March 9, 2010
Ralston on Rights and Environmental Justice
Shane J. Ralston (Philosophy, Penn State-Hazelton) has posted Dewey and Leopold on the Limits of Environmental Justice. The abstract:
Environmental justice refers to many things: a global activist movement, local groups that struggle to redress the inequitable distribution of environmental goods (and bads), especially as they affect minority communities, as well as a vast body of interdisciplinary scholarship documenting and motivating these movements. In the past three decades, scholarly debates over what environmental justice requires have been dominated by a discourse of rights. While this rights talk is unlikely to disappear, I argue for an alternative framing of environmental justice issues in terms of two ethics. These paired ethics are inspired by two American thinkers, one who was specifically concerned with ecological matters and the other less so, but equally devoted to elaborating the advantages of experimental problem-solving: Aldo Leopold and John Dewey, respectively. In A Sand County Almanac, Leopold articulated an ethic of restraint. Individuals bear personal responsibility for promoting beauty, stability and diversity in their relations with the land. Dewey proposed an ethic of control, whereby experimental inquiry permits communities to gain greater control over their natural environment and experimentally determine the content of their shared norms. In some respects, Dewey’s ethic of control resembles what Leopold calls the ‘outlook of a conqueror’, not that of a ‘citizen in a land community’. However, if we adopt even a weakly anthropocentric view of human-environment interaction, then exerting some degree of control over one’s natural environment becomes essential for survival and flourishing. Still, pragmatists concerned with environmental justice issues can learn important lessons from Leopold’s ethic of restraint, which extends not only to the land, but also to the oceans and the atmosphere. I demonstrate this point by appealing to the works of J. Baird Callicott and Larry Hickman, as well as to proposals to reduce the anthropogenic inputs (especially global greenhouses gases) responsible for global warming through the intentional manipulation of climate systems—often called ‘geoengineering’.
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