The Two Imperatives of Planetary Ethics

Paul Kurtz

The secular humanist movement has often been characterized, by friends and foes alike, primarily in terms of its unbelief: its atheism or agnosticism. Unfortunately, this tends to accentuate the negative aspects of secular humanism, giving short shrift to its affirmative ethical outlook. In fact, secular humanists strongly affirm a new planetary ethic.

Secularists are making an eloquent contribution to today’s “dialogues between civilizations,” a constructive effort to develop a new set of ethical values and principles directly relevant to the new planetary civilization that is now emerging. Planetary ethics seeks to transcend the ancient nationalistic, religious, ethnic, and racial dogmas of the past. It seeks to discover a common ethical ground upon which all sectors of the world community can agree. This focus seeks, among other goals, to protect the planet against environmental degradation and the depletion of nonrenewable natural resources. Further, it strives to develop a world that provides opportunities for every person on the planet to realize a peaceful, healthy, productive, and satisfying life. This requires us to eliminate poverty on the global level.

Humanist ethics aims to develop a new ethics applicable to both the planet—our common abode—and the interdependent planetary community. It attempts to overcome competing sectarian and regional differences, for it views the planet as the common living space for all of humanity. With this in mind, may I bring to everyone’s attention two ethical imperatives: the need to restore oceanic dead zones and the need to eliminate poverty globally.

Restoring Oceanic Dead Zones

A disturbing study published in the journal Science points out that a growing number of coastal areas of the world’s oceans are being deprived of oxygen at an alarming rate, severely depleting marine life. Yet another thing for us to worry about? Yes! The proliferation of dead zones in the oceans of the worlds is emerging as a serious global problem.

According to scientific research, some four hundred coastal areas—deltas in particular—are being depleted of oxygen. This is occurring virtually everywhere on the planet. Dead zones are expanding, threatening marine life on a global scale, a phenomenon disturbingly similar to the threat posed to life on land by global warming.

Robert J. Diaz and Rutger Rosenberg, authors of this study, maintain that human activity over the past forty to fifty years has degraded the quality of ocean waters, leading to the extinction of fish, crustaceans, and other nutrient-rich forms of marine life.

In North America, low oxygen levels in Chesapeake Bay cause dead zones in the bottom waters, leaving sparse life aside from microbes. The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico has doubled in the last twenty years and is now almost as large as the state of Massachusetts. Similar dead zones have appeared in near-shore waters from the Baltic and Scandinavian coasts to the East China Sea.

According to the researchers, dead zones are caused by nitrogen from agricultural runoff (i.e., fertilizers), by sewage flowing into the oceans from rivers and streams, and by burning fossil fuels. These effluents stimulate excessive proliferation of photosynthetic plankton on the surface of the seas; when the plankton die, they sink to the bottom where their decomposition consumes vast amounts of oxygen, leading to hypoxia. As oxygen levels fall, indigenous life at the sea bottom cannot survive. These areas of deoxygenation (or eutrophication) are usually seasonal, appearing in the summer months. But that can be time enough to kill off entire species within an area. Hypoxia also harms worms and other sources of food for crustaceans and fish. Given these adverse conditions, many forms of life are decimated and cannot rebound.

Overfishing has long been recognized as a cause for the depletion of fish stocks. The discharge of effluents into the open seas must now be recognized as an equal threat. Approximately four hundred coastal areas are now deprived of oxygen necessary for marine life. It is estimated that the number of dead zones in the world is doubling every ten years. Diaz and Rosenberg recommend ways of alleviating stress on marine ecosystems such as seasonal crop rotation, which will reduce the patterns of fertilizer use and the control of sewage discharge.

Humanist Manifesto 2000 pointed out that “the world needs a planetary environmental monitoring agency on the transnational level” able to sound the alarm about such threats and press for preventative policies. Heretofore, each nation has focused principally upon its own economic fortunes; many have fished and discharged effluents in the open seas with abandon. But all who care for the sustained fecundity of our planet must recognize the importance of a new planetary ethical imperative: every attempt should be made to reduce and restore dead zones.

Reducing Poverty on the Planet

Another problem demanding an ethical humanist response is the persistence of extreme poverty worldwide. A disturbing report by the World Bank’s Development Research Group states that 1.4 billion people on the planet now live in extreme poverty—that is, on incomes less than $1.25 per day (2005 figures). The extreme poverty line has been adjusted upward from the former figure of $1 per day.

In sub-Saharan Africa, one-half of the population lives below the poverty line—380 million people in 2005 in comparison with 200 million in 1981. In China, the poverty rate is falling, though an estimated 207 million still live in poverty (compared to 835 million in 1981). In India, the number of people in poverty increased to 455 million in 2005, up from 420 million in 1981. Although the absolute number living in extreme poverty has increased, in percentage terms extreme poverty fell to 42 percent of the population in 2005 from 60 percent in 1981.

India and China are undertaking massive efforts to increase their gross national products and expand their middle classes. China has been growing at 11 percent annually and India at 8 to 9 percent. Unfortunately, the disparity between the wealthy and poorer classes continues to widen. India, which will soon outstrip China’s rate of population growth, has the largest number of people in poverty. When I asked my Indian colleagues what can be done to reduce poverty and overpopulation, they say that India is a democracy (the largest in the world) and that it is necessary for leaders to persuade their fellow citizens to abandon superstition and develop an appreciation for the scientific outlook, secularism, and humanism within their country.

All of this emphasizes the need for planetary humanists to work together in aggressively changing public opinion in order to alleviate poverty on the planet.

May I point out that $1.25 a day multiplied by 365 days is equal to $456 per capita annually. Multiplying this by 1.4 billion poor would be a total cost of $638 billion per year. If the affluent countries contributed half of that sum, it would only cost $319 billion (at 2005 prices) to eradicate poverty worldwide. This is surely an attainable goal. Every Indian, African, Chinese, and Latin American person could be removed from abject poverty. What a magnificent goal to strive for! We need to assist the developing world so that it can become fully self-sufficient. Our common goal should be to halve extreme poverty by 2015 and to reduce it entirely thereafter.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, world leaders pledged to reduce malnutrition and child mortality rates. This problem, too, is critical: in the developing world, 27 percent of children under age five are underweight, and the death rate for children is fourteen times that of the wealthy countries. In 2005, leaders pledged aid of $130 billion a year (equal to $150 billion in today’s prices, which are steadily mounting). The goal was to commit 0.7 percent of the gross national income of the participating countries. Only the Scandinavian nations, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg have fulfilled that commitment. Canadian assistance comes to 0.28 percent of GNP, and the United States—the land of the free and the home of the brave—was the lowest with only 0.16 percent. How shameful!

Postscript: Secularism in India

I have just returned from a speaking tour of India—my seventh trip to that country—and so I am all the more keenly aware of that nation’s widespread poverty, both in the countryside and the cities. Despite the much-reported and impressive growth of India’s middle class, poverty remains pervasive.

I am pleased to say that we have established four Centers for Inquiry in India. The headquarters of CFI/India is in Hyderabad, under the chairmanship of Dr. Innaiah Narisetti, with branches at the University of Pune (near Mumbai); the Moulana Azad Medical College at the University of New Delhi; and at Periyar Maniammai University in Thanjavur (near Chennai), under the direction of Dr. K. Veeramani. The Indian Rationalist Association has also become an affiliate of CFI/Transnational.

CFI/India has issued various position papers on key topics calling for vigorous campaigns for contraception to contain population growth, providing universal education for all children, and developing the public’s appreciation of the scientific outlook in opposition to all-pervasive superstition. India is one of the few countries in the world to include a provision in its constitution encouraging “the scientific temper” and “humanism.”

The Center for Inquiry in New Delhi intends to establish a database to critically examine health claims rooted in superstitions and folk remedies and to improve public health. The Center for Inquiry in Hyderabad also intends to establish a committee to scientifically “examine the claims of religions such as Hinduism” and their harmful impact on human culture. The effort is to develop an appreciation for alternative humanist values. We at CFI/Transnational are most pleased to increase our cooperative efforts with our friends and colleagues in India.

Paul Kurtz

Paul Kurtz is editor-in-chief of FREE INQUIRY and professor emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo.


The secular humanist movement has often been characterized, by friends and foes alike, primarily in terms of its unbelief: its atheism or agnosticism. Unfortunately, this tends to accentuate the negative aspects of secular humanism, giving short shrift to its affirmative ethical outlook. In fact, secular humanists strongly affirm a new planetary ethic. Secularists are making …

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