Environmental ethics and development

Reynolds, Martin (2009). Environmental ethics and development. In: Wilson, Gordon; Furniss, Pamela and Kimbowa, Richard eds. Environment, Development, and Sustainability: Perspectives and cases from around the world. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, pp. 159–168.

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Woody Allen, the American humorist, once remarked “More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.” Humour often provides respite in a perceived world of intractable dilemmas. Local issues such as access to clean water or availability of food can be driven by, as well as contribute to, global issues such as climate change. Environmental ethics provides support towards seemingly intractable questions of environmental responsibility that otherwise can lead to despair, apathy and cynicism. Three dimensions of environmental ethics – normative, philosophical and political – are described in the context of a long-standing controversial development initiative for dam constructions in the Narmada river valley in India. Each dimension justifies the importance of environmental ethics in fostering more responsible development intervention. An understanding of normative values and perspectives – normative ethics - can help surmount a sense of despair. Practice in thinking about doing what’s good, doing what’s right, and being responsible – philosophical ethics - can help to overcome apathy. And cynicism needs to be continually checked through continually creating political space for engaging more passionately and meaningfully with both normative and philosophical ethics. In breaking free from the vicious cycle of despair, apathy and cynicism, environmental ethics promotes three contrasting virtues: firstly, hope in countering the despair of real world violations against vulnerable communities and non-human nature; secondly, purposefulness in countering the apathy of communities adversely subjected to, for example, industrialised agricultural policy; and thirdly, trust in countering the cynicism that change to business-as-usual is unattainable due to some perceived ‘human nature’. Environmental ethics alone is not ‘the’ answer, but it can provide precious support in guiding and keeping alive the right questions.

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