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Climate change: transitions to sustainability
Climate change: transitions to sustainability

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3.3.3 Obligations to trees?

Citizenship is generally held to be based on a contractual view, where rights and obligations are balanced. In other words, you get various rights in return for your commitment to live by your society's rules and expectations. Political philosopher Andrew Dobson suggests that ecological citizenship is based in a non-reciprocal sense of justice or compassion. The discussion of our relationships with past and future generations in Section 1.2 establishes that our obligations to future generations or other species cannot be based on reciprocity by definition. This goes further than a cosmopolitan citizen's obligation to strangers distant in space. We can't hold a contract with the future; there is no all-encompassing ecological political community with which we can construct bargains.

Some political theorists have dismissed this approach, suggesting that it makes no sense to talk about citizenship without having some concept of political community and belonging. They argue that those proposing ecological citizenship are stretching the term too far. The counter-argument is that it is possible to point to some actions of institutions such as the EU and the UN as evidence that we have already started on the first steps down this road. There has been a sea change in environmental politics in how some kinds of policies are talked about and explained. Although the thought is not always explicit, awareness of being inextricably linked to the natural world, and to future and distant human lives, can be seen as the driving force behind some policies rather than some material or abstract sense of exchange or bargain with the state.

  • Why might the precautionary principle or carbon taxes be seen as examples of policies based in a ‘non-reciprocal’ sense of justice, or compassion?

  • These policies could be seen as reflecting a ‘bedding down’ of non-reciprocal obligations to the future and the non-human natural world. We are bound by these obligations, but this isn't like the deal that was struck when Western European countries set up welfare states, where welfare and economic security were exchanged for strike-free labour relations and social stability. They are, therefore, ‘non-reciprocal’.