1.23: Environmental Ethics - Biology


The concept of ethics involves standards of conduct. Right and wrong are usually determined by an individual's morals, and to change the ethics of an entire society, it is necessary to change the individual ethics of a majority of the people in that society.

The ways in which humans interact with the land and its natural resources are determined by ethical attitudes and behaviors. Early European settlers in North America rapidly consumed the natural resources of the land. After they depleted one area, they moved westward to new frontiers. Their attitude towards the land was that of a frontier ethic. A frontier ethic assumes that the earth has an unlimited supply of resources. If resources run out in one area, more can be found elsewhere or alternatively human ingenuity will find substitutes. This attitude sees humans as masters who manage the planet. The frontier ethic is completely anthropocentric (human-centered), for only the needs of humans are considered.

Most industrialized societies experience population and economic growth that are based upon this frontier ethic, assuming that infinite resources exist to support continued growth indefinitely. In fact, economic growth is considered a measure of how well a society is doing. The late economist Julian Simon pointed out that life on earth has never been better, and that population growth means more creative minds to solve future problems and give us an even better standard of living. However, now that the human population has passed six billion and few frontiers are left, many are beginning to question the frontier ethic. Such people are moving toward an environmental ethic, which includes humans as part of the natural community rather than managers of it. Such an ethic places limits on human activities (e.g., uncontrolled resource use), that may adversely affect the natural community.

Some of those still subscribing to the frontier ethic suggest that outer space may be the new frontier. If we run out of resources (or space) on earth, they argue, we can simply populate other planets. This seems an unlikely solution, as even the most aggressive colonization plan would be incapable of transferring people to extraterrestrial colonies at a significant rate. Natural population growth on earth would outpace the colonization effort. A more likely scenario would be that space could provide the resources (e.g. from asteroid mining) that might help to sustain human existence on earth.


A sustainable ethic is an environmental ethic by which people treat the earth as if its resources are limited. This ethic assumes that the earth’s resources are not unlimited and that humans must use and conserve resources in a manner that allows their continued use in the future. A sustainable ethic also assumes that humans are a part of the natural environment and that we suffer when the health of a natural ecosystem is impaired. A sustainable ethic includes the following tenets:

  • The earth has a limited supply of resources.
  • Humans must conserve resources.
  • Humans share the earth’s resources with other living things.
  • Growth is not sustainable.
  • Humans are a part of nature.
  • Humans are affected by natural laws.
  • Humans succeed best when they maintain the integrity of natural processes sand cooperate with nature.

For example, if a fuel shortage occurs, how can the problem be solved in a way that is consistent with a sustainable ethic? The solutions might include finding new ways to conserve oil or developing renewable energy alternatives. A sustainable ethic attitude in the face of such a problem would be that if drilling for oil damages the ecosystem, then that damage will affect the human population as well. A sustainable ethic can be either anthropocentric or biocentric (life-centered). An advocate for conserving oil resources may consider all oil resources as the property of humans. Using oil resources wisely so that future generations have access to them is an attitude consistent with an anthropocentric ethic. Using resources wisely to prevent ecological damage is in accord with a biocentric ethic.


Aldo Leopold, an American wildlife natural historian and philosopher, advocated a biocentric ethic in his book, A Sand County Almanac. He suggested that humans had always considered land as property, just as ancient Greeks considered slaves as property. He believed that mistreatment of land (or of slaves) makes little economic or moral sense, much as today the concept of slavery is considered immoral. All humans are merely one component of an ethical framework. Leopold suggested that land be included in an ethical framework, calling this the land ethic.

“The land ethic simply enlarges the boundary of the community to include soils, waters, plants and animals; or collectively, the land. In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow members, and also respect for the community as such.” (Aldo Leopold, 1949)

Leopold divided conservationists into two groups: one group that regards the soil as a commodity and the other that regards the land as biota, with a broad interpretation of its function. If we apply this idea to the field of forestry, the first group of conservationists would grow trees like cabbages, while the second group would strive to maintain a natural ecosystem. Leopold maintained that the conservation movement must be based upon more than just economic necessity. Species with no discernible economic value to humans may be an integral part of a functioning ecosystem. The land ethic respects all parts of the natural world regardless of their utility, and decisions based upon that ethic result in more stable biological communities.

“Anything is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends to do otherwise.” (Aldo Leopold, 1949)

Leopold had two interpretations of an ethic: ecologically, it limits freedom of action in the struggle for existence; while philosophically, it differentiates social from anti-social conduct. An ethic results in cooperation, and Leopold maintained that cooperation should include the land.


In 1913, the Hetch Hetchy Valley -- located in Yosemite National Park in California -- was the site of a conflict between two factions, one with an anthropocentric ethic and the other, a biocentric ethic. As the last American frontiers were settled, the rate of forest destruction started to concern the public. The conservation movement gained momentum, but quickly broke into two factions. One faction, led by Gifford Pinchot, Chief Forester under Teddy Roosevelt, advocated utilitarian conservation (i.e., conservation of resources for the good of the public). The other faction, led by John Muir, advocated preservation of forests and other wilderness for their inherent value. Both groups rejected the first tenet of frontier ethics, the assumption that resources are limitless. However, the conservationists agreed with the rest of the tenets of frontier ethics, while the preservationists agreed with the tenets of the sustainable ethic.

The Hetch Hetchy Valley was part of a protected National Park, but after the devastating fires of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, residents of San Francisco wanted to dam the valley to provide their city with a stable supply of water. Gifford Pinchot favored the dam.

“As to my attitude regarding the proposed use of Hetch Hetchy by the city of San Francisco…I am fully persuaded that… the injury…by substituting a lake for the present swampy floor of the valley…is altogether unimportant compared with the benefits to be derived from it's use as a reservoir.

“The fundamental principle of the whole conservation policy is that of use, to take every part of the land and its resources and put it to that use in which it will serve the most people.” (Gifford Pinchot, 1913)

John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club and a great lover of wilderness, led the fight against the dam. He saw wilderness as having an intrinsic value, separate from its utilitarian value to people. He advocated preservation of wild places for their inherent beauty and for the sake of the creatures that live there. The issue aroused the American public, who were becoming increasingly alarmed at the growth of cities and the destruction of the landscape for the sake of commercial enterprises. Key senators received thousands of letters of protest.

“These temple destroyers, devotees of ravaging commercialism, seem to have a perfect contempt for Nature, and instead of lifting their eyes to the God of the Mountains, lift them to the Almighty Dollar.” (John Muir, 1912)

Despite public protest, Congress voted to dam the valley. The preservationists lost the fight for the Hetch Hetchy Valley, but their questioning of traditional American values had some lasting effects. In 1916, Congress passed the “National Park System Organic Act,” which declared that parks were to be maintained in a manner that left them unimpaired for future generations. As we use our public lands, we continue to debate whether we should be guided by preservationism or conservationism.


In his essay, The Tragedy of the Commons, Garrett Hardin (1968) looked at what happens when humans do not limit their actions by including the land as part of their ethic. The tragedy of the commons develops in the following way: Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. Such an arrangement may work satisfactorily for centuries, because tribal wars, poaching and disease keep the numbers of both man and beast well below the carrying capacity of the land. Finally, however, comes the day of reckoning (i.e., the day when the long-desired goal of social stability becomes a reality). At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy.

As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain. Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously, he asks: "What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?" This utility has both negative and positive components. The positive component is a function of the increment of one animal. Since the herdsman receives all the proceeds from the sale of the additional animal, the positive utility is nearly +1. The negative component is a function of the additional overgrazing created by one more animal. However, as the effects of overgrazing are shared by all of the herdsmen, the negative utility for any particular decision-making herdsman is only a fraction of -1.

The sum of the utilities leads the rational herdsman to conclude that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd, and then another, and so forth. However, this same conclusion is reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing the commons. Therein lies the tragedy: each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd, without limit, in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in the commons brings ruin to all.

Hardin went on to apply the situation to modern commons. The public must deal with the overgrazing of public lands, the overuse of public forests and parks and the depletion of fish populations in the ocean. Individuals and companies are restricted from using a river as a common dumping ground for sewage and from fouling the air with pollution. Hardin also strongly recommended restraining population growth.

The "Tragedy of the Commons" is applicable to the environmental problem of global warming. The atmosphere is certainly a commons into which many countries are dumping excess carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels. Although we know that the generation of greenhouse gases will have damaging effects upon the entire globe, we continue to burn fossil fuels. As a country, the immediate benefit from the continued use of fossil fuels is seen as a positive component. All countries, however, will share the negative long-term effects.

1.23: Environmental Ethics - Biology

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Environmental Philosophy after the End of Nature

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Dogs vs Wolves: Is One Really Better?

In his fables, Aesop often portrays the wolves as treacherous and innately evil. However, are the dogs, often seen as loyal and good, really so different from the wolves? In the fable “The Dogs Reconciled with the Wolves,” the wolves trick the dogs into letting them into the sheepfold so they could all feast on the sheep, but they turn on the dogs when inside. While the wolves may have tricked the dogs, the dogs were still willing to betray their master’s trust at the prospect of a chance to feast on the sheep themselves. This idea is seen again in the fable “The Shepard and the Wolf Raised with the Dogs,” where a wolf cub is raised along with a Shepard’s dogs. In it, whenever the wolf killed one of the sheep, he would eat it with the dogs. Thus, while wolves are often depicted as inherently evil in the fables, the dogs are not much different. While they may serve their masters loyally, they are prone to acting just like the wolves at times. Their domestication may have removed most of the instincts that would make them act more like wolves, but they still have some of their old innate wild instincts. It is not being inherently evil that makes wolves act as they do but the need to survive. Dogs do not act as wolves do because they are cared for by their masters, though they are still prone to doing so when given the opportunity and incentive, like the prospect of feasting on the sheep.

Blatz, Charles, "It Is Morally Permissible to Manipulate the Genome of Domestic Hogs," The Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics4 (1991), 166–176.

Broom, D.M., "Measuring the Effects of Management Methods, Systems, High Production Efficiency and Biotechnology on Farm Animal Welfare," in T.B. Mepham, G.A. Tucker, and J. Wiseman (eds.) Issues in Agricultural Bioethics(Nottingham: University of Notingham Press, 1995), pp. 319–334.

Colwell, Robert K., "Natural and Unnatural History: Biological Diversity and Genetic Engineering," in W.R. Shea and B. Sitter (eds.) Scientists and their Responsibilities (Canton, OH: Watson Publishing International, 1989), pp. 1–40.

Comstock, Gary, "The Case Against BGH," Agriculture and Human Values5 (1988), 36–52.

Fox, Michael W., "Transgenic Animals: Ethical and Animal Welfare Concerns," in P. Wheale and R. McNally (eds.) The Bio-Revolution: Cornucopia or Pandora’s Box (London: Pluto Press, 1990), pp. 31–54.

Fox, Michael W., Superpigs and Wondercorn(London: Lyons and Burford, 1992).

Frey, R.G., Interests and Rights: The Case Against Animals(Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1980).

Frey, R.G., Rights, Killing and Suffering(Oxford: Basil Blackwell Publishing Co., 1983).

Hoban, Thomas J. and Patricia Kendall, Consumer Attitudes about Food Biotechnology (Raleigh, N.C.: North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service, 1993).

Holland, Allan, "Artificial Lives: Philosophical Dimensions of Farm Animal Biotechnology," in T.B. Mepham, G.A. Tucker, and J. Wiseman (eds.) Issues in Agricultural Bioethics(Nottingham: University of Nottingham Press, 1995), pp. 293–306.

Kimbrell, Andrew, The Human Body Shop(New York, HarperCollins, 1993).

Krimsky, Sheldon, and Roger Wrubel, Agricultural Biotechnology and the Environment: Science, Policy and Social Issues(Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1996).

Kronfeld, David S., "Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone: Cow Responses Delay Drug Approval and Impact Public Health," in W. Leibhardt (ed.) The Dairy Debate(Davis, CA: University of California Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, 1993).

Linzey, Andrew, "Human and Animal Slavery:ATheologicalCritique of Genetic Engineering," in P. heale and R. McNally (eds.) The Bio-Revolution: Cornucopia or Pandora’s Box(London: Pluto Press, 1990), pp. 175–188.

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1. Overview: Basic Issues, Questions, and Distinctions

Very little in the study of human life has been left untouched by developments in evolutionary biology, and inquiry into the nature of morality is no exception. With the recognition that we, like all other living things, belong to a species that has evolved through natural selection comes the acknowledgement that evolutionary processes have likewise shaped us deeply. How deeply?

Evolutionary explanations are commonplace when it comes to questions about our physiological nature&mdashwhy we have opposable thumbs, say, or a bipedal posture. But even a brief look at other animals affords countless examples of adaptive psychological and behavioral traits as well&mdashappetites for food or sex, fear responses, patterns of aggression, parental care and bonding, or patterns of cooperation and retribution and these traits are likewise often best explained as biological adaptations, i.e., traits that evolved through natural selection due to their adaptive effects. (We will go through a striking example involving cooperative behavior in section 2.2.) This raises the question: to what extent might human psychological and behavioral traits similarly reflect our own evolutionary heritage?

When it comes to morality, the most basic issue concerns our capacity for normative guidance: our ability to be motivated by norms of behavior and feeling through judgments about how people ought to act and respond in various circumstances (Joyce 2006, Kitcher 2006a,b, 2011, and Machery and Mallon 2010). Is this human capacity a biological adaptation, having perhaps conferred a selective advantage on our hominin ancestors by enhancing social cohesion and cooperation? (&lsquoHominin&rsquo refers, as did &lsquohominid&rsquo until very recently, to Homo sapiens together with fossil species of ape to which Homo sapiens are more closely related than we are to chimpanzees these include the Australopithecines, extinct species of Homo, etc., making up the tribe Hominini within the sub-family Homininae.)

If so, then it would be part of evolved human nature to employ moral judgment in governing human behavior, rather than a mere &ldquocultural veneer&rdquo artificially imposed on an amoral human nature (de Waal 2006). This would be a significant result, and it is only the beginning of the intriguing questions that arise at the intersection of morality and evolutionary biology. Researchers are also interested in the possibility of more specific forms of evolutionary influence. Are there, for example, emotional adaptations that influence the very content of moral judgments and behavior, even today?

For example, many of us believe that among our various moral duties, we have special and stringent duties toward family members. Might this &lsquomoral intuition&rsquo be attributable, at least in part, to an evolved tendency to favor members of one&rsquos kin group over others, analogous to similar traits in other animals? Even where moral beliefs are heavily shaped by culture, there might be such evolutionary influences in the background: evolved psychological traits may have contributed to the shaping of cultural practices themselves, influencing, for example, the development of &ldquofamily first&rdquo cultural norms that inform our judgments. Similarly with a tendency more generally to favor members of one&rsquos own group (however defined) over outsiders.

The above sorts of questions, which are receiving growing attention in the sciences, all pertain to morality understood as a set of empirical phenomena to be explained: it is an empirical fact about human beings that we make moral judgments, have certain feelings and behave in certain ways, and it is natural for the sciences to seek causal explanations for such phenomena. At the same time, however, it is a very complex matter&mdashand one often neglected outside of philosophy&mdashhow such empirical, explanatory projects are related to the very different sets of questions and projects pursued by philosophers when they inquire into the nature and source of morality.

Moral philosophers tend to focus on questions about the justification of moral claims, the existence and grounds of moral truths, and what morality requires of us. These are very different from the empirical questions pursued in the sciences, but how we answer each set of questions may have implications for how we should answer the other. As we will see, though the two sets of issues are distinct, the scientific explanatory projects raise potential challenges for certain philosophical views, and at the same time attention to philosophical issues raises doubts about some of the explanatory claims made in the name of science, which often rely on controversial philosophical assumptions. Progress in this area will not be made either by doing moral philosophy in isolation from the sciences or by taking morality out of the hands of philosophers and looking to scientific inquiry in isolation. More promising would be a careful examination of the ways in which the scientific and philosophical projects inform each other.

1.1 Three Kinds of Appeal to Evolution in Evolutionary Ethics

Talk of &lsquoevolutionary ethics&rsquo may suggest a well-defined field of inquiry, but in practice it can refer to any or all of the following:

  1. Descriptive Evolutionary Ethics: appeals to evolutionary theory in the scientific explanation of the origins of certain human capacities, tendencies, or patterns of thought, feeling and behavior. For example: the appeal to natural selection pressures in the distant past to explain the evolution of a capacity for normative guidance, or more specifically the origins of our sense of fairness or our resentment of cheaters. (See section 2.)
  2. Prescriptive Evolutionary Ethics: appeals to evolutionary theory in justifying or undermining certain normative ethical claims or theories&mdashfor example, to justify free market capitalism or male-dominant social structures, or to undermine the claim that human beings have a special dignity that non-human animals lack. (See section 3.)
  3. Evolutionary Metaethics: appeals to evolutionary theory in supporting or undermining various metaethical theories (i.e., theories about moral discourse and its subject matter)&mdashfor example, to support a non-cognitivist account of the semantics of moral judgment (the idea that moral judgments do not purport to represent moral facts but instead just express emotions, attitudes or commitments), or to undermine the claim that there are objective moral values, or to cast doubt on whether we could have justified beliefs about such values. (See section 4.)

All three types of project have broadly to do with how neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory might bear on our understanding of ethics or morality. The driving questions, concerns, methodologies and implications, however, differ greatly among these three lines of inquiry.

Importantly, there are no simple or straightforward moves from the scientific projects in A to the philosophical projects in B or C. Arguments for or against such moves require difficult philosophical work. Moreover, philosophical issues relevant to C can have an important bearing on at least some of the scientific explanatory projects in A. This puts important constraints on how much can confidently be said in favor of such scientific explanations given ongoing controversy over the philosophical issues.

It is, for example, a matter of live debate in contemporary metaethics whether there are knowable moral truths&mdashcorrect answers to at least some questions about what is morally good or bad, right or wrong. If there are, as many philosophers (and non-philosophers) believe, then this will likely make a difference to the explanation of at least some of our moral beliefs and behaviors. Our belief in equal human dignity, for example, along with derivative beliefs about the wrongness of slavery or rape, might be sufficiently explained by our having grasped the moral truth that human beings have such dignity and so should not be treated as &ldquomere means&rdquo (see section 2.4). Similarly, the belief that we have moral obligations to mitigate suffering even among distant strangers might be explained at least in part by our having grasped the moral fact that pointless suffering is intrinsically bad and that this gives us good reason to mitigate it where we can.

If this is so, then scientists will be overreaching if they claim that &ldquocausal explanations of brain activity and evolution&hellipalready cover most known facts about behavior we term &lsquomoral&rsquo&rdquo (Wilson 1998, 54). Instead, a significant amount of moral judgment and behavior may be the result of gaining moral knowledge, rather than just reflecting the causal conditioning of evolution. This might apply even to universally held moral beliefs or distinctions, which are often cited as evidence of an evolved &ldquouniversal moral grammar&rdquo (Mikhail 2011). For example, people everywhere and from a very young age distinguish between violations of merely conventional norms and violations of norms involving harm, and they are strongly disposed to respond to suffering with concern (Nichols 2004). But even if this partly reflects evolved psychological mechanisms or &lsquomodules&rsquo governing social sentiments and responses, much of it may also be the result of human intelligence grasping (under varying cultural conditions) genuine morally relevant distinctions or facts&mdashsuch as the difference between the normative force that attends harm and that which attends mere violations of convention.

We will look in more detail later at this and other possibilities for explaining moral judgment and behavior. The point so far is just that there are plausible philosophical accounts of at least some moral judgment and behavior that appeal to independent exercises of judgment&mdashperhaps in grasping moral truths, or perhaps just in forming reflective commitments&mdashrather than to causal conditioning by evolutionary factors. There is a danger, then, of begging central questions if we draw general conclusions about &ldquothe&rdquo explanation of &ldquoour&rdquo moral thought and behavior based on scientific considerations&mdashas is common in discussions of scientific work in this area. We may instead need a plurality of explanatory models. The best explanation for deeply reflective moral judgments may look quite different from the explanation for unreflective psychological dispositions we share with other primates, and there may be mixed explanations for much that lies in between.

1.2 The Empirical and Normative Senses of &lsquoMorality&rsquo

As a final preliminary point, it is useful to clear up one persistent source of confusion in discussions of morality and evolution by distinguishing between two very different senses of &lsquomorality&rsquo and describing more explicitly the different sets of questions associated with them.

People coming from a scientific perspective, who are interested in descriptive evolutionary ethics, speak of morality as something to be explained scientifically&mdashas in familiar talk of &ldquohow morality evolved&rdquo. Here &lsquomorality&rsquo refers, as noted earlier, to a certain set of empirical phenomena, such as the observed capacity of human beings to make normative judgments, or the tendency to have certain sentiments such as sympathy or guilt or blame, or certain &lsquointuitions&rsquo about fairness or violence. Just as we can inquire into the origins and functions of other traits, such as human linguistic capacities, we can inquire into the origins and functions of the various psychological capacities and tendencies associated with &lsquomorality&rsquo.

The sense of &lsquomorality&rsquo in the above questions may be called the empirical sense of the term, and it is in this sense that scientists speak of &ldquothe evolution of morality,&rdquo using such tools as comparative genomics and primate studies to shed light on it (Rosenberg 2006 de Waal 1996 and 2006). Such explanatory projects will be discussed in section 2.

In contrast to the above, there is a very different use of the term &lsquomorality&rsquo in what may be called the normative sense. Consider the question: &ldquoDoes morality require that we make substantial sacrifices to help distant strangers?&rdquo Such a question arises from the deliberative standpoint as we seek to determine how we ought to live, and it is a normative rather than an empirical question. We are not here asking an anthropological question about some actual moral code&mdasheven that of our own society&mdashbut a normative question that might lead us to a new moral code. When we use &lsquomorality&rsquo in the normative sense, it is meant to refer to however it is we ought to live, i.e., to a set of norms that ought to be adopted and followed. [2]

Philosophers employ this normative sense of &lsquomorality&rsquo or &lsquomoral&rsquo in posing a variety of both normative and metaethical questions: What does morality require of us? Does morality have a purely consequentialist structure, as utilitarians claim? What kind of meaning do claims about morality in the normative sense have? Are there moral truths&mdashi.e., truths about morality in the normative sense&mdashand if so, what are they grounded in and how can we come to know them? Is morality culturally relative or at least partly universal? (Note that this is not the same as the anthropological question whether or to what extent morality in the empirical sense varies from culture to culture.)

While morality in the normative sense is not an empirical phenomenon to be explained, there are still important questions to ask about how evolutionary theory may bear on it. Can we look to our evolutionary background for moral guidance, gaining insight into the content of morality in the normative sense (as claimed by proponents of prescriptive evolutionary ethics)? (Section 3) Does evolutionary theory shed light on metaethics, helping to resolve questions about the existence and nature of morality in the normative sense (as claimed by proponents of evolutionary metaethics)? Does it, for example, lend support to nihilism (the idea that there is really no such thing as morality in the normative sense) or to skepticism (the idea that even if there are truths about morality in the normative sense we cannot know them, or at least could not know them if they were objective truths)? (Section 4)

Having distinguished various issues and questions, we may turn now to consider first the scientific explanatory projects concerning morality in the empirical sense.

1.23: Environmental Ethics - Biology

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Limitations of Virtual Conferencing

Virtual conferencing overcomes the 2 most pressing limitations of the traditional conference model: accessibility and carbon footprint. However, virtual conferences are not without limitations. Primary concerns surround the unreliability of technology, the effectiveness of communicating and networking online, and the general perception that virtual formats as networking tools will never replicate face-to-face interaction. However, we believe current technology, acceptance of next-generation communication tools, and concern for the environment are the catalysts needed to address these concerns.

Technological Difficulties

Although sophisticated communications technology is becoming increasingly accessible, running a virtual conference is not a straightforward task. The major technological difficulties of virtual conferencing include reliability and quality of delivery access to appropriate computing and internet and logistical issues, such as communicating across time zones (Erickson et al. 2011 Shirmohammadi et al. 2012 ). Simulcasting presentations is impractical in certain situations given time differences. For example, it is difficult to schedule when to contact delegates to discuss their presentation. One solution might be to request delegates to spend time addressing any questions or comments in the 24 h following their presentation. Other potential barriers to successful implementation include language differences and technical skill levels (Gunawardena et al. 2001 ).

Social Difficulties

Many argue that virtual technology can never truly replicate the social interactions required for effective networking (Anderson 1996 Chinowsky & Rojas 2003 Shirmohammadi et al. 2012 ). Indeed, it may be harder to bond with people without shaking their hand or sharing food at a conference dinner. Opponents of virtual conferences suggest that in-person contact is integral to developing codes of conduct and on-going collaboration, both of which virtual conferences struggle to achieve (Chinowsky & Rojas 2003 Welch et al. 2010 ). This may be because it is more difficult to fully engage with a virtual conference because the distractions of work and family commitments are still present in ways absent from in-person conferences (Bell & Shank 2006 ). However, the hub and node models address these issues by incorporating face-to-face interaction with virtual conferencing.


Although a number of scholars acknowledge the relevance of intergovernmental bureaucracies in world politics, International Relations research still lacks theoretical distinction and empirical scrutiny in understanding their influence in the international arena. In this article I explore the role of intergovernmental treaty secretariats as authoritative bureaucratic actors in global environmental politics. I employ organizational theories and sociological institutionalism for comparative qualitative case study research that traces variances at the outcome level of two environmental treaty secretariats, the secretariats to the Vienna Convention and the Montreal Protocol (“Ozone Secretariat”) and the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (“Desertification Secretariat”). While the organizational design of both secretariats is similar, their institutional histories and outcomes differ markedly. Looking for possible explanations for these differences I focus on the activities of both secretariats and how they relate to the authority they enjoy vis-à-vis the parties they serve.

Watch the video: Environmental Ethics (January 2022).