Climate change and sustainable development

pp 160-165

Do algae have moral standing? On exploitation, ethical extension and climate change mitigation

  • R. J. GeertsAffiliated withMethodical Ethics and Technology Assessment, Wageningen University Email author 
  • , B. GremmenAffiliated withMethodical Ethics and Technology Assessment, Wageningen University
  • , J. JacobsAffiliated withMethodical Ethics and Technology Assessment, Wageningen University

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Because global climate change is closely connected to the consumption of fossil fuels on which the western way of life is based, we experience the thought of changing our behaviour to mitigate climate change as a moral dilemma. Therefore, our hopes are on a ‘technological fix’, which appears to evade tricky moral questions by finding a clean source of energy. This paper explores moral issues underneath the unproblematic appearance of this turn by looking into the relations between technological fixes, exploitation, and ethical extension. With the advent of fossil fuels in the late 19th and 20th century, the labour needed to provide the beneficiaries of the economy with goods largely shifted from the proletariat to the ‘nature worker’, the natural inputs which are consumed with the production of goods. This shift led to the emancipation of the proletariat, but it turned out to be at the expense of the global ecosystem. We now try to find a more sustainable nature-worker in order to unburden the ecosystem and avert a climate crisis. This framing sheds new insight in the dynamics of ethical extension. While ethical extension is typically understood as an intellectual development, the ideas of moral considerability appear to co-evolve with technological development and the negative side-effects of exploitation. The extension of the moral community tends to coincide with the exploitation of a new object. This will in time lead to new issues which are only solvable by finding yet another object to exploit. This perspective leads us to conclude that while technological fixes appear to evade moral dilemmas, they merely shift them to another level. If we mitigate climate change by rebuilding the economy around highly efficient algae to produce fuel and base materials, we ought to look into the issues that may be on the horizon.


moral community moral objects biotechnology exploitation