“Justice and the Environment in Nussbaum’s ‘Capabilities Approach’: Why Sustainable Ecological Capacity Is a Meta-Capability”

Breena Holland. 2008. Political Research Quarterly, Vol. 61, No. 2, pp. 319-332.
What principles should guide how society distributes environmental benefits and burdens? Like many liberal theories of justice, Martha Nussbaum’s “capabilities approach” does not adequately address this question. The author argues that the capabilities approach should be extended toaccount for the environment’s instrumental value to human capabilities. Given this instrumental value, protecting capabilities requires establishing certain environmental conditions as an independent “meta-capability.” When combined with Nussbaum’s nonprocedural method of political justification, this extension provides the basis for adjudicating environmental justice claims. The author applies this extended capabilities approach to assess the distribution of benefits and burdens associated with climate change.

One of my main goals on this blog is to develop the idea that habitability can serve as a kind of normative standard we can use to evaluate the practices and institutions through which people interact with the environment. I’d like to work out an approach which can support moral judgments of the relationship between society (or elements within it) and its physical surroundings. To focus on habitability is to place habitation, the way a society lives in its physical location, at the center of attention—and to present habitability as a normative standard is to raise the question of the goodness of that way of life. So, the progress I’d like to make in developing a habitability approach requires some elaboration on the (age old) question of what makes for a good life for human beings. For, an elaborated sense of what makes for a good human life will inform a sense of what counts as good habitation—the leading of that kind of life in the physical conditions provided by the landscape. And the ability of the landscape—or more properly, the ability of the social system to use the landscape—to provide for that kind of life is the criterion according to which the landscape is habitable. It is in this sense that habitability can be the normative standard for judging society’s activity in the environment: whether or not they contribute to good human lives is the basis on which we judge those activities.

I believe that Holland’s article on the “Capabilities Approach” shows an important way to begin that project of elaborating what makes for a good human life. Let me present what I take to be a core idea by way of an analogy. It involves a recent controversy involving the Oklahoma City Zoo, which will be the new home for some elephants from the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle (see this story from the Seattle Times). I do not want to address the merits of the dispute here, but rather to note one of the issues raised in it. Opponents of the transfer argued, in effect, that the Oklahoma City Zoo (perhaps zoo’s in general) are inappropriate for elephants because the habitat that they offer does not allow for the animals to live as they are capable of living. In the words of a former curator at the Woodland Park Zoo, “There are some animals that do not belong in zoos, because zoos cannot meet their physical, psychological and social needs.” That is, elephants are capable of engaging in a range of activities, and those capabilities define a species-specific form of life. They thus, in turn, point to a normative standard that can be used to evaluate the surroundings into which elephants are put: those surroundings can be judged as right or wrong for elephants if they do or do not allow for the exercise of the elephants’ capabilities. (Note that defenders of the transfer to Oklahoma City stressed the opportunity it would provide for the elephants to socialize in a herd.) In sum, the capabilities define what counts as good habitat—whether their surroundings are habitable in a normative sense.

The Capabilities Approach invoked by Holland can be used in a way that follows this pattern of reasoning. For, the Capabilities Approach aims to identify core capacities people have which must be enabled in order for us to recognize the lives they lead as fully human; we would regard lives in which certain capabilities are not exercised as degraded. (There are good general overviews of the Capabilities approach at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy and at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.) The best known list of such capacities was formulated by Martha Nussbaum, on whose work Holland draws in this article. I will not discuss Nussbaum’s list in detail; let me just note that it is presented as open for debate, and as realized in different ways in different cultures. In the context of this blog I refer to it as a starting point for the project of specifying the dimensions of a good human life. That specification could, I hypothesize, in turn be used as a basis for evaluating human habitat. More precisely, it could perhaps be used to evaluate the social processes by which, as we have considered throughout this blog, human habitat is constructed.

This normative project is not identical with Holland’s own, though I believe it is in broad sympathy with her normative goals. She argues for the protection of an environmental “meta-capability,” i.e. the capacity of the environment to provide the services that in fact make possible the activation of the capabilities human beings use to pursue a good life. In her words, “I propose adding “Sustainable Ecological Capacity” as a meta-capability that enables all the capabilities on Nussbaum’s list of central human capabilities. Having this meta-capability involves being able to live one’s life in the context of ecological conditions that can provide environmental resources and services that enable the current generation’s range of capabilities” (p. 324). It strikes me that what Holland’s environmental meta-capability provides is quite close to what I refer to as habitability. She and I perhaps differ in that I would emphasize that that meta-capability requires cultivation through human effort—i.e. that the environment does support human capabilities directly, but only when altered to serve that purpose. Nonetheless, I suspect that the habitability approach I’d like to develop will draw heavily on the Capabilities Approach as a means of articulating the opportunities within living that our efforts at enhancing habitability ought to provide.

Martha Nussbaum. 1992. “Human functioning and social justice: In defense of Aristotelian essentialism.” Political Theory, Vol. 20, No. 2, pp. 202-46. This is one of a series of related papers in which Nussbaum presents her list of core human capabilities, which she relates to Aristotle’s understanding of human flourishing.
Amartya Sen. 1993. “Capability and Well-Being.” In The Quality of Life. Ed. Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen. Oxford: Clarendon Press. In this paper Sen presents out some of the general ideas underlying the Capabilities Approach.

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