Environmental ethics pound on the heaviest doors of political philosophy

Environmental ethics pound on the heaviest doors of political philosophy

Why conventional political theories fall short on environmental questions.

Last week the Dutch government reached an agreement with several interest groups, aiming at – mainly – a systematic reduction of the use of energy. A non-democratic commission will monitor the parties’ commitment to the agreements. This particular control construction implicitly recognises the problems of ordinary democratic decision making and control regarding environmental and ecological matters.

‘Polderen’ is a typically Dutch term commonly used for a specific method of public negotiation in order to achieve an agreement among several parties. Characteristic of ‘polderen’ is the participation of non-democratic social organizations in the negotiations, among democratic representatives, such as Ministers. Last week the Dutch government achieved a provisional agreement with employer’s representatives, unions and environmental organizations after six months of ‘polderen’. The public negotiations resulted in the so-called ‘Energy Accord’. According to a report on this accord, the provisional Energy Accord provides the basis for a widely supported, robust and future-proof energy and climate policy. The accord aims at a reduction of the use of energy by 1.5 per cent a year. In addition, the Energy Agreement contains agreements on, inter alia, clean technology and climate policy and should eventually lead to an affordable and clean energy supply. The organizations involved will reach a final decision on the Energy Accord on the 4th of September.

Most striking about this Energy Accord are the agreements on compliance. All negotiating parties agreed on the fact that a special commission of the Dutch Social and Economic Counsil (in Dutch called: ‘SER’) will be responsible for monitoring the parties’ commitment to the agreements. Representatives of all parties involved will be part of this SER commission. The SER commission, headed by an independent chairman, can demand additional measures when parties breach the terms of the accord. In addition, the commission will report on the progress regarding the agreements each year. The most important question here is: why is the supervision of the environmental matters addressed to in the Energy Accord delegated to a new commission? Why not go down the well-trodden paths of democratic control and ministerial responsibility?

Environmental ethics presents us, more than other ethical issues, with fundamental problems regarding political philosophy. From this point of view the delegation of the supervision of the environmental agreements to a non-democratic commission is not odd at all.

Why environmental ethics turn everything upside down

Most political theories accepted and, some might say, applied in the West originate from the notion of a social contract. A community is established by people appointing a political body which subsequently decides matters regarding the whole community. Of course this representation of the social contract is simplified, but the main principles are the same as those that underlie our current political reality. In a democracy, the people appoint a political body which they consider fit to rule them (the parliament). This way of managing all kinds of problems concerning ‘the people’ is (and has proven to be) the most effective means in avoiding chaos amongst mankind in a demarcated society.

Avoiding chaos amongst mankind in a society is, however, not the aim of environmental ethics. If we, that is, mankind, want to survive the enormous ecological and environmental problems we face today, a political system aiming at preventing chaos amongst people is not enough. That kind of political system, at least in its current appearance, does not seem endowed to handle problems that do not directly conflict with the interests of the electorate, since self-interest is an important incentive in a democracy. After all, if people do not feel that environmental problems affect them in some way or another, most of them are not inclined to act on them, since not all people (and certainly not the majority of them) are moral crusaders. In addition, politicians tend to avoid unpopular decisions, because such decisions might cause a drastic decrease of votes cast on their party. Thus, unpopular decisions are deferred and – most of the time – eventually waived altogether.

In this light it is not peculiar that supervision on the compliance of the parties of the Energy Accord has been delegated to a non-democratic commission. Too much democratic influence might, in some cases, tragically lead to waiving decisions that have to be made in order to secure the continued existence of mankind at all.

A final issue needs to be addressed. A paradox seems to appear, viz., between, on the one hand, the general observation just made, that it is unlikely that radical decisions with respect to environmental issues will be made by policy makers, and, on the other hand, the result of the recent process of ‘polderen’: the Energy Accord. In my opinion, however, there is no such paradox. Firstly, the accord does not testify to a grand ambition, given the intended reduction of energy use by merely 1.5 per cent a year. Secondly, one of the incentives that prompted the Dutch government to realise the accord is the fact that it creates 15,000 jobs. This latter fact demonstrates that short-term ambitions and self-interest are, after all, vital elements in the decision-making process of a democracy.

1 Comment

Joost Clercq

Please note that jobs will also be lost due to closing coal power plants (there is no calculation how many employee will be able to get another job) and moreover it is therefore also highly likely energy prices will increase for consumers.

Furthermore, your argument that it is not peculiar that the supervision on compliance is deferred to a commission, because otherwise decisions will be waived and consequently threaten the continued existence of mankind at all is highly dramatic and not substantiate at all.

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