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Table 3 Five example applicationsa

From: Energy decisions within an applied ethics framework: an analysis of five recent controversies

Application 1: Lakota ethics applied to construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (pipeline construction + Lakota ethics + opposition to action)
We can use Lakota ethics to argue against the pipeline’s construction. Hoarding profits rather than distributing them to the community conflicts with the virtue of generosity. The pipeline helps perpetuate our addiction to oil, thereby creating a never-ending loop of social harm. Furthermore, the lack of safety precautions regarding potential spills shows a reckless character not mindful of others as relatives. The threats to animals other than humans are even greater, since humans can clean up spills and more consciously avoid the area in the case of an accident. Lakotas argue that their land is sacred, and pipeline construction is a violation of their respect for the hallowed land. The need for safe drinking water sources and mitigation of climate change threats remain unmet needs within the community. These reasons employ Lakota ethics to condemn the pipeline’s construction and resist the continued development of a fossil fuel that produces substantial costs to global climate stability.
Application 2: Navajo ethics applied to Navajo Nation’s transition to solar (pursuit of solar + Navajo ethics + in favor of action)
Navajo ethics can be used to argue in favor of the transition to solar. The decision to pursue solar ought not to be excessive or use others for one’s gain. Therefore, producing more energy than is necessary to meet demand locally (due to insufficient transmission access, for instance) might be an example of excess to avoid. This consideration becomes particularly salient as the Navajo are currently welcoming solar installations, albeit cautiously, taking care to avoid possible bankruptcy or to overburden the electric utilities with too much new generation. Similarly, the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority (NTUA) has confirmed a general willingness of members of the Nation who live near potential solar project sites a willingness to give up their grazing rights in that location to release the land for construction [24]. By communicating with these families directly, the NTUA is showing respect and therefore regaining the trust of Navajos.
To the Navajo Nation, solar energy development will help reconcile some of the previous wrongs they suffered by agreeing decades ago to allow coal mining and power plant operation on tribal land. If remediation of the power plant site and the mined land are completed fully and responsibly in the future, these measures would further support reconciliation. Further to the point of reconciliation, tribal willingness to support solar energy development would be in compliance with a strong Navajo policy to reduce conditions of poverty that continue to plague the Nation. Taking this position further, ethical considerations could also help influence the choice of photovoltaic models, if these were chosen because they are created with less toxic substances and production wastes. Mindfulness of waste would demonstrate ethical concerns not just locally but the entire life cycle of the modules themselves [25]. In these ways, Navajo ethics would support the transition to solar energy.
Application 3: Virtue theory applied to fracking in Washington County, PA (fracking + virtue ethics + opposition to action)
The Aristotelian notion of the Golden Mean [26] can be applied to fracking. While the abundance and relatively low carbon content of natural gas are enticing, rushing too rapidly into fracking could be excessively greedy or deficiently mindful of risks. Extracting gas so that the wells dry too quickly could lead to a “bust” market and the disappearance of revenue. A reckless proliferation of wells can manifest negligence for the environment and impair human health. The pursuit of maximum profit could lead to unsafe drilling, contamination of water supplies, and excessive methane leaks.
(Fracking + virtue ethics + in favor of action)
However, a supporter of fracking might describe it as a moderate action and might argue that a moratorium on fracking is a deficient action since fracking done with some reasonable amount of care can be relatively safe. Stakeholders may take various views as they judge whether fracking can be performed in a manner that is responsible to all parties.
Application 4: Deontological theory applied to uranium mining in Virginia (mining + deontology + opposition to action)
Kant’s ethics can be applied to the uranium dispute. Regarding intentions, the public alarm produced by the Three Mile Island nuclear plant accident near Harrisburg, PA, in 1979 influenced the 1982 moratorium on uranium mining in Virginia. However, the lawsuit by Virginia Uranium Inc. and other owners alleges that the ban intentionally seizes authority over nuclear waste, which is a federal responsibility [27]. The mining company also argues that the ban is self-defeating since it contests the government’s goal of “an adequate supply of nuclear fuel for power plants and national defense.” In opposition to the lawsuit, the state government and judges might rule that allowing mining as an economic boon to the community could be self-defeating since it is feared to drive potential students from local boarding schools, detract companies from entering the city, present an unsightly mine, and threaten the safety, health, and welfare of the community. The fear is that the company might be putting others in the community at risk for its financial gain. In response, the company pushes for autonomy. On June 17th, 2019, the Supreme Court upheld Virginia’s ban on uranium mining, thus ending Virginia Uranium et al. v. Warren et al., No. 16-1275.
Regardless, the difference of opinions also relates to the implied disrespect of future generations regarding nuclear waste products. At present, no one—anywhere on the planet—has devised a system to safely isolate such long-lived wastes from biological organisms for thousands of years. At the same time, because nuclear-generated electricity produces few emissions compared to other energy conversion processes, some argue that it is one solution to concerns about climate change. According to a Kantian perspective, the impossibility of the company to show a universalizable method for responsibly containing wastes is in line with the decision of the Supreme Court to uphold the ban.
Application 5: Consequentialism applied to construction of the Xiaolangdi Dam (dam construction + consequentialism + opposition to action)
Consequentialism can be applied to the construction of the Xiaolangdi Dam. The dam has disrupted the natural wet-dry cycle of the wetlands, which has destroyed the ecological services of the riparian ecosystem, such as fertility on the floodplain that is no longer resupplied naturally by the river. This degradation results in a need for more fertilizers on the farmland located there and a greater concern for the effect of such artificial fertilizers on the quality of any runoff [28]. Flooding of traditional villages has caused social problems. For example, resettlement impairs production capacity, social unity, material well-being, cultural access, and physical, psychological, and emotional health [29, 30]. Involuntary resettlement has been associated with increased socio-cultural stress, crime, morbidity, and mortality [31]. Displaced villagers are frequently (re)located in “remote and inhospitable, resource-scarce mountain regions,” where they struggle with food insecurity and impoverishment as they are no longer able to live off of the land [29]. For example, resettled farmers from Baigou were given irrigated land, but it was smaller than the land they had previously owned. Of these farmers, 11% harvested less; 63% of them lost income, and there were employment collapses after construction ended that left many people jobless. Coal mining and other activities were impacted, particularly by a rise in landslides due to the raised water level in the reservoir, which affected the stability of adjacent slopes [32]. While some residents have transitioned to fishing and tourism of the new reservoir, the fish are now smaller and less diverse.
We can weigh these negative consequences against the benefit of flood control. Historic floods had been so bad they changed the course of the river, killed people, and wiped out irrigated land. Tourism at the dams, plus the use of irrigation, attracts $200 billion in annual investment, and drinking water, electricity, and phone access have improved, while food production rises [33].
As an alternative to involuntary or weakly-incentivized resettlement, researchers now stress that the relocated people are allowed to participate in the decision-making process they will have more control of their future, which may better enhance their capabilities in the development-forced displacement and resettlement process [34]. In this case, consequentialism would lead to two different prescriptions depending on the scale considered. Considered in such a broader context, it would be in favor of the dam construction because the benefits affect a majority of the population and thus cohere with the principle of maximization of wealth for the majority of the people involved. However, if consequentialism is applied in a narrower sense, only considering the outcomes for the local stakeholders, then it would prescribe to not build the dam.
  1. aThe highlighted words in this table identify the ethical principle selected and applied to each case