The Changing Public Discourse on Ecology


[1] With the publication of Silent Spring in 1962, Rachel Carson launched environmental issues into the public consciousness and wider political debate.  Carson, a scientist, expressed concern over the adverse impact of the widespread use of chemicals and the common assumption that such uses were safe.  She argued that these chemicals - including the some 500 pesticides in use at the time - were having a deadly impact on life, affecting ground water, soil, songbirds, fish, animals, and people's nervous systems. Carson prophetically concluded,

We stand now where two roads diverge  . . . The road we long have been travelling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster .... the other less travelled by offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of our earth.1

[2] Rachel Carson made "ecology" a household word. She summoned the scientific community and society to consider the bigger picture and its implications for the future of the earth community. And most importantly, she heralded the beginning of a shift in thinking about the place of the environment in the calculation of our social choices.

[3] Now forty years later, we are still standing at that same fork in the road with much larger implications and consequences facing the earth community.  Climate change, biodiversity, the impact of biotechnology, resource extraction, the devastation of forests, in addition to continuing pollution and a host of other issues, have raised the stakes considerably.  We might do well to ask if the last forty years has taught us anything regarding how to treat the environment.

[4] In some areas we have come a long way.  Public consciousness has been raised and there are many private and public initiatives- too numerous to mention here - that have been put in place and enjoy widespread public support.  Certainly we have witnessed a "greening" of just about everything.  However, the era of economic globalization has not meant substantial changes in the fundamental economic assumptions that govern much of the public discussion. To the contrary, they may even be accelerating the threats to the environment.  Ironically, while many leaders profess to be more ecologically friendly, the ecological crisis seems to loom larger than ever for the public.

[5] Globalization is the driving imperative of our time.  In discussing the impact of globalization on the public discourse about the environment, I will assume the narrower view of economic globalization often referred to as the "Washington Consensus."2     This form of globalization, with its reliance on an open market that relentlessly pursues economic growth and development, has had a most pervasive impact on people, communities, societies, and even our way of thinking. Others have documented the impact of some of these economic policies on the environment.  I will focus on three consequences that I believe, ensue from this economic paradigm that are forcing societies to continue down the superhighway of which Carson warned; treating the environment as an externality, privatising aspects of the ecological commons that should remain public, and the commodification of elements of earth community that should remain beyond market transactions.  These are also dominant chords in the public conversation from those committed to economic globalization.

[6] One consequence of economic globalization has been to treat the environment as an "externality."  Environmental considerations remain outside of the market calculation and therefore have no economic cost or price attached.  Some leaders argue, for example, that it is only with a growing economy that we can then "afford" to put in place public environmental programs.  Much of the business opposition to the Kyoto Protocol for reduction of greenhouse gas emissions argues that signing on to the Kyoto Protocol would be too expensive and might even cause a downturn in the economy, making it impossible to support the positive steps already undertaken.  Public concern and pressure has meant that there are efforts to internalise more and more of these environmental costs, forcing governments and business to add them to the balance sheet.  However, governments still prefer a less obligatory means for internalising environmental impacts. For example, the Clinton Administration proposed a rather weak environmental side agreement to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Similarly businesses opt for voluntary codes of conduct rather than regulations.

[7] The second consequence of economic globalization is the drive to privatise aspects of the ecological commons that should remain public. Enshrining private property rights is a key policy objective of advocates of economic globalization.  This has resulted in the privatisation of public services as well as public resources, most notably water, forests, and energy resources.  The priority of profit over the public interest is also becoming a major issue with the inclusion of investor-state mechanisms in trade agreements.  For example, under Chapter 11 of the NAFTA, corporations have gained the right to sue governments for the loss of profits and overturn the ability of governments to enact measures out protect human health and the environment. The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops has pointed to a number of cases where corporations have overturned government decisions to prohibit dangerous substances such as the gasoline additive MMT or PCBs or efforts to safeguard access to safe drinking water and were awarded millions of dollars as well.3

[8] The third consequence is the commodification of elements of earth community that more appropriately should remain beyond market transactions.  While similar to privatisation, commodification differs in that it brings into the open market system those aspects of life that were previously considered personal, collective or sacred. Commodification is often advanced with the justification that these are intellectual property rights.   There have been well publicized examples of pharmaceutical and seed companies seeking patents for medicines and seeds based on the traditional knowledge of Aboriginal peoples. Indigenous communities understand such knowledge as given by the Creator to be held in trust for the benefit of all people, not mere commodities for sale.  Commodification is also advanced in the marketing of the new biotechnologies. Recently, the Supreme Court of Canada upheld the decision by Canada's Commissioner of Patents not to allow Harvard University to obtain a Canadian patent on the "oncomouse" so named because of its use in cancer research. Harvard would in effect, own a multi-cellular life form. 

[9] Generally, these three chords continue to dominate the way the public discussion is organized.  Together they present an overwhelming confidence that society can address specific environmental problems by harnessing the capital, energy, and innovation of the private sector.  While ameliorating some of the environmental destruction, this market-driven approach will not be able to redress the deeper breach that drives the continuing ecological crisis - the inadequate worldview offered by neoclassical economics.  In many ways we are still standing at the same fork in the road described by Carson forty years ago.

[10] In a hopeful turn, there are economists venturing down "the road less travelled." Beginning in the 1960s, ecological economists like Kenneth Boulding and Herman Daly began to articulate a different approach.  The old mechanistic metaphor that reduced the economy to the maximization of individual self-interested pursuits in delimited markets is being challenged by a more organic biological view of the interrelatedness of a community of life. Ecological economists understand the economy as a subset of the environment. They argue that corporations have to meet the test of the triple bottom line - financial, social and environmental.  They did not accept uncritically the neoclassical measures and valuations for assessing the health of the economy.   Most importantly they believe that economics have to be more interdisciplinary and open to wider participation. 

[11] Ecological economists are also meeting theologians venturing down "the road less travelled."  Eco-theology is nurturing new metaphors for an earth community and an earth ethic.  Ethicists are increasingly asserting that the economy is part of the Great Economy or the divine economy.  Churches have been on the forefront of corporate social responsibility, pressing for corporations to pursue the "triple bottom line." And increasingly, religious groups have been pressing for a wider understanding of health and well-being and more participatory processes.

[12] John Cobb Jr., a theologian, and Herman E. Daly, and economist, in For the Common Good: Redirecting the Economy toward Community, the Environment and a Sustainable Future, offer an example of what is possible when the dialogue is joined.  Cobb and Daly also point to an opportunity for theological ethicists in the public discourse when they observe that,

. . . the changes that are needed in society are at a level that stirs religious passions.  The debate is a religious one whether that is made explicit or not. The whole understanding of reality and the orientation to it are at stake.4

[13] In this era of economic globalization, the alliance and mutual ethical engagement of these two communities may offer real possibilities for transforming the public discourse, for changing the nature of economics and theology themselves and for opening different policy choices to the global family.

End Notes

1  Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (The Riverside Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, 1962) p.277

2  "The Washington Consensus" was coined in 1989 by economist John Williamson then of the Institute of International Economics that advocated the liberalization or marketization of economies. The ten policy pillars were privatization, deregulation, property rights, trade liberalization, tax reform, liberalizing interest rates, competitive exchange rates, reordering public expenditure priorities, liberalization of foreign direct investment. See John Williamson, "The Progress of Policy reform in Latin America," Policy Analyses in International Economics, Number 28 (Institute for International Economics, Washington, January 1990)

3  "Trading Away the Future," The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops Social Affairs Commission, Ottawa, Ontario, 2002. Prepared for the January 2002 Conference on Humanizing the Global Economy in January 2003. The Bishops provide a number of examples. For example, the Canadian government ban on the export of PCBs in compliance with its international obligations, was overturned after S.D. Meyers successfully sued the Canadian government and was awarded US$5 million. There have been 26 cases with damages awarded to corporations totalling US$5 billion.

4  Herman E. Daly and John Cobb Jr., For the Common Good, Redirecting the Economy Toward Community, the Environment and a Sustainable Future (Beacon Press, Boston, Massachusetts; 1989) p. 375

© November 2003
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 3, Issue 11