The Global Village

November 29, 2011by

In this lecture we address several aspects of environmental ethics, from the hotly debated topic of global warming to our production and distribution of natural goods.

The Empathic Civilization

One of the most influential moral theories for environmentalism is Aldo Leopold’s land ethic. Described by Leopold in his classic, A Sand County Almanac,

The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land…[A] land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.

He also presents the land ethic in the form of a simple moral principle:

A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.

The land ethic formulated by Leopold is an inherently empathic moral vision. It relies on the capacity of human beings to move beyond the narrow, short term scope of self-interest, and consider what is required to maintain and foster the long term health of both human beings and the world in which we live.

Jeremy Rifkin here takes a look at the evolution of empathy and the profound ways that it has shaped our social and cultural development, suggesting it would not be unnatural for something like the land ethic to take root in the moral imagination of human beings.

Global Warming

For an overview of some recent data relative to global warming, here is an update from Al Gore on climate change statistics.

Stewart Brand, and early American environmentalist and founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, here exposes what he believes are four myths of traditional thinking on environmental issues.

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Measuring Our Progress

In business one of the most common ways of trying to measure human impact on global warming is to add it to one’s routine form for measuring success: the balance sheet. If you add columns for social and environmental impact, you can evaluate your performance in a more comprehensive manner. Dubbed the “triple bottom line,” this approach evaluates a business on the basis of the traditional financial report, and adds to it a social and an environmental bottom lines. The impact of the social bottom line can be observed in the now dominant trend of social responsibility programs, in which organizations add a kind of culturally moral element to their public relations and marketing initiatives. It’s a way of saying, “Here’s what we’re doing for the communities of which we are a part, and here is how our work is affecting the natural world.”

More comprehensive means of accountability have also been developed, e.g. the Open Climate Network. In the following talks we will take a more detailed look at two strategies for evaluating our progress on solving environmental problems.

Since retiring from Microsoft, Bill Gates has been pioneering the movement to change change the course of global warming. In this presentation he explains how far our innovation in this area has to go, and connects the issue of environmental health to some of our more immediately needed natural resources.

Johan Rockstrom proposes a new set of criteria for measuring our social and economic development. In a way he captures the idea of the tripple bottom line in a natural framework. Our development, which includes our economics, our social and political institutions, and our moral standards, he argues would be measured and guided by what he calls our nine “planetary boundaries”.

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Hans Rossling’s Magic Washing Machine [/sws_yellow_box]

Food & Water

In addition to the health of the world as a whole, the topic of natural resources brings up the issue of how well the world is designed to care for the health of individual human beings. So how do things look with respect to the basic necessities of human life?

Using the tools of motion graphic design, this video created by Denis van Waerebeke visualizes the basic elements of food production in the world:


How to feed the world ? from Denis van Waerebeke on Vimeo.


The Story of Bottled Water takes the Story of Stuff approach to tell the story of manufactured demand for bottled water.

Compare this to the work of Matt Damon starting an organization ( to bring water to people losing not only their health but many cases their lives due to want of clean water.

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Paul Collier’s Four Ways to Improve the Lives of the Bottom Billion [/sws_yellow_box]

An Image of Sustainability

Dan Barber, a chef at Blue Hill Restaurant in New York, tells a story revealing what may be possible in food production if more sustainable priorities were to be embraced.

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Dan Phillips on A More Sustainable Way to Build Homes [/sws_yellow_box]