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Robin Attfield on the Moral Consequences of Environmental Crisis

In his contribution to the Panel Discussion on Global Ethics, Dr. Attfield offered an analysis of how the environmental crisis has presented us with new moral consequences and implications for our moral thinking. The environmental crisis includes everything from climate change, to global warming, to the degradation of natural resources and environments. It has reached the level of a crisis thanks to its global extent, the fact that is stems from the accumulation of countless big and more trivial actions, and that it affects natural systems as well as current and future people and members of others species.In light of this environmental crisis, Attfield acknowledges that this means that more than happiness is at stake. We need a deeper value theory that extends beyond pleasure/happiness and pain/suffering. As part of the moral consequences, the environmental crisis also requires that we expand the range of those who bear moral standing to non-human creatures and future generations.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Dr. Robin Attfield (Cardiff University)

"What Moral Consequences Does the Environmental Crisis Have?"

In his contribution to the Panel Discussion on Global Ethics, Dr. Attfield offered an analysis of how the environmental crisis has presented us with new moral consequences and implications for our moral thinking. The environmental crisis includes everything from climate change, to global warming, to the degradation of natural resources and environments. It has reached the level of a crisis thanks to its global extent, the fact that is stems from the accumulation of countless big and more trivial actions, and that it affects natural systems as well as current and future people and members of others species.In light of this environmental crisis, Attfield acknowledges that this means that more than happiness is at stake. We need a deeper value theory that extends beyond pleasure/happiness and pain/suffering. As part of the moral consequences, the environmental crisis also requires that we expand the range of those who bear moral standing to non-human creatures and future generations.

By recognizing the environmental crisis as a crisis, this implies a number of other facets for our moral thinking, including a recognition of the interconnectedness and mutual dependence of creatures. We also can no longer be content with a disregard for foreseeable but unintended consequences. Our recognition of the crisis also implies an acknowledgment of the need for sustainability in terms of production, distribution, and consumption.

Ultimately, the moral consequences of the environmental crisis require a change in our moral attitude and how we consider ourselves and our actions, especially in the West. This means that we should take on a precautionary principle--just because science might be inconclusive or lack a consensus, this does not mean that we should simply continue with the status quo. Instead, we should recognize probable harms (even if they are not certain), and act accordingly. We might also need to adopt policies of mitigation, such as those that might regulate our activities at a sustainable level. For instance, the fairest system for regulating greenhouse gases might be to divide the allowable emissions for each country in proportion to their population. This requires not only international agreement, but also support from individuals and civil society.

Attfield added that one of the moral consequences of the environmental crisis is the increase of environmental consciousness in beliefs, attitudes, and politics, especially for those in the West. "Green values" like self-reliance, simplicity, advocacy, and frugality, "green virtues" such as recycling, vegetarianism, and the preservation of wilderness, and "green politics" like the institution of policies that discourage carbon emissions all reflect a cultural change. Perhaps these are more direct examples of how a change in culture starts with a moral change in how we think of ourselves.

Some members of the audience raised concerns, or rather skepticism, about the extent of this "cultural change," especially in the United States. It was mentioned that for many people, maintaining "the American way of Life" is non-negotiable. And this raises an immediate concern: What do we do in the face of those who don't seem to embody the moral consequences that Attfield hightlights, even if they acknowledge the environmental crisis? Or maybe even more troublesome, are we too optimistic in thinking that most people actually do recognize the environmental crisis as a crisis? What to do about the "non-believers" or the morally recalcitrant are quite troubling questions.