"Great moral philosophy does not come primarily from concerns arising within philosophy itself. It comes from engagement with serious problems about personal, social, political, and religious life." - J.B. Schneewind
Toward An Ecological Ethics
Building an ecological civilization will be accompanied by a basic change in our consciousness, common sense, and behavior. Ecological values will supplant industrial values. Sustainability will emerge as core motive, practical means, and end. Economic growth that means ecological improvement, not ecological destruction, can replace the uncritical industrial evermore as motive and guide.
The spirit of a new Golden Rule: Do onto the earth, as the earth will do onto us, valuing the biosphere, will inform the ecological common sense of the 21st century.
Ecological ethics and morals will shape our sense of the good, of what is possible and desirable. These ethics can enliven the dreams of our children. They will shape our imaginations and creative use of our human energy, our entrepreneurship, our literature, and our songs, poetry and philosophy.
Ecological ethics will inform our conceptions of who we are and what we want and can become. They should emerge as the basis for our new common sense and a guide to behavior and cultural credos.
Ecological values will become part of democratic conversation and debate as we undertake practical measures in response to necessity. We don’t have to transform ourselves before we begin to transform the world. The flowering of a diverse ecological ethics will be inseparable from our journey from industrialism to ecological civilization.
Sustainability concerns the consequences of economic growth. As ethic, it is inextricably tied to the practical and to the circumstances of our lives, both material and philosophical. Sustainability will indeed mean major changes in unsustainable business as usual. Change is inevitable. What’s at stake is the nature of these changes. That’s a policy question, a matter, above all, of what we must do in response to industrial reality.
Sustainability and an ecological ethics do not mean an end to markets, or democracy, or freedom. That’s fortunate. Sustainability’s practical definition means making economic growth mean ecological improvement. Crucial, is to get the prices right and make the market send signals for sustainability.
Sustainable development has been broadly defined as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." Sustainability’s precise meanings still await clearer definition though social practice.
Sustainability has both a practical affect and a moral valence. Ethics and morality are not merely the froth upon the ocean of sustainability. They represent a co-evolving part of the democratic conversation about what will be an ongoing process of change in all aspects of our lives and livelihoods as we transform an industrial civilization to an ecological one.
Ecological values cannot be imposed upon the industrial crowd. We will not wake up one morning and all realize precisely what we must do. Ecological values cannot be legislated or decreed. And a universal and eternally valid ecological value system will not magically be discovered. As Patrick Curry indicates in Ecological Ethics (2006), it is the very unbounded limitlessness of such a conceit that reflects an industrial as opposed to an ecological social order and value system.
Our task is not to banish the seven deadly sins. We cannot eliminate gluttony, avarice, and greed. We cannot predicate the building of an ecological civilization upon perfect behavior and unbounded selflessness. Our challenge is not to abandon shopping and consumerism. What matters is what we buy and what we consume. The grand movement toward a sustainable civilization will not be crippled if you want to purchase the most prestigious and feature laden software or drive a luxury zero carbon emitting car.
Nevertheless, if we continue to consume and pollute at a rate that would require five planet earths to sustain, we will find ourselves collectively plunged into dire and intractable poverty. Business as usual threatens collapse and involuntary stringencies and limits upon our lives and freedom far beyond any effects of new price signals from the adoption of sustainable market rules which make polluting products more expensive. Getting the prices right is far less daunting a task than a project to ban gluttony and human excess.
Ecological Ethics Emerge
The good news is that the growth and development of ecological values will accompany our pursuit of the ecological imperative in response to industrial excess. We are in the midst of the emergence of ecological conduct and sustainability in an industrial market place and global system. The consequences and costs of industrial activity are manifest and can no longer be ignored.
It is precisely the policies we adopt, for example, ecological market rules and eco-taxes that makes decreasing pollution lead to increasing profits, which are the concomitants for the rise of ecological values.
Ecological ethics will evolve and express, as all ethical systems do, a particular set and setting. Aristotle discussed the good life and the choices to be made by elites while lecturing from Nicomean Ethics to an audience of young Athenian men of inherited wealth and property. Our ecological ethics, in contrast, are addressed to the billions of the industrial world in transition to a sustainable ecological democracy.
Ecological ethics are important in helping clarify and facilitate the constructive choices to be made by an ecological democracy. Central is the pursuit of actions, lifeways, programs and policies that manifest sustainability and transform economic growth into a force that results in ecological improvement, not ecological destruction. Slavish attempts at ethical and ideological perfection, whether green, red, black, or red white and blue will become a fetish and fetter upon an ecological turn.
There are many ways to reach sustainable ends. Not poisoning poison the lake with a chemical may be the result of the reformist adoption of the precautionary principle that demands thorough testing of toxicity before use; or, alternatively, it may be a consequence of the development of an industrial ecological process that results in zero discharges; or the abandonment of toxic technology and embrace of sustainable natural filtration methods motivated by our believe in supporting the integrity of ecosystems in accord with the land ethic; or valuing the health of the mussels, algae, and microorganisms and their community more than human benefits and profits from our toxic process…
There are many paths to the practice of sustainability and an ecological democracy. Each begins from where we are. It is this welter of change, of discussion, experiment, success and failure, invention and discovery that reflects the work of an ecological democracy.
Sustainability can be the expression of a Kantian categorical imperative treating both other people and the ecosystems of which we are part as an end and not a means. It can be the expression of a Benthamite utilitarianism that finds the greatest good and the minimization of pain encompassing not just all people but the entire ecosphere. It can be the expression of an Aristotelian virtue that expresses the practice of a stewardship and personal excellence encompassing not just our behavior and conduct as it affects people, but as it impacts all aspects of the world around us. Sustainability can be the application of John Rawls’ original position and difference principle to include the maintenance of the health of the ecosphere and the fair distribution of a social minimum. It can be the expansion of the duties of John Nozick’s minimal state to include protecting the environment and the adoption of sustainable market rules.
There are many roads and many doors leading toward an ecological civilization. How less likely would our prospects for success be if there were but one. Further, we operate not from a standpoint of perfect knowledge of both present and future from which to calculate and determine our actions. Quite the opposite. The present is hardly clear, the future an even greater mystery. We do not even have a common definition of sustainability, let alone a clear program of how to get there. Humility and creative action is in order, not arrogant pronouncements. There are an enormous range of possible opportunities for constructive change. Any particular venue can not be anointed in advance as the best of choices with a realistic understanding of the probability of success.
What’s of central concern is not the debates of philosophers, priests, and pundits over the virtues and validity of competing ecological value systems whether deep or shallow, spiritual or materialist, radical or reformist, ecocentric or anthropocentric.
What we do, not why we do it, is what matters most. To embrace the supremacy of the single abstracted why over what is to accept the primacy of a world of ideas over actions and incline us to dwell in the cave of an ecological Platonism perfecting our ideological purity. Ideas, sustainability, for example, are certainly important for an ecological turn. But a blinkered idealism can incline us to refuse to recognize the co-evolution of why we do things and what we actually do.
There is, indeed, nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come. But that idea has a context that gives it efficacy. For instance, assume that an emergent popular belief in angels guiding human affairs leads to adoption of new ecological market rules by Congress. Credit needs to be given to the tenor of the times, not simply to a theogeny interpreting the debates of the beings in a Seventh Heaven. We need take seriously our history, our ideas, our epoch and the great historical forces in response driving an ecological turn—a countervailing and healing response to industrial excess and an increase in social complexity in reaction to seemingly insolvable problems of industrial reality.
Ecological ethics are not alien to our nature. Altruism, cooperation, and considering actions in terms of their effect on several generations, instead of immediate gratification and short-term profit, are underlying and likely evolutionarily selected characteristics of humanity as social animal--an idea advanced by Darwin (1871) in The Descent of Man and supported by a wide range of social theorists, from a Kropotkin (1902) in his Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution , to a Robert Nozick (1976) in Anarchy, State and Utopia.
Thus, our task is not, for instance, for all of us to adopt a Buddhist economics based on harmlessness toward all living beings as the sine qua non of ecological change. Rather, it is in the expression of ecological conduct in response to necessity that will provide the basis for the elaboration, development and co-evolution of an ecological ethics and morality and their internalization as good conduct and common sense to replace self-destructive industrial pillage.
Nature must be nurtured and repaired, not conquered and exploited. The awareness of the consequences of our actions and mitigating behavior will gradually replace the reflexive satisfaction of our consumptive lusts without regard to ecological consequences. The co-evolution of ecological values will accompany the development of the elements of an ecological economics and social structure. In a world, for example, where market prices reflect long term true costs, and where all have existential security through a negative income tax (NIT) or basic income grant (BIG), the exploration and elaboration of ecological values is consonant with our social structure.
Ethics and morality develop along with practical resolution to problems. Differing solutions and their consequences are discussed, considered, argued over and gradually emerged as part of generalized codes of ethics and conduct. We don’t have to change human nature. We don’t have to change ourselves before we can take a step toward an ecological future. We need, in the words of Ken Jones, to “get out of our own light and respond positively and openly to what the situation requires of us”.
We will still face the same moral choices. But they will be made in the context of social structures that provide a real opportunity for the rise of ecological social relations and sustainability. We will be rewarded not “with pie in the sky when we die” as incentive for good conduct (and acquiescence with the unbearable), but will find rewards in a better life in vibrant communities in the here and now.
Why Ethics Matter
Industrialism exists in a moral universe that forbids we speak its name. In an industrial world, waste and effluents, social dislocation and misery, the destruction and degradation of ecosystems, species and communities are accepted as the necessary consequences of the power, profits and surpluses that industrialism confers and the cornucopia of products it disgorges. This is called progress. The consequences are dismissed as externalities, unrecorded, uncounted in the market, as if they were somehow unrelated to industrial production and consumption and its maximization.
This is true for capitalism. This is true for communism. Yet industrialism, its ideology and its destructive cult of progress remains largely unexamined.
In fact, dislocation and disturbance of all aspects of ecosystems and communities are not just unfortunate consequences of industrialism, but essential concomitants that allow and facilitate industrial activity. Strangely blind to the cause, we bemoan the consequences. We focus on the crises of lost ozone, dying species, mammoth hurricanes, melting ice caps and ignore the underlying forces and choices which contributed to them.
We are afflicted by “progress” that you “can’t stop”. We are abused by that particularly malevolent corporation or this bad boss or that corrupt official.
To challenge industrialism is to be labeled a machine smashing Luddite, or hopeless romantic primitive. To critique industrialism is to be calumnied as being against science and reason and its benefits. To call for fundamental change, as global ecological catastrophe gathers, is to be told “there is no alternative” to industrial business as usual. Of course, there are alternatives. We moved from an agrarian to an industrial world. We can move from an industrial to an ecological world. Industrial self-destruction is the unrealistic path. The movement from an industrial to an ecological civilization is the practical pursuit of peace and sustainable prosperity.
Industrialism continues to colonize and exploit our souls and lay waste to the land, water, and sky. Industrialism, as the only alternative, obtains our consent and provides pleasures and rewards for the many millions of the lucky and dutiful participants of the consuming classes, albeit amidst widespread agonies and profound losses. Industrialism offers outlets for our creativity and entrepreneurship, our invention and our charity. All is permitted—if we accept industrial rules as participants.
The ideology of industrialism rests upon an ideological steel triangle composed of three dynamic elements that support the endless maximization of production and consumption:
Technique, which encompasses science, technology and the applications of reason;
Hierarchy, which offers fungible orders of power accessible to the talented, the fortunate, and the ruthless, supported by a doctrines of law and obedience to industrial ends;
Progress, which is a cult that justifies industrial change as good and its consequences acceptable.
Industrialism is, in a sense, a product of its own internal logic. Industrialism is, in the terms of anthropologist Claude Lévi Strauss, the grand expression of oppositional thought, the raw and the cooked, placed at the service of technique, hierarchy and progress. Industrialism is one particular, ultimately self-destructive manifestation of a world of “A and not A” based on a relentless reductionism, a science that misses the forest for the trees.
The relational ecological successor to industrialism, in contrast, entertains the prospects of a world of “both A and B”, a world of freedom and community, of the one and the many, all within the context of embracing biosphere. This is the expression of sustainability, of a mindful harmony where democracy serves the equilibrating function among the one and the many and biosphere. Describing a Gaian Buddhism, Elizabeth Robert writes, “It may be more appropriate to think of ourselves as a mode of being of the Earth, than a separate creature living on the Earth. Earth does not belong to us. It is us.”
Industrialism proudly and morally justifies its conduct through the practice of its self-justifying utilitarianism, the pursuit of a supposed greater good for the greatest number. This is a blinkered industrial utilitarianism predicated on counting only the “goods” in a peculiar fashion, that is, considering only the monetary value of the production and consumption that industrialism is designed to maximize and ignoring the “bads” of ecological destruction and human misery and never allowing them to be accurately accounted for and placed upon the scales of judgment.
Industrialism provides us with the reflexive “common sense” and the ethics and morality that permit our participation and consent to pillage to co-exist with our high minded judgment of our intentions and moral conduct. Typically, we do our jobs to provide for our families and meet humanity’s needs. Our conduct is moral. Our operations are in accord with all pollution regulations and requirements.
Industrialism is not simply a crime committed by them. Industrialism rests upon our consent and enthusiastic participation in the maximization of production and consumption. More, the unnuanced more is always better. The GNP value of cancer treatment, a consequence of peripatetic industrial toxins, is still counted dollar for dollar as if it has the same value as education. Both are services.
Industrial civilization has proven to be the great consumer, not only of goods, the earth’s material substance turned to products, effluent, and waste, but of human culture and values. Industrial expansion is graced by the universal imperative of progress that conflates growth of almost any kind with goodness. The tools for progress are science and industrial technique place at the service of ruling hierarchies. This has been true of industrialism’s capitalist and socialist manifestations.
The usually unspoken supposition of industrialism was that the incredible productive power of our machines has essentially resolved the material problem, and we are left with issues of fair distribution and enjoyment of our bounty. In fact, the application of industrial methods has created new physical threats not only to our comfort, but to our civilization and perhaps to the existence of our species.
Thus, our ethics in the 21st century must be conditioned to address this tripartite interaction and feedback between freedom and community and ecosphere – between individual and the group and living world. We must value and protect the freedom and rights of individuals. But we must do so in the context of a more complex system where the community is both guarantor of freedom as well as potential fetter, and the ecosphere is the fundamental basis for freedom and community and where actions in any of the three spheres affect the nature and well being of the whole. It is democratic action to establish social policies for sustainability that manifests a new ecological ethics in social practice and a common sense of what now is right.
An ecological ethics and new common sense can help us begin practically answering the question posed in many forms, “How can we be prosperous without being self-destructive”, and a corollary question implied by the first: “How can we make economic growth mean ecological improvement, not ecological destruction?”
This is not a Zen koan, or riddle, such as, “What is the sound of one hand clapping? “
There is, in fact, no necessary equivalence between prosperity and self-destruction, and between economic growth and ecological pillage. Economic growth need mean neither ecological pillage, nor injustice. There is, for instance, no practical limit on the trade of information in cyberspace powered by renewable energy resources. And if this can be true in a high profit information-based economy, why can’t it be true for other more material pursuits, particularly if we need to and try to make it so. This is sustainability in action.
Instead of a self-evident, enduring truth, to identify economic growth with ecological destruction is a category error confusing the quality of economic growth with its quantity. It’s a matter of not distinguishing between self-destructive growth in an industrial market and sustainable growth in an ecological market.
And if this supposed verity, always connecting growth with ecological degradation, is not true, and need not be true, then we are called upon both to more carefully examine our assumptions and recognize that fundamentally what’s at stake is the nature and quality of our actions and their consequences.
The self-destructive proclivities of industrialism paradoxically came from the exercise of autonomy and of reason for industrial ends which were focused on the limitless maximization of production and consumption typically with little or no regard for their negative consequences. In the 21st century, our virtuous industrial moral order that graces things with inherent trappings of good or bad, and where prosperity, or lack thereof, is epiphenomena of virtue, or its lack, seems to be running into trouble.
Carefully following our industrial rules, by working hard, producing more, consuming more, and paying our taxes we are on a path of self-destruction. Erecting our shining city upon the hill has polluted the aquifer, destroyed the forest habitat, and changed the climate. What seems, at first glance, to be the path to virtue, and an unalloyed good, somehow changes into its opposite. A series of choices that appear legal and moral, leads to unintended consequences, and sometimes catastrophic results.
Sometimes the market, instead of the realm of freedom and prosperity, leads us down the path of self-destruction. Fifty SUVs are an interesting oddity. 500 million gasoline powered SUVs are a plague.
Rawls and Nozick and An Industrial Ethics
In an ecological democracy, ethics, values, and morality must address questions that transcend typical modernist ethical judgments that were wrought, often with compelling philosophical legerdemain, upon the forge of industrial fire. These are applied to our conduct within the context an industrial world of “A and not A”.
Thus we were offered two classic and prescient books in the early 1970s, John Rawls’ liberal treatise, A Theory of Justice (1971), parsing justice as fairness , and Robert Nozick’s property friendly, anarchic libertarianism, Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974). These books represent a classic philosophical confrontation, largely academic and obscure in the 1970s, now played out between liberals and conservatives in the everyday politics of modern America in ideological conflicts over the role of government and market.
It should be no surprise that these singular works of Rawls and Nozick are compatible with the core conduct of industrial business as usual, that is, the maximization of production and consumption. Their books were written at what, in retrospect, was the high water mark of American empire and industrialism.
It’s useful to take the measure of those times. Richard Nixon was President. OPEC was still a willing partner to the then Seven Sisters, the seven dominant oil transnationals , under whose management you could fill up your gas tank for a few dollars. The bloody Vietnam War was winding down in defeat, not victory, but a defeat more or less on Nixon’s and Kissinger’s imperial terms with tens of thousands of American dead and millions of Vietnamese and other Asians killed. An opening was made to the Chinese to further limit Soviet power.
Environmentally, Nixon signed the Clean Air and Clean Water acts and legislation establishing the EPA. This was in the grand tradition of an environmentalism that successfully limits the worse abuses of industrialism to help assure continued growth and maximization. Nixon flirted with, at least politically, a Negative Income Tax and National Health Insurance. He was, many now waggishly comment, our last liberal president (albeit a scoundrel).
Rawl’s and Nozick’s efforts reflect those times of muscular American power and confident imagination. These are works of logical philosophical reasoning and imagining. A self-doubting deconstructionism, soon to be fashionable, is nowhere to be seen.
The central issue for classically liberal Rawls is, “How should the fruits of industrial production be distributed?” For Rawls, the answer is fairly. For libertarian Nozick, the question is, “What limits, if any, shall be placed upon the free association and actions of individuals by the impositions of the state” For Nozick, the answer is ideally none, and, in practice, only minimally.
Both Rawls and Nozick embrace a world of logical and cogitating individuals who make careful calculations leading to decisions and agreements that determine the good life. People attempt to construct, through these agreements, the best of all possible worlds that logically follows if free individuals are given the opportunities to make such decisions.
The underlying problem is not so much what these books say, but what they do not entertain—the question of sustainability and the unanticipated consequences of otherwise lawful, proper, and even well intentioned industrial activity.
In the 21st century, thirty-five years after A Theory of Justice, the central importance of the relationship between individual, group and the living world should be unmistakably clear as a liberal, industrial free market industrial society moves toward self-destruction. Both Rawls and Nozick did not adequately consider the community, under unremitting assault from industrialism, and focused their attention upon the individual as if the two could be separated.
In Rawl’s A Theory of Justice (which Nozick calls “a powerful, deep, subtle, wide- ranging systematic work in political and moral philosophy which has not seen its like since the writings of John Stewart Mill” ) community is nowhere to be found in the index. It is not that community is unimportant for Rawls. For Rawls, the importance of community is subsumed within democracy’s underlying constitutional framework.
Community and collective action as inextricably connected with the exercise of justice is not central for Rawls, let alone the interconnection between individual, group and the living world.
As Nozick, in Anarchy, State, and Utopia proceeds to critique Rawl’s embrace of distributive justice he begins with a thought experiment. “Let us imagine n individuals who do not cooperate together and who live solely by their own efforts…” He then continues with complex and robust discussion of individual efforts, entitlements, the validity of voluntary market mechanisms and their relationship to cooperation and distributive justice.
The philosopher’s point of departure is an impossible world where cooperation is voluntary, not an inescapable part of human social existence. And it is a similarly impossible world were concepts of distributive justice (whether mediated by market exchange or social distribution) and the good do not rest upon the healthy sustainable relationship between individual, group, and living world.
There may, or may not, be an unmistakable logic and validity behind such imaginings that are relevant to a real world. But it should be clear that they are predicated not simply on thought experiments removing the chaff of social complexity to sharpen the nub of the philosophical point. They violate fundamental realities and dynamics informing human life and incline us toward the still confident pursuit of the industrial evermore without regard to consequences (beyond our conceptions of the good), and certainly without regard to sustainability.
While an individual man or woman may live alone in the wilderness, they did not enter that wilderness alone as a naked infant. Those young children that have survived in the wild were reportedly nurtured by social animals. One is hard pressed to find a land of solitaries. We are social. Our communities are inseparable from biosphere.
We are not isolated individuals, anonymous wielders of instrumental logic, living apart from this earth. We are a part of the biosphere. We are both A and B. We are individuals and one of the many.
It is profoundly ironic that the exercise of industrial freedom today is endangering industrial civilization and perhaps courting human extinction by ever-so-slightly upsetting the carbon dioxide balance of the biosphere through our relentless extraction and burning of carbon from ancient plants. We can no more be separated from the biosphere and the embracing atmosphere whose nature and homeostatic maintenance is a central expression of life, than a fish can separate itself from the ocean and from oxygen. But unlike a fish suddenly out of water, we take the air as a given to be abused with impunity.
Community is of central concern for Nozick for whom the state is anathema. But this is community, in his utopian vision, as the logical contractarian creation of individuals mediated, if at all, by a minimal state. Collective action has little valence as a force for Nozick, save as a mechanism for the exercise of individual freedom of consenting individuals and its protection from the impositions imposed by the state and community.
Rawls and Nozick embrace a rational world that does not entertain emotion and passion. The power of crowds and of sexual attraction, the power of nationalism, patriotism, racism, and industrialism and the history and social dynamics that brought them about does not stand in the way of the philosopher’s self-assertion of the primacy of reason and the logic guiding social contract theory. What’s on the table are rights and values not social forms that will be a healing response to the self-destructive excesses of a property and commodity besotted industrialism. Contract theory inside embraces a lonely rationalism where all is reducible to the logical analysis following the philosopher’s system, aspiring to the rigor of Whitehead and Russell’s (1910, 1911, 1913) logicism in Principia Mathematica, and Carnap and Ayer’s (1959) logical positivism to parse and find the truth values of statements. However, the world, including mathematics, admits the necessity for a greater range of ambiguity and incompleteness, as Gödel (1931) demonstrated with his incompleteness theorems.
Torts and Pollution: A Practical and Ethical Challenge
In Anarchy State and Utopia, Nozick offers an extended italicized sidebar discussion of the example of pollution under The Principle of Compensation that provides, from Nozick’s standpoint, potential resolution to the problem. Pollution for Nozick is basically a case of property rights to be handled, if at all feasible, by tort law, whether by individual suits or creative class actions of victims against polluters. It’s a “We can do nicely without the nascent EPA, don’t spoil the party please,” argument.
Nozick writes (italics in original):
“Perhaps a few words should be said about pollution…Since it would exclude too much to forbid all polluting activities, how might a society (socialist or capitalist) decide which polluting activities to forbid and which to permit? Presumably, it should permit those polluting activities whose benefits are greater than their costs, including within their costs polluting effects…If a polluting activity if allowed to continue on the ground its benefits outweigh its costs (including its polluting costs), then those that benefit should actually compensate those upon whom the pollution costs are initially thrown. The compensation might encompass paying for the costs of devices to lessen the initial pollution effects… airlines and airports might pay for soundproofing a house and then pay compensation for how much less the economic value of the house is… .
Nozick favors the creative use of class action suits by trial lawyers as means to successfully use tort law to resolve the problems of industrial pollution. Indeed, the lawyers are trying.
The problems with Nozick’s argument are not in his support of making the polluter pay. The ethical problem with the tort solution for pollution lies in the undeserved faith in the conduct of Nozick’s free individuals operating in an industrial market and all the practical difficulties that creates. The incentives and signals given to industrial market participants remove restraint from individuals without an understanding of consequences. We can intentionally act in good faith and unintentionally cause great harm. And, of course, we can also act in bad faith as “black hat” polluters. And the tort solution, empowering courts and judiciary, is a rather strange standpoint for a philosophical anarchist.
Relying on the tort solution for pollution has, in fact, also demonstrated several daunting applied problems with ethical imbrications. First, the remedy is long delayed; second, the remedy is dependent upon the polluter’s ability to pay years later; third, the remedy requires the courts and populace to withstand a near limitless tort burden.
Absent either accurate market price signals to make prices reflect the true costs of pollution, depletion and ecological damage, or protective regulatory oversight, the tort solution to industrial pollution is usually a hopeless effort to put the tooth paste back in the tube. Perhaps Nozick’s individuals in a sustainable market regime might make the right choices, but that means their involvement in the interplay between freedom, community, and biosphere that challenges the privileged position of Nozick profit maximizing deciders.
This is decidedly not an argument for industrial state action as opposed to industrial market action. A realist would suggest that the largest, most expensive and potentially destructive hard path technologies of industrialism, mega-hydro dams and nuclear power systems are imposed, paid for, or massively subsidized by governments because no one in the market would take the risk.
Industrialism has, nevertheless, been forced to embrace limits on some of its worse abuses a la Richard Nixon. These necessary, and often important reforms, did not transform the conduct of industrialism toward the pursuit of ecological sustainability. These were limits generally imposed on the margin, that is, upon additional amounts of pollution from expanded operations.
The industrial environmental model is to grandfather, to the extent possible, existing levels of pollution, depletion, and ecological damage and permit those to continue without cost as if they had no consequence. Our climate changing behavior therefore remains a right, not a cost. This is a cost which if properly assessed would change behavior.
Alternatively, the enforcement of new pollution regulations are sometimes endlessly postponed (e.g. old coal power plant emissions limits forever delayed under the Clean Air Act). Occasionally, limits would reduce the worst pollutants, and even eliminate them, if allegedly less harmful substitutes were available or could be soon developed (e.g. for lead in gasoline and ozone destroying Freon refrigerants.).
Climate changing behavior is apparently a fundamental industrial right, a commandment pursued vigorously by individuals, corporations, and governments. Carbon and its unhindered release is both central to the economic well being and continued suzerainty of the global Empire of Oil with its government and corporate management. We can exercise the freedom offered to us in an industrial context – that is, the freedom to drive what we want (including subsidized 400 horsepower gasoline behemoths) and wherever we want (there being little or no mass transit in a society organized around long distance commuting) by burning oil that must be kept at an affordable price.
While in 1970, for most of us, including Rawls and Nozick, the import and impact of our behavior may not have been fully apparent. This is certainly not the case in the 21st century. We must use our freedom in sustainable ways or we will lose it. That’s an ecological ethics in practice.
The nuts and bolts of sustainable social practice where ethics becomes reality, means, first, getting the market prices right so they send clear signals that the pursuit of sustainability is rewarded and self-destructive pollution is not; second, the parallel adoption of other relevant market rules supporting sustainability, for example, an electric utility revenue model increasing the utility’s rate of return in response to increased efficiency and distributed generation; and, third, investment in the renewable resource infrastructure, facilitated by a combination of sustainable financial engineering, eco tax policy, and targeted government savings and investment to overcome market failure.
Greening Rawls and Nozick
Sustainability is absent as a concept in A Theory of Justice. And, in fact, Rawls states that an expansion of his theory to include rights as fairness seems “to include only our relationship with other persons [i.e. those that are rational and can give rights and justice] and to leave out account of how we are to conduct ourselves with animals and the rest of nature.” Rawls calls this question of “first importance” but outside the scope of contract theory.
Here, Rawls is following the “logic” of contract theory that eliminates the living context from consideration in matters of justice as fairness. Rawls thus pays unconscious obeisance to the self-destructive proclivities of an industrialism that can dispense with the living world, instead of embracing it as inseparably imbricated in all issues of freedom, community, and democracy including justice as fairness or otherwise expressed.
Sustainability, however, in my view, if not that of John Rawls, is surely consonant with Rawls discussion not only of the good but of justice between generations. Rawls suggests that people, in his “original position”, that is, if unaware which generation they represent, “are to consider their willingness to save at any given phase of civilization with the understanding that the rates they propose are to regulate the whole span of accumulation. In effect, then, they must choose a just savings principle that assigns an appropriate rate of accumulation at each level of advance.”
This question, however, is posed more as a question of, “How much?” than addressing issues of “How?” and “What?” and “Why?” that are, at least, of co-equal importance for sustainability. Quantity is assumed, under industrialism, to be practically related to quality manifest through our choices of what to do with our shares of goods and social product.
Rawls is focused on social democratic “How much?” questions of distributive justice and necessary minimums. This are addressed based on Rawls’ brilliant “difference principle”-- inequality is unjust unless it means improving the position of the least well off.
A sustainable Rawlsian ethics might suggest that individuals behind the veil of ignorance, unaware of their status, in the original position would choose a fair distribution of ecological goods and services, for example clear air, clean water, healthy foods, stable climate, sustainable forest and fisheries. A Green difference principle could include the application of steps for ecological justice, through improvement of ecological conditions for the poor, with, of course, collateral benefits for all.
The difference principle focused on inequality, means “How much?”, and clearly does not address the self-destructive effects upon all of industrial pollution, depletion, and ecological damage. Sustainability must address questions not only of splitting the pie fairly, but also questions about, “What are the ingredients of the pie?”; “How we obtain them?”; “How do we bake the pie?” Fair distribution, whether mediated by a Rawlsian difference principle or created by the mythic free market of a Nozick or Hayek, is a necessary, but far from sufficient question to be addressed.
Nozick’s minimal state with protective functions, or his utopia with only anarchic exchange relations, is compatible with the pursuit of sustainability if such choices were made by participants. The minimal state can protect the environment much as it guards the coasts and enforces law. It can adopt market rules that sends proper price signals that makes profit and economic growth mean ecological improvement. The same mutually beneficial rules can be voluntarily adopted by the anarchic participants of Nozick’s utopia, as well as agreements for the protection of the environment if sustainability and its dynamics were of shared concern.
Looking backward at our self-destructive conduct, our progeny (one hopes from the standpoint of an ecological civilization) will say, “How could people in the industrial epoch have been so stupid?” A sustainable civilization will have followed many routes, informed by a variety of ethical systems based on available cultural traditions, to address the issues of sustainability to get from an industrial present to an ecological future.
For both Rawls and Nozick, in the 1970s, the root questions of sustainability and industrial proclivities for self-destruction were unparsed. It was not part of the task these leading philosophers recognized or felt moved to consider.
In refreshing contrast, profound engagement with ecological questions, social action, and the self-destructive trajectory of industrialism was apparent to a Murray Bookchin, articulated most fully in his masterwork The Ecology of Freedom. Bookchin was less an academician than activist scholar and outsider who did not begin to believe that he could divorce his social and philosophical explorations from the processes of collective action and change.
Bookchin in an interview late in his life said, “The whole ecological question is up for grabs today, and people should focus on the main thing: to try to create a free, rational — and ecologically oriented — society…And we have to create a movement that is educational and political, that has a real philosophy, a real concept of history, a real economics, a real politics, and a real ecological sensibility.
We do not have to be practitioners of Murray Bookchin’s libertarian municipalism to pursue sustainable ends and practice an ecological ethics. It’s useful to recognize Bookchin’s deep and significant involvement with ecological questions, but it’s vital for us to face the challenges posed by the relationships between freedom, community, and the living world.
Freedom and Ethics
The problems of industrialism are the problems of the exercise of our freedom and our reason (which encompasses our science and economics). The challenge is how we can exercise our freedom and our reason to lead to a sustainable prosperity, to an ecological democracy in which economic growth means ecological improvement, not ecological destruction.
The problem of industrialism is that we can exercise perfectly our freedom and our reason and continue to follow the path of self-destruction. Conceptions of justice as fairness and of seeking the Pareto optimal division of goods in a self-equilibrating market for maximum benefit are unfortunately not necessarily incompatible with standard industrial practice.
Industrial reason is unable to adequately judge the consequences of our actions (in time and in space). This is not a challenge to freedom and autonomy, but it raises a challenge to the flawed nature of traditional conceptions that ignore the entwined and interactive nature of freedom and community and its inextricable connection to the ecosphere.
In the 21st century, we must ask not only is this act fair to others and to myself, but what are the broader consequences? We must recognize and practice a broader moral ecology, that our actions have consequences not just upon one another, but upon the ecosphere which inescapably will affect us and our descendents.
Unless we take this step, even if we follow Kant’s wisdom and treat others not as means, but only as ends, or practice the traditional golden rule, our best intentions will lead to unanticipated and frequently negative consequences. If we clear cut the forest and net all the fish, it doesn’t really matter if we shared equally in the wood, the fish, and the profits.
An ecological ethics need not blaze new ground to convince us of the immorality of self-destruction. Rather, an ecological ethics can open our eyes to see the ways in which our market and industrial behavior can be conditioned to meet ecological ends by establishing, for example, sustainable market rules.
Ethically, if we can get the prices right, then the price system will make the market send signals for sustainability and there will be a convergence between our behavior and its effects. This is not just a matter of green consumerism.
Rather, it is a recognition that in a complex market system, with millions of objects and trillions of purchases, as much information as possible must be contained in prices so that goods and services that are polluting, depleting, and ecologically damaging will cost significantly more than sustainable goods and service.
Ethics tells us we must behave sustainably. Technique through ecological consumption taxation can send proper signals to make it so. Our heart tells us what we should do. Prices tell us what we will do. An ecological ethics focused on the interaction between freedom, community and the ecosphere will help us find the correct practical mechanism to make sustainability real. This is the operational arena for an American pragmatism of a John Dewey, not as philosophical trope, but as a way of encouraging the connection between judging and doing.
We can reclaim the strength of the Enlightenment’s embrace of freedom and reason as route to human autonomy and self-determination and wellspring for democracy. Our industrial night is an unintended consequence of using reason and technique to power the unlimited growth engine of industrialism. We embraced a reductionist freedom and ignored freedom’s interdependence with community and the living world. Freedom or the market is not the culprit, but our uses and abuses of freedom and the market is a problem. The question today, given our near global embrace of autonomy and democracy, is to move toward effective self-control of freedom and markets without the embrace of reactionary authoritarianism, or a nihilist embrace of self-destruction and collapse.
J.B. Schneewind wrote in his magisterial, The Invention of Autonomy:
The conception of morality as self-governance provides a conceptual framework or a social space in which we may each rightly claim to direct our own actions without interference from the state, the church, the neighbors, or those claiming to be better or wiser than we. The older conception of morality as obedience did not have these implications. The early modern moral philosophy in which the conception of morality as self-governance emerged thus made a vital contribution to the rise of the Western liberal vision of the proper relations between individual and society, That form of life could not have developed without the work of moral philosophers.
Our challenge is not to say that Kant and the Enlightenment were wrong and we should cast aside autonomy, freedom, and democracy and embrace theocratic or technocratic rule. Rather, the crisis of industrial civilization suggests that the unintended consequences of autonomy – among them industrialism and individualism (as de Tocqueville most presciently noted of the U.S.) and ecological crisis call for a more ethical and nuanced guide for our practice of autonomy and self-determination that relies on the entwined dynamic of freedom and community and ecosphere.
Sometimes, out of complexity whole new phenomena develop. Sometimes qualitative change appears suddenly. Sometimes, when there are only a few atoms, matter behaves as mostly empty space in a quantum world, but sometimes, when there are enough atoms together, the solid world suddenly emerges. Sometimes, a pond is more than just the sum of its inhabitants.
And as integral part of meeting the ecological challenge, an unjust war system can co-evolve with the development of an ecological democracy to a just peace system. This task is not utopian. It will be one of the consequences, and necessary concomitants to the pursuit of sustainability.
A peace system will not spring full blown from the warring present. Resource wars for oil, for water, for fertile agricultural land are increasingly the leading causus belli in the 21st century as ecological catastrophe gathers. Sustainability as practice will mean that peace is more likely to become the rule, not the exception. But clearly, a peace system can have periods of war, much as a war system can have periods of peace.
Sustainability need inform both our democratic judgment and our ethical sense. Democratic debate driving an ecological turn lies in the understanding that our actions have consequences that there is an inextricable connection between freedom and community and the living world.
A New Golden Rule: Basis for a New Common Sense
In the 21st century, as a popular ethical guide for us as autonomous agents: Do onto others as you would have them do onto you, is no longer sufficient. We must practice a more realistic ethics. Ethical behavior can no longer be limited to simply applying a timeless rules-based morality understood and practiced primarily in interpersonal terms. We need be mindful that the consequences of our actions are inextricably linked with our conduct within the biosphere.
A New Golden Rule must include the injunction: Do onto the earth, as the earth will do onto us.
To practice the New Golden Rule is to practice a moral ecology that recognizes that our actions have consequences not just between people, but between people and the living world. The New Golden Rule expands the scope and consequences of action beyond the individual to all of us. It introduces a new moral calculus of benefit and harm that transcends individuals and is aware of the affects of our actions upon the biosphere and upon ourselves.
A New Golden Rule is not offered as a complete system of ecological ethics. It is, however, a comprehensible tool to foster a new ecological common sense, applicable to school kids, presidents, scientists, consumers, and business leaders.
A New Golden Rule means using our democracy to make decisions that make the pursuit of sustainability a reality in a market economy, to change industrial market rules that reward pollution, to ecological market rules that rewards sustainability.
To see the ecosphere as manifesting a world of both A and B, of trees and forests, members of one encompassing reality, is crucial for our democracy to develop the ability to harmonize the pursuit, for example, of nanotechnology and of dharma Gaia.
A New Golden Rule can help guide democratic decisions to use the most potent emerging high technologies as venues for the pursuit of sustainable prosperity and not for the development of terror weapons. We could, for instance, use nanotech filters made of millions of sheets of carbon layers doped with a catalyst to remove and transform carbon dioxide from power plant exhaust to an innocuous solid such as calcium carbonate.
The engagement with both A and B, going deeper into our choices and understanding those choices we make for good and bad—tov i ra in Bereshit (Genesis) in the Torah—calls for our engagement with everything, the whole of our moral and political reality, our engagement with the one and the many and the encompassing living world.
This New Golden Rule can help guide our daily life and be taught to our children. A New Golden Rule is an ecological ethics becoming a new common sense. This new common sense is grade school stuff, not rocket science, although technical details may indeed be rocket science.
The structure is in the activity, not the enforcement, as good kindergarten and first grade teachers know. The job of an ecological ethics is to inform our choices and self-management within an ecological democracy. Practicing a New Golden Rule will enable us to pick not just A or B, but understand the relationships and value of both A and B. This is the step away from the path of industrial self-destruction. We can make choices, personally and collectively, that account for the seamless connection between ourselves and the embracing living world, in social terms between freedom and community, between the one and the many. This concept should not be strange, other than to self-interested industrial polluters and apologists. The Great Seal of the United States, written on the ribbon in the mouth of the eagle on the back of the dollar bill, affirms: E Pluribus Unum (From Many, One).
We can teach our kids not just the golden rule, but the New Golden Rule. It’s time for us to step off the path toward self-destruction.
Ecological ethics will play an important part in informing the decisions that guide an ecological turn. A New Golden Rule: Do onto the earth, as the earth will do onto us, is an accessible place for us to start. A New Golden Rule can become an important guide to our moral and practical choices.
We are embarking on another of the great human adventures, the evolutionary movement from an industrial to an ecological civilization in which we and our children and their children transform the way we live. We can embrace the sustainable as necessity and opportunity, as a healing response to industrial excess.
The practice of an ecological ethics, co-evolving with our sustainable conduct, will play an important role informing and guiding this great transformation. Ecological ethics address the personal and political, the one and the many, and, above all, the practice of democracy. Ethics will provide guidance as we ask: “Why are we doing this?” and wrestle with issue of “What must we do?”
Ecological ethics will help us participate as world healers in the dynamic interaction of freedom and community and ecosphere. Without freedom, community becomes tyranny. Without community, freedom is solitary license. Without sustainable conduct, both freedom and community will wither.
We share a responsibility for what happens in the 21st century.