Environmental Ethics and Technology

by Alan Holland [rough draft]


The domain of technology has seen major advances in recent years, both in the numbers and kinds of technology, and in the range of their subject matter. A common response to these developments among many environmentalists, who see themselves as ‘protectors of nature’, has been to construe this advance as posing a ‘threat’ to nature. Environmental philosophers, whose task is to articulate and comment upon the concepts and arguments used in debates such as this, have been quick to characterise this confrontation in terms of the contrast between the ‘natural’ and the ‘artificial’. Some, wielding a strong normative conviction that privileges the value of the natural above the value of the artificial, conclude that the advance of technology signals a corresponding haemorrhage of value.

This hostility of environmentalists to technology is perceived in some quarters as prompted by an ‘anti-scientific’ sentiment. While there might be a few environmentalists who would own up to such a sentiment, most cry foul, and are quick to distance themselves from it. It is not my purpose to comment at any length on this debate here, save to offer a couple of remarks that are pertinent to my theme – and happen also to be reasonably even-handed. For in the first place it seems to me appropriate to draw a distinction between science on the one hand, and technology understood roughly as the application of science, even if there is no clear dividing line between the two. In other words, it seems perfectly possible to adore science, yet abhor (some of) the uses to which it is put. In the second place, even environmentalists who disclaim any ‘anti-scientific’ sentiment are frequently found railing against ‘atomistic’ and ‘reductionist’ forms of thought, and it is less easy to distinguish between these particular expressions of hostility and the anti-scientific sentiment. The reason for saying this is simply that it is very difficult to think of any scientific insight worthy of the name that does not involve some form of reductionist thinking.

In terms of the search being undertaken in this workshop for common themes in the relationship between ethics and technology more generally, it is reasonable to suspect that the issues alluded to here are indeed of wider significance. For a common understanding of the term ‘environment’ is as a species of nature – specifically the nature that is ambient and what we might term ‘exo-somatic’. As its counterpart we have inner, or ‘endo-somatic’ nature. Already we can see that food technologies, for example, span the endo-somatic/exo-somatic divide, as the products of these (exo-somatic) technologies are literally digested and rendered endo-somatic. Medical, genetic and – more recently – nano-technologies on the other hand are more clearly endo-somatic in their focus. So if technology is construed as posing a threat to ‘nature’, then the threat goes all the way down.

In this presentation, I shall first elaborate a little on the natural/artificial distinction, before describing two strategies that are used to defuse the objections to technology that are based upon the distinction. I shall then offer some account of the (largely consequentialist) public debate before making a couple of positive proposals. The first, which is methodological touches on ‘institutions’; the second, based around the concept of ‘meaningful relationship’, is intended both as a descriptive-cum-explanatory account of public reactions to technology generally, and as a normative recommendation about how we should ‘do’ the ethics of technology.

Nature and artefact

‘Artificial’ and ‘technological’ are not co-extensive terms. As I understand the term, ‘technology’ implies the application of general principles, typically in an industrial context, rather than the application of individual expertise and skill - an eye for the grain in a piece of wood, for example. So there are many artefacts that are not technological products. However, the overlap between the concepts is sufficient, I believe, to make discussion of the natural/artificial distinction highly pertinent.

McKibben (1989) writes of nature as a "separate and wild province, the world apart from man to which he has adapted". But we have ended nature, he claims, though mostly as the incidental concomitant of technology, rather than as a direct result of it: “quite by accident, it turned out that the carbon dioxide and other gases we were producing in our pursuit of a better life - in pursuit of warm houses and eternal economic growth and agriculture so productive it would free most of us for other work - could alter the power of the sun, could increase its heat. And that increase could change the patterns of moisture and dryness, breed storms in new places, breed deserts” (1989 pp.43-44). In similar vein, Katz (1993, 1997) holds that the crucial feature of the entities and systems that comprise nature, and what distinguishes them from artefacts, is their independence of human aims and goals. He identifies autonomy and self-realisation as pre-eminent values, and claims that natural entities and systems have value by virtue of exhibiting these characteristics. Hence, human policy towards the natural world should be limited to such intervention, alteration and management as is necessary for human self-realisation, but should stop short of domination. Underlying both accounts is the notion that nature and natural things have an ‘intrinsic value’ that is destroyed, or at least diminished, by technology which, being devoted to transforming natural resources to serve human purposes, is seen as both dominating and instrumental.

A recognisably similar concern, following a suggestion of Aldo Leopold, is voiced as the perception of a threat to integrity. In recent times, Laura Westra has perhaps been the most persistent exponent of this view, and like Leopold, she applies the point to nature generally – or at least to the ‘biotic community’. But whether nature, or even the biotic community, can be thought of as possessing integrity is a moot and contested point. An alternative, and possibly more defensible, concern would focus rather on the potential threat to an organism’s ‘species integrity’ – a threat to ‘natures’ one might say, rather than a threat to nature. We find an expression of such concern, for example, traced to the work of Bernard Rollin and specifically to his revival of the Aristotelian notion of ‘telos’, in the UK Animal Procedures Committee report on ‘Biotechnology’, yielding as their ‘Recommendation 4’: “Apart from practices of work under terminal anaesthetic and decerebrate preparation, licences should not be given for the genetic modification of animals with the intention of .. stripping animals of their biological integrity” (2001, para 51, p.18).

It is common to view these elegiac accounts of nature as untenable. On two counts. First, because to take such an understanding of nature seriously would be to make life unliveable. Second, because the world in which we do live renders such an understanding of nature unusable. Richard Norman (forthcoming) voices the first objection. Admittedly this is in the context of nature viewed as ‘sacred’, but he immediately connects viewing something as sacred with viewing it non-instrumentally, and hence endorses Dworkin’s view (1993, ch.3) that to regard something as sacred is to regard it as something that we ought not, or may not, violate: “[t]o regard nature as sacred is to think of it as something on which we should not intrude, that we should not apply our knowledge of nature and its causal laws simply in order to use it for human purposes”. Naturally enough, he regards the view that we ought to give up all instrumental dealings with nature as absurd. The second objection is voiced by Steven Vogel in a recent contribution to Environmental Ethics. He argues that the concept is so confused that: “environmental philosophy ought to eschew the concept of nature entirely”. He also argues, as have many others, that our world is now so complex that the attempt to differentiate the natural from the non-natural or the unnatural has become impossible.

With the spirit of the Katz/McKibben view, I confess to having a lot of sympathy. The new technologies especially seem to pose, if not threats then at least challenges to our natural world. But neither their particular accounts of the matter, nor indeed the dismissals of their accounts, strike me as convincing. To take the latter first, to view nature as having intrinsic value cannot possibly entail our giving up all instrumental dealings with it. True, to ask how we can reduce carbon emissions or restore the quality of drinking water is not to think directly of nature as intrinsically valuable. But at the same time, it doesn’t obviously preclude such an attitude. Moreover, to say that something has intrinsic value is not to say that its value is absolute, in the sense that it holds sway come what may. Rather it is to say something about how the situation is to be viewed if and when we are called upon to ‘sacrifice’ intrinsic value – perhaps, for example, that what has taken place precisely has the character of a sacrifice rather than a bargain or trade-off. For, to borrow a phrase that Matthew Kiernan uses in connection with art, when we deal with nature, we are often dealing with an “unrepeatable generative achievement” (2004).

To respond to Vogel’s arguments, there is no doubt that the concepts of ‘artefact’ and ‘nature’ need quite careful defining. For reasons that we shall mention shortly, it would seem implausible, and perhaps unwise to define ‘artefact’ simply as what is influenced by human activity (nor can ‘nature’ mean simply what is uninfluenced) as McKibben seems to suggest. Nor can ‘artefact’ mean simply something that is a human product, since this is true of human tears, which surely are not artefacts (unless they be crocodile tears). To begin to see what it does mean, take the case of a cultivated plant. If we sow the seed of such a plant, what grows will indeed be an 'artefact'. But what makes it an artefact is not the fact that we planted it, and in that sense caused it to come into existence, but the fact that human ingenuity has gone into shaping the kind of plant that it is. Hence, a thing is artificial if and only if it is what it is at least partly as the result of a deliberate or intentional act, usually involving the application of some art or skill. Correspondingly, a thing is natural if and only if it owes nothing of what it is to a deliberate or intentional act. This is close to the account that Mill gives in his classic discussion (1874). And Helena Siipi (2003) in a recent article has built on such an account so as to show, convincingly in my view, how ‘nature’ can remain a usable and even vital concept in today’s world.

A crucial part of her discussion deals with the issue of ‘side effects’, an issue that requires far more attention than it has so far received. This is crucial because a great many of the environmental impacts of technology are side effects of the technology rather than direct effects. Global warming is a prime example, and is indeed a disturbing phenomenon, but it isn’t obvious that it is disturbing because it is unnatural or artificial. The response of blue-tits to the metal tops of our milk-bottles is a natural response, not an unnatural one. Just so, global warming strikes me as nature’s response to human technology rather than as any kind of expression of that technology. In Katz’s terms it is an expression rather of nature’s autonomy than its servitude. So my first objection to the Katz/McKibben analysis is simply that there are important environmental concerns that the nature/artefact distinction does not actually address.

The second problem I have with the Katz/McKibben accounts centres on the concept of intrinsic value itself. There is already a hint of incoherence in the juxtaposition of these two terms. The term ‘intrinsic’ invites us to focus on the thing itself, to conceive of a kind of value that owes nothing to any outside source. The concept of value, on the other hand, virtually forces us to look outside the thing itself, for how can one make sense of a concept of value that does not imply a perspective, and in this case necessarily an external perspective. To be more precise, the intuition behind the idea that there is intrinsic value in nature seems to be that nature itself is a measure or yardstick of value. However, the force behind the notion that nature has intrinsic value is that nature is open to human judgement: at any rate, it is hard to construe the concept of value as anything other than the (possible) issue of human judgement. So, the implication of the claim that nature has value – intrinsic or otherwise – is that humans are in a position to stand in judgement on nature. But this is surely an absurd conceit. The natural world, one wants to say, is beyond judgement because it is itself a precondition of any judgement – and therefore of value - and a precondition indeed of any human enterprise.

Two strategies

Partisans of technology can be described as adopting one of two strategies to alleviate public concern about technology, especially insofar as it rests upon concerns about (un)naturalness. The first responds to the normative aspect of the environmentalists’ case and, although this appears to escape the notice of its exponents, appears to be a version of the ‘sorites’ fallacy. Its general form is as follows:

A is X

A does not differ significantly from B

Therefore, B is X.

Its normative version runs thus:

A is acceptable

A does not differ significantly from B

Therefore, B is acceptable.

This argument, as is well documented, is fallacious. Reiteration of the argument leads one to describe something as a heap that is manifestly not a heap, and it leads one to deny that a bald person is bald. Yet it is a remarkably prevalent argument in discussions of technology. For example:

Conventional breeding of animals is morally acceptable

Genetic engineering of animals does not differ significantly from conventional breeding (they’re just different ways of manipulating genes)

Therefore, genetic engineering of animals is morally acceptable.

However, the fact that the argument is fallacious does not mean that it serves no purpose. Even given the first premise, it does not prove its conclusion; but what it does do is pose a challenge. Someone who denies the conclusion and accepts the first premise is obliged to explain their position, and this will typically, as in this case, take the form of a challenge to the second premise. But the challenge is of course reversible. An alternative is to deny the conclusion, accept the second premise, and challenge the first. Perhaps conventional breeding of animals is not so acceptable after all!

The second strategy might be christened the ‘ancient and modern’ strategy, and responds to the ontological aspect of the environmentalists’ case. ‘Ancient and modern’ because –well – it has both ancient and modern manifestations. Essentially the idea is to claim that nature is an intentional entity to begin with, thus challenging the idea that there is any great ontological chasm between nature and artefact. Its ancient form is very familiar – the view that the world, indeed the universe, is the product of intelligent design, the handiwork of ‘God’. In place of the divide between natural and artificial, we have the distinction between what is designed by God and what is designed by man. A classic expression of the modern manifestation of the strategy is to be found in Richard Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker. In chapter 5, we find the author reflecting in engaging fashion on the seeds of a willow tree which are being cast on the waters of a canal in front of him: "These fluffy specks" he observes, "are, literally, spreading instructions for making themselves" (p.111). If we take his 'literally' literally, there is no mistaking that we are here in the grip of an information model of life. "If you want to understand life", he enthuses, "don't think about vibrant, throbbing gels and oozes, think about information technology" (p.112). Such language is quite pervasive in recent textbooks. In J.W. Brookbank's The Biology of Aging, for example, we read how "A human cell contains a DNA library with instructions on how to produce and maintain humans....the genetic information of a species is encoded into the structure of the DNA of the cells of that species" (65-66). Perhaps most striking is this statement from the opening paragraph of a recent UK government report on the Ethics of Gene Therapy: "Genes are the essence of life; they carry the coded messages that are stored in every living cell, telling it how to function and multiply and when to do so. Until recently a genetic message could be altered only by accident or chance. Now human ingenuity makes it possible to manipulate these messages deliberately and with increasing precision" ('The Clothier Report', Introduction p.1). Bio-technology thus goes with the flow of nature rather than against it.

A philosopher such as Katz can still object that this is externally imposed purpose rather than inner realisation. But there appears to be quite a schism among environmental philosophers on this point. On the one hand are those like Andrew Brennan (1988) who rejoice that the natural world is populated by ‘good-for-nothings’ and is hostile to any suggestion of intention or purpose in nature. On the other hand are those such as Katz, whom we have seen attributes autonomy to natural objects, and Val Plumwood, who is happy to ascribe intentional attitudes to nature. And the opposition between nature and artefact has quite a different ‘feel’, depending on which of these positions is adopted. On the latter view the issue becomes political rather than ontological – it is about oppression.

Public debate about technology

It has to be said that public debate about technology and its environmental implications is generally consequentialist in character, and is generally dismissive of the kinds of ‘intrinsic’ consideration discussed so far. The focus is basically on the extent to which technology is likely to frustrate or facilitate the satisfaction of human desires. Hence the endless proliferation of books with titles such as ‘Cornucopia or Catastrophe?’ and the mushrooming of the academic risk industry. The underlying cost-benefit framework is unmistakeable, also the assumption that ends can be specified entirely independently of the means (the technology) by which they might be achieved. As a corollary the technology is viewed as ethically neutral. There is absolutely no conception that the character of the ‘journey’ might affect the quality of the ‘destination’. The conception is entirely a-historical.

Public concerns about technology are registered but the scientific community and indeed the policy community more generally is largely uncomprehending of these concerns. It resorts to labelling them as ‘irrational’ or at best, as religiously inspired, which leads to their being first marginalized and then discounted. An example of this kind of move can be found in the Nuffield Council for Bioethics Report on GM crops where concerns about unnaturalness are judged to be expressions “less of moral concern than of disgust and revulsion”. They add that “the ‘natural/unnatural’ distinction is one of which few practising scientists can make much sense” (p.15), and conclude that “ the decision about what is unnatural cannot be one for public policy” (p.17). Rather, it is a matter of ‘consumer choice’. Nowhere is the consequentialism more evident than when they say: “It would be hard to object to [genetic modification] as a matter of principle as being unnatural, since it would only be using new and presumably more efficient means of achieving a result that could have been achieved by conventional, or ‘natural’ means”.

Consequentialist rejoinders

Fortunately the consequentialist debate is by no means one-sided. On the issue of food security, for example, the UK’s Food Ethics Council – an independent body concerned with ethical standards in food and agriculture – has just published a robust and hard-hitting report entitled ‘Engineering Nutrition: GM Crops for Global Justice?’. Accepting the paramount importance of food security, and focusing on the three aspects of regulation, research and ownership, they argue that GM agriculture in its present form is in danger of leading us away from this important and desirable outcome. In the course of their argument, they advocate two particularly significant conceptual shifts:

i) from the idea that we need proof of harm to justify banning any particular GM crop to the idea that we need, rather, to prove acceptability of risk;

ii) from the idea that privately based GM research should be protected as a matter of intellectual property rights to the idea that it needs to be justified as a form of intellectually-based monopoly privilege.

Specifically, in the area of regulation, they argue that the overriding need is for a regulatory mechanism that can be trusted. This in turn requires some consensus over the acceptability of the risks involved, and justifies general moratoria until such a mechanism is in place. In the area of research they argue that communities directly affected by food insecurity need to be involved at much earlier ‘upstream’ stages of decision-making, rather than simply being offered the ‘choice’ of whether or not to use GM crops. Further, that the decisions be more broadly based, taking into account not just narrow technological criteria, but broader social, cultural and institutional factors. In the area of ownership, they highlight the dominance of the private sector, together with the likely ensuing diversion of benefits towards the rich, and stress the need for the products of GM agriculture to be genuine public goods, available to be shared and copied freely, if it is really to make a contribution to food security.

These are persuasive arguments, and all the more significant in that they engage consequentialism on its own terms. But by the same token, it can be argued that there are important concerns that this approach fails to capture. No one can of course deny the paramount urgency of knowing where our next meal is coming from. But agriculture constitutes a major part of our engagement with the natural world, and the character of that engagement is important too, whether we are producers or consumers. Acceptability of risk, upstream involvement and shared public goods are important not simply because of their hoped for outcomes but also because of what they mean to the lives of those affected. I want to conclude by offering, first a methodological, then a normative proposal about how we should ‘do’ the ethics of technology.

Two proposals

The methodological proposal, that picks up themes that I believe to be implicit in the Food Ethics Council Report just cited, is that we should re-think the level of ethical critique. Where ethical reflection needs to be concentrated most, I suggest, is upon institutions. For it strikes me that technology - as distinct, say, from the exercise of a craft or skill – is above all an institutional phenomenon. In the domain of food production therefore, it seems highly appropriate that we should put the spotlight on the regulatory institutions, the research and decision-making institutions and above all the institution of ownership.

To propose an ethical critique of institutions, however, is to open up a relatively new, and difficult front. For although our institutions are very clearly human creations, it is far from clear how we trace conventional lines of responsibility. If we blame the monarchy, the church, the law or the market for various failings, at whom exactly are we pointing the finger? Nevertheless the critique of institutions is crucial, since they are loaded with ethical baggage and we express our priorities through the kinds of institutions that we abide and support.

The need for such a critique was brought home to me during the UK’s recent encounter with Foot and Mouth disease. It was impossible, convincingly at any rate, to blame any individual, or even government department, in the sense that if they had acted differently, the episode would not have happened. But it was much more plausible to believe this at the level of institutions. Research, and regulation, again, come to mind. Is research too much oriented towards ‘glamour’ projects, rather than the mundane business of investigating the means by which the virus is and has been transmitted? Was the regulatory system realistic? Motorists were incessantly urged to spray their vehicles with disinfectant when, according to a senior toxicologist of my acquaintance, only a full half hour’s immersion would have had any effect whatever on the virus. Other institutions in the frame were (a) intensive agriculture and (b) the market. The power of the high street in turn reflects certain ethical beliefs such as a belief in the sovereignty of consumer choice. These and various other beliefs that underpin the normal operation of the food chain were the kind of thing requiring closer scrutiny.

The normative proposal

In order to address the ethical issues raised by technology in a more fruitful way, it seems to me that we need to re-think our governing notions of the good life. Specifically we need to move away from a focus on preference satisfaction and towards the notion of a worthwhile life. This is not necessarily to jettison the significance of preferences entirely, but to focus on the aspirational rather than consummational aspects of desire. It is to suggest that the good life lies more in the formation than the satisfaction of preferences.

My next claim is that the living of worthwhile lives depends, among other things, on our ability to sustain meaningful relationships. It seems to me that the (logical) relation between these two terms is that of mutual implication - worthwhile lives entail meaningful relationships, and meaningful relationships entail worthwhile lives. This much is suggested, for example, by the distinction between a meaningful relationship and a significant event. Being crippled in a car accident and confined to a wheelchair for the rest of one’s life is clearly a significant event in one’s life, but scarcely a positive one. We might therefore propose as a determining criterion the notion of a worthwhile life. Meaningful relationships are those that contribute to a worthwhile life, whereas significant events might or might not do so. But even significant events that initially blight the prospect of a worthwhile life should not be thought to do so irrevocably. Meaningful relationships can be re-built from a wheelchair. But thus far, the term ‘meaningful relationship’ is little more than a place-holder – like the (x) of predicate calculus – and the devil, as they say, is in the detail. Some initial attempt to fill out the detail would therefore seem called for.

Perhaps the most obvious objection to the proposal is its apparent lack of discriminatory force. Can we not find, or create meaning almost anywhere? Surely it is we who decide what are and are not meaningful relationships and we can in principle decide to make anything meaningful. However, I doubt whether meaningful relationships are so cheap or easy to come by. A worthwhile life, a meaningful life, is a required context for a meaningful relationship; it must also admit of a narrative, a true historical one, I mean, not a fictional one, and cannot simply be conjured up.

A second concern is whether the concept of a meaningful relationship keeps sufficient faith with the concept of nature, or as much faith as I believe we ought to keep. My short answer is that it does, because (my understanding of) nature is a deeply historical concept and is on this account charged with meaning. Natural relationships are a paradigm of meaningful relationships both on account of the (past) history invested in them and on account of the (future) history that they portend. Meaningful relationships therefore can be evolutionary and ecological, as well as cultural.

Armed with such a concept, does it have any useful applications? First, it seems to have some descriptive force. For it is not entirely implausible to read public concerns about technology, especially the life science technologies, often expressed as concerns about ‘unnaturalness’, as reflecting concerns about loss of meaning entailed by a perceived fracturing of relationships. For many, GM technology, for example, practices forms of displacement and dislocation that disrupt and diminish meaning, especially the meaning invested in ‘natural’ relationships. This it does, primarily, by overriding meaningful evolutionary and ecological relationships, and substituting molecular ones. Similar points can be made about concerns over the loss of biodiversity, which are regularly misread as concerns about loss of variety and richness - such as genetic engineers can even offer to make good. On the view being proposed here, such concerns are likely to have much more to do with a loss of familiar and meaningful relationships. In general, the honouring of a historical legacy – cultural, ecological or evolutionary – which we find to be a central element in people’s concerns about ‘nature’, ‘biodiversity’ and a lot else besides, is to be seen not as the securing of one more ‘asset’ among others, but as the lens through which other ‘assets’ gain their very significance.

Second, the proposal seems to have some diagnostic force. It would explain, for example, the very difference receptions afforded to information technology on the one hand, and the life science technologies on the other. Thus far, at any rate, it can be argued, the impact of information technologies has been largely to enhance the possibilities for meaningful relationships, particularly in the areas of communication and social activity. But this could well change, and we are already seeing darker and more destructive uses of IT at work – for example in the service of theft and pornography.

Finally, the concept of meaningful relationships enables us not only to articulate what it is, especially about the living world, that technologies might be perceived to threaten, but enables us also to articulate what it is that the technologies themselves have to commend them. For in their positive manifestations, they can precisely serve to facilitate meaningful relationships. And the extent to which they do so might even be proposed as a criterion for distinguishing between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ technologies!



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