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Two recent events are reminders of the hope and despair that are tempting when thinking about the prospects for human life on earth. In the spring of this year, we saw uprisings against authoritarian regimes spread across the Middle East. Protests, mainly peaceful and mainly led by young people, rejected the authority of dictators who had been in power for decades. And in May, the International Energy Agency announced that global energy-related CO2 emissions reached a new high in 2010 (30.6 Gigatonnes) despite a worldwide economic recession. This is a 5% increase over the previous peak in 2008 of 29.3 Gigatonnes (IEA 2011).
Humans are social animals. We are at our best and our worst when we act collectively. It is through our collective action that we find meaning, hope, and purpose, yet our collective foolishness always threatens to undermine them. Wherever we get our meaning from, we all want to lead meaningful and satisfying human lives. Whether we call what’s good in the world ‘value’ or not, we all want to live in a world where there are many things to be glad about. We don’t need to fuss about which things have ‘standing’ and which things don’t - there are many ways of doing right by all that we care about. And if we wanted to foster it, we actually know quite a lot about what good environmental activism and engagement look like and how to bring them about.
John Cottingham, Robin Attfield, and Alan Holland take up the question of meaning in a discussion of an earlier essay by Holland in which he argued against the claim that a ‘Darwinian worldview’ diminishes our ability to find meaning in our lives (Holland 2009). While Attfield (2011) contends that there is a place for claims about value and comparisons of value within a Darwinian worldview, Holland (2011) regards value claims as ‘empty’ and value comparisons as misguided. Cottingham (2011) contends that the contingency of our faculties of moral judgment on a Darwinian worldview undermines the authority of morality as well as our confidence in the goodness of and our place within the world. Holland (2011) rejects this view, locating deeper meaning instead in the construction of a life that is purposeful and morally sensitive without appeal to a divine will.
Kai Chan, Barbara Muraca, and Alan Carter all offer us ways of moving beyond disputes about moral significance and ‘line-drawing’ within environmental ethics. Chan (2011) suggests assessing the strength of our moral responsibilities to an organism based on the probability of the organism’s sentience and consciousness. Muraca (2011) sidesteps the problem of determining the boundaries of the moral community by offering an ambitious ‘map of moral significance,’ which describes the different kinds of value that entities may possess and the relationships among those values. Carter (2011) accommodates the values expressed by different ‘moral standing’ views within a single, action-guiding framework.
Riikka Paloniemi, Annukka Vainio, Raphael Treffny, and Ruth Beilin offer us different analyses of the conditions that enable or undermine successful environmental action. Paloniemi and Vainio (2011), in a study of Finnish youth, show a positive correlation between post-materialist values and political competence. Treffny and Beilin (2011), evaluating a stakeholder participation effort for some of Australia’s Marine Protected Areas, criticise the methodology, which made disagreements appear to be agreements and didn’t address a lack of trust between agency staff members and community members. What can we take from this? Our excuses for not acting seriously and decisively to mitigate climate change are the excuses of the old, the cynical, the short-sighted, and the ignorant. Collectively, we have become the Mubarak regime: ‘Things will change, but not yet - the time is not right’; ‘Those who want change are outsiders who wish to destroy our way of life’; ‘Too much change will destroy the economy’; and so on. What we need now is the attitude of the young: ‘Of course we can change; let’s make it happen.’
Attfield, R. 2011. ‘Darwin, meaning, and value’. Environmental Values 20(3): 309-314.
Carter, A. 2011. ‘Towards a multidimensional, environmental ethic’. Environmental Values 20(3): 347-374.
Chan, K.M.A. 2011. ‘Ethical extensionism under uncertainty of sentience: duties to non-human organisms without drawing a line’. Environmental Values 20(3): 323-346.
Cottingham, J. ‘The meaning of life and Darwinism’. Environmental Values 20(3): 299-308.
Holland, A. 2011. ‘What do we do about bleakness?’ Environmental Values 20(3): 315-321.
Holland, A. 2009. ‘Darwin and the meaning of life’. Environmental Values 18(4): 503-518.
IEA (International Energy Agency) 2011. ‘Prospect of limiting the global increase in temperature to 2°C is getting bleaker’. http://www.iea.org/index_info.asp?id=1959
Muraca, B. 2011. ‘The map of moral significance: a new axiological matrix for environmental ethics’. Environmental Values 20(3): 375-396.
Paloniemi, R. and A. Vainio 2011. ‘Why do young people participate in environmental political action?’ Environmental Values 20(3): 397-416.
Treffny, R. and R. Beilin 2011. ‘Gaining legitimacy and losing trust: stakeholder participation in Ecological Risk Assessment for Marine Protected Area management’. Environmental Values 20(3): 417-438.
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