As political critique, environmentalism claims the moral high ground and commands us to look beyond the economic gains of the exploitation of natural resources to the effect of this exploitation on the wider community, and beyond short-term profit to the fate of future generations. The argument is couched in terms of survival - of both us and the planet -the seriousness of which is intended as legitimation. If environmentalism is a matter of life and death, then who among us would choose death, the death of oneself as well as others? This formulation throws into immediate relief the ambiguous relation between self-interest and altruism that lies at the centre of environmental ethics, as it is at the centre of Judeo-Christian ethics. 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you' - the ancient command to altruism is already couched in terms of self-interest.
Environmental ethics' claim to universal validity rests on a view of the human-as-embodied contained within a physically sustaining system (nature). As we all share this condition, whatever our cultural differences, we are all equally obligated to protect that which physically sustains us. This obligation, with a nod at Marx, takes the form of 'to each according to their needs, from each according to their use of nature'. The legitimacy of this value system rests, not in transcendence, but on that which such transcendence sought to deny: our animality. From this animality is generated a new transcendence, a moral duty that stands above the self-interest of individuals, corporations and nation states. Such claims to legitimation are far from the Aristotelian concept of ethical claims located within the specific community that formulates them. On purely material grounds, such differentiation is untenable on the level of survival: there is not a community on earth that is not sustained by the earth. Environmentalism, however, recognizes that the particular is as important as the universal, and that the whole is made up of highly differentiated parts, culturally as well as materially. Any new ethical contract between nature and culture will therefore require similarly varied interpretations, and different responses from different societies and different classes - essentially very different duties of care from the 'haves' and the 'have nots'. Despite this disparity in degrees of responsibility, however, the immense diversity of forms of social relationship and technical means by which humans interact with external nature...should not blind us to the vulnerability of each of those various socio-natural forms to ecological constraints (Benton, 1993: 174).
There are two main obstacles to an acceptance of such an environmental ethics. The first is the debate over the reliability of the science that frames environmental degradation in terms of impending catastrophe. The second is the resistance of nation states to thinking universally. National self-interest was much in evidence at the 1998 Kyoto summit, at which developed nations like the United States sought to exempt themselves from any reduction in their own fossil fuel consumption by trading it off against the lower consumption of developing nations, much to the fury of those developing nations. (Nor does the export of cleaner technologies to developing nations let developed countries off the hook. The latter still need to contribute to a reduction of greenhouse gases as well. The buck cannot be passed to other (weaker) nations.) This refusal to think globally is a refusal to be bound by the universality of environmental ethics, to take responsibility for one's material production and consumption. Other priorities are paraded as ethical commitments in defence of this refusal, for example a commitment to preserving existing jobs. In so far as the employees themselves demand this, it is credible. The same rhetoric in the mouths of their employers suggests a slightly different reading: the preservation of existing corporate entities and their profits.
What is true of nations is equally true of individuals. Although severely restricted in membership, the polis of ancient Greek democracy was the communal bedrock upon which both Platonic and Aristotelian ethics were built. To be a 'good man' in ancient Greece was not to be good in some absolute sense, but to fulfil satisfactorily the role to which one was assigned by the polis (MacIntyre, 1996). In other words, acceptable norms of behaviour towards others were determined by the group, and by the nature of one's position within that group. This model finds little echo in late-twentieth-century democracies, in which citizenship has been replaced by consumerism, and the citizen, with responsibilities as well as rights, replaced by the private individual pursuing private happiness. Like the nation state, the individuals who belong to it perceive the ethical imperatives of environmentalism as a threat to their pursuit of happiness, as that happiness is defined by consumerism. On one level, the happiness of consumerism bears an interesting similarity to the happiness of the ancient Greek concept of virtue, in that both imply a certain material well-being. 'Aristotle's use of this word reflects the strong Greek sense that virtue and happiness, in the sense of prosperity, cannot be entirely divorced' (MacIntyre, 1995: 59). So that to be virtuous is to live well, not only morally, but materially. Consumerism is, however, material happiness run riot. It has broken the limits that prevented it from overtaxing the physical world that is its foundation.
The Aristotelian link between the public and the private good, however, was broken long before. In Du Contrat Social (1762), Rousseau was already noting the need to reconstitute institutions that were failing to encourage citizenship in an increasingly atomized society (MacIntyre, 1995: 187). In the late twentieth century, an entire generation in Britain has grown up under Margaret Thatcher's neo-conservative dictum, 'There is no such thing as society'. To this denial of the existence of and need for social cohesion, environmental ethics, like socialism, is implacably opposed. It recognizes both the general concept of 'society', particularly with reference to a global community of interests common to us as a species, and the reality of many different societies with differing interests. It is just this ability to straddle the universal and the particular, the global and the individual, which excites such hostility in certain quarters, for environmental ethics address the individual as directly as they do the state. Responsibility is inescapable. Owning a car, throwing out instead of recycling, not insulating one's roof, all these small domestic acts of defiance carry ethical as well as financial implications, regardless of the state's position.
This is not, however, to diminish the importance of the state within environmental thinking. It is often cast as the enemy, protecting vested interests against grass roots environmental pressure groups. In this 'bottom-up' model, to be environmentally ethical is to be anti-establishment, whether in the form of 'tree-huggers' or the more mainstream Friends of the Earth. And yet the aim of 'bottom-up' lobbying and agitation is very often to provoke 'top-down' change, to pressure the government to legislate for the environmentally ethical, so that those who ignore or resist its requirements are compelled to conform. This is very much the Platonic model. Those who do not choose the good, and they are the majority, have it chosen for them. Sceptics object that no individual or group can know the good better than another, let alone dictate its observance, but the empirical evidence of environmental science makes environmentalism's calls to moral responsibility more compelling than those of its Platonic predecessors, and their referral to some undemonstrable transcendence.
This poses an interesting problem. If at present the ethical is, to some extent at least, socially constituted, that is, if it arises from established social norms, how does one justify the demand to change those norms? On what basis is it possible, since demands for change necessarily stand outside the legitimating power of speaking from inside the establishment? The answer, for Marx, was to address those 'wants and needs which are unsatisfiable within the existing society, wants and needs which demand a new social order' (MacIntyre, 1995: 213). In the case of animal rights, for example, not only are the wants and needs different from those conventionally identified as ours, but the constituencies doing the needing are different as well: species other than our own. If the overriding desire of consumerism is to have, that of environmental-ism is to have fairly, as regards both human beings and the biosphere. It is a having that does not harm constituencies in either society or nature. In contrast to socialism, environmentalism casts this fairness more in terms of health than social justice, but as Benton (1993) reminds us, universal health is a form of social justice. The wants and needs of certain sectors of society have already been articulated by socialism, communism, and even Christianity. The wants and needs of the biosphere - and the future human and non-human generations dependent upon it - had not been articulated until environmentalism.
How, then, does one persuade those who either cannot see there is a moral choice to be made, or, even more difficult, can see it but refuse to make it? Some of us are endowed with more 'good will' than others. That is, some of us are quite happily inclined towards the ethical, either because we have a greater capacity for altruism (according to neo-
Darwinians, in order to improve our chances of survival), or because we are empathetic enough to genuinely embrace the dictum 'Do as you would be done by', or because we have been effectively inculcated with 'our duty' from an early age. Others of us struggle between 'inclination and duty'. Still others follow their inclinations without conscience.
For political ecologists our universal duty is clear: we have to change our priorities and consequently our behaviour. Those capable of recognizing this duty will embrace it, both in their private lives, and in their lives as citizens. That is, they will do what they can in the everyday world, and campaign for leaders who also recognize this duty. If such a political change comes to pass, then those unable or unwilling to recognize this environmental imperative will be subject to some form of compulsion, financial and/or legal. They will, in other words, be induced to imitate the ethical behaviour they are incapable of freely choosing. Champions of laissez-faire economics condemn any such attempt to regulate producers' and consumers' behaviour as 'environmental fascism'. If one believes the environmental analysis of our present position is correct, then such epithets make about as much sense as calling the rule of law 'judicial fascism', in that those who do not choose to are compelled to observe the laws of the land or face the consequences. If one does not believe the environmental analysis of our present position, then it is quite easy to view environmentalism's moral imperative as self-righteous hectoring. With scientific evidence3 mounting daily in confirmation of global warming, however, it becomes increasingly difficult to present individual or national resistance as rational.
Was this article helpful?
You Might Just End Up Spending More Time In Planning Your Greenhouse Than Your Home Don’t Blame Us If Your Wife Gets Mad. Don't Be A Conventional Greenhouse Dreamer! Come Out Of The Mould, Build Your Own And Let Your Greenhouse Give A Better Yield Than Any Other In Town! Discover How You Can Start Your Own Greenhouse With Healthier Plants… Anytime Of The Year!