Research: Green Political Theory
The Ethics of Environmental Activism
Mathew Humphrey works on questions of environmental activism and political justification. An important strand of environmental politics has taken the form of direct action politics, from largely symbolic actions such as 'blockading' Downing Street with coal, to arson attacks such as that against the Vail Ski Resort in Colorado in 1998 by The Earth Liberation Front. What justifications do environmental activists offer for such forms of direct action? Are they adequate to the forms of direct action undertaken? What underlying philosophical principles guide the participants in environmental direct action? Can such acts be defended in terms of recognisably 'public' reasons?
For the first time in history, man-made disasters such as climate change or nuclear war might damage the earth for hundreds or thousands of years. Yet if economic growth continues, our descendents are likely to enjoy higher incomes than we do. Costly measures to fight climate change will benefit people who may well, in some respects, be richer than we are. When balancing the interests of present and future people, should we 'discount the future', as many economists argue? Or should we accord gains and losses to our descendants the same weight as our own, as the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change maintained? Might this not then require us, as Stern's critics argued, to make huge sacrifices for the sake of small gains to future rich people, simply because there will be so many of them? Can people have rights if they don't yet exist, and can we harm them if these particular persons would never have been born in the absence of our actions? If you have an interest in this research area please contact Matthew Rendall.
Catastrophic threats, tiny risks, and uncertainty
The work of Matthew Rendall is concerned with how we should think, normatively, about questions of risk and uncertainty. How small must a big risk be before we can ignore it? Should scientists have avoided testing the atom bomb because they believed there was a miniscule risk that it would ignite the earth’s atmosphere? Should they have avoided building particle colliders because there might be a tiny chance that they would create a black hole that would eat the earth? Sometimes we have reason to believe a threat exists without even having a basis for estimating its probability. As Jon Elster asks, what about the chance that radiation from nuclear power plants will attract man-eating space aliens? In such cases, should we adopt some form of the precautionary principle? Or should we discount such threats for fear of ending up in padded cells?
Many popular moral theories yield puzzling conclusions when we compare populations of different sizes. Some believe that we should promote the greatest good for the greatest number. But a world of 50 billion people, all of them cramped and impoverished, might contain more total happiness than our own. Perhaps a world of fewer but richer people is better. Is it bad for people to be born in the Mumbai slums, and should we try to prevent it? Suppose we think it is goodfor people to be born, even poor ones, so long as their lives are worth living. Does that make abortion wrong, because it prevents many worthwhile lives? Some of our decisions also affect animal populations. Should we try to limit the human population in order to preserve habitats for animals? Is it acceptable to raise animals for food, if otherwise those animals would never have lived at all? Contact Matthew Rendall if you have an interest in research in this area.
Autonomy and Identity in Environmental Politics
Much green political thought places value on the natural world but an interrogation of the human relationship with nature suggests a range of attitudes to nature. The pursuit of such attitudes reveals connections between people's attitudes to nature and their ideas about autonomy. This raises fundamental questions for political theory such as - does the pursuit of an autonomous life necessarily involve a radical separation from nature?
Justice and Environmental Goods
The question of how the tenets of justice might be applied to environmental questions has been a central concern in environmental political theory in recent years, as considerations of both distribution and recognition raise difficult problems in this area. For example can and should the 'community of justice' be extended beyond the conventional human-centred sphere to include sentient animals, all life, or even entire ecosystems? Can such an extension be grounded in the concept of autonomy? How can we understand justice in relation to future generations of human beings who do not yet exist? Does the loss of irreplaceable natural values raise special problems for justice theory? The work of Mathew Humphrey, Matthew Rendall, and David Stevens relates to such questions about the relationship between the environment and justice.