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Environmental Values

Bearing the Weight of the World: On the Extent of an Individual’s Environmental Responsibility

Ty Raterman

Environmental Values 21 (2012): 417-436. doi: 10.3197/096327112X13466893628021


To what extent is any individual morally obligated to live environmentally sustainably? In answering this, I reject views I see as constituting two extremes. On one, it depends entirely on whether there exists a collective agreement; and if no such agreement exists, no one is obligated to reduce her/his consumption or pollution unilaterally. On the other, the lack of a collective agreement is morally irrelevant, and regardless of what others are doing, each person is obligated to limit her/his pollution and consumption to a level that would be sustainable if everyone were to act in this way. I argue that the truth is somewhere between these, but that a very precise specification of the extent of one’s responsibility is impossible. Roughly, what can be said is that each individual ought constantly to strive to do more than she/he does currently and to push her/himself into new, uncomfortable territory, though no one is obligated to martyr her/himself for an environmental cause.


Tragedy of the commons, collective action, individual responsibility, ecological footprint, sustainable consumption

REFERENCES to other articles in Environmental Values:

Climate, Collective Action and Individual Ethical Obligations. Marion Hourdequin

Ethical Obligations in a Tragedy of the Commons. Baylor L. Johnson

Reframing Individual Responsibility for Sustainable Consumption: Lessons from Environmental Justice and Ecological Citizenship. Lucie Middlemiss

Collective Environmental Virtue. David Clowney

CITATIONS in other Environmental Values articles

Editorial: Response and Responsibility. Clive L. Spash

Moderate Emissions Grandfathering. Carl Knight

Stability and Change in British Public Discourses about Climate Change between 1997 and 2010. Stuart Capstick, Nicholas Pidgeon and Karen Henwood

The Fundamental Role of Large-Scale Trust Building in Natural Resource Management. Karni Marcus

Sharing Responsibility for Divesting from Fossil Fuels. Eric S. Godoy

How Demanding is Our Climate Duty? An Application of the No-Harm Principle to Individual Emissions. Augustin Fragnière

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