25 October  2014


Laura Ballantyne-Brodie (New York University)

Title: Earth System Ethics: A Proposal for a Systems Approach to Ethics


The news has been delivered and we now understand with near certainty that the industrial economy is at odds with the physical systems of the planet.1 Shocks such as the credit crunch, infectious diseases, climate instability and ecological collapses are converging towards a ‘planet crunch’. Despite this knowledge humanity has grappled with how to understand and respond to these complex (interrelated) issues. Unified collective action has so far failed to address some of the most pressing environmental issues. Earth system science examines our view of Earth as a system involving interactions among the different spheres of the Earth, including the biosphere, lithosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere, cryosphere and the anthroposphere. Our emerging understanding of Earth system science in the context of the anthropocene is challenging dominant paradigms. These paradigms include humans’ relationship to and view of nature and the natural environment (i.e. nature is benign/ fragile and easily disrupted), changing ‘mechanistic’ view of the Earth that can be broken down and studied in isolation ( cf Earth system science that tells us that the Earth’s spheres are interconnected and we are at their mercy not the other way around). At the same time, new ways of understanding and framing an ecological worldview are emerging across disciplines. In the era of the anthropocene, coupled with what we know from the study of Earth systems science about the limits of Earth to sustain human civilisation, this paper proposes that a new field of inquiry is needed to systematically inquire and respond to the environmental crisis. It is argued that current paradigms fail to take stock of scientific understandings of the Earth as a system that has been dynamically engaged in the age of the anthropocene. This new field would provide a coherent theoretical framework to demark the boundaries for a unified response that takes account of an emerging ecological worldview based on new concepts such as ‘ecological enmeshment’2 and Bruno Latours’ ‘Earthboundedness’3. The paper outlines why Earth system ethics (i.e. systems ethics) is an ethical approach that is distinct from environmental ethics and could be developed to provide an analytical framework of general norms derived from the common morality to form the starting point for a normative framework to act.4 This paper first considers the approach taken in the field of bioethics (biomedical principlism) as a useful precedent for the adoption of a principles based approach (principlism). Second, the paper suggests that biomedical principlism underpinning bioethics is useful to demonstrate how a new field could be structured and a new discipline could operate. This paper proposes that the principles adopted should be developed in parallel with our scientific knowledge of the field of Earth system science. By identifying the principles to form an analytic framework, this paper suggests that it may help to reduce the indeterminacy of abstract norms and generate an action­guiding framework based on a factorial relationship to the principles.5 A number of principles are put forward and discussed in brief including (1) realisation as agency6, (2) solidarity, (3) subsidiarity, (4) sufficiency, (5) precautionary principle and (6) co­operation.