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Robin Attfield:Sustainable practices need to be introduced in the social sphere

Robin Attfeld, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy (ENCAP) and Sustainable Places Research Institute

Robin Attfeld is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy (ENCAP) and Sustainable Places Research Institute, where her Research focuses on ethics, philosophy and environmental philosophy. He is the author of Environmental Thinking: A Brief History and Environmental Ethics: An Overview of the 21st Century.

Sustainable practices need to be introduced in the social sphere

1.In the views of environmental ethicists, what are the key issues recently?

The key issues, as almost all environmental ethicists would agree, are global heating and its consequences (such as extreme weather events), the biodiversity crisis (with multiple species becoming extinct or endangered), and air pollution, whether from desert sands or, more frequently, from the fumes of petrol- and diesel-powered vehicles.

2.From the perspective of environmental ethics, what enlightenment can the current academic research give to public health security?

These issues all have a bearing on public health, and suggest policies to secure it from deterioration. The most obvious link between these issues and public health is the link between air pollution and bronchial diseases. Most of the great cities of the world suffer from dangerous levels of benzene, carbon monoxide and other noxious gases, and also from the particulates emitted by diesel engines, while some cities (such as Onitsha in Nigeria) suffer from other forms of aerial poisoning as well, and cities such as Beijing are often affected by desert sands when the wind drives sand towards that city. The factors that endanger public health and which are most subject to human control are the fuels that power road, rail and sea-going vehicles and vessels, and make it important to replace vehicles with internal combustion engines or diesel engines with alternative forms of propulsion, such as electric engines or hydrogen engines. As it happens, the same engines are also a large contributor to global heating, and so the phasing out of petrol and diesel engines will also assist with global heating mitigation.

However, global heating also impacts public health in a more indirect manner. For it has caused an increase in both the severity and the frequency of extreme weather events (floods, wildfires, hurricanes and droughts), and these have severe and adverse impacts on public health. The way to avert these impacts, and thus to protect public health from them, is to mitigate humanity’s emissions of carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases such as nitrogen dioxide and CFCs (chloro-fluoro-carbons). This requires the introduction of renewable sources of energy, powered by solar, wind, tidal, hydro-electric or wave power, and policies that seek to phase out greenhouse gases. One of these policies is the planting of trees; another is the restoration of sea-grass (a bigger carbon sink than even rainforests): another is the preservation of coral reefs and the planting of coral. While some people advocate the introduction of nuclear energy, many environmental ethicists regard this as undesirable, because neither the waste products nor disused nuclear power stations can be made safe for the thousands of years needed for the half-lives of radioactive materials to pass without harm being caused to our successors.

The biodiversity crisis is also relevant to public health, but again in an indirect manner. For the loss of species and of green spaces widely has an adverse impact on the mental health of human beings, whereas their mental health is reinvigorated through association with wild species and their habitats. Thus there are grounds of public health, as well as many other grounds (such as ecosystem services and the intrinsic value of the flourishing of all creatures) for preserving and restoring as wide a range as possible of species accessible to most people in contemporary populations.

3.Does it provide us with a new research perspective for dealing with the ethical relationship between humans and the environment, or does COVID-19 give people more opportunities to think about the relationship between the environment and humans? In the future, when it comes to protecting public health and safety and preventing potential threats, what advice do you think environmental ethics can provide us?

The research of environmental ethicists frequently provides new perspectives for dealingsof human being with the environment. So too does Covid19, but in different ways. Thus Covid19 draws attention to the spread of contagious diseases from animals; remedies suggest that human contacts with nonhuman animals should be limited, while nonhuman animals should not be farmed in large, insanitary units, as often happens at present. However, environmental ethics suggests, inter alia, that we should plan to satisfy the needs of future generations, both close and distant, and attempt to introduce sustainable patterns of farming and production that can satisfy those needs of all generations that are foreseeable. Sustainable practices are needed for agriculture, fisheries, forestry and other realms of social life. Environmental ethics further suggests that the habitats of all existing species should be preserved, both for the sake of people of our own generation, for that of future human generations, and for the sake of the species themselves. It also draws attention to the cycles of nature, such as ocean currents and prevailing winds, and encourages policies that preserve rather than subvert them. For example, the bacteria of shallow seas and of estuaries facilitate the transfer to terrestrial areas of iodine, vital (albeit in small quantities) for both human and animal health. There is thus a concern, on environmental grounds, to preserve such seas and estuaries. There are many further areas to which environmental ethics directs concern, such as the need to curtail and reduce plastic pollution in our rivers and seas, a form of pollution that is often fatal to riverine and marine life, and which indirectly impacts on human health too, as micro-plastics are inadvertently ingested while we eat sea-food, or swim in seas and rivers. There are further examples, but those already presented serve to illustrate the many new policy perspectives concerning the treatment of nature brought to the fore by environmental ethics.

Interviewer: Qiu Jiayi

Interview date: November 04, 2021

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