Environmental Problems Can Only Be Solved by Transforming Our Ethical Standpoints Essay

‘Environmental problems can only be solved by transforming our ethical standpoints – once this is achieved our social and political institutions will be transformed as well’ Critically assess the political discourses and ethical approaches that support this claim. Illustrate with reference to environmental problems and policy responses towards them. The transformist political discourse of ecological socialism, anarchism and ecofeminism are concerned with human emancipation and incorporate solving the environmental dilemmas that are a symptom of our era.

These discourses show that only by transforming our ethical standpoints will we be able to resolve the issues that face us in the future and from these transformations, new social and political institutions will emerge. These approaches challenge the historically based assumptions and values inherent in our conservative western society by asking us to think differently about things we take for granted. The social transformist discourses cover a wide range of political thought from the liberals, through social democrats to democratic socialists and at the extreme left, the Marxists.

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The anti-authoritarian anarchists are similarly wide-ranging from the militant grassroots activists to the pacifist supporter of Gandhi. The ecofeminist extends the anarchist thought but is a critic of the entrenched inequalities represented by androcentrism (male-centredness) suggesting that the domination of nature reflects man’s domination of the female in western society. Ecological concerns are often viewed as opposing the capitalist ethics of modern society which is seen as ignoring the consequences in both human and environmental terms of industrialisation and wealth creation.

The social transformists unite in their goal to represent the working classes leading to common concerns over the environment. The liberal approach would suggest that there is a need for fair play. Rules governing conduct provide the framework for society and therefore the liberals believe that just rules will lead to a just world. Further to the left, the social democrat’s approach is more concerned with the specific outcomes, less with how they are achieved. Taylor (1992) explains how the social concerns for the health and safety of the working classes can be linked to the emergence of environmental issues within the socialist discourses.

Environmental concerns over the disposal of nuclear waste, sanitation and clean water in the third world affect the quality of life of the poor in exploited nations. It led Robin Cook to attack the notion of economic growth as a universal remedy and to the formation of the Ecology Party in 1973 believing that the very nature of capitalism exploits human and social resources. The ecological reformers see wealth creation and environmental issues as diametrically opposed. This new vision does not see the standard of living as the goal; social welfare and community are considered to be more important factors in achieving quality of life.

Taylor (1992 ) as a member of the modern Labour party, does not completely oppose the capitalist society, but suggests that environmental degradation should become a limiting factor on production through the internalisation of the true costs, forcing improvements in green technology in line with current technocentric weak environmental thinking more akin to the conservative approach than the deep ecological movement. The social transformists blame the current state of the environment on the political and social structure of society; the inequalities in power, wealth and status.

At one end of the spectrum, the social democrats align with the liberals in seeking the greatest good for the greatest number in terms of human welfare through the redistribution of income to achieve the amelioration of social inequalities. At the extreme left, the Marxist accuses capitalism of exploitation of the working classes and seeks complete social transformation; an elimination of social order to achieve a utopian, flat, classless society where the state manages common affairs and labour power is liberated from exploitative control.

Marx and Engels believed that the links between the people and the means of production (capital and labour) that led to the class system needed to be disassociated to prevent the exploitation of one by the other. Marx promoted liberation, freedom and economic equality and Engels accused the capitalists of ‘pedalling’ nature for profit. Both however argued that the human ability to modify his environment through science and technology would relieve mankind of the yranny of nature by providing food, clothing, shelter and fuel. (Merchant, 1992) Today’s social ecologists envision a transition from the short-term global capitalist economy to a sustainable ecological based economy brought about by social movements. This utopian view of the social ecologist, that ‘environmental problems can be solved by transformation of our ethical standpoint’, is rejected by Gray (1993) in his criticism of the former Soviet Union.

The environmental legacy of the socialist movement is evident from the high cost in both ecological and human terms as a direct result the former communist rule. The lack of accountability and feedback, a factor inherent in western democracies, coupled with the lack of property rights lead to a ‘tragedy of the commons’ as predicted by Hardin (1968) and a life that was ‘nasty, brutish and short’ in the Hobbesian state. The anarchistic views of the non-Marxist visionary Bookchin (1992) are explored by Eckersley (1992).

He similarly seeks to eliminate the hierarchies in society (intellectual over physical; work over pleasure and mental over sensual) to achieve a balance of nature, process, diversity, spontaneity, freedom and wholeness, reuniting humans with nature and returning to a new consciousness in a utopian anarchistic society based on ecological socialism. Bookchin recognises that state socialist societies created ecologically destructive policies. Nationalism has been shown as bureaucratic and inflexible, stifling to individual creativity and the development of green technology.

He emphasises the need to consider the human implications through social ecology. The green parties of Europe have experimented with anarchistic style participative policies focusing on the small scale, trying to act locally whilst thinking globally. Their involvement in protests against new roads, nuclear power stations and airport extensions are examples of collective organisation bringing people together to fight for tangible local ecological goals.

However, the intrinsic inefficiencies of anarchistic organisation have translated in to ineffectual political structures leaving the ecological anarchists without a representative political voice in western democratic government. The bottom-up approach of the anarchists depends on individual rather than class action and to be fully embraced by society would result in the break-down of institutional organisations and centralised policies (Hayward, 1994). The anarchistic environmentalist is labelled as an eco-radical by Mills (1996); his eco-authoritarian being more akin to neo-Marxist philosophies.

Ecological values prevail and the holistic views with an onus on individuals to act locally concur with Dobson’s (1990) decentralised vision, limiting growth and widening the moral community. Mills hypothesises that liberal political theory offers the means without specifying the ends and can therefore sit comfortably with the holistic green outcomes of eco-radicalism despite Sagoff (1988) and Saward (1993) warning that goal oriented policies may be inconsistent with democracy.

The German green principles of ecology, social responsibility, grassroots democracy and non violence offer suitable insights to the way a political system could act as guides to include a widened moral community. Expanding the legal and practical notions of citizenship could include the role of ecological trustees representing those non human elements of the moral community unable to represent themselves as a development of the existing concept of defending children and others in need of protection. (Christoff, 1996)

The ecofeminist movement recognises the importance of tradition, the holistic, spiritual and intuitive ecological knowledge subjugated by the reductionism of science. Shiva (1989) argues that “unless the world is re-structured ecologically….. , peace and justice will continue to be violated and ultimately the very survival of humanity will be threatened. ” Her views that science is patriarchal and reduces the capacity of humans to know and understand nature may be extreme but the fact-value dichotomy is now being eroded as a return to ecological thought and action is shown to be desirable.

Organic farming and breast feeding have now taken their rightful place and the support for alternative medicine is growing as the weaknesses of pure science are exposed. King (1989) likewise explores the relationship between feminism and ecology, supporting and extending Bookchin’s social ecological perspective of integration with the environment. King exposes woman’s role as the advocate for nature and calling for a radical re-structuring of human society; one which reflects the lack of hierarchy in nature, abandoning all pretences of human superiority.

Seager (1993) goes further in suggesting that deep ecology, based on the works of Naess (1973), is coloured by the male bravado of activists such as the Earth First movement who see themselves as ‘rescuing mother earth’ in some heroic act. She suggests that where women seek reciprocity, men seek domination. She demonstrates how deep ecological ideas on population control such as birth control programmes, suggestions of restrictions on life-saving interventions and letting nature take its course are unconscionable, arrogant and alienating to women.

Seager puts in a plea not to ‘consign women to care’ but asks that men care too. The ecologically inspired process of social change is labelled as sustainable development but how Brundtland’s vision of economic, environmental and social sustainability can be achieved is questioned. In 1993 Glasbergen suggested that the major constraint on policy making was the process of policy making itself. Universally, environmental policy has been elusive in a process driven by economics, often only acting as a remedial agent after the event or offering end-of-pipe solutions; at best it takes an anthropocentric standpoint.

Changes to the driving force of the world’s economy, namely the rejection of a commodified lifestyle, require a fundamental re-thinking of attitudes, a 21st century Enlightenment or societal convergence. Redefining opulence, richness, luxury and affluence in terms of quality of life would be a pre-requisite (Naess, 1973). In the modern global economy, the social transformist action of individual nations acting independently for the greater good would require an idealistic act of selfless sacrifice in the western world.

Economic liberalism with its technocentric approach to environmental issues would appear more palatable and therefore more politically feasible but does not free us from the ‘risk society’ defined by Beck (1992). Definitions of utopia aside, the idealist social transformer that believes the world can be re-structured to provide western levels of standard of living to an increasing population will be seriously disappointed unless technology progresses significantly. Goldblatt explores the post-industrial scenarios of the risk society exposed to the catastrophic hazards of environmental egradation and suggests that transformation of our social and political governance is required in order to cope with the emerging relationship between science, people and the environmental threats. Irwin (1995) suggests that the environmental movement represents a new kind of social agency side-stepping the traditional political infrastructure, acting locally to change behaviour in more subtle ways. Science has become ‘an obstacle to the expression of concerns’ rather than a tool for empowerment leading Beck to challenge science to encompass social rationality.

The ‘mad cow’ disease incident illustrates the government’s failure to engage with public concern; its superior attitude in the concrete reassurances provided that could not be indisputably supported by the scientists creating rather than allaying caution and suspicion. The uncertainty of science in the face of modern dichotomies is a reality and its role in the causation of threats has undermined its status. Technological advances harm as well as heal and society is growing in its awareness of the dangers of scientific issues such as the threat of widespread monoculture as a result of genetic engineering.

Planning is key to a sustainable future and Blowers (1997) is concerned that a new social vision needs to be constructed that provides both freedom and responsibility through changes at the institutional, political and social levels. He doubts the ability of the environmental challenge to bring about the fundamental changes required. The strength of the free market economy on a global basis, concentrating power in the corporate elites, means that it would be foolish to overlook the need for integration of economics and the environment.

Only when the means of production are under threat is the need to protect resources likely to become a corporate reality. The new culture of ecological citizenship starts with individuals but needs to infiltrate corporate, social and political hierarchies to achieve the aim of ecological democracy. Ultimately a political response to environmental catastrophe is inevitable but it can only be brought about by a change in attitudes through ecological citizenship, a new way of thinking that transforms mans relationship with nature.

An ecological democracy would require this new ethical standpoint; it would enable the transformation of our social and political structures to meet the environmental challenges of the future. (2052 words)

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