There was discussion at yesterday's debate about financial instruments, and a mention of values associated with faith groups. How should we think about the possible development of a more explicit public ethics in this field? I'm aware of some discussion in IUCN in the past with reference to the ideas and principles in the Earth Charter that came out of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, but this does not really seem to have caught the imagination of policy or public audiences.
Public ethics in my experience tend to develop where there is disagreement and tension over what is right and wrong in terms of behaviour and choices in a public sphere. Is this needed to help address the current crisis, or is there simply too little public interest?
One of the reasons why I asked the question is that I'm interested in whether we have the necessary set of policy tools to achieve what we have set out to do on biodiversity.
The term "crisis" is vague, as you say - I think that we are trying to compete for attention with climate change, where there is a political sense of a single large issue (although with many contributing elements). "Crisis" communicates cataclysm and need for urgent action, talk of tipping points and ecosystem collapse. Climate is global, but much biodiversity is local - I oversimplify, of course. The word "crisis" makes us sit up and hopefully listen, but the reality is of many degrees of change - sometimes incremental, sometimes in bursts; sometimes on a small scale but part of a widespread pattern. And we know that our choices and needs are part of the equation, the sum of which is biodiversity loss and change.
In the UK we have reasonable public and political interest, pretty good regulation, money, science and other elements. If we want to do something about declines in biodiversity, we are not in a bad position to act, and there has been effective action. But look at the report published a couple of days ago on the State of the UK's Birds 2010 - even with all our strengths in the UK, and the relatively high emphasis on birds in conservation, we are seeing declines in certain species. We haven't gone to Nagoya saying that we have met the 2010 target.
This could be because our science needs to be better, or economic tools improved, or politicians gingered up a bit. But I suspect that in the mix somewhere, we are making a choice between certain options - individually and collectively, and I wonder whether we need more work on the ethics involved in those choices to clarify our thinking and enable better decisions. Do we understand what choices we are making and the implications of those choices - as individuals and as societies?
Economic tools can be very effective, but the difficulty comes in part with translating different sorts of value into a common currency - so agricultural production versus farmland bird diversity, for example. I'm not saying that ethics will help in this particular example, but maybe we should put more into exploring the possibilities and developing practical tools - might help us get closer to success in 2020 and 2050.
I don't think that this might be as difficult as we might expect - there are some policy positions that have strong ethical elements involved, such as "sustainable development" or "the precautionary principle". The difficulty probably lies more in elaborating these principles into practical and widely-accepted policy and regulation.