Taking Risks: Environmental Ethics at Work

For as long as people have inhabited the earth, empowered with the ability to make choices, they have grappled with decisions, many of which involve ethical or moral considerations. Perhaps this is most evident today, as we move toward a view of the world which recognizes the inherent value of the earth and all living things. At the forefront of this new ethical vision are environmentalists: individuals who are committed to working for the earth. Their work ethic is grounded in their sense of connection and deep respect for the earth, not status of financial gain. It is a strong connection, contributing to a passion and eagerness to pursue the goals they have set for themselves.

While it is admirable to have an “environmental ethic,” maintaining such an ethic is difficult in both practice and theory. One’s dreams and goals can be hard to attain when they are challenged by people who have different visions. In some cases, they may face the difficult decision of having to choose between their values or their job. In all cases, where deep seated beliefs and values come into conflict with the outside world, inner convictions are pitted against other needs, such as comfort, security, and acceptance.

Do you follow your inner voice, regardless of the circumstances? Longtime environmentalist David Brower believes that many people today “would rather be more comfortable, rather not be controversial, rather not confront people.” While maintaining the status quo may prevent uncomfortable adversity, it cannot protect us from our own conscience. Yet striving to adhere to our deepest convictions can also bring great rewards.

The first two issues of Whole Terrain explored some of the philosophical issues crucial to the environmental professional: the connections that must be developed between professional lives, ecological identity, and spirituality. This issue of Whole Terrain, the third issue, explores the kinds of ethical challenges that often emerge in the workplace, and how those situations inspire profound reflection.

This is not an easy topic to address. Few wish to dwell upon what must be their more painful experiences as environmentalists. And while some of the braver souls don’t mind retelling a war story or two, fewer still will admit that they may have buckled under out of fear, or simply in an attempt to avoid controversy. In some cases, telling the tale itself could be considered controversial, leading the teller to take an unwanted risk at work. Thus, the authors in this issue have been brave twice over. They have stood up for their beliefs, and now they are publicly voicing their actions and convictions.

The opening interview with Father Thomas Berry illustrates the importance of acting according to a coherent vision of a connected earth. “It’s not very acceptable anymore to think of earth and life as being separate,” Berry says. “What is important is to recognize the inherent value of things and how to be able to interact creatively and intimately with them.” The stark reality of ecological destruction lends an urgency to our task. If, according to Berry, we only have a short period of time in which to change our ways, we need to make clear ethical choices that enable us to regain our intimacy with the earth.

Steve Chase explains in his essay that the economic structure of the workplace subverts environmental quality. He claims we must change the way our economy is organized before these issues are adequately addressed. According to Chase, “to refuse to face this difficult challenge is to live a life of ethical denial, one that dangerously decreases our chances of creating a livable future.” He suggests that we divest the powerful forces currently at work in our economy and replace them with worker-owned enterprises which value employees. As an example, he describes his own experience as one of the eight members of South End Press, a collectively managed, nonprofit book publisher based in Boston, Massachusetts.

Philip Clark, an Anglican priest-turned-drystone-waller, describes how he manages to find a purpose in life which expresses his moral sensibilities. “I have a greater feeling that I am me when I am using fieldstone that was dumped onto the headlands of the Vermont pasture to create a barnyard boundary that when I tried to preach a green sermon, relating recycling concepts rather questionably to insights of the Hebrew prophets,” writes Clark. In his search to realize an “environmental way of life,” he comes closer to performing meaningful work.

The next four authors write about their struggles in upholding their environmental ethics at work. Casey Ruud tells us of his experience as an environmental auditor who discovered unsafe practices at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. The Challenger space shuttle disaster spurred Ruud to action. He writes, “ I committed myself right there to do whatever it takes to prevent such a devastating accident from happening at Hanford. I was not naive. I knew this decision could potentially cost me my career. I knew, however, that I could not endure being a part of a catastrophic accident that I could have helped prevent.” Ruud claims that his decision cost him his job and prevented him from finding subsequent employment. Yet, these harsh consequences did not impede him from further whistle-blowing activities. Ultimately, he was vindicated when he received national attention for the integrity of his actions.

Dwight Welch, an employee with the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), has a similar story to tell. Given his employer, his story is perhaps more shocking. He describes the EPA’s intransigence in responding to his concerns regarding the agency’s failure to demand precautionary labeling on highly flammable pesticides. Welch details how joining the office’s union in 1989 has given him strength, support, and direction.

Less dramatic choices can also trigger deeply felt moral conflicts. Ruth Jacquot, an environmental administrator, has been chastised by some of her colleagues for accepting what they perceive as tainted money (such as money from corporations that pollute). Yet Jacquot explains that without this money, none of the environmental education programs she has developed would have come to fruition. She argues that the money itself does not have a moral value; instead, its value is entirely determined by how it is spent. She also points out with glaring honesty that “a study of our professional and personal finances would likely reveal that it is virtually impossible to live in today’s world without leaving a trail of some kind of pollution through our daily lives.”

Andrew Brengle writes about the difficulties faced by environmental reporters. He argues that the “overwhelming corporate control” of the mass media leads to muffled environmental reporting. He asserts that reporters and editors have been fired or transferred for writing environmental stories critical of powerful interests and institutions. In addition, Brengle describes how hard it is to communicate complex issues to a public weaned on sound bites. He offers some suggestions for how to go about environmental reporting, and concludes that “despite the checks against environmental journalists, [they] have made an impact on society.”

In the final interview, David Brower offers advice to environmentalists. A peer to Berry (both men are in their eighties), Brower has been an environmental leader in the United States for fifty years and still continues to boldly carry the flame. Within his many notable successes, Brower has had his share of controversy and strife. In upholding his firmly held beliefs about the environment, he has found himself in the midst of, and often the leader of, many environmental battles. While his opponents are ordinarily the “usual round of suspect,” such as the powerful forces of economic development, Brower has also had his share of run-ins with environmental organizations, including his famous, shattering disagreement with The Sierra Club. Yet through it all, Brower has persevered and thrived. According to Brower, “maybe you have to take a couple of blows just because you believe in your values. I do see a need for boldness, for nerve.” The same boldness that led Brower to climb mountains and helped him achieve his environmental goals can be an inspiration for us all whether we are called upon to take dramatic action, like our authors Casey Ruud or Dwight Welch, or to simply stop seemingly minor but environmentally destructive actions at work.

There are many sides to these controversial stories. Whole Terrain does not take sides with these authors’ perspectives or endorse their vendettas. What we do admire is the passion and commitment that informs their actions. We think there are many powerful lessons to be learned in reflecting on the values dilemmas that pervade the environmental profession. This is what it means to be a reflective environmental professional.

Jill Schwartz, Editor

Catriona Glazebrook, Editor