The daily news tells us of nasty fraternal wars in Rwanda,
Bosnia, Chechniya, and elsewhere -- bloody disputes over who "owns"
what piece of land, and where to draw boundary lines on the earth between the
Yet we all take our life's breath from the common atmosphere,
and the weather which brings our life-sustaining rain, heedless of those
boundaries, is regulated by our common ocean. (The singular noun is
deliberate: the conventional pluralization, "oceans," reflects yet
more artificial divisions which we impose upon a unified planet). Because
the life of our planet is supported by a unified system (some say an
"organism" -- Gaia), the protection and renewal of that
life-support system by the planet's only reflective, deliberate and morally
responsible species (homo sapiens) must be consistent, coherent and global in
scope. No longer can we say to unfortunate Earthlings on the opposite side
of the planet, "I'm OK, but neighbor, your end of the lifeboat is
Yet the singular planetary ecosystem supports a myriad of
cultures, languages and religions -- which is to say, a rich diversity of often
contrary and conflicting beliefs regarding humanity's place in, and
responsibility toward, the natural estate. Can a consensus of belief,
opinion and evaluation arise from this diversity that might sustain a global
effort to protect and renew the threatened planetary ecosystem? Are we
capable of a shared code of responsibility toward nature and the remote future,
sufficient to guide and motivate an appropriate global environmental
policy? In short, is a global environmental ethic possible?
If there is to be a global environmental ethic, there must first be a global community to support and sustain it. So we must first address the question of the possibility of a global environmental community.
By a "global environmental community" I intend, not a unanimity of opinion, but what might be called an "operative consensus" of membership and belief. A paradigm exists today in the United States if only as an ideal. Here, each citizen has a clear sense of belonging to the national political community. Furthermore, two political philosophies "the social contract," as articulated in the Declaration of Independence, and "the primacy of human rights," as codified in the Declaration and the Bill of Rights serve as the foundational beliefs within which our political debates take place. Accordingly, such doctrines as "the divine right of Kings" or suppression of religious belief are regarded as beyond the pale of serious discourse.
A "political consensus" such as we enjoy in the US need not be unanimous sometimes, strange to say, not even a majority. For instance, a large majority of citizens, when asked, will enthusiastically endorse the Bill of Rights. Yet, when some of the bills (e.g.,
regarding habeas corpus, search and seizure or self-incrimination) have been rephrased, then presented in a public opinion survey with the preface, "would you like this to be the law of the land," a majority have often chosen the negative. For purposes of public policy, a consensus among the "elites" will often override majority dissent among the masses: witness the case of the theory of evolution, which, some surveys indicate, is accepted by only a minority of Americans.
Yet it is the "elite consensus" which dictates the curriculum of the
Having identified the relevant "community," we next
turn to a definition of the term "environmental ethic." That
term has two significantly distinct interpretations. The first is what
moral philosophers would call a "metaethical" interpretation, whereby
we simply inquire as to the possibility of a global consensus among elites regarding
some general conception and doctrine regarding human responsibility to nature and the remote future, without identifying any particular ethical content to that doctrine. The second interpretation of the title question, the "normative,"
identifies such a doctrine -- for instance, "anthropocentrism" (nature
for humanity's benefit), "land ethic" (respect for the community
of nature), or "deep ecology" (affirmation of all natural
processes combined with distrust of all human interference with these
processes). Clearly, the more specific the doctrine, the less likely would be a global consensus. Thus, for example, I would suspect that a global conversion to Deep Ecology is about as probable as a global conversion to Islam or Roman Catholicism.
The metaethical sense of "environmental ethic" is
uninformative, since it refers to any world-wide code of responsibility to
nature, whatever its content may be. Extreme normative forms are also
unacceptable: anthropocentrism, because it is arguably the environmental ethic
which has brought us and our planet to its unhappy condition; and deep ecology,
because, given the current state of technological end economic development, its
universal adoption is beyond the realm of possibility. (Elsewhere, I have
presented normative arguments against both extreme position. However, that
is not the task of this paper). Accordingly, by a "global
environmental ethic," I mean a code of responsibility to nature that can
lad to an affirmation and preservation (and perhaps expansion) of what natural
estate remains, and which seeks a sustainable mode of life of our species within
a flourishing global ecosystem. This conception excludes short-term, anthropocentric, preference utilitarianism of the sort that is entailed by classical political-economic theory, and it excludes the sort of so-called "national interest" realpolitik that drives most foreign policies. Positively, this general normative environmental ethics recognizes an intrinsic value of flourishing ecosystems, unified by a global biosphere, and it acknowledges a responsibility to preserve this biosphere for the use and enjoyment of remotely future generations. These two essential tenets of responsibility to nature and to the future entail constraints upon individual human conduct and upon collective policies.
So our question comes to this: Is a global environmental ethic, roughly analogous in its function to the political ethic in the United States, and articulating a responsibility to nature and the future is such an ethic possible? And this requires first that we address the question, is a single global environmental community of scholarly, scientific, media and political elite, with sufficient consensus of opinion to institute collective policies to preserve, conserve and restore the environment, a realistic possibility.
I will focus my attention upon "the community of the elites," mindful
that I am setting aside he arguably larger question of the underlying economic,
social and cultural factors that move peoo0les and institutions, and with which
these "elites" must come to terms if they are, in fact, to
"lead" at all. But that is the subject of another paper, written from
the perspective of a different discipline.
Having gone to all this trouble defining the issue, you may be surprised to learn that I am quite pessimistic. I suspect that the achievement of such a community and an ethic is highly unlikely in the short term, and that humanity probably does not have the luxury of a long-term to achieve it. However, given the alternative to seeking a global environmental community and ethic, I believe that conscientious and informed environmental scholars and activists have no moral alternative to making the attempt.
The very notion of a global community raises a familiar objection: "Where is the common threat, that is to forge this alliance?" In his 1950 Nobel Prize Speech, Bertrand Russell described the problem with characteristic clarity and wit:
If you are English and someone says to you: "The French are your brothers," your first instinctive feeling will be: "Nonsense, they shrug their shoulders and talk French. And I am even told that they eat frogs." If he explains to you that we may have to fight the Russians, that, if so, it will be desirable to defend the line of the Rhine, and that, if the line of the Rhine is to be defended, the help of the French is essential, you will begin to see what he means when he says that the French are your brothers. But if some fellow-traveler were to go on to say that the Russians also are your brothers, he would be unable to persuade you, unless he could show that we are in danger from the Martians.
Now that we know that there are no Martians, what can possibly enlisting warring nations into a common purpose? Russell's answer is instructive, both in its truth and 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 both tactically and 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.
A world environmental community, if it is to emerge, will do so through multi-national institutions now in place and rapidly developing plus a sizable investment, through media and education, in the task of alerting the population to our common peril.
There are three such institutions worthy of note: the first two offer significant resources for building a global environmental community and ethic; the third, quite bluntly, is on balance the enemy, which must be confronted and contained. These institutions are, respectively, international science,
the global electronic and information network, and multinational commerce. As we shall see, these three institutions are closely interrelated.
The international character of science is well known. It follows from the essential structure and discipline, dare we say the "morality," of the scientific enterprise: namely, objectivity, publicity, replicability, and openness to peer review. Demonstrative competence, rather than nationality, is the ticket of admission to this global community. And it is a community being drawn ever closer by the simultaneous expansion of international publication, the contraction of access and travel time, and the abundance of pre-doctoral students and post-doctoral fellows working abroad. The remarkable growth of international scientific databases such as Dialog, and of computer networks such as the
internet, has further enhanced the international scope of this community as it has eroded the national barriers. It has also advanced the de facto establishment of the emerging international language: English. (We will have more to say about this shortly).
At the same time, micro-specialization can tear asunder what the global village has joined together. Thus a colleague in an adjoining office of a departmental suite may know less of each scientist's work than a specialist on the opposite side of the world.
Of special interest to our topic is the international community of life scientists. If, as most of us believe, the fundamental principles of ecology, and their implications regarding the natural sources and sustenance of
homo sapiens, are based upon sound scientific research and concepts, then these truths are known independently wherever there are universities and working scientists which is to say, virtually throughout the world.
As a result, the ecological concerns of biologists are expressed in a language that is virtually indistinguishable by place of origin. For example, the conversation between the Swede, Rolf Edberg, and the Russian, Alexei Yablokov, in their book
Tomorrow Will Be Too Late, could easily have taken place between two Americans at the World Watch Institute or the Natural Resources Defense Council. And the publications of the Russian
Goskomprirodi (State Committees on Nature) are identical in style, though graver in content, to those of the EPA.
All this enhances the prospects for a global environmental ethic. For such an ethic must rest upon a foundation of factual understanding of the interdependence of life forms, of the life community with its abiotic environment, and of the human dependence on the biosphere. Recall that the "Land Ethic" arose out of Aldo Leopold's theoretical scientific knowledge, and his practical experience as an applied scientist and land owner. Moreover, it arose with such force, that it pushed aside his earlier aversion to "varmint species" and his youthful confidence in the "manageability" of nature.
Yet, while a familiarity with, and appreciation for, bio-science is necessary for a global environmental ethic, it is not sufficient. Unfortunately, relatively few working scientists seem to appreciate this meta-fact. And herein lies a fundamental obstacle to the emergence of a global environmental ethic: the naturalistic fallacy the tendency of the scientific community to regard public policy questions as "merely technical" and "value-free." The
naivetι of many scientists toward ethics derives, in no small part, from what I would call "Maslow's syndrome:" i.e., that "to a carpenter, all problems can be solved with a hammer." Attempts to counter that syndrome can invite nasty repercussions. Thus those of us who suggest that all policy problems cannot be solved by science, and that there is a fundamental distinction between "is statements" and "ought statements," are often dismissed as "unscientific," and are thus tossed, by our critics, into the company of gurus, mystics, psychics and creationists.
The Myth of "Value-Free Policy Science."
The familiar claim that "science is value free," is a half-truth. The truthful half resides in the fact that the
content of science is value neutral by design. The false half is countered by an awareness that the
activity and to be sure the consequences of science are steeped in value.
The very notion of a "value-free policy science" is oxymoronic, since policy, at the very least, involves informed choice among alternative futures, which will variably affect the welfare and the rights of persons, now and in the future. This defines the activity as an irreducibly moral enterprise, beyond the scope of economic policy study. For cogent moral decisions are not to be obtained by measuring markets, by totaling up prices, both real and "shadow," and thus attempting to assess the value of public enterprises by asking the hypothetical consumer, "what are you willing to pay?" -- e.g., for a well-ordered society, for wilderness, for clean air, for education, etc. The pointlessness of such a question can be readily appreciated as we imagine that hypothetical consumer replying: "I'll tell you how much I am willing to pay, once I decide (on non-economic grounds) what it is (normatively) worth." To that challenge, the economist and life scientist has no answer within his discipline not because he hasn't looked hard enough, but because such an answer is logically excluded.
The economic cost-benefit approach is also undone by equally fundamental considerations, familiar to us all. (a) some "values" are in fact
inversely proportional to our willingness to pay for them: e.g., love and friendship. (b) other values are quite irrelevant to costs: e.g., the value of scientific validation and the weight of evidence (economists argue their theories in scholarly publications, not at auctions, and an attempt to buy a jury verdict is a crime). (c) "Commons problems" which are brought about by the decisions of independent private consumers, are soluble through collective "mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon." (d) Individuals are motivated, not only as consumers, but also as citizens, religious communicants, and intellectuals i.e., in behalf of religions, nation states, or even moral ideals. (Because such motives are not aimed at "personal utility maximization," classical economic theory identifies them as
As private individuals, scientists, by and large, seem no more virtuous or wicked than ordinary folk. (Alas, the same can be said for philosophers). Moral insight and courage amongst scientists runs the gamut from Andrei Sakharaov to Edward Teller which is roughly the same gamut amongst mortals in general. And like ordinary mortals, scientists tend to be remarkably naive about moral philosophy, and particularly about metaethics. And this is the worst kind of
naivetι, since they are rarely aware of it. It is the responsibility of moral philosophers and other humanist scholars to remedy this incapacity. Trouble is, those with an unacknowledged need to be roused from their dogmatic slumbers, tend to be hostile toward those who would do the rousing. Witness the fate of Socrates.
THE GLOBAL VILLAGE
"The global village," predicted by Marshall McLuhan thirty years ago, has become a reality, as I have discovered from personal experience.
The graphic immediacy of the media leads policy: When CNN speaks, Washington listens. Video images of mass starvation led us into Somalia, and video images of mutilated soldiers took us out. CNN giveth and CNN taketh away.
And it does so worldwide. The CNN World Report is as good as its name. Thus I've seen the familiar faces of staff reporters and anchors on that program in Helsinki, Moscow and Kyoto.
Video coverage is literally more real than reality. On a rainy morning in 1991, I walked across the square in front of the Russian parliament building. Ten days later, at my home in California, I turned on the TV to see Boris Yeltsin, at that same spot, addressing a crowd atop a tank. Some of my friends were in that crowd. Yet millions of my compatriots and I on this side of the globe had immediate information on what was going on. In Moscow, they didn't have a clue -- unless, of course, they were tuned into
CNN, the cameras of which were ideally situated atop a building across the
Moscow river on Kutusov Prospect.
Immediate electronic communication among ordinary citizens extends throughout the globe. Recently, my College hosted a small delegation of Russian researchers and students. In preparing for this trip, we exchanged dozens of e-mail messages at an insignificant cost. Replies within hours were routine.
American teen culture and paraphernalia is conspicuous throughout the world. Four years ago, I saw an exquisite program of native Buryat music and dancing at Ulan-Ude in eastern Siberia. Two days later, at a makeshift disco at a conference on the shore of Lake Baikal, I danced to rock music with the same young performers.
Over the past few decades, domestic broadcasting has muted regional linguistic differences. The southern drawl is fading and "Brooklynese" has virtually disappeared. The implications of international broadcasting are clear. Because of this trend, compounded by the aforementioned internationalization of science and commerce, an international language is at last emerging. Let's face it, that language is English. Any other natural language could have managed as well, but ours was there "the firstest with the mostest."
The implications are clear: Despite the breakout of tribal warfare, as in Russia and Yugoslavia, and barring an imminent global ecological-economic collapse, there will be a greater, though incomplete, global homogenization of culture and language.
Thus the prospects of promulgating, if only tacitly, some sort of global political, social and environmental ethic for better or worse is virtually irresistible. But the results of
laissez-faire, "damned the side-effects," "business as usual" activity by the media and international commerce, will almost surely be for the worst.
We have been taught that lesson already. In the US, and more recently abroad (e.g., Moscow), an unintended international youth culture and ethic has emerged from the explicit objective of commerce: selling the product. We are likely to continue the mistake, as international commercial media proceed with the "Coca-Colonialization" of the second and third worlds. The message will be, "go for the gusto" (short-term returns) high-waste high energy life-style. But given our domestic experience, this time we don't have the excuse of not knowing the moral and ecological side-effects of such a message.
Yes, there will be a global political-social-environmental ethic emerging from all this. But if it is accepted, passively, by default, as a result of international business-as-usual, the earth will get the back of the invisible hand, for this will be an ethic that will trash the biosphere and sacrifice the future. Only thoughtful intervention by the scientific and educational community, via national governments and international agencies, can avoid this result.
"The public be damned," Cornelius Vanderbilt is said to have remarked, "I work for my stockholders." That, in a nutshell, summarizes the ecological problem of the multi-national corporation. The stockholders want return on investment: secure, substantial and soon. And if one firm will not provide all this, they will sell out and invest in another firm that will. That's what we call "the free market."
The results are inescapable:
Values are commensurated by the common denominator of cash -- a non-moral value. Thus moral values such as justice and compassion, and the sanctity of the individual are at best derivative, and at worst, excluded from "realistic" consideration.
The future is discounted. This follows directly from the monetization of values.
Short-term gain is preferred over long-term advantage a consequence of the discounting of the future.
The interests of stockholders are favored over that of stakeholders. (The "externality problem")
Commerce requires return on investment, and this means that constant economic growth is essential. (What Edward Abbey called "the ideology of the cancer cell")
The natural environment is viewed as a "resource" -- as an extrinsic, rather than an intrinsic, good.
The "free market" favors the wealthy, since "willingness to pay" is a function of ability to pay. Excluded from the market are infants, animals, ecosystems and future generations.
Commerce leads to a corruption of intellectual capacity as
(a psychological process) is favored over demonstration (a logical norm). Consider the case of the tobacco industry. And note too how the "science" of public relations and the techniques of commercial advertising have captured our political discourse.
Is multinational capitalism the worst sort of political-economic device for protecting the global environment, except, to paraphrase Churchill, for all the rest?
Consider the alternative: With the fall of the Soviet Union we have found, in that vast territory, even more environmental devastation than we have caused in our own. This result apparently follows from the rule that "that which belongs to everyone is the responsibility of no one." The Soviet experience has also taught us that a free market in public careerism and corruption can be quite as corrosive to the ecosystem as a free market struggle for personal wealth.
At the same time, we should not lose sight of the obvious strengths and advantages of the capitalist system. It has proven itself the most productive source of technical innovation and entrepreneurial initiative, albeit driven by greed. And business, with its insatiable appetite for expertise and applied intelligence, subsidizes technical research , and therefore applied science, and therefore pure science.
But like it or not, international commerce is a force that cannot be overcome. However it is a force which might, through well engineered "policy Judo," be redirected to benign purposes. For example, commercial advertising might be taxed to support "counter-advertising," as in the case of tobacco ads, and also to support education in critical thinking and propaganda analysis.
But most of all, we must overcome the vastly oversold bugaboo against "big government regulation." For in fact, government interventions are often essential to good business. For example, in the 19th century, the government gave large tracts of land to the railroads to encourage expansion to the West, and the fledgling broadcast industry petitioned the federal government to establish the FCC to assign and regulate the broadcast spectrum. Total abolition of government regulation leads to chaos and the "commonization" of environmental resources, followed by a "tragedy of the commons." Conversely, individual firms will readily agree to regulations in the common interest, which, due to competitive pressures, they would not (and could not) agree to innovate alone. E.g., safety regulations, minimum wages, pollution controls. No one doubts that the complex competitive activity of professional football and baseball would be impossible without referees and umpires. Why then the big fuss over the necessity of regulating the far more complex enterprise of competitive commerce?
(See our "Kill the Umpire,"
"Mr. DeLay Goes to Washington,"
"The bottom line," (to adopt a phrase dear to the financiers) is simply this:
There is no prosperity on a ruined planet. Promote this maxim the status of an axiom of the thought-structure of international commerce and finance, then require a scrupulous attention to its implications, and the entire policy and practice of that global institution would be revolutionized and, who knows, eventually become ecologically benign. But don't count on it. Might as well expect the CEO of Phillip Morris to admit that cigarettes cause lung cancer. Never underestimate the power of denial, when personal self-interest is at stake.
TOWARDS A GLOBAL ENVIRONMENTAL ETHIC
Each of these three international institutions have features that threaten to subvert humanistic culture, to despoil the natural environment, and to leave a wasteland for future generations. In particular:
"Value free" science gives credence to the notion that we should develop and follow a "value-free policy science" (rooted in economic cost-benefit analysis). Such a so-called science will, in fact, be heavily burdened with unexamined, but highly questionable, ethical presuppositions, resulting in a short-term, utilitarian and anthropocentric environmental ethic.
International commercial news media, left to their own
laissez-faire devices, will lead to highly consumptive and polluting policies and practices throughout the world, thus hastening the collapse of the earth's life-support system. The expansion of instantaneous global communications networks will work to the advantage of those best able to pay for their use: namely, multinational commercial enterprises.
International commerce is geared to favor private stockholders over public stakeholders, short-term returns over long-term benefits, and non-moral cash values over moral values. Moreover, multi-national corporations treat the natural environment as an extrinsic "resource" value, rather than an intrinsic value, and they treat individual human beings as "human resources" rather than autonomous moral agents.
All this is likely to come about if these international institutions, fated to formulate our common future, are allowed to blindly manifest their internal mechanisms, unguided and unmanaged by informed and humane policy. On the other hand, with such policy, each institution can serve to restore and secure our endangered planetary life-support system, and thus give our species a future worth looking forward to. In particular:
Science exhibits an operational morality, what Jacob Bronowski called a "habit of truth," that seeks out, recognizes and cherishes verifiable fact wherever it is discovered, regardless of the culture of origin. Such intellectual discipline is essential to ecological renewal. Furthermore, the biological sciences, and ecology in particular, provide the essential scientific foundation to an ecological morality: an ethic of responsibility to nature and the future. Accordingly, generous support to scientific research and education is essential to our common future. But this education must be supplemented with an education in "meta-science" a study of the nature and the limitations, in particular the ethical and policy-making limitations, of the scientific enterprise.
The opportunities for instant and comprehensive world-wide communication and education is unprecedented, as it continues to expand exponentially. Thus the means are both available and expanding, by which we can alert the worldwide community, first of elites, and then the masses, of the common environmental emergencies which we have brought upon ourselves. But this advantage will only be realized if we regard the communications revolution, first, as a resource and weapon for the global struggle ahead, and much less as a commodity to be utilized for private gain.
The quest for private gain must be tied to the common struggle for planetary renewal not an easy task, to say the least. The bugaboo against "big government regulation" must be overcome, and soon, as multi-national corporations come to recognize global commons, and consent to a regulation thereof for the common good. External costs must be internalized again, how else, but by government regulation? (Libertarians suggest by courts and torts a suggestion that invites rebuttals that I can't go into here).2
Somehow, perhaps by a tax structure, long-term payoffs must be made competitive in the market. In sum, the manifest energy, innovation and exuberance of the free market must be confined within well defined and enforced moral constraints, reflecting a shared concern for individual autonomy and intrinsic environmental values. Our capacity to do so is manifest in abolition of slavery, the maintenance of the National Park system, and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency. Our capacity to maintain such constraints is being severely tested by the incumbent Congress.
I submit that forces leading to planetary ruin have the decided advantage, especially so when we consider that any delay amounts to a decision in favor of
laissez-faire. Thus I would have to judge the possibility of a global environmental ethic to be rather remote about as remote, say, as the likelihood, circa 1980, of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, or the free election of a majority government in South Africa.
Even so, there is an identifiable if rutted road away from ruin and toward planetary renewal. Given the stakes at issue nothing less than a future for our species worth having it is quite enough for the conscientious planetary citizen that he and she recognize that there is, indeed, a possibility for a global environmental ethic. And given this recognition, one must face the duty to plan and to act.
NOTES and REFERENCES
1. For a fuller and more
recent statement, see my "In Search for
Sustainable Values," Parts II and III, this site.
2. But here's a start:
"courts and torts" addresses a problem ex post facto, while
regulation is pro-active. In short, this is the difference between the ounce of
prevention and the pound of cure. The libertarian replies that the threat of
legal retaliation after the fact, serves as adequate deterrence before the fact.
However, the critic rejoins, the stakes are uneven, as is evident in the case of
a private nuclear power plant. An accident in such a facility can cost the
investors their investments, and the careless operator his fortune and career in
a civil law suit. On the other hand, the same "event" can cost the
health and lives of thousands of innocent (and often unconsenting) civilians.
This and many additional arguments against "libertarian
environmentalism" are elaborated in my "With
Liberty for Some," this site.
Edberg, Rolf and Alexey Yablokov, (1991),
Tomorrow Will be
too Late, Arizona Press.
Hardin, Garrett (1968), "The Tragedy of the
Commons," Science, 162 (13 December, 1968), p. 1247
MaLeish, Archibald (1968), "Riders on Earth Together,
Brothers in Eternal Cold," New York Times, December 25, 1968.
Russell, Bertrand (1961), "Politically Important
Desires," The Basic writings of Bertrand Russell, New York, Simon
and Schuster, p. 475.