Ethical Challenges of Global Change as a Motivator for Consumer Citizenship

Submitted by Arthur Dahl on 29. May 2011 - 18:33
Dahl, Arthur Lyon
Fifth International Conference of the Consumer Citizenship Network, Tallinn, Estonia, 5-6 May 2008


Arthur Lyon Dahl
International Environment Forum
Geneva, Switzerland

This paper is not a scholarly review, but an effort to distill, for the benefit of the Consumer Citizenship Network, forty years' experience in applying science to the solution of environmental problems in many parts of the world, for audiences from primary school through postgraduate instruction to gatherings of government leaders, combined with efforts to understand, measure and apply the concept of sustainability in its larger ethical framework.


Global change has become headline news. Yet anyone who tries to explain the challenges of environmental protection and sustainability to others, whether to students, the general public, or leaders of government, business or public opinion, is faced with a great difficulty: how to motivate people to positive action when so much of the scientific news is negative. Do you emphasize scientific objectivity and the lack of certainty about any future trajectory, with all the difficulty of explaining risks and probabilities? Do you try for a shock treatment, putting forward the most recent alarming developments and the real possibility of catastrophies on the horizon? In this case, you can easily be discounted as an extremist again crying wolf, or a Cassandra forever telling the truth that nobody wants to hear. Do you paint a rosy picture of the wonderful society that could emerge if only people did the right thing, and risk accusations of being a utopian dreamer? The challenge is made even greater by the widespread scientific disinformation produced by vested interests, and the resulting confusion of messages in the media and the public mind. This is one of the fundamental issues in consumer education that influences the way citizens assess information.

The problem is perfectly illustrated by the issue of climate change. The recent awarding of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize to Al Gore and the WMO/UNEP Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in recognition of their two complementary approaches to consumer education about climate change and its implications, highlights the challenge. The IPCC was designed to be the instrument of scientific objectivity, with extensive consultation among hundreds of leading experts to achieve consensus on the scientific facts, confirmed by the approval of governments ( The results are conservative, with many of the more extreme possibilities left aside. Al Gore mastered the use of the media to alert the public to the shocking realities of climate change and its human implications ( Both have emphasized the science of climate change, and the resulting need to reduce drastically our emissions of greenhouse gases.

However, the message of the science is basically negative. The documentation of the planet's environmental problems and the resulting accelerating global change show how the inhabitants of the Earth are threatened in fundamental ways. Our economy and way of life are at serious risk, but there is no obvious villain or easy solution. Every consumer is both a cause of the problem and a victim. Forcing scientists into the role of bearers of bad news has contributed to the rise of anti-science movements. No one likes bad news (except the media who thrive on it), and the tendency is to shoot the messenger. More seriously in the context of consumer citizenship education, bad news does not motivate positive change, but denial or despair, and a feeling of powerlessness before the enormity of the problem. The poor feel like helpless victims and the rich, at best, guilty.

The complexities of global change add to the difficulties. We can no longer think in terms of single problems and single solutions. The growth of the human population, the economy and resource consumption have reached planetary limits. Environmental impacts are now on the same scale as natural processes, and globalization has integrated all nations into one world community. As a result, the level of interaction between problems has increased. We have come to appreciate that there is a single global system with many interacting parts and processes operating at multiple nested scales (Dahl 1996). A small but critical change in one part of the system can have widespread repercussions. However, we are still far from having scientific tools adequate to understand and model this complexity and to predict possible consequences. We are even farther from having the institutions and management tools necessary to manage and respond to the global changes that we have already triggered.


Our society is not well structured to deal with complex multidisciplinary global problems. Governments are divided into ministries or departments, and the academic community into disciplines. There are strong pressures for increasing specialization. Perhaps a first step would be to encourage a specialization of generalist, integrator, or systems manager with an accepted role in bridging disciplines. Education also can include systems thinking and integrative approaches as part of general education. The attentive consumer needs this capacity to assess and integrate many kinds of information.

Institutional changes are also needed. The system of governance based on national sovereignty has great difficulty in addressing global problems effectively. We need to evolve institutions of governance at all of the scales of the problems we face in global change. There is presently a strong prejudice in many quarters against global government, often reflecting a philosophical or political position that government is essentially inefficient and bureaucratic and the less we have of it the better. Yet effective government is an essential component of any civilized society. Even the business community recognizes this and calls for strong government environmental regulation, fairly enforced, as essential to business competitiveness (Dahl, 2004). Europe is already a pioneer in creating institutions at a regional scale and reducing national sovereignty, and this example will be equally appropriate as we consider how to deal with global change. One component of effective government is the ability to communicate information to its citizens effectively and reliably.

In education and public awareness where the CCN is particularly active, these issues should be treated proactively. The next generation, at least, should feel comfortable with integrated thinking and consider it normal that there be institutions of governance at all levels. These should be among the foundation principles of consumer citizenship. However more is needed to motivate action. The challenge is to be both scientifically objective and realistic about the threats and risks of global change and its implications for the economy, society and consumer behaviour, while also inspiring hope and a desire to act, seeing the necessary sacrifices in a positive light.


What has often been missing is the ethical component. Scientific information is necessary but not sufficient to motivate change. It can convince at an intellectual level, but this does not naturally lead to emotional commitment or action. Scientific information needs to be placed in a larger ethical framework of responsibility and solidarity, highlighting the positive social outcomes of uniting in the face of a common challenge.

An ethical or moral framework of what is right or wrong underlies most systems of human organization, whether in traditional cultures, religions, or legal systems. Central to all these frameworks is the necessary balance between individual freedom or satisfaction and the collective well-being of society. A mature citizen with confidence in the government will voluntarily accept to obey laws and pay taxes in the common interest. One of the prominent features of the last century was the rise of materialism as the dominant value system, expressed in the prominence of economic thinking in government and business (Adam Smith's "invisible hand of self-interest") and the rise of the consumer society focusing on individual satisfaction, while traditional ethical frameworks were abandoned. Although Western society has emphasized individualism and Asian versions have been more collective, both have centred their efforts on material satisfaction, based often on a rather superficial description of human potential and needs. Even the communist system, while putting forward social goals, was basically materialistic in orientation. None of these gave any real priority to the well-being of the planet and its sustainable environmental management as an essential pre-requisite for our emotional, ethical and spiritual well-being as well as our physical survival (BIC 1998).

Each culture and nation has evolved and institutionalized its own ethical framework within the context of its religious, cultural and philosophical heritage, representing the ethical consensus of its society. However rapid globalization has taken the ethical issues and challenges to the planetary level, for which the self-contained national sets of values are poorly adapted. In response, there have been efforts at the intergovernmental level to adopt declarations of ethical principles, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UN 1948) and subsequent declarations and conventions, and in the environmental area the Stockholm Declaration (UN 1972), the Rio Declaration (UN 1992) and other similar documents. Civil society has tried to go farther with texts like the Earth Charter (Earth Charter Initiative 2000). However it is not always easy to translate these general principles into guides for practical action, whether at the governmental level or in the behaviour of each individual. Where self-interest and ethical principle are in conflict (as they frequently are), self-interest has too often won out.

Given the materialistic values behind the consumer society, it is essential that the concept of consumer citizenship include an underlying ethical framework to help in assessing information and guiding consumer choices. There is already a potential conflict between the values associated with "consumer" and those relevant to "citizenship". Marrying them is at the heart of consumer citizenship. Even the concept of citizenship, usually associated with one's nationality, must be expanded to global citizenship in acknowledgement of our globalized world. Today the challenges of sustainability and global change must be addressed primarily in their planetary context before being translated down to the national, local and individual levels.

What then are some of the ethical principles most relevant to global change? The first must relate to responsibility, since every individual consumer contributes in some way to the driving forces for global change. Concepts of responsibility and liability for damage are well enshrined in national law, but there is strong resistance (rooted in self-interest) to extending them to the global level. When there is collective responsibility, it is even easier to hide behind the group and deny any individual implication. Closely related is the principle of solidarity as the number of victims of global change continues to rise, recognizing that every individual human being is a trust of the whole, and in a globalized world where information flows freely, it is no longer possible to claim ignorance. Again, while developed countries usually pride themselves on their social security, and the assistance provided to the handicapped, the elderly, the unemployed, and victims of disasters, we have not yet scaled up these mechanisms to operate at the planetary level. As global change destabilizes societies, increases famines, droughts and natural disasters, and produces tens or hundreds of millions of environmental refugees, the ethical implications of solidarity will become extremely challenging. Finding solutions to such critical problems will require the application of other ethical principles of justice, self-sacrifice, collective security, consultation/participation, and moderation, among many others.

An excellent specific example of ethics applied to the issue of climate change is the work of the Collaborative Program on the Ethical Dimensions of Climate Change (, with its secretariat at the Rock Ethics Institute of Penn State University (USA), and in particular its White Paper on the Ethical Dimensions of Climate Change (Rock Ethics Institute 2006). It explores a series of specific ethical issues that require international consideration, and that illustrate how fundamental ethics are to the challenges of global change. Some of the questions raised concern decision-making and responsibility at the global level: Who is ethically responsible for the consequences of climate change, that is, who is liable for the burdens of adaptation or paying for unavoided damages? What ethical principles should guide the choice of specific atmospheric greenhouse gas targets? What ethical principles should be followed in allocating responsibility for greenhouse gas reductions among people, organizations, and governments at all levels? What is the ethical significance of the need to make climate change decisions in the face of scientific uncertainty? What principles of procedural justice should be followed to assure fair representation in decision making? Other questions concern the tendency of governments to put national interest above global interest: Are the commonly used justifications of the cost to national economies, or that any nation need not act until others agree on action, as reasons for delaying or minimizing climate change action, ethically justified? Is the argument that we should minimize climate change action until new, less-costly technologies may be invented in the future, ethically justifiable? (Rock Ethics Institute 2006) These ethical issues around climate change have also been debated in a side event at the United Nations during the 15th Commission on Sustainable Development in April 2007 (ENB 2007). Such issues must be addressed to achieve any international agreement on climate change action, but governments tend to avoid them because admitting their validity would require taking difficult decisions and open the door to significant claims for liability and compensation.

These questions are primarily addressed to government leaders and diplomats. They are not really relevant to actions individual consumers can take. Two further steps are needed. First, the scientific evidence and understanding that link global changes such as climate change to the consequences of individual consumer actions must be made clear and understood. How is a decision to drive rather than take public transport in a European city causally related to the melting of Arctic ice and the plight of the polar bears? How is it possible to link eating a beefsteak, through the international grain market, to the inability of a poor village woman in south Asia to feed her children? Why does the rush into biofuels for energy security in the USA lead to food riots in Mexico? Citizens need some basic understanding of the working of global environmental, economic and social systems. Then the ethical questions relevant to the individual contributions to these larger system processes need to be asked. For example, how would you be willing to change your dietary habits to make more grain available for drought-stricken populations? Is it reasonable and just for Europeans to accept voluntarily a reduction in their purchasing power and level of consumption to allow millions in Asia to rise out of poverty? Obviously the answers to such questions are intimately linked to the effectiveness of global systems to deliver food in disaster areas and to ensure that rapid economic growth really benefits the poor, meaning good governance and trustworthiness in the institutions concerned. Examples of efforts to bridge the global to local levels in an ethical discussion of climate change are the last two annual conferences of the International Environment Forum on "Science, Faith and Global Warming: Arising to the Challenge", Oxford, 2006 (IEF 2006) and "Responding to Climate Change: Scientific Realities, Spiritual Imperatives", Ottawa, 2007 (IEF 2007) for which full proceedings are available on line.

Consumer education needs to empower people to take responsibility for their individual lifestyle while recognizing that collective action is also needed, and that a supportive social framework and sense of community are important to reinforce individual efforts. Getting individual consumers to change their habits is essential but not sufficient. Individual citizens also need to contribute to larger efforts in their communities as an extension of their ethical commitment, and also to encourage and support their governments to collaborate in international processes that strengthen global environmental governance for sustainability. If political leaders do not feel that public opinion is behind them, they will rarely have the courage to act even where the common interest is clear.


The final necessary element in motivating positive change is a vision of what the results of difficult efforts and short-term sacrifices can lead to. The gloomy, if not apocalyptic, environmental scenarios can be counterbalanced by visions of their role in the transition to a more united world society able to repair the damage and to continue the onward march of civilization. An athlete supports endless hours of training and the often painful pushing of bodily limits, motivated by the ultimate satisfaction of winning, or at least of a race well run. To motivate consumer citizens, and to counteract the negative scenarios of environmental, economic and social catastrophe (which may represent a realistic probability in the short term), it is necessary to follow the scenario planning through beyond the catastrophe (assuming our leaders do not have the wisdom and courage to avoid it) to the constructive process of building a new global society on the other side. Uniting before a common threat can be very beneficial in building a strong and resilient community. The trials and suffering of World War II provided the impetus for the creation of the United Nations and the European Union. It unfortunately always seems to take such extreme events to break out of old paradigms and take civilization another step forward.

Furthermore, in such insecure times, there is a natural tendency to want to return to the safety of old values and old ways of living, producing the driving force for the rise of fundamentalisms in many parts of the world, with accompanying intolerance and even terrorism. In consumer citizenship, we need to offer a positive alternative, not looking to the past but to the future. Globalization is opening up vast new potential for the advancement of human civilization, and many of our present difficulties are in fact the growing pains of the necessary transition. Global change is just one of the processes forcing us to recognize the reality of this trend and our responsibility for it. Presenting visions of possible sustainable societies that can result from implementing ethical values, and encouraging young people to imagine their own ideal futures, can create in their minds a goal worth sacrificing for. The new generations of consumer citizens should not just be passively choosing what to buy from among what society offers, but actively preparing themselves to contribute in some way to the society they would like to live in. An ethical component in consumer citizenship education can inspire them to become ethical leaders in their family, school, community, business, associations or governments. The positive force of ethical commitment is the best motor for constructive change.


Any effective concept of consumer citizenship must include a foundation of ethical principles such as justice, responsibility and solidarity. The successful consumer citizen will come to be defined not only by a scientific understanding of the issues of global change and their implications for individual consumption, but also by the emotional commitment necessary to sacrifice the consumer ideal of immediate material satisfaction in favour of a larger vision of human prosperity and well-being justly shared among all peoples. Only when there are enough such consumer citizens around the world able to assess information in the light of their ethical principles can we begin to respond effectively to the challenges of global change.


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Last updated 18 May 2008