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Saturday, April 19, 2014

Nile Perch into Lake Victoria: Ethical Considerations

An Ethical Perspective of some of the Economic and Environmental Issues Raised by the Introduction of Nile Perch into Lake Victoria 

Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Economic Issues

3. Core Environmental Problem

4. Various Ethical Responses
            4.1. Anthropocentrism versus Biocentrism
            4.2. Singer’s Utilitarian Environmentalism
            4.3. Regan’s Kantian Environmentalism
            4.4 Taylor’s Kantian Environmentalism
4.5  Deep Ecology

5. Conclusion

6. Reference list

7. Declaration

1. Introduction

In the film “Darwin’s nightmare”, a number of issues were highlighted which followed the introduction of a non-indigenous species, the Nile Perch, into Lake Victoria. Robert Pringle (2005:510) quotes biologist E.O.Wilson describing this as “the most catastrophic extinction episode of recent history.” The Nile Perch prey on and devour all other fish. Algae eating cichlids have been depleted leading, in turn to a decrease in oxygen in the lake. As a result, the lake is dying. Compounding problems, the perch eat their young and year on year catches are decreasing dramatically. The situation is clearly not sustainable.

In this short essay, I will look firstly at the economic issues involved; secondly, at the core environmental problem; and thirdly, at various ethical responses to the environmental problem; and will close with some concluding remarks.

2.Economic Issues

Kayiso Fulgencio (2009:433) comments on the economic issues surrounding the Lake Victoria fisheries and points out how the positive effects of the industrial fisheries have not trickled down to the small scale fishing communities and have in fact left them marginalised and impoverished. “As a consequence, the fishery is today characterized by unemployment, malnutrition, food insecurity, environmental health hazards and criminal activities such as theft and piracy.”

3.The Core Environmental problem

The core environmental problem is that the economic boom brought about by the introduction of the Nile perch, has led to the degradation of the environment (the lake and its surrounds), the extinction of some of the species (fish) and the overgrowth of other species (algae). This has all taken place in order to satisfy the exotic desires of humans on another continent, for the meat of the Nile perch.

Rolston 3rd (2003) points out that animals are often casualties of human inabilities to manage themselves and their resources and he asks whether animals should always lose and people win. The Lake Victoria fishing industry shows that in the long term, people actually lose as well, as the actions of people cumulate and produce large scale changes.

Several nations recognise that humans have a right to an environment that is healthy. Section 24 of the Bill of Rights in the Republic of South Africa[1] is our nation’s attempt to deal with the environment. It enshrines the right to an environment which is not harmful to people’s health or well–being but in its wording seems to imply that greater importance is attached to human needs than to the needs of the environment. Rolston 3rd (1996:178) points out that while humans have a right to an environment which is healthy, when humans encounter a living organism, they become responsible for their behaviour. He thus calls for an ethical vision, where things count that are outside the human circle.

The remainder of this essay will, using the Lake Victoria fisheries example, seek to show from an ethics point of view, what, if any, duties humans have to the environment and why. It will also seek to answer whether or not the environment has or should have moral status.

4. Various Ethical responses
4.1. Anthropocentricism versus biocentrism

One’s ethical response to environmental issues is going to depend on the decision one takes regarding who or what deserves moral recognition, such that it can be meaningfully claimed that they have suffered a moral wrong. On the one side will be anthropocentrism, a human centred approach which assigns significantly greater value to human beings than to non–human entities, so that the protection or promotion of human interest or well being at the expense of non-human entities is almost always justified; on the other side is ecologism where both living beings and their environment are considered to have value.

John O Neil (2001:164) discusses the claim that to hold an environmental ethic is to hold that beings and states of affair in the non-human world have “intrinsic value”. This claim is taken to distinguish “deep” biocentric ethical theory from the more traditional “shallow” and anthropocentric counterparts. Intrinsic value implies that non human beings and entities are not simply of value as a means to human ends, but are ends in themselves, either in the sense of being valued for their own sake or more strongly of having ethical standing.

Holmes  3rd (2003:458) links the above idea to economics in claiming that developed nations are wealthy enough to be concerned about saving nature whereas “developing nations want anthropocentrism with absolutely no concern for the environment, loud and clear.” The Lake Victoria Fishing Industry shows, I believe, the results of anthropocentrism with absolutely no concern for the environment, loud and clear.

The basis for most formulations of eco–centrism is Aldo Leopold’s brief essay “The Land Ethic.” According to Fieser (1992:37), Leopold opens his essay by noting that the basis of ethics is the evolution of modes of co-operation and he argues that there are three stages in this development. The first stage involves co-operative relation between individuals; the second stage involves the relationship between individual and society. The third stage is the extension of ethics to “man’s relation to land and to the animals and plants which grow upon it”. He calls this stage the land ethic and notes that it “simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants and animals, or collectively: the land”. He argues for the development of an ecological conscience that is not guided by economic concerns. As pointed out earlier, this is easier for developed nations than for developing nations.

The key to Leopold’s ecocentrism is his dictum that “a thing is right when it tends to conserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community; it is wrong when it tends otherwise”. [Quoted in Fieser (1992:39)]. Fieser points out that the most extreme interpretation of this principle is that the highest good is the preservation of the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community and all other duties stem from this, thus making Leopold’s principle a consequentialist theory of morality. Fieser then quotes William Aiken (1984:269) who argues that “the logical consequence of this view is the elimination of 90% of all human animals since such a reduction would clearly advance the integrity, stability and beauty of biotic community.”

I like Aiken’s honesty, and also Fieser’s, who goes on to say “interpreted in this way, the implications of Leopold’s principle are highly unacceptable.” I have concentrated on Leopold’s principles and these responses to it because it highlights for me a weakness in much of eco-centric ethics and that is that they are unwilling to really put the environment first and the environment’s biggest enemy, humans, lower down. (This essay does not allow for an in depth study regarding whether or not humans are generally good or generally bad for the environment but using Lake Victoria as an example, it is relatively easy to suggest that humans are generally bad for the environment, and that if Lake Victoria were left for a few million years without any human interference, it would probably recover to its former state). As will be seen in the views that follow, they all seem to want to maintain humans’ place in the environment, ignoring the fact that the environment, the whole planet, would be better off without humans.

Des Jardins (1993:241), discussing ecology and ecofeminism suggests that environmental and ecological destruction (of the type, for example, that we see in Lake Victoria) is best understood as a form of human domination of nature and that to understand this crisis more fully, we need to understand more general patterns of human domination over other humans. This calls for identifying and analysing patterns of domination and oppression within society and evaluating these in order to give rise to an ecological vision based on a model of social justice in which human beings are free from oppression and domination.

Applying this analysis to the Lake Victoria fishing industry, one sees that it is not primarily an issue of domination of one species of fish over another, but rather the domination of one group of people (i.e. first world fish eaters) over another group of people (i.e. third world lake dwellers) with one of the many casualties being the environment.

Either the environment counts and is worthy of moral recognition or it doesn’t. What follows is a summary from Sterba (2001:27-49) of various ethical approaches to the environment.

4.2. Singer’s Utilitarian Environmentalism

Based on the principle of equal consideration, a central principle of utilitarian ethics, Singer says it is unjustifiable to give greater weight to the human species over other species in the case of conflict and he likens this “speciesism” with biases against blacks and women. Because animals have a capacity for suffering and enjoyment, they have interests and there is no justification for regarding the pain animals feel as less important as the same amount of pain (or pleasure) humans feel. Singer suggests we give the same respect to the lives of animals as we give to the lives of humans at a similar mental level.

4.3. Regan’s Kantian Environmentalism

Regan believes that what is wrong with our treatment of non-humans is that it implies they are simply resources for our use. He feels that because they are experiencing subjects of life, they have inherent value and are thus entitled to equal respect. To those who might contend that animals have inherent value, but to a lesser degree than humans, Regan argues that this view would only be defendable if similarly deficient humans were also seen as having less inherent value.

Both Singer and Regan appear biased against certain forms of life. For Singer, it is sentient beings that count and for Regan, it is experiencing subjects of life that have inherent value. Paul Taylor takes up these issues.

4.4. Taylor’s Kantian Environmentalism

Taylor suggests that all individual living beings can be benefitted or harmed and have a good of their own and therefore qualify as moral subjects. He denies that species themselves are moral subjects with a good of their own and therefore his view has been called “biocentric individualism”

Taylor uses the following reasoning to establish that we ought to respect entities:
  1.  Humans are members of Earth’s community of life.
  2.  All living things are related to one another in an order of interdependence.
  3.  Each organism is a teleological centre of life.
  4.  The assertion of human superiority is groundless.
(From Sterba 2001:30)

Taylor’s view has two results. The first is to undermine the anthropocentric view of human superiority. The second is due to his view on entities having a good of their own, it follows that ecosystems should qualify as moral subjects since they can be benefitted and harmed and have a good of their own.

His view, as it is applied to the Lake Victoria issue, enables a viewpoint which not only considers the humans and animals but also the ecosystem of which they are a part. This brings me to the final ethical approach to the environment, namely deep ecology.

4.5. Deep Ecology

Whereas in the above mentioned approaches nature has no value apart from the needs, interests and good of human beings, and could be called “shallow ecology”, deep ecology hold that nature has value in its own right independent of the interests of humans.

Des Jardins (1993:216) refers to the work of Naess and Sessions and summarizes the deep ecology platform in the following eight points:
1. The flourishing of human and nonhuman life on earth has intrinsic value. The value of nonhuman life-forms is independent of the usefulness these may have for narrow human purposes.
2. Richness and diversity of life-forms are values in themselves and contribute to the flourishing of human and nonhuman life on earth.
3. Humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity except to satisfy vital needs.
4. Present human interference with the nonhuman world is excessive, and the situation is rapidly worsening.
5. The flourishing of human life and cultures is compatible with a substantial decrease of the human population. The flourishing of nonhuman life requires such a decrease.
6. Significant change of life conditions for the better requires change in policies. These affect basic economic, technological, and ideological structures.
7. The ideological change is mainly that of appreciating life quality (dwelling in situations of intrinsic value) rather than adhering to a high standard of living. There will be a profound awareness of the difference between big and great.
8. Those who subscribe to the foregoing points have an obligation directly or indirectly to participate in the attempt to implement the necessary changes.

I find point 3 disturbing because of the idea that the environment is a means to an end, namely, the satisfying of humans vital needs and illustrates for me how anthropocentrism permeates even deep ecology.

5. Conclusion

Human contact with the Lake Victoria ecosystem has led to its degradation to the point where the lake itself is dying. In this essay I have looked at the economic issues involved, at the core environmental problem of non–sustainability due to the anthropocentric view of the Lake Victoria fisheries towards the environment, and discussed various ethical responses.

I have attempted to show that as long as humans exist, anthropocentrism will permeate any ethical response to environmental problems.

6. Reference list

Aiken, W.1984. Ethical Issues in Agriculture. Earthbound Ed Tom Regan. New York: Random House [In Fieser, J. 1992 below]

Constitution of the Republic of South Africa.

Des Jardins, J.1993. Environmental Ethics. Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing.

Fieser, J. 1992. Leopold and the compatibility of Eco-centric morality. In: International Journal of Applied Philosophy. Vol7:37-41. Available[accessed 16-4-2010]

Fulgencio, K. 2009. Globalisation of the Nile perch: Assessing the sociocultural
implications of the Lake Victoria fishery in Uganda. African Journal of Political Science and International Relations Vol. 3 (10): 433-442. Available  [Accessed 16/4/2010]

O’Neill, J. 2001. Meta-ethics. In: A Companion to Environmental Philosophy. Dale Jamieson(Ed). Oxford: Blackwell Publishers: 163-176

Rolston 3rd, H. 1996. Earth Ethics. In: Earth Summit Ethics. J.B.Calliath and F.J.R da Rocha (Eds). NY: State University and New York Press:161-192.

Rolston 3rd, H. 2003. Feeding People versus Saving Nature.
In: Environmental Ethics. A. Light and H. Rolston 3rd (Eds)
NY: Blackwell Publishers: 451-462

Sterba, J. P. 2001.Three challenges to Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press

[1] Constitution of the Republic of South Africa No 108 of 1996

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