IT-Enabled Globalization and the Environment

IT-Enabled Globalization and the Environment

Robert A. Schultz (Woodbury University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-922-9.ch014
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Problems of environmental ethics transcend global justice. We can behave ethically and justly toward each other across the globe, but at the same time let the environment deteriorate in catastrophic ways. I believe principles of environmental ethics have to be treated as of higher order, and therefore of greater priority than even principles of global justice.1 The environment is not a person and therefore cannot be a participant in a social contract. So the different basis for its priority is that if the environment deteriorates, it makes all of our lives difficult or even impossible. Challenges to the priority of the environment sometimes come from corporations when their own interests in profitability would be harmed. Very often a focus on profit maximization will make the point of view of a corporation shortsighted. Notoriously, corporate stock prices tend to value short-term financial results over longer term results. And corporate financial results do not include externalities, impacts on the environment that are not directly reflected in their balance sheets. Carbon emissions are an excellent example. Developing nations sometimes object to constraints on their development for economic reasons. Their argument is that developed nations have had the benefit of unconstrained economic development, and it is unreasonable to expect them to curtail their development at its current stage. This objection was incorporated into the Kyoto Protocols of 1997 for carbon emissions: Developed countries were required to reduce emissions by 5 percent by 2012, but developing countries had no requirements but could be compensated for voluntary reduction. This feature of the protocols led to their rejection by the US Congress, although every other developed country adopted them. (Sachs 2008) The value of corporations is their ability to achieve economic development. But is economic development itself always a good thing? To what extent should development be constrained by environmental concerns?
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Principles For The Environment

The environmental activist Jakob von Uexkull reports an encounter with Lawrence Summers, former Secretary of the Treasury and former President of Harvard. Before a lecture, von Uexkull drew a diagram with a large rectangle labeled ‘environment’ and a circle inside labeled ‘economy.’ Summers objected and relabeled the diagram, with the economy as the outside rectangle and the environment as the small interior circle. (von Uexkull 2007) Summers’ strange perspective ignored the fact that the economy is human social cooperation. It could not exist without the environment to support it, in the form of natural resources, air, water, and food.

The philosopher Thomas Pogge bases environmental ethics on the right of people to participate in decisions that affect them. Democracy, according to Pogge, is a “deeper reason” than ecology. (2002, 184) Pogge’s view has the consequence that if a group chooses to live in a degraded environment, that’s just fine, provided the choice was democratic. But democratic decisions may not be ethically justified. In Rwanda in 1994, the genocidal actions of the majority Hutsi (about 85%) in killing the Tutsi (about 15%) were certainly democratic, although hardly ethically justified. The same is true here: However democratically a decision is made to ravage the environment, that decision is probably not justified.

This observation makes clear the basis for extending ethics to include the environmental considerations. As I have defined ethics, it consists of principles facilitating social cooperation, either on a social contract or universal principle basis.2 Social cooperation requires the environment, so preventing actions or policies damaging to the environment which make social cooperation difficult or impossible clearly needs to have higher priority than mere economic advantage. Clearly environmental changes which make the worst off even more disadvantaged are also unjust and therefore also are unethical.

But what if changes to preserve the environment make the worst off even more worse off? Hypothetically, if the developing countries were held to the stricter requirements of the developed countries in the Kyoto protocols and curtailed their economic development, the worst off would have been made even worse off. I think this case shows that the Global Economy Difference Principle may not have priority: Compare what happens with and without the environmental restrictions. If the environmental damage caused by making the worst off economically better off is worse than preventing the environmental damage, then preventing the environmental damage has priority over the Global Economy Difference Principle. A theoretical example would be if the only way to increase economic growth in some forested country would be to eliminate the forests and desertify the country. Then preventing environmental damage would take priority. Of course, what makes the example theoretical is the stipulation that the environmentally damaging action is the only way to achieve economic growth.

The Kyoto protocol case makes clear the difficulty of making these assessments. Shorter-term predictable economic benefits are balanced against the less certain longer-term harms of climate change. But a principle extending ethics to the environment is also clear: Actions and policies necessary for the long-term survival of humanity in its environment take priority over other human actions and policies.3 My view in Chapter 2 was that higher-level principles are higher-level when those principles need to be treated that way in order to resolve conflicts between lower-level principles. Cooperative principles need to be treated as higher-level than principles of self-interest because that is the only way cooperative benefits can be achieved.4 Similarly, environmental ethics principles take precedence over any other principle promoting human good, because without the environment there would be no opportunity for promoting human good.5 Thus on my view, the conflict between the US and the developing nations should be resolved through an environmental ethics principle rather than through the interests of the different nations. It is worth mentioning that developed nations other than the US saw the Kyoto Protocols that way.

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