Environmental Ethics in a Changing Climate

Members of the University of Sydney Philosophy Society reflect on the recent event, Philosophy on the Ground: Changing Values in a Changing Climate, which saw SEI Researchers Danielle Celermajer and Killian Quigley explore the relationship between human exceptionalism, the aesthetics of climate change and our capacity for empathy.

Image by Narubono on Unsplash

When it comes to addressing the current climate crisis, it is easy to feel hopeless. The empirical reports seem to grow ever more dire and the media ever more saturated with tragic images of the destruction of our Earth’s biodiversity. On top of this, any positive changes we make to our behaviour have no or very few perceivable effects: the beneficiaries are largely foreign ecosystems and unborn generations.

A few years ago, I took an Applied Ethics course on exchange at SciencesPo Paris. My teacher, Jean-Cassien Billier, did a wonderful job of guiding us through the different theories and applications of modern ethics. It was this experience that gave me an appreciation of how intimately our lives are intertwined with restless ethical subtones. I have brought this understanding to all my philosophical endeavours since, in particular my role as Secretary of the University of Sydney Philosophy Society (PhilSoc). Our mission this semester was to illuminate real-world issues with the critical thinking that academic philosophy offers.

When the opportunity arose to collaborate with the Sydney Environment Institute (SEI) on the first in a series of discussion events collaborating with academics working in the field, we leapt at it. Environmental ethics was an ideal starting point for this discussion, especially with the ongoing climate crisis being what should have been a key factor in our last election, and the environment increasingly becoming a hot-button topic in politics around the world. The two speakers for the event, Professor Danielle Celermajer and Dr Killian Quigley, share a deeply-held passion for understanding and preventing injustice, across species and ecosystems. Professor Celermajer works in the Department of Sociology and Social Policy and has a background in philosophy, human rights and intra- and inter-species violence. Dr Quigley is a Postdoctoral Researcher at SEI and an internationally-recognised figure in the oceanic humanities. His research spans literary history to aesthetic theory, delving deep into the environmental humanities.

What follows is a reflection on the key talking points and themes present throughout the event.

Where do you even begin in a discussion on environmental ethics? It is easy to jump straight to pragmatism; to finding solutions. But perhaps more important is first understanding why we are where we are. To this end, Celermajer offered a brief account of human exceptionalism in Western culture to kick-start the discussion. “To be a human in the West,” she explains, “is to be different from and better than. To exist in a completely different realm, which then creates the background permission for us to treat everything else as resource that we can extract for our own benefit.”

“To be a human in the West,” she explains, “is to be different from and better than. To exist in a completely different realm, which then creates the background permission for us to treat everything else as resource that we can extract for our own benefit.”

To Celermajer, Western human exceptionalism is ontological rather than psychological. It is “in the bones” of our conception of self in Western society. She traces this back through the history of Western philosophy to Plato’s notions of spirit versus body and Aristotle’s biological typologies, both of which hierarchically place humans as fundamentally — ontologically – superior to other forms of life. This worldview has taken many forms, be they biblical, philosophical, anatomical, linguistic or otherwise, and has been a persistent thread through our society since Plato and perhaps even earlier. 

Human exceptionalism has come to shape many of the ways in which we interact with the natural world, but it is important to note that while this may be the dominant Western narrative, it is not the only one.1 In addition to rich histories around the globe among cultures that place humans as part of nature rather than above it – including, of course, the deep sense of ecological custodianship among traditions of Indigenous Australians – Quigley explains that contemporary practitioners in environmental humanities, feminist studies and elsewhere have used oceans as generative spaces for unexpected and challenging forms of relation. He calls this “estranging the figure of the human.” Feminist literary and Blue Humanities scholar Stacy Alaimo writes, “Submersing ourselves — descending rather than transcending — is essential, lest our tendencies toward human exceptionalism prevent us from recognising that, like our hermaphroditic, aquatic evolutionary ancestors, we work within and as part of a dynamic, interactive, emergent, material world.”2

Increasingly we are seeing direct, empirical evidence of our heavy-handed impact on that world’s delicate environmental balance. Harrowing statistics explain that there is only a given percent of rainforest left, that only a tiny fraction of a certain species remains in the wild, that the planet is warming to an unprecedented degree;3 spectacular images show blazing bushfires and bleached coral. We become desensitized, numbed by the shock and spectacle. Quigley warns us that spectacles like these serve a purpose in galvanising change, but we must be wary of too narrowly defining the aesthetics of climate change: who it involves, what it involves, how it looks. We must hone our imaginative tools for getting in touch with things that may not always obey the “protocols of the spectacular” – Rob Nixon’s notion of “slow violences”4 is one such tool, Quigley suggests.

“The concept of submersing ourselves, of looking down into the depths for enlightenment rather than striving up toward the heavens, flies in the face of human exceptionalism.”

And it is more than just imagination that we need. The concept of submersing ourselves, of looking down into the depths for enlightenment rather than striving up toward the heavens, flies in the face of human exceptionalism. The cool waters of the deep blue are humbling, but we need to be more than humble – we need to have empathy. An unthinkable 3 billion animals were harmed by the bushfires of 2019-2020; Celermajer asks us to spend just 10 seconds considering each individual – their life, their relationships, their future. It would take 950 years, “eleven really good human lifetimes,” to let your mind rest on each animal. This is the kind of exercise it is imperative we perform to engender what Celermajer calls “embodied understanding.” The path through the crushing impersonality of statistics and spectacle is empathy, not reason alone. As Dostoyevsky puts it, “… reason and science have always performed, and still performs, only an auxiliary function in the life of peoples, and it will be like that till the end of time. Nations are formed and moved by some other force whose origin is unknown and unaccountable.”5

Lithuanian-born French philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas was a revolutionary thinker in the field of ethics. He posed that it is the face of another human, the irreducible, inviolable window through which they view the world, that breaks open our human ego and accesses our capacity for empathy. To Celermajer, while this is a profound perspective, we cannot let ourselves fall into the trap of human exceptionalism, especially in this so vital of abilities. Sharing an intensely personal story from her new book,6 Celermajer describes a moment where she came face-to-face with her pig, Katy, over her water trough. Katy died during the bushfires earlier this year.

There are empathic ‘faces’ everywhere in the natural world, and it is in addressing and engaging with these faces that we will find the empathy necessary to effect lasting change in our behaviour. Once we recognise that we are naturally inclined to dichotomise ourselves from nature, we also need to recognise that we are, in fact, a part of nature. We must balance our empathy, imagination and reason with our place as a deeply interwoven thread in the fabric of the world around us. A better future depends on this.


1. See Celermajer, Danielle. “Adam in the Garden and Lear in the Storm: the human amidst the animals.” Textual Practice (2020).
2. Alaimo, Stacy. “New Materialisms, Old Humanisms, or, Following the Submersible.” NORA – Nordic Journal of Feminist and Gender Research 19, no. 4 (2011): 280-4.
3. See, eg, IPBES. “Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.” E. S. Brondizio, J. Settele, S. Díaz, and H. T. Ngo (editors). IPBES secretariat, Bonn: 2019.
4. Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2011.

5. Celermajer, Danielle. “Adam in the Garden and Lear in the Storm: the human amidst the animals.” Textual Practice (2020): 2, citing Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Possessed. Andrew R MacAndrew (translator). New York: Signet Edition, 1962.
6. Celermajer, Danielle. Summertime: Reflections on a Vanishing Future. Sydney: Penguin Books, 2021.

While this article is written as a reflection in the first person, it was drafted as a collaborative effort by the PhilSoc Executive.

Sam Naylor (Secretary of PhilSoc and Chair of this event) is in his fourth year of a Bachelor of Laws and Economics at the University of Sydney. Kit McCutcheon (Vice President and Treasurer of PhilSoc and chief contributor to this article) began his undergraduate studies in Science and Philosophy but has changed to now be in the first year of a Bachelor of Music at the University of Sydney Conservatorium. Daniel Maher (President of PhilSoc) is in his second year of a Bachelor of Science and Advanced Studies, majoring in Mathematics and Philosophy also at the University of Sydney.

‘Changing Values in a Changing Climate’ was the inaugural event in PhilSoc’s Philosophy on the Ground series. To stay up to date with PhilSoc’s upcoming events, please see

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