An Ethical Approach to Environmentalism

The Science Policy team today attended an extremely interesting conference at New Hall College, Cambridge, on ‘The Root Causes of Unsustainability’. Organised co-jointly by the Faraday Institute and the John Ray Initiative, two organisations which aim to foster the dialogue between science and religion, presentations explored the causes of unsustainable development and consumption from scientific, economic, ethical and theological perspectives.

Sir John Houghton FRS, Chairman of the John Ray Initiative and former Chairman of the Scientific Assessment Working Group of the IPCC, defined sustainability as: not cheating our children; not cheating our neighbours and not cheating the rest of creation. In explaining to the audience, of theologians, philosophers, ecologists and economists, the magnitude of the impacts which could be expected under ‘business as usual’ approaches to climate change, Sir John stressed that tackling environmental change is a moral, spiritual and scientific challenge.

This was a theme echoed throughout a day that saw presentations from, amongst others: Dr Jim McCarthy, President of the AAAS, on the role of corporations and lobby groups in spreading climate change ‘misinformation’; Professor John Guillebaud, UCL, on tackling ‘the elephant in the room’, population growth, including a highly informative video on world population growth over the past 100 years; Donald Hay, Oxford University, on ‘discounting the future’, and whether such a standard economic tool is ethical or appropriate when applied to the environment and Professor Ian Arbon, Newcastle University, on unsustainable energy.

It was fascinating to explore the ethical and moral, aside from the scientific, impetus to tackle climate change, with a group largely outwith the ecological community, and to consider how the perspectives represented could work together in engaging the public and policy makers with the key issues considered.

Access the presentations and a web-cast of the event at the website of the John Ray Initiative (available shortly)

Access the World Population Video on You Tube