There is a sense in which the core ethic is the one which guides (or would guide, if it were observed) our relationship with the natural environment. There is strict feedback here: if it is not obeyed, it will in due course destroy.

The problem is the time-lag: the payback may be deep in the future, or even unknown to those who are engaged in the choice. Choices made now by you will have consequences after your death, beyond your foresight, in places that you have never visited, for species of which you have no knowledge. And the links between cause and effect may be non-linear, with large and horrible effects coming from modest actions reflecting good intentions and concern for home and family (Butterfly Effect).

Environmental ethics affect and intensify our understanding of ethics in all its senses. It takes us straight to the distinction between ethics and opportunism. It makes us face up to situations where there is no option available which seems to be fair. It requires careful tracing of long threads of complexity and unintended consequences, where the primary task is not to weigh ethical choices, but to admit the relevance and urgency of challenges which are almost invisible to the criteria and judgments of today’s common sense. These long-chain interactions are the protein of ethics, giving strength, structure and character to our choices as ecocitizens. They make us recognise that the close-range evaluations of distributive justice—in situations where causes are visible and effects are predictable—belong with the comfortable assumptions which civilisations grasp to convince themselves that their state is permanent, and that their ethical common sense is definitive and final.E209

Lean Logic therefore acknowledges the profound significance of environmental ethics, yet it does not treat it as a separate field. It is intrinsic to the principles of (for instance) resilience, scale, community, manners, empowerment, lean thinking and character, which are among the defining characteristics of the Lean Economy (Greek: ethos character). Those principles will often take the form of first discovering what can be done, and then holding on to that insight as the foundation for what ought to be done. Like permaculture, lean ethics will adapt to the lie of the land, guided by feel, opportunity and observation as much as by conscious decision.

And yet deliberate and conscious choices will also be part of it, and there may be some guidelines around which those choices can be sharpened and ordered. Here are two:

1. What we get or what we do?

The distinction between what we get and what we do is made by the philosophers Alasdair MacIntyre and Roger Lundin in the context of the intense debate surrounding the nature and purpose of liberal education. The debate starts with a criticism of the teaching of tradition in the form of the canon of art and literature on which cultures such as our own are founded. Critics argue against it on the grounds that it does not concern itself with the personal preferences and desires of people of our time: all that stuff from a previous age does nothing to help us to be happy now; the only guideline as to what we ought to think and do is what we want to think and do. As the influential book summarising the liberal position, The Politics of Liberal Education (1991), has it, what matters is that we should find ways of fulfilling our personal preferences. Ethics in this context, then, is about equality of getting.E210

But there is another view of the matter. This sharply different concept of ethics argues that citizens have been disempowered, and that this ought not to have happened. It is around our own actions and motives guiding our conduct in our lives that the central ethical questions should turn. What it is fair for us to get is important, but it becomes relevant only as a sequel to what it is right for us to do. Distributive justice picks up the pieces after empowerment has failed.

Building safety features into a design is always a good thing, but it presents its own risks: if the emphasis is on failure, failure is more likely to happen. A radical shift of emphasis from “what we get if we fail to do” to “what we do” is not only a defence of freedom in its own right, but the only way forward in a future in which the established structures of security and equity have comprehensively broken down. We are looking here at a new frame of reference; a different equity landscape shaped less by shared benefits than by shared virtues. Lundin fixes it in an imaginary conversation:

“Have you noticed,” asks the normally cynical Mr. Compson in William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! “when we try to reconstruct the causes which lead up to the actions of men and women, how with a sort of astonishment we find ourselves now and then reduced to the belief, the only possible belief, that they stemmed from some of the old virtues?”

To which one can only imagine most of the contributors to The Politics of Liberal Education responding, “No, that hadn’t occurred to me, nor does your mentioning it cause it to occur to me.”

Roger Lundin, The Culture of Interpretation, 1993.E211


2. For all times and places or just for our own?

A key property of the Lean Economy is resilience, and a key property of resilience is diversity, with all that it implies in terms of different solutions to the problems and opportunities faced by people and communities in different places.

The case for a universal ethic, appealing to universal values, has long been debated against the case for specific, circumstantial ethics designed for the particulars of time, place and culture. Lean Logic argues for both these points of view. Principles such as manners, the geometry of scale, the enabling conditions of resilience, and the congruence embedded in trust, have, in Lean Logic’s vocabulary, universal application. On the other hand, practices, traditions, culture and concepts of justice and right and wrong vary enormously between different places and times, and it is hard to show that any particular place and time has the authority to define an ethical code which is right for all. Local lean communities will need to develop their own normalities and ethics in response to their circumstances. Empowerment is defined at least in part as being able to make a particular shared practice or value last locally, even though other people in other places may disapprove.

This is sometimes called “moral relativism”, but the neat label does no justice to a subject with such potential for self-delusion and insoluble ethics-defying clashes of culture and values.


As the brief story of moral relativism below suggests, settled outcomes, while they may be possible, can bring no promise of comfort.



This was the New World. Anne was one of the first white women to set foot in it. She brought with her a husband, and her father’s blessing; in her belly the beginnings of a daughter, and round her neck, a necklace, which her mother had given her the night before they left. She had added her blessing too. That was only to be expected, for the family went about doing good, and the necklace was Puritan and plain. The coast of America had welcomed them from two hundred miles off, with air that was loaded with the scent of rich fruit and herbs. At the coast they received another welcome: gifts and food from people who were armed and dangerous and very kind. The whites came ill-equipped. The Indians gave them seed and animals and tools, and taught them how to live.

It was those acts of necessary friendship in those first years that, in her old age, Anne remembered and talked about. Her daughter, now the possessor of the necklace, and the authority in the household, put up with it, as was proper. But she did not shrink from speaking up for common sense either. She pointed out that Anne was unfeeling, insensitive and out of date. The Indians behaved as if the land was God’s gift to them. They did nothing with it. They allowed the forests to run to waste. And when a new settlement from Plymouth tried to clear-fell the trees and fence off the grassland, they killed.

Her own chain of office hung heavy on her. Her duty was plain: to make the state safe for her daughter. Or else the necklace would have no inheritor.

But Anne of the third generation was born to it. For her, it was a matter of elementary good husbandry, pest-control. Indians were permitted beyond the enclosures, that is beyond the state, then beyond New England, then beyond Massachusetts, then beyond Virginia.

Well it was their own choice. If they did not want to be trapped, hunted, shot, concentrated in camps, eliminated, then they should not trespass onto the whites’ lands.

Anne’s great great great great great grand-daughter, necklace swinging gently in the dying sunlight, sang her little girl to sleep. The lace curtains rested still on the windowsill, and the child’s face was scrubbed shining and clean and she asked for just one more story about the secret garden in the Old World, and the death of the wicked Indian in the New. And her mother sang a little night-time Puritan hymn in thanks for their safe world.

And then there were none. Except, of course, in the West. And where the West began was a matter for other people to consider. But as for Anne of the twelfth generation, she had her own family to attend to. It was her aim to be an example to the community, to breathe into her children the love of God, and the laughter and love of friends. She had standards to maintain. She descended, as everyone knew, from one of the oldest Puritan families in the Union. And she had a necklace to prove it. Beautiful, plain, priceless. No gewgaws, no make-believe. As true as the three-pronged pitchforks the men used on the estate at hay-making time.

So when the West came suddenly close to home, she knew what to do. It happened in 1848. The authorities in Washington invented the principle of Manifest Destiny. It claimed that the whole of the territory of North America, from coast to coast, was manifestly destined to be dominated, governed, and made their own, by the whites. The Indians, without legal existence, were to be removed from fertile lands and destroyed; some provision would be made to concentrate some few of them on reservations in areas which were too infertile to be used in any other way.

Anne was shocked. She petitioned. She turned public opinion in the states of New England, whose Indians had long gone, firmly against the principle. New England could claim to be on the side of justice, and against greed, on the side of workmanship, and against barbarism, for morality, against outrage. But New England was alone.

When they struck oil in southern California, Anne of the seventeenth generation and her husband felt it would only make good sense to buy a little estate over there, and when their grand-daughter got married, they gave her and Wayne a wonderful present: a little jet that would take them right across the States and down to their ranch in Malibu on Friday evenings. Here Anne, who is a fine harpsichordist, gives impromptu evening concerts to their friends among the Los Angeles intelligentsia.

Sometimes she plays the Baroque repertoire, Scarlatti and Corelli, and sometimes she accompanies singers in English Jacobean love songs by Thomas Weelkes and Thomas Arne. On summer evenings, they leave the French windows open wide, and the last of the sun, shining off the Pacific Ocean, catches her necklace as she moves with the music.

~ David Fleming


Related entries:

Ecology: The Scholars, Diversity, Spirit.


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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was a cultural historian and economist, based in London, England. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a pioneer of post-growth economics, and a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, 'Lean Logic' and 'Surviving the Future', published posthumously in 2016. These in turn inspired the 2020 launches of both BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong's feature film about Fleming's perspective and legacy - 'The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation?' - and Sterling College's unique 'Surviving the Future: Conversations for Our Time' online courses. For more information on all of the above, including Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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