I begin with a couple of paradoxes that may be relevant. Some recent journalistic accounts in the United States have suggested that the environmental justice movement there is ‘sputtering’, that its hoped-for political potential is not being realized and that it is fading as a political force from the scene (Braile, 1997). On the other hand, rapidly proliferating conferences and writings indicate a booming theoretical and intellectual interest in the topic—particularly within the groves of academia. I am not sure this paradox really exists (and I certainly have no conclusive evidence for it), but the mere suggestion of it worries me. It has obvious implications for the question of an adequate environmental ethics for the twenty-first century. Will all the talking and all the conferences contribute to or detract from the empowered capacity for political action on the part of those who suffer most from environmental injustice?
The second paradox arises out of my own gut response to the question: ‘Is a universal environmental ethic possible or desirable?’—a question posed to keynote speakers at the conference ‘Environmental Justice: Global Ethics for the 21st Century’, at the University of Melbourne, in October 1997.1 found myself saying, ‘Of course it is impossible—of course it is desirable.’ In this, I heard echoes of one of the slogans of the movement of’ 68: ‘Be realistic, demand the impossible!’ I then wondered how this contradictory response might fold into the first, more general paradox.
It is not hard to show why a universal environmental ethic is such an impossible idea. First enumerate some of the major axes of differentiation to be found within what is loosely called the environmental movement. Then consider how each axis produces its own polarized sense of how to formulate an environmental ethic. The aggregate result, no matter how we cut it, is a plethora of confusing and chaotic conceptions of environmental ethics and justice that muddy rather than clarify political choices. To hammer that point home, just consider some of the major axes of difference: