Lately, my research has taken me in to the realms of environmental and ecological justice, analysing the reality of the fairness of distribution of environmental assets and opportunities throughout the world. It is in the interest of human beings to live in a safe, healthy and pleasant environment in which they can carry out their daily tasks without the threat of poor environmental health affecting their bodily functions. However, environmental justice only considers human beings’ relationships with other human beings, albeit connecting these human beings with their environment. Ecological justice goes a step further, extending the relationship directly to the environment itself and to ecosystems, placing value and desert upon these facets and systems and arguing that the environment itself deserves a just existence.
Nicholas Low and Brendan Gleeson in their book Justice, Society and Nature (1998) have made it clear their belief that in order to conceive of justice to nature, the very basis of justice itself must be reconceived in the way humans define their own interests and moral values. There is a requirement for humans to step away from the ‘self-interested’ individual that has dominated all bases of western society for the past three hundred years, a vision promulgated by Thomas Hobbes, Immanuel Kant, Adam Smith and, above all, René Descartes. Humans must indeed step away from the self and broaden their own horizons, placing themselves within their ecosystems, returning themselves to nature whilst also continuing human existence. In The Examined Life (1989) Robert Nozik explains this idea in a sense of a ‘deeper reality’:
‘I think what is important is to offer responses due, to respond to things as homages to their reality. What would matter, then, would not be the quantity of the response, even the quantity of the response’s reality, but the manner of the response, the spirit in which it is done. Speaking of what is due may make it seem like a debt owed, though, or an obligation, whereas I mean something more like an applause. Or an offering. Or, perhaps, more like love. (now the important bit) To love the world and to live within it in the mode this involves gives the world our fullest response in a spirit that joins it. The fullness of this response enlarges us too; people encompass what they love – it becomes part of them as its well-being becomes partly theirs. The size of a soul, the magnitude of a person, is measured in part by the extent of what that person can appreciate and love.’ (Nozik, 1989, 258)
This sense of expanded self is therefore crucial in formulating a new relationship with the natural world. If humans are to be true ‘caretakers’ or ‘custodians’ for the environment, both terms vastly overused and indeed misused, they must expand this consciousness and indeed ‘love the world’. The trouble is that the Cartesian doctrine of ‘I think, therefore I am’ is so entrenched within societies (referring to Western societies of European origin principally but factors are apparent in other societies) that the individual has become paranoid and institutionally incapable of reaching out wholly and selflessly to all members of their own kind, let alone non-human animals or other members of the biosphere. There is therefore a need, as Low and Gleeson explore at length, to expand the sense of human moral consciousness as well as social consciousness and the sense of self.
The consciousness I am calling for is largely derived from the ‘land ethic’ of Aldo Leopold; a change in consciousness to sustain populations of all beings on the earth and remove the sense of superiority that humans have inherited and amplified through the generations. As Leopold said, ‘the land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land… In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.’ This sense of piety and ‘smallness’, has largely withdrawn from the human sense of self. This short article calls on people to reflect upon their own sense of self and to shift their consciousness to a higher level.
Humans should not only move forward in a more sustainable manner, for the sake of all beings, but rethink the bases and boundaries of justice. Ethical judgement needs to be placed within an environmental and ecological context. When action takes place, putting ecological justice at risk, such an expanded consciousness should reflect as to whether such action is ‘right’ or ‘just’. Ecological consciousness requires an expanded, not a diminished, sense of justice. Human beings and the rest of nature are inter-dependent, in a manner that the sustained continuity of ecosystems depends upon human decision and action. Likewise, although some may not always remember it, human beings remain 100 per cent reliant upon natural systems for their survival, our planetary biosphere and all the ecosystems within it. The environmental challenges we face in the 21st Century and beyond are just as much moral and philosophical problems as they are scientific and spatial. They are part of the ever present and ever shifting existential crisis.