Tag Archives: consumerism

Reconciling Ecological Imperatives and the Right to Food at a Time of Bio-Ethical Crisis

15 Dec

Reconciling Ecological Imperatives and the Right to Food at a Time of Bio-Ethical Crisis[1]



A Perspective


Humanity faces an unprecedented challenge in the coming decades that threatens the foundations of life itself, and yet to date societal reactions have been disappointingly weak and evasive, aside from voices in the wilderness. Despite expertly documented studies from the most qualified climate scientists, the overall response of supposedly responsible political and economic elites has been tepid, escapist, and even denialist. The United State Government has led the way toward doom by withdrawing from the 2015 UN Paris Climate Change Agreement, an international agreement that did not go far enough to meet the challenges of climate change, but it was an encouraging step in the right direction that was taken by virtually every government on the face of the earth. With nihilistic audacity the American president, Donald Trump, has formally withdrawn American participation in this international framework that mandates national reductions in carbon emissions with the overall objective of keeping global warming from increases above 2%, which is higher than the 1.5% that the scientific consensus proposes as necessary, but far lower than what we can expect if present emissions trends continue without significant cutbacks and regulatory oversight.


I wish to give attention to this extremely disturbing evolving situation by labeling it ‘the first bio-ethical crisis to confront humanity.’ It is bio-ethical in the primary sense that the challenges posed are fundamentally directed at the wellbeing and even survival of the species as a whole, which is a new occurrence for the human species. The crisis has an ethical character because knowledge and resources exist to overcome these challenges, and yet such suitable action is not taken. We need to ask ‘why?’ to discern the obstacles. In essence, these challenges to our human future could be addressed within the broad framework of a feasible reconfiguring of the industrial foundations and ethical outlook of modernity, and yet it is not happening. By having the knowledge of such a menacing future and yet choosing not to act is itself an ethical choice of the greatest magnitude. It is not as if a gigantic meteor was hurtling toward the earth with no known way of diverting its path or cushioning its impact. We know, and yet we lack the fortitude to act even for the sake of future generations that will suffer the main consequences of our profound irresponsibility.


Putting these concerns in the context of the right to food and food security generally, we are keenly aware that food and water are the most indispensable aspects to the right to life itself. We also realize that rights to material necessities are drained of meaning if extreme poverty deprives the poorest among us the purchasing power to purchase food that is affordable, sufficient, and nutritious. Although some governments are more protective of the vulnerable segments of their population than others, experience teaches us that social protection cannot be left to the good will of governments. Rights must be reinforced by practical remedies that are accessible to ordinary people, and can be successfully implemented. In many countries of the West where capitalism and fiscal austerity prevail, there is an ethically deficient ideological insistence on allowing the market to decide on the wellbeing of the members of society. This sends a perverse ethical message: the rich deserve their bounty, while the poor deserve their hardships. From such a strictly capitalist standpoint, pleading for the intervention of the state is alleged to make matters worse by imposing restraints on economic growth.


My attempt is to identify the obstacles, and suggest how these might be overcome. Put differently, we know what is wrong, we know what should be done, and yet it does not happen.

Further, the longer that it doesn’t happen the more burdensome will be the adjustment, and there are risks that by not acting responsibly in the present, tipping points of irreversibility will be crossed making societal adjustments if not impossible, almost so. Illustratively, if diets now limited meat consumption by one or two meatless days a week, there might be some prospect of achieving ecological balance by gradual measures, but if diets are unregulated for the next two decades, adjustment to avert catastrophe may require a mandatory vegetarian diet.



Confronting the Obstacles: These obstacles overlap and reinforce one another, and should not be regarded as entirely distinct. Such an assessment suggest that an integrated and transformative approach should be developed to comprehend these four types of obstacles in an integrated and comprehensive manner, and what might be done to overcome them.


Ideological (1)


Our social relationship to food and agriculture deeply reflect the interplay of capitalism—maximizing profits and consumerism—which includes maximizing choice, identified positively  as freedom. Interferences by governing authorities occur only if overwhelming demonstrations of adverse health effects can be demonstrated, but usually only after costly delays resulting from ‘expert’ reassurances on food safety given by corporate high paid consultants. Such market-driven patterns, fueled by advertising and addictive products produce unhealthy dietary habits throughout society, causing epidemics of obesity and many serious health issues.

Social concerns on an international level are understandably focused on avoiding humanitarian catastrophes in the form of mass starvation or famine. This kind of preoccupation places an emphasis on disaster relief and response to emergencies while ignoring the underlying ideological problem arising from distorted priorities of profits and unregulated markets over human health and ecological stability. The same forces that suppress and distort information pertaining to health are irresponsible abusers of environment, and disrupters of ecological balance. A vivid recent example is the burning of the Brazilian rainforest to satisfy market demands for high-yield logging and livestock farming, while undermining the viability of the rainforest as a major carbon capture resource and a precious storehouse of biodiversity.




Structural (2)


Seeking to balance food security against these ecological concerns is often at odds with the human and global interest. The structures of authority that shape global policy are overwhelming responsive to national interests, and this includes the UN System. Again, using the example of Brazil giving priority to development over planetary dimensions with respect to the Amazon rainforest by deferring to claims of national sovereignty so as to override objections about the dangerous impacts of this behavior on global warming and ecological equilibrium. Despite the global scale of the effects of agriculture, particularly agro-business, there is no effective international mechanisms to achieve responsible behavior on a national level.


Even when governments cooperate for the public common good, as was the case with the Paris Climate Change Agreement (2015), the commitment is framed in an unenforceable and sovereignty respecting manner. This means that even if the pledges of reductions in carbon emissions were to be fulfilled, it would still fall short of what the respected IPCC Panel prescribes as essential to avoid dangerous, possibly catastrophic effects of further global warming. Similar considerations bear on meat consumption undertaken without any effort at achieving a global regulatory perspective. Such an approach is also shaken by irresponsible global leadership as currently exercised by the United States, epitomized by its recent support of Brazil’s sovereignty claims with respect to the management of the Amazon rainforest and by the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris agreement, creating dreadful precedents that will certainly affect poorer, more economically stressed countries, and eventually the rest of us. Why should a country confronted by a food and agriculture crisis, for instance, Zimbabwe, forego developmental opportunities by acting more ecologically responsible when the world’s largest per capita carbon emitter is behaving so irresponsibly?



(3) Temporal


The most influential sources and structures of influence and authority have evolved in the modern period by being excessively attentive to short-term results. Such short-termism is associated with holding political leaders and corporate executives accountable to citizens and shareholder. Democracy rests on this proposition that voters get the chance every four years to heed the call that “it time for a change,” or more crudely, ‘throw the bastards out.’ This pattern can be observed in the preoccupation of political leaders with the electoral cycles, which are seen as decisive when it comes to assessing performance. Even for non-democratic forms of governance short-term results shape views of whether the leadership should be supported and given signs of approval.


It is no different for the economy, which exhibits an even more pronounced tendency toward short-termism. Most corporate and financial executives are judged by quarterly balance sheets when it comes to performance, and given little or no credit by shareholders and hedge fund managers for normative achievements relating to health, safety, and environment.


The importance of longer horizons of accountability is a consequence of the character of current world order challenges, with preservation of environment, avoidance of human-generated climate change, and maintenance of ecosystem stability being illustrative of the growing importance of thinking further ahead than in the past, especially when it comes to government and private sector behavior. Yet to propose such an adjustment is far easier than it is to envision how such temporal adjustments to human and ecological wellbeing could be brought about. These clusters of concerns bear directly on all dimensions of food and agricultural policy. In earlier periods adverse change from mismanagement and shortsightedness led to relatively local and national, or at most regional, harm, but the threats at this time are more systemic, totalistic, and more costly to reverse or correct. Such issues as land use, pesticides, herbicides, soil preservation, genetically modified foods, and agricultural production priorities suggest how crucial it has become to plan in a time frame that is as sensitive as possible to the precautionary principle as it applies to risk management, and thus relates to all aspects of food policy.



(4) Normative


In considering these broad issues of risk and choice in a food context we encounter a distinctive array of normative concerns of an ethical, legal, and even spiritual character. At issue most basically is the way humanity interacts with nature. Modernity, with its vision of progress resting on science and technology, regarded the natural surrounding as a series of venues useful for exploitation to enrich human society. That path brought us many interim benefits and pleasures, but it also set in motion trends that over time have produced the current bio-ethical crisis that challenges, as never before, the future wellbeing and even survival of the human species. It is relevant even in this circumstance of bio-ethical crisis to alter our way of seeing so that it encompasses ecological wellbeing in addition to human wellbeing. It is my belief that this kind of ecological consciousness as an alternative to anthropocentric orientations will provide human society with also yield benefits of a spiritual nature that go beyond meeting the materialist challenges of human existence, thus reenchanting the human experience with meaning and purpose in ways that the great religions did in the past.


Food and agriculture provide the vital linkages between this search for better forms of coexistence between nature and human experience, what pre-modern society often achieved but lost with the advent of modernity. Translating such a vision into practical policies is the work of specialists and those who are attuned both to human and ecological imperatives, but whose guidance will fail unless leaders in all spheres of collective existence are held accountable by popular will, strengthened by activism and education, so as to be properly attuned to the complex interplay of human activity and the sustainable carrying capacity of the earth.




A Concluding Plea


Pointing toward a desired reconciliation between ecological imperatives and the fulfillment of the right to food requires our attention, as well as our moral and political imagination. From such a perspective I offer these suggestions:


–applying the precautionary principle in all policymaking arenas with an awareness of the need to reconcile food and agricultural policy with ecological imperatives;


–identify the obstacles to such a reconciliation with a stress on the human as distinct from the national, on the ecological as distinct from the anthropocentric, on the intermediate and long-term as distinct from the short-term;


–without minimizing the magnitude of the challenges or the resistance of the obstacles find hope in ‘a politics of impossibility’; many historical developments from the collapse of colonialism to the collapse of apartheid in South Africa and repressive communism in Soviet Russia demonstrate that ‘the impossible happens.’ As a result, the future is uncertain to the extent that we have an opportunity and a related responsibility to act as if what seems impossible can still be made to happen. Such is our situation, such is our hope.



[1] Remarks as modified, first presented at “The 2nd International Agricultural & Food Congress,”

25 October 2019, Izmir, Turkey.


Harmony with Nature: Toward an Earth Jurisprudence

30 Nov


[Prefatory Note: This post consists of my responses to four questions asked of 189 ‘experts’ around the world by a project of the UN Harmony with Nature Network, as assembled through the good offices of my friend, Barbara Baudot. To have access to the responses of others go to www.harmonywithnature.org. This corpus of work is a rich depository of global wisdom relevant to the most original and daunting challenge ever to have faced humanity as a whole. My own approach is based on the biopolitical imperative in this historical period of developing an ecological consciousness for the sake of human wellbeing, and possibly species survival. Reestablishing rapport with nature has become a postmodern necessity. It is helpful to recall that rapport based on the recognition of human dependence on nature had been an essential feature of pre-modern reality.]


2016 Virtual Dialogue on Harmony with Nature – Theme Earth Jurisprudence


  1. What would the practice of Philosophy/Ethics look like from an Earth Jurisprudence perspective? How is that different from the way that Philosophy/Ethics is generally practiced now? And, what are the benefits of practicing Philosophy/Ethics from an Earth Jurisprudence perspective?


My concerns have concentrated upon the ethical, legal, and philosophical dimensions of international political behavior. From a disciplinary orientation there was almost no attention given to Earth Jurisprudence perspectives beyond occasional concerns for local pollution issues until the 1970s when there was a sudden surge of interest associated with limits on the earth’s capacity to deal with a variety of pressures caused by global industrial growth and demographic trends. The publication of Limits to Growth became a major event, anticipating the need for drastic changes in consumption patterns, industrial behavior, resource conservation, and population increase within a matter of decades to avoid ecological disaster. This surge of concern also produced negative reactions to such dire assessments of the global situation, dismissing the recommendations as alarmist and exaggerated.


More moderate reactions suggested that environmental regulation should be enhanced, but that the basic earth ecosystems were not at serious risk. In this respect, there did emerge a certain awareness that the normative order could no longer proceed without taking account of ecological factors, but at the same time, technological innovation many believed could extend the limits of the earth’s carrying capacity almost indefinitely. In this regard, a dominant disciplinary orientation of ecological complacency allowed the basic dynamic of economic growth and expanding consumer demand to continue without surrounding sensitivities to the surrounding realities of nature. There was also present a resolve in the non-Western countries to reject any policy claims based on environmental protection that encroached upon the primacy of economic and social development.


The onset of global concerns about climate change from the early 1990s has increased the disciplinary recognition of ‘earth jurisprudence’ for normative guidance encompassing philosophical speculation, legal guidelines, and ethical imperatives. As such, there have evolved two sets of dominant approaches: (1) a public/private partnership perspective in which ecologically responsible behavior is introduced into the operations of business, the formation of governmental policy, and the opinion-shaping role of the UN and other international institutions. (2) a critical perspective skeptical about the reconcilability of either a market-oriented economic order or a state-centric system of world order to cope with the challenges of climate change, biodiversity, and especially to meet these challenges in a manner responsive to the priorities of the climate justice movement. In (1) reliance is placed on a top-down approach that regards technology and rationality as providing the vital ingredients for an appropriate earth jurisprudence. In (2) reliance is placed on a bottom-up approach that is value-driven in ways that question prevailing ideologies associated with neoliberal globalization and nationalism, giving primacy to the reconstruction of civilization around ecological principles of sustainability and a collaborative relationship with the natural environment.


By and large, the academic disciplines associated with normative concerns have not identified the central structural obstacle that limits the influence of earth jurisprudence—the absence of institutional capabilities and ideological understanding to identify and implement the global public interest or the 2


human/nature interest. One line of conjecture is whether to conceptualize earth jurisprudence as ‘ecological humanism’ or ‘humanistic ecology.’



  1. What promising approaches do you recommend for achieving implementation of an Earth- centered worldview for Philosophy/Ethics? (Note: depending on the discipline, approaches could also be theoretical, although practical approaches should be prioritized).


Worldwide appreciation of the climate change challenge is exerting a significant impact upon how normative disciplines conceive of their relationship to reality, with a much greater realization that ecological sensitivity is bound up with species wellbeing, and even survival. This impact is still marginal because the majority of scholarship continues to be devoted to traditional concerns such as security, uses of force, trade and investment with no attention paid to adverse effects on the natural surroundings. Security studies are particularly notorious, focusing inquiry on counterterrorism and asymmetric warfare with the main normative interest directed toward whether international humanitarian law needs to revised or selectively abandoned in response to the sort of transnational tactics being employed by non-state political actors with extremist goals.


I think it is long overdue to bring an earth-centered view into war/peace studies. I attempted to do this to some extent more than 40 years ago in my book This Endangered Planet: Prospects and Proposals for Human Survival. Unlike other treatments of ecological dangers in the 1970s, which almost totally ignored ecological considerations associated with war except in the context of a rather distinct concern with the environmental effects of a major nuclear war (‘nuclear winter’ and more recently, ‘nuclear famine’). There was some attention paid to earth effects in response to the deliberate burning of oil fields by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the Gulf War of 1992. In my book, the basic idea put forward was that ‘the war system’ as such was inconsistent with a prudent and humane approach to the overall dynamics of human/earth interactivity.


In the course of a 21st century inquiry into harmony with nature I think it is long overdue to question war itself as a source of systemic disharmony with nature. A second emphasis would be on giving priority, morally, legally, and politically, to nuclear disarmament for its own sake, and as a first step toward the demilitarization of political relations on the planet. These fundamental questions of war and peace should be put on top of the agenda of work associated with the philosophical and ethical inquiries into harmony with nature.



  1. What key problems or obstacles do you see as impeding the implementation of an Earth- centered worldview in Philosophy/Ethics?


There are several obstacles that block the adoption and implementation of an earth-centered worldview in ethics and philosophy. For the most part mainstream thinking for several centuries in the West has been anthropocentric in its outlook, assuming above all that aside from the vertical relationship between humanity and the sacred there was no serious challenge to a species centered view of reality, and that policy and practices should be shaped to fulfill the values and goals of human society no matter how a particular political community was being governed.

Less philosophically fundamental, but more immediately relevant, is an economic logic that connects material growth, as measured by GNP, with human wellbeing, and also gives priority to the efficiency of capital in promoting this growth. Given such priorities, the ravaging of the earth has been a 3


consequence, and even minimally necessary environmental regulation is widely opposed as constraining economic activity. The development premise of growth as the key to progress also encourages the inflation of demand through advertising and other forms of manipulation of human desires.


It is also relevant to take note of the global fragmentation that results from the dynamics of a state-centric system of world order, where those who act on behalf of states are seeking to maximize the national interest without worrying too much about the human or ecological interests are at stake. Governments are dependent on fulfilling the expectations of the nation, with little thought given to the natural surrounding or to the implications for the earth.

In discussions of nuclear weaponry, and what to do about them, there is rarely present an earth- centered participant. Most of the debate about the dangers of such weaponry to produce catastrophic warfare centers upon speculation that any use will cause massive human suffering. Even commentary on effects of use in causing a nuclear winter or nuclear famine are directed at what such an event will do to human society and civilization.

Overall, to get beyond the Anthropocene will require a new earth-centered imaginary that is only beginning to be understood as related to the wellbeing and survival of the human species. The essence of this imaginary is a recovery of the pre-modern awareness of many indigenous peoples and others that human society would succeed only so long as there was maintained a harmonious relationship with nature, and that it was natural events more than human endeavor that determined whether society did well and persisted.


The challenge to contemporary philosophy and ethics is to fashion an earth-centered jurisprudence that can reshape the dominant imaginary in ways that privilege a collaborative relationship between human activity and its natural surroundings. To move in this direction is to move beyond the Anthropocene and to transform the logic of profitability that continues to control economic activity. If this kind of transition is to have systemic effects it must also challenge the dominance of neoliberal capitalism and the ideological predispositions of nationalism. Earth-centeredness also implies wholeness, conceiving of the species and world as forms of unity, and rejecting the logic that now gives priority to the part as distinct from the whole whether it be the individual versus the community or the state versus the world.



  1. What are the top recommendations for priority, near-term action to move Philosophy/Ethics toward an Earth Jurisprudence approach? What are the specific, longer-term priorities for action? (Note: give 3 to 10 priorities for action).


I begin with a reflection questioning whether an emphasis on disciplinary orientation is not itself as aspect of the prevailing imaginary that privileges the part over the whole. Whether we can see holistically, yet remain within the confines of our particular discipline, informs the search for the contours of an Earth Jurisprudence. What is important is to establish a moral epistemology that is guided by a post-Anthropocene imaginary.

With respect to philosophy and ethics I am not sure that it is helpful to posit priorities for action until the recommended orientation emerges with coherence and is supported by a consensus of those deemed wise and respected in different world civilizations. 4


For longer term, the obvious emphasis should be placed on creating balances between resources and carrying capacity of the earth with suitable attention being given to beauty as an integral aspect of achieving harmony with nature and to the spiritual appreciation of living within the confines of an ecological civilization.


It seems to me that the short-term priorities are a matter of acknowledging that a planetary state of emergency exists, and calls for urgent responses to avoid raising risks of catastrophe brought about by irresponsible behavior. Such responses include the following:

–imposing a carbon tax to reduce the global warming effects of rising levels of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere; creating a monitoring and verification mechanism that ensures that the behavior of all states is established and efforts made to restore compliance with pledged reductions;

–a crash course to educate the peoples of the world as to the waste of resources associated with the war system, including costs in terms of human suffering that derive from uses of force to resolve conflicts among states;

–establishing a tribunal to determine all claims by governments and civil society actors relating to questions of ecological sustainability.


For the longer term, the development of an earth-centered imaginary that replaces current reliance on a state-centric geopolitical agency is a vital task confronting 21st century philosophers. Such an imaginary would permit the reformulation of international law as global law that embodied an ethical imperative to serve the human interest as transcending in normative authority the national interest that currently steers public policy.