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Ecological citizen: myth or reality?

Ecological citizen: myth or reality?


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By Josep Vives-Rego

Etymologically, the term has its origin in "city", since originally this was the most important political unit. Over time, the political unit became the State and, today, we refer to citizens in relation to States. However, in supranational political organizations, such as the current case of the European Union, the dilemma arises as to whether we should speak of a European citizenship that displaces, dilutes or annuls the citizenship conferred by the States or, on the contrary, we have to speak of citizens with two citizenship status: that of their State of origin and that of the European Union. Faced with this dilemma, a definition of citizenship more in line with European trends would be: the right and the willingness or obligation to participate in a community, through self-regulated, inclusive, peaceful and responsible action, with the aim of optimizing public welfare .

We can say that in the private space the interests of individuals predominate, while in the public space it is characterized by a common justice for all and that it is what makes possible the coexistence between the multiplicity of private interests through mediation, which it does not respond to any specific interest and is intended to satisfy general interests. However, the emergence of the ecological citizen can modify the worldview that we have today of the social and the political and even the socio-political changes can be anticipated. In recent years the debate on citizenship has been reborn and we find a series of adjectives that have their origin in the problem of sustainability and that go from the so-called "Kyoto citizen" to "sustainable citizen" or "citizen of the Earth. ", but all these terms have to do to a greater or lesser degree with the concept of" ecological citizen ".

Ecological citizenship would simultaneously imply five elements: i) extending the moral community beyond humans or, in other words, expanding the current ethical spaces to Nature as a whole; ii) consider responsibilities towards beings from whom we cannot expect reciprocity, whether for biological or social reasons; iii) reconfigure the space of citizenship from the framework of the biosphere, that is to say adapting human life to the biosphere and not trying to adapt nature to human life; iv) take into account the repercussions, consequences and sub-consequences of our actions on future generations and v) reject the purely instrumental conception of Nature, abandoning the stale anthropocentrism in which we are installed.

The basic questions today from the political and sociological point of view are whether this type of citizen really exists, what new worldview elements can contribute and to what extent they are willing to act and sacrifice to achieve their ends. For all this, the ecological citizen needs to associate with other ecological citizens to distance himself from the superficiality of that modern citizen who only cares about his well-being and comfort and who turns his back on the serious risks that consumerism implies and its negative consequences in the biodiversity, the depletion of resources and the pollution of water, atmosphere and soils. The passivity and lack of ecological criteria that has characterized the twentieth century citizen are denounced and are beginning to be abandoned to enter a new sustainable society.

The ecological citizen realizes the value of Nature that surrounds him and chooses to make sacrifices and give up comforts so that his life is sustainable. Consequently, ecological citizenship can be defined from an operational perspective as the set of individuals who are willing to make sacrifices for the sake of the environment and sustainability. This disposition or predisposition will necessarily translate into a political action that may or may not be integrated into the so-called green or environmental policies. The fundamental differences between the ecological citizen and the traditional citizen are basically three: 1) To begin with, ecological citizenship is not only a public issue (as traditional citizenship is), but also incorporates the private sphere in the sphere of the public, in the sense that their private acts have direct consequences in the public domain. 2) The political space of the political citizen is not their state or territory, but rather their actions as a citizen more or less directly affect other territories and nations and, in the limit, the consequences of those actions are global. In other words, one of its objectives is to minimize the negative ecological consequences of the actions of citizens on other individuals. 3) The ecological citizen considers that it is his responsibility to minimize the negative ecological impact that his actions have on others, without expecting rights or counterparts in return, as the traditional republished or liberal citizen assumes.

The ecological citizen looks for a political power that allows to deactivate the violation that the consumerism of today's society exerts on Nature. It also claims that this political power is reached through concertation, since it considers that if it were done through violence, that very violence would also be expressed against Nature.

The objective of the ecological citizen is to adapt to Nature as man did before the industrial revolution and not to try to tame it and make it available to him by taking refuge in technoscience as the modern citizen of our days does. The ecological citizen considers himself capable of interpreting and knowing what Nature needs, or favors or damages him. In some way he stands as a representative, defender and protector of an entity that he cannot otherwise question, nor with whom he can converse or debate. What makes the ecological citizen feel legitimized in his role as a defender of Nature is, on the one hand, the candlestick evidence that his life and his external world depend absolutely on Nature. But this selfish and anthropocentric recognition does not prevent him, on the other hand, that his axiological experience before Nature, gives him to understand that he is before an entity of aesthetic and ethical value.


For the ecological citizen to be able to become a judge and at the same time guarantor of sustainability, he must give priority to the right to know what is consumed, what is destroyed, the quantitative and qualitative state of the reserves of resources, the risks and benefits that provides current technoscience and who are directly and indirectly responsible for environmental situations. In this way, the ecological citizen inherits the ancestral legacy of the culture of the East that, in the words of Rabindranath Tagore, "encourages men to search within themselves for true wealth and true power, which allows them to dominate themselves in the face of loss and danger, that leads them to sacrifice without taking into account the costs or the hope of obtaining benefits, to defy death or accept the innumerable obligations that our social nature imposes on us ".

For the ecological citizen, it is more urgent to prevent the planet from becoming an unlivable accumulation of waste and toxins, than to manufacture new gadgets that make our lives easier and more comfortable. It is more important and transcendental to reduce the waste and consumption of energy, water and natural resources than to make them cheaper. These attitudes have recently been reflected in the phrase of Judt and Snyder "It is less urgent to imagine better worlds than to avoid worse". It is essential that we stop believing that by having more possessions and wealth we are better, to begin to understand that the value of people lies in who they are and in the values ​​they defend, in being more careful with what we have and more thoughtful responsible and reasonable with our social and ecological approaches and actions.

For the ecological citizen, Nature is their modus vivendi, essential and irreplaceable that exists as the only condition of possibility to be a citizen. The legislative power constituted is Nature and its human representatives have the mission of interpreting it and applying its laws in respect of future generations, other living beings and Nature as a whole. For the ecological citizen, Nature is the sum of the eternal laws that have not been established by man, but that man must respect not only out of necessity but also because he is part of his own essence. In some way, the ecological citizen considers that it is necessary to be intolerant with certain situations, behaviors, norms, laws and even with certain forms of tolerance whose social function is to maintain an order of consumption and exploitation of resources that go against sustainability and that future generations can enjoy these resources.

Politics in general and in a very special way ecological politics has a first objective and interest at the local level. The voters of any country or region vote in the first instance according to their local interests and secondly they do so with the global world in mind. Consequently, the success of politicians depends on their ability (and that of their teams) to capture what the daily interests and concerns of their voters are, and then promise them solutions (which in few cases are satisfied), through action elected representative's policy. Obviously one of the tasks for the future is to make the citizen and in particular the ecological citizen aware that what happens beyond the borders of their municipality, region or country affects in an increasingly important way their local activities and what they it happens in your family and home. In other words, we are faced with the need to increasingly globalize our local policies and, on the other hand, make global policies more local. It is undoubtedly an extremely difficult issue that we still do not know how we can solve, basically because resources (human, monetary and material) are rarely available locally.

In a globalized world, the lack of sustainable attitudes and practices at a global level deeply affects societies that do assume them. It does not make sense or use to comply with sustainable practices at the national level, if the same is not done transnationally. For example, in the context of climate change or the destruction of the ozone layer, insisting on the dogmatism of the inviolability of national sovereignty constitutes clear cynicism when the activities have an impact that goes beyond the borders of the countries that they violate the principles of sustainability. As we enter the 21st century, it seems clear that we can no longer cancel globalization, it is here to stay. The question therefore is how to make it work and use it to solve ecological problems.

The ecological citizen demands himself and practices duties to a greater extent than claims rights, but logically, this self-demand can only arise in a situation in which the basic rights of freedom, work and a dignified life are recognized and satisfied. The paradox that the vast majority of men and women until the end of the 19th century practiced sustainability without being aware of it, was due to the simple reason that both the world population and the average per capita consumption were much lower than they are today , then the environmental impact is minimal when not negligible.

From the time when surviving in nature was difficult, risky and painful and that the fight against hunger and cold took up all the time and energy, we have moved on to the easy comfort of the current consumer system with the great help of technoscience that makes easy not only consumption but waste. It is therefore necessary to consider that we must abolish ecological privileges, that is, easy and cheap access to non-renewable energy; the irresponsible consumption of water, its hardly recoverable pollution, the uncontrolled production of waste, selfish behaviors forgetting future generations and the lack of solidarity with contemporary societies that dream of our comfort.

The ecological citizen is aware of the feeling of value he has before Nature in at least two situations. One, when adopting a basically utilitarian attitude, he realizes that it is essential for him to survive and realize himself biologically. The validity and level of this feeling of this value may be arbitrary, but in any case it underlies every human being more or less clearly. The other situation occurs when he contemplates Nature, identifies with it and enjoys its aesthetics and monumentality, which in itself constitutes an a priori value. Both in one case and in the other, those feelings of value are not intellectual knowledge, but emotional and intuitive. Unfortunately, ecological values ​​can only flourish when basic life values ​​have been met. Consequently, environmental policies can only be consolidated in the field of prosperity and when social welfare has reached certain levels.

Jose Vives Rego
Department of Microbiology, Faculty of Biology, University of Barcelona. Avda. Diagonal 643, 08028 Barcelona.

Go global

This note comes from the article : J. Vives-Rego. 2013. The ecological citizen: reflections on some social contexts and worldview elements. Sociology and Technology nº 3, vol. 1, pages 83-104. https://sites.google.com/site/sociologiaytecnociencia/home/no-3-vol-1-2013.


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