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

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3.3.4 Home-grown compassion, not public commitments

It has long been held that we conduct all citizenship, and the obligations it implies, in the public sphere (i.e. outside the private sphere of the home). However, it has been argued that there are other potential sources of obligation. Andrew Dobson argues that the principal duties of the ecological citizen are to act with care and compassion to strangers, both human and non-human – not just in the present, but also those distant in space and time (Dobson, 2000). These virtues of care and compassion are experienced, nurtured and taught not in public spaces – the established domain of citizenship – but in the private sphere (in other words, the family and the home).

Do these features contrast ecological citizenship so sharply with established definitions of citizenship that they should not be considered in the same category? Civic rights enshrined in law are transparent; it is not difficult to see when they are being denied. However, notions such as care and compassion are much more difficult to translate into the language that legislatures and civil servants are comfortable with. These notions are clearly part of how many environmentalists would explain their actions, and these are clearly features of the private rather than the public sphere. It remains a big leap for most political philosophers to see these as aspects of citizenship.

Some ask what the practical use of all these language games is. These critics suggest climate change and biodiversity loss need action not philosophical talk. However, others suggest political philosophy is as important as measurements of global mean surface temperature in thinking through action on climate change. Although a global withdrawal of labour by political philosophers would not lead to a food shortage, or result in hazards or misfortune, it is important to recognise that, if we want to make good decisions in difficult circumstances, we need our thinking to be very sharp. We will need to think hard about what feelings and arguments might be available to underpin action. These are some of the things that philosophical debates can help us to do.

Ecological citizenship is just one way of thinking about people's motivations as you go further in exploring the new kinds of politics surrounding sustainability. It is presented here not as a line of thinking the authors want to promote, but as an example of the sort of philosophical territory that conclusions from science and policy knowledge of global environmental change may be pointing us towards. The question that now needs answering is: can all the talk about green governance and ecological citizenship be turned into meaningful action? Can we act fast enough to reduce human impacts on the global environment to a sustainable level? The final section of this course takes up this challenge.