This is a guest post from OpenContinuity. OpenContinuity is an environmental ethics theorist and activist who works on questions about the self and the self’s relation to the environment.
“Social action without theory is blind, but theory without social action is empty.”
“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”
Given the current ecological crisis, a methodology is needed for knitting theoretical ethics and activism together more closely. Environmentalists who work to mitigate anthropocentric ecological destruction have much to gain from the argumentative force of theoretical ethics, and philosophers have much to gain from a more fluid exchange of ideas with those whose primary work is environmental activism. Through analyzing the epistemic function of metaphors within ethics, the limitations of a foundationalist ontology are revealed. Adopting a pluralistic approach enables utilizing the multiple ethical tools that are presently available, while simultaneously facilitating the introduction of new theoretical developments. I recommend a relational approach to both environmental theory and practice that is sensitive to the differing issues and responsibilities that are manifest at individual, local, national, and global levels. Moreover, consideration of temporal and epistemic limitations must factor in to both short and long term recommendations for action. I use the environmental issue of marine waste as a case study to show the virtues of the methodology I recommend for environmental praxis. Both environmental activists and environmental ethicists benefit from a methodology that encourages discourse where two intersect.
I have been practicing environmental ethics and environmental activism for the last twelve years. For the past year environmental activism has been my full time job in the not-for-profit field. Notable differences I’ve identified between the domains of academic and not-for-profit environmentalism include, but are not limited to, the following. Environmental activism seeks to provide extensive outreach to the general population, while environmental theory provides outreach primarily to fellow researchers and university students. The time afforded for extensive and often slow moving research is more readily available when one is housed as a paid academic than when one is housed as a paid activist in a not-for-profit organization. This time constraint is worth focusing on; with limited time an activist working at a not for-profit-organization must often make decisions with limited information. These decisions frequently focus on immediate needs, with the hope of receiving further funding to continue to revise and fine-tune projects. Within not-for-profit environmental organizations projects are thus issue-specific. As such, finding workable solutions to environmental harms usually requires talking to those directly affected by specific environmental harms, as well as talking to those who directly contribute to specific environmental harms. In contrast, academia allows for more distance from specific issues, allows time for consideration of multiple theoretical possibilities, enables crafting together ideals that draw from a substantive history of ethics, and provides access to and creates nuanced theoretical tools. Working in the field of environmental action has afforded me the opportunity to explore in more depth the relation between environmental ethics and activism. In what follows I contend that dialogue between these domains should be central to environmentalism, but has not yet been fully realized. In what follows I argue there is a need for this discussion, and sketch a methodology for keeping lines of communication fluid and open. Such an approach has the potential to improve both environmental theory and practice.
To illustrate the desirability of knitting environmental theory and practice together more closely I turn to bioethics and the methods used there for applying philosophical ethics to bioethical issues. Susan Sherwin’s metaphor of lenses helpfully illustrates the benefits of exploring multiple perspectives before taking a position. Through exposing oneself to key theoretical viewpoints across cultures and histories one is better placed to recommend wisely and/or decide wisely about the next step to improve our understanding and guide our actions is. Sherwin argues in favour of applying a diverse set of ethical tools/theories to issues in health care. I contend, analogously, that environmental ethics are best used to address environmental issues when they are thought of as theoretical lenses that both reveal and conceal dimensions of the moral landscape. Sherwin’s more recent work frames an approach for dealing with moral harms occurring at individual, local, national and international levels. Once again, I think her contribution can be exceptionally useful in the specific context of environmentalism and I focus on its application to ecologically relevant entities. Moreover, I recommend a methodology where short, middle, and long-term solutions can be pursued simultaneously. Environmental initiatives within local environmental not-for-profits are necessarily context specific. The significance of the fact that environmental issues always arise in specific contexts needs greater recognition in academic environmental ethics. I use marine waste as a case study to show how the methodology I recommend can be applied. Recognition that ethical theorizing must start with an environmental issue in a specific place, and as such must be socially, politically, geographically, and temporally informed is crucial to this approach. The goal of this paper is to make the case that the distance between philosophical environmental ethics and environmental activism can be bridged, and that this bridging should be an aim of both groups.
2. Case Study: Marine Waste
To begin I present the issue of marine waste as a case study. In 2009 I spent six months working as a Marine Waste Resource Management project officer. I was befuddled when it became apparent that I was unable to seamlessly apply my training as an academic environmental ethicist to my not-for profit work on the environmental issue of marine waste. As I tried to apply various environmental ethics to the problem, I discovered that if I limited myself to one theory at a time much of what I thought relevant was missed. Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation only identified a subset of the marine organisms that were of concern to me. Utilitarian calculations failed to address the fact that often times ecologists cannot pinpoint the specific environmental impacts of removing some species. A theory so dependent on predictable consequences left much to be desired. Paul Taylor’s Ethic of Respect focused on individuals at the expense of systems analysis which is crucial to ecology. Ecofeminist recommendations to alleviate oppression such as those found in Karen Warren’s “The Power and Promise of Ecofeminism,” provided an ideal worth aspiring to but failed to give me practical ways of realizing these ambitions in a context where multiple stakeholders – who often had conflicting goals and motivations – were seeking immediate solutions in a pre-feminist present where power imbalances are marked. The case study sets the stage for revisiting this issue later in the paper. Once equipped with the methodology I recommend for bringing theory and practice into conversation, we will revisit the issue.
A) Marine Waste
70% of the Earth’s surface area is covered by interconnected oceans. The presence of anthropogenically (human) caused waste is becoming a serious concern. There is an ‘island’ of garbage floating in the North Pacific Gyre, often referred to as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Estimates of its size range from the size of Texas to twice the size of the continental United States. It is 30 metres deep and contains 100 million tonnes of discarded plastic, and is predicted to double in size over the next decade. Plastics do not biodegrade; they simply break down into smaller and smaller pieces. Marine organisms mistake small pieces for food. This can result in the death of the organism if their stomachs fill with plastic such that they are incapable of consuming enough nutrients to survive. The implications of human consumption of fish that have consumed plastic is not yet determined, but given that chemicals in plastics can act as endocrine disruptors there is serious, legitimate, concern about its impact. Most of the marine plastic comes from land; it is estimated that approximately “80% of marine plastic comes from land-based sources.” The remaining 20% is caused by cruise ships, military vessels, fishing crafts, recreational boaters, merchant marine vessels, and so on. Some common pollutants include, but are not limited to: bait boxes; fishing nets; traps; rope; foam and plastic buoys; untreated sewage (black water); contaminated bilge water that may contain oil, fuel, solvents; used waste oil; filters; contaminated bilge socks; anti-freeze; batteries; paint; and so on. Much of this is repeated when you introduce the case study. I think you could safely move the whole discussion there and just use a sentence or two in the intro saying you will focus on a pressing local and global environmental issue to ground and illustrate your methodological claims, viz. the vast and growing amounts of plastic marine waste.
3. The Epistemic and Ontological Role of Metaphor in Ethics
Metaphors play a variety of roles in conceptualizing. Some of these roles are aesthetic (metaphors add colour to discussion), and some of them epistemic (metaphors contribute to understanding complex ideas through the transfer of relations in the domain of the metaphor to those that exist in the domain of the field we are trying to understand, metaphors also reveal ontological commitments) (Sherwin 1999, 199). As an example of how the transfer of relations from the domain of the metaphor to the domain of the field we are trying to understand, consider the following. In trying to increase a listener’s knowledge of the importance of today’s public presentation to me, I might appeal to the domain of sports and apply an understanding there to the domain of academic philosophy through saying “This is the Superbowl of job talks.” Moreover, some metaphors are ethical (metaphors help facilitate understanding, influence evaluation, and focus attention) (Sherwin 1999, 199). In ethics, metaphors shape our thinking, ontologically and epistemically. Consider, for example, how the metaphor of foundations works within ethical theorizing. Sherwin notes the metaphor of foundations “encourages us to believe that all true claims can (at least in principle) be ‘grounded in’ solid, undeniable truths and it directs us to evaluate controversial claims by considering whether or not they are supported by plausible theoretical assumptions” (Sherwin 1999, 200). Ontologically, such foundations are presumed to exist and are able to be found. Epistemically we are required to search out the foundational truths, after which we can decide upon appropriate moral action that reflects/follows from these truths. Sherwin argues that the metaphor of foundations directs our moral energy toward “the perpetually elusive goal of identifying a unified, certain foundational basis” for reasoning, rather than encouraging us “to appeal to our moral imagination to try different ways of understanding a problem in an effort to get the best fit.” (Sherwin 1999, 202). “The metaphor of foundations carries with it the notions of timeless moral laws, single true descriptions of moral problems and precise resolutions (Sherwin 1999, 202). This activity constrains one’s ability to conceptualize in ways which value multiple framings and resolutions of moral issues (Sherwin 1999, 202). A single-minded commitment to the metaphor of foundations for understanding ethics reduces the diverse resources afforded by considering multiple ethical approaches.
Thinking of ethical theories as lenses allows for attending to the important moral questions that each theory highlights, while also allowing for shifting and combining of these perspectives (Sherwin 204). We can draw from the theoretical strengths of varied ethical approaches, and identify overlaps and conflicts between approaches. Some lenses provide a clear view of particular dimensions of a problem while obscuring others. “Fit” between theoretical framework and issue is best arrived at not by filtering an issue through a theory and seeing what is left, but rather through testing out various frameworks and seeing what is revealed and concealed. “Fit” is achieved when it successfully identifies relevant actors, subjects, and moral issues. I am not contending that fit will be obvious, but that it is through testing out a variety of theories that one is better enabled to determine fit. I am in agreement with Sherwin that the metaphor of lenses aids in opening up conceptual possibilities for solutions to ethical issues.
For example, deontology may be a better fit for some issues (e.g. to underwrite irreducible human rights), while consequentialism might be a better fit for others (e.g. when making decisions about how to minimize harms across a population, a utilitarian calculus may be of great service). In other cases, it might be such that although deontology and consequentialism provide differently motivated rationales for the same course of action, such that both provide a good fit for different reasons. Putting on a variety of lenses gives one a sense of what, all things considered, best addresses the issue you are trying to resolve. Sherwin explains that not all approaches are “equally valid, while not all proposed solutions are morally acceptable;” rather, what is flagged here is that “we cannot always predict in advance which formulations are going to be the most morally instructive” (Sherwin 1999, 204). As a bioethicist, Sherwin’s work is rooted in how one ought to apply ethical theories in practice. Her account seeks to provide a workable method for drawing on philosophical resources to answer questions about context-specific moral conundrums. In a hospital, making decisions about end-of-life care ideally requires that one knows a great deal about the person being treated, their family, and their beliefs and values – the applicability of theoretical approaches, and one’s ability to determine which are the best fit, arises in the relation between the specific issue and the theoretical tools at one’s disposal. The answer to the question “What are we to do in this specific case?” is best discovered by knowing the details of the case, seeing what is revealed and concealed by various theoretical lenses, and then making a recommendation for action. I suggest that a contextually-rooted, problem-oriented approach is likewise required for both the development and application of environmental ethical theories. The need for such an approach becomes apparent when we turn to a discussion of environmental action in the not-for-profit sector.
Environmental not-for-profit organizations are analogous to hospitals in a variety of ways. There is a group of concerned care-givers employed to diagnose and ameliorate environmental illness, while being firmly committed to encouraging environmental health. Various specialists (biologists, sociologists, ecologists, farmers, gardeners, and so on) try to correctly diagnose and treat environmental ailments. The goal of treating the illness rather than the symptom is accomplished through education, outreach, and development of appropriate policies. It is a fast-paced environment, where the stakes are high and information is often not readily available. The time available for research and planning is limited. Drawing on the insights and skill sets of all members of the organization facilitates a wider knowledge base. Lastly, to address environmental issues adequately one must have context specific knowledge. Such a demand is particularly evident in not-for-profit environmental activism wherein project development is necessarily context specific.
Environmental ethicists often provide strong arguments as to why environmental action is necessary. However, many in the environmental community are not aware of these arguments, nor are these ideas usually presented in a way that is digestible to a non-philosopher. Having a diverse set of theoretical tools at their disposal would enable environmentalists to best decide upon and defend their actions; depending on the situation at hand different theoretical tools may be a better fit. Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic is useful for situations where analysis at the ecosystem level is required. Paul Taylor’s Kantian-flavoured Ethic of Respect focuses on individual living entities as teleological centres of life. Peter Singer’s utilitarian account in Animal Liberation focuses on non-human animals. Each of the above theories can serve as a useful lens for illuminating dimensions of particular environmental problems. In isolation each leaves out concerns of the other. By testing out a variety of theoretical lenses, environmentalists are better enabled to make morally sound decisions.
Facilitating a closer relation between theory and practice would require effort from some academics, and some environmental activists, to bridge the gap. This puts demands on some academic environmental philosophers to build relations with those in the environmental activist community, and on some environmental activists to build relationships with academic environmental philosophers. Academics of all stripes interested in making their work maximally accessible while maintaining the moral of a theory, could begin the work of identifying a number of the ways to bridge between theory practice. The work of both activists and environmental ethicists would require more clarity, stronger arguments, garner more attention and inspire a wider audience. Academics seeking familiarity with to the contextual nature of environmental activism will have to belong, in some capacity, to an environmental activist group to best understand its workings. From academics such a bridging requires attending to the contextual nature of environmental work.
4. Relational Environmentalism, Reflecting Complexity and Context
Now to turn to how a context sensitive approach firmly rooted in the practice of environmentalism might take shape. For this task I borrow from Sherwin’s recognition that a radical new ethic is needed for the variety of threats humans now face. Though Sherwin’s is an anthropocentric account, she provides helpful suggestions regarding how a multi-leveled, multidimensional environmental ethic might be developed. The ethics she contends we need is not spelled out; rather, she recommends collaboration of multidisciplinary, multinational groups of theorists and educators (Sherwin 2008, 9). She issues a plea for developing an ethic capable of ameliorating the sizeable threats humanity currently faces, including ecological harms (Sherwin 2008, 7-8). Sherwin identifies structural problems with the way ethics is currently practiced, and recommends “a more complex approach to ethics than theorists have yet offered” (Sherwin 2008, 8).
Sherwin defends a form of collective ethics dubbed “public ethics”, wherein multiple levels of human organization can be held morally accountable. Responsibility is exercised from the individual level to the institutional level, ranging from the local to the global. Relations between levels of human organization likewise need attention. A focus on solely individual responsibility is shown to be inadequate for addressing the scope of moral harms currently committed. Without an analysis of groups, and group responsibility, analysis at the national and international level is incomplete. Traditional ethical approaches focus on the responsibilities of the individual, taking the form of the question “what should an agent do in circumstances of the sort x?” (Sherwin 2008, 15). The scope of moral problems currently faced by humans, such as the ecological crisis, “require sorting through the multiple interactions among the many levels of human organization” (Sherwin 2008, 16). Humans exercise responsibility not only as individuals, but through their membership in and/or contribution to “community groups, corporations, governments, and international bodies” (Sherwin 2008, 9). Sherwin’s public ethics is a call to action, seeking to facilitate regular conversation between theorists and activists who have previously had to work in isolation, pursing an expanded agenda of ethics beyond solely focusing on questions of individual responsibility. Approaches that require either looking at individual behaviors or at institutions fail to note structural limitations to ethics which focus on “examining moral responsibilities at a single level of human organization at a time” (my emphasis, 16-17). Sherwin contends that the problems currently faced (e.g. global warming) require more than a focus on personal behaviors, they require collective direction (Sherwin 2008, 15). Environmental problems require simultaneous attention at both at the personal and collective level. Relational theory helps to illustrate the failings of an approach focused solely on individual action.
Relational theorists have helped to make it explicit that humans are essentially connected. As Sherwin notes:
…persons are, inevitably, connected with other persons and with social institutions. We are not isolated atoms, or islands, or self-contained entities, but rather products of historical, social, and cultural processes and interactions. The existence of any person is dependent on the existence and social arrangements of many others. Our interests are discovered by and pursued within social environments that help to shape our identities, characters, and opportunities. (Sherwin 2008, 12)
There are no individual (humans) without a society and no society without individuals; as such, we must explore the relations between individual and social responsibility as well as the responsibilities that attend the various levels of human organization. Beyond Sherwin’s focus on humans’ relational independence, an adequate environmental ethic must look to ecological dependence and continuity, as well as relations that hold between individual organisms, species, ecosystems and the like. When it comes to ecology, one must decipher what level of analysis one is or ought to be morally concerned with, be it at the level of individual organisms, or species, or ecosystems, and so on – or all these levels simultaneously with attention to how they intersect. Our moral responsibilities to these individuals and groups require adding a further layer of complexity to Sherwin’s account, bringing non-human individuals and groups into the theoretical mix.
If a robust approach to environmental ethics is desired then addressing ecological issues will likewise need serious engagement and collaboration by a varied group of specialists. Sherwin’s collaborative approach, coupled with her attention to how responsibility is manifest at various social levels, is of use for developing a sufficiently nuanced approach to environmentalism. In the social sphere, addressing ecological worries will require, as Sherwin argues, not just the action of conscientious individuals but also the establishment of social structures for facilitating moral ecological actions. Moreover, changes to current human behaviour to reflect the varied nature of ecological relations will require attention at the community, group, corporate, government, international, and other levels. Sherwin’s public ethics is a collective ethics, according to which responsibilities apply to all levels of human organizations, from individuals to various social groups locally, nationally, and globally (Sherwin 2008, 11). Coupling public ethics with the lens approach for environmental theory results in nuanced, comprehensive, complex, and context-sensitive ethics.
Insofar as collective ethics are meant to correct ecological harms, beyond Sherwin’s recommendations I would stipulate that concern for non-human entities as morally considerable in themselves must also be manifest. Thus moral responsibilities at various levels become even more complex. Sherwin argues that there must be significant “institutional changes to create the infrastructure that will facilitate personal and organizational choices that protect rather than threaten human life on the planet. To capture this understanding we need an explicitly collective ethics” (Sherwin 2008, 15). This must be understood as being needed within a discourse that allows for attention to individualistic action action as well. Sherwin’s collective ethics speaks not only of the collaboration of a collective of theorists to come up with new ethical tools. It also speaks of the collaboration necessary on a variety of levels of social organization.
Adding non-human entities to the moral landscape inevitably makes moral navigation more complex. A public ethics must address a variety of divergent and conflicting ethical demands, not just among persons but also among non-human entities. For example, it requires not just the protection of human life but also protection of non-human life, ecosystems, the biosphere, and so on. Public ethics are recognized as being more than an aggregation of personal acts (Sherwin 2008, 17). The gestalt of group acts needs further ethical attention. In like form, awareness of non-human forms of organization requires ethical attention. The connectivity identified by relational theory equips it for addressing much of the complexity of ecological relations, particularly the unavoidable dependency of humans on ecological health.
Lastly I wish to flag key epistemic and temporal dimensions of a workable public environmental ethics. Environmental action is needed immediately, but ideal courses of action are often unknown. It is only through analysis of the different levels of human and ecological organizations, as well as the relations between them, that we are placed to make informed decisions. This is a sizeable requirement, one which will involve the efforts of a collaboration of multidisciplinary, multinational groups of theorists, practitioners, and educators. Given the complicated, collaborative, and inherently interdisciplinary research initiative that is needed, it is useful to adopt a strategy embraced by the environmental not-for-profit community. It is a strategy wherein short, medium, and long-range goals are identified to facilitate tackling an issue at multiple levels. In the short term, direct, pragmatic action may be required to treat symptoms of environmental harm. For example, organizing a beach clean up is a short term goal that results in lessening the amount of waste on a coastline. Medium-range goals might include education to motivate behavior change with regard to waste and excess. A longer term goal might involve lobbying against non-biodegradable packaging, increasing fines for waste, and increasing producer responsibility for the waste they generate. Such an approach helps to bridge the gap between ethical ideals and practical constraints. Philosophical environmental ethics help in the moral imagining of an ideal relation with the environment, while environmental activism demands that moral theories provide justification for practical recommendations regarding what is achievable in the short, medium, and long-term.
5. Case Study: Marine Waste
I have made the case for a pluralistic approach to environmental ethics, wherein a fit between theoretical frameworks and context specific issues is best arrived at through a close examination of what differing theoretical lenses conceal and reveal. The importance of grounding environmental ethics in the messy contextual details of particular issues is exemplified in environmental not-for-profit work. The success of projects depends directly on the understanding of the individuals and groups affected by, or participating in the creation of, the environmental issue at hand. Solutions that “fit” require a working knowledge of the context within which the issue arises, and a working knowledge of environmental ethics. As such, I recommend more environmental ethicists engage in dialogue with environmental activists, whose on-the-ground knowledge can help inform practical ethics. As the distance between theory and action is bridged the practical feasibility of theory increases, while access to a rich set of theoretical tools strengthens and provides justification for action.
Earlier, I explored a context-sensitive approach firmly rooted in the practice of environmentalism. I engage with Sherwin’s account of public ethics, this multi-leveled approach is useful for identifying both relevant human and ecological organizational structures. I highlight some of the uniquely challenging dimensions of its applications within environmental theory. By exploring what concern for/moral responsibilities to non-human entities might look like further complicates the scope of moral relations and responsibilities needing to be faced today. This complication, however, need not be overwhelming provided we allow for short, medium, and long-term recommendations. Such an approach is inherently revisable, to best reflect an increase in knowledge. Furthermore, the benefit of a context sensitive and issue-based approach allows for theories that reflect the scope of involved entities. By clarifying what analysis at the individual local community level, the national level, the global level, and so on reveals, we are again better placed to see how environmental issues are connected and the various ways responsibility can be shared. The above methodology for addressing environmental issues draws from the insights of both environmental ethics and environmental action – and provides at least one form of bridging the two – so that both action and theory are better equipped to address the environmental crisis.
Now I turn to a case study of marine waste to illustrate such a methodology in practice. I identify relevant social and ecological groupings to help identify theoretical lenses that fit the issues at those levels.
A) Global Level:
In view of the fact that 70% of the Earth’s surface area is covered by interconnected oceans, marine debris is a global issue. The seriousness of the problem of marine waste is made clear by the existence of an ‘island’ of garbage floating in the North Pacific Gyre, often referred to as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Estimates of its size range from the size of Texas to twice the size of the continental United States. It is 30 metres deep, contains 100 million tonnes of discarded plastic, and is predicted to double in size over the next decade. Plastics do not biodegrade; they simply break down into smaller and smaller pieces. Marine organisms mistake these small pieces for food. This can result in the death of the organism if their stomachs fill with plastic such that they are incapable of consuming enough nutrients to survive. If one is using the lens of an anthropocentric ethic there is cause for concern, not only regarding what it does to a human food source (fish), but also what the consumption of those fish does to humans. If one is using the lens of an ecocentric ethic, concern about the impact of marine waste on ocean ecosystems is flagged. If one is using a lens that recognizes non-human organisms as intrinsically valuable than albatrosses dying from stomach’s filled with plastics, baby sea turtles dying from the consumption of nurdles (pre-production plastic pellets), and adult sea turtles dying through the consumption of plastic bags are flagged as moral sites for concern. Each give different rationales, but there is agreement regarding the importance of solving the issue of anthropogenically caused marine waste.
Given the global nature of marine waste, Garrett Hardin’s (1968) discussion of the Tragedy of the Commons provides a useful theoretical lens. Hardin broaches issues of responsibility when a resource is shared and every individual might feel justified in overuse. In the example Hardin provides herders shared land, a commons, where all their cattle can graze. Hardin considers a case where each individual herder will think it good to put as many cattle as they can to graze, because they receive the market benefits of additional cattle. The ecological harms are minimized for the individual because they are externalized to the commons and distributed more widely. Such an approach, however, inevitably destroys the commons. Questions of responsibility resonate here, as does an implicit request for an account that adequately attends to distributed responsibility. It also brings the question of externalized environmental costs in economic systems to the fore. Though useful, Hardin’s theoretical lens obscures issues regarding the solely instrumental use non-human animals. In contrast, the intrinsic worth of non-human animals is highlighted in an account like Tom Regan’s “The Case for Animal Rights.”
In the case of marine waste the successful exercise of responsibility at the global level requires international agreement. Moral action for the short term may involve immediate retrieval of waste from the North Pacific Gyre out of care for the marine organisms that are known to be harmed. Such action is achievable by a non-global effort. Medium term goals might include stricter laws for waste disposal in international waters, and improvements in policing those waters. In the case of marine waste – unlike some other pollutants – reduction of marine waste from ships requires a great deal of individual responsibility and motivation – due to the fact that it is extremely difficult to police international waters (approaching ships are easily seen on the horizon). Long-term solutions might include concrete, legally binding global commitments to the discontinued use of plastics in an effort to sustain ocean ecosystems, which could be motivated by anthropocentric or ecocentric concerns. Insofar as a public ethics is recognized as being required, addressing dimensions of the problem manifest at the global level and their relation to more local concerns are noted as a cite for analysis. I here only touch on some of the dimensions of the problem, but through attending to questions of environmental action and theoretical lenses that fit the issue well, we are, I contend, better placed to resolve the issue of marine waste at the global level.
B) Provincial Level: Nova Scotia, Group: Fishermen
Within Nova Scotia, the issue of marine waste takes on additional dimensions given the predominance of fishing within this province’s coastal communities. By focusing on the issue of marine waste within the context of Nova Scotia, fishermen are recognized as a) desiring to protect their resource base and b) as being in a position where they can directly abuse their resource base. The list of common types of marine waste generated by the fishing industry is sizeable, however in what follows I will focus on discarded bait boxes. In November 2006 Small Craft Harbours, a branch of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, conducted a bait box survey in the Maritimes/Gulf regions. Of the approximately 3 million frozen bait boxes (valued at approximately $55 million) that are used annually during the various lobster seasons (NS, NB, PEI), approximately 600,000 thousand are discarded at sea (20%). The bait boxes often have a plastic liner inside to keep the bait from becoming freezer burnt during storage. These plastic liners are of concern given the worries outlined above about the impact of plastic in marine ecosystems.
The political positioning of fishermen is of relevance to the issue. Small Craft Harbours recently disinvested from the wharfs they previously owned. As such, individual wharfs are now required to financially sustain themselves. Given the cripplingly low lobster prices in the last two years, fishermens’ ability to pay for proper waste disposal is a serious worry for smaller wharfs. In this instance, the application of ethical theories would have to add a political analysis of the positioning of the fishermen. Short-term goals for minimizing marine waste might involve providing free waste management infrastructure. Given that 80% of marine plastic comes from land, fishermen are well placed to voice their concern about environmental harms generated by land-based waste entering the marine environment and harming their resource. In addition, if they are inland fishermen, their awareness of and relationship with specific ecosystems they sail may act as a motivation for protection of those waters. Looking to the insights offered by moral psychology in this case may be of benefit. Individuals contributing to the issue of marine waste, and those looking to correct it, are differently motivated (economically, socially, environmentally, ethically, and so on). Assessing motivating factors for environmental action is critical for a robust environmental praxis. Of concern is how responsibility is conceptualized when there are varying ecological impacts depending on the group being assessed. For example, many fisherman were surprised to have been focused on given the more substantive environmental harms generated by larger ships and organizations.
A temporal account that seeks to meet immediate, middle and long term goals can help one to reach what might otherwise seem like fundamentally unachievable theoretical ideals. For example, such an approach can generate an adequate method for meeting the concerns of ecofeminists. Some environmental harms need immediate correction, whether or not a logic of domination is being undone in the process. Though this is a worthwhile goal, practical demands to cease particular environmentally harmful behaviours may take precedence. Having a set of objectives that can be realized over time would allow for attending to, for example, gender imbalances in the fishing industry, gender imbalances in the environmental movement, predominant conceptualizations of non-humans as being of solely instrumental worth, and so on.
Given the current ecological crisis, a methodology is needed for knitting theoretical ethics and activism together more closely. Environmentalists who work to mitigate anthropocentric ecological destruction have much to gain from the argumentative force of theoretical ethics, and philosophers have much to gain from a more fluid exchange of ideas with those whose primary work is environmental activism. I have begun the task of constructing such a methodology here. Through analyzing the epistemic function of metaphors within ethics, the limitations of a singular commitment to the metaphor of foundations are revealed. Adopting a pluralistic approach enables utilizing the multiple ethical tools that are presently available, while simultaneously facilitating the introduction of new theoretical developments. I recommend a relational approach to both environmental theory and practice that is sensitive to the differing issues and responsibilities that are manifest at individual, local, national, and global levels. Moreover, consideration of temporal and epistemic limitations must factor in to both short and long term recommendations for action. The virtues of the methodology I recommend for environmental praxis are illustrated through the marine waste case study. Although the global and provincial case studies were, of necessity, brief, the benefits of a context-sensitive approach to environmental ethics are evident. By addressing different human organizational levels, and different ecosystems, a more detailed account of core concerns can be identified, as can more nuanced solutions which draw from environmental ethics. Both environmental activism and environmental ethics benefit from a methodology that encourages discourse where the two intersect.
I wish to thank official and adopted members of the Dalhousie Publication Support Group (PSG) whose comments on early drafts were formative: Adam Auch, Jerad Gallinger, Steven Latta, Chris Chalmers, Brendan, Sam Copeland, Heather Jessup, Victor Kumar, and Evan Goulet. I wish to express my gratitude for the close readings and bioethics expertise given by Susan Sherwin and Meredith Schwartz. I also want to thank Corey Clamp for his perennial insights, offered tirelessly throughout multiple revisions. My thanks to Anna McCarron, the water coordinator at Clean Nova Scotia, for being willing to hire a philosopher to grapple with the issue of marine waste. Finally I want to thank the Ecology Action Centre, the organization that provided the fertile soil for these ideas to grow, and the freedom, support and encouragement to practice as both an environmental activist and philosopher. The unceasing commitment to the environment embraced by the Ecology Action Centre’s staff and volunteers continues to inspire me.
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