The Issue of Amazon Rainforests’ Deforestation in Brazil

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It can be argued the Amazon Rainforest is the tropical region that has received the most attention from scientists, environmentalists, and explorers. It represents 40 percent of the Earth’s remaining rainforests and holds the largest intact section of plants and wildlife. For this reason, many view the Amazon as a symbol for the last stand against the attacks of western civilization’s constant industrial expansion on wild, natural environments. The mystical and wonderful Amazon had captured the minds of photographers, authors, and nature lovers alike; however, the future longevity of the Amazon has been called into question for sometime.

In 1940, former President of Brazil, Getúlio Vargas, declared that, “The Amazon, in the impact of our will and labor, will cease to be a simple chapter in the history of the world, and made equivalent to other great rivers, shall become a chapter in the history of human civilization. Everything which has up to now been done in Amazonas, whether in agriculture or extractive industry…must be transformed into rational exploitation.”

Thus, the president established governmental programs that would focus on the cutting down of the Amazon in order to improve Brazilian industry. Vargas’s programs developed over the years it led to rapid deforestation in the area. Specifically, the cattle industry has driven the Brazilian government to expand the industry into rainforest, due to their number one export to the global market is beef. Since 1970, 768,935 kilometers squared have been cut down which is nearly 20% of the Brazilian Amazon.

With rapid deforestation, there emerged an ongoing public and governmental debate on the future of the Amazon in Brazil, which mirrors broader discussion of the environment. Two schools of thought have emerged through this discourse: the first school is the defenders of global ecological services (conservationists), and the second is the school of developmental interests in the countries hosting these forests (developmentalists). Developmentalists argue developed countries have cut their forests down in the past and have benefited greatly from the land that the trees were replaced with.

In contrast, conservationists argue our understanding of tropical forests’ effect on the global eco-system are incomplete and catastrophic damages to the globe may occur if we clear too much of the forest. Conservationist’s argument rests on the belief that it is morally wrong to rapidly deforest an area which brings the conservation and development of the Amazon debate into the realm of ethics. This paper will attempt to determine, through utilitarian and Kantian ethics, if the rapid deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon is ethically wrong.

Firstly, I’ll examine the issue from a utilitarian perspective, specifically John Stuart Mill; however, it is important to understand Jeremy Bentham’s theory of utilitarianism since Mill adopted much of what Bentham wrote. Utilitarianism, for Bentham and Mill, states that the morally correct action will maximize happiness. For both philosophers, happiness is a blissful and the most valuable mental state. Pleasure is the only component of happiness, and pain or suffering is the only component of unhappiness. Thus, the greatest quality of life balances pleasure over pain.

Similarly, the morally right action ought to produce an outcome with gives the greatest levels of pleasure for the greatest amount and minimizes suffering to the minority. Thus, the answer to what is morally right or wrong lays in the end result rather than the actions taken to achieve the outcome. Bentham developed a calculus that would measure amounts of pleasure we get from an action, attach numbers to them and produce the greatest good in a mathematical way. The action creating the most pleasure and least pain must therefore be the morally correct action to take. Bentham’s calculus has seven factors involved:

Intensity of the pleasure or pain

Duration of the experience or pain

Probability of pleasure or pain occurring

Chances of the action producing further happiness

Purity of the act, or how free the action is from pain

How immediate the pleasure is

And, finally the number of people involved and affected by any pleasure and pain from the action.

As previously stated, Mill adopts the principals Bentham set up in his form of utilitarianism, but he did not agree that all differences among pleasures can be quantified. For Mill, some kinds of pleasure experienced by human beings differ from each other in qualitative ways. Only those who have experienced pleasure of both higher and lower pleasures are competent judges of their relative quality. Higher pleasures are largely focus on the cultivation of the intellect, and lower pleasures are purely biological i.e. fulfilling desire for food, sex, and water etc. Mill promotes higher pleasures among rational beings even if their momentary intensity may be less than that of alternative lower pleasures.

Furthermore, Mill and Bentham would argue deforestation is ethically wrong, solely due to the aversive impacts it has on humans. Normally, the rainforest acts as a sponge, soaking up rainfall brought by tropical storms while anchoring soils and releasing water at regular intervals.

This regulating feature of tropical rainforests can help moderate destructive floods and droughts; however, once the cover of trees is removed water rapidly flows into rivers causing elevated water levels and subjecting downstream villages, cities, and agricultural fields to flooding. The floods have killed killed crops, animals, and people, which induces a form of pain on humans that Bentham and Mill would say warrants stopping deforestation. The number of people affected by deforestation is widespread.

Researchers reported if the Amazon is stripped bare there would be “20 percent less rain for the coastal Northwest and a 50 percent reduction in the Sierra Nevada snowpack, a crucial source of water for cities and farms in California.”” Crops would be harder to grow and possibly die. Since we live in the age of globalization and a world market economy, food prices would increase world wide making it harder for those in poverty around the world to get food. The study goes to show how wide spread the impact of deforestation is, which Bentham and Mill would say is a sign we ought to stop the tearing down of trees.

Next, I’ll look at the issue from a Kantian point of view. Immanuel Kant attempted to universalize a moral principle which he calls the categorical imperative. Each one of our actions reflects a maxim, or principal that is ethical or unethical. In order for a maxim to be good, it must pass a few tests. First is the formula of universality. The maxim needs to be good in every situation it is put in.

Second is the formula of humanity which states the maxim has to respect rational beings as an end within themselves and not merely as a means. In other words, the action cannot use another if they cannot consent to the action in principle. Finally, the formula of autonomy states you must respect another rational being autonomy or freedom. Therefore, if deforestation violates the one of Kant’s formulas, then the act is unethical and ought to stop.

Using the previous impacts of mass deforestation mentioned in the explanation of utilitarianism, we see how the Brazilian government’s actions violates Kantian ethics. Remember that deforestation has caused flooding of downstream cities, villages, and agricultural land. The flooding has taken the lives of people, which would violate the autonomy of the people dying since they no longer have free will. Furthermore, the Brazilian government treats those who are affected by the flooding as a mere means to an end since deforestation is viewed as okay as long as there is a commodity being produced. Essentially, the Brazilian government does not appear to value the lives of those being affected by deforestation meaning Kant would find the action unethical since autonomy is being violated.

Kant, Bentham, and Mill may differ, but there is one key similarity. Their ethical theories are anthropocentric, or human centered. Kant says the only being that can take part in this formulation of ethics, and by extension violation of ethics are rational beings, which are humans for Kant. For Mill, only those who can experience higher pleasures, or the cultivation of the intellect are worthy of being part of the utilitarian calculus. By extension, humans are the ones who have value, and not nature itself.

Finally, Bentham only discuses humans when talking about pain and pleasure. Although, all three would argue mass deforestation is unethical they would believe it is for the wrong reasons. I believe human centered ethics need to take a side role when discussing environmental issues, since nature is the one that is being effected most directly when it comes to deforestation. Policies will not be passed to fix an environmental issue unless humans feel an effect.

At that point there may not be a way to fix the problems we have created, and we have doomed the planet. There needs to be more work done in environmental ethics in order to move away from an anthropocentric point of view, and do better job in changing the mindset of those in power. We cannot use Bentham, Mill, and Kant as a starting point, or extension point, as other philosophers have tried, since their beliefs are entrenched in anthropocentricism. Once we find a form of environmental ethics that moves away from Kant, Bentham, and Mill, I believe we will be able to find the answer to our environmental problems.


Cite this paper

The Issue of Amazon Rainforests’ Deforestation in Brazil. (2023, Jan 09). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/the-issue-of-amazon-rainforests-deforestation-in-brazil/

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