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Environmental Ethics

Volume 38, Issue 4, Winter 2016

Lantz Fleming Miller
Pages 403-420

Individual Responsibility for Environmental Degradation
The Moral and Practical Route to Change

In environmental ethics a debate has arisen over the extent to which the individual should make changes in personal lifestyle in a long-term program of ameliorating environmental degradation, as opposed to directing energies toward public-policy change. In opposition are the facts that an individual’s contribution to environmental degradation can only have a negligible effect. Public policy offers the only real hope for such massive coordinated effort, and environmental degradation is only one of many global problems to which ethi­cally oriented people must focus their attentions and energies. So far, the pro-personal responsibility side has urged that personal lifestyle changes are necessary for moral coher­ence, thus in turn for integrity of character, and lifestyle changes can affect others in a kind of chain reaction because humans are socially submerged beings. The stalemate here can only stymies the needed coordinated effort toward ameliorating environmental degradation. Further, moral concerns need to be brought into this issue; namely, the ramifications of pursuing a policy-only approach, emphasizing policy as the sole (or even primary) means of ameliorating environmental degradation, implicitly undercuts the role of individual agents in morality in general, in terms of (1) individual responsibility, (2) autonomy, and (3) creativity in solving problems. All these problems not only bear on the program to reverse environmental degradation, but undermine other widely held moral values. Emphasizing personal lifestyle responsibility is not only the most moral alternative but is also the most assured way to affect long-term changes and the better way to make policy changes credible and sufficiently substantive for change.

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