J Baird Callicott: Judeo-Christianity, Zen Buddhism and environmental ethics

Religion and Environmentalism: Carl Sagan on Conservation, Ecology, Nature, Values, Ethics

A lecture from 1990 now available:

Interiority Regained: Integral Ecology and Environmental Ethics

Michael Zimmerman’s lecture from a few years back, but still relevant given its comments on naturalism, facts, values and so forth…

Kate Rigby: Narrative, ethics and bushfire in the Anthropocene

My latest article on water management in Alberta now out

My article, Water management and the procedural turn: norms and transitions in Alberta, is now out in Water Resources Management. I think it is behind a paywall so if you want a copy feel free to email me. I’m also writing up a guest blog post in ordinary (that is, non-academese) language for the Alberta Water Portal that should be done soon.

Here is the abstract:

Water management reforms promoting deliberative, decentralized decision making are often accompanied by procedures designed to accommodate a range of stakeholder perspectives. This paper considers the role of political and ethical norms affecting this ‘procedural turn’ in order to understand the management of transitions in complex socio-technical systems. It examines the discourse and practice of water reforms in Alberta, Canada in order to identify how new procedures were designed alongside changes to management institutions. It finds that the existing social and cultural context is an uneasy fit with procedural norms theorized in deliberative models of democracy. Using examples from the Alberta case, it draws out implications for understanding the procedural turn in water management and the role of norms affecting transitions toward sustainability.

Paul Thompson: ethical issues in agriculture: organic, locavore and genetic modification

New Book: Christiana Peppard’s “Just Water”

Christiana Peppard’s new book is now out with Orbis books and available at amazon. It analyzes the value of fresh water at the intersections of hydrology, ecology, ethics, theology, and Catholic social thought. It is also very readable for the non-expert, which is no small feat given the topics it covers.

Just WaterJust Water: Theology, Ethics and the Global Water Crisis

Do we truly understand the significance of fresh water in an era of economic globalization? Aimed at the educated non-specialist as well as scholars, Just Water explores important aspects of the global fresh water crisis while also providing ethical analysis and principled recommendations about fresh water use and scarcity in the 21st century.

Ultimately, Just Water invites us to expand global discourse about the value of fresh water—unique, non-substitutable substance that serves as a baseline for human existence. At the same time this book offers tools for understanding and appreciating contemporary ethical problems posed by looming fresh water scarcity in the 21st century.

Ethics and politics in the Anthropocene

One of the advantages of blogging is that you create an online reservoir of interesting stuff you can refer to later. So this is a sort of (selfish) library post.

A while back there was a post from Levi Bryant on ethics and politics without Nature. And an interesting response was posted over at the Synthetic Zero blog on ethics and politics in the Anthropocene. And Helen Pallett has a guest post at the Rachel Carson blog (seeing the woods) on spatial and temporal challenges to how we think about the Anthropocene.

I’m not going to attempt any mass synthesis, or even a clever turn of phrase on these posts. They are worth reading for their attempts to grapple with how we govern not only our actions, but also to a significant degree our meditations, about a very complex world.

Losing control of ethical oil: lessons for environmental ethics

Since it began distinguishing itself as a sub-discipline of philosophy, environmental ethics has faced a tough question: will changing our values affect how we treat the environment?

When Christopher D. Stone took stock of the effect of environmental ethics on public policy over its first three decades (1970-2000) he concluded that not much direct influence took place [pdf]. But that isn’t a reason not to do ethics since it could take much longer for effects to become apparent. There might be a time lag.

OK, this is a round-a-bout way into what I was thinking about last night, which is how the Canadian government has completely lost control over the discourse about what it once termed ‘ethical oil’. I think there might be similarities between the relative ineffectiveness of both environmental ethics and the ‘ethical oil’ campaigns to steer public policy in neat and tidy ways. Not that anybody thinks policy is either neat, or tidy, of course.

The ‘ethical oil’ campaign started some time ago and I have written on its lack of cogency here and here. Earlier this week, it has come under attack by Al Gore, who stated that there is no ethical oil, only dirty oil and dirtier oil. But the conceptual bankruptcy of the concept is not what I’m interested in here. What seems more interesting is the attempt to funnel public policy through a single set of moral claims.

The ethical oil campaign was somewhat successful in capturing the mainstream discourse in Canada – shouldn’t we promote our own resources rather than those that come from places with poor records on human rights, labor conditions and so forth? Now, if we ignore the fact that eastern Canada imports most of its oil, this does seem like a plausible piece of rhetoric. And yet it has failed.

The reasons for the failure are numerous, but here are two:

1) Canada launched a sustained undermining of environmental policy in 2012. So the notion that resources are being stewarded in any meaningful environmental framework lacks credibility. Yesterday, for instance, environment minister Peter Kent stated that Canada wears many of its “fossil of the year awards” with honour. (Yes, in Canada we add “u” to honor). The awards are given out to countries who perform abysmally on environmental issues.

2) Canada has engaged in a direct war or words with leading international figures, like James Hansen. Hansen, in turn, called the Canadian government ‘neanderthals‘ when it comes to environmental policy. I doubt Hansen was trying to be ironic, but it was a funny comment since it is an open question as to whether our minister of science and technology, Gary Goodyear, actually believes in evolution. He says he does, but not everybody is convinced.

So what should we take away from this? Are there any commonalities between the failure to secure public policy through normative discourse?

I think we would do well to acknowledge that the claim to morality is not situated hierarchically in public policy, as though values are what steers things. Values matter, but they are not all that matter. This has been part of the broad critique of environmental ethics as being primarily for the rich – for those who can afford the cultural category of a “wilderness” that is made untouchable. Likewise, the ethical oil motif is only one piece of a bigger policy game involving international actors and this thing called science.

Second, it would seem worthwhile to consider how the attempt to be internally consistent in your moral claims inevitably closes off some good policy options. For instance, the attempt at logical consistency in environmental ethics often doesn’t reflect how individuals reason in complex scenarios where they use judgment, heuristics (rules) and customs to determine what matters. Likewise, the ethical oil campaigners tried to secure a basic set of western values to oil development, such as human rights and labour relations (yes, we add a “u” there too). But this is also problematic, because the  category “western” is not homogenous (even if hegemonic). So when the time came to promote Canadian oil development in the face of opposition, the government had to stick to its guns – we are already ethical! See? See?

At any rate, I think it is worthwhile to keep thinking about how real-time failures in environmental ethics – even if they are of the ‘ethical oil’ sort that environmental philosophers might seek to eviscerate – can provide lessons for how values link up to environmental policy.

My latest paper – Modern water ethics: implications for shared governance

My latest paper has just come out in the journal Environmental Values, co-written with Dan Shrubsole: “Modern water ethics: implications for shared governance – full reference here or on my ‘publications’ page.

This essay formed the literature review for my dissertation so, as you might expect, it has a lot of references to the literature on water ethics. Some recent ones are missing, since the piece was submitted in 2011.

Here is the editor’s intro to the essay followed by the abstract. If you’d like a copy of this paper (or any of my papers) I’d be happy to send one.

“Schmidt and Shrubsole (2013) argue that the early creators of United States’ water policy saw their policies as an expression of the success of European civilisation. On this view, U.S. utilitarian approaches to water policy should not be seen as attempts to be ‘value neutral’, but rather as attempts to promote a certain set of ethnocentric values.

This opens up the possibility of thinking about water policy in terms of the substantive communal and cultural values that it expresses, a development that would be welcome by those who oppose the spread of U.S. approaches to water policy outside of the U.S.” – Katie McShane

It has been suggested that water and social values were divorced in modernity. This paper argues otherwise. First, it demonstrates the historical link between ethics and politics using the case of American water governance. It engages theories regarding state-centric water planning under ‘high modernism’ and the claim that water was seen as a neutral resource that could be objectively governed. By developing an alternate view from the writings of early American water leaders, J.W. Powell and W.J. McGee, the paper offers a way to understand the project of state-centred governance without the claim that water falls to the latter half of a society/nature dualism. Second, the paper reviews how the emerging ‘water ethics’ discourse helps organise both the ethical and legal norms at play within contemporary political shifts towards decentralised governance. The review identifies how McGee’s early influence may warrant more attention, both in terms of water governance and environmental ethics. The paper concludes by arguing that, given the arguments presented, success in decentralising water governance turns not only on political considerations, but also on fairly ordering normative claims as part of fostering and extending the reach of coordinated water governance.