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

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Nature matters: caring and accountability

2.4 Natural science valuation: towards ecological restoration

While the previous two subsections dealt with the social sciences, the ideas of ecology represent more the natural sciences tradition. In the early years of controversy around how to practise sustainable development, some concern was expressed about the perceived bias towards social rather than natural sciences. Bryan Norton (1992), for example, is critical of the social scientific approach. He argues that reliance on standard economic and other social scientific tools will not be enough to ensure sustainability, in the Brundtland sense. The possibility of irreversible catastrophes, and other severely damaging discontinuities in the (comparatively) smooth running of economies and societies assumed by the social scientists’ model, means that we must also make use of the findings of the biophysical, and particularly the environmental, sciences in order to achieve the aim of sustainability.

Norton proposes an alternative approach to understanding sustainability, which he calls scientific contextualism. This recognises that there are non-negotiable obligations involved in our use of resources and that these involve moral judgements, but claims that these judgements have to be made in the context of scientific knowledge about the impacts of our activities. Norton argues that purely social scientific, ‘human welfare’ considerations have to be put in a context of environmental constraints; policies for future development cannot be arrived at through welfare-maximising procedures, but only through processes that also include estimates of the importance of various possible environmental changes.

The notion of an ecological footprint provides an important example of using scientific knowledge to contextualise conversations on environmental decision making. The footprint is an estimate of the amount of biologically productive land and sea area required to sustain current use of food, water, energy and consumables by humans whilst also rendering harmless the waste generated by human activities, given prevailing technology and resource management practice. The footprint can be measured for individual humans, or population groups such as companies or nation states. (Several sites on the internet allow individuals to calculate their own personal footprint.)

In October 2008 the WWF published its biennial Living Planet Report, comparing the ecological footprints of different nations using scientific data. Footprints range from an average of over eight hectares per person for large consuming countries such as the United Arab Emirates, the USA, Kuwait and Denmark, to less than half a hectare per person for countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Haiti, Afghanistan and Malawi. The report suggests an impending ecological ‘credit’ crisis with an order of magnitude far worse than the 2008 financial credit crunch. Again, using scientific information it describes how human demands on the planet’s resources have doubled in 45 years, and states that by the 2030s humans will need two planets to provide for their wants – which is two decades earlier than the date forecast in the previous report, published in 2006.

Scientific contextualism provides response-ability in the sense of giving a ‘voice’ to non-human nature. The following activity invites you to consider how this voice is given expression.

Activity 15 The importance of natural sciences for establishing accountability

How might Norton’s ‘scientific contextualism’ serve to promote accountability for harm to the environment? Compare your answer with mine below.

Science provides a voice in the form of indices or more specific indicators that reflect the state of nature. These are abstract measures such as, for example, the use of temperature gauges for measuring global warming or the various types of ‘quality of life’ or ‘sustainability’ indicators used to measure social and ecological development (many of which have specific biophysical constituent indicators), or the ecological footprint. Science also provides the actual tools for measuring different biophysical (as well as social) variables. Such measurements can be used to monitor development over time and across different spatial divides (between communities and/or countries). They provide a point of reference – an abstract ‘voice’ – expressing the values that are attributed to non-human nature. They provide ways of benchmarking development and hence bringing to account developmental activities. Importantly, though, they should not be taken to be ‘the’ voice of non-human nature. As abstract human measures, they ought always to be open to challenge and/or further development.

So what are the scientific ideas, both social and natural, that Norton refers to? I shall look at some of these now.

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