Some theorists argue that contemporary problems such as climate change, sweatshop labour, biodiversity loss, … are New Harms – they are unprecedented problems, and differ in important respects from more familiar harms. Intuitively, this view seems to make sense, but in this blog post for Justice Everywhere I argue that this view is mistaken.
I’ll briefly discuss slavery and the depletion of the ozone layer as examples and then go on to discuss some lessons we can draw from these analogies.
For example, one of the problems that renders climate change so much harder to tackle than the depletion of the ozone layer is the much deeper entrenchment of greenhouse gases. In contrast to substances that deplete ozone layer (which were used in a limited number of applications), greenhouse gases are the by-product of virtually any human activity, and our economy quite frankly relies on them. However, consider the analogy with slavery: at some point, slavery was entirely accepted throughout the world and seemed essential to the economies of Great Britain and the USA. Despite this entrenchment, the British were highly committed to dismantling their slave trade and to persuading other nations to do the same. This is encouraging, because it shows that it is possible to change harmful activities, even if they are deeply entrenched.
Other lessons can be drawn from history. I hope that the brief examples in the blog post show that we can indeed abandon the view that contemporary harms are new. This should be cause for optimism, because it means that we can indeed learn from our successes and failures in dealing with harms of the past.
Please visit Justice Everywhere for the original post.
This post is based on a paper I wrote with Derek Bell and Joanne Swaffield, and which is now published in Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics