03.07.2012 - Social and Human Sciences Sector

“We must not irreversibly damage the common heritage of mankind” – Interview with Rainier Ibana and Henry Richardson

Rainier A. Ibana and Henry S. Richardson © UNESCO

Eminent experts in philosophy, Mr Rainier A. Ibana and Mr Henry S. Richardson are respectively serving as Chair of the Environmental Ethics Working Group and Rapporteur of the World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST). In this interview, on the occasion of the Extraordinary Session of COMEST organized by UNESCO and the French Academy of Sciences from 2 to 4 July 2012 in Paris, France, they reflect on environmental issues and our responsibilities for future generation with an ethical view.

What do you think is the meaning and role of Environmental Ethics in the 21st century and what can COMEST do to promote it?

R. Ibana: Environmental Ethics in the 21st Century is characterized by our awareness of being intricately connected with others. The moral imperative, in terms of an environmental ethics today, is to support the regenerative capacities of nature while restraining the excessive demands of our consumerist culture. The line must be drawn also between innovations that add value and extend life from technologies that are ecologically more expensive to produce than their actual added values to human living. By putting the environmental agenda to the stage of global discourse, COMEST can initiate the creation of a more expansive level of human awareness wherein individual and collective actors can become conscious of their global responsibility for the survival of many anonymous others including the life of plants and animals, the quality of our land and oceans along with the colours of the clouds and the sky that can be adversely or positively affected by their deeds or misdeeds towards the environment.

H. Richardson: We are facing ever more serious environmental challenges as the 21st century begins, but we’re also beginning to develop ever more discerning and better-supported and even principled understandings of how we ought to respond to these challenges. COMEST has a strong track record in environmental ethics, and while the commission has recent lost some of its leading lights in that area, I’m excited that it has also been able to attract some new members with very strong backgrounds in this field. The time is ripe to build on the work we did at our 7th Ordinary Session in Doha, Qatar last fall, where we formulated and adopted a Framework of Ethical Principles and Responsibilities on Climate Change Adaptation.

Why is climate change an ethical problem and how could ethics be useful in addressing it?

R. Ibana: The adverse effects of climate change on human and non-human populations are irreparable. It is very difficult for victims of natural disasters to recover from the destruction of their habitats, the sudden loss of loved ones, and their shattered plans for the future.  It deprives vulnerable populations of their right to live a decent life that was premised on the predictable patterns of the natural world.

Ethics is about lifestyles; it is derived from the Greek word ethos, a disposition or way of living and dealing with the world. Only humans, moreover, have cultivated a variety of ethos. The anthropogenic origins of climate change can therefore be modified, if not reversed, if humans can have a better understanding of the consequences of their ethos on the environment. Furthermore, ethics is not a mere code of prohibitions of what we should not do in relation to others. It is not a kind of blame game that merely points back at the anonymous others who might be responsible for the voracious kind of humanity that is mirrored by the current state of our natural world. We are all implicated in this difficult situation by our actions or non-actions against nature.

The more important aspect of environmental ethics, however, is to reflect on what we can do to regenerate the life-giving powers of “nature”, a word derived from the Latin term nasci, to be born.  Our actions reveal what we have become as human beings and we can develop the more positive side of our humanity by becoming more generous and temperate towards our natural environment.

H. Richardson: Climate change poses ethical problems because it threatens the enjoyment of basic human rights at a vast scale, because formulating and agreeing upon adequate solutions stretches the envelope of what international policymaking bodies can legitimately undertake, and because fairly allocating the burdens of implementing any solution poses thorny problems of justice.  Whenever policies seriously impact human rights, ethical reflection is crucial to arriving at adequate decisions.  Reflection on the ethical requirements of legitimate governance is needed to address the challenges of legitimacy. And the problems of fairness and justice have always been central to human ethical reflection.

None of these problems is simply a technical problem. Tackling any of them responsibly calls for one to take up a perspective that fully and fairly considers not only the interests, but also the rights and claims, of all persons, and at least asks us to consider what other interests and claims — of other living beings or of natural systems — we ought to take into account.  To take such a perspective, I would argue, is to take the perspective of ethics.

In 1997 UNESCO adopted a ‘Declaration on the Responsibilities of the Present Generation towards Future Generations’. Do you think the declaration is still meaningful? If so, what do we need to do to make it more noted and effective?

R. Ibana: Our responsibility towards future generations is mediated by the quality of life on Earth which we shall pass forward to the future in a state that is hopefully better than when we have found it. If human progress is to make sense, it would have to mean not merely faster and more efficient technologies but a kinder and gentler world wherein people can become more secure of their lives along with their loved ones in relation to their environments.

There are legal and ethical principles such as “intergenerational solidarity” or “resiliency” that have been developed in order to protect the next generation. I also believe that we should never underestimate local and indigenous wisdom in terms of their coping mechanisms to environmental problems. Perhaps we can develop more of these principles and disseminate the success stories of local technologies that could protect and advance the cause of environmentalism for the sake of the next generation instead of merely blaming and extracting punishments for the deeds or misdeeds of our predecessors. Otherwise, the future generation will also blame us for what we have done or not done towards the environment.

H. Richardson: The Declaration is at least as meaningful today as it was when it was adopted.  Now, with the issue of climate change, we face the most serious choices we have ever faced about our impact on future generations. Economists worry about the appropriate discount rate, if any, to apply when assessing the seriousness of low-probability far-future catastrophes of very large scale. Complementing a calculative approach like that, the Declaration offers some useful categorical reminders: we must act to protect cultural and biological diversity; we must not irreversibly damage the common heritage of mankind. How can we make sure that these important categorical reminders are adequately heeded?  I wish I knew.




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