Global Ethics and Environment

By Nicholas Low | Go to book overview

1

Introduction

Towards global ethics

Nicholas Low


Introduction

‘Global ecology’ and ‘global economy’ are frameworks for describing what is happening in our world. But we have no guide to public action without ‘global ethics’. Ethics tells us what we should do, how we should act. When we act together as a community or a society, then we need political ethics, as Aristotle explained (1976 edn). Since the 1970s our growing consciousness of the ecological crisis has confronted us with the need for global as well as local political action at the intersection between ecology and economy. This kind of action demands an ethic of the public sphere—the political, as well as the personal. 1

The dominant ecopolitical ideas which emerged from environmentalism in the latter part of the twentieth century need to be expanded. The quest for ‘ecologically sustainable development’ has revealed a host of conflicting interests and demands whose resolution requires a conception of environmental justice—not least among them the conflict between human interests and those of the rest of nature. The slogan ‘think globally, act locally’ suggests that action can be mounted effectively without changing our global institutions, yet those institutions are already in transformation as a result of global ecology and global economy. They must be changed, and will be changed in the twenty-first century.

The Rio Declaration which came out of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in 1992 provided a broad set of political principles which are intended to guide the world towards ecological sustainability and social justice. The accompanying ‘Agenda 21’ identified, in general terms, policies which could implement those principles. However, to move beyond mere rhetoric means deciding between those industries and activities that are sustainable and those that are not. Such a decision cannot be left to individual transactions and personal morality. In a world of uneven consumption patterns, sustainable development raises major questions of international distribution. Deciding such matters inevitably raises the prospect of changing both the use and the allocation of social and ecological resources. Any fundamental change to resource allocation will have social distributional consequences, and the issue

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