Justice and the Environment

By Matt Ferguson

The environment has become a pressing topic over the last decade as we have started to feel the effects of climate change and learn more about the impact human activities are having on ecosystems and indeed human communities around the world.  Environmental ethics is a large part of this conversation – it is a field of philosophy that asks, among other things, what humans’ moral obligations are (if any) to the environment and what is the moral status of the environment.  

Anthropocentrism vs Ecocentrism

One question that environmental ethics asks is how  we look at the world, and identifies two broad lenses – anthropocentrism and ecocentrism. An anthropocentric worldview places humans at the center – it is a lens through which the needs and desires of people are prioritized over all else (in this case, the environment or other animals).  This has been the dominant perspective for hundreds of years and is rooted in Western Christian ideology about humans’ divinely-given authority over the natural world. One of the major problems with anthropocentrism is that it disregards other perspectives and ways of engaging with the world.  For example, Māori count certain ecosystems, such as the Whanganui River, among their ancestors; they are intimately linked to the environment.  We can see how anthropocentrism over the years has resulted in significant damage to the environment – hunting species of animals close to extinction for human benefit, clear-cutting old growth forests for timber and farmland, damming rivers for infrastructure projects.  Through the lens of anthropocentrism, each of these actions would be beneficial and ethically permissible.  We need wood to build, make paper, heat our homes; dams create reservoirs, which supply water to cities, and can help prevent flooding; and ranchers who killed wolves did so to protect their livestock and livelihoods.  However, humans are not the only stakeholders in these situations.  Animals, plants, insects, and the environment at large are impacted, even harmed. If the focus is only on the impact of an action on humans, we lose sight of the broader consequences of those actions.  

The alternative view to anthropocentrism is ecocentrism. An ecocentric view recognizes the interconnectedness of our planet, values the wellbeing of the environment as a whole, and believes that it has inherent value rather than being valuable only insofar as it is useful to humans.  It is not a “humans vs. the environment” view, but rather a perspective that includes humans as part of the larger environment.  Ecocentrism takes into account the impact of an action on the environment as a whole – if it would cause harm or benefit and how widespread those harms or benefits might be.  If we look again at, say, damming a major river, through the lens of ecocentrism, we might now see that while it has some benefit to people, doing so would disrupt salmon migration and cause population decline, which in turn would impact other wildlife in the river as well as negatively impact the indigenous tribes in the area for whom salmon is a source of food, cultural importance, and income.  An ecocentric view looks at the impact on animals and the ecosystem as a whole in addition to the impact on people. 

The Environment and Global Justice 

Environmental ethics goes beyond the relationship between humans and the environment; the question of justice arises when we think about how humans’ impact on the environment in turn impacts other people. Humans are both causing damage to the environment and being harmed by the results of that damage. For example, plastic waste is a huge source of pollution and microplastics have now been found in human blood.  Wildfires fueled by hotter, drier summers burn hundreds of thousands of acres of forest, as well as destroying homes and causing hazardous air quality in the surrounding areas.  There are larger questions of justice and equity embedded in how we think about the environment.  Who is impacted most by extreme weather events, and are climate policies working to support those people? How do we create green solutions that are affordable and accessible to all people? The intersections of environmental and justice issues are vast and an important part of how we ought to think about environmental ethics.  

Image by Peggychoucair from Pixabay

Dr. Madison Powers and Dr. Francis J. McNamara Jr., both philosophy professors at Georgetown University, have written extensively and created a website on global justice and what they call the “FEW Problem” (food, energy, and water).  The website covers the issues around declining resources and explores justice around these issues might look like on a global scale.  The effects of carbon emissions and other forms of pollution are not contained only to the places in which the emissions were produced; carbon released into the atmosphere raises the global temperature, melting ice caps in Antarctica and glaciers in Iceland, and raising sea levels across the planet.  When an action impacts a community, or even multiple communities, thousands of miles away, our understanding of justice and how we ought to act justly must shift to accommodate this broader perspective.  

Relatedly, the problem of climate change raises a unique question of justice and moral responsibility, which is: what moral responsibilities, if any, do we have to future generations? The greenhouse gasses we emit today will not affect us immediately, but will contribute to environmental damage that the next generations will experience.  This is a question that Powers and McNamara discuss, and it also further highlights the complexity of the intersection of justice and environmental ethics.

Final Thoughts

It is increasingly important to incorporate ethics into how we think about environmental science and policies if we are to meaningfully address climate change and the impact that human actions have on both the environment and vulnerable communities across the world.  Climate change and social justice are two incredibly large issues, and solutions to many problems will likely not be straightforward or easy; addressing them with an ethical lens will give us the tools to think carefully about the stakeholders, possible short and long term impacts, our responsibilities and duties, and, hopefully, what it means ultimately to do the right thing.