Environmental Ethics
and Public Policy
Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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Ernest Partridge

Presented at the Conference: "The Ethics of Non-Violence"
USSR Academy of Sciences, Moscow, 27-29 November, 1989

Published in Russian in Этика Ненасилия, Акадамия Наук, СССР 
(The Ethics of Non-Violence), USSR Academy of Sciences, Moscow, 1991

Updated and expanded as "Swords into Plowshares,"  in The Crisis Papers.


On numerous occasions near the end of his Presidency, Ronald Reagan remarked that if the Earth were faced with a common threat of invasion from outer space, the United States and the Soviet Union would immediately set their differences aside and would form an alliance. Like so many of Mr. Reagan's sage observations, this comes from an earlier source. Bertrand Russell said as much in his Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech in 1950.  And the idea that alliances are only formed against a common threat is prominent in the thought of Hobbes and Machiavelli, and on back to the ancient Greeks.  Indeed, Thucydides reported such an alliance between the Athenians and the Spartans, facing an invasion by the Persians.

Common to all these observations is the assumption that the "common threat" is the armed force of an aggressor, and that the alliances disintegrate upon the defeat of the aggressor. Thus we hear today that if indeed the Cold War is truly over, ancient rivalries and feuds among the constituent nations of NATO and the Warsaw Pact might heat up once again, just as, with the defeat of the common Fascist enemy, a new global confrontation emerged over the wreckage of the old, while old enemies became allies and former allies became adversaries.

Space probes have now assured us that there will never be a Martian invasion. How then might the emerging detente be secured, if there is to be no common enemy? Must we look for new "enemies," or will common moral purpose and common human interest suffice to ensure global cooperation and peace?

In his 1950 Nobel Prize speech, Bertrand Russell offered an answer which is instructive, both in it's truth and in its error:

We love those who hate our enemies, and if we had no enemies there would be very few people whom we should love.

All this, however, is only true so long as we are concerned solely with attitudes towards other human beings. . . . You might regard Mother Nature in general as your enemy, and envisage human life as a struggle to get the better of Mother Nature.

Given the alarming news that is coming in from the Environmental Sciences, we would be well advised to regard Nature as a common threat. However, we would also be morally misguided to "regard Mother Nature in general as [our] enemy." Nature is not malicious or blameworthy. And yet, while nature is not a moral agent, it is, in an important yet figurative sense, about to launch a dreadful retaliation against us. For the atmospheric and ecological scientists tell us that the same physical, chemical and biological processes which nurtured and sustained us as a species, have been so distorted by our thoughtless interventions upon the environment, that we are about to face consequences that we can barely foresee or scarcely imagine.

No, nature is not our "enemy," nature is our Mother -- our source and our sustenance. And what nature is about to do to us, we will have done to ourselves by fouling our own nest. We have brought ourselves to this pass through our collective folly, and we must rescue ourselves through collective wisdom and restraint.

As the emergency is global, so too must be our response. And the gravity of the global emergency is such that it requires an international commitment and response sufficient to render obsolete and irrelevant, all remaining violent disputes among nations. For there is in fact no national interest which transcends in importance the common global interest in repairing and restoring ecological balance and securing common survival on a functioning planet. That's the simple fact of the matter. The fundamental question lies in our capacity to perceive, appreciate and act upon this fact of common environmental threat, and to see that this threat transcends any existing tribal feuds or national disputes.

Perhaps the gravest obstacle to this realization lies in the psychology of collective action, both violent and non-violent. Herein is the paradox that in times of war and violent confrontation, the adversaries both personalize and depersonalize their enemies. Nations, as entities, become personalized incarnations of evil. Ugly terms of ethnic disparagement, which would normally be regarded as crude and uncultivated, become the norm -- thus arise such epithets as "Hun," "Jap," "Yid," "Gook," "Commie," "Yanqui" and so on. And yet at the same time, citizens of the "enemy" country become depersonalized, as language becomes an early casualty of armed conflict: "free fire zone" means "shoot at anything that moves," "collateral damage" means "civilian casualties," and "termination with prejudice" is the sanitized word for "assassination."  Thus might atrocities be excused with such remarks as "they just do not value human life as we do," meaning "we do not value their human lives."

Another heavy moral price of armed conflict is the self-righteousness and self-congratulation of the mobilized nation, and along with this moral myopia, an enhanced toleration for the moral imperfections and injustices of one's own society and those of one's allies. These are regarded as "the necessary price we must pay for national defense." Thus, during the common struggle against Fascism, the Stalin regime never fully deserved the praise it received from my government. And in the Cold War which followed, the Soviet government, society and people never deserved the moral condemnation which it received from the American government and media. In short, in times of armed threat and conflict, our moral critical facilities are distorted by our alliances and our antagonisms. We become tolerant of repressive regimes with which we are allied, and intolerant of progressive regimes on "the other side. One side's "terrorist" is another side's "freedom fighter."

Now that the Soviet Union, under the courageous leadership of President Gorbachev, appears to be depriving us of our "enemy," we face the discomfort of acknowledging the economic injustice and communal squalor amidst private affluence at home. This is much more difficult for us, since we could formerly blame "the Evil Empire" for the perceived necessity of "national defense," and the consequent excuse of neglecting the poor and oppressed at home, and our future generations. Now, without an "Evil Empire," we must blame only ourselves for a continuation of these conditions. Few nations and communities are capable of such moral candor and resolution. Failing that, and urged on by a flourishing Military-Industrial complex, they go in search of new "enemies." So much easier to notice the mote in another's eye, and disregard the beam in our own.

How then might we be able to coordinate collective global efforts to restore the environment and to protect ourselves from the threats of coming climate changes [etc.], when the causes of these things are ourselves, and not an external malevolent "Evil Empire" -- when we must accept responsibility for our troubles, rather than blame others? Can we, under such circumstances, rally our moral enthusiasm sufficiently to meet these impersonal threats? In short, can cultural tolerance and good will exist within an alliance, if it is not cemented by collective animosity and conflict with an externally perceived rival power?

It is, of course, much easier to ask such questions than to answer them. But I would suggest at least this much:

Publics throughout the world must be made aware of this common global problem, by means of the advancing and very effective modes of technology of public relations, public education, and communications. We must constantly be reminded of what we are losing in the natural world, in order to be made aware of what is worth saving.

In juxtaposition, we should be shown what is being lost, and what are the threats. The fact should be emphasized that these threats do not recognize national boundaries. In other words, the environmental threat and challenge must become part of our global sub-conscious -- something that permeates our awareness, as the Cold War once did.

Electronic communications can be very useful toward this end. Global communications across "space bridges," telex and computer networking -- in short, the so-called "electronic revolution" is truly bringing about a single "global village."

We must constantly be reminded of the indivisibility of the global environmental crisis -- a lesson taught us by the science of Ecology. Thus the global solution will not be found through a summation of independent national initiatives. Accordingly, interdisciplinary and international joint ventures should be encouraged -- e.g., joint space exploration and global monitoring projects. The internationalization of such projects is of utmost importance.

Can such cooperative endeavors actually work? I submit that they already have. For example, the international debate on "nuclear Winter" provides a vivid example of how an international search for hard scientific facts, and the consequent perception of a common global threat, can lend itself to non-violent solutions. Hopefully, the ongoing "International Geosphere/Biosphere Project" of the International Council for Scientific Unions might have a similar result.

Projects, and even more careers, in environmental restoration must be generously subsidized by governments -- as weapons projects and military careers are now. These environmental programs should involve widespread international interchange and cooperation among researchers and students. In short, with a degree of determination, creativity and aggressiveness found in wartime propaganda, we must alert the global population to the common threat. Toward this end of furthering global knowledge, awareness and communication of the common threat, and of appropriate collective responses thereto, an international environmental university and research institute should be established, with working centers in each continent.

We should declare a global environmental amnesty. Assessing blame for past assaults on nature (may of them done in ignorance of their harmful effects), will only drain effort and attention to the daunting tasks ahead. Moreover, the very science and technology that has led to the fouling of the Earth, might provide the tools for its restoration.

The violence that we have done to nature threatens violent repercussions upon this culpable species. Our global response can only be non-violent, since nature will not respond to our threats, and nor be "defeated" through further violence upon it. If nature, now severely injured, is ultimately defeated, then so too shall we be defeated. The task before is that of reconciliation with nature and repair of it's life-support system. What remains to be seen is whether or not we can appropriately respond to an historically unique circumstance, unite before a common impersonal threat that is not a common "enemy." This must involve a re-evaluation of our received ethical norms, and a re-structuring of our political and economic institutions. It is a daunting task, and the outcome is uncertain. What is not uncertain is the necessity that we face this challenge with intelligence, ingenuity, determination and courage.

I close with this thought. In the Chinese language, the concept of "crisis" is written by combining the ideograms for "danger" and "opportunity." And in fact, crises can bring out both the best and the worst in us. In 1933 a global economic emergency brought both Adolph Hitler and Franklin Roosevelt to power. A war ensued which evoked acts of extreme barbarism and extreme heroism. While there is no indication how virtue and vice will balance out in the coming emergency, it is not too early to mobilize our moral forces to assure to most favorable balance.

While I have suggested an agenda of action in this paper, I am no more qualified to do so than anyone else in this room. So I will stop at this point, since, along with the rest of you, I would much prefer a collaborative effort. I therefore close simply with a re-iteration of my central question: If armed alliances are formed from a perception among allies of a common external threat of violence, can effective alliances likewise be formed to take effective non-violent joint action against a common environmental emergency -- a peril that is impervious to both to the threat and to the reality of violent action?

Copyright by Ernest Partridge, 1991


Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .