Previously, I’ve blogged about environmental justice as a framework of looking at environmental protection and why we should act. In the past few years, a new form of environmental ethics has been gaining momentum – environmental virtue ethics (EVE). Aristotle saw moral virtue as a reflection of a certain state of character, rather than our passions or our faculties and it is this kind of virtue – a consistent, repeated, dedicated character to environmental protection that is considered a environmental virtue ethic.
Ronald Sandler and Peter S. Wenz say that acting virtuously for the environment would mean manifesting a combination of both human-centered values and non-human centered values. An environmental virtue would allow both human life and nature to flourish, whereas acting non-virtuously would be harmful to both. For example, they argue that uncontrolled consumerism is harmful to both humans and the environment; any short-term gain is outweighed by long-term harms. To put this into visual perspective, Lu Guang’s documentary “Pollution in China” does a heart-wrenching job.
While sometimes it seems difficult to constantly act environmentally-friendly in today’s society, it is not impossible to be an environmentally virtuous person and I think China, while still economically developing in ways that are harming the environment, is also in many ways setting examples for how one would act virtuously to function in synergy with the environment, rather than merely utilizing it for personal gain.
One good example is that China’s entrepreneurs are shaping up. In this article from The Nature Conservancy, Charles Bedford talks about SEE (Society-Entrepreneurs-Ecology), an organization of wealthy entrepreneurs who want to help the environment.
From Bedford’s post:
SEE, quite simply, is a club of like-minded entrepreneurs with a commitment to support the government’s environmental agenda by funding local NGOs that also embrace that agenda and that are committed to principles of “cooperation” and “win-win” solutions. They have raised and spent millions of dollars. They have grant cycles and annually give out over 70 prestigious (and monetary) awards for good works in the field that meet their criteria. SEE acts like a cross between a foundation and a country club — members pony up a certain amount every year and participate in the grant-making and awards decisions in what can only be described as a very garrulous democracy.
In other words, these entrepreneurs have found a way to be consistently dedicated to environmental protection. Also, the reasoning behind the creation of SEE is something people who are more “pro-economy” do not understand (everyone might seem green these days, but this is not completely always the case): Pollution will only harm the environment and the economy. This also reiterates the reasoning behind environmental virtue ethics.
Another way in which China could be an example to other countries is rooted in the habits of its citizens. The 2009 Greendex survey showed that China ranked third in terms of environmentally friendly consumer behavior. Chinese citizens drink boiled tap water instead of bottled water, use bikes for transportation more often than cars (China scoring highest overall in the transportation category), and practice energy-saving activities when it comes to housing.
Of course, China is still very much a coal-guzzling economy. Due to the massive amounts of coal found within China’s borders, this might not change anytime soon. Also, as China still has a ways to go before being fully “developed,” consumption is likely to increase.
In no way am I saying that China is perfect when it comes to being environmentally friendly, but in order to establish what an environmental virtue would be, it is useful to examine those activities that might lead to virtuous states of character. Aspects of China’s economic growth show that capitalism and environmental protection are not mutually exclusive and can even be mutually beneficial – electric bikes and scooters, solar power, reducing the use of plastic bags. I have noticed a recent wave of praise from the Western media for China’s environmental policies (i.e. Thomas Friedman’s The New Sputnik, or this GOOD magazine article about Chinese solar.) These are productive not because they are pats on the back for China, but as a model of environmentally virtuous acts for other countries to take note of. Criticism should motivate China, but praise should motivate other countries.