Nature matters: caring and accountability
Nature matters: caring and accountability

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1 What matters from a caring perspective?

1.1 Entitlements and obligations

Informal conversation with nature invokes intuitive ideas about human understanding and appreciation of value. The conversation develops practical ideas about how our entitlements affect our access to, and our relationships with, other constituents of the natural world. It also helps us to develop a sense of obligation towards the natural world. These less formalised aspects of responsibility are shaped by, and give shape to, the more codified rights and duties that provide guidance on our responsibilities.

Sometimes the codifying process can remove something of the informal aspect of what is being codified. Take, for example, the ‘polluter pays’ principle. This is a ‘duty of care’ principle – a codified expression of ‘care for the environment’. Yet prioritising formal accountability through elaborate guidance measures might sometimes result in a diminishing of any deeper, more connected, informal sense of care (Figure 1). This does not have to be the case, however. The existence of a duty of care with formal requirements that become habitual can also lead to a broader understanding of obligation towards other expressions of environmental responsibility. For example, the duty of care on household waste may encourage citizens who are away from home, in public spaces or on holiday, to take their recyclable litter back home with them rather than dump it in the nearest waste bin (or worse, in a roadside hedge).

Figure 1 Company caring

The language of responsibility – entitlements, obligations, rights and duties – is very much tied up with the legal world. So ‘entitlements’ as a formal expression, for example, is often used interchangeably with ‘rights’, as in the use of the phrase ‘legal entitlements’. A less formal understanding of entitlements, and how they relate to environmental responsibility, is presented by the Nobel Prize winning Indian economist, Amartya Sen. He states that entitlements relate to the practical ability to make effective claims, as opposed to the abstract framework of legislation that embodies rights. Entitlements are negotiable, in terms of both human-to-human relationships and those between humans and non-human nature. Box 1 discusses some of these ideas.

Box 1 Entitlements for environmental responsibility

Amartya Sen describes entitlements in terms of ‘effective demand’ (1981). In his explanation of a devastating famine that took place amidst actual food availability in India during the mid-twentieth century, Sen distinguishes between a formal ‘right’ to life or food that might be expressed in some constitutional framework, and actual access to resources – entitlements – expressed through being able to make democratic claims. Thus his thesis is that famine is not a technical problem regarding the availability of food, but rather a problem of democracy (in actual terms of exercising rights of expression). Any country having a viable democracy cannot possibly suffer from famine. This was borne out subsequently in extended drought situations in post-independence India and Botswana, as well as in Australia (amongst many other countries).

Entitlements are thus less visible in terms of actual rules – abstract constructs that have been codified and documented – and in that sense they are less formal(ised). But there is clearly a relationship between rights (or what Sen calls endowments) and entitlements. It is that relationship that can be conveyed by using the expression ‘nurturing obligations and entitlements’. This captures the informal way in which these attributes of responsibility are cultivated. You can’t possibly impose entitlements and obligations (unlike rights and duties, which there is the possibility of imposing).

A more formalised understanding of entitlements is embodied in what Leach et al. (1999) refer to as ‘environmental entitlements’. They first describe endowments as ‘the rights and resources that social actors have. For example, land, labour, skills and so on’. Entitlements ‘refer to legitimate effective command over alternative commodity bundles’. And finally ‘environmental entitlements refer to alternative sets of utilities derived from environmental goods and services over which social actors have legitimate effective command and which are instrumental in achieving well-being’ (all p. 233). Unlike Sen’s food entitlements, environmental entitlements encompass use of as well as simply access to resources. The authors are here concerned with identifying and enhancing the management of environmental resources amongst impoverished natural resource users in marginalised and vulnerable environments. In this context, entitlements are expressed as alternative ways of environmental problem-framing – an informal means of negotiating people– environment relationships.

Conversation around entitlements to Nature is shaped by our sense of obligation towards the natural world, which itself is determined by our underpinning values.

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