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Nigel Dower on Sustainability and Cosmopolitanism

As one of the two public talks that preceded the recent Sustainability Ethics Conference at Penn State University Park, Nigel Dower presented a paper that highlighted the relationship between sustainability and cosmopolitanism. (Cosmopolitanism can be crudely broken down in terms of the following: Cosmos = cosmos, whole world, and polis = citizen, people, such that one is considered not simply as a citizen of a particular nation state but as a global citizen, a "citizen of the world.") The key point of Dower's talk was that there is a global dimension in most of the ways we talk about sustainability, even if it is usually working only in the background of our research as an orientational concept. Smaller projects, such as sustainable forestry, sustainable development, and sustainable tourism, already contain a more global, more cosmopolitan consideration of sustainability for the planet and all those who live on it. His thesis, then, is that sustainability requires cosmopolitanism as a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition. Cosmopolitanism is an ethically adequate basis for sustainability.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Dr. Nigel Dower (University of Aberdeen)

"Sustainability and Cosmopolitanism: A Defense of an Ethical Ideal"

As one of the two public talks that preceded the recent Sustainability Ethics Conference at Penn State University Park, Nigel Dower presented a paper that highlighted the relationship between sustainability and cosmopolitanism. (Cosmopolitanism can be crudely broken down in terms of the following: Cosmos = cosmos, whole world, and polis = citizen, people, such that one is considered not simply as a citizen of a particular nation state but as a global citizen, a "citizen of the world.") The key point of Dower's talk was that there is a global dimension in most of the ways we talk about sustainability, even if it is usually working only in the background of our research as an orientational concept. Smaller projects, such as sustainable forestry, sustainable development, and sustainable tourism, already contain a more global, more cosmopolitan consideration of sustainability for the planet and all those who live on it. His thesis, then, is that sustainability requires cosmopolitanism as a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition. Cosmopolitanism is an ethically adequate basis for sustainability.

In the defense of cosmopolitanism as a necessary part of sustainability, Dower clarified the terms of cosmopolitanism itself. Thomas Pogge defines cosmopolitanism in terms of three important characteristics:

  • Individuality--the consideration is for individual people, not groups, tribes, families, or nation states
  • Universality--status of moral consideration is equal to all, not just to a particular group like whites, men, or those in the "developed" world, and
  • Generality--the special and equal moral status of all individuals has global force. Persons are units for everyone's concern, which means you should not simply concern yourself with your own fellow compatriots in a more local sphere. In short, our moral responsibility spans across boundaries.

In addition to these qualities, Dower argued that we also will need a cosmopolitanism that is undated, that is, one that considers not just persons who are currently alive but also future generations. It should also be non-anthropocentric and consider the moral status of non-human creatures.

One of the objections against cosmopolitanism is that it expects too much of us--"We simply cannot always be concerned about everyone in the world all of the time!" In defense of cosmopolitanism, Dower agreed that this may be an unrealistic expectation, but suggested that it can also be recognized that the global emphasis of cosmopolitanism need not be a goal for everyone. It can, rather, be an ideal that offers framing constraints that operate in the background of our decision making processes. However, it is also the case that some political leaders and institutions, NGOs for example, should make global sustainability their goal. Furthermore, some individuals can actually take living sustainably as one of their own personal virtues and, thus, their goal may be to live as sustainably as possible.

This last point is an important one. Later on it was asked if there is a risk involved in simply acknowledging the global aspect of sustainability in "the background" of other sustainability efforts like sustainable forestry. I liked Dower's response. Although there is clearly a need for local and global sustainable efforts on the level of political activism, public policy, and within institutions, there is also an equal importance granted to individual actions. It is acknowledged that our own decision making processes can help contribute to the goal of local (and global) sustainability.