In 1990 you wrote an essay entitled “Ethics of Nature”, where you argue that looking at nature from an anthropocentric viewpoint is unethical, and that man’s rational abilities, the “ability to conquer the earth,” places ethical obligations on us to think of the big picture and make ethical decisions for the good of the whole when dealing with environmental issues. Man, you say, is really subordinate to nature, not the other way around. Is this an accurate summary of the essay?
Yes, it is. I believe that we have the obligation to take into account the interests not only of human beings but of all living beings and of earth itself as the condition for and the system of all living organisms. The basic reason for this is that we are endowed with a capacity to think beyond our own limited condition and to consider how things may be seen from perspectives entirely different from our own. This capacity helps us to understand, to a certain extent at least, what is in the interest of other living beings and what makes the land or the environment a better place to live for different creatures.
Has your thinking on nature and the environment changed since then?
It has evolved and I have come to think that religious or even metaphysical questions may be more important than one might think when we are dealing with practical environmental issues. In my little book, Meditation at the Edge of Askja, I try to remind us of these questions and how they affect our thinking. Perhaps our spiritual life consists in establishing a relationship with nature where we have to respect it both as a terrifying reality and as the fundamental premise of our lives.
“Ethics of Nature” was more concerned with animal rights then environmental issues, but a lot of what you had to say could easily be applied to some of the environmental issues that are facing Icelandic society today, right?
Absolutely. That paper was originally a contribution to a conference for veterinarians, but I tried to present the values and the attitudes which we need to take into account when we deal with environmental issues of whatever kind. We have to realize that economic values require a certain way of thinking that is quite different from the way we think when we are preoccupied with a mental value like knowledge. And to think morally implies applying moral values like justice, love and respect which constitute an ethical attitude towards living beings and nature itself.
To what extent are the environmental issues we face today ethical, as opposed to technical or even economical?
Formerly, it was much easier to regard environmental issues, such as pollution, simply as problems to be solved by new technology. But now we have come to realize that what is required is a change in our life style and that means in our way of valuing what matters, how we organize our lives together, and, in short, how we think and behave towards nature. And this calls for a type of ethical thinking which is not easy at all.
One of the most obvious ethical dilemmas we face today from an environmental standpoint regards sustainable development, finite natural resources and our duty to leave something behind for our descendents. In Iceland this is especially relevant when it comes to energy resources and fish stocks. How would you suggest that policy makers approach these issues from an ethical standpoint?
From an ethical standpoint the main task of policy makers is to engage the general public – with the help of the media – in a process of reflection and debate about environmental issues. Policy makers should also encourage teachers at all levels of the educational system to help raise awareness and knowledge among the young about the values at stake in our relations with nature. They should avoid as much as possible making decisions on environmental issues without deliberate consultation with all those affected by the decisions.