International Center for Ethics in the Sciences and Humanities (IZEW)

The UFOPLAN project Upol21

Environmental Policy in the 21st Century - Approaches to Tackling New Challenges

Funding: Federal Environment Agency (UBA)
Start of project: 8/2015
Project Management: Franziska Wolf (Öko-Institut)

Sub-project at the International Centre for Ethics in the Sciences and Humanities (IZEW) of the University of Tübingen and at the Öko-Institut Darmstadt:

Quantity problems: When individual freedom of choice conflicts with sustainability

The institutionalisation and effectiveness of environmental policy in Germany over the past 40 years can be interpreted as a success story, particularly in the case of problems where harmful emissions originated from point sources (and not diffuse sources) and where problematic substances could be filtered out ("end of pipe") or substituted ("drop in"). As a rule, such cases exist when industries, not individual consumers, are the main causes of problems.

Up to now, however, environmental policy has only been inadequately successful if the problem in question is not the result of a hazardous substance (which can be dispersed) that is technically substitutable in the best case, but rather a result of the frequency of a practice or demand for goods ("The quantity makes the poison"). These practices and goods (meat consumption, flies, shopping as a leisure activity) are moderately used or practised and compatible with a fair use of the ecological capacities of the planet. Beyond a "certain" measure, however, they are at the expense of others. The actions of a (very) large number of individuals can lead to unwanted and (extremely) harmful consequences at the collective level ("quantity problem"). The particular explosiveness of this scenario lies in the fact that, firstly, the reasons for each of the individual actions can be morally unproblematic and, secondly, the consequences of each individual action considered on its own (when the undesirable consequences of collective action arise) are quantitatively rather insignificant.

State intervention in these individual decisions (eating meat, flying, shopping, etc.) is often seen as "undue" interference in private decision-making freedom, with reference to the liberal self-image of modern (liberal) states. Such demands are sometimes rejected with the ecodictist accusation. On the other hand, it can be seen that state intervention in individual decisions after their introduction is often accepted by society after only a short time (e.g. compulsory use of seat belts, smoking ban, etc.). In view of the fact that planetary and local borders have been reached and crossed, it is clear that the goals of sustainable development cannot be achieved without a change in these (consumption) practices, which are far above a globally acceptable level.

The sub-project at the International Centre for Ethics in the Sciences and Humanities (IZEW) of the University of Tübingen and at the Öko-Institut Darmstadt deals with the challenges for individual autonomy and sustainable development arising from the "quantity problem".