment.

In ethics we talk about ‘conflicts of targets’


Most interventions in the environment are made

for good reason: those who make such interventions

may want to secure food for a growing population so

that ever fewer people have to suffer hunger; they

want to ensure long-term jobs and adequate incomes;

they want to use natural resources for products and

services that make life more pleasant for many

people; they want to use nature as a receptacle for

waste materials from production and consumption

that are no longer needed. Of course, they do not do

this out of pure love for humanity, but mainly for

their own advantage without this being immoral on

its own. The list of human activities that change the

environment and are perpetrated for existential or

economic reasons could be carried on into infinity.

Human existence is bound to the use of nature. The

more people populate the world, the more intensive

this use will have to be.

Therefore, to be able to make a well-founded

judgement of the ethically acceptable extent of the

appropriation of nature through human economic

activity, the range of products and services created by

that appropriation of nature has to be considered in

relation to the losses that are inflicted on the environment

and nature. With this comparison it can be

seen that the serious interventions in nature and the

environment did not occur out of arrogance or indifference,

but in order to provide the growing number

of people with goods and services; these people need

them to survive or as a prerequisite for a good life.

However, at the same time it must not be forgotten

that these interventions often inflict irreversible

damage on the environment or deny future generations

the possibility of use. Above and beyond this,

for the human race, nature is a cradle of social, cultural,

aesthetic and religious values, which, in turn,

has a major influence on people’s well-being. On

both sides of the equation, therefore, there are

important assets that have to be appreciated whenever

interventions are made in nature. But what form

should such an appreciation take?

If the pros and cons of the intervention in nature

have to be weighed against each other, criteria are

needed that can be used as yardsticks. Who can and

may draw up such criteria? By what standards should

the interventions be assessed? And how can the

manifestations of the various options for action be

compared with each other for each criterion? This

chapter intends to provide answers to these questions.

A deeper analysis can be found in the special

report on ethical and economic assessment published

by the Council (WBGU, 2000b). This special report

deals in detail with the questions and problems that

occur in the valuation of human interventions in the


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