Environmental Ethics of Water Pollution

- Humitake Seki, Ph.D.
Institute of Biological Sciences, University of Tsukuba,
Tsukuba Science City 305, JAPAN
(Email: seki@biol.tsukuba.ac.jp)

Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 6 (1996), 163-4.
Since the days of the first religious books (for example in Japan, Ohno Asomi Yasumaro (712AD): The Ancient Chronicle of Japan (Kojiki); or the Bible (1000BC-300AD)The Good News Bible; American Bible Society, 1993), the Water was there at the Beginning when God created the universe. This is important from the biological point of view, because it was told to the people in the name of God by prophets firmly that "human life" could not be created in the absence of water. A prophet is also a philosopher who may reflect the ways of God. He starts telling about the creation of the universe with special reference to the origin of human beings.

At the beginning of Genesis in the Old Testament, we can see a sentence of "the Spirit of God was moving over the water". It seems to contain a special meaning in the thought of a perspective in Environmental Ethics of Water Pollution, i.e., before the creation of the Biosphere, the Noosphere (De Chardin, 1959) has been there!

On the sixth day of the world's creation, maybe about 600 million years ago, God has started to let the earth produce all kinds of animal life. Thereafter, as an evolutionary progress in anthropology while God was creating human beings, some modern philosophers, such as Hardy (1960), believe that human beings were more aquatic before learning to stand erect. This hypothesis states that we have descended from more aquatic ape-like ancestors who lived a few million years ago by giving rise to Australopithecus (2.5 million years ago). The hypothesis implies a special ecological meaning that water has contributed to the creation of human beings by God at the end of the sixth day of the world creation.

The first historical evidence that human beings introduced water pollution can be seen at the Chapter 7 of Exodus in the Bible. It is written that "Aaron raised his stick and struck the surface of the river, and all the water in it was turned into blood. The fish in the river died, and it smelled so bad that the Egyptians could not drink from it". This first documentation of human perturbation of the natural aquatic environment did not cause the anger of God, unlike Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit, because Moses and Aaron did it as God commanded.

Such an anthropogenic water pollution has been permissible, as Ezekiel the priest, son of Buzi, heard a voice of God talking "wherever the stream flows, there will be all kinds of animals and fish". This scientific implication is nothing but the enhancement of water purification by microbial activity with the water movement. This kind of natural purification in the aquatic environment seems to be working well until the ages of the Greeks and Romans, even though they had hygienic systems by building their baths and lavatories over or near running water. The public heath standards then fell towards the Medieval and during Renaissance periods, and human habitations in Europe resembled pig sties, with places like steps and corners used as lavatories and the refuse was thrown into streets. By the mid-nineteenth century, with the increase of human populations in towns as a result of the industrial revolution, the anthropogenic pollution load became greater than the natural purification potential in a local scale. According to the description of Postgate (1992) of this situation, "the Thames, by 1860, had become a vast open sewer, with the rain-washed refuse of London flowing into it". Diseases such as typhoid and cholera were widespread then.

However, by the effort of artificial water purification of the Thames, at present it recovers to an environmental standard where salmon can return back for their anadromous migration. Moreover, it is calculated that London water has passed through an average of seven sets of kidneys before it is drunk, because of the development of tap water system in London. While we were in the age of minor anthropogenic perturbation to the nature, the natural purification on a local or global scale took place while water is cycling in the biosphere as described in the Ecclesiastes 1: 7, as "every river flows into the sea, but the sea is not yet full. The water returns to where the rivers began, and starts all over again". The water cycle in the biosphere has been determined scientifically, as the same manner as that has been shown in the Bible, with definite evidence that the natural self-purification (Seki, 1992) in the global scale is now facing a crisis without every additional effort of artificial purification. Hence, human beings have to interfere evidently in the natural process of water purification in the steady-state equilibrium of the biosphere that should be the domain of God as described as "wherever the stream flows, it will bring life" at the Ezekiel 47: 9 of the Bible.

The biogenic pollution of the present age brought about by human beings that might cause the anger of God resulting in catastrophe to destroy plant and animal lives in the global scale is shown not to be the first in the biogeological history of the biosphere. Upon consumption of organic nutrients that had been accumulated by being synthesized through physico-chemical processes, such as experimentally shown by Miller (1955), a group of primitive creatures have been gifted or acquired the capability of bio-synthesizing organic nutrients by themselves.

This autotrophic capability may be chemosynthesis at the first evolutionary step. The new group should have only favourable contribution of organic nutrient supply to anaerobic heterotrophs which comprised the conventional community of primitive creatures. Once this capability evolved up to photosynthesis, its by-product (i.e., oxygen gas) contaminated the anoxic environment and eventually induced the global scale massacre of the primitive creatures. As the primitive respiratory metabolism evolved when the oxygen level had arisen up to 1% of its present value, new groups of creature (i.e., microaerophiles and aerobes) with more efficient metabolisms (i.e., respiration) took over the primitive creature with fermentation metabolism. With oxygen gas available for an electron acceptor, these aerobes were able to obtain much more energy from the metabolism of oxidizing organic compounds than anaerobes could. Once more energy could be made available, higher population densities could develop, by increasing the chances for the evolving new groups or new species, leading to earlier appearance of eucaryotic microbes and from them eventually higher plant and animal lives.

An attempt has been made by Parsons (1979) to offer an evolutionary explanation of differences in the community structure in the natural marine ecosystems without anthropogenic perturbation from the Cambrian to the present. Evidence offered in this respect is taken largely from the fossil record, but the explanation of how the different systems evolved relies on the knowledge of energy requirement of each community. It can be summarized that the evolutionary changes in the properties of the phytoplankton result in a higher form of energy being available to the herbivores, and subsequently for the more advanced form of top predators, from jellyfish to fish and finally mammals.

However, it has been shown by the mesocosm experiments that more advanced forms of marine life are more susceptible to the anthropogenic pollutants. This suggests that progression of the human perturbation of aquatic ecosystems endanger more evolved aquatic species to realize a retrogressive process of evolution. The biogenic pollution by human beings, hence, will not bring about higher diversities of plant and animal life but it may only cause the anger of God resulting in catastrophe to destroy plant and animal life in a global scale.

New plant and animal species develop to replace older ones. This has happened very slowly over millions of years through evolution. However, the species are becoming extinct 1,000 times faster than they did before human appeared, according to the analysis of UNESCO. Thus, biogenic pollution by human beings becomes to face the critical stage beyond its prevention, every urgent protection of endangered species in the polluted environments is required from their extinction.

Only a promising disposal to rescue the endangered species may be through conferring resistance to inhibitors by the way of appropriate application of genetic engineering, although quite a few thinkers claim that the genetic engineering is in the domain of God. Not only for the enhancement of evolution becomes more rapid, but also genetic engineering could be a tool in the modern society having a function as that of the boat of Noah in the days of the Bible.

In the concluding chapter of his book The Biology of God, Sir Alister Hardy (1975) has described a long but most impressive sentence as follows: "Think in what ways one might oneself do something to this end ("Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done..."), even in quite small ways. Improvements in the world are brought about through the actions of men and women and not by miraculous Divine interventions in the course of nature; yet again and again those who altered the world for the better have declared that they have felt that they have received help from beyond themselves: "it is God working through me", they have said. And he added a short summarizing sentence with an impact meaning of "God works wonders in the world - but his hands are the hands of men." Could we refer to this oracle for the ethical justification of genetic engineering?


De Chardin, P. T. (1959): The Phenomenon of Man. Harper & Row, New York. 320pp.
Hardy, A. (1975): The Biology of God. Jonathan Cape Ltd, London. 238pp.
Miller, S. L. (1955): Production of some organic compounds under possible primitive earth condition. J. Am. Chem. Soc. 77: 2351-2361.
Parsons, T. R. (1979): Some ecological, experimental and evolutionary aspects of the upwelling ecosystem. South Afr. J. Sci., 75: 536-540.
Postgate, J. (1992): Microbes and Man. Third edition. Cambridge University Press, 297pp.
Seki, H. (1992): Microbial uptake kinetics in Pacific coastal waters of different degrees of eutrophication. Sci. Total Environ., Suppl. 1992: 957-972.

Editor - unfortunately due to limitations of space we were not able to reproduce the numerous pictures and figures used by Prof. H. Seki in this paper.

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