Eco-ethics and Global Citizenship: A View From Central American

Roy May
Carlos Tamez

Some time ago we found ourselves in the densely populated and poor neighborhood of El Alto, the working-class satellite city that surrounds the valley of La Paz. El Alto is a young community inhabited by thousands upon thousands of people who are mostly recent arrivals from the countryside, victims of land eviction or failed industry.

These people have fled small farmsteads, where soils are exhausted, eroded, and parched. Life cannot be sustained there.  They are all poor and in search of a better life, but every day they are barely surviving. In the city, there is no green; everything is dry and dusty. The streets are not paved, and many households lack basic services. Work is poorly paid and hard to come by.

Surrounded by this misery, we looked up toward a green mountain, a hill that reaches 7,000 meters above sea level. It dominates the landscape to the northwest of the city.  It was a beautiful mountain. Years before, when we lived in the city at the foot of the mountain, how we loved walking along its slopes!  There, everything embodies tranquility, and below everything reflects this beauty. In the evening, the city lights and the stars become one, and it seems that the Earth and the heavens meet in a kiss.

At the foot of the mountain, we always felt close to the creator and we always resolved to defend the environment, the oikos of creation.  From atop the mountain we always felt like ecologists.  That day, looking up at the mountain, we realized that environmental ethics is almost always envisioned from “atop the mountain” where everything is beautiful. From below, however, surrounded by the misery of the city, the view is different.  It is not beautiful.

If we are to have a liberating environmental ethic, one that sustains life, it cannot be delivered from atop the mountain; it must also come from the shanty. It cannot be an ethic “from above,” but rather one “from below.”  We have to come down from the mountain and construct this environmental ethic — this struggle — from the misery below. The environmental ethic must be forged from both the beauty of the mountain and the misery of the city.

Ecology is a discipline within the biological sciences that studies the relationship between living organisms and their habitat. As a specialized discipline, it focuses on complex interactions and inter- dependencies of systems that sustain diverse forms of life.  Although ecology is not new as a science, the growing public perception of the environmental crisis has transformed this little-known discipline, to use the words of Chilean political scientist Fernando Mires, “into one of the dominant themes of contemporary politics… a new line of thought within the framework of a cultural transformation, which … is now a central component of the collective discussion.”1

According to Mires, “Ecology is no longer a science reserved for specialists but rather a world vision, a culture that is beginning to generate new ideas and hierarchies of values, new customs inspired by respect for the environment.”

These new hierarchies of values and customs give privilege to interrelation, in contrast to isolation and individualism that until now have characterized the ethics and culture of the capitalist model.  In this sense, by creating new customs and values, the science of ecology has evolved into a system of ethics.

An environmental ethic for Latin America and the Caribbean must be situated within Latin American and Caribbean critical theory, with an emphasis on human history and praxis, centered on the poor as a subject of historical debate, and within the difficult realities of the social order, realities formed in large part by globalization and neoliberal models.

The Politics of Sustainability

Since the United Nations’ Earth Summit of 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, a new vision of the relationship between humanity and the environment has emerged. The previous perspective of domination and exploitation of the environment in pursuit of unlimited economic growth has given way, in the minds of many, to a realization of the ecological limits of industrial society and the excesses of the market.

By contrast, the construction of a culture based on ecological and social responsibility should entail diverse perspectives from distinct social networks that shape values and trends within civil society.

During the ’92 Earth Summit, the represented nations there adopted sustainable development as the principle that must govern economic activity around the world, a philosophy with the mutually reinforcing goals of social and ecological responsibility. From this perspective, a sustainable economy is that which finds a balance between current human needs and limited natural resources in such a way that future generations can meet their needs without facing a dire depletion of resources.

In our opinion, these demands can only be addressed within the structure of participatory democracy.  That is, they must emerge from a practical philosophy that allows us to act within the frame- work of justice without overlooking the protection of natural resources. In participatory democracy, citizens act in alliance with private and state institutions to influence not only the approaches and solutions to environmental problems but also social objectives, where the utopia of equal participation of all people in all political questions remains the ultimate goal. Only through justice and conservation will it be possible to include all of humanity — present and future — in our decisions. Only by these means will we be able to address social and ecological issues without contradicting a system that is based on values of equality, justice, solidarity, and mutual respect.

This ethical model underpinning the environmental crisis places social justice at the center. Justice involves the equitable distribution of goods and power in social organization and administration. Without justice, coexistence of humanity and nature will not function as the “natural circuit of all life” but rather remain an obstacle to both natural and human life. As Brazilian theologian Ivone Gerbara says, “The struggle for justice in the concrete terms of human relationships implies the practice of justice in regards to the ecosystem.  There will not be human life without the integrity of the health of the planet in its numerous expressions.”2

Christian Faith and Material Weath

In truth, only in recent years has “social justice” been incorporated into the struggle for a healthy environment, as a means to promote both the proper functioning of ecosystems and human development. On the world stage, it was the findings of the World Commission on Environment and Development, known also as the Bruntland Report,3 which brought social justice into the environmental debate, stating that inequality and poverty were fundamental causes of the environmental crisis.

In the defense of life and its survival, we consider it necessary to energize the notion of a global citizen- ship that is conscious of its obligations to the environment, strengthens links between environmental ethics, human rights, and the fight against poverty – and awakens society to values of brotherhood and solidarity. A convergence of ecology, ethics, and values in the environmental crisis demonstrates the necessity of healthy relationships of communal life. Deep down, the fundamental concept of com- munity ethics embodies the Greek concept of koinonia, which means communion — collaboration, participation, solidarity, sharing, unity.

We must all learn to share the same sun, the same Earth, the same life. This concerns the rational use of natural resources, which requires more moderate, sustainable lifestyles. Material wealth cannot be constructed on a foundation of poverty and exploitation of others and their resources.

In effect, the local and global communities must awaken to a return to lifestyles that reject excessive comforts of contemporary consumer society. Austerity, science, art, justice, the conservation of nonrenewable goods — these emerging habits of thought and feeling could create a profound, artistic motivation for a new spirituality and a new humanity.

For Christian faith, we all know that irresponsible lifestyles and comfortable ignorance are attitudes condemned by the Bible. Scripture emphatically affirms that we will be held accountable for what we have done to nature and to the human beings with whom we have lived. For Christian faith, the “collective well-being” of a community forms part of the well-being of each person.

The deterioration of nature is alarming, and the questions are burdensome: How can nature and humanity be resurrected from the ruins in this century? What does this irrational violence against God’s created world mean to Christian men and women? Have we become accomplices to this crime, this depredation and death? Are we active participants in this depredation and death?

All of us have been called to be caretakers of creation, not as arrogant and despotic people but rather as simple administrators to the world. This task is not an authorization to plunder and destroy but to transform ourselves into the seeds of highest hope, with the promise to carry out the actions necessary for the salvation of our only environment, the home we all share.

Carlos Tamez is a pastor and the coordinator of the Global Environmental Citizenship Program, CLAI/UNEP (CLAI is the Latin American Council of Churches).  He works from Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

Roy may is professor in the School of Theological Sciences at La Universidad Bíblica Latinoamericana de Costa Rica in the area of Ethics and Theology.

Translator Nicholas Goodbody is a Ph.D. candidate in the Yale Department of Spanish and Portuguese.


1    Translator’s note: Chilean Fernando Mires is a professor at the Institute of Political Science at the University of Oldenburg in Germany. His numerous books published in Spain and Latin America include: La rebelión permanente: Historia de las revoluciones sociales en América Latina [Permanent Rebellion: The History of Social Revolutions in Latin America] (1989), El discurso de la naturaleza [The Discourse of Nature] (1991), El discurso de la indianidad (1992), El discurso de la miseria [The Discourse of Misery] (1994), El orden del caos: ¿Existe el tercer mundo? [The Order of Chaos: Does the Third World Exist?] (1995).

2    Translator’s note: Ivone Gebara is a Brazilian theologian and ecofeminist, whose works translated into English include Out of the Depths: Women’s Experience of Evil and Salvation (2002) and Longing for Running Water: Ecofeminism and Liberation (1999).

3    Translator’s note: The Bruntland Report, U.N. General Assembly document A/42/427, was published by Oxford University Press in 1987.