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Global Environmental Justice: A Review of the Literature (April 2018): Ecocentricism

By Robert C. Robinson


David Schlosberg, in Defining Environmental Justice: Theories, Movements, and Nature, was perhaps the first to capture the change movement—i.e., when political philosophers started to extend the meaning of the political to include human relationships with the natural world. More important, the inclusion of people in the scope of environmental justice allows one to focus on the world’s vulnerable, such as the poor and Indigenous peoples, along with nature and wilderness, as deserving protection. Schlosberg may also be the first to extend the political theories of Rawls et al. to wild systems, arguing that something like Rawls’s two principles extends to natural systems and organisms, which also deserve a fair distribution of goods and resources and access to and inclusion in the political process. Though on the face of it, it seems odd to extend political rights and liberties to nonhuman animals, trees, single-cell organisms, and so on, Schlosberg’s argument opens a dialog about taking seriously ecocentric views that consider the rights of natural systems.

Robyn Eckersley’s Environmentalism and Political Theory: Toward an Ecocentric Approach provides an early critique of models of political theory that treat humans’ relationships with nature only on an instrumental basis—viz., in terms of nature’s benefits to humans. Instead, she argues that by considering strong critiques of Western political philosophy, this anthropocentric political view is best understood alongside a more ecocentric melting pot of green political thought. More recently, Eckersley and Peter Christoff have taken this ecocentric model one step further in considering the role of globalization in environmental problems. Based primarily on case studies, Christoff and Eckersley’s Globalization and the Environment argues that climate change and loss of biodiversity are critical risks in the future, risks that will particularly affect the world’s poor.

Though it is obviously important to have a system that values the environment and ecological health, an ecocentric, noninstrumental system of environmental justice involves certain assumptions that will make most political theorists uncomfortable, particularly those working from within the Western tradition, with its roots in the humanist ideal of human dignity and respect for all persons. (A more palatable alternative to the humanist model is utilitarianism, which is more consistent with an instrumental view of the value of nature, and which is discussed below.) Thus, more mainstream contemporary models of environmental justice find their roots in what has become known as the human rights–based approach (HRBA). According to this view, political commitments to one another can best be understood in terms of whether and to what extent those commitments respect fundamental human rights.

Probably the leading voice in the HRBA is Henry Shue. In his Basic Rights: Subsistence, Affluence, and US Foreign Policy, Shue argues that there are certain rights that are basic,  meaning they are necessary in order to enjoy any other right. Contrapositively stated, if basic rights are denied, no other rights can be enjoyed. Subsistence and physical security are examples, for Shue, of basic rights. By subsistence (also known as economic security), Shue means access to clean water and clean air, in addition to food, shelter, clothing, and so on. Martha Nussbaum, philosopher and scholar of law and ethics—influenced no doubt by the arguments of Shue and others—extends the HRBA to include an Aristotelian conception of virtue and later an outcome-centric view of theory of justice, particularly as it relates to gender equality. In her Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership, Nussbaum lists capabilities that are to be used to provide a benchmark to determine if a society has delivered a minimum level of justice for its citizens. Thus, a just society is one that guarantees a base level of each of these capabilities. Nussbaum’s approach is notable for its rejection of the social-contract foundation of justice, since, she claims, contractarian theories conflate the needs and interests of those who create the system with those who may need to benefit from it.

The capabilities approach to justice has been widely influential, particularly among those interested in issues concerning women and concerning the environment—constituents that have been historically marginalized and have less political power to speak for themselves. In Cosmopolitanism and the Geographies of Freedom, David Harvey outlines a cosmopolitan political philosophy similarly rooted in human experience but less reliant on political ideologies and theories. When discussing cosmopolitan theories of justice, one must also be aware of Simon Caney, another leader in the literature on global theories of justice. For instance, in his important Justice beyond Borders: A Global Political Theory, Caney makes one of the most persuasive arguments for a global political order, one based on universal human needs and the need for humanitarian and environmental intervention across borders.

Environmental justice is not just for activists and academics. There is a lively literature surrounding the legal and policy work associated with both sides of this issue. In Climate Change Justice, for example, Eric Posner and David Weisbach argue, counterintuitively, that issues of justice should be separated from issues of climate change. For one thing, a simple decrease in greenhouse gases would improve the environment but would harm many of the poorest and most vulnerable living in developing nations. Posner and Weisbach offer a Rawlsian-style compromise, whereby every country agrees to reduce greenhouse gases but does so in a way that improves each of those countries. Stephen Gardiner and Darrel Moellendorf have been critical of this approach. In A Perfect Moral Storm: The Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change, Gardiner argues that climate change is not a political problem (that is, within the realm of justice) but rather an ethical failure on the part of individuals who are willing to leverage the health and happiness of the next generation for present benefits, and who willfully fail to grasp simple concepts in science, politics, and international affairs. Likewise, in The Moral Challenge of Dangerous Climate Change: Values, Poverty, and Policy, Darrel Moellendorf considers the problems of global warming and greenhouse gases to be ethical, as individuals, companies, and nations consider what they owe to each other and how best to organize and facilitate public policy on the basis of those judgments. This situation is made worse by the fact that much of environmental damage was done by polluters who are now long dead. Why suffer for something someone else did? Why suffer to preserve some species or ecosystem that may never benefit oneself? In answering these questions, both Moellendorf and Gardiner go beyond the political questions of justice to focus on the moral questions. Stephen G. Morris’s Science and the End of Ethics reexamines those foundational ethical considerations in light of new scientific advances, in order to frame a new ethical agenda that more consistently achieves important goals shared by moral and political philosophers.

Kristin Schrader-Frechette merges disciplines surrounding environmental justice in Environmental Justice: Creating Equality, Reclaiming Democracy. She comes to two conclusions. First, there is a moral reason for distributing the burdens of environmental degradation more equally. Second, it is not just government actors who have a duty to combat unfair use of the environment; rather, in a democracy each individual has a duty to engage in activism in the area of environmental justice.

Those interested in a more conservative analysis critical of the overall project of environmental justice should start with The Promise and Peril of Environmental Justice, a study funded and published by the Brookings Institution and written by Christopher Foreman. Somewhat heavy-handed and dismissive in his criticism, Foreman argues that the environmental justice movement, though it has had significant political and social victories, through discord and disorganization threatens to harm those it intends to help, ignores important political trade-offs necessary to achieve its goals, and misunderstands the entailment from environmental facts to the goals of environmental justice. John Foster provides a contemporary alternative to this view in After Sustainability: Denial, Hope, Retrieval, in which he considers the consequences for a world that easily passes the two-degree threshold for catastrophic climate change. Unlike Foreman, Foster is speaking not just to those who agree with him but also to climate deniers and those on the fence. Foster’s conclusion: it is already too late, and everyone should be very concerned about the future.

Finally, there are several good college-level textbooks on environmental politics and environmental policy, which is a good sign; courses on these topics should continue to be developed and offered to undergraduate and graduate students. Barry Field’s Environmental Policy: An Introduction is a fine overview for undergraduate students and covers issues ranging from public policy to environmental statutes and environmental policy in the US. More advanced students can look to Environmental Policy: New Direction for the Twenty-First Century, edited by Norman Vig and Michael Kraft (now in its ninth edition). Vig and Kraft have studied and written about policy in the US from the 1960s to the present, but rather than simply chronicling the history of environmental policy they trace the threads of underlying trends and political constraints that have helped to shape current environmental politics.

Works Cited