Harvesting and mining Earth’s resources provides human beings with goods necessary for life and for advancing human civilization. As long as humans have existed, natural resources have been extracted. However, the ever-escalating scale of extraction since the Industrial Revolution has altered Earth’s environment. Not only has this vast extraction depleted and degraded Earth’s stock of resources, but it has also caused widespread pollution and damage to life-giving biogeochemical cycles on which all life depends. To cite some examples given in the previous Science section:

  • There is a finite amount of potable freshwater on earth; one third of our groundwater has been extracted for human use, surface water has been polluted such that 1 in 8 people do not have access to clean water.
  • Extraction of fossil fuels reduces biodiversity and creates toxic wastes; burning fossil fuels causes global climate change.
  • Earth’s nitrogen and phosphorus cycles are greatly disrupted by the widespread production and use of agricultural fertilizers.
  • Massive deforestation disrupts the carbon cycle by removing the plants that take CO2 (a major greenhouse gas) out of the atmosphere.

Human extraction and use of natural resources is outpacing nature’s ability to recover. This resource extraction is out of balance with the health of our planet. Science alone cannot answer the question of where the balance lies between our need to use natural resources and our responsibility to protect the Earth. This is an ethical question.

Ethical Approaches to Natural Resource Extraction

In environmental ethics, there are two longstanding approaches toward finding a balance between using Earth’s resources and protecting the planet. One approach focuses on the conservation of natural resources, the other emphasizes the preservation of Earth’s resources.

Conservationists believe that the best way to manage and maintain natural resources is to make these goods available for human use in ways that sustain the resource for future generations. To take a simple example, trees may be harvested from a forest, but the forest should be replanted at a rate that is equal to or greater than the rate of harvest.

Preservationists take a different approach. They believe that the best way to manage and maintain Earth’s resources is to 1) refrain as much as possible from using these goods in the first place and 2) reduce the degree of human interference in natural ecosystems that have already been put to use. Returning to the forest example, preservationists would refrain from harvesting trees in order to protect a forest’s natural biodiversity–something that, once destroyed, cannot be resurrected by simply replanting trees.

The founder of the conservation movement in the United States was Gifford Pinchot (1865-1946). The first Chief of the United States Forest Service from 1905 to 1910, Pinchot coined the term ‘conservation ethic’. By this, Pinchot meant a government-guided, commercial use of natural resources that was rationally planned and sustainably executed.

Two groups opposed Pinchot’s conservation ethic. One group represented business interests in America that wanted to break up public lands into private holdings for quicker commercial exploitation. A second group was led by preservationist John Muir (1838-1914). Muir and his followers did not support the commercial use of natural resources, whether directed by government or business

Looking Back


Return to the Introduction and see a photograph of John Muir, one of Healing Earth’s Inspired People

Muir believed that a large share of America’s forests, mountains, deserts, lakes, and streams should be preserved as wilderness areas out of respect for nature’s intrinsic value. He also felt that having areas of pristine nature was vital to the human spirit. The opportunity to experience undisturbed wilderness, wrote Muir, was essential to “saving the American soul from total surrender to materialism.”

Healing Earth’s environmental ethic draws upon the wisdom of both conservationists and preservationists. With conservationists, the Healing Earth ethic holds that human beings have a moral right to use Earth’s natural resources for survival and well-being, as long as this use is sustainable. With preservationists, the Healing Earth ethic holds that the natural world has an intrinsic value that must be honored by setting aside areas of land and sea for protection from direct human intrusion.

This ‘both-and’ approach to natural resource conservation and preservation reflects the three foundations of Healing Earth’s environmental ethic:

  • the natural world has intrinsic value
  • the natural world has instrumental value
  • the value of environmental sustainability balances nature’s intrinsic and instrumental values

Each of these values are highlighted in a quote from section 140 of Pope Francis’ encyclical letter Laudato Si’:

We take [ecosystems] into account not only to determine how best to use them, but also because they have intrinsic value independent of their usefulness . . . [s]o, when we speak of ‘sustainable use’, consideration must always be given to each ecosystem’s regenerative ability.

The intrinsic and instrumental values of nature, along with the value of sustainability, are the basis for more detailed ethical norms that help guide decisions about the maintenance and use of natural resources. These norms are expressed in the moral principles, goals, and virtues you have explored in the Healing Earth Introduction and the Biodiversity Chapter.

As you study these moral norms, you will deepen your skill of ethical analysis and your ability to address the questions posed at the end of the Coltan Case Study that began this chapter:

  • There are many ethical questions raised today about how to best manage and maintain Earth’s natural resources. What contribution do the moral principles, goals, and virtues of Healing Earth make in response to these questions?

Moral Principles and Natural Resources

The Healing Earth environmental ethic draws attention to six moral principles that can guide our actions with respect to natural resources:

  • Coral reefs are a declining natural resource. Coral farming is a potential tool for restoring coral reefs. Here, coral fragments are cultivated in nurseries, to then be replanted on a reef.1
    care for creation
  • human dignity and rights
  • the common good
  • the universal destination of goods
  • the preferential option for the poor
  • the principle of subsidiarity

The following remarks on each of these principles are not meant to be exhaustive, but to provide you with a way to begin thinking in greater depth about the relationship between ethics and Earth’s resources.

The moral principle of care for creation calls us to use Earth’s resources sustainably. Such care further encourages us to restore resources that we have degraded. People in the field of restoration ecology, for example, work to return damaged ecosystems such as tall-grass prairies and wetlands to their original condition.

Bull trout are being transferred to colder waters in Glacier National Park. 2

Today, preemptive care is another way people are approaching the challenge of preserving and protecting natural resources. For example, in Montana’s Glacier National Park, ecologists and biologists are working with the U.S. National Park Service to relocate bull trout from Logging Creek to a higher elevation at Grace Lake. Global climate change has made the creek water too warm for the fish to survive.

The relocation effort begins with trout rescuers capturing juvenile fish and putting them in special oxygenated-water filled backpacks. The fish are then carried up a mountain trail and released into Grace Lake. Although extensive research has gone into this project, scientists are not completely sure that the lake will support a species of fish that has never lived there before. The lake’s indigenous plants, insects, and fish may or may not tolerate their new neighbor. The project is a calculated risk to save the bull trout.

Inspired People

Dorothy Stang

Dorothy Stang, S.N.D. (1931-2005) gave her life protecting both the Amazon’s natural resources and the lives of the forest people who lived there. Today, people are proposing that the Roman Catholic Church recognize her as a saint, a person who gave her life for the good of humanity and the Earth. Her order of religious women, The Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, has this website explaining the life of Sr. Dorothy. 3

Dorothy Stang, S.N.D. was an American-born Brazilian religious sister who also took risks to save the environment. Sr. Dorothy sacrificed her life for the preservation and protection of the Amazonian forests and the people who lived there. When Sr. Dorothy protested the destruction of the Amazon forest by commercial loggers, land speculators, and agribusiness cattle ranchers, she often wore a T-shirt with the slogan “A Morte de floresta é o fim da nossa vida” (“The death of the forest is the end of our life”). For Sr. Dorothy, protecting the forest was a necessary part of respecting not only nature, but also human dignity and rights.

Sr. Dorothy lived and worked with the Amazonian people for over 40 years. During that time, she helped the people create self-sufficient, sustainable communities and grow more aware of their dignity and rights as human beings. For this work, she was placed on a ‘death list’ by those who wanted to eliminate all opposition to Amazon deforestation and land expropriation. On the morning of February 12, 2005, two gunmen killed Sr. Dorothy as she was walking to a community meeting on a dirt road at the Boa Esperanca settlement in Brazil’s rural Para state. Sr. Dorothy’s heroic life and the aftermath of her brutal murder are presented in the award-winning 2008 film, They Killed Sister Dorothy.

Closer Look


Read this excellent summary of the moral principle of the common good.

An ethic of respect for natural resources includes recognizing the principle of the common good. In 1968, Garrett Hardin, a professor at the University of California-Santa Barbara, published an essay in the journal Science entitled “The Tragedy of the Commons”. In this essay, Hardin argued that when human beings act in isolation from one another, there can be a hazardous social and environmental impact. He explains that the social effect of humans acting only from their individual self-interest is the degradation of resources available for the common good of all people. For example, if each farmer in a community decides to gain individual benefit by increasing the number of his or her own cattle grazing on a common piece of pasture land, then the land will eventually become depleted to the detriment of all farmers in the community. In other words, in the long run it is self-defeating to use a resource selfishly. If everyone acts selfishly, the resource is eventually destroyed not only for everyone, but also for the selfish individual. 

Closer Look


Watch this Khan Academy video explaining the Tragedy of the Commons.

The moral solution to the tragedy of the commons is for people to understand that natural resources are a common good, a good necessary for the well-being of all life on Earth. The moral principle of the common good calls each of us to truly care that all living beings on Earth receive, sustainably, the natural resources needed for survival.

To think about natural resources in this way, it is helpful to look at land, forests, water, and animals through the lens of the universal destination of earthly goods. In principle, private property ownership of natural resources is not immoral. In fact, private ownership can be an excellent motivator for a person or group to take good care for the natural resources they own. A moral problem often emerges, however, when people view private property ownership as an absolute right. This can give property owners the idea that it is morally justifiable to refuse making basic goods on their property available to people who are suffering desperate need.

When human beings are suffering a lack of food, water, and shelter necessary for sheer survival, the principle of the universal destination of goods overrides the moral claim a person or group has to private property ownership of Earth’s natural resources. At section 93 of his encyclical letter Laudato Si’, Pope Francis makes this point with a quote from his predecessor, Saint John Paul II,

. . . the subordination of private property to the universal destination of goods, and thus the right of everyone to their use, is ”the first principle of the whole ethical and social order”.

This is not a denial of private property. As Pope Francis continues,

. . . the Church does indeed defend the legitimate right to private property, but she also teaches no less clearly that there is always a social mortgage on all private property, in order that goods may serve the general purpose that God gave them.”
Catholic social teaching quote

Moral responsibility to the poor is more than charity; when survival is at stake, it is a matter of justice. This is what underlies the moral principle of the preferential option for the poor as related to natural resources. A priority must be placed on making the goods of the Earth available to those in desperate need.

In so doing, we are likewise called to observe the moral principle of subsidiarity. That is, the state has a moral obligation to see that natural resources necessary for human survival are made available to the poor, but in a way that neither eliminates nor discourages smaller organizations in society from also participating in that obligation.

Questions to Consider

Sr. Dorothy Stang saw a direct connection between respecting human rights and caring for natural resources. Do you see how she made this connection? How would you explain this connection to someone? Do you see any situation in your own community where respect for human rights is directly connected to caring for natural resources?

Moral Goals and Natural Resources

Earth’s natural resources are in urgent need of greater conservation, preservation, restoration, and preemptive care. This is one of Healing Earth’s moral goals: to care for natural resources in a sustainable manner and hold other resources in pristine condition–all with an eye toward meeting the needs of future generations.

Countless small groups, regional movements, and national organizations around the world are working on this goal. Key steps toward this goal include government reform, citizen mobilization, and transparency of business records within extractive industries. Without steps taken along these lines, natural resources can be, paradoxically, a country’s ‘curse’. This is precisely the situation in the case of the Democratic Republic of Congo which began this chapter. Despite the fact that the DRC is rich in minerals, the problems of government corruption, citizen oppression, and secretive business practices have kept this African country among the poorest in the world. 

Closer Look


One noteworthy international organization that is helping countries build good governments, educate citizens, and negotiate with companies for transparent resource extraction is the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI). The EITI started in London in 2003 and has since developed 12 rules that participating governments, citizen groups, and companies agree to follow. Today, over 48 countries and 90 companies are collaborating around the EITI Standard.

Efforts like those of the EITI are positive steps toward natural resource conservation. Many other organizations, such as the Nature Preservation Trust and European Wildlife, focus on nature preservation and restoration. The combination of efforts made by such organizations gives hope that Earth’s natural resources may one day be both sustainably used and wisely preserved.

Questions to Consider

Healing Earth proposes that in our personal lives, businesses, and governments, we care for natural resources in a sustainable manner and hold other resources in pristine condition–all with an eye toward meeting the needs of future generations.

Identify three or four natural resources that exist in your neighborhood, community or region.

  • To the best of your knowledge, are any of these resources being cared for in a sustainable manner? If so, how? If not, why not?
  • To the best of your knowledge, are any of these resources being held in a pristine condition? If so, how? If not, why not?
  • As you think about these three or four natural resources, are there any that you wish were cared for in a more sustainable manner? Why? Are there any that you wish were held in pristine condition? Why?

Moral Virtues and Natural Resources

Sometimes it takes the virtue of courage to defend natural resources. In the Biodiversity Chapter, you read about Larry Gibson, the brave man who spent most of his life defending the beautiful Kayford Mountain in West Virginia from mountaintop removal. You have also just learned about the ultimate sacrifice Sr. Dorothy Stang made for the Amazon forest and its people.

Protecting Earth’s resources does not always require such extraordinary acts of courage. Environmental bravery can mean speaking up for Earth’s resources in a group, or simply asking someone in your community questions like those posed in the box above.

Such acts of courage are expressions of generosity. As Pope Francis writes in Laudato Si’, “[f]or all our limitations” as human beings, we are still capable of great “gestures of generosity”(58). Through such gestures, “rivers, polluted for decades have been cleaned up” and “native woodlands have been restored.”

We have been reminded throughout this Ethics section that generous care for natural resources must include concern for the needs of future generations. The virtue of justice calls us to a sense of equitable partnership on Earth with not only our living neighbors, but also our neighbors yet unborn. In Laudato Si’ 159, Pope Francis put it this way:

Pope Francis 5
. . . the world is a gift which we have freely received and must share with others. . . [i]ntergenerational solidarity is not optional, but rather a basic question of justice, since the world we have received also belongs to those who will follow us.

At the heart of true care for natural resources is a realization that the goods of the Earth are a gift. The moral response to a gift is gratitude. The virtue of gratitude puts human beings in right relationship with nature. The opposite of gratitude is self-absorption, a feeling of entitlement, and a desire to control one’s environment–destructive attitudes for the conservation, preservation, restoration, and pre-emptive care of the Earth.

Respectful care for a gift is guided by the virtues of temperance and prudence. Temperance tells us that the gift of the Earth should not be squandered, but used judiciously and preserved lovingly. Proper use and preservation of natural resources is a matter of prudent decision-making.

In her book Dreaming of Eden, Susan Thistlethwaite says that when we make serious decisions our guide can often be as much ‘our heart’ as ‘our head. This not necessarily a bad thing. Our hearts carry the deep perspectives we have on the world, beliefs that can shape our decision-making even at a subconscious level. We move next to the Natural Resources and Spirituality section to explore some of these deep perspectives and beliefs.