Global Ethics and the Australian Environmental Movement

By Lowe, Ian | Social Alternatives, Third Quarter 2007 | Go to article overview

Global Ethics and the Australian Environmental Movement


Lowe, Ian, Social Alternatives


Abstract

Australian environmental groups have a proud record of defending the natural assets of this country. The Earth Charter calls for a new global ethics including the principles of social and economic justice, non-violence and peace. These broader questions are now being incorporated into the thinking of environmental groups. The Australian Conservation Foundation now embraces such principles as Living within our Means, and Securing a Sustainable Future for the Asia-Pacific, as well as its traditional goals of protecting the natural environment. The new thinking recognises that a fundamental shift in community values will be needed to underpin a sustainable future.

Introduction

The Earth Charter (2007) embodies the fundamental principles of a new global ethics under four broad headings: 1) respect and care for the community of life, 2) ecological integrity, 3) social and economic justice, 4) democracy, non-violence and peace. In ecological terms, the Charter calls for us to 'protect and restore the integrity of Earth's ecological systems, with special concern for biological diversity and the natural processes that sustain life', to 'adopt patterns of production, consumption, and reproduction that safeguard Earth's regenerative capacities, human rights, and community well-being', taking a precautionary approach where our knowledge is limited. These are principles that should cause no difficulty to any mainstream environmental group. After all, the purpose of setting up environmental groups is to protect the integrity of natural systems against damage cause by ignorance, greed or short-term economic thinking.

Traditionally, environmental groups have paid less attention to other aspects of the Earth Charter, such as the need to ensure that economic activities promote patterns of development that are equitable as well as sustainable, with special attention to gender equity and the specific needs of Indigenous groups. They have also given little emphasis to democratic institutions and 'the need to integrate into formal education and life-long learning the knowledge, values, and skills needed for a sustainable way of life'. The increasing urgency of a concerted response to the problem of global wanning has forced the Australian environmental movement to broaden its view and include some of these wider dimensions of the Earth Charter into their thinking. So we are now seeing a new phase of environmental thinking in Australia, incorporating the broader aspects of global ethics embodied in the Charter and seeking to promote those principles in our political life.

Global Climate Change

The science of global warming has been clear for at least a decade; when I wrote Living in the Greenhouse (Lowe, 1989), I thought the evidence was already strong enough to justify taking action to improve the efficiency of energy use and move toward cleaner supply technologies. As successive reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2007) made clear that even the cautious, conservative lowest common denominator of scientific opinion was calling for a concerted response, the Australian government's approach of denial and obstruction became more and more difficult to justify. As recently as the start of 2007, the Australian government was still proudly joining the Bush regime in a coalition of the unwilling, refusing to ratify the Kyoto protocol despite our uniquely generous target. The strategy still seemed to be one of cosmetic gestures and obfuscation. But it became clear this year that the community no longer accepts this approach. With polls running heavily against the Howard government, the 2007-08 Budget contained a flurry of measures to provide some semblance of a concerted response. More recently, we saw the release of the report of the emissions trading task force, a hand-picked group of Commonwealth public servants and representatives of the big polluters (Commonwealth of Australia, 2007).

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