What is the nature of righteousness

Ecological justice

Anton Leist

To person

Dr. phil., born 1947; Professor of Ethics at the University of Zurich and Head of the Ethics Laboratory and Research Center, Zollikerstr. 117, CH-8008 Zurich.
Email: [email protected]

For two decades, the principle of sustainability has been the guideline for every rationally informed and controlled environmental policy. On a large scale it is useless due to its hidden natural realism and should be replaced by the ideal of ecological justice.


In modern consciousness justice is primarily distributive justice. The cooperation partners share a good among themselves according to criteria that express their productive participation in this good. In distributive justice, what is to be distributed is that which is produced together, seen globally the gross national product of a country. As far as politics argues with justice criteria, when it comes to distribution, it refers to the mix of normative terms with which the role of citizens in the common production process can be localized: merit, neediness, rights, freedoms, equality, etc. That justice and fairness are predominantly perceived not as moral, but as cooperative-rational values, promotes the function of justice as the most important social moral structure in which those involved achieve individually and collectively satisfactory results with a minimal amount of moral motivation. However, this moral structure is limited in its scope by its built-in reference to joint production. The natural conditions of production are not established jointly, which is why it is not very easy to classify "ecological justice" in the usual canon of justice.

The advocates of a natural ethic, such as that which arose in response to the environmental crisis, therefore saw justice as the most unsuitable ideal with which our actions that consume nature could be judged. For environmental policy, a term seemed appropriate that, unlike justice, recognizes the transcendent power of nature and subordinates human goals to it, instead of subjecting nature to human ends any longer. It is no coincidence that the only environmental term that has entered our consciousness in the past few decades fits these requirements: that of "sustainability". In "sustainable use", which, according to the Brundtland formula, meets the needs of the present without endangering the needs of the future, nature is explicitly recognized as the limit of human productivity.

However, the Brundlandt formula was only politically realistic because it also came to terms with the idea of ​​"sustainable development" and thus put the status quo of the currently unequal consumption of nature in the north-south relationship up for grabs. A step was tacitly taken to anchor the environmental problems in the justice cosmos, because concessions such as the higher responsibility of the north and the catching up development of the south are those of justice. It is therefore advisable to translate the idea of ​​sustainability into the more precise terminology of ecological justice.