• Hallie Mauk

It’s Time to Include Care in Our Environmental Activism



In her 2005 novel “The Ethics of Care,” Virginia Held challenges current notions of social dimensions, individualism, and defines what it means to care for others in the context of personal and community relationships. She breaks down the evolution of care in society – what it means to care for someone, how people view the concept of care, and the ways in which the practice of caring has evolved over time. Held’s idea of care and interdependence rests on the simple fact that human beings cannot survive without caring for and helping one another.


A person’s evolution from infancy to the end of their life comes with specific needs they will be unable to meet themselves, and it is a family and community responsibility to build connections with those they find themselves caring for. Care can be expanded from a small-scale, anthropocentric view to a global, biocentric one, especially in terms of how human beings view the fight against climate change, an extremely urgent but nuanced and sensitive topic that impacts the lives of millions of individuals. Because the direction our world is heading in is not sustainable anymore, there may be no other option but to shift the priorities of our society to caring for others.


Our Western conception of the rugged individual sees nature as something to be dominated rather than to be taken care of. This especially needs to be addressed in the United States, which has consistently been among the top three greenhouse gas emitters on the planet, and where that ideology first emerged from. If those who believe in the priority of the individual before all else continue to see others as distinctly separate, and even as competition, there is little value in getting them to care that their daily actions harm others and the environment.


Certain aspects of Held’s ethics of care can and should be merged with the practice of environmental ethics and the environmental justice movement, which would create better relationships between people and, in turn, the environment.


Virginia Held defines human autonomy and independence as something different from many of her predecessors, who espouse the idea that free will, responsibility, and rationality are birthrights for all human beings, which is not the case. She claims that the ethics of care calls on people to realize the necessity of interdependence, which moral frameworks built on the idea of the so-called “independent, autonomous, rational individual” fail to consider. In this context, the ethics of care challenges the view that people are mostly self-interested beings, who move about their lives as singular units rather than as a collective community.


The reality is that most (if not all) of the problems we face need to be solved using our collective rationality rather than avoiding interactions with others. In the early stages of her argument, Held emphasizes the duty of caring for particular others, as in a parent caring for their child or someone non-disabled caring for a person with a disability, and the need to have an ethical framework around the idea of care. The foundation of her argument is the deconstruction of what it means to be an “autonomous individual,” which derives from more traditional moral schools of thought.


Held and I both strongly disagree with what she calls the “liberal individualist conception of the person,” or a human being who is completely independent first and foremost, and only needs to form relationships with others if they so choose. This stance completely overlooks the fact that human beings are relational by nature, and that it is the system of interdependency which allows people to function as independent units later in life. In actuality, doing the work of caring for someone allows them to flourish in the collective unit of society.


Not only does this include the first few fundamental years of a child’s life, for example, but all people who are dependent on others both in a domestic setting and the greater community. The liberal individualist view not only devalues the concept of dependency work, but is also a somewhat outdated position to hold due to modernity and globalization, which have wrought human interdependence like never before. When the ethics of care was first put forth, many believed that the practice of caring for people and meeting their needs should be limited primarily to women, and the “private sphere” of the household, but has since grown into a more substantive ethical movement.


Held recognizes that the ethics of care should be integrated into modern conceptions of justice, institutions, and more general human interactions. In the section titled “Implications for Society,” Held engages with Joan Tronto, another advocate for care ethics, to paint a picture of what the ethics of care would look like on a societal and political level. She first establishes that, just as in one-on-one relationships, the way society is currently structured also lacks fundamental elements of care. It seems as though Held is of the opinion that economic incentives and the concept of law and order are primary motivators for the majority of people, and that this needs to change. This is where Tronto’s argument becomes relevant—she holds that care is “...a political as well as moral ideal advocating the meeting of needs for care as “the highest social goal”. Held then takes Tronto’s idea even further, stating that “the same characteristics of attentiveness, responsiveness to needs, and understanding situations from the points of view of others should characterize caring when the participants are more distant”. Of course, this argument extends to people in terms of all topics regarding human rights, but can specifically be understood in the context of environmental issues. It is necessary to understand this element of the ethics of care to learn how it can come together with the framework of environmental ethics, which pertains to both the natural world and human world.


The field of environmental ethics is vast, complex, and there are still many questions left unanswered. One important question in particular is how to approach the intersection of care ethics and environmental ethics. In his 2000 article “People, Nature, and Ethics”, environmental policy scholar and AU faculty member Paul Wapner writes “Environmental abuse is not only about how humans treat the nonhuman world but also about how they treat each other” (356). Wapner makes it quite clear that in all realms of ecological discourse, there are some people who must suffer more because they are dispensable, and others who benefit from the damage.


Environmental racism, for example, disproportionately impacts communities of color both at home and abroad. Across the U.S., incinerators that put out toxic fumes, pollute the air people breathe, and make them chronically ill are located overwhelmingly in majority-Black neighborhoods. One-fifth of the people who harvest sugarcane for a living in El Salvador have chronic kidney disease due to increased levels of dehydration from rising global temperatures.


These are but a fraction of the numerous examples of human rights abuses caused not only by a disregard for the environment, but by a lack of caring relationships between human beings. This regard for human life that is not your own in environmental terms can be described by the term “anthropocentrism,” which is an area of environmental ethics that can be closely related to the ethics of care. I strongly agree with Wapner’s view that he is “pessimistic about extending moral status to other living things and systems without first witnessing an upgrade in the way people treat each other” (356). Held would likely agree with Wapner. She writes, “in an attempt to bring the sensitivities and moral resources of the Western ethical tradition to bear on environmental issues, we need to examine the ubiquitous role humans play as both perpetrators and victims of environmental degradation” (2000). Without challenging the way institutions and systems are currently set up, and applying the ethics of care to how environmental policy is made, it is doubtful that people will see the environment as something to be preserved and cared for as well.


It is also necessary to question how the ethics of care can be applied to all living things, and whether there are cultural differences which change the way the ethics of care and environmental ethics would be implemented. “The predominant Western ethical tradition sees morality in terms of how humans treat each other,” Wapner writes. “Only human beings deserve moral standing, and their interaction with nature is morally irrelevant” (355). In section two of Held’s commentary, she states that caring relations should involve forming a relationship with whomever a person is taking care of, and at times that relationship must be imagined, because people in need of care aren’t always capable of doing so.


Held doesn’t go into detail about forming relationships with, say, animals, or even ecosystems. However, these relationships play major roles in the lives of people across many cultures— Indigenous peoples, for instance. Among these are Native Americans, who have a deep spiritual connection to animals and nature as a whole, because they believe that every aspect of it has a soul that should be honored and respected. For instance, Ludovica Martella, a sustainable and environmental justice writer, points out that “Essentially, indigenous populations grow everything together,” that they “...have a deep knowledge about the ecosystem, the earth, and the elements.” The most striking comment she makes is that “They live in synchronicity. Their way of living is strictly related to the welfare of the system.” Although these types of relationships are not necessarily human-to-human, they still contain many of the aspects of caring that Held advocates for, and even in the contemporary era of globalization and modernity, many people rely on systems of the environment similarly to how they would rely on other people.


There are several instances in Held’s book where she upholds the argument that care workers have been and continue to be overlooked and underappreciated. Again, Joan Tronto’s thoughts become pertinent to this issue. She believes that “Caring activities are devalued, underpaid, and disproportionately occupied by the relatively powerless in society” (18). This is oftentimes true in the field of work related to the environment as well. The people who go into communities that have been ravaged by the effects of climate change, or become filled with the toxic waste from an affluent community to help recovery efforts are often not the ones responsible for the problem. They are the unknown faces cleaning up the waste, providing members of the community with resources they no longer have, and taking care of the elderly and sick—most of whom usually fall through the cracks, completely on their own.


Another significant point Held raises is that of caring for people who may not be in one’s immediate family or community. As she stated earlier in the section, it can be important to establish one-on-one relationships and connections with those someone is caring for, but that does not mean there is a limitation on caring. Wapner explains the idea of “ecological displacement,” which can happen across both space and time. “For example, when people use nuclear technologies and leave radioactive by-products to future generations, they displace environmental issues across time; when communities generate an overabundance of solid waste and export it to other communities, they displace it across space” (357). When people pass environmental harm and environmental injustice onto people in far-away places and generations, those people become some of the “distant others” (18) Held is referring to when bringing up the ethics of care in a sociological context. I agree with Held’s notion that those people also need to be cared for in the same way that those closer to home are, and one of her solutions to this issue can be applicable especially in terms of ecological displacement. She says that “...a caring society might see the tasks of bringing up children, educating its members, meeting the needs of all, achieving peace and treasuring the environment...” that should be emphasized the most in a society (19). If people opt to “radically transform” their communities in this way, as she says, they would be much better off—doing this immediately would avoid displacing that responsibility onto future generations as well. Bringing children up in a caring way, and educating them to respect each other and the environment would be the best way to use the ethics of care to take the current, alarming state of the planet in a better direction. Within environmental ethics, the concept of environmental justice also needs to be brought up in this framework. Held provides some insight into how the ethics of care relates to the idea of justice, which should inform environmental discourse.


The ethics of care and justice need to be inseparable in Held’s view. Just as justice and care should not be separated into different “ethics”, environmental justice does not necessarily need to be a separate ethic in itself, but also practiced simultaneously with justice and care. In a more simplified way, Held lays out that when it comes to care ethics, “the values of trust, solidarity, mutual concern, and empathetic responsiveness have priority; in practices of care, relationships are cultivated, needs are responded to, and sensitivity is demonstrated” (2007, 15). Just as Held argues that justice cannot exist without elements of care, I believe that solutions to environmental issues cannot exist without both of them. Trust, solidarity, concern and empathy are definitely lacking when it comes to the environmental justice movement—many people do not trust that their government will provide necessary resources to become more sustainable, and both community and global solidarity is overtaken by the individual competing interests that Held believes characterize the ideal of justice in society. Rather than cultivating relationships, many favor economic incentives and act in their best interest; something that Held believes care should be prioritized over.


Keeping all of this in mind—the ethics of care, environmental challenges, and global relationships, it is important to note the point Held makes about drawing a line when it comes to emotion and care for more distant others and, in this case, the environmental injustice and hardships they face. On page 11, she points out that people who believe they are helping may go too far “when benevolent concern crosses over into controlling domination." This absolutely has to be considered when traversing cultural boundaries in conversations about environmental ethics. Immoderate concern does not always equal helping people or truly caring for them the way Held tries to express in her reasoning. It can be a slippery slope into saviorism and colonialism if too much concern translates to invading a community or developing country, for instance, and attempting to blindly “fix” their suffering due to environmental reasons, rather than allowing them a seat at the table and practicing the tenants of care ethics in the way Held intends.


The ethical and moral issues raised in “The Ethics of Care” are more relevant today than perhaps ever before. Human beings are facing an environmental dilemma which, if it continues unchecked, will gravely harm countless lives and create an uninhabitable planet. It is clear, then, that educating people to habitually care for others—whether in their immediate circle or across the world—while working to figure out how to stop further damage is the best way forward. I certainly do not think that Held’s musings about a complete attitudinal shift in society is simple, but it is necessary if people are going to start recognizing the need for interdependence. The ideologies of environmental ethics and the environmental justice movement would be much more effective in getting people to care about the planet if combined with the ethics of care as well.



Hallie Mauk is an undergraduate junior in the School of Communications. She is a staff writer at the Agora with a focus on environmental justice.


Image courtesy Dan Nguyen, Creative Commons

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