Two reviews of ENVIRONMENTAL ETHICS: an overview for the 21st century  (second edition)

first one by Piers H G Stephens, followed by one by Jonathan Prior in the Journal of Environmental Policy and Planning

Robin Attfield.

Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2014. Xvi + 272 pages.

Though broadly philosophical reflections on nature and our place within it can be tracked to antiquity, the development
of the field of the field of environmental ethics as a distinct sub-discipline within contemporary academic philosophy has a far shorter history. Its landmark moments include the 1968 publication of Lynn White Jr’s influential critique of Christianity’s environmental record “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis”, J. Baird Callicott’s teaching of the world’s first course in environmental ethics in 1971 at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, the
pathfinding papers “Is There a Need for a New, an Environmental, Ethic?” and “The Shallow and the Deep, Long-Range Ecology Movement: A Summary” by the Australian philosopher Richard Routley and the Norwegian Arne Naess respectively in 1973, and the founding of the journal Environmental Ethics in 1979. The field slowly grew with a range of now well-known voices such as Holmes Rolston III, Bryan Norton and Carolyn Merchant first making themselves heard through the 1970s to 1990s, and the development of specific positions such as ecofeminism, deep ecology, and various forms of ecocentric theory, until at last these concerns became mainstream within the academy over the past 20 years. Such is the relatively familiar story of the field’s development as frequently taught to undergraduate students.

But one thinker who significantly contributed from an early stage in this process has
received rather less international attention than might be merited. The British
philosopher Robin Attfield responded to the reflections of Lynn White Jr. and
of John Passmore in his 1983 book The Ethics of Environmental Concern, in which he elaborated and defended the
Christian stewardship tradition with reference to study in the history of
ideas, and then went on to examine issues in intergenerational justice,
population problems and interspecies morality. Attfield’s careful analytical
approach looked conservative and mild in the radical early days of the field’s
development, which may explain why his work’s impact was not immediate, but his
influence has grown with the years. Like Holmes Rolston, his work operates at
the interfaces of practical ethics, religion and ecology, and after further books
dealing with globalism, meta-ethics, and issues of value and obligation,
Attfield published the first edition of Environmental Ethics: An Overview for the
Twenty-First Century in 2003. This second edition, with scholarly updates and a whole new concluding chapter that deals
with the ethics of climate change, is tailored both to researchers and undergraduate students: it aims to “explain the relevant concepts and issues,
and to contribute to their discussion and development”, as well as hopefully to “foster the kind of campaigning which the study of this subject often
encourages and, for some, makes possible” (xi-xii). In keeping with the status
of a volume that seeks to be simultaneously a research contribution, a field
summary, an informative call to arms and a textbook, the work includes a
helpful glossary of key terms, intermittent text blocks that urge reflection on
particular questions after conclusion of a themed section, helpful concluding
chapter summaries, and the ongoing development and application of a particular
moral perspective. This last is Attfield’s trademark biocentric consequentialism, which runs through much of the book as he cashes out particular
issues against which to test it and ways in which it may help us generate coherent normative conclusions and policies.

Structurally the book consists of 7 chapters, with Chapter 1 devoted to the matter of clearly defining what makes a
problem an environmental problem. Here Attfield focuses on these as being concerned with the problems caused through
human interactions with the “objective encompassing system of nature” (2), such
as pollution, deforestation, climate change, habitat and biodiversity loss,
with environmental ethics defined as the “study of the ethics of human
interactions with and impacts on such systems” (15). Though supportive of the
biocentric view that “moral consideration should be shown to all living
creatures”, Attfield rejects system-based views, holding instead that “systems
matter because of the individual lives which depend on them and which they make
possible” (9), and wraps up the chapter with some broad reflections on the
various accounts of the causal roots of our current ecologically destructive
dynamics. This takes the work neatly into the start of Chapter 2, in which Attfield
first examines the debate over Christian dominion and stewardship traditions,
then gives a potted history of the early days of environmental ethics and
starts to outline the basic details of his own position. Maintaining that “not
even the combined arguments of sophisticated anthropocentrism show it to
comprise an adequate or acceptable normative ethic” (42), he argues that his
biocentric consequentialism emerges from the “need to combine a biocentric
understanding of moral standing with a form of consequentialism that recognizes
the full range of capacities whose development or fulfilment comprises the good
of various creatures including human beings, and which also recognizes the
greater value of the interests that relate to complex and sophisticated
capacities such as autonomy” (44). Attfield then examines non-consequentialist
alternatives to his position and some meta-ethical debates (cognitivism vs
non-cognitivism, objectivism vs subjectivism, modernism vs postmodernism)
before finishing the chapter with a thoughtful appendix on ecofeminism. The latter
is one of the most significant second edition upgrades here, as are Attfield’s
engaging treatment of environmental virtue ethics, both of which were wholly
absent from the original edition.

With the general scene-setting thus done, Chapters 3 and 4 deal respectively with critiques of environmental ethics
and with questions about our obligations to the future and its inhabitants,
both human and nonhuman. Here matters become rather more philosophically
substantial, and Attfield’s varied arguments against the different
anthropocentric ethical approaches taken by John O’Neill, David Cooper and John
Benson (in Chapter 3) and Bryan Norton (in Chapter 4) are well worth specialist
examination. The core of his anti-anthropocentrist case is that indirect
protection of the components of nonhuman nature via a broadened conception of
human wellbeing or long-term self-interest simply won’t do the necessary work:
“the particular argument from natural goods being constitutive of the
flourishing of current human beings cannot supply grounds for preserving enough
non-human creatures” (76). This argument, aimed largely at O’Neill, Cooper and
Benson, also spins off to contribute to Attfield’s rejection of Bryan Norton’s
convergence hypothesis between anthropocentric and nonanthropocentric policies,
as he maintains that future human interests in Norton’s model “fail to underpin
sufficiently strong policies on biodiversity preservation, population levels,
colonization of the earth’s surface, and probably genetic engineering” (124). The
question thus naturally arises as to whether or not similar applicability problems
might afflict his own scheme, and so Chapter 3 also examines a brief series of
possible critiques of biocentric consequentialism. It ends with a brief
discussion of the charge made by Alan Carter that Attfield’s scheme would imply
maximizing the number of humans who have most of their essential capacities
(e.g. autonomy, self-consciousness) to some degree developed even if doing so
caused some non-human species extinctions, since higher intrinsic value is
granted to satisfying the basic needs of creatures with self-consciousness and
autonomy. (This is in fact part of a longer ongoing exchange on this topic
between Attfield and Carter, and readers wishing to learn more should see their
competing essays in Hiller, Ilea & Kahn, 2014). Attfield responds by
denying the assumption that what holds for the present generation will hold for
all future generations, and argues that since humans and other terrestrial
species with complex capacities could become extinct long before other species,
the value of those other possible future creatures “is relevant to current
decisions about whether to colonize or otherwise take over the habitats of
their current counterparts (their possible ancestors), and would not be
outweighed by conflicting human interests from the same generation” (95-6). Chapter
3 thus ends on a note exemplifying the fabled trait of ethical consequentialism
- its admirable flexibility or its pernicious slipperiness depending on your
philosophical orientation – and leads to the next chapter’s concerns with
duties to the future and what has come to be called sustainability. Here
Attfield espouses universalism and rejects contractarian and communitarian groundings
to obligations, repudiates the idea of discounting the future other than in
cases where particular significant constraints apply (such as uncertainty), and
opposes the familiar identity problems excavated by Parfit: “there can be
obligations with regard to whoever lives in a certain future period, despite
their identity being currently unknown and hitherto undetermined, and hence…
obligations are not invariably owed to someone or something in particular”
(104). There are thus clear moral grounds, in Attfield’s view, for caring about
posterity, and interestingly he attaches the concerns of the environmental
justice movement to this area, since current environmental injustices also tend
to ripple into affecting the future prospects of unjustly treated groups. Concern
for justice, however, does not exhaust the list of agents’ psychological motivations for attending to future
obligations. Inspiration here may come from several sources, with the human
concern for self-transcendence being significant amongst them, and for this
second edition, Attfield has added a brief but informative section on
developments in environmental aesthetics and their motivational significance.

Having set up the philosophical core, Attfield next moves on to the matter of institutional instantiations and
debates around current practice. Chapter 5 deals with sustainable development
(including the thorny issue of population), competing conceptions of
sustainability, the sustainability-liberal democracy relationship, the
precautionary principle, and the challenges posed by genetic modification and
synthetic biology technologies. As one might expect, Attfield explains the
familiar distinction between weak and strong sustainability, and on his account
the former refers to sustainability that involves sustaining a particular
economic level via human made capital being routinely and continuously
substituted for natural resources, whilst strong sustainability must be
embraced “if such unlimited substitution would undermine either natural systems
or social systems” (144), and it thus mandates a stress on preserving more
natural resources in their present form. I confess that I think Attfield’s
implication here that weak sustainability advocates might be defined by their
embrace of “unlimited substitution” is a little misleading; I know of no
economist who goes that far, and indeed as Attfield himself states on the next
page, insofar as “the question of substitution can be asked about natural
resources (construed as natural capital), the answer must surely be that there
are limits to substitution, at least in practice” (145). Quite so, but if that
is the case then the defining ideal character of weak sustainability is going
to be a position that nobody actually holds. A less fuzzy way of putting the
distinction might have focused on competing normative views of the acceptability
of substituting natural capital by technology, and this would also have had the
advantage of fitting in with the ethical critique that Attfield advances
towards much sustainability discourse. Here he is on much stronger ground, as
his biocentric consequentialism leads him to question the anthropocentrism that
is frequently presupposed even in many accounts of strong sustainability. The
problem with the economic debate about sustainability, he protests, is that the
language of natural capital and resourcism ignores “the fact that trees, whales
and tigers are living creatures with a good of their own, and cannot be
regarded as nothing but resources”, whereas a proper ethically engaged
biocentric model would support “the preservation of intrinsically valuable
natural creatures, and thus of as many species and habitats (some of them as
wilderness) as possible” (146-7). Given likely possible impacts on wider
interests, Attfield goes on to make his biocentric view of strong
sustainability here cohesive with his embrace of a radical interpretation of
the precautionary principle, and this in turn gets connected to his perspective
on genetic modification technologies and synthetic biology. Eschewing the
ontological revulsion felt by many greens at these new deep technologies, he
opts to deal with them instead via a scientifically informed “case-by-case consideration
informed in part by the Precautionary Principle, as well as by other relevant
ethical principles including principles of human wellbeing, of human and animal
rights, and of justice” (165).

After a broad concluding endorsement of the capacity of liberal democratic regimes, in principle, to accept and move
towards sustainability, Attfield turns to issues of global community and
citizenship in Chapter 6 before examining the largest single current global
environmental problem, climate change, in Chapter 7. He advocates a form of
global cosmopolitan citizenship, and in perhaps the most significant
formulation in the book, explains what this means in ethical and political
terms: every “bearer (present or future) of moral standing, or considerability…
is thereby a global citizen (in a broader sense) but where citizenship implies
responsibility it is restricted (short of the arrival of intelligent
extraterrestrials) to human beings and (derivatively) their institutions”. In
this sense of collective global citizenship, “the resources of the planet may
be regarded as the common heritage of mankind” and “humanity is not justified
in deploying its resources for human good alone”, for “the current generation
inherits the responsibility to protect natural goods for the benefit of present
and future generations of all species” (196). Accordingly there needs to be
radical reform and democratization both of current governments and of
international bodies like the WTO, and few topics illustrate this need better
than the vexed problem of climate change, to which Attfield dedicates his new
concluding chapter. Here he gives a straightforward and effective overview,
drawing on the work of Simon Caney especially, and outlines a solidly argued if
unexciting set of recommendations: responsibility for action lies centrally
with governments and corporations but all of us have obligations as part of our
collective responsibility, the most promising international policy model is
probably a modified version of Contraction and Convergence, and some milder
forms of geoengineering technologies might be acceptable to supplement
mitigation efforts but the more radical versions should be ruled out, and the
real danger that unrealistic technofix promises could undermine ethical and
political imperatives in this area should not be underestimated.

Such is the book’s content, and all of this is well and good so far as it goes. Attfield has, however, been quite horribly
unlucky in the timing of this second edition and its release so far as the
climate ethics issue is concerned, especially given that the new chapter on
that topic is the single most significant substantive upgrade from the book’s
first edition. For the unfortunate fact is that since 2011 we have seen the
publication of 3 different volumes which already appear likely to be classics
in the climate ethics literature, namely Stephen M. Gardiner’s A Perfect Moral Storm, Dale Jamieson’s Reason in a Dark Time and most recently J.
Baird Callicott’s Thinking Like a Planet, and the timing of the composition and publication of this revised edition was
such that Attfield’s work contains references to none of them. The upshot is
that this expanded edition rather misses its target in precisely the area where
it aimed to remake itself as especially newly relevant, and those who might be
tempted to use the book as a class text – a role for which it is well suited –
would probably be best advised to supplement the book with other climate ethics
readings. The book is still well worth reading, but it is unfortunate for the
author that a fine effort is thus sadly undermined by the vicissitudes of

Piers H G Stephens


Callicott, J. Baird. 2013. Thinking Like a Planet: The Land Ethic and the Earth Ethic. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gardiner, Stephen M. 2011. A Perfect Moral Storm: The Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hiller, Avram, Ilea, Ramona & Kahn, Leonard (Eds.). 2014. Consequentialism and Environmental Ethics, New York: Routledge.

Jamieson, Dale. Reason in a Dark Time: Why the Struggle Against Climate Change Failed –
and What It Means for Our Future. 2014. New York: Oxford University Press.

Review by Jonathan Prior of Environmental Ethics: An Overview for the Twenty-First Century (2nd Edition)
Polity Press, 2014. 278 pp., £16.99 (Paperback), ISBN 978-0-7456-5253-5

Discussions about ethics bubble under the surface of environmental policy
debates, but too often remain hidden; normativity is implied, rather than 
openly discussed. This impoverishes the ways in which we discuss environmental
problems, and can lead to dangerously seductive solutions shorn of
any consideration of their implications for social or ecological justice. Think,
for instance, of the remarkable ascent of the marketization of nature in
environmental conservation circles, which ignores the just distribution of resources and
sharpens the tools for enclosing the commons. In this second version of his
book Environmental Ethics, Robin Attfield clearly and eloquently outlines a
range of ways in which ethics is of fundamental importance to contemporary environmental
problems, even when not recognized as such, and in doing so why the
normative dimensions of policies should be brought to the fore more often.

In Chapters 1 and 2, Attfield provides an overview of a broad sweep of concerns
circulating through environmental ethics scholarship. Here, he outlines
different strains of environmental ethics, and usefully demystifies concepts
that can be challenging to grapple with, such as biocentrism and environmental

Chapter 3 sees Attfield defending the very usefulness of developing
environmental ethics theory by asking: can thinking about environmental ethics
really change anything? This is a question that environmental ethicists have
been repeatedly forced to answer, not least by environmental ethicists themselves.
Attfield provides specific examples of where a link can be made
between values and pro-environmental actions, namely through ethical consumption 
practices, and the work of campaigning NGOs and lobbying organizations.

To my mind, Attfield misses an opportunity here to argue against such a
narrow interpretation of the role of ethics. From identifying a problem to implementing
a solution, all environmental decisions implicate certain values, so a more
pertinent task is to assess why there are such power differentials in   
terms of who gets to make decisions beyond, say, purchasing organic or fairly
traded produce.

Chapter 4 addresses the role of ethics in deliberations about future human
and non-human generations, which covers interesting terrain including whether
we have different responsibilities for immediate and non-immediate future generations,
the role of aesthetics in ‘motivating environmentalist commitment’ (p. 120)
into the future, and the inheritance by future generations of existing environmental


In Chapter 5, Attfield scrutinizes ‘sustainable development’. He
argues that the primary focus of ‘sustainability’ is on sustaining capital
(including ‘natural’ capital), but is cautiously optimistic about the ability to interpret
‘sustainable development’ in broader terms to also accommodate social
justice issues, such as the distribution of resources and the full participation in
decision-making processes of those who are ultimately affected, as well as promoting
the view that non-human nature is of value beyond direct human utility.
This is an important discussion, but I am left wondering whether such accommodation
is possible simply because ‘sustainable development’ is one of the most
nebulous terms in the environmental lexicon.

Attfield examines the ‘global’ nature of environmental challenges in Chapter 6,
positioning environmental resources as the ‘common heritage of humankind’
that need to be managed through international cooperation. In turn he posits 
the emergence of a ‘global’ environmental ethic, and the development of ‘global citizens’,
as a necessary response to such challenges. He argues that the latter is best
exemplified—and further developed—through channels already well embedded
within representative democratic frameworks, including internationa
NGOs, governmental agencies such as the UN, and news and media outlets,
rather than anything more radical. This focus on the global, which pervades the whole
book, does not stem from any sense that the particular or the ‘local’ is
not important; rather, for Attfield the development of a global environmental
ethic is one that recognizes the trans-boundary nature of contemporary environmental
problems, but more importantly (from an ethics perspective) helps inoculate
people from only acting on behalf of those near and present, rather than
distant and future.

A concern for environmental ethics at a global scale is carried through to the
final short chapter (which is the most substantial addition to the book in its second
iteration), wherein Attfield examines the ethics of climate change. He covers a lot
of ground here, such as international and intergenerational responsibilities for
climate emissions, and the desirability and feasibility of contraction and convergence,
or carbon budget approaches to addressing climate change. He also
contemplates the role of geoengineering, arguing that ‘less risky’ forms,such as
carbon sequestration through afforestation, could buy time for the
implementation of the much larger social and political steps that are necessary
to keep below an average surface temperature increase of 28C (as compared to
the pre-industrial average temperature).

Throughout the book, Attfield makes his own normativity be known, particularly
in regard to how to address specific environmental issues in a way that
places social and ecological justice front and centre. Nonetheless, the book aims
for an inclusive and accommodating overview of environmental ethics, and so
stops well short of didacticism. Even if one is not persuaded by Attfield’s
arguments—and I certainly have my reservations—a reader becomes acquainted
with how different ethical positions relate to one another, which is
useful for those who may only be tentatively dipping their toes into the
environmental ethics field. Attfield also provides reading lists and websites
relevant to the contents of each chapter, a glossary of key terms, and a series of
questionsdotted throughout the book that would form the basis of interesting
class discussions. The book would thus make an excellent core text for undergraduates
on environmental studies, geography, politics, or planning courses, 
who are grappling with the significant social and ecological crises we collectively,
though unevenly, face.

Jonathan Prior
Lecturer in Human Geography
Cardiff School of Planning and Geography, Cardiff University, UK
# 2015 Jonathan Prior