Ecological Intervention and Anthropocene Ethics

| September 2007
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Robyn Eckersley’s elegant and eloquent argument concerning the limits of “ecological intervention” is constrained by the scope of what is included in her definition of environmental emergency, by what might be in need of protection, and also by what is conventionally understood by notions of intervention related to states and sovereign territory. This exploration of the limits of intervention as conventionally understood raises in an especially pointed way the related questions of who can legitimately intervene, where and in what circumstances, and the matter of precisely who it is who might be capable of actually conducting such interventions. As such, her own intervention in the debate is a most useful extension of the discussion of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) framework, not least because it highlights the ethical dilemmas but also because it explicates the limits of the framework itself.

While Eckersley’s case is clear and to the point, the larger questions hanging over this discussion relate both to harms that cross borders and the agents empowered to act to prevent these harms. The additional arguments that Daniel Deudney made back in the 1990s implied that taking environmentalism seriously required rethinking the assumptions of the state system as an effective provider of an ecologically sustainable future.1 The 1990s literature on human security, with its important point that people are frequently endangered by the unintended consequences of actions undertaken without hostile intent, is an important precursor to the responsibility to protect principle. These are not necessarily what Eckersley suggests would fit the criteria of immediacy that could, she argues, justify intervention on the basis of the right to “ecological defence.” But if they endanger people in particular places, is some mode of defense justifiable? Might there be other modes of intervention by actors other than the military?

Where Eckersley draws attention to fairly narrow terrestrial environmental phenomena and poses the question of interventions to deal with these matters, the larger environmental “emergency” that we collectively face is not obviously amenable to interventions of the sort she discusses. Taking ecology seriously as a science requires a larger and more encompassing view of what might be in need of ecological defense. In the last couple of decades science has made dramatic strides in understanding the biosphere and the dynamics of planetary systems.,2 Earth system sciences have made clear that humanity and the rest of the biosphere are interlinked much more closely than the normal assumptions of life in territorial states suggests. This science has also suggested that the most important drivers of the biosphere are in many way not terrestrial but, rather, the atmosphere and the oceanic system, which between them determine the climatological conditions for land-based species. The most important mechanisms shaping our biosphere are oceanic and atmospheric systems that we have already altered to such a degree that it is now commonly asserted that we live in a new geological period, which has been named the Anthropocene.

All of which raises the important point that the international system of states, granted responsibility for ensuring protection to its peoples can be judged to have fairly systematically failed to act in a prudent manner to head off the worst imminent effects of these changes. The Kyoto protocol, for all its faults, is an international agreement under which some states have obligations to reduce their carbon emissions. Failure to do so is fairly directly leading to changes that will, in the foreseeable future, have consequences for the territorial integrity of many states and even the physical survival of a few. While this may, as Eckersley argues, be a more gradual process than a nuclear reactor melt down, or perhaps, although this is really unlikely, a more reversible process than the elimination of a species closely similar to humans, as in her Rwanda example, the sheer scale of the changes in the biosphere and its fundamental challenge to the survival of low-lying atoll states in the Indian and Pacific oceans is surely a much more compelling case for emergency action to prevent their inundation and elimination as states and peoples.

The atoll states in the Pacific and Indian oceans, and the low lying littoral states, only most obviously perhaps Bangladesh, have no military options to intervene in this threat to their physical survival, now knowingly exacerbated by the affluent states (the Annex I countries under the Kyoto Protocol), which disregard their international commitments. What then is to be done, and by whom? How might a responsibility to protect be acted upon by the poor and marginal states in response? Those directly subject to sea level rise, the possibility of more severe hurricanes, and other possible hydro-meteorological hazards surely have a compelling ethical argument for recourse to “ecological defense” in the face of the profligate use of fossil fuels in developed states that indirectly, and probably unintentionally, endangers their populations and territory.

By way of an illustration for comparison purposes with Eckersley’s two examples, let us consider the following scenario involving Canada. It is apposite to use a Canadian example both because this comment is being written in Ottawa, the same town where the ICISS report formulating the responsibility to protect was written, and secondly because Canada is in clear violation of its Kyoto emission commitments and seems unlikely to try to use either drastic curbs on energy production or dubious international carbon trading mechanisms to attempt to in some way offset its profligate ways. Consider the following scenario.

Sometime in the next few years, after facing inundations by storm surges aggravated by rising sea levels, members of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) meet in an emergency conference to ponder what might be done. AOSIS passes a motion invoking the collective right of its members to ecological defense. While obviously all fossil fuels are a problem, the delegates decide that they should act against one of the worst sources of the threats to their ecological and territorial integrity. The preamble to the motion notes that Canada is not the only state in violation of its Kyoto commitments, but that it is on a per capita basis among the worst offenders. It goes on to explain that the continued exploitation of the huge tar sands oil shale deposits in Alberta, which require large amounts of energy just to extract petroleum before it even gets used, is an especially profligate use of fossil fuels. Finally the AOSIS motion points out that subsidies and policies favoring the resource sector in Canada persist while relatively few innovations have been taken to either improve efficiencies or expand renewable energy supplies. Harkening back to the key distinction between survival and luxury uses of energy, it also notes that no effort has been made to constrain unnecessary luxury consumption.,3

Emergency measures require a strategy and, in secret, AOSIS agree to pool some of their limited tourist revenues, and Tuvalu, getting rich selling and leasing use of its “tv” internet domain name, makes a generous contribution to hiring a cruise ship from an international tourism corporation. With hundreds of citizens from the island states facing inundation safely on board, the ship quietly sets sail for Vancouver. Once there the “tourists” disembark and converge on the few major bridges into and out of the city. There they calmly sit down in the middle of the roadways and block rush-hour traffic, bringing the city to a halt and causing anger and panic among city officials, who call for assistance from provincial and federal agencies. An emergency debate is called in the House of Commons in Ottawa and …

Of more concern here, however, is the leaflet circulated by the protestors, and the internet version that rapidly spreads from a series of sites with the “tv” domain name, which justifies the action by quoting Dr. Robyn Eckersley’s arguments concerning the right of endangered peoples to ecological defense. It points out that the traffic disruption in Vancouver is very much less damaging than the looming inundation of their island states and that hence their action is much less than proportional to the harm caused by Canada’s violation of its international obligations. The protestors vow to remain on the bridges until the provincial government in Alberta and the federal government in Ottawa permanently cease oil production from the tar sands. A later paragraph on the leaflet explains that Vancouver is after all the place of origin of Greenpeace and non-violent international environmental action, and expresses the hope that the citizens of the city and Canada will thus rally to the cause of the islanders’ ecological defense.

This counter example raises two key points that extend Eckersley’s examination of the limits of ecological intervention. First is that the existing discussion of intervention still remains trapped within the contemporary logic of nation states; this scenario is of course partly guilty of this limitation too. Climate change and such matters are still considered a matter mainly for state action, and insofar as powerful states have in many cases signally failed to live up to their obligations, the big political question raised by climate change in particular is what other options there might be for ethical action on this matter in light of the need to act to protect the human security of island populations.,4 International affairs is no longer only a matter of territorial states and military force, and discussion of ethical action needs to consider other actors, including corporations, citizens, and all manner of other communities not constrained by state boundaries.

Second, and related to this, is the question of the ability to act in the international arena. As the scenario here suggests the actions of civil society might well be understood as another form of “intervention” premised on other definitions of ecological emergency. Suggesting that climate change is not an emergency, because it is not immediate, as Eckersley does, avoids confronting the consequences of extravagant consumption and once again points the finger of accusation at poorer and marginal states as in need of interventions, rather than looking directly at the sources of the biospheric disruptions in the Anthropocene. The inadequacies of the existing state system to deal with these matters once again emphasizes the importance of the broader human security agenda, but also suggests that ethical action in the larger cause of ecological defense will have to overcome the limits of “intervention” as defined in the ICISS framework.


1 Daniel Deudney, “Global Village Sovereignty: Intergenerational Sovereign Publics, Federal-Republican Earth Constitutions, and Planetary Identities,” in Karen Litfin, ed., The Greening of Sovereignty in World Politics (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998), pp. 299-325; Daniel Deudney, “Environmental Security: A Critique,” in Daniel Deudney and Richard Matthew, eds., Contested Grounds: Security and Conflict in the New Environmental Politics (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999), pp. 187-219.

2 W. Steffen, A. Sanderson, , Tyson, P.D., Jäger, J., Matson, P.A., Moore III, B., Oldfield, F., Richardson, K., Schellnhuber, H.J., Turner, B.L., Wasson, R.J., Global Change and the Earth System: A Planet Under Pressure (Berlin, Heidelberg, New York: Springer-Verlag, 2004).

3 On this longstanding debate see Wolfgang Sachs and Tilman Santarius, eds., Fair Future: Resource Conflicts, Security and Global Justice (New York: Zed Books 2007). ).

4 Simon Dalby, “Ecology, Security, and Change in the Anthropocene,” Brown Journal of World Affairs, 13(2), (2007), pp. 155-164.

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Category: Environment, Climate Change, Sustainability, Issue 21.3, Online Exclusive, Symposium on Ecological Intervention

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