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"Global Environmental Justice" - Dale Jamieson
"Global Environmental Justice" - Dale Jamieson

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Published by: Sam Panther on Mar 02, 2011
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Global Environmental Justice


Philosophers, like generals, tend to fight the last war. While activists and policy-makers are in the trenches fighting the problems of today, intellectuals are typically studying the problems of yesterday.

There are some good reasons for this. It is more difficult to assess and interpret present events than those which are behind us. Time is needed for reflection and to gather reliable information about what has occurred. The desire to understand leads to a style. of life that is primarily contemplative and retrospective.

But there are also bad reasons for the relative neglect of contemporary problems. Philosophers typically write about what other philosophers write about, and if no-one has written about a problem it is difficult to get anyone to write about it. Philosophy is also a deeply historical subject and for the most part the tradition either has been silent about environmental problems or what it has said is itself part of the problem. Moreover, philosophers have a toolbox of theories, methods and concepts and like most people they want to work on problems that their tools can help to solve. And as I shall try to show, the results of applying philosophical theories of justice to problems of the global environment are disappointing.

One old philosophical wrangle which appears quaint in the context of today is the debate over whether and why there are duties and obligations that transcend national boundaries. It is easy to.see why this was a problem in the past. Famines and other extreme events have occurred throughout history, but in many cases it was not known outside the affected regions that people were dying. Even when it was known and people were willing to help, little could be done to help those in need. When people are not culpably ignorant and they are not in a position to be efficacious there is little point in ascribing duties to them. Today things are very different with respect to information and causal efficacy. We live in an age in which national boundaries are porous with respect to almost everything of importance: people, power, money and information, to name a few. These help to make obligations possible. If people, power, money and information are so transnational in their movements, it is hard to believe that duties and obligations are confined by borders.


Dale Jamieson

Global Environmental Justice

A turning point in popular consciousness about transnational duties was the Ethiopian famine of 1978. The fact that people in Africa were dying on a massive scale from the lack of what people in the North have in excess could not be denied. Since then images of dying children have regularly been brought into the living rooms of the industrialized world. With images so stark and ubiquitous the old tactics of psychological evasion have begun to wither. We can no longer claim ignorance about the conditions of extreme poverty in which more than a billion people live. With the advent of jumbo jets and new technologies it can no longer be maintained that nothing can be done to help those in need who live beyond our national boundaries.

For present purposes I will assume that this old philosophical dispute has been resolved and that there are transnational duties and obligations.' I will assume further that it is meaningful to discuss whether some of these duties and obligations are related to ideals of global justice.

I will ignore many complications. I will use the terms 'duty' and 'obligation' more or less interchangeably, and will do the same with the terms 'global' and 'international'. I will be vague about the conditions under which a transnational duty is a duty of justice. I will simply assume that people have transnational duties and that it is an open question whether or not some of these are duties of justice. Some may deny that rich countries have duties of justice to intervene in Bosnia or Somalia (for example), but few people (I hope) would assert that it is meaningless or futile to even discuss whether or not they have such duties.

Our present topic arises because of the juxtaposition of the idea of global justice with that of environmental justice. In recent years the term 'environmental' has been used to modify all sorts of traditional harms and wrongs: racism, elitism, fascism, terrorism, blackmail and so on. In the domestic American context discussions of environmental justice are typically about the fact that the poor suffer disproportionately from the environmental pollution produced by society at large. Dramatic examples of this include the white working-class neighbourhood in Love Canal, New York, that was built on top of a toxic waste dump; the ongoing problem of uranium tailings negligently disposed of on Indian reservations in New Mexico and Arizona; and the continuing attempts to locate toxic waste dumps in poor black communities in the South. (For discussion of some of these issues see Bryant and Mohai, 1992.) In

I Of COUrse there are still those who would deny that there are such duties. For discussion and references see Beitz. 1979, pp. 15-27.


the international context there are similar examples. Questions

about global environmental justice are raised when rich countries export toxic wastes to poor countries, sell pesticid~s t.o them that have been banned domestically or make preservatiorust demands that would affect their prospects for development.

During the UNCED negotiations in Rio de Janeiro the Bush administration grumbled that calls for global environmental justice were just attempts to resurrect the 1970s idea of a new international economic order. Those who advocated the creation of a new international economic order wanted to redistribute wealth and power from North to South." Many people viewed the Bush administration's own international environmental policy as similarly anachronistic-the 1980s idea of Reaganomics writ large. If developing countries would privatize their economies and open their markets, then they would become rich enough to protect their share of the global environment. On this view there is no role for transfers or concessions from the rich countries to the poor.

Taken together, these views suggest that the rhetoric of global environmental justice is just the latest wrapping for the old struggle between the world's rich and poor. If both the Bush administration and its critics are right, the only green that world leaders are interested in is money. The main function of the word 'environmental' in 'global environmental justice' is to signal this year's model of last year's concerns, and perhaps to seduce some unwitting environmentalists into aligning with one side or another.

I believe that there is more than this to the idea of global environmental justice. But once the concept is analyzed it does seem to break apart. It does not lend itself naturally to the application of 'big-picture' theories of justice of the sort given to us by Rawls (1971) and Nozick (1974). Indeed, in my view, although the idea of global environmental justice has many elements, in the end it leads us away from concerns about justice. between nations and towards notions of individual responsibility and of moral obligations that are mediated by various non-governmental forms of association. I will begin by distinguishing several elements of the idea of global environmental justice.

2 See 'Declaration on the Establishment of a :\ew International Economic Order', Resolution 3201 (S-VI), 1 May 197+. United Nations General Assembly, Official Records: Sixth Special Session, Supplement No.1 (A/9559) (New York, 1974). p. 3. For discussion see Beitz, 1979, pp.127-176.


Dale Jamieson

Global Environmental Justice

Global Environmental Justice: Expanding the Beneficiaries

Part of what is keyed by the phrase 'global environmental justice' is the idea that we may owe duties of justice to entities that traditionally have been regarded as beyond the pale. These may include wild animals, plants, species, populations, ecosystems, forests, canyons and so on. On this view global environmental justice involves obligations to the global environment.

I agree that we have such obligations, at least to most animals. (My most recent defence of this idea is Jamieson, 1993.) The endangerment and extinction of many animals has been a global project in which many people and countries have been involved directly or indirectly. It makes sense to suppose that people and countries owe duties to creatures who have survived or not yet succumbed to our onslaught.

However plausible this may be, this is not what has been foremost in the minds of those who have been most vociferous in promoting the idea of global environmental justice. They believe that global environmental justice centrally concerns relations among humans rather than relations between humans and non-humans. If we want to understand what many people mean by 'global environmental justice' we will have to look elsewhere.

Global Environmental Justice: A Condition on the Pursuit of Justice

On the previous account the occurrence of the word 'environmental' signalled the expansion of the class of those who are the beneficiaries of justice. On the present account the word 'environmental' refers to a condition on the pursuit of justice.

This element of global environmental justice is an important one but it is probably the least discussed of the three that I will distinguish. Global environmental justice, on this view, is the idea that global justice can only permissibly be pursued in ways that are environment-preserving.

The thought can be explained by an analogy. 'Environmental' can be understood as modifying 'justice' in much the same way as 'sustainable' can be understood as modifying 'development'. J On this view, the only permissible paths to development are those which are sustainable. If a pathway is unsustainable then it fails

J However, it should be noted that the expression 'sustainable development' is itself an ambiguous and difficult one. A good introduction to the literature is Pezzey, 1992.

this condition. While there is a lot of controversy about which pathways satisfy this condition, there are some clear cases of th?se that do not. For example, an approach to development which involves destroying the natural resource base of a country in order to produce commodities for export would clearly seem to fail this condition and thus be ruled out by the idea of sustainable development. Similarly, an approach to global justice that was not environment-preserving would be ruled out by this conception of global environmental justice. As in the case of sustainable development it is not completely clear what this constraint comes to, but it is easy to imagine some cases in which it might be violated. For example, suppose that a rich country intends to transfer resources to a poor country in an attempt to rectify an existing injustice. But suppose that the poor country plans to use these resources to create a huge hydro-project that will destroy ecosystems, kill many animals and force many 'people from their homes. This would appear to violate the canons of global environmental justice, understood in this way.

So, one element of global environmental justice conditions the way justice can permissibly be pursued. In this respect it is like a 'side-constraint' on the pursuit of justice (for the notion of a 'sideconstraint' see Nozick, 1974). This may be an important element of global environmental justice, but it is not the most important one to those who use this language.

Global Environmental Justice: Distributing the Benefits and Burdens of Environmental Commodities

Perhaps the most important idea of global environmental justice views the environment as a commodity whose distribution should be governed by principles of justice. Since many aspects of the environment cannot physically be transferred from one country to another, this view is more precisely thought of as advocating the distribution of the benefits and costs of environmental commodities according to principles of justice. It is an open question how environmental commodities are defined, how benefits and costs are .assessed, and what theory of justice is appropriate.

Even without further characterization some elements of this view are clear. Those who promote this idea of global environmental justice argue that in the course of becoming rich the countries of the North incurred an environmental debt which they now owe to the countries of the South. The rich countries polluted the air, depleted the ozone, reduced biodiversity, and threatened the stability of


Dale Jamieson

Global Environmental Justice

the global climate. Indeed many would say that these environmental debts are the necessary costs of development and not just its inadvertent by-products. The countries of the North became rich by exploiting the environment. Now that they are rich these same countries place a very high value on environmental protection. Environmental commodities are more precious and vulnerable than ever because of the insults that the environment has already suffered. However, instead of acknowledging their environmental debt and arranging a payment plan, the countries of the North are demanding further sacrifices from the countries of the South. In order to help stabilize the climate Brazil is not supposed to develop Amazonia; India is expected to forgo the benefits of refrigeration rather than release ozone-depleting chemicals into the atmosphere; and Indonesia is supposed to devote some of its scarce land to habitat for the J avan Rhino rather than using it in productive activities for the benefit of its burgeoning human population. From the perspective of the developing world it looks like those who had the party expect those who didn't to pick up the tab. Indeed, it is even worse than this. The party is still going on in the rich countries of the North. Poor people are expected to forgo necessities while the consumerism of the rich continues to increase.

This picture of global environmental justice seems generally to cohere with our overall picture of global justice. The parties who are the subjects and beneficiaries of the obligations are nations.' The case for transfers from the North to the South seems very strong from the perspective of most major theories of justice. A Rawlsian might see the Difference Principle as warranting such transfers; an entitlement theorist might base them on the need to rectify past injustices; a utilitarian may view such transfers as utility-maximizing; and a communitarian might see them as required by the social bonds of the emerging global community. On this conception of global environmental justice, the big-picture theories of justice function as they ordinarily do. The environment is seen as a commodity to be distributed in accordance with principles of justice. In principle it is not different from money, food, or health care.

However, there are problems with thinking of the environment in this way. The first difficulty, unlikely to move many philosophers, is practical. Even if there were widespread agreement that

4 Beitz, 1979, and Pogge, 1989, have recently rejected what Beitz calls 'the morality of states'. I agree with them on this point, but neither addresses questions of the environment, and our positive views regarding duties across national boundaries are quite distinct.

the rich countries have incurred an environmental debt that they must now begin to repay, it is far from clear what is required. There are questions about the size of the debt, its distribution across various societies and the pace at which the recession-racked economies of the North should be expected to pay it down. Even if there were agreement about all of this, the required steps would be politically impossible. 'Foreign aid', as it is generally called, is unpopular in most countries. While still a senator, now VicePresident Gore advocated a global 'Marshall Plan' (Gore, 1992, pp. 295-360). It is a testament to the political incompetence of his opponents that he could have been elected after advocating such a thing. (For an analysis of the role of environmental values in the 1992 American presidential election see Jamieson, 1992b.)

The case for this kind of environmental justice also runs into theoretical problems on close inspection. Northern countries, especially the USA, have been unwilling to transfer resources to poor countries without 'conditionality'. Conditionality requires beneficiaries to allocate resources in a particular way or to permit donors to playa role in the allocation process. Rich countries argue that without conditionality there is no guarantee that transfer payments will go towards preserving the environment. They point out that the governments of some . developing countries assault and. imprison their own environmentalists (e.g., Wangari Maathai in Kenya) or wink at those who kill them (e.g., the killers of Chico Mendez in Brazil). Moreover it is not just the rich countries who have abused the em-ironment. Many poor countries have serious environmental problems caused by their own greed, short-sightedness and corruption.

The governments of most poor countries are hostile to conditionality. They see it as infringing their national sovereignty and expressing a lack of respect for their political institutions. Furthermore, poor countries point out that there is nothing conditional about the rich countries' exploitation of the global environment.

This clash between conditionality and sovereignty is part of the explanation for the anthropocentric and nationalist tones of the Declaration of Rio. After twenty years of a developing global envi- . ronmental consciousness, the Declaration of Rio marked no real advance on the Stockholm Declaration of 1972. (Both are reprinted in Gruen and Jamieson, 1994.) The rich countries wanted conditionality and the poor countries wanted money; neither got much of what they wanted. Instead they agreed on a document that declared that there is a 'right to development', that 'human beings are at the centre of concerns for sustainable development', and that


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Global Environmental Justice

'states have ... the sovereign right to exploit their own resources pursuant to their own environmental and developmental policies'.

I believe that part of what this clash between conditionality and sovereignty illustrates is the difficulties involved in treating the environment as a commodity the benefits and burdens of which can be distributed on a global basis according to principles of justice. While this model may work for some kinds of environmental commodities (e.g., toxic wastes, pesticides, etc.) it will not work for all.' Many environmental goods are not transferable or are highly diffuse, or their value is non-cornpensatable.'

Consider the problem of biodiversity loss. One argument that has been made is that the entire world benefits from biodiversitv so countries that have a great deal of biological diversity within their borders should be compensated for their preservation efforts. Additional funds may also be owed to them because of biodiversitv reductions caused by other parties. While this is a good idea in theory and probably should be supported even in practice, it bumps into problems of conditionality and sovereignty. The recipient of the compensation may not have the inclination or competence to use the transferred resources to preserve biological diversity. Or the government may simply decide that there are more urgent uses for the resources in eliminating poverty, homelessness and so on. To this donors may reasonably object that the recipients are supposed to be the guardians of a public good in which everyone has an interest; if they fail to discharge their duties the donors have a permission to intervene. But recipients may reasonably argue that these payments are in part compensation for the rich countries disadvantaging the poor countries by their past and present plundering of a public good for private gain; the recipients therefore have no obligation to use these resources in the ways which the donors demand. Even if there is agreement in princip-le about the purpose for which these resources should be used there may be no way to ensure that they are used efficiently in practice without serious breaches of the national sovereignty of the recipi-

5 One might reasonably object to this model even in some apparently clear cases. For example, it is not obvious that it is morally permissible to tra~sfer toxic wastes from a rich country to a poor one, even if the benefits of receiving the waste appear to make people better off than they otherwise would be.

• 6 Sovereignty intuitions are weak with respect to some other commoditIes. as well as environmental ones. Few people believe that ownership entitles someone to destroy a great work of art. The analogy between artworks and environmental commodities is worth exploring in detail, but I cannot explore it here.

ent countries. In so far as these breaches occur, the relationship looks more like one of environmental imperialism than environmental justice. But in so far as interventions do not occur, the global environment may continue to suffer. 7

It is difficult to take one side or the other in this dispute. I find it implausible to suppose that donors always have permission to impose conditions, or that they never have such permission. It seems to me that some forms of conditionality in some circumstances are justified. This belief is widely enough shared to warrant a brief investigation into its roots.

One reason for such a belief may be that unconditional transfers are not in the interests of the donors. This may be either because of a fear that the recipients will use these resources in ways that are directly counter to the interests of the donors, for example by supporting a military build-up, or because the donors will not obtain as much environmental protection as they desire.

A second reason for such a belief may be that unconditional transfers are not in the interests of the recipients. The thought may be that paternalistic conditionality will help recipients spend these resources more wisely, and thus further their own interests more effectively than would be the case if the transfers were

unconditional. .

A third source of the belief may be that unconditional government-to-goverment transfers do not ensure that the resources aid those who are entitled to the aid. This belief may involve a return to the idea that environmental justice involves obligations to nonhuman entities. The concern may be that recipient governments will not devote the resources to improving the forests and protecting the animal populations which are the real objects of concern. However, a second grounding for this belief involves seeing the citizens and residents of the recipient nations as those who are entitled to the benefits of the transfers. The fear is that the bene-

7 In commenting on an earlier draft of this paper, Stephen M.

Gardiner pointed out that the apparent clash between sovereignty and conditionality intuitions could be accounted for by a theory that distinguished duties to rectify past injustices from other duties that we may have. On this view the countries of the North may have duties unconditionally to transfer resources to the countries of the South in order to compensate them for past injustices associated with industrialization of the North, However, the countries of the South may also have duties not to pursue unsustainable development paths. On this view the clash between the sovereignty and conditionality intuitions flows from confusing distinct duties rather than from treating the em-ironment as a commodity. I cannot pursue this interesting suggestion here.


Dale Jamieson

Global Environmental Justice

fits will not 'trickle down' from the recipient governments to those who have the entitlements.

It may be that under various conditions all or most of these concerns could be made consistent with the idea that there are duties of justice to engage in government-to-government transfers of environmental benefits and burdens. But taken together they appear to erode the plausibility of this view. In the ordinary case a person or nation is permitted to be foolish with resources that are theirs as a matter of justice. Similarly they can frustrate the interests of those who owed them the resources, and even distribute them unjustly among their own people, without affecting their national claim to the resources. In my view the strength and depth of the conditionality intuition in this case counts against the plausibility of the view that the environment is a commodity which can be distributed among governments in accordance with principles of international justice:

A second kind of environmental commodity that is difficult to deal with on the basis of this model is one which is not located within the boundaries of any country. The ozone shield and a stable climate are two such commodities. The share of the benefits associated with these commodities that any country obtains may not be proportional to its contribution to preserving them. In order to protect the ozone layer, the USA, for example, was willing to absorb additional costs (by banning spray cans) years before the Europeans were willing to . contribute. Currently the Netherlands appears willing to absorb more costs than other nations in order to promote climate stability. The willingness to absorb these costs may have no clear relation to the amount of harm that a nation suffers from the occurrence of the problem. The costs can be distributed according to some formula that is acknowledged to be just, but the benefits cannot be distributed at all. The benefits will be a function of the particular effects of the maintenance of the climate and the ozone shield in particular regions. Given the complexity and unpredictability of the atmospheric system and its social effects, it makes little sense to treat these goods as producing distributable benefits. (I discuss these matters further in a series of papers, the most recent of which is Jamieson, 1992a.) For this reason it would be very difficult to treat

• The human rights movement brought the topic of conditionality into play. It is plausible to think of international guarantees of human rights as infringements of national sovereignty. It should be noted that although governments in the developing world typically oppose conditionality, often their citizens do not. See, for example, Glantz, 1990, pp. 43-44.


these problems according to the model of justice currently under discussion.

A third problem with treating the environment as a commodity, the benefits and costs of which can be distributed in accordance with principles of justice, is that many environmental goods are irreplaceable and irreversible. When species are lost or climate changes they will never return. Nature's path has been irrevocably affected by the development. of western science and technology. It is hard to conceive what the alternatives might have been, much more how to compensate those whose preferences and ways of life have been frustrated or destroyed.

Global Environmental Justice versus a Global Environmental Ethics

Thus far I have been explaining some of the complications that arise with respect to the idea of global environmental justice, and the difficulty in squaring this idea with at least some of our intuitions about global environmental protection. This does not amount to the claim that there is no such thing as global environmental justice or that it ought not to be taken seriously. However, the notion is sufficiently problematic that we should try to examine alternatives that may be available in our moral traditions.

One problem that has haunted this discussion is the question of who the subjects and recipients of the duties are. As I have suggested, often in discussions of international justice it is assumed that it is governments which have duties and that typically they are owed to other governments. The costs and benefits 'trickle down' to the citizens or residents of each country. This assumption is problematic in the case of global environmental justice.

The global environmental movement has brought with it a new pattern of alliances and relationships. The environmental interests of the indigenous peoples· of Brazil or the women of Kenya are often violated by their own governments, yet they may make common cause with women, indigenous people or non-governmental organizations in other countries. Non-governmental organizations, scientists and grassroots organizations have been profoundly important in affecting the future of the global environment. They have brought issues to light and pressured governments to take action, and often their own projects have been very effective. What this structure of relationships suggests to me is that rather than thinking about the problem of the global environment as one that involves duties of justice that obtain between states, we should


Dale J arnieson

instead think of it as one that involves actions and responsibilities among individuals and institutions who are related in a variety of different ways. Scientists may have duties to educate and train people who have little opportunity to develop the relevant skills and expertise on their own. Individuals in Europe or Japan may have duties to contribute to non-governmental organizations in Africa or Asia. Americans may have duties to. limit their consumption or even to close down the local lumber yard that specializes in tropical woods.

What I am suggesting is not that the various ideas of global environmental justice that I have explored be abandoned, but rather that they be supplemented by a more inclusive ecological picture of duties and obligations-one that sees people all over the world in their roles as producers, consumers, knowledge-users and so on, connected to each other in complex webs of relationships that are generally not mediated by governments. This picture of the moral world better represents the reality of our time in which people are no longer insulated from each other by space and time. Patterns of international trade, technology and economic development have bound us into a single community, and our moral thinking needs to change to reflect these new realities.

There is another reason why this model is a good one for thinking about duties that involve the environment. One reason why it is awkward to think of the environment as the object of our concern, a condition on our actions or a commodity to be distributed, has to do with our peculiar relationship to the environment. While we can model various aspects of our relationship to the environment in these various ways, these models neglect the fact that we are situated in the environment. The environment conditions and affects everything that each of us does. The environment called u~ into existence and continues to sustain us. In part it constitutes our identities. To view the environment solely as a good to be distributed seriously misconceives our relationship to the Earth."

9 Although I have not been able to take all of them into account, I especially thank Stephen M. Gardiner and James W. Nickel for their comments on an earlier draft of this paper.



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