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Environmental Factor, July 2012

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Resnik book tackles ethical issues in environmental health

By Eddy Ball

David Resnik, J.D., Ph.D.

In addition to his books, Resnik has published more than 180 articles on various topics in philosophy and bioethics. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

David Resnik's book, "Environmental Health Ethics"

Resnik begins by thanking a host of scientific and public health experts at NIEHS for their helpful comments and critiques. (Photo courtesy of Cambridge University Press)

NIEHS Bioethicist David Resnik, J.D., Ph.D., is the author of a thought-provoking new book appropriately titled “Environmental Health Ethics.” The book, which is Resnik’s eighth, is now available from publisher Cambridge University Press, as well as several online booksellers.

Resnik offers readers a method for weighing benefit and harm in a variety of situations, ranging from pesticide use, antibiotic resistance, nutrition policy, vegetarianism, and urban development to occupational safety, disaster preparedness, and global climate change. The book begins by describing the birth of the modern environmental movement inspired by Rachael Carson’s "Silent Spring" in 1962. The debate that ensued over the powerful insecticide DDT, Resnik explained, continues today and involves weighing important human benefits, increased crop yield, and the reduction of diseases transmitted through insects with harm to the environment from damage to wildlife and humans exposed through diet or direct contact.

Striving for a conceptual framework

In this kind of situational decision-making arena, Resnik argues, compromise among people with competing values and interests is essential and unavoidable. Absolute ethical principles give way, because ideological, economic, or religious ethical systems are more likely to alienate opponents than help them to find a middle ground, where competitors who cannot win entirely, at least can end up feeling they have achieved a fair amount of what they need and deserve.

“Another theme of the book is that human health and the environment put a new twist on some of the traditional questions of ethics,” Resnik wrote. These include issues of individual rights and the common good, the moral basis for government restrictions on property rights, and justice, all complicated by their intersection within the context of the environmental policy and environmental health. Within environmental health ethics, there are usually far more than two sides to every issue.

Into this multifaceted ethical battleground, Resnik introduces a conceptual framework that he applies to practical problems related to environmental health, which will be very familiar to readers whatever their background or interests. His goal is ambitious — to make possible decisions and policies, that are consistent and based on evidence and argument, open to public criticism.

Early reviews

Experts in the fields of environmental health and ethics have applauded Resnik’s insights into the complexities of balancing the benefits to human health and wellbeing with the integrity of the environment. “Resnik has written a wonderful introduction to the field of environmental health ethics,” wrote University of South Carolina professor of philosophy and ethics Kevin Elliott, Ph.D., “He supplies a wealth of information about the key ethical issues in the field, as well as the science that underlies those issues.”

Describing the new book as an invaluable instructional text, Tufts University professor of urban and environmental policy and planning Sheldon Krimsky, Ph.D., praised Resnik’s systematic approach. “I cannot think of a better book that applies ethics to public health and is informed by the best literature in both fields,” Krimsky wrote. “In his exceptionally lucid analysis, Resnik applies Aristotle's 'Doctrine of the Mean' to applied ethical problems in environmental health, by avoiding excess and deficiency in working out ethical dilemmas.”

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