Some theorists argue that contemporary problems such as climate change, sweatshop labour, biodiversity loss, … are New Harms – they are unprecedented problems, and differ in important respects from more familiar harms. Intuitively, this view seems to make sense, but in this post I argue that this view is mistaken.*

New features?

People who hold the view that contemporary harms are new, argue that a number of characteristics render these New Harms unprecedented. For example, it is argued that New Harms are the result of large scale (global) processes; they are unintended side-effects of everyday activities; their effects are temporally and spatially remote from their causes; individuals only make an infinitesimal contribution to a large aggregate harm; individuals are now aware of the contribution their activities make to the problem; and tackling New Harms will require collective action.

One of the implications of the view that contemporary challenges are new is that we cannot draw lessons from humanity’s successes and failures in dealing with past harms. However, I disagree with this view. I’ll briefly discuss slavery and the depletion of the ozone layer as examples and then go on to discuss some lessons we can draw from these analogies.


Slavery

Slave trade was clearly a large-scale, complex issue, just like climate change or sweatshop labour are today. Nonetheless, the abolitionist William Fox wrote in 1792 that:

The wealth derived from the horrid traffic, has created an influence that secures its continuance, unless the people at large shall refuse to receive the produce of robbery and murder. … For let us not think, that the crime rests alone with those who conduct the traffic, or the Legislature by which it is protected. If we purchase the commodity, we participate in the crime. The slave-dealer, the slave-holder, and the slave-driver, are virtually the agents of the consumer, and may be considered as employed and hired by him to procure the commodity

William Fox (1792, 3-4)**

In this description, it is striking how many features slavery shares with so-called New Harms: the suffering of enslaved people was the unintended side-effect of everyday activities (the consumption of sugar) by people (English consumers) who were remote from the harmful effects (slave labour on plantations in the West Indies) to which their actions contributed in an infinitesimal way.

There may be dissimilarities between slavery and, say, climate change, but there are considerable similarities as well, and this indicates that we might be able to draw some lessons from how slavery was abolished for contemporary issues.


Depletion of the ozone layer

One of the main features that purportedly render New Harms new is their global reach: whereas harms in the past have been local in space, New Harms are more difficult to address because they are truly global problems.

Slavery was of course a global problem, but also consider the ozone hole. In the late 1970s, it became clear that the depletion of the ozone layer was becoming a global, potentially catastrophic problem. However, despite its global reach, the international community has been much more effective in addressing it. The 1987 Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer and its subsequent Amendments and Adjustments have been universally ratified, and have been effective in limiting the abundance of ozone-depleting substances (ODSs) in the atmosphere (even despite recent enforcement issues), resulting in a beginning recovery of stratospheric ozone.

So it is not so much its global reach, but rather other factors (for example, geopolitical relations) that explain why the ozone depletion has been addressed so much more effectively than other global problems. Studying these factors and comparing similarities and dissimilarities between cases would be illuminating.


Lessons from history

History teaches us that profound social transformations do not happen overnight. Analysing past processes and developments, and studying the (dis)similarities with other (past) complex harms may contribute to understanding humanity’s current predicament.

For example, one of the problems that renders climate change so much harder to tackle than the depletion of the ozone layer is the much deeper entrenchment of greenhouse gases. In contrast to substances that deplete ozone layer (which were used in a limited number of applications), greenhouse gases are the by-product of virtually any human activity, and our economy quite frankly relies on them.

However, consider now the analogy with slavery: at some point, slavery was entirely accepted throughout the world and seemed essential to the economies of Great Britain and the USA. Moreover, Britain’s anti-slavery campaign came at huge costs. Nonetheless, despite this entrenchment of slavery, the British were highly committed to dismantling their slave trade and to persuading other nations to do the same. This is encouraging, because it shows that it is possible to change harmful activities. With respect to climate change, a carbon-neutral society may still seem unimaginable at present because fossil-fuel usage and the emission of carbon dioxide is strongly ingrained in virtually everything we do, but the required social change is not unprecedented.

Another lesson concerns biased reasoning and reactionary rhetoric, with which people try to avoid moral responsibility for harms or having to make fundamental lifestyle or policy changes. Marc Davidson has found this biased reasoning in the debate about the abolition of slavery in the USA; Steven Gardiner has observed this Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and in climate change; and in other work, I have analysed this in the context of climate change. These analogies tell us that biased reasoning never seems to be far away when social change is required to address a complex harm, so we should be prepared to respond to it. Moreover, studying biased reasoning in other (past) cases may increase awareness and understanding of the mechanisms with which it works.


Cause for optimism

Many more lessons can be drawn from history, but I don’t have the space here to discuss them all. I hope that these brief examples show that we can indeed abandon the view that contemporary harms are new. This should be cause for optimism, because it means thatwe can indeed learn from our successes and failures in dealing with harms of the past.

 

* This post is based on a paper I wrote together with Derek Bell and Joanne Swaffield, and which we submitted to Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics.

** I owe this example to Leif Wenar. In Blood Oilhe refers to the abolition of slavery to draw similarities with current injustices.

I am a Lecturer in Global Ethics at the Centre for the Study of Global Ethics (University of Birmingham). I obtained my PhD in Philosophy and Moral Sciences in December 2014 from Vrije Universiteit Brussels with a dissertation on the challenges climate change (and other problems of environmental sustainability) pose to our conceptions of individual freedom and responsibility. Building on this, my current research focuses on the ethics of climate change, and the perspective of duty-bearers on issues of global justice. My broader research interests include global justice, human rights, climate ethics, cosmopolitanism and recognition theory.

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