Environmental Ethics for Today—and Tomorrow

By Chaitanya Motupalli

from Currents Fall 2014

Even before I came to the GTU to begin my doctoral studies in environmental ethics, two facts were glaringly evident to me. The first is that the earth and its communities—both human and nonhuman—are at a historic moment, sandwiched between the blunders of the past and the possibilities of the future. The second truth is that we humans, being the “touchstone species,” as Charles Mann puts it in his book 1491, have a unique role to play in the context of the ecological crisis, and particularly the challenges presented by climate change. As such, we have the responsibility to save our planet from imminent cataclysm—even as we recognize how our greed and careless behavior have contributed to the current situation. While it seems there isn’t much we can do to repair the blunders of the past, hope remains that we may still avoid the worst impacts of climate change and ecological degradation.

My concern for the earth developed as I was earning my master’s in ecology and environmental science, but I completed that degree with little awareness of the complex connections between environmental issues and other social concerns. That changed in 2005, when I had the opportunity to do tsunami-relief work among the fisher folk community in Cuddalore, India. My exposure to the tsunami-hit area awakened me to the impact of environmental devastation on poor people, and helped me see how ecological disasters perpetuate and intensify social injustices—particularly poverty. Sadly, in my homeland of India, the poorest of the poor, mostly Dalits and tribal people, live in areas most vulnerable to hazards such as floods, cyclones, and droughts. Throughout the world, the poor and marginalized suffer the greatest consequences of our environmental crisis, despite being the least contributors to it. My experiences working in that fishing village along the Indian coast compelled me to pursue the interconnections between ecojustice and social justice. Exactly how I would do that was unclear; but GTU seemed to be the right fit for me.

There were several reasons I chose to study at the GTU. First, the work of my advisor, Carol Robb, in exploring the intersections of economic justice and gender roles, and in the field of environmental ethics, served as a token of promise for the kind of work I might do here. Secondly, I was drawn by the ways the ethics area at the GTU made a deliberate attempt to integrate ethics and social sciences. Finally, an important piece that tilted the balance toward the GTU was its awarding me a presidential scholarship, without which I wouldn’t have been able to study here.

The clarity I had before beginning the doctoral program seemed to fade as I moved into it. Perhaps I required some time to reconfigure my world and my academic interests. It was like a jigsaw puzzle where there was more than one way to put the pieces together. But it was in the process of working to fit these pieces together that my true passions were discovered.

One real turning point in the journey of finding my passion was an op-ed piece I wrote for Dr. Robb’s theories of justice course, which dealt with various theoretical frameworks that help us determine how to distribute the burdens and benefits among ourselves. Although the ideas and ideals of justice seemed distant in class discussions, they came to life as I reflected on the theme of world hunger in light of those theories. I realized how those theories of distributive justice work in the real world, and how significant my role as a public intellectual can be, in making sense of those theories for the common good.

Continuing that passion for the theories of justice, I did a research project along with my advisor in which we examined and evaluated various theories of distributive justice in light of their helpfulness in addressing the land-rights issues of indigenous peoples. Despite the prominence of contemporary indigenous rights movements, we discovered that theorists of distributive justice paid little or no attention to the rights of indigenous peoples, and none of their theories considered native peoples as special subjects of concern in the process of distribution of goods (or land, in this case). Our project proposed that those who have traditionally fallen outside of the boundaries of the theories of justice be included.

The work we did, in seeking to broaden the concept of justice, wasn’t new, of course. For example, Susan Moller Okin in her famous work, Justice, Gender, and Family (1989), did a similar task. She paved the way to include women more fully in the theories of justice. More recently, one of my friends and former cohorts at the GTU, Marilyn Matevia, in her dissertation Casting the Net: Prospects Toward a Theory of Justice for All, proposed a theory of justice that includes even the non-human animals.

Similarly, I am seeking to focus my dissertation on including another group that has traditionally fallen outside the sphere of theories of justice: the unborn children of future generations. Given that the impacts of climate change are certain to reach far into the future, there is a need for theories of justice to distribute the benefits and burdens across generations. Thankfully, work in that direction has already begun. Edward Page, in his Climate Change, Justice and Future Generations, delves deeper into the matter and considers the question of currency of distributive justice for the future generations in the light of climate change. Similarly, Joerg Chet Tremmel has already unveiled a theory of intergenerational justice addressing the important questions of “what to sustain?” and “how much to sustain?” in light of our obligations to future generations.    

So, now, like Robert Frost’s two roads that diverged in the yellow wood, I am at a crossroads in my own research here at the GTU. On the one hand, I could extend the work that has been done in the fields of theories of justice and intergenerational justice; on the other hand, I could explore the possibility of going beyond the theories of distributive justice in addressing the needs of the future generations. I am free indeed at the GTU to decide my path. What lies ahead may seem mysterious, but I am confident my path will be paved as I travel.


Chaitanya (“Chai”) Motupalli is a doctoral student at the GTU in the area of Ethics and Social Theory. In addition to his academic work, he serves as an assistant minister for families and young adults at a Methodist church in Berkeley.