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Are Green Burials an Ethical Good?

image of burial mound in field

Roughly 7000 years ago a group of hunter-gatherers in Chile began to mummify their dead. According to Helen Thompson, the evidence suggests that this change was locally driven rather than being introduced from elsewhere. In fact, this cultural practice may have been influenced by climate change, which has spurred other past cultural developments as well. With climate change now becoming a major concern, there are those who argue we now have good ethical reasons to rethink what we should do with the dead. Several new environmentally-friendly ways of dealing with the dead have developed in recent years and this raises a moral question about what we should be doing with dead bodies.

Generally, there are two ways dead bodies are commonly dealt with; they are either buried or they are cremated. Cremation has become far more popular over the last century, and in some countries it is the far more common method. In Canada, for instance, cremation occurs roughly 65% of the time. In the United States the rate of cremation is far lower (only 47%), but this is an increase from only 25% in 1999. One of the reasons cremation is a popular method is because it is fairly cost-effective. In especially populated regions the difference between the cost of a burial and the cost of cremation can be several thousands of dollars. Cremation can also be less wasteful since it doesn’t inherently require cemeteries, headstones, or concrete burial vaults.

However, arguments have made about the moral superiority of burial over cremation. In an article published in the journal The New Bioethics, Toni C. Saad argues that cremation deprives a local community of a shared memory of those who were once apart of it and made the community what it was. He notes,

“of course, gravesite maintenance and location might become tiresome, but the continuing possibility of family memory-pilgrimage is not negligible. Additionally, since the memory of private loved ones is permanently tied to a public physical location, there remains a visual reminder to all, not merely relatives, of the significance of this person who is now dead.”

He suggests that private cremation contributes to a privatization of memory whereas a public cemetery allows us to connect to our local ancestry and allow us to better process the idea of death and mortality.

Both practices of the standard burial and cremation have become socially-engrained and there may be an argument that they are both morally important as part of our culture. However, there is a growing argument that these practices, as typically performed, are not environmentally friendly. Every year 90,000 tons of steel, 1.6 million tons of concrete, and 800,000 gallons of embalming fluid are used to bury the deceased. In addition, cemeteries take up large amounts of land and require pesticides in their upkeep. A single cremation requires two SUV tanks worth of fuel. It can also release substances like dioxin, hydrochloric acid, sulfur dioxide, and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Such practices do contribute to climate change, and if we have moral obligations to do something to reduce the threat of climate change, then we may be morally obligated to reconsider our rituals regarding death.

In the last few years several eco-friendly alternatives have been presented. For example, instead of an expensive wood casket, biodegradable caskets are now available and can ensure that bodies that decompose over time will become part of the local ecosystem. Instead of burial in a traditional cemetery, burial options are now available in more natural landscapes. Instead of a headstone, a tree may be planted over the burial site. A similar option is available for those who are cremated; ashes are placed into a biodegradable urn that contains a seed. Or, ashes can be placed underwater as part of an artificial reef.

Even the embalming process offers new possibilities. As opposed to formaldehyde, natural and essential oils may be used to preserve the body. In place of the standard cremation one alternative allows for the use of pressure and chemicals to dissolve the body. This process called alkaline hydrolysis uses 90% less energy than traditional cremation. There are new technological possibilities as well. Promession involves freeze-drying a corpse with liquid nitrogen and then breaking the body apart. Mercury fillings and surgical implants are removed and the powdered remains are buried in a shallow grave. This allows water and oxygen to mix with the remains and turn them into compost.

The fact that there are these alternatives and the fact that they may be more environmentally friendly does not necessarily mean that they are more ethical. However, given the climate crisis, there may be ethical reasons to adopt such new practices. In an article for the Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, Chen Zeng, William Sweet, and Qian Cheng argue that green burials reflect a number of ecological values including a harmonious relationship with nature, recognizing the worth of nature, the rights of all living things, and the limits of resources. They note,

“Green burial offers a way to minimize ecological pollution during the process of funeral, interment, and related religious rituals; it offers a means by which the affected environment can return to its prior, ‘natural’ state in a short time. Thus, the practice of green burial manifests a positive environmental and ethical attitude towards life.”

This only raises more questions. If it is more ethical to adopt eco-friendly practices than traditional practices for dealing with the dead, should we carefully study which practice is the least harmful the planet, and if so, are we then morally obliged to adopt that practice uniformly? As I began, climate change has affected the way humans deal with death. But how exactly should climate change today affect how we deal with death? Are we obliged to change our usual practices regarding death and would be it be morally wrong not to?

Democracy and the Next Generation

Photo of kids and older adults at a protest

A group of young people are suing the US government over the damage being done to the environment. The lawsuit claims that the government has not done enough to fight climate change, and it makes sense that youths are bringing the suit – it is the next generation that will feel the effects of environmental damage most strongly. They claim they are experiencing harms due to the government’s neglect of environmental concerns that amount to the government not living up to constitutional commitments of ensuring them of rights to life, liberty and property.

This lawsuit represents a thorny political issue: where is the voice of the next generation represented in government?

In a representative democracy like the US, adults have the opportunity to vote to express their preference for how the government should be run by selecting the politician who will make decisions regarding policy. A background assumption of such a system is that different voters may have different interests and the government should be in touch with these interests. People living in urban areas may want different policies than those in rural areas; home-owning married folk may favor different tax policies than long-term singles; people who have experienced medical conditions and financial uncertainty may prioritize interests differently than individuals who have not. Ideally, the representatives that result from voting represent the interests of the voters. However, it bears note that even under these conditions, a group of people is left out of the polling –those too young to vote and the interests of future generations.

The concern over the influence of age on what interests are being represented in voting is not abstract or new. Voting practices in the US skew towards older individuals. In the 2016 presidential election, 71 % of the over- 65 population voted, compared with 46 % of 18- to 29-year-olds. If we consider voters to be self-interested, then this leaves the interests of the young under-represented and the interests of future generations out of the equation altogether.

With long-term projects and programs, older voters have less vested interest in how they turn out because they will experience fewer consequences of the programs. On the other hand, older voters have had more life experiences and arguably may vote “wiser.” Preserving and protecting the environment is clearly a long-term project, as the environment is something that future generations inherit and the treatment we expose our resources to may be largely irreversible.

Young people vote less, and future generations currently have no vote. One solution to this representation problem is to have entities vote on behalf of future generations. Civic organizations with fiduciary concerns for future generations could be given some voting weight alongside the individual voters, granting the limitation in the ability or practicality of living voters to live up to obligations to these groups.

Without such solutions looking likely now, we are faced with lawsuits like the current one these young people are lobbying against the government – claiming that their interests are not being respected on a grand scale. The suit may not be successful, as it calls for changes in policy by judicial decree, which is a potential violation of separation of powers. However, it embodies a tension in the size of the problems facing our government and the limited scope of the mechanisms for choosing solutions.

Ethical Concepts in the Age of the Anthropocene

photograph of floating ice in Antartica

We all know, more or less, that Planet Earth is in trouble, that there is an overwhelming scientific consensus that an environmental catastrophe systemic, complex, and more and more irreversible is already underway.

We are facing an unprecedented concatenation of changes to the Earth. Global warming from fossil fuel pollution is causing ice caps to melt and oceans to rise, threatening to inundate many coastal habitats within decades. Climate change is causing more frequent and more extreme weather events in the form of violent storms and severe droughts. Destruction of ecological systems is leading to the collapse of insect and bird populations which are necessary for the pollination of plants including human food crops. Oceans are filling up with plastic waste, and toxic synthetic substances can now be found in every part of the world. A “biological annihilation” of wildlife in recent decades shows that the sixth mass extinction in Earth’s history is underway and it is more severe than previously feared, according to new research.

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When It Comes to the Environment, is Education Morally Obligatory?

Image of plastic bottles floating in the ocean

In April of this year, scientists from the Alfred Wegener Helmholtz Center for Polar and Marine Research reported finding record amounts of plastic particles in the Arctic sea. Ice core samples were taken from five regions in the area. Up to 12,000 pieces of micro-plastic particles per liter of ice were found in the samples.  Scientists believe that much of the plastic, cigarettes butts, and other debris came from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a mass of floating waste occupying 600,000 square miles between Hawaii and California.

Plastics in the sea pose substantial dangers for ecosystems and marine life. As evidence of this fact, earlier this year, a dead sperm whale washed up on a beach in Spain. Scientists concluded that it was death by garbage—64 pounds of plastics and other waste were found in the young whale’s stomach.

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The United States Government’s Lapsed Duty to Provide Safe Drinking Water

Photograph of "Water Pickup" sign in Flint, Michigan

Most of us do not think about the water we are drinking. We do not realize the processes that our water undergoes to be safe for us to consume. Whenever I want some water, I head to the kitchen and fill up my HydroFlask. However, many United States citizens do not have that same luxury. The New York Times recently published a map showing the parts of the United States that are consistently failing to meet the standards of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. Researchers have found that since 1987, anywhere from 3 to 10 percent of the United States’ water systems have been in violation of the act. That means a significant amount of Americans are drinking unhealthy water. Continue reading “The United States Government’s Lapsed Duty to Provide Safe Drinking Water”

Will Changes in Meat Consumption Redefine the U.S. Food System?

An image of chickens at a poultry farm

In 2017, a plant-based diet became tremendously popular. The growing demand for alternative proteins motivated grocery stores and food companies to offer more alternatives to meat proteins, which has been reflected in consumer behavior patterns. However, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, production in the U.S. beef, pork, and broiler industries is expected to increase in 2018. For the record, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has estimated that 2018 will hold the highest per capita consumption of meat since the U.S. record set back in 2004. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that the average consumer is projected to eat 222.8 pounds of red meat and poultry in 2018.

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In Climate Change Denial, Fatalism Versus Determinism

A photo of dry, cracked soil.

“Climate change fatalism,” a term often thrown around in the discussion about climate change denial, contains an important philosophical idea that deserves more exploration: fatalism. Robert Solomon states in his article, “On Fate and Fatalism” that, “fatalism is the idea that what happens (or has happened) in some sense has to or had to happen.” Thus, climate change fatalism would be the idea that climate change, particularly the feared imminent catastrophic end caused by climate change, has to happen, and is therefore out of human control. Fatalism is important to study because this tendency to believe that climate change is out of human control greatly reduces our motivation to mitigate the negative effects of global climate change.

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Bullfighting: Moral Good or Unnecessary Cruelty?

An image of a bull dying in a bullfight.

Bullfighting has always been controversial in the Spanish-speaking world. Strangely, most of the intellectual defenders of this ancient tradition have not been Hispanic themselves. In the twentieth century, the staunchest defender of bullfighting was Ernest Hemingway, an American. Yet, Hemingway was not a philosopher, and his defense of bullfighting relied more on emotion than on reason. The staunchest intellectual defender of bullfighting in the 21st century is a Frenchman, Francis Wolff. Unlike Hemingway, Wolff is a philosopher, and in a series of books and articles, he has attempted to make a philosophical defense of bullfighting, based on reasoned ethical arguments. Although these arguments are sometimes ingenious, they are for the most part flawed.

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Lab-Grown Meat: A Moral Revolution?

A close-up photo of a hamburger.

In 2013, Dutch scientists announced that they had produced a lab-grown hamburger.  Scientists generated the muscle cells comprising the burger—no animals were killed as part of the process.  Many are hopeful that this “cultured meat” is the solution to many societal problems.  Earlier this year, author Paul Shapiro and director of The Humane Society released a book called Clean Meat: How Growing Meat Without Animals will Revolutionize Dinner and The World. The book provides a history of the development of meat produced in labs and discusses the moral benefits of a future that includes meat produced in this way.

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In the Fight for Bears Ears National Monument, A Clash of Environmental Worldviews

A landscape photo of Bears Ears National Monument.

During a visit to Utah on December 4, President Trump announced that he would scale back Bear Ears and Grand Staircase National Monuments, designating the federal land available for private sale. In what Republicans hail as Trump “listening to local people” and freeing land from “restrictive monument designation,” this is seen by many to be the first time since the Antiquities Act of 1906 that a president has attempted to reverse the preservation of federal land. According to the National Park Service, past presidents have redrawn boundaries of existing parks 18 times, but this move by President Trump has been met with strong civic and legal resistance.

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ANWR, the Alaska Permanent Fund and Eminent Domain

photograph of stream and mountain range in Alaska

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge sits on the northern coast of Alaska, covering over 19 million acres of what is considered the last example of pure wilderness left in the world. Home to iconic species, such as the polar bear, porcupine caribou, and the gray wolf, ANWR is a symbol to many of the undisturbed landscape that once spanned Alaska and North America. The Coastal Plain of ANWR is considered especially important, since it not only provides critical habitat to endangered species like polar bears, but is considered a sacred place for the Gwich’in people of Alaska.

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Making Sense in the Face of Tragedy: Scapegoating Climate Change

A photo of National Guard members helping people on a flooded highway overpass.

It seems like a nightmare come true – two record-setting hurricanes batter the United States in less than a week. Hurricane Harvey, a category 4 hurricane, has been called “the most destructive hurricane” in the United States in the past 13 years. Hurricane Irma is the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic and  left disaster in its wake in many Caribbean islands and widespread flooding and property damage in Florida. Time has reported the death toll for Hurricane Harvey to be at least 70 and at least 24 for Hurricane Irma. These preliminary numbers could continue to rise, along with calculations of billions of dollars in damage. The public seeks an explanation as to what caused the severity of these storms. Most importantly, many question if human-induced climate change had a role in causing these hurricanes.

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The Fire Beneath Our Feet

Centralia, Pennsylvania has been burning since 1962. Or rather, the ground beneath the town is burning: an underground coal seam fire that caused the town to be mostly abandoned has been burning for over 50 years, and will continue for at least another 250. The fire likely began when a trash fire ignited the coal seam in the network of old mines beneath the town. Gradually, a slow apocalypse took place: snow couldn’t always stick to the heated ground, vegetables could grow year-round, the main highway sunk eight feet, and residents began to pass out from carbon monoxide gas issuing from their basements. By 1991, the town was almost entirely government-owned under eminent domain, and in 2002 the ZIP code was revoked. The few residents that remain do so at their own risk.

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Is Activism the Most Ethical Way to Fight Climate Change?

Mere days away from The People’s Climate March in Washington D.C., at least 100,000 people are estimated to march in the streets. One quick Google search of “Climate March D.C.” turns up dozens of articles on why marching next Saturday is important. However, in terms of social activism, and specifically climate change, is protesting a true form of advocacy? Much of the climate march this year is focused on “fighting back,” specifically against the Trump administration. But is turning the environmental movement into a direct political one ethical? And what is the danger in turning a movement into a large-scale march?

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On Drones: Helpful versus Harmful

During the Super Bowl halftime show this past month, Lady Gaga masterfully demonstrated one of the most unique mass uses of drones to date. At the conclusion of her show, drones powered by Intel were used to form the American flag and then were rearranged to identify one of the main sponsors of the show, Pepsi. This demonstration represented the artistic side of drones and one of the more positive images of them.

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Fighting Overcrowding in America’s National Parks

This past year marked the 100-year anniversary of the National Park Service (NPS). Created in 1916, the NPS has had a long standing tradition of stewardship that has preserved many of America’s most beautiful areas from the threats of manifest destiny and American exceptionalism. However, the NPS must now deal with a new threat presented through overcrowding and the environmentally degrading practices that come with it. Taken to the extreme through the example of Zion National Park, where rising crowds resulted in six million people visiting the six-mile-long stretch of canyon last year, can result in major infrastructure changes to mitigate the anthropogenic effects.

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Disbanding the EPA: Is it Ethical?

Last week, Democrats in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee sat out Scott Pruitt’s confirmation vote. Pruitt had been nominated by President Trump as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and was heavily criticized for his history of accepting money from anti-environmental interest groups. Though this was heralded as a virtuous political statement, the Republicans on the committee managed to approve the vote by changing the rules of Senate appointments. Though many environmentalists see this appointment as the end of the EPA as we know it, the appointment of Scott Pruitt is not the most serious threat to the EPA. Florida Representative Matt Gaetz recently introduced H.R. 861, which has the sole purpose “To terminate the Environmental Protection Agency.” Though many might consider nominating a man with no scientific background and conflicts of interest to head the EPA as unethical, what are the ethics of completely disbanding the Environmental Protection Agency as a whole?

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Evaluating Climate Change’s Post-Election Importance

Former Vice President Al Gore is making headlines after his meeting with President-elect Donald Trump on December 5th. After the meeting, he sat for an interview with the Guardian about their conversation  and the election in general. In the interview, Gore stated that, for the sake of the environment, we do not have “time to despair” over the results of the election and that “despair is just another form of denial.” Gore is known for his environmental activism, most specifically his documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” which highlighted the urgency of climate change in 2006. Gore even won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to combat climate change. Though many environmentalists might agree with Gore, are his statements acceptable? Is it fair to compare grief from the election to denial? And is Gore failing to recognize the marginalized identities that are at stake as a result of the election?

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Who Owns Climate Change?

Two days after the 2016 presidential election, John Abraham published an article on the Guardian titled “Conservatives elected Trump; Now They Own Climate Change.” In the article, Abraham claims that conservatives now “own” climate change due to Trump’s victory and the lack of action from conservative politicians, both in the United States and around the world. But is it fair to blame any person, group, or ideology for climate change? And if so, how can we determine who we should hold accountable?

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Future of the Environment Under a Trump Presidency

This past week, following his presidential victory, president-elect Donald Trump named Myron Ebell, a staunch dissenter on climate change, as his head of transition committee for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Alongside Ebell’s nomination, Sarah Palin and Forrest Lucas have been names mentioned in possible positions within the Department of Interior and Department of Energy. The implications these nominations hold  for the future of American environmental policies and climate carry major weight. To fully digest these implications, one must look into Trump’s environmental stances and those of his possible future nominations.

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Absent Perpetrator and Action-Less Bystander in East Chicago

The small Indiana town of East Chicago sits roughly 25 miles southeast of downtown Chicago. In late July, East Chicago’s mayor and the Environmental Protection Agency began informing residents that their soil had been contaminated with lead since at least 2014. But it was only a few weeks ago that the city began the process of evacuating nearly 1200 residents out of their housing complexes. The reason for this evacuation coincides with the rich industrial history of East Chicago: the smelting of lead.

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