From Environmentalism to Ecologism, Part Two

Part Two of the three-part guest essay by Martin Lack.

The background to this major essay was covered yesterday, in the introduction to Part One.


Can ecologism be regarded as an ideology in its own right? (Part 2)

A question of values

According to Carter (2007: 14-15), there is no consistent use of terminology regarding the value ascribed to different entities, so it would seem sensible to use that which he outlines:

  • Instrumental value: The value which something has for someone as a means to an end (also known as utility value).

  • Inherent value: The value which something has because it is considered desirable (e.g. precious metals such as silver, gold and platinum).

  • Intrinsic value: The value which something has because of what it is – typically essential for the existence of life (e.g. sunlight, clean air, and clean water).

As Carter points out (2007: 15), as well as being inconsistently applied to individual entities by those doing the valuing, these terms are not mutually exclusive (i.e. “being valuable in one way does not preclude being valuable in another way”). However, what is clear is that the value judgements that any individual makes will determine their attitude towards consumption and/or pollution of the Earth’s natural resources.

In setting out his “Green Theory of Value”, Robert Goodin boldly acknowledged that, ideally, it should “tell us both what is to be valued and why” (Goodin 1992:19). However, before explaining his own theory of value, Goodin identifies the two main alternatives as capitalist (consumer-based) value; and Marxist (producer-based) value (Goodin 1992: 23-4). Goodin’s green theory of value is thus distinct from both of these because the value-imparting properties are neither those of the consumer nor producer; they are (or at least should be) “natural resource based”; although he specifically does not claim that his theory “is correct utterly to the exclusion of all others” (Goodin 1992: 25-6).

Applying Carter’s typology of value (above) to Goodin’s argument, capitalists would appear to be focussed upon the inherent value of things they consume; and Marxists upon the instrumental value of the things they produce. In contrast to both of these, Goodin seeks to justify the assertion that nature itself should always be considered, independent of the presence or activity of humans, to have inherent – if not intrinsic – value. However, he seems to shy away from the logical conclusion of his argument; that all nature has intrinsic value that does not require the presence of valuers (Goodin 1992: 42-45). This is presumably part of an appeal to reason, which such an extreme view would probably not have.

A question of perspective

If anthropocentrism is a way of thinking “…that regards humans as the source of all value and is predominantly concerned with human interests”, then, in simplistic terms, ecocentrism is one “…that regards humans as subject to… ethical, political and social prescriptions… equally concerned with both humans and non-humans” (Carter 2007: 14). However, as with most things in life, it is not as simple as these definitions imply. For example, from an anthropocentric perspective, it is possible to be concerned about the welfare of individual domesticated animals; and yet not be concerned about the survival of entire endangered species.

Equally, one of the biggest debates in ecological politics may revolve around how one defines “moral persons” (Rawls, 1972: 504-5); or legitimate “recipients of justice” (Garner 2003: 11), although many would probably agree with what Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) said: “The question is not, can they reason? Not, can they talk? But, can they suffer?” (cited in Dobson 2006: 220-1). However, the contentious and unresolved nature of this debate has led to the appearance of terms such as “shallow” and “deep”; which may be applied to anthropocentrism and ecocentrism alike (with “deep” denoting a more extreme position in either case). Therefore:

Rather than define different perspectives according to which side of the ecocentric/anthropocentric divide they lie, they can be located along a continuum, which moves from ecocentrism through various gradations of anthropocentrism to ‘strong anthropocentrism’ (Carter 2007: 36).

Once it is recognised that there is a range of possible positions that may be adopted (rather than a choice that has to be made), it is possible – as Eckersley has done – to characterise at least five different positions, which are as follows:

  1. Resource conservation – the wise use of natural resources for human benefit: Eckersley suggests that the conservation movement was founded upon the Judeao-Christian notion of humans having “dominion” over the Earth; rather than any duty of “stewardship”, as exemplified by Gifford Pinchot (the first chief of the US Forest Service) (Eckersley 1992: 35).

  2. Human welfare ecology – an appeal to enlightened self-interest: Eckersley cites Barry Commoner’s “four laws of ecologyas (1) everything is connected to everything else; (2) everything must go somewhere; (3) nature knows best; and (4) there’s no such thing as a free lunch (Eckersley 1992: 37-8).

  3. Preservationism – seeking the aesthetic preservation of wilderness areas: Whereas Gifford Pinchot wanted to preserve nature for development (i.e. maximise the utility of natural resources for human benefit), John Muir (of the Sierra Club) wanted to preserve nature from development (i.e. minimise the human impact on the natural environment) (Eckersley 1992: 39).

  4. Animal liberationism – the prevention of cruelty to certain animals: A comparatively modern, radical, development; which can trace its heritage back to “humane” societies formed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, such as the RSPCA (Eckersley 1992: 42).

  5. Ecocentrism – seeking the preservation of nature for its own sake (Eckersley, 1992: 46).

With regard to the latter, given that Eckersley recognised the fact that these positions lie upon a “wide spectrum of differing orientations towards nature”, whose end-points are anthropocentrism and ecocentrism (1992: 33), this could be better defined as deep ecocentrism. However, even using these five labels, it is not hard to see why it is difficult to categorise people: For example, the human welfare ecologists could be regarded as quite ecocentric (if they recognise the validity and/or importance of each and every one of Barry Commoner’s “four laws of ecology”); whereas animal liberationists could be regarded as quite anthropocentric (if they are only concerned about domesticated pets and/or individual animals).

The ecocentric end of the spectrum has also been described as that of “deep ecology” (Devall and Sessions 1985: 70), and “biospherical egalitarianism” (Naess 1989: 170). However, whilst preferring the term “biocentric egalitarianism” for the latter, Carter points out that – as indeed was conceded by Naess (1989: 28) – food is an essential requirement for life and, therefore, an entirely egalitarian position is untenable:

Certainly, any principle along the lines of biocentric egalitarianism would be impossible to implement. Taking it to the extreme, how could a human justify killing any animal or fish, or consuming a vegetable, bean or berry? All involve some restraint on another entity’s capacity to live and flourish (Carter 2007: 36).

So, it would seem that an entirely ecocentric position is hard to maintain, but can the same be said for an entirely anthropocentric position? This, as we shall now see, has been the subject of much debate.

A question of justice

When someone says, “I want justice!” it is normally because they feel they have been wronged in some way; and want what they feel they deserve (i.e. fairness). Hence, Paul Sterba opens his chapter in “Political Theory and the Ecological Challenge” on this subject by saying, “Justice requires giving what is deserved” (Sterba 2006: 148). However, within the sphere of environmental politics, when faced with difficult choices, human beings tend to ‘circle the wagons’ and protect their own kind.

In the introduction to his book “Theory of Ecological Justice”, Brian Baxter uses the example of Sir David Attenborough’s response to the prospect of humans causing species extinctions (i.e. “Surely, it is sad indeed that our descendants should inherit a natural world that is more impoverished than the one we inherited?”) to suggest that all humans are almost incapable of being anything other than anthropocentric (Baxter 2005: 1). However, Attenborough was probably deliberately making the question rhetorical; just as Baxter was probably being provocative in order to retain the interest of readers. Nevertheless, in a wide-ranging consideration of the subject, Baxter discusses the work of numerous authors, to advocate the case for “moral consideration” to be given to sentient non-humans (Baxter 2005: 45).

This would appear to be in accordance with Bentham’s conclusion that it is the ability to suffer that should confer the right to fair treatment. Indeed, one such author Baxter considered, David DeGrazia, proposed the principle of “equal consideration” for all sentient non-humans but pointed out that this could not guarantee justice; merely a fair hearing. He also pointed out that granting equal consideration would not automatically confer upon them the right to moral consideration, but it would be revolutionary; because much animal experimentation (he uses the term “exploitation”) would then seem to be unjustifiable (DeGrazia 1996: 37-38).

Dobson has written a great deal on the subject of justice. In a characteristically thought-provoking contribution to a recent collection of essays on the subject (regarding the difficulties of combining social justice and environmental sustainability; in effect asking “What is to be sustained and for whose benefit?”), he discusses who should be the legitimate “recipients of justice”; and what should be the consequential scope of the “community of justice” thus determined (Dobson 2003: 87-94).

Baxter sees the three main principled objections to the notion of ecological justice as being that justice need only be distributed to (1) those able to voluntarily co-operate to produce and/or preserve environmental benefits; (2) those with property rights; and (3) those capable of reciprocity (Baxter 2005: 77). Baxter deals with the first and last of these reasonably easily, as follows: (1) bacteria are beneficial and slaves were not volunteers (2005: 78-9); and (3) mentally-incapacitated people do not cease to be human because they cannot interact with their surroundings or respond to stimuli (2005: 77-8). However, objection (2) seems a little more intractable (2005: 86). Finally, Baxter concludes that if these objections can indeed be rejected, ecological justice represents a fundamental challenge to the laissez-faire attitude of liberalism (2005: 94).

However, for now, the final word on the question of justice will be given to Dobson, who almost seemed to be responding to Baxter, by saying: “Just who is throwing down the gauntlet here? Is political ecology a challenge for citizenship, or is citizenship a challenge for political ecology?” (Dobson 2006: 216). Whilst acknowledging the historical existence of at least two types of citizenship; namely liberal and civic republican (stressing right-claiming and responsibility-taking respectively), Dobson highlights at least two fundamental challenges to any notion of citizenship (i.e. feminism and cosmopolitanism) (2006: 217-8). However, much more space is given to the ways in which the notion of citizenship is a challenge to ecological politics. Again, this is indicative of the fact that ecologism should be regarded as a distinctive political ideology in its own right.


Baxter, B. (2005), A Theory of Ecological Justice. London: Routledge.

DeGrazia, D. (1996), Taking Animals Seriously: Mental Life and Moral Status. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Devall, B. and Sessions, G. (1985), Living as if Nature Mattered. Layton UT: Peregrine and Smith.

Dobson, A. (2003), ‘Social justice and environmental sustainability: ne’er the twain shall meet?’, in Agyeman, J., Bullard, R., and Evans, B. (eds.), Just Sustainabilities: Development in an Unequal World. London: Earthscan, pp.83-95.

Dobson, A. (2006), ‘Citizenship’, in Dobson, A. and Eckersley, R., Political Theory and the Ecological Challenge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.216-231.

Garner, R. (2003) ‘Animals, politics and justice: Rawlsian liberalism and the plight of non-humans’, Environmental Politics, 12 (2), pp.3-22.

Goodin, R. (1992), Green Political Theory. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Naess, A. (1989), Ecology, Community and Lifestyle. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Rawls, J. (1972), A Theory of Justice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sterba, P. (2006), ‘Justice’, in Dobson, A. and Eckersley, R., Political Theory and the Ecological Challenge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.148-64.


The final part, Part Three, will be published tomorrow.

4 thoughts on “From Environmentalism to Ecologism, Part Two

  1. I have a serious problem with the avalanche-of-Anglo-Saxon-quotes on Justice. Reason? Most of these people teach at universities where the tuition is the median family income, or more. I call them plutocratic universities.

    I had an essay in the past torpedoing Rawls. Rawls is known for his theory of justice. I demonstrated to my satisfaction that it is the same as Ayn Rand’s pluto credo. Yet, Rawls, like Obama is viewed as “left” by those in power (plutocrats and their universities, Davos).

    Martin may mean well. Yet, the main reason why most Anglo-Saxon countries have a non optimal ecological record in the last few decades has everything to do with sold out intellectuals at the top, producing schizoid logic.

    Now the problem is that the ecological problem is essentially religious… and schizoid. If one cannot talk about the ultimate values, one cannot about why we should do anything about ecology. Everybody loves the environment. The problem is that the leadership has a schizoid relationship between love for the environment and love for themselves.

    A bit like all those Communist bosses in China whose family members have 20,000 shell companies in the Caribbean, holding more than four trillion dollars (4,000 billion dollars). All very schizoid. We don’t need to enter their logic. That would be to take it with a respect it does not deserve. We need to smash it.


    1. Thanks for taking the time to put together such an interesting response, Patrice. I agree that it is very hard for most of us with a Western mindset to realise their are other ways of viewing the World. We therefore appear to agree about three things:(1) that the environment does not exist for our benefit; (2) that our existence is contingent upon the maintenance of a favourable environment; and (3) that we have now upset that dynamic equilibrium by pumping fossilised carbon into the atmosphere faster than it can be recycled… However, as I implied in my recent response to Chris Snuggs on the previous post on this blog, I think we have reached a significant moment when even Catholics can admit that their Church has an unacceptable anthropocentric bias.


      1. Sorry about the delay, Paul. I had an unbelievably busy day yesterday (9 hours away from home) and then on the laptop all evening dealing with work-related stuff (so that WordPress did not even get a look-in).


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