“Linking Ecology and Ethics for a Changing World: Values, Philosophy, and Action” is the topic of the 14th Cary Conference that starts today. Before sessions begin, let me post the themes I bring and see how they get modified or developed during the conference.
The first challenge for an ethical framework is enabling us to be accountable for the effects of our consumption and through that economic production and through that other actions (e.g., military interventions) on people we are distant from geographically, culturally, socio-economically. (This challenge increases further if we add time to this list.)
The second challenge is bringing into interaction not only a wide range of researchers, but a wide range of social agents, and the challenge of keeping them working through differences and tensions until plans and practices are developed in which all the participants are invested. This might be called the ethics of participatory process.
A third challenge is how people in the participatory process above address the contributions or resources, intellectual and material, that people outside that heterogeneous collectivity offer or withhold.
A fourth challenge is to interpret and respond to frameworks that do not pay attention to the first three challenges, that put forward Big Themes that do not delve explicitly or directly or primarily into the messy politics of participation among diverse social agents, e.g., “We must act now to save the earth,” “All sentient beings have rights,” “Trees have standing,” “Humans have to see ourselves as one species among the millions,” “Maintaining biodiversity is essential for human survival.” These themes may seem interesting to debate and refine or reject, but the fourth challenge calls for them to be measured by the ways they shape practice that does or does not address the first three challenges. (An analogy: Conservationists might be genuinely concerned about the species lost as the tropical rainforest is cleared, but what are they learning and doing about the social and economic dynamics that embed the people who are clearing the forest?)
One Big Theme that I have invoked is the idea, which I draw from John Berger’s essay “Why look at animals,” that the changes in what humans do to animals prefigures the changes in the ways dominant human groups treat subordinate human groups (in Berger’s essays, peasants and immigrant workers are such subordinate groups). If we ask how this transfer from human-animal to dominant-subordinate human relations happens in real socio-historical practice—and what we might do about that—I think we quickly get back to the first three challenges. If not, then this Big Theme invites interpretation in the spirit of the fourth challenge.