1: Introducing Ecological Justice


This chapter provides an overview of ecological justice. Although the term ecological justice suggests that its focus lies on holistic systems rather than individuals, its scholarly discussions range from justice to individuals to justice to broader systems. The term 'interspecies justice' might imply a bidirectional justice relationship, but the book argues that it also should be seen to only focus on humans doing, or failing to do, justice to nonhuman beings; more accurately, individual nonhumans (and potentially also as groups) instead of attributing justice entitlements to species themselves. Even though the term ecological justice (sometimes referred to as ecojustice) has received slightly more attention than interspecies justice, the latter more accurately describes the author's relational and global understanding of the justice relationship between humans and nonhumans. In a nutshell, what is sought is an account of global distributive ecological justice to 'wild' living nonhuman beings.

The conditions for life on Earth have been in constant flux since the appearance of the first single-celled organisms and now the Earth is populated by an estimated one to six billion species, according to a recent study (Larsen et al 2017). Homo sapiens – a latecomer on the evolutionary tree – was merely a marginal species until about 12,000 years ago when the beginning of a period of climate stability (the Holocene) was favourable to the development of agricultural societies (Feynman and Ruzmaikin 2007). Currently, life on Earth is experiencing a new mass extinction event (Ceballos et al 2015), which differs to a normal background rate of extinction that accounts for an ongoing adaptation and replacement of species. What distinguishes this period of mass extinction from previous ones is the fact that this instance is of anthropogenic origin; that is, caused by humans (Wilson 2016).1 Besides that this makes this kind of extinction conceptually different from past extinction events, this causality has also normative implications, and constitutes the fundamental problem against which the argument for an account of ecological justice is developed in this book.

To clarify, regarding species extinctions it is possible to distinguish between four different processes of extinction (final, hybridisation, transformation, allopatric speciation). Here the primary interest is in the kind of extinction that is usually implied in the everyday meaning of the term. That is, a final extinction which entails not only the disappearance of the species but also of the related phyletic branch of the evolutionary tree which stands in contrast to other extinction processes. That means that, for example, the disappearance of a species does not go hand in hand with the creation of a daughter species (see Delord 2007). Moreover, the seriousness of this current mass extinction event which is linked to its conceptual differences to non-anthropogenic mass extinctions, which makes it unprecedented (Aiken 1998), as well as the magnitude of mass extinction events in general, generate a need to act. That, in turn, is underlined by a crisis terminology and (more or less) aptly being termed the sixth mass extinction, or the biodiversity crisis.2 To put this into perspective, the previous five most significant mass extinction events each led to a reduction of at least 75 per cent of the number of species that existed at that point in time (Greshko 2019). Accordingly, the simple initial intuition is that the current mass extinction is a crisis and a symptom of a corrupted relationship between humans and the other living beings on Earth. As argued in this book, the human takeover of the Earth’s ecological space – its resources, ecosystem benefits and actual spaces – that ultimately leads to species extinctions constitutes a genuine and non-metaphorical injustice; it should be discussed and responded to as a matter of justice.

The current level of species extinctions and biodiversity loss is not the sole environmental crisis unfolding at the beginning of the 21st century. Most prominently, the interrelated problem of climate change dominates environmental discourse and media attention. However, climate change is only one of several issues that should induce a sense of urgency. Besides threatening the lives of nonhuman living beings, biodiversity loss is also a serious problem for humanity. As Rockström et al (2009, p. 472) have famously illustrated, with their framework grounded on the notion of ‘planetary boundaries’, what would constitute a ‘safe operating space for humanity’ has already been considerably surpassed by biodiversity loss. That makes the crisis terminology seem more than rhetoric. So even a reader, who is unconvinced by the normative arguments that are developed in this book, might out of self-interest and concern for fellow humans support the biological conservation agenda that is reinforced by its conclusions. What I aim to add to the conservation discourse are reasons to support ambitious biological conservation agendas for people open to the idea that nonhuman living beings can be morally considerable, while at the same time upholding a strong commitment to global justice between humans. Even more, extensive conservation efforts should be considered a matter of justice. As with any philosophical claim of such sort, this is – of course – a conditional statement, based on a set of premises that need to be fulfilled as we will see in the following chapters.

Situated in non-anthropocentric philosophical developments, the theoretical aim of this book is to develop an account of justice that includes nonhuman living beings as holders of entitlements. In other words, an account of ‘ecological justice’, as termed by Nicholas Low and Brendan Gleeson (1998). Similarly, ‘interspecies justice’ has been called for in ecological feminist theoretical literature (Plumwood 2002, Gaard 2017), and these terms will be used interchangeably in this book. Although the term ecological justice suggests that its focus lies on holistic systems rather than individuals, its scholarly discussions range from justice to individuals to justice to broader systems. The term interspecies justice might imply a bidirectional justice relationship, but it is argued in this book that it also should be seen to only focus on humans doing, or failing to do, justice to nonhuman beings; more accurately, individual nonhumans (and potentially also as groups) instead of attributing justice entitlements to species themselves. Even though the term ecological justice (sometimes referred to as ecojustice) has received slightly more attention than interspecies justice, the latter more accurately describes my relational and global understanding of the justice relationship between humans and nonhumans. In a nutshell, what is sought is an account of global distributive ecological justice to ‘wild’ living nonhuman beings. Thus, four interrelated themes will resurface throughout the chapters of this book.

The first theme is the claim that all living beings can be holders of justice entitlements including the broad spectrum of life such as sharks, pine trees, seahorses or foxgloves. That is the focus of the Chapter 3. Despite that there is more to justice than distribution as will be discussed later, it is precisely distributive justice that will be focused on and, thus, constitutes the second theme. The idea is that the human takeover of the Earth that led to the crisis was by no means just and that it is foremost a particular kind of injustice towards nonhuman living beings; a misdistribution. In Chapter 4, I will introduce the idea of ecological space and explain why it is an appropriate currency of distribution in the context of ecological justice.

Yet, as already indicated, the focus will not be on distributive ecological justice as a whole but rather on a particular justice relationship between humans and wild nonhuman living beings due to aiming to analyse what just biological conservation would look like from this perspective. This is the third theme. In light of the extinction crisis this particular justice relationship is of particular interest because it is primarily wild nonhumans which constitute species that are threatened with extinction.3 In Chapter 9 non-philosophical debates about this question on the so-called ‘Half-Earth proposal’ will be considered (Wilson 2016) to think about in more detail what a just sharing of habitat on a shared planet would look like. Of course, here also considerations of global environmental justice between humans are highly relevant and this brings us to the last theme: the environmental-ecological justice nexus. No account of ecological justice will be able to provide much meaningful normative guidance if it is not possible to easily understand its interactions with other global justice demands within the human realm, such as particularly in the environmental context the demands of environmental justice. Because of this I try to develop my account of ecological justice in such a manner that it can be put it into conversation with considerations of environmental justice. This will become particularly important in the context of which currency of distribution is appropriate (Chapter 4) and which theoretical premises for accounts of inter-human global justice are incompatible with a commitment to ecological justice. Regarding the latter one such instance will be focused on by explaining why accounts of environmental justice should not be founded on the premise that all humans hold a common ownership claim to the Earth (Chapter 8).

Before moving on, I would like to stress that all the arguments in this book are heavily indebted to the pioneering work of other environmental political theorists and philosophers whose theories and explanations have nurtured the formation of my account, and it is hoped that each account has been represented fairly. Particularly influential works in book-length renditions have been Paul Taylor’s Respect for Nature (1986) in which he develops a biocentric theory of environmental ethics; Brian Baxter’s A Theory of Ecological Justice (2005) in which he develops a biocentric theory of distributive ecological justice; and Val Plumwood’s Environmental Culture (2002) in which she further develops her critical ecofeminist perspective. Their influence will be notable in my own account of distributive interspecies justice. Moreover, as already mentioned, such an account of justice cannot exist in isolation but has to be put into conversation with an account of environmental justice between humans in order to make sense of theoretical, and very real, material conflicts on a finite planet. The discussion in this book of this ecological-environmental justice nexus builds on a discussion that has already been started by both Low and Gleeson in Justice, Society and Nature (1998) and David Schlosberg in Defining Environmental Justice (2007).

Now, I would like to introduce the idea of ecological justice further by situating it in some of the relevant philosophical literature in the next section and then explain why I think that a justice framework, in general, and an account of distributive justice in particular is a useful theoretical lens for looking at the problem of biodiversity loss. The final section provides a short overview of the content of the following chapters.

Linking debates in environmental ethics and political theory

Ecological justice draws on several distinct bodies of literature while the concept itself is more specifically situated in the overlap between environmental ethics and environmental (or green) political theory, which are fairly independent bodies of literature. On the one hand, it draws from work on the notion of moral considerability that has been a central focus of environmental ethics. On the other hand, it simultaneously draws on the justice concept that is usually situated within political thought while also embodying a green critique of the most influential non-green theories of justice. Accordingly, it has contributed to a heightened level of conversation between these bodies of literature, besides being also a concept that social scientists are starting to adopt.

The field of Western environmental ethics started to bloom during the 20th century; more specifically in the 1970s, when philosophers started to engage with environmental problems, and claims emerged that these problems necessitated a new – meaning an environmental – ethic (Sylvan 2003 (1973)). From that point the field started to branch out into debates over theories of value, animal welfare or rights, restoration and wilderness preservation (for an overview see O’Neill, J. et al 2008, Attfield 2014). The debate on theories of value can be considered as the foundational issue of this body of literature, in which different views of the value of nature, or different justifications for environmental protection are grounded and then spill over into the other areas of debate – ecological justice included. In particular, meta-ethical questions were debated on the nature of intrinsic (usually understood as non-instrumental) and instrumental value, such as whether intrinsic value can exist objectively (independently of a human valuer), as well as more substantial questions such as the location of the intrinsic value – that is, what features/attributes would generate such value (see O’Neill, J. 1992, 2001, Norton 2003 (1984), Rolston III 2003 (1994)).

Providing normative groundwork for theories of ecological justice, the literature on environmental ethics has generated a broad range of views on nature; not just in the sense of how the notion of nature itself should be conceived, but primarily regarding the question of which entities matter morally speaking – which entities are morally considerable or, more broadly, have moral status – when advocating environmental protection. Such views range from anthropocentric or human-centred perspectives (for example O’Neill, J. 1993b, Hayward 1997b, Norton 2003 (1984)) to several non-anthropocentric or ‘physiocentric’ (Krebs 1999) perspectives that differ in respect to the degree to which, and what kinds of nature they take into consideration. What matters for the purposes of this book is that anthropocentric approaches do not provide the necessary normative groundwork to justify a theory of ecological justice which necessitates that (at least some) nonhuman entities are seen as morally considerable in their own right. Accordingly, a non-anthropocentric starting point is required. Broadly speaking and simplified, the different non-anthropocentric positions are as follows:

Sentientism extends moral consideration to (some) animals (for example Singer 1974, 1975, Midgley 1983, Regan 1984, Garner 1996, Palmer 2010). This view has been made popular by Peter Singer’s (1974, 1975, 2016) individualist utilitarianism, but is still defended by philosophers with different traditional commitments in the animal rights literature, and more recently by theorists extending justice to animals (for example Nussbaum 2006, Garner 2013). What unites all these different theorists is a commitment to consider (only) sentient beings such as humans and animals morally considerable, and thereby of primary concern to any environmental ethic. Singer, drawing on Jeremy Bentham, considers the individual ability to suffer pain as a necessary criterion for moral considerability, but later refines his argument by differentiating between conscious and self-conscious beings and prioritising the suffering of the latter. The animal rights theorist Tom Regan (1984) provides an alternative individualist deontological justification for sentientism by arguing that all beings ‘subject-of-a-life’ are morally considerable, which in his account only includes humans and some animals with certain cognitive abilities, such as having beliefs and desires (such as higher mammals). Animal rights theorists have comparatively been very influential in arguing for the expansion of moral considerability beyond the human realm. So much so that concern for animals has reached the domain of political theorising (for example Nussbaum 2006, Donaldson and Kymlicka 2011, Grant and Jungkunz 2016). I will briefly return to the political element of this literature in the next chapter.

Biocentrism extends moral considerability to all living organisms (for example Attfield 1981, Taylor 1986, Sterba 1998, Agar 2001) and, as already mentioned, such views are useful starting points for developing a non-anthropocentric account of justice. The biocentric position of this book draws particularly on Paul Taylor’s work (1986) but the account also differs in some important respects, as will be explored in the two following chapters. For example, the argument in this book is for a political biocentrism which means that all living beings should be included in the community of justice; but that does not preclude other environmental entities from having moral status. However, arguably only living beings qualify as recipients of distribution. That means that the pluralist view of this book is more willing to accomodate some holistic perspectives than many biocentrists might be comfortable with. Holism or ecocentrism designates a range of views that hold, in addition to (or instead of) all living beings, ecosystems, species or the Earth itself, as holders of moral status and/or intrinsic value (for example Naess 1973, Callicott 1980, 2015; Rolston III 1988, 2012). Into this category falls, for example, ‘deep ecology’ (as opposed to shallow) which was first introduced by Arne Naess (1973) (for a critique of deep ecology see Plumwood 2002).4 Another position that falls into this category is Aldo Leopold’s famous ‘land ethic’ according to which ‘[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’ (2003 (1949), p. 46).5

The literature on expanding justice to nature is a bit younger than the development of the work on environmental ethics. As mentioned earlier, Low and Gleeson are usually attributed with coining the term ecological justice, which they defined as ‘the justice of the relationship between humans and the rest of the natural world’ (1998, p. 2). This means justice to nonhuman beings, which stands in contrast to environmental justice which is – if narrowly defined – about justly distributing environmental resources among humans. Whereas Low and Gleeson distinguished these as justice to and in nature, I deem it more accurate to speak of two spheres of justice in nature. It also should be noted that Low and Gleeson did not consider ecological justice to be directly concerned with questions of distribution, but rather concerned with ‘the meaning of the environment in a deeper sense, the sense of our moral relationship with the nonhuman world’ (1998, p. 133). To be fair, by that time environmental ethicists had already been including the notion of justice in their theories (as for example Taylor 1986), but not with the ambition of providing a political theory of justice (which also Low and Gleeson did not articulate).

To date, the term ecological justice has not spread far in the environmental philosophy literature (with some notable exceptions such as Baxter 2005, Schlosberg 2007, Kortetmäki 2017), but the analogous notion of interspecies justice has also been discussed in some (animal) ecofeminist writing (for an overview see Gaard 2017). Yet within ecofeminism, interspecies justice – also sometimes discussed as ecojustice – has remained more of a perspective rather than having been developed into a theory of interspecies justice. Its most extensive philosophical discussion can be found in Plumwood’s work (1999, 2002). Additionally, there are works that extend justice to nonhumans that do not refer to either of these concepts (such as Sterba 2005, Armstrong 2012), and accounts that fall into ‘animal justice’, broadly conceived (for example Nussbaum 2006, Donaldson and Kymlicka 2011, Garner 2013; into this category falls also Donald VanDeVeer’s (1979) term of ‘interspecific justice’). And finally, more recently the broad terms of ‘planetary justice’ (Dryzek and Pickering 2019) or ‘multispecies justice’ (Treves et al 2019) also emerged which include nonhumans in addition to present and future human generations.

So, conceptually, the debate about the make-up of the justice community is an extension of the moral considerability debate. Mirroring the debate about moral considerability, positions drawing on justice with a range of extensionist agendas have been put forward, ranging from sentientist (as for example Benton 1993, Nussbaum 2006, Garner 2013), to biocentric (as for example Baxter 2005), to holistic perspectives (as for example, Schlosberg 2007, Armstrong 2012, Kortetmäki 2017).6 But this theoretical development has been taking place against the backdrop of a longstanding anthropocentric paradigm of political theorising (see for example Rawls 1971, 1996, Nozick 1974, Walzer 1983, Barry 1995, 1999). One fundamental obstacle to including nonhumans into the community of justice is the claim that they do not embody the right attributes that trigger moral considerability. For example, rationality, moral agency or personhood have been proposed as necessary features of moral considerability which then are usually taken to exclude (nearly all) nonhumans as subjects of justice. Notably, as argued by Immanuel Kant (1997 (1784–5), 1998 (1785)), nonhumans – more specifically animals – are merely ‘things’, and hence cannot be the subject of moral duties, but such an extreme position has been refuted by several philosophical arguments and scientific discoveries about the abilities of animals.

From a philosophical perspective, one of several problems with such a position is that the rationality criterion does not just exclude nonhumans but also many humans such as infants or the severely disabled. Thus, not extending moral considerability to (at least) animals would imply that moral agents would also not hold moral duties towards a large proportion of human society. This problematic implication is usually called the problem of marginal human cases (see Baxter 2005, Nussbaum 2006) and is used as an argumentative route to include nonhumans within the realm of morally considerable entities. However, the reason for needing a different argumentative strategy for grounding the moral considerability of nonhuman living beings is explained in Chapter 2.

An argument inspired by scientific discoveries is made by Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce, who show that some ‘animals have morality’ of some sorts in that they ‘feel empathy for each other, treat one another fairly, cooperate towards common goals, and help each other out of trouble’ (2009, p. 1). This further undermines the claim that only humans can be part of the moral community even if one would accept the claim that only moral agents would also qualify to be moral patients. Consequently, even supporters of the claim that it requires moral agency in order to be the subject of moral duties will have to accept that this definition might also include at least some animals, such as primates and elephants. However, nonhuman life has remained outside of philosophical descriptions of the circumstances of justice until recently with the emergence of ecological justice, which is an attempt to provide a non-anthropocentric redefinition of the notion of justice and the circumstances in which it applies.

In contrast to ecological justice, environmental justice has received considerable attention by environmental scholars from numerous disciplinary backgrounds, and its origins can be traced back to social movements in the United States during the 1980s. The initial issues of concern for the emerging environmental justice movement were the different levels of exposure to environmental risks, such as toxic wastes, different social groups had to bear – with poor communities and communities of colour suffering proportionally higher levels of risk (regarding this local environmental justice debate see Bullard 1993, Holifield et al 2010, Walker 2012).The environmental justice concept was soon also applied to global justice considerations, especially with regards to the quickly growing field of climate justice (for an overview see Vanderheiden 2015, Meyer, L. and Sanklecha 2017). In the global justice literature, there is also a distinct, but related, body of literature on the distribution of natural resources (see Hayward 2005, Pogge 2007, Wenar 2008). Even though this literature does not usually refer to the environmental justice concept, its primary focus of enquiry – just access to environmental goods – also falls under the global environmental justice umbrella.

When aiming to develop a framework of ecological justice, it is as useful as it is necessary to keep its conceptual neighbour, environmental justice, in sight. As mentioned earlier, by formulating a currency of justice – that is, ecological space – which is applicable to accounts of environmental and ecological justice, it becomes possible to put these two domains of justice into conversation. Despite arguing that such a project is an important development of ecological justice considerations (for example Baxter 2005, Schlosberg 2007), this realm of conflicting duties of justice has been left fairly unelaborated besides, for example, arguments that attribute a priori human needs larger moral weight or significance than comparable nonhuman needs.7 However, such a ranking of moral significance will be argued against in Chapter 2 by drawing on Plumwood’s (2002) notion of non-ranking. The implication is that the broadening of the community of justice creates a situation in which moral agents hold duties of justice towards other humans and nonhumans which makes it necessary to provide an account of how the newly created conflicts between human and nonhuman entitlements can be resolved more contextually.

Here an important contextual feature is scarcity of ecological space, which will be defined in this book as the (potential) benefits of the Earth’s life-support systems and physical resources such as land in addition to renewable and non-renewable natural resources. If accounts of ecological justice want to provide guidance for how to do less injustice to nonhuman beings, then they can only do so by engaging with the realities of scarcity that do not resemble the usually assumed conditions of moderate scarcity in (ideal) theories of distributive justice, where all needs could theoretically be fulfilled. Environmental crises such as the current mass extinction are driven by human created actual scarcity, and this context therefore needs to be taken into account when theorising about ecological and environmental justice – more on this in the next section. Hence, environmental and ecological justice do not just have to be put into conversation; they have to be put into conversation in the context of scarcity.

That actually-existing scarcity has not been highlighted so far in interspecies justice theorising is not surprising, because theorists that extend justice to nonhumans have gone to great lengths to affirm their liberal credentials (for example Baxter 2005, Nussbaum 2006). But as Derek Bell (2015) points out, there are several problematic features with how liberal theories of justice have conceptualised the environment.8 He makes, among others, two points that I would like to highlight. First, Bell points out that liberal theories of justice assume circumstances of moderate scarcity regarding environmental goods, and that these ‘can be maintained indefinitely in the future’ (2015, p. 10). As will be discussed in Chapter 5, this is a problematic assumption if one takes into consideration the limited ability of the Earth to provide resources, ecosystem benefits and so on. Therefore, from this perspective, some theories of justice might be over-idealised in that they idealise away important features of the world we live in, but here I will put aside the debate on the relationship, relevance and different conceptualisations of ideal and non-ideal theory in political thought. The point is that the actual finitude and scarcity of necessary goods are important considerations that theories of justice should address. In Chapter 3 a related issue will be examined, namely that interspecies justice has a different relationship to scarcity than the one that features within intra-human accounts of justice.

The second important problematic feature of how liberal theories understand the environment, according to Bell, is that the environment is primarily conceptualised as property. As he points out, ‘a theory of justice on one planet [that is, environmental and ecological justice] should start by recognizing our dependence on the environment rather than assuming that we have property rights over it. […] Instead, it seems likely to endorse limited and carefully specified use rights’ (2015, p. 11). There exist some theories that attribute property rights to animals (for example Hadley 2015), but the issue of property rights also deserves more attention in the context of interspecies justice. In particular, the notion of original ownership that resurfaces in theories of social justice has problematic implications and will be discussed in Chapter 8.

Why distributive justice?

At this point, one might want to rewind and ask why it is necessary at all to extend the realm of justice to nonhuman beings. What is supposed to be gained? My own interest in justice, and particularly distributive justice, is based on four pragmatic reasons that I will discuss in turn:

  • Justice is a sphere of ethics that is generally considered especially weighty in contrast to other moral demands.

  • Justice is closely linked to institutional protection and thereby lends itself to legal implementation.

  • Justice operates on a more collective sphere of action than other normative concepts that focus on the actions of individuals.

  • Distributive justice is not the only, but arguably the most important, domain of a complete theory of justice with regard to the environment, due to the materiality of environmental problems.

Practical usefulness

It is important not to confuse the notions of ethics and justice (Baxter 2005, Garner 2013). Justice is a specific concept within the broader realm of morality because it constitutes a solution to the problems of living together in a society, or sharing one planet, that sits within the more general realm of ethics. Hence, a theory of ecological justice is not an all-encompassing theory of environmental ethics, but rather only one area that such a theory would have to cover. This means that many questions of interest that fall within the scope of environmental ethics do not fall within an ecological justice framework. Why then, engage with the notion of justice if it cannot provide answers to all issues in environmental ethics? Its benefit is that the realm of justice is not only narrower than the notion of ethics, but is also often considered to be weightier, more stringent and/or more effective in providing actual protection by being enacted than other normative demands. This seems to be a sentiment shared by many environmental philosophers who engage with the notion of justice despite other considerable theoretical divides (such as Hayward 1997a, Baxter 2005, Garner 2013, Pepper 2018). Consequently, it has already been argued that justice is especially weighty or ‘urgent’ compared to grounding the protection of nonhuman beings in compassion or charity (Nussbaum 2006, Garner 2013), virtue ethics (Garner 2013) or care ethics (Low and Gleeson 1998, Garner 2013). For example, Martha Nussbaum claims that compassion ‘overlaps with the sense of justice’, but that ‘compassion by itself is too indeterminate to capture our sense of what is wrong with the treatment of animals’ (2006, p. 337). The main tenor in favour of justice seems to be because it is considered to be obligatory, able to make demands on behalf of far-removed individuals, and able to provide universal, relatively unambiguous guidance for action.9 Accordingly, it makes sense that environmental philosophers would want to cash in on this theoretical prestige in favour of their non-anthropocentric theories.

A second point in its favour is its close link to institutional protection. For example, Robert Garner, in his A Theory of Justice for Animals extensively argues that animals need justice, as opposed to merely qualifying as members of the justice community. He claims that ‘animals need justice because of the high status attached to it’ (2013, p. 2) which then, in practice, more likely justifies ‘state enforcement’ than alternative non-justice claims. This is because, from a practical perspective, he worries that those non-justice obligations can ‘collapse […] into the realm of charity and voluntarism’ (2013, p. 2). If that is true, then not only animals, but all of nature needs the protection of justice, which would entail a more far-reaching extension of the community of justice in order to support the development of complementary legal rights. Duties of justice towards nature could then be inscribed into national laws. Consider, for example, how Ecuador has inscribed the rights of Pachamama (the Andean name for Mother Nature or World Mother) into its constitution in 2008. In theory, this commits Ecuador to extensive state protection of wild nature, while in practice Ecuador’s economy still heavily relies on extractive industries. Since its implementation, several lawsuits on behalf of nature have been filed with mixed success (Kauffman and Martin 2017) and despite some setbacks, what has been called Earth Jurisprudence is becoming more salient (for an analysis of different cases see Kauffman and Martin 2018). For example, rivers such as the Ganges in India or the Whanganui River in New Zealand have been attributed legal rights as entities in their own right (Ito 2017, Tanasescu 2017).

Nonetheless, as noted by Kortetmäki (2017), non-justice moral claims can also potentially be – and have been – inscribed into law, such as building or farming regulations for example. But there is something special about claims of justice that other moral obligations do not share. This is a third and more convincing crucial benefit of employing the language of justice as has been concisely summarised by Kortetmäki. As she puts it:

[T]he discourse on justice shifts the focus from the individual to the institutional sphere […]. Bringing ecological entities into the realm of justice significantly increases prospects for their effective protection. Focus on the institutional realm is crucial […]: large-scale ecological problems cannot be sufficiently addressed by focusing on individual-level actions. (2017, p. 19)

Her statement nicely illustrates that demands of ecological justice are not primarily meant to provide individual guidance on actions, even if the justice principles make demands on individual moral agents in the end. Because environmental problems such as biodiversity loss are collective action problems, justice to – or better in – nature has to be done collectively (Baxter 2005). The concept of justice implicitly accounts for the need for collective action and thus the relevance of structures, institutions and practices in which individual actions are embedded which links back to its close relationship to state enforcement. That makes justice an intrinsically political concept and is never, in that sense, a private matter. As a consequence, it drags the question of power into the limelight giving it the intrinsic potential to critique dominant discourses that favour the status quo. Also, within environmental thinking more broadly, there has been something of a shift from focusing on depoliticised individualised consumer choice to a recognition that change requires political engagement with the underlying systemic structure of an unsustainable way of economic and social organisation (see Chapter 10). Conversely, this means that justice is less well equipped than other moral concepts and approaches such as care or virtue ethics to provide answers to what constitutes right, good or virtuous actions on a more individual level. Thus, it is only a part of, rather than a full substitute for, a theory of environmental ethics, but ultimately, environmental ethics can profit from concepts that can make moral sense of large-scale collective action problems.

When considering these strengths of justice, it seems that environmental conservation campaigns could also benefit considerably from its use as a rhetorical tool. However, the notions of ecological and interspecies justice have not yet spread far from theoretical debates into the discourse of conservation practitioners or the general public; even though justice is a concept that is not new to social justice activists that have been demanding justice for women, people of colour or indigenous communities. If the environmental justice movement uses the language of justice, it is also time for conservation and animal rights activists (regarding the latter see also Garner 2013) to use this powerful rhetorical tool, because it can support a shift in the debate to an institutional, and collective level. This might help to more effectively convert moral claims into international and national laws, because the normative pull of claims about injustices outweighs alternative framings of environmental problems.10

Theoretical context

Returning to more theoretical considerations, of particular interest is justice in terms of distribution due to the materiality of environmental problems. To clarify, I do not focus on distribution because I equate distributive with social justice, as some other theorists have tended to do (see for example Dobson 1998). I merely see the articulation of a distributive ecological justice framework as an initial yet important step towards a project of defending a more complete theory of ecological justice. A more complete theory would have to account for other dimensions of justice such as recognition of status (for example by building on Fraser 2009) and participation/representation in relevant environmental decision-making (see Schlosberg 2007, Walker 2012 and Kortetmäki 2017 for multidimensional accounts of environmental and/or ecological justice). Moreover, I mainly focus on intragenerational distributive justice (with an exception in Chapter 7), and more would therefore also need to be said about justice towards future nonhuman beings and reparation/compensation for historical injustices.

However, not all dimensions of justice will turn out to be as relevant or appropriate as the distributional sphere. The dimension of recognition, for example, appears to be a valuable addition to considerations of distribution, and there are features of my theoretical framework that point towards this close link between these two domains of justice. For example, it could be claimed that it is a matter of justice as recognition that humanity recognises the similarities and differences between humans and other living beings; that the calling for respect for nature by some environmental ethicists (for example Taylor 1986, Rolston III 2012) is a matter of justice; or that the exclusion of nonhuman beings from the realm of distributive justice constitutes a methodological misrecognition, and not just the naturalisation of the exclusion of nonhuman beings from the realm of political theory that will be discussed in Chapter 8. Having said that, justice as recognition towards nature will considerably move away from how it has been theorised in the human realm which will make it more difficult to claim that the argument centres around recognition as a matter of justice rather than a different kind of moral demand. In any case, recognition should be seen as an addition to and not a substitute for considerations of distribution. As Nancy Fraser has already pointed out regarding the human sphere, ‘[s]truggles for recognition occur in a world of exacerbated material inequality’ (1995, p. 166).11 When looking at the current condition of life on Earth it is apparent that vast power inequalities exist that translate into vastly unequal access to required material goods in the context of more and more severe scarcity of these important goods.

As said, not all conceptualisations of justice will turn out to be as relevant or appropriate as the distributional sphere. For example, I am sceptical about the capabilities approach as a way of framing ecological justice as I will elaborate in Chapter 6, despite the fact it has been embraced by several theorists who expand the domain of justice beyond the human realm (for example Nussbaum 2006, Schlosberg 2007, Armstrong 2012, Kortetmäki 2017). Contrary to my interest in distribution, the academic justice discourse has actually moved away from focusing on distribution (since John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice in 1971) towards alternative justice frameworks where distribution is either less prominent or dismissed entirely (for example Nussbaum and Sen 1993, Fraser and Honneth 2003). Nonetheless, there are also current counter-discourses in the social sciences and humanities that aim to rediscover materiality, such as feminist new materialism (see Coole and Frost 2010). Yet, the discursive shift away from distribution has also occurred in environmental theorising (see especially Schlosberg 2007). For example, Kortetmäki, who draws heavily upon Schlosberg’s work, provides an understanding of ecological justice that is fairly dismissive of a distributional approach. She states:

The [ecological justice] approach rejects the view that justice is primarily about distribution and endorses instead the relational view of justice as a matter of relations between recipients of justice, where distribution plays a role but is not the whole of justice. In other words, the approach involves a transition from a distributional to a relational paradigm of justice. (2017, p. 12)

It is important to note here how Kortetmäki contrasts a distributional with a relational understanding of justice. From my perspective, however, these do not embody separate paradigms. On the contrary, my understanding of distributive justice is inherently relational and, as mentioned earlier, I understand distributive justice as only one part – although the most important part – of a more complete framework of justice that also accounts for, among other things, participation and recognition. Distributive justice, as I understand it, only emerges from morally relevant relationships, each of which leads to different demands of justice. Because life on Earth constitutes an interrelated system it matters in justice terms how the human consumption of resources, spaces and environmental goods impacts on the ability of – or, in other words, disadvantages – nonhuman living beings to survive and flourish.12

Moreover, I do not only understand (relational) justice as pluralist in the sense of including considerations of distribution, recognition, restoration and participation (and potentially more), but also pluralist in that there are different, often overlapping, spheres of justice that need to be taken into account. Each sphere – or ‘ground’ (Risse 2012) – of distributive justice, for example, applies to a distinct community of justice and embodies a distinct set of justice principles. In order to determine what would be just, all-things-considered, it is necessary to take into consideration all relevant spheres of justice that apply to an area of concern. In the environmental realm, it is therefore important to take into account environmental justice and ecological justice considerations that apply to different but overlapping communities of justice that put forward different demands of justice that need to be reconciled.

More specifically, the ecological justice approach that is developed in this book could be understood as justice to wild beings or biological conservation justice. Complementary spheres of ecological justice where different principles of justice apply would be the human relationships with farm animals and crops, garden plants, companion animals, city-dwelling species and so on. Thus, it is necessary to distinguish between the broader realm of ecological justice that spans a set of different justice relationships that ground different communities of justice and the different instances of ecological justice that each of these communities embodies. For simplicity when developing my own position, I use interspecies and ecological justice as shorthand for interspecies justice to (more or less) wild nonhumans if not indicated otherwise. This division is similar to Donaldson and Kymlicka’s (2011) distinction concerning three morally relevant relationships between humans and animals when articulating their political theory of animal rights. According to them, these are (1) domesticated animals, (2) wild animals and (3) liminal animals such as rats and foxes which live close among humans without being domesticated. What justice demands in these other – less wild – spheres is a question that I cannot answer at this point, but it is important to keep in mind that not all human-nonhuman relationships can be covered by the same kind of distributive justice.13 This is not a new thought; for example justice between co-citizens and global justice are also considered separately because of the different relationships they cover. Put simply, an account of justice trying to address the problem of the current mass extinction will differ from an account that explains why factory farming methods should be condemned as a matter of justice. That means that different kinds of human-nonhuman relations – that is, along different degrees of wildness or domestication – have to be acknowledged with different spheres of justice under the broader ecological justice umbrella. Of course, what constitutes wildness (which should not be confused with wilderness) and domestication is contested and usually used imprecisely. Moreover, wildness, however understood, is an attribute that nonhumans can hold to different degrees (Palmer 2010). Hence, the wild versus domesticated dichotomy which I employ here is for reasons of theoretical parsimony rather than a reflection of actual human-nonhuman relations.14

Returning to the specific question about distributive justice, Schlosberg criticises the distributive focus of theorising about justice regarding the environment (such as Dobson 1998, Baxter 2005) arguing that:

[…] given theoretical and [environmental justice] movement calls to extend an analysis of justice beyond the distributive realm, theories of environmental and ecological justice have been disappointing to date. For much of the past two decades, most authors in the field have avoided an examination of the interface between justice and the environment, focusing instead on environmental values or ethics. More recently, however, authors […] have begun to use the language of distribution to frame sustainability and environmental justice. Yet even these authors, dedicated to expanding the existing discourse of justice to future generations and nature, rarely stray from a distributive approach. (2007, p. 121)

He also maintains that ‘[…] once we begin to extend the community of justice beyond humans, even when we are exploring loopholes in existing distributional theories, we are stepping beyond distribution into the realms of recognition, procedural justice, and capability theory’ (2007, p. 126).

As I have said, I question whether the capabilities approach can move beyond the human realm, and I agree that the dimension of recognition, for example, is under-theorised regarding their possible extension beyond the human sphere. However, even distributional ecological justice has received very little attention from environmental philosophers and is in dire need of further development and defence. After all, the only attempt to provide a systematic theory of distributive ecological justice that applies beyond the realm of sentient beings is Baxter’s Theory of Ecological Justice (2005).

Even more importantly, I consider distributive justice to be the most important building block in a theory of ecological justice because of the materiality of environmental relations and problems, which is my fourth reason in favour of distributive justice. In other words, even though misrecognition and non-representation are also problems of justice beyond the human realm, the most fundamental problems that these domains of justice appear to point towards are human overuse and misdistribution of access to the Earth’s benefits, such as shrinking and degrading habitats, climate change and pollution. Accounts of distributive justice usually do not only distribute material goods such as resources but also distribute non-material goods such as liberties. Nonetheless, because of the materiality of environmental problems, and because I understand environmental and ecological justice to be primarily about providing solutions to the question of how to share the Earth as a material and finite entity, I focus on the material side of distributive justice. To limit distributive justice in this manner is especially defensible if distributive justice is merely seen as one part of a complete theory of justice rather than exhaustive of its full magnitude.

Although distributive justice has been criticised and relegated to the fringes of green political theorising about justice, this development has been too hasty. Distributive justice can account for living beings’ neediness and dependence on a material world that is becoming scarcer. It is scarcity itself that constitutes an existential threat to life and it is the creation of scarcity by using, misusing, overusing, excluding and consuming that becomes the subject of distributive justice. This problem of misdistribution then finally culminates in the current mass extinction event as a crisis. The threat of increasing scarcity and its actualisation have been driving environmental discourses for decades (see for example the limits to growth debate [Meadows et al 1972, 2004]). Even though liberal theories of justice and surprisingly also accounts of ecological justice have remained very silent on it, the problem of scarcity constitutes a significant problem within the environmental realm that justice needs to address. Because of the materiality of the problem, distributive justice should be considered the main theoretical lens with which to address this issue. Moreover, considerations about participation and recognition when applied to nonhuman organisms (with perhaps the exception of a few mammals) only matter to them if they translate into secured and increased access to material goods that ground their lives. Status, or the political representation of their interests do not matter in themselves when it comes to nonhumans; they only matter as vehicles for receiving appropriate treatment, and access to material goods.

Structure of the book

Each of the following chapters discusses a particular aspect of my overall argument according to which the current extinction crisis is indeed an issue of justice and that a political non-ranking biocentric account of distributive ecological justice to wild nonhumans can account for this. In Chapter 2 I start by outlining a few premises on which I will base my argument in favour of non-anthropocentric distributive justice. I will begin by introducing biocentrism and then explain why specifically I develop a political non-ranking biocentrism that is partially inspired by Plumwood (2002) and that rejects the provision of an a priori ranking of moral significance of living beings. The crucial point is that such a version of biocentrism opens up the conceptual space for making justice an important building block within a broader environmental ethic.

In Chapter 3 I begin with the question of how we can move from claims about moral considerability to claims about justice, because moral considerability is necessary but not sufficient to ground a community of justice. Thus, the question is how we can include nonhuman living beings into this community as holders of justice entitlements in their own right. After considering questions about the circumstances of justice and about how to conceptualise justice itself, I will claim that humans and wild nonhuman living beings constitute a community of justice which I call a community of fate.

In Chapter 4 I will introduce ecological space as a suitable currency of distributive justice in this context by analysing a range of different definitions of the concept. I will particularly draw on Tim Hayward’s (2005, 2006a) argument in favour of ecological space as a currency of justice which is part of the debate about a just global distribution of resources between humans. With the aim of providing a theoretically level playing field for demands of environmental and ecological justice, I propose a specific but broad definition of ecological space as the appropriate currency of justice for both spheres which can provide in this manner a common realm in which conflicting claims can be assessed.

Building on this discussion, Chapter 5 is dedicated to developing principles of distributive justice – not only focusing on ecological justice but also proposing complementary principles of environmental justice. Particular emphasis is on how these different justice principles interact and change when the conventional assumption of moderate scarcity in justice theorising – where all needs could theoretically be fulfilled – is dropped. The issue of scarcity is a problem that will already have been introduced in Chapter 3 because it is one of the matters of divergence between ecological and environmental justice theorising. Moreover, the problem of scarcity becomes acute if one accepts, on the one hand, that natural resources are becoming scarcer, habitats are becoming more degraded and ecosystems are being put under increasing pressure, and if one simultaneously accepts on the other hand, that both demands of environmental and ecological justice have to be acknowledged. By discussing how demands of justice change depending on different circumstances of scarcity, I will introduce a grid of sufficientarian justice principles that reflect different conditions of scarcity. In the last part of Chapter 5, I will then turn to how a duty to pursue sustainability is a demand of environmental and ecological justice, and also suggest a beneficial theoretical linkage to environmental virtue ethics.

Chapter 6 concludes the development of my theoretical groundwork by engaging with an alternative theoretical framework for grounding ecological justice: the capabilities approach. The capabilities approach has proven to be a popular theoretical framework for extending considerations of justice beyond the human realm, but I explicitly do not situate my theoretical framework in this body of work. Because of that I will present and discuss several challenges that cast doubt onto the viability of an expansionary project based on the capabilities approach. In the end, it will have to be considerably adapted to be able to meet these challenges. Yet, because of the theoretical overlap between my account and some extensionist versions of the capabilities approach, such a development should be embraced, but neither is that something that I will attempt myself, nor does my own account rely on the viability of the capabilities approach as an account of ecological justice.

In the final Chapter 7. I will argue that rather than constituting an injustice in itself, biodiversity loss should be understood as an indicator for past injustices. Thus, it is the outcome of injustice rather than injustice itself which explains how the current extinction crisis embodies an injustice. Chapter 8 outlines an implication that a commitment to ecological justice has for theorising environmental justice. One necessary, but not sufficient, criterium for achieving compatibility between my framework of ecological justice and theories of social justice between humans is that theories of justice must be based on the premise that the Earth is originally unowned. Thus, in this chapter I develop a critique of the notion of humanity’s original ownership of the Earth that has been influential throughout the history of political thought.

In Chapter 9, several of the theoretical themes are brought together in order to engage in a more practical debate on just conservation that has developed around the so-called Half-Earth proposal for ‘setting aside’ half of the Earth for nonhumans, as recently proposed by E.O. Wilson (2003, 2016) and several others. A short overview of the empirical debate will be provided, but of particular interest are the normative claims involved. Based on the framework developed in the previous chapters, I will argue that the Half-Earth proposal can constitute a distributively just compromise between demands of ecological and environmental justice on the question of distribution of space in terms of habitat, but only if several conditions are fulfilled. Moreover, whether it can even constitute an all-things-considered demand of justice is, in turn, again dependent on a range of further considerations. In the end, the aim is not to have merely effective, but also just conservation practices. In the concluding chapter, I will bring the discussion to an end by tentatively looking at some implications of my framework in terms of how to implement and discharge duties of ecological justice, as for example in terms of ecological citizenship.



As Jeremy Bendik-Keymer and Chris Haufe (2016) put it, industrialism rather than humans per se is the relevant driver here. Consequently, as will be seen, responsibility is also differentiated.


Of course, there are opposing perspectives that deny the crisis characterisation (such as Thomas 2017).


That also applies to many agricultural species, but I exclude this case from my analysis because it differs practically and conceptually along several dimensions from the case at hand.


Teea Kortetmäki (2016) has pointed towards the similarities between the deep ecology and Schlosberg’s (2007) ecological justice framework. I will return to the latter later.


Yet the classification of Leopold’s position within holism is controversial (see Palmer 2003).


In some of these cases, a centric characterisation might not be fully accurate, but it is still useful to use these labels as shorthand to distinguish how inclusive these different theoretical perspectives are.


Recently John Dryzek and Jonathan Pickering noted that we still ‘lack an overarching term and common framework to encompass both environmental and ecological justice, despite the fact that the two are closely intertwined’ (2019, p. 67).


This links to the question of whether liberalism that aims for an overlapping consensus and impartiality regarding different conceptions of the good is compatible with environmentalism in general and a theory of ecological justice in particular (see Dobson 1998, Schlosberg 2007). I will put this particular debate aside for now.


I take universal to mean here global and to a degree generalisable, not context-independent and encompassing the full ethical domain.


The idea behind this claim is that writers about rhetoric usually distinguish between several distinct rhetorical appeals (see Meyer, M. 2017). Put crudely, in the context of conservation campaigns the focus lies especially on appealing to social values and individuals’ empathy in order to generate support for action based on scientific evidence. Moving away from a primary focus on such emotive appeals which might have diminishing returns of rhetorical impact, the socially shared sense of justice – or rather injustice – might be additionally employed by conservationists if they enjoy credibility, as organisations, and regarding their scientific claims.


Schlosberg’s (2007) account is probably the most well-known example of trying to include nonhuman entities into the realm of recognition justice. He discusses the recognising of similarities between humans and nature, the recognition of integrity in the sense of recognising ‘nature’s “bodily integrity”’ (2007, p. 136), and status injuries drawing on Fraser’s understanding of recognition justice as focusing on social status – in contrast to Axel Honneth’s more psychology-based account of recognition, which is as Schlosberg points out, less suited to be extended beyond the human realm (for a comparison between the two accounts see Fraser and Honneth 2003). However, for a critique of Schlosberg’s interpretation of Fraser’s account of recognition see Angie Pepper (2018).


Related to this is the debate between luck and relational egalitarianism. See for details on their disagreement Elizabeth Anderson (2010) and Takashi Kibe (2011). Note that the adjective relational used in the context of justice differs from theorist to theorist. For example, Kortetmäki (2017) differentiates between a distributive and a relational paradigm. Thereby, she groups luck egalitarianism and Rawls’ difference principle both into the distributive category and understands relational justice as being ‘concerned with the social and political relations (and their equality) between recipients of justice’ (p. 23). Anderson (2010), in contrast, distinguishes between luck egalitarians and relational egalitarians and assigns John Rawls to the latter category.


There are several reasons that suggest that justice towards domesticated animals is of a different character than towards wild nonhumans (see Donaldson and Kymlicka 2011). To a degree, this is linked to the more general claim that the distinction between wild and domesticated is morally relevant (see Palmer 2010, 2012a) and that it is appropriate to assume that still a lot of nonhumans are wild in the relevant senses (Palmer 2010).


My relational perspective shares similarities (but also differs in several respects from) works in animal ethics that highlight the importance of relations (such as Palmer 2010, Donaldson and Kymlicka 2011) which is an aspect that deserves more attention than I can give it here.

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