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2006 (28) Heft 2

Ecological Goals and Liberal Ideals: Harmony or Conflict?

 

Guest-Editor: Thomas Schramme


Editorial | Inhalt | Abstracts

Liberty, equality, justice and solidarity are traditional political ideals of modern Western democracies. Different traditions and parties have supported different models in order to harmonise them. In contrast to the prevalence and long history of these values, ecological goals and needs have moved onto the political agenda fairly recently. Hence it should not come as a surprise that there is no consensus about the compatibility of ecological ambitions with common Western political ideals. Right after the first ecological crises of the 1970s environmentalism was quickly integrated into the then dominant political programmes and transformed into short-term management, i.e. ‘liberal ecology' (on the market-liberal side) or (in Germany) ‘ecological-social market' economy (on the Christian and social-democrat side). Even grass-roots movements and green parties imported their ecological goals through the classical programmes supporting welfare and security, freedom and consumerism — but hereby failed to confer environmental values any self-sufficiency.

In more philosophical terms, the instrumental value of nature as a resource for the attainment of human needs and aspirations has by now gained widespread acknowledgement. Although this viewpoint does not seem to be in conflict with common liberal assumptions like anthropocentrism, it nevertheless builds the basis for discussions which are still fairly new to the traditional liberal theories of justice, democracy, or neutrality. It has become obvious that the exploitation of natural resources poses threats to the health and well-being of people by effects like pollution and global warming and might be based on an unfair appropriation of limited environmental resources. Therefore, recent theories of justice have begun to scrutinise the global distribution of environmental benefits and burdens.

More contentious, especially in terms of a liberal viewpoint, are other recent theories that focus on consumption and basically plead for confining the use of natural resources. This might ask for too much, since it seems to rely on a specific perfectionist ideal of the good life. To insist on moderation may be regarded as endorsing a comprehensive doctrine on how to lead a life. However, it seems evident that the human race will not survive for long if economies keep on growing at the current level. Whether we see it as anti-liberal or not, we might only survive if we force people to give up some of their consumer freedom for the sake of future generations.

Even more controversial from a liberal point of view is the idea of granting non-human nature intrinsic value. This might not only seem to imply metaphysical, possibly religious, assumptions about the moral worth of organisms which are to be avoided for reasons of neutrality, but also to result in awkward consequences like granting organisms, who are themselves incapable of acting morally, moral status. The familiar idea of founding morality on reciprocity should not be given up, many liberals insist. Also, equality as a liberal value might be threatened by transferring intrinsic value to non-human organisms; after all, it seems unlikely that we would demand equality of protection for, say, humans, animals and trees. For many liberals it is not acceptable to endorse an account of graded moral status.

All three areas of discussion just introduced, global environmental justice, intergenerational justice and ecological justice, are treated in this issue. In addition, the relationship of the respective themes and the compatibility of its concerns to liberalism are also discussed in several of the papers. How far, if at all, can liberalism (and a liberal economy) ensure the conservation of increasingly scarce environmental goods? Is it adequate for ecological politics to be guided by the traditional interpretations of liberty and justice, or should we amend these values to environmental necessities? Are ecological goals to be adjusted to traditional Western political ideals or must these political ideals be reformulated to fit the green point of view? It will become obvious that there is no straightforward answer to the question whether a strong ecological point of view is in conflict with liberal theory or not. Neither strand is unitary, but inherently contested; hence the most important question becomes: what may be the best interpretation of liberal ideals judged from the perspective of ecological goals?

Marcel Wissenburg evaluates the debate on the compatibility of liberalism and ecologism from a meta-perspective. The main problem, according to him, is how to raise the question of compatibility in the first place: political theories are not firm collections of propositions but evolve. Hence, there are only liberalisms in the plural — both theoretically and in reality — as well as ecologisms not ecologism. In addition, there are several different meanings of incompatibility. The agenda for future debates on compatibility ought therefore to shift considerably.

Thomas Schramme addresses sufficiency by taking a negative route. He criticizes John Rawls's well-known theory of justice for a specific underlying premise: everyone wants to have as many natural resources as possible, since they are all-purpose goods which are useful for the pursuit of any rational life-plan. The maximising assumption is supposedly supported by a very plausible account of rationality. Schramme attacks the maximising assumption by referring to an alternative model of rationality: satisficing is a rational strategy that only goes for what is good enough, not for the possible maximum. He also attempts to show why even under conditions of scarcity maximising is not always the only rational strategy. Scarcity needs to be understood as a relational concept. It then turns out that the purposes for which resources are necessary can be challenged; scarcity can thus be confined.

John O'Neill is specifically concerned with two aspects that have recently gained attention in environmental political theory: firstly, the compatibility of limited economic growth with the perpetuation of a customary level of well-being in Western states. Their reconciliation is established by a hedonistic or Epicurean theory of well-being: if we do not need as many resources as possible to lead happy lives because well-being is a matter of subjective mental states that are disconnected from material affluence, then reduced consumption does not seem to be too demanding after all. The second aspect O'Neill discusses is the notion of environmental citizenship, which is, in terms of historical references, related to an Aristotelian, republican account of active citizens who are concerned with the needs of following generations. O'Neill's main aim is to reconcile these two seemingly hostile — especially as regards their theoretical pedigree — green concerns.

Simon Hailwood defines his non-instrumental view on nature in terms of the respect for nature's otherness. It is not a direct demand of political reasonableness, but this kind of respect is nevertheless in congruence with liberalism. Moreover, there is an affinity between liberalism and respecting nature because they both support the virtue of toleration and moral integrity. Nevertheless, individuals are not inconsistent if they subscribe to a purely instrumental view on nature; it is ‘only' an arbitrary view.

Brian Baxter directly replies to Hailwood's paper. To him, the fact that non-sentient beings can have welfare interests makes a difference to what liberals can possibly claim in a coherent fashion. He regards two of Hailwood's assertions as objectionable: firstly, that instrumental liberalism, i.e. disrespecting nature, is not incoherent, and secondly, that respecting nature's otherness commits one to the moral considerability of even abiotic nature, i.e. the whole of non-human nature.

Derek Bell is confident in combining a Rawlsian framework with ecological goals. In his paper, he challenges the assertion that liberalism and ecologism are incompatible. Bell shows that although Rawls suggests that our relationship to animals is not part of the constitutional essentials, these matters can be decided by citizens in democratic procedures. However, it is not acceptable from the liberal point of view to constitutionally protect non-human individuals or include them in the legislature by obligatory indirect representation. Still, as long as ecologists do not insist on democratic representation of non-human nature, the ideals of political liberalism and ecological goals may well be compatible.

Lukas Meyer and Dominic Roser focus on a particular topic in global environmental justice: How should benefits resulting from emissions of greenhouse gases be distributed? And should past emissions play a role in determining the just allocation of tradable emission rights? Meyer's and Roser's argument is concerned with the current better situation of developed countries, hence with matters of distributive justice. Developing countries should get more emission rights because they are worse off, not because developed countries owe them compensation. Developing countries also suffer more from emissions and should therefore be granted a right to larger shares.

John Barry and Peter Doran tackle the concept of ‘ecological modernisation', which has become popular in recent theoretical as well as political debates. They use it as a starting-point for an attempt to build a better model of a realistic, non-utopian, green political economy that can, nevertheless, underpin a radical view of sustainable development. They are also concerned with the level of consumption in Western societies, though they do not endorse anti-consumerism or asceticism. Ecological modernisation, as it is discussed and put into practice today, e.g. by the New Labour government in the UK, aims at a reconciliation of ecology with economic growth, which itself is not challenged. Barry and Doran doubt whether this focus on efficiency is enough to solve the ecological problems we face today. To them, economic security is the main determinant of well-being, and it is also beneficial for maintaining democratic structures. Hence, sufficiency should be the notion we are concerned with in future debates to complement the existing discourse on efficiency.

Some of the papers stem from a conference at the University of Mannheim, held in October 2005, which was organised by Anton Leist and Thomas Schramme. Both would like to thank the Philosophical Faculty at Mannheim University and the Ethics-Centre at Zurich University for financial support in organising the symposium.

 

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