On Not Being Green about Ecological Intervention (Online Exclusive)

Ethics & International Affairs, Volume 21.3 (Fall 2007)

Ethics & International Affairs

In "Ecological Intervention: Prospect and Limits," Robyn Eckersley shows, and not for the first time, an ability to lead developments in environmental political thought. She seeks here to extend the debate about the rights and wrongs of international humanitarian intervention to cover "ecological intervention" as well, including "its corollary, ecological defense." The former would involve the threat or use of force against a state, without its consent, so as to "prevent grave environmental damage." The latter involves a state (or states) using force to protect itself (or themselves) from environmental harm emanating from another state. Eckersley considers three possible grounds for military ecological intervention, which are (1) serious environmental emergencies with transboundary spillover effects, (2) ecocides that involve serious human rights violations, and (3) ecocides that involve no serious human rights violations. I am sympathetic to Eckersley's assessment of the importance of these problems, but there are certain implications of her (albeit qualified) endorsement of ecological intervention that are worth exploring. Firstly, there is the 'pretext problem' and, secondly, the relationships between militarily strong states that cause ecological crises and militarily weak states that are its victims. Finally, we have the difficulty of making an 'all things considered' assessment of the case for intervention when this judgement involves weighing radically incommensurate goods.

Given the range of reasons that states have employed to engage in armed conflict, from football1 to the alleged concealment of weapons of mass destruction, we might be wary about offering any state additional excuses to go to war. This 'pretext problem' is already a live issue in discussions of the legality and moral appropriateness of the humanitarian interventions upon which Eckersley models her case for ecological intervention. On the view of those who take this problem seriously, the grave danger of granting moral justification to unilateral or multilateral humanitarian interventions that take place outside of the auspices of the UN is that states will use this prima facie justifiability in order to pursue the more classical goals of increasing wealth and power. The more excuses for international intervention are granted by the law of nations, the more cover exists for interventions whose unstated purpose is quite different. As the UK Foreign Office put it: "the scope for abusing such a right argues strongly against its creation."2 Not all students of international interventions view things in this way. Ryan Goodman3 suggests that we have to make some important distinctions between different possible pretexts for military conflict, and that, with a more sophisticated understanding, we can see that interventions based on humanitarian grounds are less, rather than more, likely to flare up into full-blown military conflicts. Once an intervention is framed as a humanitarian one (or in our case an ecological one), rulers are locked into a logic of justification from which it is difficult to deviate. Thus the supposed pretext problem may not stand.

Is the extension of justification to ecological intervention likely to lead to a pretext problem? Eckersley is aware of the danger and insists that the case for ecological intervention would have to "pass a fairly stiff test" (297). This means that "ideally" (but, ergo, not necessarily) it should at least find precedent in international law, qualify as a just cause, satisfy the remaining requirements of jus ad bellum, and be seen as legitimate by most states (297). In this light it is worth looking at the highly symbolic example of transboundary pollution used in her paper-the threat of a Chernobyl-style nuclear reactor meltdown causing the release of large amounts of deadly radiation.

There is no doubt that such an event would lead to serious transboundary air pollution, just as the Chernobyl accident led to the release into the atmosphere of several types of both long- and short-lived radionuclides. "It is hard," suggests Eckersley (299), "to think of a credible moral or political argument against intervention in our 'Chernobyl' scenario." However, the dangers of radiation still have to be set against the risk that an armed ecological intervention, particularly against a state still possessing a fair proportion of the Soviet Union's stockpile of conventional weapons, would escalate. This is especially so given that the long-term health effects of Chernobyl to those outside the boundaries of the USSR may not be as severe as once feared. A recent study found that "results of analyses of time trends in cancer incidence and mortality in Europe do not, at present, indicate any increase in cancer rates—other than of thyroid cancer in the most contaminated regions—that can be clearly attributed to radiation from the Chernobyl accident."4 While it is clear that Chernobyl was a tragedy for those working and living near the plant and for those who were tasked with the clean up (the 'liquidators'), who have suffered high rates of mortality, it is far less clear that it is an ecological tragedy either locally (despite its initial impacts, the plant is now surrounded by wildlife) or across the rest of Europe. This points up the problem of making an all-things-considered judgement of the case for ecological intervention, to which I will return below.

Ecological intervention also highlights the problem of the relationship between the rich and militarily powerful states and the poor and militarily weak ones, as it tends to be the former who cause the gravest transboundary pollution problem of all, and some of the weakest who will suffer its effects most severely. Once again a thinker of Eckersley's calibre is aware of this potential pitfall.5 But its effects may be more profound than she seems to think. Global warming, largely caused by already industrialised states, will have its greatest effects on low-lying countries that have few of the resources necessary for adaptation—one might think of Bangladesh and the Republic of Maldives as two countries especially likely to suffer. Should some of the predicted effects transpire, sea level rises may the Maldives lead to high levels of flooding and the salination of agricultural land in Bangladesh. This existential threat emanating from transboundary greenhouse gas pollution would seem to legitimise ecological intervention on the part of Bangladesh and the Maldives against (for example) the U.S., Europe, Australia, and Japan. It would, of course, be impossible for these states to intervene with conventional military force, but such practical constraints do not impinge upon the moral justification for such action. Would asymmetric warfare be justified? The use of third-party proxies to attack power installations or transportation equipment in the industrialised world? If not, why not? Proportionality? But these are countries faced with the prospect of annihilation. How could things get worse for them? Such action would seem to satisfy the criterion of last resort. This is fanciful speculation, of course, but we have to follow the chain of consequences that may follow the excuses for military action that we are tempted to grant.

The Chernobyl-like example that Eckersley uses points up another problem: that of making an all-things-considered judgement regarding the wisdom of ecological intervention in any concrete case. This applies to the problem of humanitarian intervention as well, of course, but the uncertainties involved in ecological intervention seem all the greater given the relative incommensurability of goods. We could probably agree at the extremes: we have to allow the Yangtze River dolphin to become extinct6 if the alternative is military confrontation with China, whereas we might preserve the existence of mountain gorillas at the expense of the lives of a few poachers. At points between such cases the trade-offs become difficult to assess. In humanitarian cases we can make a rough utilitarian calculation—what price 800,000 lives in Rwanda? But how would we measure the protection of biodiversity against the potential loss of life that would accompany military intervention? Which species is worth how many human sacrifices? What does proportionality mean if we are talking about the forcible preservation of rainforest through military action?

We might, here, fall back upon the descriptors employed to justify intervention. 'Ecocide' for example, is taken as one possible justificatory ground for ecological intervention even when no immediate threat to human life exists. Ecocide consists in intentional and systematic acts that cause "widespread, long-term, and severe damage to the natural environment"' (310). What counts, however, as "severe damage to the natural environment"? How about the widespread felling of forests in order to create farmland or urban environments? That certainly constitutes a profound and extensive destruction of the natural landscape. But, again, if we were to threaten, say, Brazil, Thailand, or Indonesia on these grounds, then we are brought up against the potential problem of hypocrisy on the part of the developed world, and the sensitivity to neo-colonialism on the part of developing nations.7 The latter would have every right to suggest that the industrialised world reforest itself before intervening to prevent deforestation elsewhere. In the UK we now seek to protect landscapes that owe their shape and form precisely to the uprooting of the deciduous forests that initially blanketed the country, and which have been created through centuries of human agricultural practices. 'Ecocide' may be a fitting term for much of what went on in the USSR,8 for example around the Aral Sea, but this was a nation impervious to outside intervention. And what if the consequences of these ecologically damaging actions were unforeseen and unintended? Does excusable ignorance make any difference to the case for ecological intervention?

Robyn Eckersley once warned, wisely, against the dangers of thinking about ethical problems through examples that denote highly constrained moral choices when such choices are atypical.9 Unfortunately, she seems to have fallen prey to exactly that inclination in this article. The issue is important, and no one could sensibly deny that faced with a truly catastrophic and immediate environmental event, it might sometimes make sense to engage in ad hocarmed ecological intervention. This does not mean, however, that it makes sense to grant a right of unilateral or multilateral ecological intervention to states. Serious environmental problems are not generally of the Chernobyl sort (and it is not even clear that Chernobyl, despite its immediate impacts, can be considered to have been an environmental, as opposed to local humanitarian, disaster). Rather, they tend to be long-term, multi-causal, and transboundary, and come about as a result of the activities of the very countries that are least vulnerable to military intervention. This implies that the idea of ecological intervention will be of limited usefulness. At the very least, we could not sanction any principle of ecological intervention without finding answers to some fundamental questions: Does ecological intervention make pretext wars more or less likely to happen? How does it apply when the ecological rights of weak states are violated by strong ones? What does 'proportionality' mean when we are trading off human lives against levels of biodiversity? And, relatedly, how can we arrive at a sensible 'all things considered' judgement about the wisdom of ecological intervention to protect ecosystems, when there is no humanitarian threat?


1 Kapuscinski, R. The Soccer War London: Granta, 2007.

2 Cited in Simma, B. 'NATO, the UN and the Use of Force: Legal Aspects', European Journal of International Law 1, (1999), p.5.

3 Goodman, R. 'Humanitarian Intervention and Pretexts for War', The American Journal of International Law, 100(1), 2006, pp.107-141.

4 Cardis, et al, 'Estimates of the cancer burden in Europe from radioactive fallout from the Chernobyl accident', International Journal of Cancer 119, 2006, p.1224.

5 See fn.68 of 'Ecological Intervention'.

7 See 'Ecological Intervention', p.302.

8 See Feshback, M & A. Friendly Jr. Ecocide in the USSR: Health and Nature Under Siege, New York, Basic Books (1993).

9 See 'Beyond Human Racism' Environmental Values 7(2), 165-182.

Read More: Environment, Intervention, Environment/Sustainable Development

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