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Global citizenship and environmental responsibility

October 1, 2012

Presentation of the environment as a globally shared responsibility points to a diversity of ways in which ‘nature’ is becoming politicized.” (p.73)

Talk of a global environmental commons points to the complex and interconnected chains of causation that connect human activity, different world regions and the fortunes of nature. This evokes a community of fate that escapes the sovereignty of nation-states. No state has the capacity alone to control the quality of its atmosphere, prevent global warming and reverse the poisoning of its seas and air. In recognition of this fact, the period since the 1960s has witnessed the rise of international environmental regulation, with major conventions and treaties being signed to reverse the impact of the global industrial system. This has been done in the recognition that no humans or animals can be said to be exempt from questions related to environmental degradation.

…However, the fact remains that while the responsibility to protect the environment is a global responsibility, it is not the case that those most responsible for environmental harm and those most at risk from the destruction of nature are the same. It is well known that the United States is the world’s greatest contributor to global warming and pollution, yet it is likely that the least wealthy and powerful societies are those who are most likely to suffer the effects of these practices. …the failure to ratify the [-p.74] 1997 Kyoto convention on the reduction of greenhouse gases has led many to question the commitment of the world’s governments to addressing such processes. That ecological questions take us beyond the nation-state does not mean that the impacts are necessarily universally the same, or that existing forms of governance have adequately responded to these issues. While there is a common need to take responsibility for the global commons, such a view is necessarily informed by the different contexts and locations referred to in the slogan ‘act locally, think globally’.

The duty to care for the environment also by-passes the nation, in that it suggests individual obligations and responsibilities. This duty has consequences for the ways in which we choose to live our lives both individually and collectively. Such an outlook seeks to persuade us to rethink the ways in which we view human relationships with nature. In particular, the ecological case, as many have remarked, opens a challenging vision for sociologists, who have tended to see humans as separate from nature and embedded within a social as opposed to a natural world. Ecological thinking asks us to examine how different societies have constructed the relationship between country and city, society and nature, and humans and animals.

Arguably, it is only when we learn to tell a different story about ourselves that we become open to rejoining our identities, as consumers and citizens, in such a way that places our relationship to ‘nature’ at the ‘centre’ rather than at the periphery of our thinking.” (pp.73-74)

We are much morelikely to become attuned to our obligations in respect of more sustainable development if we are able to reconfigure imaginatively our place within the ‘natural’ world.” (p.74) [and this is the point that has me wondering about the effect works by Des Hunt or Bernard Beckett (or Joy Cowley and others!) might have on our stories….]

The framing of human relationships with nature in terms of responsibility and obligation questions representations and practices that would ask us either to conquer or to submit to nature. Of course, such claims do not automatically tell us what our obligations should be towards the environment, or how we [-p.75] might best care for the planet in globalized settings. Such questions cannot be decided by searching for technical solutions or by converting ‘nature’ into an object of worship. Our desire to preserve ‘nature’ against the effects of industrialism can be evoked on a number of different grounds in ways that might suggest different practices of care and obligation. Castells (1997: 127) reads these developments positively, in that green culture ‘is the only global identity put forward on behalf of all human beings, regardless of their specific social, historical, or gender attachments, or of their religious faith’. Castells’s argument is that ‘green culture’ offers the possibility of a new kind of politics that creates a new identity based upon our species membership, and that is locally based and resistant to the cynicism, spin doctoring and ideas of strategic advantage that are promoted by more mainstream political and social concerns. …Green citizenship aims to widen the circle of responsibilities commonly assumed by human beings to include global communities, animals and other ‘natural’ life forms, all of which may be distant within time and space. Within this, ecological citizenship is necessarily more concerned with obligations than with rights. It is our care of ‘nature’ rather than the ‘rights’ that we can claim against nature that is the subject of ethical concern. Yet, as I have indicated, there are many processes and forces that are currently preventing ecological issues becoming converted into questions of cosmopolitan concern. These can be connected to existing inequalities and, most crucially, some of the more substantial features of Western modernity.” (pp.74-75)

‘Nature’ has become part of an accumulation strategy on the part of corporate interests. Industrial capitalism has progressively ‘sentimentalized’ nature as something to be consumed during vacations or at the end of the working day. Corporations take on the guise of ecological concern, while acting to privatize public environments. For example, the development of ‘world wildlife zones’ by cordoning off a preservation area can promote the idea of nature as a luxury consumer products while distracting attention from the environmental degradation ouside special sites.” (p.78)

Ref: Nick Stevenson (2003) Cultural Citizenship: Cosmopolitan Questions. Open University Press: Maidenhead

Reference is to: Castells, M. (1997) The Power of Identity. The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture, Volume 2. Oxford: Blackwell.

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