Benjamin Hale
  Associate Professor, Philosophy and Environmental Studies
Sustainability, Energy, and Environment Community
Office SEEC S238A
Campus Box 488
University of Colorado at Boulder
Boulder, Colorado 80309-0488


Remediation and Respect:
Do Remediation Technologies Alter Our Responsibility?

Co-authored with Bill Grundy (HPS, Cambridge)

Currently under consideration for publication

Abstract: In this paper we examine the relation between moral responsibility and technologies that aim to remediate pollution. Contrary to the common view that successful remediation technologies will permit the wheels of industry to turn without interruption, we argue that such technologies do not exculpate polluters of responsibility. To make this case, we examine several environmental and non-environmental cases. We suggest that some strategies for understanding the moral problem of pollution, and particularly those that emphasize harms, exclude an important dimension of morality. In lieu of these strategies, we employ the concept of respect to characterize the type of attitude that underlies many of our judgments about responsibility.


In February 2007, the British businessman and philanthropist Richard Branson announced a prize of $25 million (USD) for research leading to effective methods of combating global warming. As the Washington Post wrote when the prize was announced, Branson’s award would be available to ‘anyone who can come up with a way to blunt global climate change by removing at least a billion tons of carbon dioxide a year from the Earth's atmosphere’ (Sullivan 2007). Branson, in other words, aims at environmental remediation; he seeks to undo actions that have already been done. Thus, the successful applicant will show that she can neutralize not just harms caused by pollution, but polluting actions, by returning the world to a state in which those actions had not occurred. The Branson prize is ambitious, laudable, and vexing on multiple levels.

Given the apparently dismal prospects for meaningful reductions in carbon emissions—as substantial segments of the developing world stand on the brink of profound industrial transformations; as the Western world continues to develop and utilize energy-dependent goods—many view remediation technologies as perhaps the last best hope for restoring the earth’s climate balance. Branson appears to be spearheading this crowd, though there are many with similar aims. In an important article in 1997, written under the auspices of the Lawrence Livermore Laboratories, Edward Teller, Lowell Wood, and Roderick Hyde, for example, proposed a set of technologies designed to deflect ambient radiation away from the Earth (Teller, Wood, and Hyde 1997) . More recently, several companies and researchers, both before and after Branson’s announcement, have been designing carbon-scrubbing or carbon-sequestration technologies that would remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere (see, among many other sources: FAO 2004; Thom et al. 2002).

The possibility of addressing climate change and pollution through innovative remediation technology heralds a new era in research and public policy. It also creates a new and complex set of normative questions. Above all, Branson’s challenge reminds us that the relation between technological change and philosophical reflection operates in two directions: regarding what should be done, and regarding what could have been done. Philosophers possess a range of concepts and techniques that can be summoned counterfactually, as a way of uncovering, and eventually then promoting and shaping, the moral dimensions of technological change. These concepts and techniques can, for example, guide us in our approach to the genetic engineering of crops, or research into stem cells, or the use of ever more sophisticated forms of weaponry. But they can also operate along the dimension of what one might be obligated to do if a particular vision of the future comes to pass. The shaping of future practice around the availability of remediation technologies—the setting of human action within a larger framework that moves between action and counter-action, between doing and undoing—forces upon the philosopher a set of new questions about how to understand the nature of responsibility. Put differently, remediation technologies force the philosopher to ask: In what sense are we responsible for our actions when those actions can be undone through technological correctives?

The underlying question in the following discussion is a simple one: Is it permissible to pollute? But attempts at an answer force us to think about what exactly such a question is asking, and what would count as a sufficient kind of response. In the case of pollution and other forms of action against the environment, the emergence of remediation technologies, such as those foreseen by Branson, put significant pressure on our intuitions about to whom or to what, or for whom and for what, we are responsible. Responsibility is not a discrete and easily graspable concept, but rather one part of a ramifying network of moral concepts, ideas, and practices, involving our notions of volition, respect, reward, punishment, authority, and personhood. If remediation technology changes the way in which we hold ourselves and others responsible for what we do, it will ipso facto transform the network of concepts and practices in which responsibility functions.

Our concern in this essay is to show that a central, and we believe perhaps the central, feature of environmentally responsible action involves the matter of respect. The granting of respect, or the refusal of respect, underlies in many cases the ethical judgments that we make. The emphasis in much of the popular and philosophical discussion of environmental restoration obscures the sense in which respect is at issue by foregrounding the sense in which acts of pollution involve harms done to non-human nature. We do not wish to take a position here on the moral status of non-human aspects of nature, arguments which often, though not always, emphasize the notion of harm; but the presentation of pollution as operating according to harms often conceals the sense in which polluting occurs within a much more complex moral system, occupied, crucially, by other human actors. It will be enough if we can show that the attitudes we take to others in acts of pollution are sufficient to make those actions impermissible, even if the nature of those attitudes does not exhaust the reasons for which polluting is impermissible. For reasons we will make clear, consideration of remediation technologies has the peculiar benefit of allowing us to see more distinctly the relation between responsibility and respect.

We offer our argument in four sections. In the first section, we distinguish between two concepts of restoration: (1) replacement restoration and (2) remediation restoration. In the second and third sections, we consider a number of examples, involving both pollution and everyday action, which demonstrate the significance of respect to determinations of culpability. Finally, in the fourth section, we briefly consider the ways in which our typical practices of assigning and managing responsibility suggest that remediation technology should not serve as a means of moral absolution. Our argument throughout is that questions of moral responsibility are closely tied to the presence or absence of respect for other persons, and that remediation technology does not mitigate the role of respect in managing our moral and social judgments.

[For a full version of the paper, shoot me an e-mail]