philosophical ideas for environmental problem solving


As the icy arctic thaws, animals reliant on sea ice are at a greater risk of extinction – plain and simple. The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) is currently leading a charge to protect the Pacific Walrus from such a fate by listing them as ‘endangered.’ However, efforts to protect these animals often come with an unintended cost tacked onto the bill and paid for by native communities who depend on these animals as an essential component of culture, tradition, and food security.

Pacific Walrus spend most of their lives on sea ice in the far north. At home in the Bering Straight and Chukchi Sea, these two-ton, tusk wielding, marine mammals are the largest pinnepeds in the Northern Hemisphere. Intensive hunting by whaling fleets of the 19th century lead to a sharp decline in population (even more so for their Atlantic cousin), but a hundred years on and the species has somewhat rebounded, particularly since the Maine Mammals Protection Act of 1972 permanently outlawed commercial hunting.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the Pacific Walrus population as unknown (likely greater than 200,000), stating they are ‘data deficient’ in any conservation status assessment. The walrus is a candidate for listing by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service under the Endangered Species Act (and a concern for the CBD) because of projected climate change.

Fossil fuel exploration and development destroys walrus habitat. CBD’s aim is largely in response to the oil industry exacerbating climate vulnerability – a laudable goal. However, this effort can better consider impacts to Alaskan communities that will be most effected.

Alaska Natives along the arctic coast have long used the meat, blubber, hide, tusks, and bone of walrus. Today, those communities’ subsistence rights are protected under the Marine Mammals Protection Act, but would not necessarily be protected under the Endangered Species Act. The ‘Save the Walrus’ Campaign has earned a spot on the front page of the CBD website, but their write-up contains no mention of native people across the arctic and how listing might effect those communities.

A Compelling but Pernicious Argument

Here’s what might be going on:

We want to protect the walrus. They face a real threat and ‘endangered’ listing may be the best means of saving them. The intention is not to disenfranchise native communities, increase food insecurity, or attack native culture, just to protect the walrus.

This line of thinking calls into service what philosophers call The Doctrine of Double Effect. The Doctrine states that sometimes bad consequences are permissible so long as they are merely foreseen, but not intended.

The Counterargument

We can not ethically exchange the protection of communities for protection of the walrus. While the Doctrine may help to describe a conservationist intuition in this case, a problem of justification persists:

The Doctrine only holds if the intended consequence somehow can be said to justify the foreseen but unintended consequence. We have an obligation-both legal and moral-to native communities in this case. It is not clear why saving the walrus justifies infringing on subsistence rights. Nor is is clear how we might compare the value of lost walruses with the value of lost culture. At the very least, such justification and comparison is not trivial and ought to be central to any debate.

We need to consider what is means to force people most reliant on the walrus to pay even more for a global problem they are minimally responsible for, especially when arctic communities are already disproportionately bearing the burden of global warming.

Let’s protect the Walrus and other species hit hard by global warming, but let’s do so with the communities most reliant on those species and most effected by our collective actions, not at their expense. A simple solution is to equally demand an exception from Endangered Species Act restrictions for Alaska Native communities while we call for increased protection for the walrus.

The letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service offered by the CBD for anyone wishing to put their name behind walrus conservation states, “I urge you to list this animal under the Endangered Species Act, designate critical habitat, and design and implement a recovery plan as soon as possible.” 

We should protect the walrus, but let’s add this to the letter, “Please respect subsistence rights, engage with arctic communities for input, and guarantee native communities continued access to cultural tradition that includes the walrus.” 


Written by ComET member Alex Lee.