As ecological problems have grown in complexity and scale, traditional modes of environmental governance have started to shift towards newer ones that involve a greater variety of actors across a greater diversity of institutions, behaviours and sources of knowledge, operating under the logic of economic efficiency. The theory of environmental governance works on key assumptions about what order means and how people make decisions. The discipline of environmental governance has increasingly accepted the modern economic approach of focusing on incentives and institutions, and actors focus primarily on actions that offer economic efficiency and ultimately enable survival. With such a submission to the totality of the market, the question needs to be raised regarding the position of the human person.
The objective of this article is to reinterpret the increasingly dominant economic approach to environmental governance. This objective will be achieved by focusing on three interrelated factors, namely the importance of the human person in environmental governance, the images of social and moral order, and the implications for human behaviour and decision-making.
My approach is to examine the history of modern philosophical thought regarding social order and the human self, assisted by selected key texts in the interdisciplinary fields of philosophy and theology. Interpretation does not deny higher-order truths and is not by definition relativistic. Interpretation plays a critical role in exposing the tendency to turn certain thoughts and actions into an absolute.
I argue that the modern economic order has stranded on a configuration of the natural. Social order is expected to emerge through the behaviour of self-interested agents, which may be adjusted for rational morality or the psyche, and/or through a necessary force of history, whether manifest in a world spirit (Hegel), a material economy (Marx) or a material nature (Darwin). These are not the only options available, though, and in the 20th century the idea of order had come to be explored increasingly through personal resonance and sensibility. Humans were increasingly confronted with themselves as being involved in the embodiment of social order.
The main concern of this article is not the competition between alternative social orders to achieve various ideas of the good or the truth, but rather the fact that the modern order has taken a “slide towards the impersonal”. The philosopher John Macmurray observed that modern culture is experiencing a “crisis of the personal”. This crisis is occurring despite the emphasis of liberalism on the importance of individuals. Decisions in the modern moral order are reduced to the functional and instrumental, are served by disengaged reason, and are focused primarily on the self. Several have proposed the retrieval of pre-modern public orders, while others rather propose an intensification of modern orders to fill this gap. It is argued in the article that neither a revival of Aristotelian teleology, nor a spirituality of nature seeking guidance from the Palaeolithic Age, a Marxist-socialist dispensation, or an eco-modern affirmation of the modern economic order can be assumed to solve the prevailing deficiency of personhood.
My suggestion in response to the ecological problems in the modern economic order is that we start by asking who we are as human persons. The self needs careful definition as a person who can be understood only in relation to others. The intention is to seek answers that will empower persons, including those with concrete responsibilities of environmental governance and those who are living ordinary lives that are both impacted by and impacting on the modern economic order.
The form of the self is neither substance nor organism, but a person. This comes with two realisations: first, that the self was conceived not as a subject, but as an agent, and second, that the self could not be understood as an individual “I”, but only in relation to others, the “you and I”. The form of the self is thus represented as a person who stands in relation to others.
As the self is understood in relation to others, the responsibility resting on the self is to remain an agent. The self cannot withdraw from action; the person cannot stand back and pledge obedience to the world as a unitary process, or to social orders attempting to represent such unitary processes. Agency, by definition, is never performed alone. Being a person means to act in relationship. The acting agent does not operate on her own, but stands in unity with others in the world, which, as Macmurray observes, “gives meaning to human effort”.
The view of the self as a person-in-relationship has important implications for the interpretation of modern economic order. When the social order is imagined as laws of nature, where humans act only in sub-rational self-interest or for practical reasons, or only adapt to environmental stimuli, human agents do not have the freedom to act in their full capacity as persons. Natural laws are always qualified with the well-known phrase “ceteris paribus”, or “given that nothing else interferes”. Interference comes primarily from the presence of agents and their intentions. Change is always possible, and the future remains open to human action. Failure to act as a human person does not lie in an individual’s lack of inherent attributes or qualities, or the limitations imposed by any social order, but in a condition that can best be described as “relational disorder”.
This article represents a call for greater attention to the form of the personal in our response and solutions to this predicament in the social order. The liberalised modern market order, operating without a state strong enough to provide public goods, is failing in many respects to address the world’s greatest ecological and social problems. The populist response is a slippery slope towards totalitarianism.
Governance requires an understanding of the form of the personal. The social order does not emerge from self-fulfilling individuals operating in an efficient market, nor is it guaranteed by the state or by nature. Instead, it consists of persons who are in relation to others; persons who are formed to be more truly human. Further interdisciplinary and collaborative research and action may be devoted to exploring what the intellectual form of the personal looks like in the field of environmental governance.
Keywords: human agency, environmental management, environmental governance, person-in-relation, social order