Paper – Cosmopolitanism and Environmental Health

Gaston Meskens

Centre for Ethics and Value Inquiry, Faculty of Arts and Philosophy, University of Ghent, Belgium


Intro   Cosmopolitanism and environmental health

1.        The fact of complexity of environmental health governance.

2.        The fate and rescue of cosmopolitanism.

3.        Cosmopolitanism as an ethics of reflexivity ‘bound in complexity’.

4.        Cosmopolitanism as an ethics of care for environmental health.



The concept of ‘environmental health’ knows multiple understandings. The Journal of Environmental Health uses the simple denotion of ‘health implications of exposures to environmental hazards’ (Journal of Environmental Health 2022) while according to Wikipedia it may be characterised as ‘… the branch of public health concerned with all aspects of the natural and built environment affecting human health …’ with the major subdisciplines being ‘… environmental science, environmental and occupational medicine, toxicology and epidemiology …’ (Wikipedia 2020). From a normative perspective on environmental health risk governance, it can be described as ‘… involving the assessment and control of environmental factors that can potentially affect human health, such as radiation, toxic chemicals and other hazardous agents …’, bearing in mind that ‘… ethical frameworks and underpinnings that guide environmental health research and regulation are not always made explicit and […] require greater attention …’ ((Zölzer and Meskens 2017), (Zölzer and Meskens 2018)).

While these descriptions suggest specific pragmatic or ethical approaches focussing on ‘the problem and the cure’, the concept of environmental health can also be understood in a more holistic way as striving for the collective of human beings to live in harmony (instead of in tension) with their natural habitat. This understanding has already inspired and influenced actual visions on environmental health governance. Two important examples of global governance may illustrate this. Back in 2009, the United Nations General Assembly adopted its first resolution on ‘Harmony with Nature’. The idea was that ‘… the Earth and its ecosystems are our common home …’ and so the UN GA Member States ‘… expressed their conviction that it is necessary to promote Harmony with Nature in order to achieve a just balance among the economic, social and environmental needs of present and future generations …’ ((United Nations n.d.), (United Nations General Assembly 2009)). As a second example, it is worth mentioning the Earth Charter. This charter came into being in 1994 on initiative of Maurice Strong (the then Secretary-General of the Rio Earth Summit) and Mikhail Gorbachev (former President of the Soviet Union) through the organizations they each founded (the Earth Council and the Green Cross International respectively). The first article of the Charter sets the tone for a clearly holistic vision on life on earth, stating that one should “… Respect Earth and life in all its diversity …” and “ … Recognize that all beings are interdependent and every form of life has value regardless of its worth to human beings. …“. (The Earth Charter n.d. Article 1).

This paper takes another specific approach to making sense of environmental health, although with the aim to situate it into the holistic understanding of environmental health referred to above. Obviously attention will be given to the ‘problem and cure’ approach to environmental health as specified in the two first citations, but the main argument of the first section of this paper will be why – in the interest of fair and effective environmental health governance – we need to initially focus on the character of complexity of our environmental health problems and on what it would imply to deal with them in a fair way. Today, environmental health problems are complex problems, and the argument will be that a fair dealing with these problems implies a fair dealing with their complexity, and that our joint responsible attitude when making sense of the complexity of those problems can be described as a ‘reflexive attitude in face of that complexity’. In conclusion, the section will propose a specific ‘ethics of care’ vision on how to deal with environmental health problems, given that we are all ‘bound in complexity’ facing those problems.

When the ancient Greeks started to speak of ‘cosmopolitanism’ in the 4th century BC [1], the world was still a fairly simple place to live as compared to today. Their interpretation of what it meant to be ‘a citizen of the world’ was well intended but merely ‘spiritual’, and not so much influenced by the ‘reality’ of that world. Today, the situation is dramatically different. The fact of globalisation and of the interconnectedness of our current socio-economic practices, together with the given that complex environmental health problems now manifest worldwide and on global scale, instructs a global perspective for both interpretation and approach of these problems. Today, we have to understand that, as individuals enjoying an acceptable standard of living in our contemporary society, all of our choices with respect to the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the consumer products we buy, the energy we consume, the means of transport we use and so on, have some effect on either a global scale or at least an effect somewhere else on earth. Humanity is now a globally connected collective of human beings who all influence and depend on each other. As a consequence, moral reasoning with respect to those choices requires us to look beyond our familiar local ‘comfort zones’ and to think as ‘citizens of the world’ or ‘cosmopolitans’ who try to evaluate the consequences of their choices, and who are motivated to understand their specific place, role, responsibilities and rights in the (global) bigger picture of it all. From that perspective, section 2 will conclude with the thought that, whether in the interest of environmental health or of other complex social problems, dealing fairly with each other in that connected collective implies a fair dealing with the global complexity of influences and dependences that binds us. Therefore, cosmopolitanism, as an ancient ethical concept, is not any longer a spiritual abstract idea but a fundamental normative vision on humanity and the world we cannot deny.

Based on these introductory sections, the paper then elaborates on a connection between the current need ‘to deal fairly’ with the complexity that binds us on the one hand and the need to think and act as cosmopolitans on the other hand. Building on the ‘ethics of care’ vision ‘in face of complexity’ proposed in the first section, and on the observation from the second section that cosmopolitanist thinking is not longer a choice but a necessity, the third and fourth section will propose a specific contemporary meaning of cosmopolitanism, its motivations and its character as a moral stance, and will conclude with a reflection on the meaning of ‘cosmopolitanism as ethical competence’ as a fundamental requirement for sustainable and fair environmental health governance.

On the 13th of January 2020, the World Health Organisation released a statement entitled “Urgent health challenges for the next decade”. In that statement, the WHO noted that

“… We need to realize that health is an investment in the future. Countries invest heavily in protecting their people from terrorist attacks, but not against the attack of a virus, which could be far more deadly, and far more damaging economically and socially. A pandemic could bring economies and nations to their knees. Which is why health security cannot be a matter for ministries of health alone. …” (World Health Organisation 2020)

Whether or not the authors were already foreseeing the 2020 pandemic caused by the outbreak and the worldwide spread of the SARS-CoV-2-virus, for sure we can say we now live in a different world as compared to when their words were published in January 2020. The challenges coming with controlling and preventing a health crisis of this character and scale may be seen as an extra motivation to understand and deliberate environmental health governance from out of a holistic and cosmopolitan ethics of care perspective.

[1] In his book ‘The Lives of Eminent Philosophers’, writing about the life of Diogenes (404-323 B.C.), the Greec philosopher Diogenes Laërtius, wrote ‘… The question was put to him what countryman he was, and he replied, “A Citizen of the world.” …’ (Diogenes Laërtius 1915); In the translation of the Perseus Project, the sentence reads ‘… Asked where he came from, he said, “I am a citizen of the world.” …’ (Diogenes Laërtius 1972).


Journal of Environmental Health. 2022. ‘Environmental Health’. BioMed Central. 2022.

Wikipedia. 2020. ‘Environmental Health’. In Wikipedia.

Zölzer, Friedo, and Gaston Meskens. 2017. Ethics of Environmental Health. Routledge.

———, eds. 2018. Environmental Health Risks: Ethical Aspects. 1 edition. Routledge.

United Nations. n.d. ‘Harmony With Nature’. Accessed 10 April 2020.

United Nations General Assembly. 1980. ‘Resolution 35/7 Draft World Charter for Nature’. United Nations.

The Earth Charter. n.d. ‘Earth Charter | Turning Conscience into Action for a Thriving Earth’. Accessed 14 April 2020.

World Health Organisation. 2020. ‘Urgent Health Challenges for the next Decade’. 13 January 2020.


The paper Cosmopolitanism and Environmental Health is published with Routledge. Contact me if you would like to receive a copy for personal use.

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