A Theory of Ecological Justice

By Brian Baxter | Go to book overview

1

The concept of ecological justice

In a three-part series entitled The State of the Planet, broadcast on BBC television in November 2000, Sir David Attenborough, the person associated, at least in British minds, with nature and the environment in all its forms, provided a lucid and alarming survey of the main ways in which human beings are currently destroying many of the plants and animals around them, driving many towards extinction. During the second episode, in the course of considering the reasons for the human-caused extinction of a species of snail unique to Hawaii, he addressed the issue of whether it mattered that one small species of snail should become extinct, especially as apparently no other ecological damage had resulted, as far as we know. His reply to this question was as follows: 'Surely it is sad indeed that our descendants should inherit a natural world that is more impoverished than the one we inherited?' (BBC 2000a). This sort of rather wistful response to the extinction of other species is often encountered. In voicing it David Attenborough was simply expressing a prevalent view, even among those who regard themselves as concerned for the natural environment. In further identifying as the injured party 'our descendants', he also adopted a standpoint which is widespread, even among those most concerned about the prospects of large-scale human-caused extinctions of other species. The possibility of there being any wrong done to the species of snail, or to the individual members of the species, receives no mention at all, not even to be dismissed. Apparently it is only the possible losses to actual and future human beings, whether aesthetic, cultural, scientific, medical, economic, recreational and so forth, that count.

One way to understand the point of this book is to see it as seeking to establish the wholly inadequate character of these responses. If the arguments presented below are correct we should rather say that human beings would have done something grossly unjust if they were to perpetrate the extinctions of other life-forms, as envisaged by Attenborough and many other well-informed commentators, when they could take steps to avoid doing so without serious harm to human life. This specific injustice, further, will have been done to the creatures themselves, not to human beings.

In order to flesh out this claim a little further it will be as well to begin with an outline of how the approach of this book towards human beings' relationships with non-human life differs from that of other traditions and theories. The first point to

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