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

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Nature matters: caring and accountability

2 What matters from an accountability perspective?

2.1 Accounting for the consequences of environmental harm

The ethical tradition of consequentialism informs not only what matters from the perspective of caring for the environment, but also what matters from the perspective of accountability towards it. In eighteenth-century Europe, the actual environmental consequences of rapid economic development, triggered by the industrial revolutions taking place at that time, prompted an increasing concern for accountability. The most evident expression of this came with ideas of sustainable development

Drawing on Leopold’s land ethic, Virginia Sharpe describes sustainability as follows: ‘the idea that human activities whether large- or small-scale must sustain the integrity of the environment on which they depend’ (1996, p. 270). The social and natural sciences are clearly important instruments in providing guidance on ‘human activities’ and the ‘integrity of the environment’. But Sharpe also signals the importance of values, and cultural determinants of what is morally good and right. According to Sharpe, sustainability assumes (ibid.):

that value extends beyond the immediate present, that balanced and thriving ecosystems are valuable both intrinsically and as conditions for continued human and nonhuman existence, that environmental depletion (through unsustainable practices of habitat destruction, species extinction, stratospheric ozone depletion, and air and water pollution) should have a primary place in environmental risk assessment and reduction, and finally, that unsustainable practices are remediable by the choices of those living today.

Of course, the need for a formalised endeavour towards protecting the environment was identified earlier than this. It emerged from, for example, concerns expressed about the need for preservation by land managers such as Aldo Leopold; the mid-twentieth century realisation of the damage that was being done through nuclear weapons testing; and the increased recognition of the harm caused by the use of fungicides, pesticides and herbicides that grew out of the work of environmental writers such as Rachel Carson. In the late 1960s, scientific endeavours were increasingly focused on the construction of regulatory devices such as environmental impact assessments (EIAs). The idea behind EIAs was to provide the means for assessing the environmental effects of land-use projects such as power stations, waste disposal installations, road, rail and airport construction, etc. In the early 1970s, concern over environmental effects on a more global scale was expressed through publications such as The Limits to Growth (Meadows et al., 1972) and events such as the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, which itself gave rise to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). The first professional conference on environmental ethics was organised by William T. Blackstone and held in Georgia in 1971. By 1980 the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) had published the World Conservation Strategy, in which the term ‘sustainable development’ was first introduced on an international scale.

The most widely quoted definition of sustainable development is the ‘Brundtland’ formulation, taken from the 1987 report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, chaired by Gro Harlem Brundtland:

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without comprising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Interpreting ‘needs’ here, the report goes on to say that the overriding priority should be given to the essential needs of the world’s poor (a similar conclusion to that of Robin Attfield – see Box 5).

Since the publication of the Brundtland Report, the terms ‘sustainability’ and ‘sustainable development’ have been widely used. Originally, the concept of sustainability was used mainly in the context of sustainable agriculture and sustainable ecological systems. Contemporary discussions of sustainability are concerned with sustainable economic, social and ecological development.

Dasgupta and Mäler provide an illustration of the integral links between economic, social and environmental factors in the very real consequential world of vulnerable people. These links represent hardships that continue amongst many of the peoples of Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America in the twenty-first century (1991, p. 117):

The links between environmental degradation and an accentuation of deprivation and hardship can take forms which are even today not always appreciated. The responsibilities for gathering fuelwood and fetching water for domestic use in most rural communities fall upon women and children. When allied to household chores and their farming obligation, the workload of women in South Asia in terms of time is often one-and-a-half to twice that of men … This workload has over the years increased directly as a consequence of receding resources. It is very much worth reminding ourselves that we are speaking of a category of people of whom more than 50 percent suffer from iron deficiency, of whom only a little below 50 percent suffer from wastage, and who in some parts of the world work fifteen to sixteen hours a day during the busy agricultural season. Thus, communities in the drylands of the Indian sub-continent and in Sub-Saharan Africa today often live miles away from fuel and fodder sources and permanent water sources. Surveys in East Africa have shown, for example, that women and children spend up to five hours a day collecting water during the dry season … The consequence is that anything between 10 and 25 percent of daily daytime energy expenditure is required for collecting water.

Sustainability as a term has become very widely used in relation to environmental policy and practice, but inconsistent use has led to a range of ethical dilemmas. Leist and Holland comment (2000, p. 3):

Sustainability is currently the term dominating environmental policy. Its extensive political diffusion is in stark contrast, however, to the extent to which there is agreement over its meaning. Its ability to motivate is not in question, but a certain scepticism surrounds its ideological content.

In itself, sustainability is simply a property of any activity, practice, process or institution that has the capacity to continue or be continued indefinitely. There is no overarching value to be found informing the sustainability agenda as a whole, and available to guide environmental policy. The attempt to produce one descends at best into empty rhetoric, and at worst into concealed ideology.

It is therefore necessary to recognise that different values underlie different sustainability programmes and vary in degree of urgency. Different perspectives are also involved and different criteria of failure or success corresponding to the diverse problems that are being addressed. The work of integrating these perspectives remains to be done.

Since the Brundtland definition was formulated, many events have taken place that have focused on sustainable development. Two international-level events that were very significant, in terms of formulating the issues and what needs to be done, were the Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and the follow-up World Summit on Sustainable Development held in Johannesburg in 2002. In the decade between the two summits, the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development worked on the outputs of the first summit, which included:

  • Agenda 21 (a comprehensive action plan for sustainable development)

  • the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development

  • the Statement of Forest Principles

  • the Convention on Climate Change

  • the Convention on Biological Diversity

  • the Convention to Combat Desertification.

Since these summits, environmental responsibility has been high on the global agenda, with increasing calls for more ethical practices in relation to investments, trade and tourism. An international charter campaign aiming to promote a worldwide dialogue on shared values and global ethics has also been initiated. Governments, local authorities, NGOs and individuals have been influenced by the two summits, and as a result have taken actions that focus on sustainable development at national and local levels.

Perhaps the most significant and active of the conventions listed above is the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which was launched in 1990 by the UN General Assembly and was prominent in discussions at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. One body that played an important role in its adoption was the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which was created in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). The work of the IPCC involves thousands of scientists worldwide, and its remit is to continually assess and report on information concerning human-induced climate change, since issues of global environmental change are themselves in a constant unsteady state of change.

The Convention on Climate Change was ratified by 50 countries by 1994. Further negotiations took place, and in 1997 the Kyoto Protocol (agreeing legally binding reductions in greenhouse gas emissions for industrialised nations) was adopted at the third ‘Conference of the Parties’ (COP3). However, many of the operational details of dealing with climate change remained unresolved. In 2007, the IPCC produced what is widely acknowledged as a landmark report providing scientific corroboration that climate change is substantially caused by human activity. Partly as a result of this, it was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 (Figure 4), sharing it with Al Gore (maker of the documentary film on climate change, An Inconvenient Truth).

Figure 4 IPCC receiving Nobel Peace Prize in 2007

As of June 2008, 182 countries had ratified the Kyoto Protocol, including the fast-growing economies of Brazil, China and India (although these nations, along with other developing countries, have no obligations beyond monitoring and reporting emissions). At the time of writing, the USA and Kazakhstan are the only signatory nations not to have ratified the act.

Activity 6 Updating information on climate change regulation

Further details on the climate change negotiation process are available from websites such as those belonging to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, links to which are given on the course website. Use these, and/or other sites that you might come across, to get an update on the current level of international cooperation over the issue of climate change.

Many of the issues raised in this Convention on Climate Change process – about reducing emissions at global and local levels to meet targets, about who should do what, and about taking account of equity and poverty in the process – could be interpreted as progressing a formalised dimension of environmental responsibility: one that helps to call agents to account for the consequences of their environmental harm. As with other contemporary issues relating to the environment, formal responsibility over climate change is shaped by sustainable development concerns that invite social and biophysical science inputs towards valuing the environment. I shall now look briefly at some of the dominant trends in making such valuations, in order to identify where measures of accountability may arise.

Any process of accounting is premised upon some form of valuation. The rubric of sustainable development involves what is sometimes referred to as the triple bottom line of economic, social and ecological dimensions (Elkington, 1998), suggesting that the dominant valuing processes arise from these three dimensions. In the subsections that follow, I shall examine ways of re-evaluating the environment (in our broader sense of the term) using formal tools from economics, sociology and ecology.


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