Ecological Governance: Toward a New Social Contract with the Earth by Bruce Jennings (review)
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Ecological Governance: Toward a New Social Contract with the Earth. By Bruce Jennings. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2016. 200 pp. Notes, index. $18.99 paper.

An environmental ethic that relies on social contracts always has to explain how nonrational entities can negotiate or enter into such an agreement. After all, contracts require that all parties be agents who can understand the terms, especially the quid pro quo components. Nonhuman fauna, flora, inanimate objects, and the ecosystems they compose are manifestly unable to fulfill those minimal requirements; hence, the contract does not directly apply to them.

In Ecological Governance, Bruce Jennings takes an interesting approach to get around that problem while arriving at plausible answers to pressing questions such as how humans and other stakeholders should live and what moral agents have to do to achieve that state: "Nature helps us understand why culture and society exist and how their existence can be morally and politically justified.… [S]ocial thinking aims to tell us what is distinctive about the humanity of human beings" (37). What many folks tend to forget is that Nature is essential in a number of ways to human beings. We often act as if we can be separated from the environment, when in reality, physical separation entails the extinction of homo sapiens. Therefore, on the very basic level of human survival, the environment is a necessity.

Jennings, however, is making a more profound point than merely that humans need an environment to exist as organisms. Nature, in fact, is part of our psychological identity as moral agents with duties. We should act "in order to protect those very qualities that are most distinctive in our humanness.… [and] to make our humanness more profound and to extend the capabilities necessary for flourishing to all people. These capabilities are to be used in ways that are sustainable and compatible with the species-appropriate flourishing of other forms and systems of life" (88–89).

The author's social contract theory incorporates morality's Aristotelian fabric as its basis and in its contractual terms. Hence, Jennings's view does not appear to be a Hobbesian position specifying that morality does not exist prior to the social contract going into effect, and then only after the sovereign creates the social moral code through legislative fiat.

Jennings argues that a new social contract based on the flourishing noted above should replace the current one of consumption. It is here that we see how the author covers those entities who cannot make contracts. Our duties to make our humanness more profound and foster flourishing create obligations of ecological trusteeship for human beings and other flourishing entities under the new social contract.

Even though I believe that this work is an important addition to the literature, I have one quibble. The author makes a strong evidentiary case that changing the contract as he desires is in our rational self-interest, but appeals to reason often fail to produce desired change. [End Page 151] Our emotional interests often trump rational interests, as we often find in voting statistics. It would have been informative to see more on the significant emotional incentives needed to transform our consumption ideology to the more nuanced, long-term one the author defends.

Dennis R. Cooley
History, Philosophy, and Religious Studies
North Dakota State University
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